A veteran Disney animator turned his gift for storytelling to a museum devoted to his love of a California city.
Founded by retired Disney animator Ben Sharpsteen and his wife Bernice, the Sharpsteen Museum showcases the history of the town of Calistoga in Northern California’s Napa Valley.
The Sharpsteen family’s relationship with Calistoga spans several generations. Ben’s father, William, first came to Calistoga Hot Springs in 1874 when he was just 11 years old. Ben’s first visit to Calistoga was in 1903 at age seven. His grandparents had just purchased about 300 acres north of town, and Ben would spend his summers there for the next 12 years.
In 1919, Ben was discharged from the Marine Corps in New York and he was looking for work. He was hired by the Hearst International Film Service as an animation apprentice and he was promoted to animator six months later. He went on to work for several other animation studios in New York including Max Fleischer’s studio. In 1929, Ben received a letter from Walt Disney, who was pioneering animated films with sound, asking to meet him in Hollywood. Ben was impressed by what Disney was doing, and he began working for Walt as an animator. As time went on, Ben took on more of a supervisory and directorial role at the studio. He worked on more than 50 films for Disney as either an animator, director, or producer, and in all his work won 11 Oscars. After working for Disney for 30 years, Ben retired in 1959 and moved with his wife, Bernice, to their family property in Calistoga.
Ben was passionate about education and the appreciation of local history, and of course he had a particular fondness for Calistoga, having spent so much time there in his youth. In 1976 he began to build the Sharpsteen Museum, and in doing so he drew upon the skills that he had learned at the Walt Disney Studios as an artist, storyteller, and producer.
The museum is packed with displays, artifacts, and dioramas that illustrate the history of Calistoga. One of the core exhibits is a 30-foot-long diorama depicting Sam Brannan’s Calistoga Hot Springs resort. Brannan was an entrepreneur who had numerous business interests in San Francisco. He opened the resort in 1862 and subsequently established a railroad line to Calistoga which brought in visitors from San Francisco and other cities, and these were major factors in the development of the area. Attached to the museum building is the last surviving cottage from the resort, which now houses displays of period fashion and furniture. Also on display at the museum is an original stagecoach which once ferried visitors to and from Calistoga before the establishment of the railroad line.
In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum features two special exhibits each year. The museum also pays tribute to Ben and Bernice Sharpsteen themselves with a founders’ room, which displays artifacts from Bernice’s family history and from Ben’s animation career, including one of his Oscars (yes, it’s real).
The Sharpsteens gave the museum to the City of Calistoga in 1978. It is staffed entirely by dedicated volunteers.
Ben passed away in 1980 and Bernice followed in 1982, but their legacy lives on in the Sharpsteen Museum.
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