Mitsuo Natsume: The Forgotten Imagineer

"Mitsuo was one of the sweetest men I've ever worked with. His work was always so detailed, exact, precise and meticulous. We worked together on the early models of the Ford Pavilion for the NY World's Fair." - Rolly Crump1

Mitsuo Natsume, 1971

Mitsuo Natsume was born in Burbank, California on May 21 1927. His parents were Japanese immigrants from Wakayama who had a vegetable farm in Glendale prior to World War II. During the war he, his five siblings and parents were placed in Manzanar War Relocation Center. He graduated high school there.

Known as "Mitsu" or "Mits" to his friends and colleagues he was trained at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. During that time he worked at a record pressing plant for Mercury Records.

Following Otis, Mitsuo was hired by Columbia Pictures where he worked in the art department. He disparagingly referred to himself as "The highest paid valet in Hollywood" as the studio boss would throw his car keys when he arrived saying "Natsume! Park my car!"

Not that his artistic talents went unnoticed by his boss. He asked Mits to build a model of an extension to his house. Mits took a photograph of this model to a job interview at WED Enterprises where they were convinced that they were looking at a photograph of a real house.

House Extension Model

He was employed by WED in the Model Shop where he worked for a decade. One of his early projects was the Ford Pavilion for the 1964 New York World's Fair.

New York World's Fair 1964

Mitsuo Natsume Working on Ford Magic Skyway Model

New York World's Fair Ford Pavilion 1964

While Disney artists were seldom individually credited, the ceiling ornament has elements that recur in Mitsuo's designs. He would later use optic fibers, new at the time, to create similar decorative fixtures for lighting effects.

Space Mountain

Space Mountain Model, Arrow Development Track

"A concept model of the exterior of Space Mountain was constructed in the WED Model Shop by a wonderful sculptor who is always referred to as Mitsu." - George McGinnis2

Space Mountain Model Detail, Arrow Development Track

This early model of Space Mountain was based on original sketches by John Hench and was built around a track design by Arrow Development. Later, the ride engineering was brought in-house and became an enclosed track rather than moving in and out of the building.

Note the "energy wheels" that control the speed of the vehicles.

Space Mountain Model Left Detail, Arrow Development Track

Tomorrowland 1967

Tomorrowland Entrance Under Construction

"Mitsu contributed much to the 1967 New Tomorrowland. You saw his work at the entrance-its elegant facades and WEDway PeopleMover support structure." - George McGinnis3

Tomorrowland Entrance at Disneyland Circa 1967

While he was seldom, if ever, boastful of his work, Mits was particularly proud of the bench design that doubled as a raised planter bed. Note the clean, uncluttered look of the original entryway to Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland Entrance at Disneyland in 2016

Tomorrowland Entry Facade Circa 1967

Tomorrowland Entry Facade, 2016

Tomorrowland Entry Facade Wood Carving

Each panel of the Tomorrowland entry facade was initially carved in wood. These wooden molds were then vacuum formed in plastic, then painted the original silver color.

Flight to the Moon

Flight to the Moon Model

Flight to the Moon 1967

Flight to the Moon Model

Flight to the Moon

Notice how closely the finished building follows the design of the model in these two previous examples.

Thunder Mesa

Thunder Mesa Model

Thunder Mesa Model

Thunder Mesa Model, Color Photograph

One of the last projects he worked on at WED was Thunder Mesa. The ride had a runaway train as its theme. The idea was later re-born as Big Thunder Mountain. Unlike Mits' Thunder Mesa model, a copy of the Big Thunder Mountain model exists in the Frontier Tower Lobby at the Disneyland Hotel.

Big Thunder Mountain Model, Frontier Tower Lobby, Disneyland Hotel

Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

"In a meeting, Dick Irvine, put Mitsu and me in competition in the design of furniture for the Contemporary hotel, which would be made from Monsanto plastics. We sketched and finally modeled the versions we liked best. Mitsu's was the winner and I had to admit it was more practical than my curved piece. After the meeting, Mitsu came to me and told me he liked one of my sketches and it was the basis of his final work.

This was the kind of person Mitsu was-not only a great artist, but sensitive to the feelings of others. When Mitsu decided to leave WED in the late 1960's, I was not surprised when John Hench asked me to encourage Mitsu to stay." - George McGinnis4

Contemporary Resort Armchair with Rollers

Contemporary Resort Armchair

Contemporary Resort Chair with Rollers

Contemporary Resort Drawers

1Rolly Crump, personal communication April 16, 2013.
2George McGinnis,
"From Horizons to Space Mountain: The Life of a Disney Imagineer" (Theme Park Press, 2016)
Thank you to Theme Park Press for permission to use quotes from George McGinnis' book.

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