Albert Lea High graduade designs sets for Disney Co.

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 8, 2009

Creating the impression of glistening snowflakes falling from the sky in Southern California requires a lot of imagination, a quality Tom Butsch has worked a lifetime to develop.

Butsch, a 1964 Albert Lea High School graduate, works as a set designer for live performances at Disneyland and other venues. He describes his working life as hectic, fun and constantly interesting.

Orville Gilmore and Wally Kennedy were two of Butsch’s high school teachers directing a pilot program in the arts and humanities which was designed to foster student interest in English literature, painting and performing arts. Butsch says it worked like a charm for him. “They influenced a lot of us, not so much to have careers in the arts, but to care about them. I believe Kennedy was later involved with the Urban Arts Program in Minneapolis.”

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Butsch went to the University of Minnesota intending to major in painting, but gravitated toward the theater. Working in summer stock and with a theater troupe, the Stagecoach Players, he discovered an aptitude for production. Graduating in 1968, he began working on scenery design at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres while waiting to be drafted into the U.S. Army. It was the beginning of a long association. But first came the Vietnam War. Assigned to an infantry company as part of a mortar crew, Butsch found his artistic skills taking him out of combat.

“A staff sergeant saw some drawings I had done, so he had me make signs and posters on the base,” he said. “I became a clerk. I was only in the field for four months.”

Returning to Minnesota after the war he was hired as a set designer at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in 1971, a position he would hold until 1985. He also did freelance work in the burgeoning Twin Cities theater community.

“It was a lot of work but I loved it. I still have many Minnesota friends,” he said.

A friend in Los Angeles urged him to head west. “I wanted to try something else.”

Hired as a set designer for TV situation comedies such as “Different Strokes” and “What a Country,” he also worked as a consultant on special projects for various production companies. Butsch had a friend who had a friend who worked for the Walt Disney Co.

In 1988 he was hired to design sets for live stage productions at Disneyland and later for other Disney theme parks in Orlando, Fla., Paris, France and Tokyo, Japan. Married and with two grown children, Butsch works primarily in the Los Angeles area and credits modern technology with making him more productive.

“In the old days all the design work had to done by hand,” he said. “Now we can use computer graphics and that’s so much faster.”

Butsch has designed Disney floats for the Rose Parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and many other events, both large and small. He helped design the Disney-themed stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. For the premiere of the movie “Pocahontas” Butsch designed the stage on which four gigantic screens showed the new film to a crowd of 100,000 people at New York City’s Central Park. He also designed the sets for a stage production of “The Lion King” at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Currently playing at Disneyland’s Fantasyland Theater is “Disney’s Princess Fantasy Faire,” based on the Disney Princess characters.

Butsch designed the sets for the show, which began it’s run on Oct. 6, 2006. Now working on the upcoming production “Wintertime Enchantment II,” slated to open at Main Street USA on Nov. 21, he recalls his work on the sets of “Disney’s Snow White: An Enchanting Musical” an on-stage 28-minute production, as being his favorite working experience.

“It was an open air theater with a canvas roof. We embedded LED lights in the roof to give the impression of snow falling.”