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Jul 24, 2020

Almost like the beginning of a Disney movie, this story starts with a boy captivated by animals, but distressed by turbulence in his family.

After growing up in Indianapolis during the years following World War I - and attending Arsenal Technical High School and what was then the John Herron Institute of Art - Bill Peet went on to be generally considered the greatest storyboard artist at Disney Studios. Peet is the only artist to have created all of the storyboards for a Disney animated movie; he did that for two classics, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Sword in the Stone (1963). (During the era before computer-generated animation, several storyboard artists typically would create one movie.)

During and after his 27 years at the studio - where Peet's relationship with founder Walt Disney was periodically volatile - he wrote and illustrated about 30 children's books sold internationally. Almost all of his books - which include The Wump World (1970) and The Ant and the Elephant (1972) - remain in print today, nearly 20 years after his death in 2002.

Peet's books fascinated Ken Avidor as a boy growing up in New York, inspiring him to become a sketch artist and cartoonist. Ken, who now is based in Indianapolis, will be Nelson's guest to share insights about Peet, whose years with Disney included significant work on such beloved films as Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941) - as well as the early development of The Jungle Book (1967), although a rift with Walt Disney resulted in Peet leaving the studio during production of that animated classic.

Ken AvidorAfter the break with Disney, he focused on his children's books, which often were inspired by his Hoosier childhood, including Chester, the Worldly Pig (1978), about a restless hog who runs off from an Indiana farm to join a circus. The books were so successful that Peet often was regarded as on par with his contemporary, the legendary children's author Dr. Seuss.

So why isn't Peet better remembered, even in his home state?

That's a question Ken Avidor will discuss during our show, along with sharing insights about the themes that reoccur in Peet's work. Cruelty within the animal kingdom - along with the impact of human "progress" on animals - were predominant storylines.

Born in the Ohio River town of Grandview, Ind., in 1915, Bill Peet was 3 years old when his family moved to the eastside of Indianapolis. Although family members lived in several houses, Peet wrote in Bill Peet: An Autobiography (1989) that his happiest years were when they lived with his maternal grandmother in what is now called the Emerson Heights neighborhood. That's when Peet's father, whom he described as a continual source of conflict, abandoned the family for 10 years.

Also during his youth, Peet explored creeks and woods near his home, sketching wildlife. At Tech High School, Peet wrote, he was failing almost all of his classes until a friend advised him to study art.

Peet's impact on One Hundred and One Dalmatians included development of the Cruella De Vil character.By then, he had been drawing for several years. His autobiography is filled with sketches depicting scenes from his boyhood, including locomotives at Union Station, race cars at the Indianapolis 500, the visiting circus ("but always the assembly of tent cities, never the circus itself," he noted) and fish in a local creek, including dozens killed by water pollution. At the Indiana State Fair in 1934, Peet's paintings won prizes.

After his studies at Herron, Peet was hired during the Great Depression by Disney Studios, where his work on Dumbo - the story of a circus elephant with oversized, floppy ears - impressed Walt Disney.

His impact on One Hundred and One Dalmatians was enormous. Although the movie was based on a children's book by English author Dodie Smith, Peet wrote a screenplay that expanded some aspects of the story and dropped others. In addition to doing all of the storyboards, he was deeply involved in character development, including the depiction of Cruella de Vil, the terrifying villain who attempts to steal the Dalmatian puppies for her own nefarious purpose.

During his years at Disney, Peet had his first children's book published. Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure (1959) is about a proud lion whose mane catches fire.

Many of the ideas for his books, Peet wrote, derived from bedtime stories that he told his two sons. Peet's wife, Margaret, was a native of Ladoga, Ind.; they met when she was studying art at Herron.