Journalist John Culhane, best known for his trailblazing work as a Disney animation historian, as well as being the inspiration for Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers and Flying John in Fantasia/2000, passed away today at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. The cause of death was complications from cardiac failure and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81 years old.
Culhane was a writer and journalist by trade, working for major publications such as the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, and The New York Times, however he is known to the animation world for his work as an animation historian. A cousin of Disney animator Shamus Culhane, John was one of the first entertainment writers to properly acknowledge the work of individual animators in the mainstream media. He also wrote books about Disney animation including Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1983), Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film (1992), and Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope (1999).
He also taught classes on the history of animation at the School of Visual Arts, Fashion Institute of Technology, Mercy College, and NYU. “John Culhane was an extraordinarily communicative teacher,” said Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker. “In 1997, I hired him to teach History of Animation at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For nearly a dozen years thereafter, John’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject captured not only his students’ attention, but also their imaginations. He dazzled an always-packed classroom with tales of his first-hand journalistic experiences meeting giants of animation (including Walt Disney). He was magical, unorthodox in his teaching methods in bringing animation history to vital life. More than one student each fall semester sent me evaluations saying that John’s warmth, ebullience and supremely positive approach to life, changed their lives.”
Culhane met Walt Disney in 1951 at the age of 17, during a trip to California from his Rockford, Illinois home. Introduced to Disney by Walt’s daughter, Diane, Culhane spoke to Disney for several hours. Walt’s advice to the aspiring writer: “Work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle.” After a Jesuit education at St. Louis University, Culhane became a reporter for his hometown paper the Rockford Register-Republic, later becoming an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News, media editor at Newsweek, and a roving editor at Reader’s Digest.
In the 1970s, Culhane started working with the Walt Disney Company’s publicity department. He moderated a celebration of the Disney Studio’s 50th anniversary at the Lincoln Center, and celebrated Mickey Mouse’s 50th anniversary in 1978 by traveling on a five-day fifty-seven-city whistle-stop train trip with Ward Kimball across the United States.
In the early-1980s, he toured college campuses to promote new Disney projects like Tron and The Black Cauldron, and hosted the 1983 Disney special Backstage at Disney, the first part of which can be seen below:
Culhane, however, may be best remembered for his appearances in Disney features, beginning with his “role” as Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers (1977). He explained in a 1976 in-house Disney publication how he came to be the model for the character:
“While snooping around the Disney Studio on previous assignments, I had gotten to know Milt Kahl, a master animator who also designed many of the characters in the Disney cartoons. In May, 1973, Milt gave a guest lecture to a class I was teaching and agreed to draw a poster to announce the event. In the poster, he caricatured both himself and me. When Milt got back to the Studio, the artists working on The Rescuers were searching for a look for one of the villains. In the script he was described as nervous, indecisive, and domineered by Medusa. The short-legged fellow with Milt in the poster looked to director Woolie Reitherman like that kind of guy, and they named him, after my profession, ‘Mr. Snoops.’ Even before I saw him on the screen, I realized that Snoops did indeed look like me because, wherever I went in the Disney Studio that year, artists passing me in the halls would do a double take, then say to each other, ‘It’s him, all right — it’s Mr. Snoops.'”
Culhane again became the inspiration for an animated character when director Eric Goldberg turned him into Flying John in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of Fantasia/2000. Goldberg provided this remembrance of Culhane to Cartoon Brew:
John was joyous, ebullient, tenacious, and so full of life and enthusiasm for the medium of animation that it is almost impossible to imagine him gone. When Susan and I were at Disney doing projects together, he was one of our strongest cheerleaders. At the time, we were trying to get a variety of things off the ground, and John was an avid supporter of all of them. It gave us no end of pleasure to receive letters from him signed “Flying John.” Every time we met at animation events (we even taught animation classes together down at Disney World in Florida!), he and his wife Hind were always gracious and a bunch of fun to be with. Truth be told, John was one of the very first writers one could call an “animation historian,” and practically the first to have his writings about the subject taken seriously. If one looks at the time line of fashionable Disney-bashers in the 70’s (The Disney Version, anyone?), John was one of the first to step forward and say, “No. Appreciate what beautiful, sincere, passionate artistry went into the making of these films.” And for that, we should all be forever grateful.
Former Disney animator Andreas Deja, who animated Culhane’s “Flying John” character interacting with a monkey, told Cartoon Brew:
I knew John Culhane as an enthusiastic animation historian and teacher. He was a fountain of knowledge, having met Walt Disney and all of the Nine Old Men. John was immensely proud of having been the inspiration for the character of Snoops in the film The Rescuers. He would frequently offer his autograph with the note “from the model for Milt’s Mr. Snoops.” His passion for the medium was infectious; he will be missed.
Culhane also collaborated with his late cousin, Shamus Culhane, on three animated primetime television specials for NBC: Noah’s Animals, King of the Beasts, and Last of the Red-Hot Dragons (for which he also supplied the dragon’s voice.
Culhane is survived by his wife of nearly 55 years, Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane of Baghdad, Iraq (a former dean of the school of sociology and behavorial sciences at Mercy College), and two sons — Michael Culhane, a Los Angeles-based songwriter, music producer, and performer, and Dr. T. H. Culhane, professor of sustainable development at Mercy College, as well as two brothers (Dick and Mark) and two sisters (Mary Ella Stone and Libby Keating).