When I knew Don Lusk he was a U.S. Marine, an Animator for Walt Disney and my childhood idol. Although it was a brief period in my life, it was responsible for some of my fondest memories, and a story worth telling, especially my search for him 70 years later . . . ! But let’s start with the back-story.
Way back in the day when I was in grammar school, a group of us were in the Cub Scouts; the junior version of the Boy Scouts.
Within the group, three of us became best friends. Dick Lusk, who was a terrific athlete, and Jim Henrikson whose talents leaned towered the musical arts.
Our Cub Scout meetings were held at Jim’s house every week because his mom was our Den Mother.
Very talented musically, by the time we reached high school, Jim had formed his own musical combo. Calling themselves the “Downbeats”, they became the go-to group, playing for many of our club and school dances. He and his combo followed in the footsteps of an earlier musical group, Curly Williams and his Quintet.
Curley’s given name was “Johnny Williams.” But as he became famous, John Williams was deemed more appropriate. Now he’s known world wide as the composer of so many motion picture scores, such as “Star Wars”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “War Horse” and “Schindler’s List”, along with the often heard theme for the Olympics.
But Jim and the “Downbeats” were no slouches in finding their own levels of success. For example, on vibes was Julius Wechter, who later became famous as the leader of “Baja Marimba”, which appeared both alone and together with their stablemate, Herb Alpert and the “Tijuana Brass.”
Then there was Jerry Williams, Jim’s drummer and John William’s younger brother. Jerry later became a much sought after studio musician.
And Jim, himself, had a successful career in the motion picture business as well. Ironically, after he graduated from college, he was trying to figure out where his niche was as a musician. In his frustration Jim turned to none other than our title subject, Don Lusk, for advice. Don suggested an alternative direction, and consider using his talents as a music editor in television – an occupation that Jim didn’t even know existed before talking to Don.
But Jim took Don’s advice and started working his way up the ladder beginning at the old Desilu Studios, on TV shows like “I Love Lucy”, “Our Miss Brooks” and the “Danny Thomas Show” – then graduating to feature films. Later he formed a long term and very symbiotic relationship with another well-known Hollywood composer, James Horner.
Working as Horner’s Supervising Music Editor, they were together for many years. Jim claims that his role evolved into a kind of “consigliere” for the composer, solidifying a very successful association that included some very big movies like “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “The Amazing Spider-Man!”
But that long relationship ended suddenly and tragically, just a few years ago, when Horner, an avid flyer, met an untimely death in a crash flying his own plane.
As friendships go, mine with Jim actually began back in kindergarten and has sustained ever since.
A Much Shorter Friendship
But in stark contrast my friendship with Dick Lusk was much shorter. So short in fact that I lost track of him way back in the 8th grade, when he and his parents moved away from the Valley, to live in Newport Beach. Sadly for me it was as if he moved to the other side of the moon.
Yet it was the events that took place during our short friendship that is the real connection behind this story.
Even as a pre-adolescent kid, Dick was an awesome athlete. A star at recess, he excelled at kickball dodge ball and softball, and was always the first chosen to lead any team. I admired his ability and was proud to be his friend.
Also a rabid baseball fan, Dick could never get enough of our local Triple A – Pacific Coast League team, the Hollywood Stars; as opposed to their cross town rivals, the Los Angeles Angels. Major league baseball was still more than a decade away before the Brooklyn Dodgers would move to Los Angeles.
While I liked baseball, as a kid I didn’t know much about it. So it was Dick who really cranked up my interest in the game. But not only as a fan. I wanted to be able to play the game too. Hopefully on a level close to Dick’s.
But as a German immigrant, my father certainly couldn’t teach me because he knew nothing about the game, and really couldn’t care less about it. So I really came to baseball as a neophyte.
Fortunately Dick was an eager teacher, and turned out to be a good coach as well, even at that young age. He really helped me become a better than adequate ball player, even though I never made it beyond the junior varsity in high school. While I was a pretty good catcher, I couldn’t hit a well thrown fastball to save my life. From then on I concentrated on football with a bit more success.
