Marty Sklar and Leah, his wife of 60 years, are saluted at a Ryman Arts function. The Sklars were co-founders of the arts scholarship program which honored the legendary Disney illustrator. [Courtesy of Ryman Arts]
Lost in the craziness of the recent D23 Expo was this item: After taking part in three panel discussions, Disney Legend Marty Sklar spent four hours signing copies of his books, Dream It! Do It! and One Little Spark!
That’s right, four hours. At the age of 83, Marty was almost as popular as the two-month-old Avatar: Flight of Passage attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
But that was Marty Sklar. Hard-working. Patient. Gracious. Untiring, with a quick, sharp sense of humor. And, apparently, he was the possessor of a right wrist that was immune to carpal tunnel syndrome. Even though his calm, grandfatherly demeanor belied it, he was no doubt among the hardest-working men in show business.
News of Marty’s passing yesterday [July 27] hit like the proverbial ton of bricks. My wife Janet and I were crushed, to say the least. I knew Marty for nearly 10 years … not so much Marty, the legendary head of Walt Disney Imagineering, but Marty the man: Loving husband to Leah for 60 years, cherished father to Howard and Leslie, adored grandfather to Gabriel, Hannah, Rachel and Jacob.
And yes, I counted him as a friend.
One of the highlights of my career … and indeed, my life … came in 2013 when Janet and I and friend Mike Splitstone joined him for lunch at Club 33 in Disneyland. It was an afternoon steeped with wonderful stories, plenty of laughs and unforgettable memories. At the end of the lunch, he and I posed for photos in front of artwork that was done by his friend and colleague, Herb Ryman.
Marty and I pose for a photo in Club 33 in Disneyland in 2013. [Janet Schmidt]
Back in November, I had lunch with Marty and Disney Files editor Ryan March at The Wave in the Contemporary Resort. Marty had just given an informative talk to thrilled Disney Vacation Club cast members. Later that afternoon, he spent time in the Contemporary’s main convention center, rehearsing for the next day’s D23 event. At lunch, I had a surprise for Marty: I gave him a copy of a program from Fantasia, which was given to movie-goers in the 1940s. He was thrilled to accept it.
Over the years, I’d think nothing of shooting Marty an email if I had a question or a request. He’d usually get back to me within an hour. He, too, would email me out of the blue, often with suggestions for a blog or some behind-the-scenes Disney news he knew I’d be interested in. Or about baseball. As a kid growing up in New Brunswick, N.J., Marty and his brother Bob were big Brooklyn Dodgers fans and they would often bug their dad to take them to Ebbets Field, riding on a bus, two ferries and two subway trains to get back and forth.
Marty was my go-to guy whenever I needed information about Disney, particularly Disney during the mid-1950s through his retirement in 2009. He was, after all, THE main conduit to Walt Disney himself, having worked side-by-side with him until his death in 1966 … a death, by the way, that Marty took particularly hard.
Earlier this year, I started working on a book about Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in conjunction with the park’s 20th anniversary in 2018. After I emailed Marty about my plans for the book and asked for his help, he was enthused … so much so, that a day after I contacted him, he sent me an email with an extensive list of people who were involved in the planning, concept and design phases of Animal Kingdom. Not only that, but he gave me phone numbers and email addresses for all those wonderful folks. His help, as usual, was invaluable.
I was both honored and humbled when he wrote the foreword to my book On the Disney Beat, which detailed my 30-plus years of covering Disney. I even devoted an entire chapter to “My coast-to-coast adventures with Marty Sklar.” During the span of a year, I saw no less than four presentations by him, as well as book signings in New Jersey and California.
Marty on stage with Mickey Mouse and Neil Patrick Harris last year. Marty received the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award during the event. [Courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum]
When I approached him recently about getting together to chat about Epcot’s 35th anniversary in October, he was, as usual, all in … but only after taking some time to recuperate from the exhaustive weekend that was the D23 Expo.
“Give me a little time,” he wrote me on July 17. “Still recovering from the D23 Expo over the weekend where I was on three panels, and signed books for four hours on Sunday.”
Strange as it may sound, four hours of signing books with his favorite red felt tip magic marker was not a record for Marty.
At one book signing in 2016, Marty – incredibly – signed 500 books in five hours. If there is such a thing as a “rock star” in the world of theme park entertainment, Marty Sklar was Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen rolled into one.
Marty’s popularity spoke volumes on just how revered he was with the expansive Disney fan base. The fact that he worked side-by-side with Walt Disney for a decade had a lot to do with it … and so did the fact that he made so many important contributions to the growth of the Walt Disney Company and had an encyclopedic memory of so many important milestones in Disney history. Among his many talents was his innate ability to cultivate and inspire talent.
