Legendary artist Burny Mattinson passed away recently at the age of 87. Born in San Francisco, he had moved to the San Fernando Valley later in childhood, and first wandered up to The Walt Disney Studios’ gates back in 1953. He was just 18 years old—still a high school student—and was looking for a job.
Having been inspired by Pinocchio (1940) at a younger age, Mattinson was fascinated with Disney’s animated films and began drawing every day. When his mother encouraged him to find summer employment, he asked her to drive him by the Studios. As he later recounted to animation artist Clay Kaytis, “She drove me over here. I had my little portfolio under my arm. She left me at the front gate and said, ‘I’ll come back in an hour.’ [...] I started walking in. Very naively, not realizing you needed an appointment or whatever. All of a sudden I heard, ‘Hold on there, son!’ I looked around and there was a white-haired security officer. He said, ‘Where do you think you are going?’”
Without an appointment, the kindly security guard offered to let the teenager wait with him in the guard booth until his mother returned. After a while, the man asked to look at Mattinson’s portfolio. “He said, ‘This isn’t bad. These are nice colors. This looks kind of good,’” Mattinson recalled. “He said, ‘Wait a minute now.’ He picked up the phone and he dialed up. He said, ‘Give me Ken Sieling.’ Now, Ken Sieling was head of Personnel at the time. He says, ‘Ken, I’ve got this young fellow out here and you ought to take a look at his portfolio. He has promise.’ Lo and behold Ken said, ‘Send him in.’ He wrote me a pass out and I walked in and met with Ken.”
With hindsight, that charming happenstance was the start of a nearly 70-year-career working on dozens of beloved animated projects. But at the time, there were no openings in the Animation Department, so Mattinson first joined the Traffic Department, delivering mail and supplies to employees across the Studios. Years later, he was quick to point out to Clay Kaytis that The Walt Disney Studios was still very small in 1953, with only about 650 employees. The opening of Disneyland was still two years away, and live-action productions were only just beginning on the sound stages and backlot.
One can only sit back and marvel at the change that Burny Mattinson witnessed (and adapted to) over his long tenure. From the beginning, he remained committed to joining the Animation Department, and while still in Traffic, convinced animator Johnny Bond to show him the ropes during lunch hours. It wasn’t long before the teenager found his way onto the Lady and the Tramp (1955) crew as an inbetweener, an entry-level position that involved making animation drawings that connect the key poses made by the lead animators.
For more than a decade, Mattinson became a valued assistant animator, first working with Marc Davis, who supervised Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). In the last years of Walt Disney’s life, Mattinson assisted animator Eric Larson on projects like The Sword in the Stone (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), and The Jungle Book (1967).
What was unusual at the time was that Mattinson had regular interactions with the boss. As he would later explain for a Disney Parks interview, “It turned out that every Friday [while Mattinson was working in the Traffic Department and Mailroom], his secretary Dolores Voight would call me up and say, ‘Walt wants you to do something for him.’ So I’d come to his office and he’d give me his check for $300…. I’d take it over to Payroll and they’d cash it for me and I’d come back and give it to him. After a couple of times, I thought, ‘He’s not getting very much money.’ Dolores said to me, ‘No, it’s his spending money for the week, just tips!’ [laughs].”
In the decades after Walt’s passing, Mattinson would join the Story Department, and eventually become a producer and director. In the early 1980s, he pitched an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol starring Mickey Mouse, Scrooge McDuck, and other classic Disney characters to Ron Miller, then the company’s COO and President (and later president of the board of directors at The Walt Disney Family Museum). Miller greenlit Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) as a 25-minute featurette directed by Mattinson, who led a team of young up-and-coming talent who would play major roles in the future of Disney animation.
It’s when we reflect on the lives and careers of people like Burny Mattinson that we can understand the truth of historian David McCullough’s memorable statement that “History is human.” We best engage with the past biographically, in the lives of those who experienced it. Burny’s sincerity, heart, and skill continues to reverberate in the lives of those still plying their craft at The Walt Disney Studios and beyond. And so, in a way, Burny, Walt, everyone remains with us.
Back in 2008, Mattinson recalled to historian Didier Ghez the surprise of Walt Disney’s passing in December 1966. At the time, the artists knew the boss had medical issues but were unaware of the seriousness of his condition. Then one morning, animator Ollie Johnston walked into the office and shared the news that Walt was gone.
“The animators there all kind of gathered around Eric [Larson],” Mattinson recalled. “Eric was sort of the wise old owl in a way because everybody would come to him. They just all came down, started gathering around. There were tears in their eyes. I certainly felt a huge loss but I didn’t understand quite why they had had these tears. It wasn’t really until maybe a few years later that I realized that they had lost the one that they wanted to please—their father. They had really lost the father image, the person that they’d loved and wanted to please and they had nobody to please anymore. I think they felt the loss tremendously. So that’s what happened that day and I went home and I was devastated too.”
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, filmmaker, and contracting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Image sources (listed in order of appearance):
- Burny Mattinson in front of The Walt Disney Family Museum, 2017; courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum