The following column by Tom Leyde was originally published February 26, 2004
in the Weekend 411 section of the Salinas Californian

Reprinted here with permission

Oscar should give his
years of work a look


Monterey County has its share of Oscar winners. Clint Eastwood is probably best known for his triple win for the 1992 Western "Unforgiven." But there's also Joan Fontaine, who won the best actress Oscar in 1941 for Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion."

And up until December, an extraordinary man who should have won an Oscar lived here.

Wah Ming Chang died Dec. 22 at age 86. He was a member of a creative team that did win an Oscar for special photographic effects in the 1960 film "The TIme Machine."


Tom Leyde is a copy editor at the Salinas Californian. His column, "Kicking Back," appears Thursdays in 411.


Young Wah had his first one-man show at age 9 at a San Francisco art gallery.

While in high school he lived with the Sloans in Hollywood.

There's far too much to tell about Chang in this column so I'll give a few highlights.

At 21, he became the youngest member of Walt Disney's Effects and Model Department. He built models used by animators on the films "Bambi" and "Pinocchio."

But only Chang's partners in the company Project Unlimited took home the statuette. Chang lost out because of the way credits were submitted to the Academy. But his work on the film was substantial, and he received a plaque for his contribution.

Chang lived in Carmel Valley, and I interviewed him in 1979. I was immediately impressed by his gentle demeanor, his humility and the depth of his talent.

An artistic prodigy, he moved to Carmel Valley in 1970 and spent the rest of his life doing bronze sculptures. One of them is a life-size sculpture of Dennis the Menace commissioned by Dennis' creator, Hank Ketcham. Four of the sculptures were cast, one of which can be seen at Monterey's Dennis the Menace Park.

Why Chang wasn't given an honorary Oscar for his decades of work on films is a mystery to me. He definitely deserved one.

Among his credits are masks for
"The King and I" (both the film and the Broadway production) and the headdress Elisabeth Taylor wore in "Cleopatra."

 

Among his other film credits are:

  • "Tom Thumb,"1958
  • "Dinosaurs," 1960
  • "Atlantis, the Lost Continent," 1961
  • "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," 1963
  • "Seven Faces of Dr. Lao," 1964
    (nominated for an Oscar)

And those are just his movie credits. Chang also created models for the original "Star Trek" and "Outer Limits" television series and the "Land of the Lost" series. During his career, he also designed toys, was a puppeteer, made educational films and animated commercials.

Chang's life could be a stunning movie itself.

He was born Aug. 2, 1917 in Honolulu. In 1919, the family moved to San Francisco, where they operated the Hoho Tea Room on Sutter Street.

His mother, Fai Sue Chang, was a talented artist in her own right, and the tea room drew Bay Area artists. One was Blanding Sloan, who took Chang under his wing and guided his upbringing and career before and after Chang's mother died when he was 11.

He soon contracted polio, lost the use of his legs and spent a year recovering. He was was able to walk again with braces. But in 1992, he suffered post-polio syndrome and needed a walker to get around.

After his wife, Glen, died in 1997, he had a caretaker for the rest of his life. He continued to create by keeping his artist tools and portable telephone in a basket on his walker. At a time when many people would have given up, Chang's creativity flowed like a mighty river.

Two books are available about Chang. One is Gail Blasser Riley's "Wah Ming Chang: Artist and Master of Special Effects." The other is "The Life and Sculpture of Wah Ming Chang," co-written by his wife.

At the time of his death, Chang's artworks were on display at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center in San Francisco.

How wonderful it would be to have a local show. And wouldn't a posthumous Oscar be, like the man, gracious and generous?

 

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