January 8, 2019
Delmer J. Yoakum
DEFINITION: beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.
St. Joseph has been the launching point for many artists throughout its history; but what if we told you that one locally born artist has a legacy that lives on in the happiest place on earth…an artistic work enjoyed by approximately 6.6 million visitors annually?
Delmer J. Yoakum’s early life was spent surrounded by artists, he was born on December 6, 1915, in St. Joseph, the son of a painter. Naturally he found his passion studying painting under Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he honed skills that would later drive his career. Mr. Yoakum took time away from his artistic pursuits to serve in the United States Navy in which he was awarded the Purple Heart during World War II. Upon his return he moved to Los Angeles, CA, continuing his studies at Chouinard Art Institute, Jepson Art Institute, and the University of Southern California Roski School of Fine Arts.
It was in Los Angeles that he would start his career as a painter, designer, and motion picture artist for motion picture companies from 1952 – 1972. Specializing as a scene and diorama painter for movies his credits include work on “Some Like It Hot,” “The King and I,” “Niagara,” and “North by Northwest”. Mr. Yoakum’s work on the set of “The Robe” helped contribute to its 1953 Academy Award for Best Art Direction–Set Decoration, Color. Delmer also enjoyed a successful painting career, specializing in scenes of the American Southwest, with works winning many awards and exhibited across the country.
In addition to his work on countless motion pictures Delmer also worked with the Walt Disney Studios on special projects, including many in Anaheim, California’s Disneyland. His work can be experienced in the magical atmosphere of classic Disneyland attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, and the Haunted Mansion.
It’s no secret that fellow Missourian, Walt Disney, loved trains. It came as no surprise on the opening day of Disneyland (July 17, 1955) that guests were greeted to the sites and sounds of a fully operational train station as they entered the gates of Disneyland for the very first time. The Disneyland Railroad was designed as a grand circle tour around the edges Disneyland for guests to enjoy a unique view of Walt’s theme park.
On March 31, 1958, the Disneyland Railroad would unveil a new addition to its route, an exploration into the Grand Canyon located just past the Tomorrowland Station. This addition, which was a journey through a 306 foot long and 34 foot high diorama (the largest piece of seamless canvas in the world) was spearheaded by none other than Delmer J. Yoakum. This impressive set piece was brought to life by Delmer and his team using over 300 gallons of paint and 14 colors. In addition to the artistic backdrop the diorama is filled with animals and set pieces to create an awe-inspiring experience for park goers. Ultimately this project cost a reported $367,000 and took over 80,000 man hours to construct. Walt Disney considered this diorama the grand finale of his beloved railroad and it continues to delight guests of all ages every day in Disneyland.
Delmer continued to paint and share his love of the arts for many years after retirement. He passed away on October 25, 1997 at his home in Sedona, Arizona and was laid to rest at Saint Lukes Memorial Garden. The next time you find yourself on a family vacation in Disneyland, take a minute to ride the railroad past the Grand Canyon Diorama to say a quick thank you to the impressive work of a family man, devoted Christian, veteran, and world class artist who once called St. Joseph, MO, home.
“I paint for myself. I hope people like what I do, and if it can give them some happiness and enjoyment, I feel it’s all been worthwhile.”
-Delmer J. Yoakum
The rights to the photos used in this article belong to their legal owners and have been used in this article for educational and informational purposes only.
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