It was back around 1943 when I first met Don Lusk. He was Dick’s uncle and being wartime he was in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Dick’s father, Bob, was Don’s older brother and lived in North Hollywood with his family. At the time, Bob was a pilot for Western Airlines, and used to fly out of the old “Lockheed Terminal”, which later became known as our nearby “Burbank Airport”.
Meanwhile, Uncle Don was stationed at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, just a couple of hour’s drive from here. So he used to come home on weekends, spending some of his time at brother Bob’s house, before moving on to spend the rest of his time with his wife, Marge, and his infant son, Skip.
It was during one of those visits when I met him.
Since we were at war at the time, most of us kids were totally enamored with the Marine Corps, and considered it by far the most compelling and glamorous of all our military services. So, after meeting Uncle Don, it became immediate hero worship.
But I was even more intrigued to learn that before he joined the Marines he’d been an animator at Walt Disney Studios. Dick was obviously quite proud of his uncle as well because he had prominently displayed of some of Don’s cartoons and caricatures in his bedroom for all to see.
Kite Contest/Movie Star Judge
Meanwhile, coming up at our next monthly Cub Scout Pack meeting, it had been announced that there was going to be a kite contest. Our scoutmaster decided that we should have – not a kite-flying contest – but one for the best designed and constructed kite. The award was to be sponsored, and presented by the well known British screen actor, Reginald Denny.
For those of you who don’t know or remember who he was, Reginald Denny was a famous actor in Hollywood. A British transplant, and former WWI pilot in the Royal Flying Corps., he came to Hollywood during the silent screen era, but made a successful transition to talkies. With his debonair looks, he succeed in character rolls throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. But he was also an avid builder of large model airplanes – the kind that fly. Then sometime in the 1930s he became intrigued by the potential of making them radio-controlled. As a result he embarked on a second career, and became a kind of aviation pioneer in radio controlled drone technology. Then during WWII, he began working with the U.S. Military to develop the technology for radio controlled flying models for arial reconnaissance. His second career also included the opening of a model shop in Hollywood, dedicated to hobbyists like himself, around the same time.
So, the thought of getting an award from Reginald Denny himself got me interested. But then Dick showed me his finished kite after Uncle Don had made a full color rendering of Donald Duck on the front of it. “Wow! Do you think he would do that for me?” I asked. Sure enough, practically unbidden, the next weekend when Uncle Don visited the Lusk’s house again, he graciously created a full color drawing of Pluto on mine. I was so proud….
But then tragedy struck…!
While getting ready for the judging of the kites, Dick had already assembled his kite and frame with no problem. But I was overly eager and broke the cross member in mine, trying to bend it to fit.
And of course there wasn’t enough time to get a new one before our monthly Cub Scout meeting.
But, with no hope for any kind of award, I still wanted to display Uncle Don’s work on my kite because I was so proud of it. Yet I had no other choice but to a use a klutzy piece of wood as a cross member; something I happened to find outside of Dick’s house, just to make Uncle Don’s precious artwork still look like a kite, in time for the meeting.
Meeting an Animator at Work
As a possible result of my kite tragedy, my mother set up a tour for me at the Walt Disney Studios. She knew I loved drawing and cartooning, and anything to do with Disney. And as a special reward she also made arrangements for me to visit an animator at work.
George Nicholas was his name, and he happened to be working on a brand new character. It was “Pluto’s Kid Brother”, which was also the title of the short he was working on and the character on his animation table. As a souvenir of my visit, he gave me a stack of his pencil drawings so that I could riffle through them to my heart’s content, and watch Pluto’s kid brother in action. After that visit I decided I wanted to be an animator too.
Now with animation as my new found goal, Don Lusk became my idol.
