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Remembering Fred Joerger (1913 - 2005)

Jim Hill

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Remembering Fred Joerger (1913 - 2005)

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Fred Joerger was a rock.

Mind you, I'm not just saying because Fred's specialization at WED was rockwork. But -- rather -- because the late Mr. Joerger really was one of the "rocks" upon which Walt Disney built his theme park organization.

After all, Fred was one of the very first people that Walt hired in order to help make his dream of a family fun park a reality. Way back in 1953, Disney lured Joerger away from Warner Brothers (Where Fred had been working in that studio's art department making models of various movie sets) so that this boy from Illinois could then start building dimensional models of Disneyland. So that Walt would have a better understanding of where things should actually go in Anaheim.

Working closely with Harriet Burns and Wathel Rogers, Joerger quickly got WED's "model shop" up out of the ground. It was here that Fred helped create several different versions of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Which is what helped Walt finally settle on what Disneyland's icon should look like.

But you know what Disney liked best about Joerger? If you gave this guy an assignment, this pioneer Imagineer would eventually find a way to complete it. Whether it was constructing a miniature working windmill (to be placed along the banks of the Storybookland Canal) or making a miniature Matterhorn (to help Mr. Disney get a better sense of how this undersized Alp might look standing next to Sleeping Beauty Castle), Mr. Joerger would make it happen.

Copyright The Walt Disney Company

And -- yes (as I mentioned earlier) -- Fred's specialization was rockwork. So if you've ever enjoyed looking at Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain or have fond memories of WDW's River Country, you have Mr. Joerger to thank.

Me personally? I wish that Fred had gotten a lot more accolades in his lifetime. Oh, sure. The stuff that Mr. Joerger worked on wasn't quite as flashy as -- say -- all the AA characters that Marc Davis designed for "Country Bear Jamboree" or "America Sings."

But you have to understand that it was the "faux reality" that Fred helped create -- like all that rockwork that you see as you float through "The Jungle Cruise" -- that helps sell Marc's amusing little vignettes. Making it that much easier for the public to buy "The Lost Safari" scene or get spooked by all the skeletons you see in the Cave sequence on "Pirates of the Caribbean."

And you have to understand that Mr. Joerger did all this in the days before computers. When there was no such thing as wire frame modeling or pre-visualization. Where you just had to eyeball things as you went along.

Well, thank goodness that Fred had such a great eye. As anyone who's ever been to the Polynesian Resort Hotel and seen that beautiful waterfall in the lobby will attest to, Mr. Joerger was a master when it came to plaster. He could make you think that all those stones and caves that you find on Tom Sawyer's Island had been there forever. Rather than being something that had recently been sculpted out of rebar and cement.

Yet -- for all his obvious talent -- Fred Joerger was a very soft-spoken guy. He was never one to hog the spotlight. Fred was one of these rare artists who liked to spread the credit around. Making sure that he always downplayed his own contributions, always talking up the abilities of his team-mates.

Which perhaps explains why Joerger was so loved at WED. I mean, look at this painting that was created especially for Fred's retirement. If you look closely, you'll see that virtually every Imagineer that worked for Walt Disney Productions at that time signed this thing.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Mind you, Fred retired in 1979. But Joerger was so loyal to the Disney organization that he just couldn't stay retired. Which is why -- just a few years later -- Fred found himself back in Central Florida, acting as a field art director on Epcot Center. Working in the heat & humidity to make sure that that miniature version of the Canadian Rockies looked just right.

Fred also supervised the rockwork for Tokyo Disneyland. In addition to (much earlier in his career, mind you) sculpting props for such memorable motion pictures as "Mary Poppins," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Darby O'Gill and the Little People."

So with that sort of resume, is it really any wonder that -- back in 2001 -- Joerger was selected to become a Disney Legend?

But then -- by that point -- Fred was already a Disney Legend. After all, given all the great rockwork that Joerger has created for the Disney theme parks over the past 50 years, his legacy will live on long after the rest of us have crumbled to dust.

Which -- when you think about it -- is a lot better epitaph for Fred than the one that you'll find in that fake graveyard at the "Haunted Mansion." Which Joerger received in recognition of all the brilliant plasterwork he did for this Disney theme park attraction. It reads:

Here lies Good Old Fred
A great big rock fell on his head.

Yeah, when it came to Joerger, there was just no getting away from the whole rock thing. That was what the people who worked with him for some 30+ years most closely associated Fred with. Which explains this gag drawing (Which was reportedly given to Joerger upon his second retirement from Walt Disney Productions).

Photo by Jeff Lange

So what else can you say about this rock of a man, one of the very first Imagineers ... Other than that he will be dearly missed.

The staff of JimHillMedia wishes to extend its condolensces to the friends & family of Fred Joerger during their time of sorrow.

We also wish to thank Gregg Nestor for giving JHM permission to use the images that accompany today's article.


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