Monday Jan 15 2018
Placer County’s little-known ‘Mary Poppins’ Oscar winner
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
Hamilton Luske won Academy Award for Disney animation magic
With Bear River High grad and “Coco” co-director Adrian Molina a frontrunner to step up March 4 for an Oscar, Media Life trains its Placercentric-seeking sights on a gentleman by the name of Hamilton Luton Luske.
Molina’s Oscar prospects were bolstered by “Coco’s” Golden Globe win for best animated feature on Sunday.
But if he does step on the stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, it will not be a first for someone with a toehold in the foothills.
On April 5, 1965, it was Luske’s turn to warm to the glow of an Oscar win, joining two other Disney creative team members to receive the award for Best Achievement in Visual Special Effects for their work on “Mary Poppins.”
Luske’s journey from the then-orchard-rich foothills community of Newcastle to the upper echelons of the Disney artistic strata and Oscar night, starts with a clipping from around 1910-12 from the Oakland Tribune that was sent Media Life’s way almost two years ago when we published a list of Auburn’s All-time Top 5 Artists.
Newcastle school days
Auburn’s 77-year-old Mike Monahan provided the news article, headlined “Operetta Succeeds: Benefit Entertainment for Newcastle School Piano Draw Big Crowd.”
The operetta “While Mortals Sleep” was performed at Newcastle’s now-long-gone International Order of Good Templars Hall. The roster of pint-sized actors and actresses included Hamilton Luske as “Little Boy Blue.”
Luske was born in 1903 in Chicago but had moved to Newcastle with his family as a young boy. He would live in Newcastle during his grammar school years. Monahan’s father, William Welch Monahan, was a classmate of Luske’s at Newcastle School and as an adult would continue to recall the prodigy who even then was making flash cards to flip and create animated movement in his drawings.
“My father always remarked how talented Ham was as an artist,” Monahan said.
Media Life next catches up to Luske at U.C. Berkeley, where he earned a degree in business. His first job out of college, however, was as a cartoonist for the Oakland Post-Inquirer. By 1931, without any formal art training, his talents had impressed Walt Disney to such a high degree that he was one of the first animators working for the studio that would soon became an entertainment powerhouse – with some important contributions along the way by Luske. An early work was bringing barnyard animals to life in a Mickey Mouse short. By 1935, he was part of the animation team on the Academy Award-winning Silly Symphony “The Tortoise and the Hare” but wasn’t named as an Oscar recipient.
‘Snow White’ vision
Perhaps the most lasting contribution Luske would make in the 1930s to the Disney legacy would be as supervising animator of the Snow White character in 1936’s groundbreaking “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Disney histories credit Luske with creating the initial “Snow White” image that would eventually be reshaped but not drastically altered by other animators into its final iconic onscreen form.
Luske would continue to work for Disney through the late 1960s, and Monahan would watch for his name when a new animation project reached Auburn’s State Theatre. And those projects kept on coming, with the Newcastle expatriate Monahan’s dad had such fond memories of playing key lead roles tying together disparate elements of story, visuals and music to fulfill the Walt Disney vision.
In 1940, Luske was a supervising director on “Pinocchio.” A year later, he was uncredited as a director on “The Pastoral Symphony” in “Fantasia.”
The warm relationship between Luske and Disney would result in a move up to the director’s chair for some of the most beloved animated movies of the 20th century, including “Cinderella” in 1950, 1951’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” in 1953, “Lady & The Tramp” in 1955 and “101 Dalmatians” in 1961.
When “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” debuted on TV, Luske was a trusted hand to turn to, directing 49 episodes.
And in the early 1960s, when Disney brought “Mary Poppins” to the screen, Robert Stevenson was hired as director on what essentially was a live-action feature. But Hamilton Luske was onboard as animation director — and shared in an Oscar for his work.
Luske died in 1968, directing Disney TV episodes to the end — a quietly efficient contributor to the magic and a ex-Placer County resident with roots in Newcastle that are remembered to this day by the few who know.
Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal. More of Gus’ Media Life stories can be found at auburnjournal.com/keywords/media-life.