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The Man in the Street: Emile Kuri

The Man in the Street: Emile Kuri

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One of the things I've talked about with Jim Hill is the fact that I want to occasionally spotlight some of the many Disney cast members who have contributed to the Disney magic but have never received the appropriate credit for their accomplishments. Sometimes we know the names but not exactly what they did. Emile Kuri is one of those names.

Emile Kuri's window on Main Street at Walt Disney World is on the second floor of the Emporium and he is listed as managing "Exterior Decorators." His window at Disneyland's Main Street is above the Market House where he is listed as an "Interior Decorator."

Emile Kuri was born in 1907 to Lebanese parents in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He left school at the age of 12 when his family moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, while working in a furniture store, the wife of Hollywood producer Hal Roach walked in and since all the decorators were out at lunch, Kuri decided to try his hand at serving Mrs. Roach.

She was so pleased with his suggestions that she insisted that Kuri decorate her mansion. Hal Roach was so impressed with the interior decorating work that he asked Kuri to work as a decorator on the Cary Grant comedy, TOPPER.

Kuri's credits for Roach, and later David O. Selznick, included such films as OF MICE AND MEN, DUEL IN THE SUN and THE PARADINE CASE as well as almost fifty other feature films. Kuri became one of the youngest set decorators in the movie industry and worked on classic films from Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE to SHANE and countless others.

In 1952, he joined the Disney Studio where he remained for twenty-three years. During that time, he won an Oscar (although prior to 1955, set decorators were only given Academy plaques not the more famous gold statuettes) for his work on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA which included the Nautilus's lush interior of red velvet furnishings, gleaming brass rococo decorations and that magnificent pipe organ (which ended up in the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland).

He was nominated for an Oscar for best set decoration in 1961 for THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, in 1964 for MARY POPPINS and in 1971 for BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS. He also won a television Emmy award in 1963 for his set decorating on WALT DISNEY'S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR. Kuri worked on countless Disney projects including ZORRO. (His work was nominated for a total of eight Oscars although he only won two. The other was for THE HEIRESS in 1949.)

For many years, while he worked at the Disney Studio, he was also responsible for decorating the Academy Award shows. (In 1964, he had a powdery blue and white motif, clear to the chandeliers. In 1965, he dressed the stage in white trimmed with gold, lighted by three enormous Venetian crystal chandeliers, and topped off by classic Grecian columns.)

In 1965, in addition to his responsibilities at Disneyland, he was responsible for five Disney feature films. Working with Carroll Clark and the art department, Emile and his staff built a great primitive idol for LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, a huge steam sailer for BULLWHIP GRIFFIN (the later housed in the big tank on Stage 3 where much of 20,000 LEAGUES was shot), an entire town called "Hickory" was built for FOLLOW ME, BOYS, a healthy slice of Redwood forests for THE GNOMOBILE and a sizeable realistic olive farm for MONKEYS GO HOME.

While those are impressive credits, they did not garner Kuri two windows on two different Disney Main Streets. Kuri was intimately involved in the decorating of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.

"A picture set is a challenge," remarked Kuri in a 1965 internal Disney newsletter, "It's like framing a fine painting; the artist's work should be the focal point, not the frame. But it's a fleeting thing, whereas the Park is here to stay. I get an innerglow every time I walk around the place."

It was Kuri who made a trip to Baltimore in 1955 to purchase at a cost of three cents a pound some 160 year old gas lamp posts that the city was replacing. "They were the only lamp posts I could find that would match the less than full scale design of Main Street," stated Kuri when I talked with him in the early 1980s. Not only were the lamps installed on Disneyland's Main Street, but when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, its Main Street was lined with gas lamps made from molds patterned from the original Disneyland lamps.

Those horse-head hitching posts in Town Square at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom were designed by Kuri from an original antique hitching post he was given as a gift by the owner of an 1840 mansion where THE HEIRESS was filmed. (The owner was especially pleased with the care Kuri had taken of the house during the filming.) The original resided for many years in the front yard of Kuri's house in Corona del Mar, California.

A car knocked over a street light on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and Kuri rescued it at a cost of five dollars to become the flagpole base at Disneyland. He also decorated the lower level of the Sailing Ship Columbia. He also helped decorate company executive offices.

Kuri decorated Walt's apartment above the firehouse on Main Street in Disneyland and also provided the interior decorating for the Disney family apartment over the Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland which was converted to a Disney Gallery.
On GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR. LINCOLN, Kuri designed the deep red carpeting, royal blue drapes, and classic white columns in such a way that it "did not distract from the central figure."

"For the Plaza Inn, Walt wanted authentic antiques to augment the Victorian interior," said Kuri, "We purchased hundreds of rare furnishings, including crystal chandeliers and sconces from Paris, antique mirrors from New Orleans, valuable paintings and rare cabinets from Europe, and many, many other items. The place is done to perfection, but then, so is everything that Walt has anything to do with."

"Working with Walt Disney was like working in another world. He was the most fascinating and dedicated man I knew. Although Walt was a perfectionist, he was sentimental, too. I can remember when we would view the 'dailies' of THE PARENT TRAP. I'd glance at Walt and there would be tears running down his cheeks. Of course, I cried along with him. I'm sentimental, too," remembered Kuri.

One of the famous early Disneyland stories involves Kuri. One day, Kuri, Walt and Ken Anderson climbed to the attic of the then newly built Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland to see if there was room for an attraction. The attic was filled with construction debris and a group of feral cats who had taken up residence. Fearing for his white suit, Kuri picked up a gunny sack to chase the cats away when the group noticed that Kuri's suit had suddenly become a dark gray. Walt and Ken's laughter stopped when their suits darkened as well. The cause of this magical transformation was a huge collection of fleas who had been sharing the area with the cats. Running from the castle and brushing madly at the fleas, Walt ordered that both the cats and fleas be removed immediately and that the cats all be given flea baths and found homes.

Kuri passed away on October 10, 2000. Like Walt Disney, Kuri shared a devotion to detail and a love of the Disney theme parks. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to Disneyland and Walt Disney World (for which Kuri was a consultant) each day pass his credit on the Main Street windows and pay no attention even as they are immersed in his artistry.

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  • Just Wow!!

    Mr. Emile Kuri is my Grandmother's Brother, and my Dads Uncle. I met Uncle Emile when I was visiting my Dad at age 13 in 1958. A family reunion dinner was planned at my Grandparents home.  Then I was able to tour the studio where my uncle Emile was at work. Then he presented us passes to go to the World Famous Walt Disneyland Theme Park. He then invited me along with my Dad to his and Aunt Carie's home to swim with a lovely  luncheon with his family, and my cousins.

    He left a lasting impression of love and kindness in my heart.

    I Thank you for sharing this beautiful, heartwarming tribute.

    I am learning so much more about my uncle Emile Kuri. Holding every memory in my heart, and sharing with my family of two sons, and three granddaughters, one grandson, and a Great Grandson.

    Mr.Walt Disney and Emile Kuri were given an Epic Gift from God to share with the World.

    With Tremendous Admiration,

    Nancy Dawn Young (his proud niece)

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