Remembering X

Francis Xavier Atencio was born in Walsenburg, Colorado, on September 4, 1919, and moved to California in 1937 to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. He began working for the Walt Disney Studio in 1938. Soon after he joined the studio, his co-workers began calling him “X,” and the one-letter nickname stuck. He started as an apprentice animator, making $12 a week, working on such Disney classics as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

X took time out from his animating career to serve with the Army Air Force in England during World War II, analyzing aerial surveillance photos for military intelligence. He returned to the Disney Studio in 1945. X received his first screen credit for his work on the wide-screen animated short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), which won an Academy Award. He animated Jiminy Cricket in the “I’m No Fool” series on The Mickey Mouse Club, and handled animation chores for such live-action films as Babes in Toyland and Mary Poppins.

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When my writing partner Pat Williams interviewed X Atencio for our 2004 book How to Be Like Walt, X said, “I was an animator for thirty years. And one day Walt said, ‘X, it’s time for you to move.’ And he sent me over to the WED Enterprises, where they were building attractions for Disneyland. I didn’t know anything about building attractions. I was an animator. But Walt had an uncanny knack for discovering talent. He’d see talent in people that they didn’t even see in themselves. He’d move people like chess pieces — moving them to different departments, and even different careers.

“When I got to WED Enterprises, I said, ‘Walt sent me. What do you want me to do?’ And nobody had a clue what I was supposed to do there. Walt hadn’t told anyone. And I was there for a few days without any work to do. Finally, Walt called and said, ‘X, I want you to write the script for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. There will be scenes with pirates and townspeople and so forth, and I want you to write all the dialogue.’ I wondered if Walt was talking to the right guy. I had never scripted anything before, but Walt said, ‘I know you can do this.’ And that’s how I became a writer.”

X began with a scene where a pirate auctions off sobbing townswomen as brides to the drunken scalawags (a scene that will, unfortunately, disappear from Pirates of the Caribbean in 2018). When Walt saw the first pages of X’s script, he said, “That’s fine, keep going, this is good.” With Walt’s encouragement, X scripted the entire attraction.

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Scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. This photo and photo at the top of the page by HarshLight.

Later, X went back to Walt and said, “I think we should have a song that plays throughout the attraction. I have a melody and some lyrics.” Then he sang a few bars of a song he had written, just to give Walt an idea of what he had in mind. X assumed Walt would bring in his top songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman, to write the actual song for the attraction. But Walt listened to X sing his tune, then said, “Oh, this is good. If you need some help with the music, get George Bruns to score it for you.”

That song — “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me” — became one of the most famous Disney theme songs of all time. X went on to write the script for The Haunted Mansion, as well as the attraction’s famous theme song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

X Atencio retired from a forty-seven-year career with the Disney Company in 1984, and was named a Disney Legend in 1996. He passed away at the age of ninety-eight this past Sunday, September 10, 2017. X and his pictures, words, and songs were enjoyed by millions, and he will be missed.

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X Atencio with Disney collectibles blogger Carrie Vines at the Haunted Mansion in February 2008. Photo by Steve.

ABOUT JIM DENNEY AND WALT’S DISNEYLAND: Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at Amazon.com; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.

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