At the end of WWII, when Don was mustered out of the Marines, he and his wife, Marge, purchased a house nearby where they could settle down and raise their son, Skipper while Don returned to Disney’s.
Lucky for me because they chose a location just across the L.A. River, a few blocks from my house. So as often as I could, I would ride my bike over there, telling my Mom that I was off to see “Don and Marge!”.
Whenever I paid them a visit, I was so filled with questions, I probably became a nuisance. Yet they never let on, and were always kind and gracious. No matter what the two were doing, whether washing dishes, changing Skip, or raking leaves in the yard, they always offered to include me; often adding a kind of play by play description of their current endeavor, including short cuts or simple tricks to help accomplish whatever it was they were doing…or had me doing to help.
In the Lusk living room, Don had hung some of his beautiful watercolor paintings, which were far different from his animated cartoon creatures. When I asked if he ever used oils for his work, he said, “No”, that he much preferred the lightness and pastel qualities of water colors. A change of pace from the Disney pallet.
He was also a gifted pianist, often sitting down to play in his living room whenever the muse struck him. That’s why I was surprised to learn that he could only play by ear, claiming he that he had never learned to read music.
When I brought up whatever his current assignment was, he’d often show me by drawing a quick sketch of the character he was working on…and in some cases, other characters as well. What fascinated me was how quickly and deftly he would render whichever ones he chose.
A Heartfelt Gift
But then came his monumental act of kindness. Because he knew of my interest in animation, he loaned me an old and very basic animation table, one which probably dated back to the 30’s, when the Disney Studio was still on Hyperion. But what a thrill to have my own animation table. And what a surprise to have this newfound treasure in my own house. I was so taken by his generosity that I was speechless. Now I could dabble at will and play like a real animator…and maybe even learn the craft.
But with that table now in my bedroom, I felt obligated to use it. Then after a few futile attempts, I was crushed when I realized that I really wasn’t cut out to be an animator after all.
By then I was in Jr. High and my interests were changing. Athletics and new friends were taking over my life, and my visits to Don and Marge grew less and less frequent, until I lost track of them.
That was circa 1947 and should have been the end of the story. But a couple of years ago PBS ran a documentary on Walt Disney and his life history. Much to my surprise, featured in one of the many on camera interviews, there was Don Lusk, my old mentor.
I had no idea how old that interview was. But seeing him on TV after so many years was a shock and made me wonder whatever happened to him. Was it possible that he could still be around?
The Search Begins
I started searching on the Internet, and found many references to him and even some pictures. But try as I may, I could never locate anyone who could tell me anything about his current status. So, I gave up until last year when PBS ran the Disney special again. That rekindled my urge to try once more. Only this time I used a search tool that I’d relied on in discovering my own family’s history…”Ancestry.com.” And miracle of all miracles, I found what appeared to be the last known phone number for him.
Hopefully, if I called the number, whoever answered would be able to tell me what ever happened to Don. So, with great trepidation, wondering who or what I would find at the other end, I dialed it. At first I thought no one was going to answer. But after four or five rings a very gruff voice came on the line and said, “Hello!”.
“Hello”, I replied. “I’m trying to reach Don Lusk.” Then another very brusk response, “Who wants to know…?” Obviously it was Don!!! And after a lengthy explanation he finally remembered me.
Much to my amazement Don was still very much alive now at age 103, and living in a retirement home in San Clemente, CA., near Camp Pendleton. He also mentioned that he was only a month away from celebrating his 104th!!!
We talked at length. And have talked since – once of course to wish him a happy 104th.
Each time I’ve been amazed at how lucid he still is, and how good a memory he still has. As it turns out we worked with many of the same people over the years, and his recall is spot-on.
Don Lusk is an amazing guy with a brilliant career in the film business. Yet had it not been for PBS and their Disney special, I never would have reconnected with this very special person.
If you’re interested in learning more about him and his career, I’ve added an Appendix with more details about him and his film making history. Just click on the link. Appendix