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No. 3224:
Disney's Master of Illusion Fred Joerger

by Karen Fang

Today, facades, both physical and personal. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If you've ever screamed with delight at Disneyland's Matterhorn roller coaster, you owe that thrill to Fred Joerger. Fred Joerger was a gifted model maker, a film studio artist who built miniatures and other simulated items for movie props and film sets. He excelled at forced perspective, a technique of optical illusion in which dramatic changes in scale can make things seem bigger, smaller, closer or more distant than they actually are. Joerger also had a knack for making fake rocks, and in the 1950s was quick to adopt the new medium of fiberglass for artistic purposes.

Disneyland's Matterhorn depends on Joerger's abilities in both these techniques. Like so many things at the theme park, the Disneyland mountain is a shrunken and simplified version of its original. It sports a sharp peak like the real Alpine Matterhorn, but Joerger's Matterhorn tops out at 80 feet. To create the illusion of greater height, Joerger covered the faux mountain with fake rocks and trees that diminish rapidly in size towards the peak.

Joerger's Disneyland contributions are not limited to the Matterhorn: Sleeping Beauty Castle, the Submarine Voyage, the Mountain Railway, Main Street, the Jungle Cruise, and the original Pirates of the Caribbean all incorporate Joerger's simulated rock formations and forced perspective. 

Rocks paneling Fred Joerger's walls.
Rocks paneling Fred Joerger's walls.
  Photo by author.

Walt Disney valued Joerger so much that for months he supposedly had him flown daily on his short commute to Disneyland, just so that gentle and quiet Joerger wouldn't be stressed by LA traffic.

Yet Joerger's extraordinary gift with facades is more complex than this very public Disney legacy. Joerger also was a closeted bachelor who lived a resolutely discreet life. But when he wasn't in the studio, on a film set, or at the theme park, Joerger's own home became the beneficiary of his talent for disguise and illusion.

Fred Joerger's house is a tour de force of illusionistic design. Fiberglass rocks and statuary simulate both sublime nature and priceless antiquities. In the backyard, sharply clipped trees and pavers in forced perspective give the appearance of a vast estate.

But the most surprising part of Joerger's house of illusion is how he and other fellow Disney artists added to his simulated splendor by painting playfully risqué faux European paintings.

In Joerger's dining room, naughty nude forest maidens peek out from fake Baroque paintings, while statuesque nymphs and satyrs frolic on the master bedroom's trompe l'oeil ceiling. In a show-stopping dressing room paneled with wall-to-wall mirrors, suggestive images dance across a border simulating ancient Greek pottery.

Trompe l'oeil skylights surrounded by nymphs in a ceiling fresco for Fred Joerger's master bedroom. Joerger is the bespectacled satyr chasing the nymph at center.
  Photo by author.

These risqué wall decorations are Joerger's big joke, another faux creation like the Disneyland Matterhorn that takes viewers for a ride by playing with visual information. Unlike the Matterhorn, though, Joerger's home is a deeply personal concoction where his gifts for illusion could also be real. By inviting his friends to add their flamboyantly non-Disney paintings, Joerger's pals celebrated their fellow artist, a master of illusion, by creating more faux imagery that, paradoxically, winked at Fred Joerger's authentic self.

I'm Karen Fang, for the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)