Friday, February 23, 2007

Al Dempster and "Song of the South"

Al Dempster was one of the tyro background artists at Disney's in its "Golden Era" years, and after. He worked with my father for decadess, headed the department, and retired from the studio in the early seventies.

The illustration to the left (courtesy of the ASIFA Hollywood archive) is a Golden Book illustration done by Al (or perhaps Bill Justice) tied into the combination feature Song of the South that the company released soon after WWII...

SOS was the first feature my father Ralph worked on as a Disney background artist. (Before this, he'd done backgrounds for a number of shorts, also effects airbrush work.) But Al Dempster was an old hand, having worked in the department before the war on Fantasia and Dumbo.

Al left Disney's in the late forties to own and operate an apple farm. He once told me in amazement that after his farming stint, he'd returned to the studio and a week after his rehiring passed Walt Disney in the hall:

"As Walt walked by he said to me, "Hi Al. How's apples?" I had no idea that he even knew I was off raising apples. It kind of knocked me for a loop."

Al and my dad were close friends. In the sixties, our families went on skiing trips to Mammoth Mountain together, and Al -- then in his late fifties -- was an enthusiastic and graceful skier.

Al retired from Disney in the early seventies. The last time I saw him -- in the Disney parking lot in 1980 -- he told me why. He'd had one too many fights with Woolie Reitherman (head of the department):

"Woolie was always telling me how to paint backgrounds, what colors to put in the sky, and I couldn't take it anymore. So I left. But when the studio was doing "The Rescuers" and they needed a background artist because Ralph had died, they called and asked me to come back. I said 'no way.' But they offered me a lot of money and told me Woolie had changed. So I told them, "All right, I'll work for six months."

And two weeks after I was back, Woolie came into my room and wanted me to put more pink in a background and I thought 'Nothing's changed at all!' I did my six months and got out."*

Al Dempster passed away in June of 2001, a month shy of his ninetieth birthday.

* I've got a feeling I've told this tale before. Oh well. It fits in here. Again.

Addendum: Song of the South was the the last feature on which Al painted until he returned to work on Peter Pan. (The apples were calling.)

I don't think we'll be seeing SOS at Blockbuster Video anytime soon; Robert Iger was asked if the studio was going to put it out during Q and A at the 2006 stockholders meeting. Mr. Iger said it wasn't.

2 comments:

MrFun said...

Al was a great artist, and a swell guy. A very gentle man with loads of talent.

As a side note, we have loads of wonderful Disney art, including original Al Dempster illustrations here at Disney Publishing. A treasure trove of original art produced in the forties and fifties. Some art appeared in books I read as a kid.

Pete Emslie said...

"The illustration to the left (courtesy of the ASIFA Hollywood archive) is a Golden Book illustration done by Al (or perhaps Bill Justice) tied into the combination feature Song of the South that the company released soon after WWII..."

I'm pretty sure that Al Dempster always did the final painting though Bill Justice penciled all the illustrations. I recall Bill once telling me that he talked Al into taking on the "Song of the South" Golden Book because Bill was real keen to make some money from freelancing on the side but wasn't that confident in his own painting ability. Bill did all the pencil with grey wash drawings on his own though, I believe. The two artists had also collaborated several years previous on the illustrated book of "The Gremlins" for Random House, just recently reprinted by Dark Horse and something every Disney book collector should now own!

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