Artist Tyrus Wong’s remarkable life

"Bambi" artist Tyrus Wong
"Bambi" artist Tyrus Wong 06:08

The artist Tyrus Wong died just over a week ago, at the remarkable age of 106. Remarkable as well was the contribution he made to one of the most beloved films of all time. Tracy Smith learned all about his life story firsthand:

For decades, artist Tyrus Wong and his fantastic kites were a fixture on and above Santa Monica Beach.

And while you might not recognize his name, a certain deer named Bambi has Wong to thank for his exquisite settings in the Walt Disney 1942 film.

“He basically created the look of the film,” said Michael Labrie, director of collections at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. He curated an exhibition of Wong’s work in 2013.  “Everything you see on the screen -- the other artists were trained to draw like Tyrus for that film.”

Wong was working a tedious, entry-level job at Disney in 1938, when he heard about the studio’s plans to adapt Felix Salten’s book into a movie.

Labrie said Wong spent weekends at home doing hundreds of drawings, “sort of like Chinese scroll paintings.”

Walt Disney himself decided that the look of the film would be based on Wong’s drawings.

Tyrus Wong’s preproduction paintings helped dictate the style of the Walt Disney animated film “Bambi.” Courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family

The 74-year-old film is beloved by generations, including Los Angeles filmmaker Pamela Tom, says, “Tyrus really contributed to American culture.”

She was watching “Bambi” with her daughter back in 1997, when she happened to catch Tyrus Wong’s name in the credits. “My first thought was, ‘Wait a minute, a Chinese-American working at Disney in the 1930s?’” Tom said. “I just had to find out who he was.”

Tyrus Wong at home in Sunland, California in 2004. Peter Brenner

And what Tom found out turned into a documentary, illustrating why Wong was, as she calls him, “the perfect leading man” with an epic life story.

Her film, “Tyrus,” is set to air on PBS’ “American Masters” this summer.

Wong came to the U.S. with only his father in 1920 when he was 9 years old.  As he recalled, his father told Tyrus, “I’m going to take you to America.  I think there are better opportunities there.”

He also admitted to Smith that as a child he got into mischief: “Oh yeah, yeah, I’m no angel!”

When Wong was in junior high, one of his teachers noticed he was more interested in art than arithmetic -- and so did Tyrus’ dad.

“He understood the value of your artistic talent, but it was unusual for an immigrant, a Chinese immigrant, to choose art [as a career],” said Smith.

“The Chinese in Chinatown didn’t think very much being artist,” Wong replied.

Tom said, “You have to remember that the employment opportunities for Chinese back then was limited to being a waiter, working in a laundry. But [Tyrus’] father in his wisdom recognized his son’s talents and went out and borrowed money to get Tyrus through his first year of art school.

After graduation from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Wong found work as an artist -- and also worked at a restaurant in Chinatown.

There, he fell hard for a pretty co-worker, Ruth Kim.

They wed in 1937, and by 1938, had the first of three daughters. It was Ruth who suggested Tyrus apply for a job at Disney.

Wong was let go after many Disney animators went out on strike in 1941, a full year before “Bambi” was finished, and his contributions to the film were minimized.

Smith said that Wong expressed no bitterness about that. “That really reflects Tyrus’ personality,” said Pamela Tom. “It’s not to say that he didn’t feel racism or injustice, but he really picked his battles, and just tried to not dwell on it.”

“Boy Flying Kite” (c. 1968) by Tyrus Wong. Opaque watercolor on paperboard. Courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family

Wong then spent 26 years at Warner Brothers, where he helped create the look of dozens of films. Always mindful of providing for his family, he also designed Christmas cards on the side.

“We would go into the department stores, my sister and I would go, and we’d find his album and always put it on top where people would see it!” laughed Kim Wong, Tyrus’ youngest daughter.

One of Tyrus’ designs sold over a million cards.

Tyrus Wong's kites 01:12

The only time Wong stopped working was when Ruth got sick. He spent 15 years caring for her, until she died in 1995.

“They were married for over 50 years. He was really just devoted to caring for her,” Tom said.

Ruth never got the chance to see her husband celebrated for his work. But in 2001, Disney honored him as a legend.

And though it took the world a while to acknowledge Tyrus Wong, today -- like the kites he created -- his reputation continues to soar.

“It’s such a beautiful metaphor for his life,” Tom said, “’cause after he retired, he was fishing. And he says, ‘You know, with fishing you look down, but with kites you look up.’ Always looking up.”

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