Today marks the 56th anniversary of the opening of the Grand Canyon Diorama on what was then called the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. In 1955, Claude Coats was one of the elite artists and designers Walt Disney selected to help bring Disneyland to life, and he later worked on the development of the Grand Canyon and Primeval World Dioramas for the park.
Born January 17, 1913, in San Francisco, Calif., Claude graduated from the University of Southern California in 1934 with an architecture and fine arts degree. He went on to study at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles before joining the Walt Disney Studio as a background painter in June 1935.
During his time at the Studio, Claude created stunning watercolor background paintings for “Pinocchio” which continue to be heralded by Disney scholars, fans and art collectors for the rich and textured beauty they lend to the classic film. He also developed backgrounds and color stylings for many iconic animated features such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” and “Lady and the Tramp.”
Claude stood 6-feet, 6-inches tall and was known as a “gentle giant” with a warm wit and a wonderful disposition. He once recalled how Walt used to joke with him about his height. Claude said, “When the Disneyland Stagecoach was completed at the Studio, Walt and a driver were giving rides around the lot, but he wouldn’t let me get in. He said I spoiled the scale.”
While working at the Studio, Claude met his wife Evelyn Henry, an inker in the Ink and Paint Department. The couple married in July 1937 and had two sons, Alan and Lee.
In 1955, Claude joined WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) as a show designer for Disneyland. He referred to this as his “second career” at Disney. In addition to the Dioramas, Claude worked on Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Submarine Voyage, among others. Claude also contributed to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair attractions, including Magic Skyway, Carousel of Progress, and “it’s a small world.”
After 54 years with Disney, Claude retired in November 1989. Marty Sklar, Disney Legend, former executive vice president and Walt Disney Imagineering ambassador, later recalled, “Claude paved the way in turning sketches and paintings into three-dimensional adventures. His energy, curiosity and drive to create new experiences for our Disney park guests made him a leader and a teacher for all of us. He was a genuine one-of-a-kind.”
Claude was named a Disney Legend in 1991. He passed away on January 9, 1992, in Los Angeles.
Claude’s window, located above the Emporium, is a tribute to his name and large stature: Coats & Co., Claude Coats, Proprietor, Big and Tall Sizes for Gentlemen.