Oliver Martin Johnston Jr

Disney Animator & Railfan

October 31, 1912 - April 14, 2008

* * *

The Last Disney Legend Passes

This article was written by long-time PSRM Museum member Larry Rose for the Museum's membership newsletter.

The last of Walt Disney's nine original animators passed away of natural causes at age 95 at a rest home in Sequim, Washington, on April 14th . Many PSRM old timers will remember Ollie' Johnston's Deer Lake Park and Julian Railroad that some of us had the opportunity to work on and operate in the days before Campo. Dick Pennick and Larry Rose fired and ran Ollies three foot gauge 0-4-4 steam engine in exchange for some track maintenance in the spring back in the 70's. Running Ollies little steamer was Larry's first locomotive operation experience of any kind. He was a wonderful friend and will be sorely missed.

Ollie lived in the little mountain town of Julian, east of San Diego, for many years and built a mile of narrow gauge track on his 40 acre estate including a nice two stall shop and engine house and a wye to turn the engine at each end of the line. His wood fired steam locomotive was an old mining engine, found derilect in Washington, built by the H.K Porter Locomotive Works of Pittsburg in 1901. Ollie restored the engine to mint condition and called the little seven ton steamer the "Marie E" after his wife of 63 years who passed away in 2005. He also had a little four wheel bobber caboose based on a D&RGW design of a hundred years ago. The caboose was built in the Disneyland shops to exacting standards typical of Disney's "Nine Old Men" who were all hard core rail fans just like Walt himself.

Ollie sold his locomotive, caboose and a flat car to John Lasseter, head of Disney's Pixar Studios, and head honcho at Disney Imagineering, when he figured he was getting too old to take care of them. Lasseter is often referred to as the "New Walt Disney" and is just as much a rail fan as were Walt and his original group of artists. The spotless little loco is still fully operational and ran last year at a meet of large scale steam railroad enthusiast in central California. John is still a young man born in 1957 so the engine will live on for many years in his care before being passed on to the next generation. Ollie got to take his last ride on his locomotive on the Disneyland railroad in Anaheim as part a special event honoring him arranged by Lasseter in 2005.

Ollie worked on every Disney animated blockbuster feature starting with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937. Oille graduated from Stanford where his father was a professor. He met Frank Thomas there in an art department that had only six students and they became life long friends who shared a common passion for cartoon animation. Ollie and and Frank went to work for Disney at $17 bucks a week as kids just out of college. Walt Disney died in 1966. Frank died in 2004 at the age of 92. That left Ward Kimball and Ollie as the last of the "Nine Old Men" a nickname that Walt hung on his animators when they were still in their 20's that stayed with them all their lives. Ward also passed away in 2002 and left his own collection of authentic narrow gauge steam locomotives and cars to the Orange Empire RR Museum along with enough cash to build a display barn and turntable to show them off.

Ollie received many awards in his long life and was honored at the White House in 2005. While best known for his legendary art and cartooning career, rail fans will always remember how he and his pals at Disney loved old trains and went out of their way to preserve and operate the real thing. May the lights always be green on that great railroad in the sky.

Larry Rose

This page last updated 4/18/2008