From the Dust Bowl to Disney and an Academy Award
By Noah Larsen
From humble beginnings in Burlington, Colo., artist Willis Pyle has gone on to a wildly fascinating life. From the early years of his career at Disney, to time spent working under Ronald Reagan, to his later years as a painter in New York City, it has been a life full of adventure and achievement.
Pyle’s life began on the Eastern Plains of Colorado in 1914. He later relocated to Boulder, graduating from Boulder Prep before attending the University of Colorado.
While still an art major at the university, he sent a few art samples to Walt Disney Studios, which was in full production on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the studio’s first animated feature.
“So, they offered me a job provided I attended their art classes. My job was a gofer. I carried coffee and stuff like that,” says Pyle. “I went to classes every night. Walt believed that his employees should study art, and be good at it. He used to take his employees downtown to art school, and pick them up afterward, because he believed in it.”
“I really liked Walt. He was a really good man. He took me out of the Dust Bowl to a job that paid enough to live on and taught me a craft that I’ve been following for the rest of my life.”
Pyle was assigned to work on the film “Pinocchio.” “That was the first film I worked on. I specialized in the character of Pinocchio.” He worked under Pinocchio designer Milton Kahl, whom Pyle calls “a genius.”
“I was a Pinocchio supervisor. It was my job to teach other people how to draw Pinocchio,” he explains.
According to Pyle, it took about a year to finish Pinocchio. The next Disney picture he worked on was “Fantasia,” where he drew the cupids for Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. After that, he specialized on the teenage Bambi character for the film “Bambi.”
During this time, Pyle had been going to night school to study celestial navigation. Leaving Disney behind, he took a job with American Airlines.
“I was supposed to report to Chicago. So, I went back to Hollywood. While I was waiting, I got a call that said, ‘You don’t have a job with American Airlines, you have a job with the Army.’” Pyle had been drafted.
Pyle completed his basic training in Douglas, Ariz., for a captain whom he describes as a “wonderful person.” Because of his talents as an animator, Pyle headed back to Hollywood to make films for the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps.
There he worked under Commanding Officer Ronald Reagan. “He was just a young actor at the time. I had no visions of him ever becoming president of the United States,” Pyle says.
The war ended, and he was released in 1945. “I was trying to do other things. I loved animating, but wanted to branch out of it and do other types of art. When I got out of the Army, I made up some lady fashion illustrations, and was appointed Vogue fashion artist for the West Coast,” he explains.
But there wasn’t enough fashion work on the West Coast to keep him busy. If he wanted to continue working for Vogue, he’d have to move to New York City. “I had just gotten married at the time, so I signed on with United Productions of America. I worked on the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald McBoing Boing.” Gerald McBoing Boing was a huge success for UPA, winning an Academy Award in 1950.
After four or five years with UPA, Pyle relocated to New York City. “So, we moved here, and I set up my own animation studio. I had my own business here in New York for 30 years doing animation for commercials,” he says.
In 1982, Pyle closed the doors to his animation studio, and started painting. “I rented a studio in the SoHo neighborhood in New York. I’ve had a show every year for the last 20 years.”
Pyle paints in a post-impressionist style, and lists Paul Cézanne as his favorite painter. In 2008, his show at the Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery in New York City was called “Impressions of Impressionists,” where he displayed portraits of eight impressionist painters.
From his days as an art major at CU, all the way through to his time as a painter in New York, Pyle has been making art for nearly all 95 years his life and considers it an endless pursuit. “There’s no end to art, I feel like I’m still learning.”
Pyle is not the only one in his family to achieve renown. His brother Denver Pyle was an actor perhaps best known for portraying Uncle Jesse on the television series “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
His uncle Ernie Pyle, a journalist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and is one of the most celebrated war correspondents in American history. He was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of le Shima, near Okinawa Island, in April 1945.