On July 17, 1955, Marty Sklar was an energetic young man on the precipice of a legendary 54-year career with the Walt Disney Company. July 17th, of course, was the day Disneyland – the world’s first theme park and one of many enormous bets placed by renowned wheeler-dealer Walt Disney during his lifetime – opened in Anaheim, Calif.
At the time, Marty was a student at UCLA who was about to become the editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He was a wet-behind-the-ears Disneyland intern who had been tasked, by none other than Walt Disney himself, with creating an early 1900s-style newspaper to be sold to guests as they entered the park.
Marty was hired exactly one month before Disneyland opened. He was interviewed in the administration building on the property, which was actually the former residence of Disney Legend-in-waiting Ron Dominguez and his family. For decades, Ron’s family cultivated orange groves and lived in a house that was located about where the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is now located. In typical fashion, Marty helped set up an interview with Ron for me several years ago.
The Disneyland News was a big hit among those first park guests – and more importantly, it was a big hit to Walt Disney himself. After Marty graduated from UCLA in the spring of 1956, he was offered a full-time job in Disneyland’s press and publicity department … and a long and storied career took flight.
He “made his bones” working for his first boss, Ed Ettinger, and with legendary publicist Eddie Meck, as well as with the incomparable Jack Lindquist, who remained one of Marty’s closest friends until his death in early 2016. Marty wrote press materials and made significant contributions to a number of initiatives which helped solidify Disneyland’s standing as The Happiest Place on Earth.
Owing to his newspaper pedigree, he was a writer, first and foremost, during those early years, a talent that served him well over the course of his life. As Marty told me on several occasions: “When I get the writing itch, I have to scratch it.”
Prior to the opening of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, Marty was asked to leave his post in Disneyland’s PR department and join WED Enterprises, the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering, and his career truly blossomed.
Perhaps his most significant contribution to the company came during an eight-year period from 1973 to 1981, when he and a small band of colleagues helped bring the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – or Epcot – from a conceptual drawing on a napkin sketched by Walt Disney to the innovative, two-pronged entertainment venue we know today.
Marty, in a red jacket, oversees construction of Epcot during the early 1980s. [Walt Disney Imagineering]
I know he was really looking forward to marking Epcot’s 35th anniversary in October. In March, he gave several talks at Epcot during the first Festival of the Arts. Afterwards, I asked him if another Marty Sklar book was in the works. “Yes, I’ve started working on another book, but it’s hard to get motivated,” he admitted. “But the Festival of the Arts audiences – including my separate book signing on Sunday – have inspired me to get moving.”
When I interviewed him earlier in July, he told me he was about 75% done with his next book. “What’s it about?” I asked him. “More Disney stories,” he said. Here’s hoping his talented daughter Leslie, who edited his two books, will find the strength to pick up the baton and bring the book to the finish line.
Marty’s book signings and presentations, be they inside a Disney theme park, at a fan Disney fan convention, at a library or in a book store, were true events, with hundreds of adoring fans in attendance.
Marty shakes a fan’s hand on Main Street in Shanghai Disneyland last summer … keeping intact his record of having been in attendance on opening day at all 12 Disney parks worldwide. [Orange County Register]
Those adoring fans, as well as his loving family, friends and former colleagues, mourn the death of a truly remarkable man. He will be missed, to be sure. We also honor his memory and his many accomplishments throughout his remarkable life, particularly his involvement with the Ryman Arts scholarship program, which he and his wife Leah helped found.
In 2015, after the release of One Little Spark!, I wrote a blog on the book. As I always did whenever I wrote something about him, I sent Marty the link to the blog. In response, he sent me this email:
Sent: Monday, August 10, 2015 1:48 PM
To: Chuck Schmidt
Chuck – You are a super kind editor – I hope someone will think of you when it comes time for my obituary …
Thank you, sir.
I have to admit, I was taken aback by that. “Hopefully,” I quickly wrote back to him, “that won’t be for many, many years.” But that was typical Marty. Honest, sincere and a realist. I always made it a point to send him an electronic birthday greeting each February and his typical response was: “The good news is I’m still here.”
Like Walt Disney himself, Marty Sklar was one of a kind, a tireless ambassador for the Walt Disney Company and an advocate for Walt Disney Imagineering … and the men and women who create the magic on a daily basis.
Bob Weis, the president of Imagineering, was effusive in his praise of his former boss after learning of his death. “Marty was one of Walt’s most trusted advisors and helped turn his most ambitious dreams into reality. For us, it’s hard to imagine a world without Marty, because Marty is synonymous with Imagineering.
“His influence can be seen around the world, in every Disney park, and in the creative and imaginative work of almost every professional in the themed entertainment industry.”
Marty’s daughter Leslie perhaps put it best when she told me: “We haven’t yet understood just what we’ve lost.” The family has requested that all donations be sent to Ryman Arts in Marty’s honor.
To borrow from Marty’s signature greeting: All Good Things to the Sklar family during this difficult time.