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Get to Know Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men"

Franklin D. Roosevelt called his Supreme Court Justices his “Nine Old Men,” wondering if the older court was out of touch with the times. Walt Disney lovingly borrowed the term to refer to some of his animators, but they were anything but out of touch. Disney’s Nine Old Men were at the forefront of the industry, developing new techniques and innovations with every film they worked on.

You may not know them by name, but the collective works of these animators probably defined your childhood—and your parents’ childhoods. Meet Disney’s Nine Old Men:

1. LES CLARK

There’s no doubt that Les Clark’s talent landed him a job at Disney Studios, but his courage played a pretty big role as well. As a high school student, Clark worked at a lunch counter where Walt and Roy Disney frequently dined. While he was waiting on them one day, Clark asked Walt for a job; Disney was surprisingly game, asking to see some of his work. “So, I copied some cartoons and showed them to Walt. He said I had a good line, and why don’t I come to work on Monday,” Clark recalled. Clark graduated that Thursday, then went to work for Walt Disney four days later. He helped animator Ub Iwerks on the first Mickey Mouse shorts, Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie.

Characters he worked on: Pinocchio, Snow White’s dwarfs, Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Alice, Peter Pan, Sorcerer Mickey, Cinderella.

You also know him for: The scene in The Skeleton Dance where one skeleton plays another skeleton’s ribs like a xylophone (starts around 3:45):

2. MARC DAVIS

In 1935, Marc Davis was looking for a job as a newspaper cartoonist when he happened to notice that Disney Studios was hiring. Though he had no background in animation, Disney was impressed with his sketches of animal anatomy and movement and hired Davis as an apprentice animator for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Characters he worked on: Snow White, Bambi, Tinker Bell, Princess Aurora, Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Mr. Toad, Brer Rabbit from Song of the South

You also know him for: Animatronic character design from the parks. Davis’ many ride contributions include the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Country Bear Jamboree.

3. OLLIE JOHNSTON

Joining Marc Davis as a Disney Studios newbie in 1935 was Ollie Johnston, who was also hired as an apprentice animator. One of his earliest projects was a Silly Symphonies short called The Tortoise and the Hare, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject.

Characters he worked on: Sir Hiss and Prince John from Robin Hood, Mr. Smee from Peter Pan, the three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty, Thumper from Bambi.

You also know him for: Getting Walt Disney interested in trains. Disney was well known as a backyard train hobbyist, and he caught the bug thanks to Johnston. Johnston had just begun work on his own backyard steam engine in 1946 when Walt caught wind of the project and asked to see it; several months later, he started building his own.

4. MILT KAHL

Like Marc Davis, Milt Kahl had hoped to find work as a cartoonist. He dropped out of high school to work at the Oakland Post-Enquirer and the San Francisco Bulletin, but after Kahl saw Disney’s Three Little Pigs short at a local movie theater, he decided to try his hand at animation. He was hired at Disney in 1934 as an assistant animator for shorts like Lonesome Ghosts and The Ugly Duckling.

Characters he worked on: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, the hounds and fox in Mary Poppins, Pongo and Perdita in 101 Dalmatians, Ludwig von Drake, most of the characters in The Jungle Book and Robin Hood, Madame Medusa from The Rescuers.

You also know him for: You’re probably also pretty familiar with the work of Kahl’s protégé, Brad Bird. Bird (who has won Oscars for The Incredibles and Ratatouille) was just 13 years old when he sent his first animated film to Disney for review—it was a remake of The Tortoise and the Hare, with the race culminating in a five-way tie. Bird’s parents advised him to send the film to the biggest name he could find, and that happened to be Milt Kahl. Impressed, Kahl mentored Bird from then on.

5. WARD KIMBALL

Ward Kimball may have been at the same matinee Milt Kahl attended, because he was also inspired to switch from magazine illustration to animation after seeing Disney’s Three Little Pigs short. After graduating from the Santa Barbara School of Art, he found a job with Disney Studios in 1934 and worked on most of their animated films until his retirement in 1972.

Characters he worked on: Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Jiminy Cricket, the Three Caballeros. He also helped write the story and script for Babes in Toyland.

You also know him for: Kimball was famous for his sense of humor—for example, he gave himself extra fingers during his Disney Legend handprint ceremony. He also got a kick out of perpetuating the rumor that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen: “I always tell people that if anyone was going to be cryogenically frozen, doesn’t it seem like something Walt would be interested in? Knowing Walt, he was always interested in experiments, always interested in science. He was always interested in the 'new' thing. He was that type of personality. Was he frozen? I wouldn’t put it past him and that’s my answer. I like to keep it floating out there."

Kimball also had a second career as the trombonist in a Dixieland jazz band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, which included several other Disney Studios employees. They recorded 13 albums and occasionally performed with big names such as Bing Crosby and Teresa Brewer.

6. WOLFGANG REITHERMAN

Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman had been intent on a career as an aircraft engineer when he suddenly became enthralled with watercolors. He switched from Pasadena Junior College to the Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., and met an instructor who also happened to teach classes at the Walt Disney Studio. Reitherman got a job there in 1933.

Characters he worked on: The crocodile in Peter Pan, the dinosaurs in Fantasia, the Headless Horseman, the Magic Mirror in Snow White, the whale chase scene in Pinocchio.

You also know him for: Reitherman earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for serving in the Air Force during WWII, flying missions in India, China, Africa, and the South Pacific.

7. FRANK THOMAS

When Frank Thomas was just nine years old, he asked his father how he could make money drawing pictures. Whether he was career-oriented at a young age, or just strangely prophetic, Thomas graduated from Stanford and then went on to study at Chouinard. A fellow student told Thomas that Disney was hiring, and on September 24, 1934, he started work on a short called Mickey’s Elephant.

Characters he worked on: Cinderella’s stepmother, scenes in Brave Little Tailor, the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp, King Louie from The Jungle Book, the dancing penguins in Mary Poppins, and Captain Hook.

You also know him for: Co-authoring, along with Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, which is widely regarded as “the bible” for character animators. You can see cameos by Thomas and Johnston in Bird’s movie The Incredibles:

8. ERIC LARSON

Eric Larson attended the University of Utah for journalism, and as he became more involved in the campus magazine, he found himself interested in sketching as well. After freelancing for a year post-graduation, Larson decided to send some of his sketches to Disney on the advice of a friend. When he retired in 1986, he had one of the longest tenures in the company's history under his belt—52 years.

Characters he worked on: Lady, Tramp, Wart and Merlin from The Sword in the Stone, Roquefort and Scat Cat from The Aristocats, Pegasus and Centaurs from Fantasia, Kanga and Roo from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

You also know him for: His recruitment training program. His Disney recruits include John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Don Bluth, Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Henry Selick, Andreas Deja, and Ron Clements, among many, many others.

9. JOHN LOUNSBERY

John Lounsbery’s story is a lot like his fellow Old Men: he graduated from an art institute (Denver) and then headed to L.A. to seek work. While he was attending some illustration courses at the Art Center School of Design, an instructor there thought he would be well-suited to Disney and pointed him toward the hiring studio. Lounsbery joined in 1935, specializing in Pluto shorts.

Characters he worked on: Willie the Giant, Jasper and Horace from 101 Dalmatians, the hippos and the alligator from Fantasia, Dumbo and Timothy Mouse from Dumbo, the flowers from Alice in Wonderland, King Leonidas and the soccer players from Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

You also know him for: You probably don’t. Lounsbery was the quietest of the Old Men and kept a very low profile. “I wasn’t very articulate in story meetings,” he once said. “Walt and I had an agreement: He judged me on what I produced and didn’t expect me to be a talker.”

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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