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Remembering David Mumford

Jim Hill

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Remembering David Mumford

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When the phone rings at 2 a.m., you just know that it's not going to be good news.

That's why when I picked up the receiver with much trepidation early yesterday morning. Only to find my ex-wife, Michelle Smith, at the other end of the line.

I'll say this much for Michelle: She didn't mince words. My ex cut right to the chase: "David Mumford died."

Ah, sh*t ...

I had hoped -- when I heard about David's recent appearance at WDI's 50th anniversary party (where I'm told that Mumford was mobbed as if he were Elvis. Constantly surrounded by well-wishers and friends who were thrilled to see him out and about) -- that perhaps David had actually dodged that bullet. That his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma really was in remission. That Mumford was finally and truly on the mend.

But I guess that that was just too much to hope for. That this good, kind and gentle man would get the chance to stay on the planet for another couple of decades. That David would have all the time he needed to help design the next generation of killer Disney theme park attractions. Or write a few more books about the hidden history of the Walt Disney Company. Or -- more importantly -- have the opportunity to grow old with his lovely wife, Carole.

I'm sorry. Forgive me if this is getting a little maudlin. But I liked David Mumford. A lot. He was a funny, talented guy who was extremely generous with his time and talent. And -- the way I see it -- the world needs more people like David Mumford. Not less. Which is why it's always so sad when someone of his caliber suddenly slips away.

Look, I won't lie to you, folks. David and I were NOT good, close personal friends. But we were friendly. Over the past 10 years, I'd gone out to dinner with Mumford a couple of times. (In fact, one of my very favorite pictures of my daughter is one that was taken one night when Carole, David, Michelle, Alice and I were all out dining at WDW's Planet Hollywood. Carole is holding Alice -- who was all but two at the time -- as my daughter, grinning broadly, stands on top of the table. That was a fun, fun night. Anyway ...) And he and I traded phone calls a number of times over the years.

But -- whenever we got together or found ourselves on the phone -- the two of us would inevitably end up trading stories about the Walt Disney Company. And -- as anyone who's ever read "The Nickel Tour, " "Walt's Time" or that "Walt Disney Imagineering" book knows -- Mumford had thousands of great stories to tell about the Mouse House. Stories that David was always happy to share with family, friends and fans.

That's the one thing that I really want people to remember about David Mumford: he wasn't stingy. David had a very generous spirit. Which is why he was always spreading the wealth around. Sharing his knowledge of long-gone attractions with his fellow Imagineers by writing stories for "WDEye." Or just by standing on stage with Bruce Gordon at numerous N.F.F.C. conventions, telling tales out of school about the Mouse to extremely appreciative Disneyana fans, as part of one of their truly-informative-but-also-fall-down-funny "Bruce & Dave" shows.

Yes, Mumford was always happy to share his time, talent and expertise with his fellow Imagineers. Or Disney history enthusiasts. Or just plain fans of the Mouse. Just ask Leon and Jack Janzen of "The 'E' Ticket." Or David Smith of the Disney Archives. Or me. No question was ever too tough, too trivial, too obscure for Mumford to answer. David really did seem like he had all the answers.

Right now, I wish that I had a few answers. Like why it is that someone this young, this talented, this nice had to die.

I mean, it just doesn't make any sense. David wasn't one of Imagineering's true pioneers like Herbie Ryman or Ken Anderson. He was actually a member of WDI's second generation. One of those West Coast kids who went to Disneyland one day in the late 1950s / early 1960s and just fell in love with the place. Which is why Mumford was probably destined to become an Imagineer.

David used to love to tell the story about what actually spurred him to make it his life's goal to go to work for the Walt Disney Company. Which was that "Disney Goes to the Fair" episode of "The Wonderful World of Color" that aired in 1964 (The show that revealed many of the attractions that Walt had the Imagineers build for the 1964 / 1965 New York Worlds Fair).

Those of you who have seen this particular TV program may recall that there's this really cool transition midway through the show. A concept painting of a family of brontosauruses feeding is held in front of the camera. Then this picture is suddenly pulled away to reveal full-size robotic versions of this very same dinosaur family, happily munching away inside a WED warehouse.

This particular piece of film must have touched something deep down inside of young Mr. Mumford. Years later, he related to me how "The Wonderful World of Color" had shown him that "... Imagineers got paid to build giant robotic dinosaurs. Which is how I knew that I HAD TO become an Imagineer."

The best part of this story is -- once David finished college, getting his degree in architecture -- Mumford actually applied for work at WED and got hired. And what was David's first official assignment as a newly hired Imagineer? Working with John Hench on the giant robot dinosaurs for Epcot's "Universe of Energy" pavilion.

Now, some folks might say that it was lucky that David landed that job as his first assignment at WED. But Mumford didn't rely on luck to make things happen during his WDI career. He worked hard. Damned hard. Sometimes traveling halfway across the country (or halfway 'round the globe) -- spending months at a time away from his wife, friends and family -- just to make sure that a new Disney theme park attraction would turned out correctly.

So -- if you've ever enjoyed the pre and post-show areas of Tokyo Disneyland's "Star Tours" (arguably the very best version of this attraction that exists in this world) or marveled at Tokyo Disney Sea's "Mermaid Lagoon" or thrilled to see that little purple dragon back where he belongs in Epcot's recently revamped "Journey into Imagination with Figment" ride -- you have David Mumford to thank.

That's what I really wish that I'd had had the chance to do before David passed away. Thank him. Thank Mumford for all the great stories that he shared over the years. Thank him for the great rides, shows and attractions that he helped build. Thank him for all the laughs and/or the info tidbits that he threw my way.

Putting it simply, David Mumford was a great guy. Someone who'll genuinely be missed by hundreds -- no, thousands -- of members of the Disneyana community. Be they Imagineers ... or those kids out there who -- just like David, back when he was sitting in front of his family's television watching "The Wonderful World of Color" -- dream of someday becoming Imagineers.

The thoughts and prayers of the entire JHM family go out to Carole Mumford during her time of sadness.

David Mumford's New Fantasyland design

It was 20 years ago ... That Show Set Designer David Mumford first came to the attention of
WED management by winning Imagineering's in-house T-shirt design contest for Disneyland's
New Fantasyland. The above design -- which (in David's own words) -- found a way to "incor-
porate characters from the diverse realms of Fantasyland into a unified design" was evidently
a big hit with Mumford's fellow Imagineers. This limited edition T-shirt was given (in March 1983)
to all WED cast members who had helped with the redo of this original Disneyland land (which
then wouldn't officially open 'til May 25, 1983).

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