He’s known for his longtime award-winning work in animation realms, and bringing to life the stories and characters in iconic films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Anastasia.
But what’s capturing acclaimed director and animation artist Don Bluth’s focus on a chilly winter afternoon is a medium that is nearly the polar opposite of the industry in which he is a legend: theatre.
The Don Bluth Front Row Theatre has moved into its new Scottsdale location. After a year of major renovations, shut-downs, and other effects of the pandemic and challenges that come with the territory of moving into and revamping a space in a normal year, being able to see those doors finally open makes Bluth smile.
“It’s a very thankful feeling that I have. Everything says we weren’t supposed to do this but we pushed ahead anyway,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re finally there.”
The theatre is in the round, with each seat raised eight inches, making for great views all around. Bluth describes this venue as much more elegant than its previous location, with more space among seating.
“Audiences will be much more thrilled,” he says of the new space.
In the 1990s, Bluth started hosting youth theatre productions in his own Scottsdale living room. The popularity grew and demand moved them to a larger commercial venue. Over time, the productions transitioned into adult performances and the troupe evolved into Don Bluth Front Row Theatre.
Fast-forward to today. Although the 74-seat capacity is kept at less than half that due to COVID-19 measures, what hasn’t changed is the intimacy and engagement that only live theatre can provide.
“People go to the theatre not just to be entertained. Theatre is there to show you visions of other people’s lives. We see ourselves somehow and it really promotes change,” Bluth says. “Theatre teaches more than it entertains.”
Upcoming productions include Orson Welles, Drinking Habits—a lively story about nuns’ inventive measures to keep their convent doors open—and Camelot. It’s A Wonderful Life wraps up the year.
He talks with a balance of enthusiasm and wistful nostalgia about shows that debuted in a classic era live performance. The works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like The Sound of Music, Carousel and Oklahoma, hold a special place.
“It’s not just about people singing. They all have the ‘take it home’ element. So, when you go home, you take home a pervading thought that helps you improve your life,” he says.
One of seven children, Bluth was born in El Paso and grew up on a dairy farm in Payson, Utah. Surrounded by creativity, Bluth spent his spare time drawing cartoons of Disney characters, and fell in love with the art and process of animation through the early Walt Disney films like Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Bambi.
But what really captured his soul went beyond the visual. Stories that unabashedly depicted life, death, and humanity in all its glory and stark reality made an impression. Sure, they looked like cartoons for children. But the messages weren’t necessarily reserved for them.
“Walt was not afraid to talk boldly to youth. He did not just make movies for youth. Someone poisons her rival wanting to kill her. In Bambi, we shoot the mother,” Bluth says, referring to key elements in two of the most popular ones. “But, perhaps it gives you a safe place to learn the lessons about life, when your own mother is gone.”
Bluth followed his passion and his talent took the new high school graduate to the Disney studios in Burbank in 1955. He would go on to work on several projects during his time there, like Sleeping Beauty. At the time, Disneyland was being built. Walt himself was also there.
The fact that 2D animation had the power to make audiences of all ages laugh and cry added to the attraction. The look and the style are distinct qualities he cherishes—and misses in contemporary 3D animation.
“With 3D (movies) you don’t want to scare anybody. The faces look alike. The stories look alike,” he says with a longing in his voice. “I love 2D.”
At 83, Bluth is officially retired. But in addition to his theatre he keeps the craft he loves alive by teaching online animation classes through the Don Bluth University. Hand-drawn animation is his forte.
“I’m hoping some of the kids will go on to the big studios and make other things happen,” he says.
Also in the works is a live action movie based on the video game Dragon’s Lair, which Bluth created nearly 40 years ago. The Netflix deal is being spearheaded by Ryan Reynolds, who wants to play protagonist Dirk the Daring. The project is in the script stage.
But the dynamic of live performance where actors and audiences share a unique experience is what Bluth looks forward to reviving this year.
“I always prefer live theatre to the big screen. Real people are up there with real engagement and they’re putting out real energy,” he says. “You feel like something is going on that will change you.”
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
8989 E Via Linda