By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published October 8, 2007
While he certainly has one of the most recognizable voices in the history of Disney entertainment, Winston Hibler has ironically remained one of the more quiet giants behind so many studio success stories and productions both animated and live action. Most famous as the narrator of the True-Life Adventure films, Hibler’s creative efforts however, extended far beyond the award-winning nature documentaries that were the hallmark of his more than thirty-year career with the Disney Studios.
A Pennsylvania native who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s to pursue an acting career in motion pictures, Hibler ironically found work with Disney in 1942 behind the cameras. He began his studio career as a camera operator, but quickly became a technical director on many of the government-commissioned training films being produced for the U.S. military.
Hibler’s first entertainment-based endeavor was writing the Johnny Appleseed sequence from the 1948 package feature Melody Time. One of the most underrated gems of Disney animation, Johnny Appleseed was an auspicious debut that Walt Disney himself took notice of. Hibler quickly found himself fast-tracked into feature animation, providing story content for films such as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty.
But paralleling his contributions to the animation department was his involvement in a series of films that would ultimately become his legacy at Disney for work both as a performer and as a writer. While the True-Life Adventures literally pioneered the nature documentary genre and collected countless awards and accolades, decades later it seems that it is Hibler’s gentle, storyteller-based narrations that are best remembered by a generation of baby boomers and their parents. And it was a job Hibler never intended to do.
When preparing Seal Island, the first in the True-Life Adventure series, Hibler recorded a test track to check for story continuity. According to Hibler’s family, Walt previewed Seal Island for his wife Lillian using Hibler’s “scratch track”. When Lillian later viewed a cut sans-Hib, she pointedly asked Walt what happened to the first guy. Hibler subsequently voiced the final theatrical cut and went on to narrate all the remaining True-Life Adventure films, as well as the People and Places travelogues and numerous episodes of the Disney television program. With the exception of Walt himself, his is likely the most famous non-character voice in the history of the studio.
But the brunt of Hibler’s creative energies on the True-Life films was channeled behind the cameras. While starting as a writer, his subsequent experience allowed him to grow a career that came to encompass producing and directing credits as well. He was the force behind the vast majority of the live-action animal-themed episodes on the Wonderful World of Disney during the 1960s and 1970s, and the likes of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, Lefty the Dingaling Lynx, and Ida the Offbeat Eagle became staples of Sunday evening entertainment.
Impressively, at the same time Hibler was also largely involved in the studio’s live action feature slate as well. Producer credits appear on such films as Those Calloways, The Ugly Dachshund, Follow Me Boys! and The Island at the Top of the World. He was working on early concepts for what would ultimately become The Black Hole when he passed away in 1976.
Hibler’s talents turned up in other places as well. He contributed lyrics to songs such as "Following the Leader" from Peter Pan and "I Wonder" from Sleeping Beauty. But what is likely one of his most famous and widely heard (and for the most part uncredited) works was this notable speech written for Walt in 1955:
“To all who come to this happy place – welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
While in the past score of years, people such as Marc Davis, Mary Blair, John Hench, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and numerous other studio and Imagineering legends have rightly and prominently been given recognition that was long overdue, Winston Hibler’s legacy of contributions seems to still remain on the periphery of Disney history. While his lack of extensive animation and theme park notoriety has likely kept his profile lower than that of many of his contemporaries, he was certainly a cornerstone of the Disney Studio for many, many years. His creative impact extends far beyond the True-Life Adventure narrations he became most noted for.
Images © Walt Disney Company