Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Personal Heroine of Animation

I didn't get a lot of encouragement in my artistic endeavors when growing up.(1) My teachers in grade school saw my doodling and drawing as a waste of time and would call my parents into meetings in order to discourage my drawing instead of finding constructive channels for me to improve as an artist.

Grandma Wilson, however, was always in my corner.


Constance Wilson
Case in point: I moved back to Michigan during the eight month period between undergraduate graduation and the start of grad school. When a local job offer fell through, Grandma let me live with her in exchange for performing home repairs and all the landscaping chores on the farm that had piled up while she was sick for the better part of the previous year. My mornings until around noon or so would be spent working for Grandma and the afternoons would be spent looking for work that would fill the ever-shrinking period of time before I would move to Rochester and continue my education. After dinner, I would sit there at the counter and listen to Grandma dispense hard won wisdom or stories about our family history while pouring over the want-ads in the newspaper.(2)

Knowing that I was going to graduate school to become an animator, one evening, Grandma told me the story of how she owned the City Theatre on 600 E. Midland Street in Bay City, Michigan from 1942 to 1947--back when my father was just a baby. It was during this time that she screened Walt Disney's "Fantasia" at her theater--although whether it was the 80 minute edited re-release in 1942 or the semi-restored 115 minute re-release in 1946, I could not say. At the time, I did not know enough to ask for those kinds of details.

The following short documentary is about the history of theaters in Bay City. Grandma's theater is at time marker: 4:05.


Video created by John Trudell with photos and information
from Marv Kusmierz, and used with permission.

Seven years later, I had graduated and was living and working back in Michigan. When Fantasia 2000 was released, I made the three hour, round-trip drive down to the Henry Ford Museum several times to watch this tour de force of animation. Though I didn't know it at the time, the film's driving force was Walt Disney's nephew, Roy E. Disney, who had resurrected his uncle's dream for the original Fantasia and added his own mark by making it a sequel to the venerable film (as opposed to a continual release with revolving animated segments).

When on a visit to Grandma that year, she reiterated her story of how she showed the first Fantasia in her little Bay City theatre. So, when Fantasia 2000 was released on DVD that November, I bought the three-disk special edition and drove to Grandma's with my DVD player in tow. Well, her television was too old to hook up to my player so I jerry-rigged a connection through her VCR, but, due to it's age, we could hear the music, but not see the images clearly.

To make matters worse, by this time, Grandma's eyesight had been damaged because of macular degeneration and she had started the slow progression towards becoming a shut-in due to her fears of stumbling and falling on unfamiliar terrain that she could not see. Once a prolific writer, Grandma had to give up this pleasure because of the 'spots' that clouded her vision. As she would later describe it to me, while her peripheral vision was fine, if Grandma looked right at you, she could see the outline of your head and the rest of your body, but she couldn't see your face--there was only a fuzzy, grayish-black circle.

Grandma lived about a twenty minute drive from the Henry Ford Museum, where Fantasia 2000 was once again playing on the IMAX theatre for a limited time--I assume to hype the DVD sales. I asked Grandma if she would be interested in going to the IMAX. Her answer was an enthusiastic 'yes, she would love to get out the house for an evening'. So, she bundled up and I took her and my Aunt Dorothy to see the movie. Since Grandma walked with a cane at that time, the theatre graciously allowed us to be seated as soon as the previous crowd dispersed so we wouldn't have to stand in line. They even took us up to the top of the theatre in the elevator, so Grandma wouldn't have to navigate the stairs, and seated us in the top row, center seats.

After the film was over, I asked her how she liked it. Grandma was beaming as she told me that the IMAX screen was so big that it compensated for her macular degeneration. Apparently, because of the size of the characters and the images, she only had to move her eyes around slightly to be able to take in the entire scene.

When Roy Disney died in the winter of 2009, my brother and I sat in a bar in East Lansing and had a toast to this titan of the industry while 'Destino' streamed over my iPhone ('Destino' was an unfinished project between Disney Studios and Salvador DalĂ­ that Roy discovered when working on Fantasia 2000--a project that he had Disney Studios France finish by 2003).

Roy Disney was a man who I wanted to meet. I wanted to tell him the story of my grandmother and I going to the IMAX theater to see the film that he started thinking about making back in 1974. I wanted to tell him of how she showed his uncle Walt's 'Fantasia' back in the forties and lived long enough to see its sequel. I should have written him a letter instead of waiting for an opportunity to thank him at a festival--an opportunity that may or may not have ever come.

Grandma Wilson died on February 27, 2013, seven days after her birthday. She was 95 years old and had outlived her parents, her brother, and her sister. Several days before she died, I stood by her bedside, kissed her on the forehead and said "thank you" for always supporting me in whatever I did.

The point of this little remembrance is that sometimes the heroes that influence our careers aren't animators or even involved in the animation industry. Sometimes they're just someone who takes the time to believe in you. Don't miss an opportunity to tell them "Thank you."

1. To my parents' credit, I learned how to read when I was two years old and they encouraged me to become a voracious reader throughout my life.
2. As Grandma slid into dementia during her final years of life, she reached a point where she could not remember what had happened the previous day, but remembered what happened fifty years earlier with crystal clarity. I took advantage of this a year before she died by visiting her and recording our family history on a Digital Audio Recorder. Initially, she didn't think that she would have much to say on the subject. Then she went on to talk for over three hours straight!