Harper was working for Warner Brothers at the time, and after the shop owner introduced them, Walt commented, “I’ve heard of you, but I can’t recall where… ” Harper was a member of the already well-known Firehouse 5 Plus 2, which was composed of Disney animators, but Walt called him at his hotel that evening with the answer. “I’ve figured it out,” he said, “I’ve seen your illustrations in Esquire magazine and always admired them. Call me when you get back to the States.”
HARPER: I liked the idea of working with Walt Disney, and when I called him he began to explain his idea for a kiddie-land near the Studio — perhaps with a steam train connected to Traveland across the L.A. River. He wanted to build something adults could enjoy along with their children.
So he went to work for Walt Disney on some of these very first concepts which were to grow into Disneyland. Walt himself built a miniature log house which he called “Grannie’s Cabin” from “So Dear To My Heart.” Inside was a slowly swaying rocking chair and a voice over of Beaulah Bondi describing her life as a young pioneer. They took the model to the Pan Pacific Auditorium Home Show where Harper’s job was to overhear comments from spectators who he found received the little show very well. Walt then sent him on a 3-month information gathering visit to amusement parks around the country.
HARPER: They were dirty places and it was hard to imagine what Walt had in mind creating. I said to him when I got back, ‘Walt, I don’t think this type of environment is what you want,’ and he replied, ‘mine will be immaculate and the staff will be young and polite,’ then I realized he could do it.
Anaheim was chosen as the site for Disneyland and Harper contributed the first sketches envisioning the look of the place. When construction began the problems had no precedents and dealing with them required ingenuity.
HARPER: I was young and awed by Walt, he had given me more responsibility than I had even had and I worked harder than I ever had because he was a hero to me and I was afraid of not living up to his expectations. He seemed to give me free reign, but he expected a lot at the same time.
For example, the caterpillar drivers continually backed over our surveyors’ stakes, making them worthless. It got too expensive in time and money to have the surveyors keep coming out to replace them, so Walt said ‘Harper just eyeball it.’ So I would have to spend on the site with a scale model and signal to the cat driver to pile a little more dirt up there and level it here until it looked right to me.
We learned and made decisions as we went along. Walt wanted to use the squid from the movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in some sort of boat ride but it was in bad condition and the wires that pulled the tentacles would have been hard to hide. But we had both seen “The African Queen” and we began to think of hippos and other animals which could be operated without wires and still have animated elements. We brought in Bob Matte, who later created the shark for “Jaws,” to engineer the original animals. The first ones that we tried were alligators and hippos which worked on simple animation — no kicking or swimming.
I also worked with Bill and Jack Evans on buying expeditions for the landscaping. We would call cities to see if they were tearing out trees for improvements and go and buy them — we got many that way.
The Evans and Reeves Nursery was in West L.A. and as we made trips back and forth we would pass a house in Beverly Hills which had a wonderful tree in the front yard that we would have loved to have had. In fact, each time we talked about getting it and it got to be kind of a joke. Finally, I thought what have we got to lose, and had Jack Evans stop while I went in to ask the people if they would consider selling it. I told the owner we would replace it with a flower bed or anything they wanted and surprisingly enough the owner told me yes — it was blocking the sunlight and view coming through his windows and we could just come and take it away. The trouble was, it took me a week to convince Jack that the owner had actually told me that I could have it… it was the tree that went around the original Burmese Temple, and we got it for nothing.
We found quite a few resources right on the property. When we began clearing the site for Disneyland, we saved all the orange and walnut trees and I got the idea of turning the walnut trees upside down to make the original jungle roots, which we did… as for wildlife, Walt had asked me to line up a source of wild birds — crown herons, waterfowl — but when we filled the river with water, all kinds of wild birds found it by themselves. We cancelled all our orders for the exotic ones…
We finished laying out the Jungle Cruise river with all its twists and turns and made a mock-up of the Cruise Boat and mounted it on a jeep so that we could drive it through and make sure the boat would fit around the course of the river and under the waterfall. I was anxious about it and looked forward to making the first run with “no one looking” in case there were problems. But before I could start, Walt came rearing up, he had heard I was going to make a test run and wanted to come along. Luckily it went very well.
Harper went on to freelance from 1955 to 1975 working on World’s Fair designs and in the motion picture industry where he was associate producer of the film “The Vikings” which starred Kirk Douglas, and Art Director for “Pete Kelley’s Blues” and “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Today he is back at WED working on the German and Iranian Pavilions for EPCOT World Showcase.
HARPER: I have a lot of old friends here and it’s great to be back with them. In those days there was no WED, we just had a little machine shop, about 16′x 50′, and a tiny model shop. We worked without knowing what people would think of our efforts and when our work was well received we had the excitement of having done it right. Today we are larger, we have many more creative people and we’ve already earned pride and conviction in what we’re doing. But I never become blasé because I continue to have the feeling that Walt is looking over my shoulder.