Francis Xavier “X” Atencio, passed away on September 10, 2017, but his work continues to be beloved by generations. When he first got a job with Disney in 1938, the art school student was so excited he ran all the way home, about three miles, to tell his grandmother. X was hired to work in the “traffic” department of Disney as a messenger, along with other aspiring artists who would soon be given tests to see if they were good enough to become Disney artists.
One thing that always impressed me about X was his laid back “go with the flow” attitude, and I believe that contributed to his longevity, having lived to the age of 98. It also helped X when his career path took very different turns than he ever expected. Although he was trained as an animator, he ended up doing very little animation, instead working on other aspects of the animation process.
Early on, X was an assistant to another Disney Legend, Woolie Reitherman, working on the Monstro scenes of “Pinocchio,” and then continuing on other classic films including “Fantasia” and “Dumbo.” As an assistant, X was “in-betweening,” drawing the frames that come between the key frames the animator would draw.
When returning to Disney after he was drafted to the Signal Corps, X continued to “go with the flow.” He knew that his career would have advanced much more rapidly had he been able to remain at Disney for those four years, but he was okay with that and admitted he was just pleased to be working for Disney again.
Listen to Scott Wolf’s interview with X Atencio below.
X eventually fell into a unique specialty, working with Bill Justice on stop-motion animation. Instead of drawing frame after frame, stop motion films real things, such as objects or paper cutouts. Long before the days of computers, this type of animation proved to be even more tedious than traditional animation. As X told me, “If you got to a place that you couldn’t remember if you moved it or not you had to go back to the beginning because there were no tests or anything that you could refer back to. So it was a very tedious job.”
As many Disney fans know, eventually Walt Disney asked X to move to WED (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering) to work on Disneyland, but what they may not be aware of is what occurred before that. Walt enjoyed doodling, and suggested a film about doodles, which would be a combination of stop-motion and traditional animation, but after working on it for quite awhile, X just didn’t feel it was going in a good direction, and he decided it was time to let Walt know it just wasn’t working out. X told me, “He looked at me with that arched eyebrow and reached over. I thought he was going to hit me, but he shook my hand and said, ‘I appreciate an honest man. I think now’s the time to scrap the whole thing.’ Then he called me up to his office the next day and he said, ‘You know, I’ve been wanting to get you over to WED for some time and now would be a good time for you to go.’”
Although X didn’t know what his boss’ plans were for him at WED, he just continued to go with the flow, although admittedly this time it was hard for him, as he truly missed working at the studio. For the first few weeks he was given various assignments, such as working on models, because people didn’t know why he was at WED other than that’s what Walt wanted, but soon, Walt told X he wanted him to write the script for Pirates of the Caribbean. Having never done any scriptwriting before, Walt somehow knew X was the perfect man for the job. “Walt had an uncanny ability of finding talent in these people that we didn’t know we had ourselves,” he told me.
With a thesaurus, pirate books, and getting to view the Disney movie “Treasure Island,” X wrote all the dialogue for the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and went on to write not only the dialogue for other attractions, but lyrics for songs as well – seven songs in all, including “Yo Ho (A Pirates Life for Me)” for Pirates of the Caribbean and “Grim Grinning Ghosts” for the Haunted Mansion, “Here’s to the Future” for Space Mountain, “Bear Band Serenade” for the Country Bear Jamboree, “Fiesta in Mexico” for El Rio Del Tiempo, “It’s Fun to Be Free” for World of Motion, and “If You Had Wings” for the attraction of the same name.
As if X’s talents weren’t eclectic enough, he leant his voice to several attractions, including a couple lines in the Submarine Voyage, he is heard in the Haunted Mansion as a spook in a coffin begging, “Let me out of here!” If the attraction stops for any reason, you will hear X telling you to “remain seated in your doom buggy.” In Pirates of the Caribbean, you can hear X bidding “six bottles of rum” at the auction, and as the skull and crossbones he asks, “Ye come seeking adventure and salty old pirates, ay?” and reminds you, “Dead men tell no tales.”
In 2007 some major changes came to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which included adding the character of Captain Jack Sparrow and others from the movie. Having written the original dialogue and been so involved in the original creation, I asked X about his feelings with the changes, certain he would be disappointed, but he told me, “I went over to the studio to meet Johnny Depp and he was so gracious and he was as anxious to meet me as I was to meet him. He was real pleasant and he loved my lyric. He autographed one copy for me. That was real keen. So, when I saw the changes they made in the ride I thought, ‘Well it reflects the popularity of the film, so why not?’ Again that seemed in tune with his go with the flow personality.
X was always so kind to me. When I produced a CD of Disney music which included several of the songs he wrote lyrics for, he was kind enough to write liner notes for those songs. When I started my Mouse Clubhouse website, X was one of the first ones to do an interview with me, and when I would call him just to ask questions about his Disney days, he was always generous with his time. He always seemed grateful I was asking, although I always felt I’m the one who should be grateful. X was very humble, but proud of his work and he told me he enjoys talking about the “good ol’ days.” I remember him thanking me for caring about his career!
Walt Disney acknowledged that the people working for him were a key to his success. That certainly could not be any truer about X Atencio. He will be missed.
All photographs copyright Mouse Clubhouse. Used with permission. For more of Scott Wolf’s amazing archive of Disney fan articles, interviews and photos, please go to MouseClubhouse.com.
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