Former Disney animator and illustrator Philo Barnhart contributed his talents to many beloved features now considered classics, including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Now an Oak Park resident, Barnhart experienced the community’s support after he found himself hard up to pay his utility bills.
“I’m not used to that, the kindness of the community,” Barnhart said. “It’s refreshing.”
To help pay his bills, Barnhart set up a GoFundMe campaign, titled, “Please help Philo make it to the end of 2020!” The campaign has amassed $1,155 since its Dec. 2 creation, surpassing its goal of $800.
“They’ve really risen up to meet me, and they’ve helped me big time,” he said.
Barnhart spent 18 years with the House of Mouse but left before the company began profit participation, so he gets no royalties from the films he helped to create.
While he still does comic book illustrations, book covers and video game design, as well as a little voice acting, Barnhart relies mostly on income generated by making appearances at conventions.
“That’s how I make my living nowadays, primarily through live appearances,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancelation of many conventions and events this year, drying up that revenue stream for Barnhart.
In addition to the GoFundMe appeal, Barnhart is receiving rental assistance from the state to keep him in his apartment for the rest of the year. The Oak Park and River Forest Townships’ Senior Services Department is also helping him during this difficult time, delivering meals weekly and making care calls.
“I have a nice lady call me every day to check in on me,” he said.
Born and raised in Burbank, California, Barnhart grew up in Disney Studios; his father Dale, also an animator, worked on Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and did the storyboards for Mary Poppins.
His mother, Phyllis, also worked as a Disney animator in the ’40s in the inking and painting department.
As a child, Barnhart met Walt Disney himself.
“I would be speechless in his presence because I was in awe of him,” he said.
Barnhart started his own animation career when he was 19, working at the famed cartoon production company Hanna-Barbera in 1977, before joining Disney. As a behind-the-scenes creator, he loves to hear how his work has affected people’s lives.
“When you find out years later how your film or your book, or whatever it happens to be, touched somebody, it’s a pretty immediate thrill,” he said.
With the advent of computer-generated imagery, Disney moved away from hand-drawn animation, a more costly process. Barnhart himself found no fun in the new process.
“There’s hardly anyone who holds a pencil anymore,” he said. “I’m a hands-on person; I like to create with my hands.”
With the help he’s received this year, Barnhart can continue creating. With longtime collaborator and friend Charles D. Moisant, Barnhart has a lot of projects in the works that he’s looking forward to tackling.
“I’m excited for the future.”