Do you know this man?
His name is Ciro Rolando Santana y Arrite, a Cuban-born sculptor who started working at WED (= WDI) in 1969. His heart-warming tale (no really, it is) was briefly told in the Fall 1969 issue of Disney News. Many Haunted Mansion fans are familiar with the article, since it provided some of the first preview photos of the interior of the soon-to-be-opened HM. (This miserly "sneak preview" consisted of exactly four, teensy-teensy black-and-whites! Jerks. Yep, still bitter after all these years.) Anyway, Rolando was hired early in '69 and was put to work carving furnishings for the HM. So Rolando is one of the many artisans who contributed their talents to the beloved attraction.
It's possible to flesh out this brief story a little, I think. There's a set of circumstantial evidence that suggests that Rolando was critically important specifically with regard to a widely-admired feature in the ride: the pair of gryphons at the foot of the "stairway" you ascend after boarding your doombuggy. Daveland has a particularly good photo of one of these creatures:
Ah yes...what could be fitter than passing between this impressive pair of impossible, flying creatures as you begin your own impossible ascent deeper into an impossible world? They are like sentinels at the gateway to the inner sanctum. And that sort of thing.
The show figures themselves are fiberglass, but obviously the original wooden sculptures was not something knocked out in a day or two. This is fine work that took a lot of time for someone.
A lot of time, but in the Spring of 1969, time was one thing the Imagineers did NOT have in abundance when it came to sculpting interior furnishings for the HM. They were getting behind in this area. WED had essentially put out a Help Wanted for sculptors when Rolando came along, and he was hired immediately. It's possible that the gryphons had been scratched—no doubt reluctantly—due to lack of manpower, and that they were restored again once Rolando was taken aboard. An Effects blueprint drawn up near the beginning of 1969 and used until the first part of April shows no gryphons at the foot of the stairs:
In view of the timing of the sculptor shortage and the hiring of Rolando Santana, it is reasonable to suppose that the addition (or more likely restoration) of the gryphons was made possible by his addition to the WED staff. But is there any evidence that Rolando was the actual sculptor responsible for producing these pieces? There is, although the evidence is indirect. In the Disney News photo of Rolando, he is shown working on one of the two chairs at the ends of the table in the ballroom, the chairs occupied by the Birthday Girl and Great Caesar's Ghost:
It's a pity that these attractive details are impossible for the ordinary rider to see, but I guess that's why we need geeky blogs, eh? Anyway, to judge by those chairs, Rolando certainly seemed to have a way with carving gryphons. He may also be responsible for still another set of ballroom gryphons: the wooden corbels that decorate the capitals of the two poles which anchor the wrought iron railing up on the doombuggy balcony—one at each end of the balcony. They've been right there in front of your nose all this time, and I'll bet you've never noticed them.
pic by ww12345. That's the hall tree at the end of the balcony just as you turn to go into the attic. The drawing is based on a blueprint.
Whoever was responsible for the photos in the Disney News article evidently thought Rolando had some sort of direct connection with the stairway gryphons. It is not explicitly stated, but it is certainly implied that the "sneak preview" pics feature his handiwork. Two of the four mini-pics feature one of the gryphons and one of the newel posts they lean against, while a full-size sketch of a gryphon adorns the wall behind him.
The article was written in the Summer of 1969, mere months after Santana had come on board. Put it all together and it seems very likely that our stairway sentinels were done by Ciro Rolando Santana y Arrite. It's not just that he did them rather than someone else, it's that they probably would not have been done at all without him. If you are among their admirers, the next time you pass between them, a mental hat-tip or a murmured thank you might not be out of place.