An Open Appreciation Letter

I have no idea who will see or read this, but I feel it necessary to express my love and gratitude to Mr. Ashman.

I grew up in a small rural town in the Midwest. Both of my parents are in Education, my grandparents worked for the state, all other generations of my family were farmers or educators. I could have been the next generation of that cycle had I not fallen in love with Disney Animation. I have loved Disney movies since before I could walk or talk. Snow White and The Little Mermaid were my favorites, though I loved all the Princesses. They were a constant, steady stream of happy memories and hope through my childhood and teenage years, when Disney stopped being cool. I became the school weirdo because I loved these "kids movies" and that was socially unacceptable for a fourteen-year-old. Despite mild bullying and isolation, my love for this art form wouldn't fade. Even so, it wouldn't be until college that I realized I needed to work in the Arts.

I was born in the mid-90's which means I reaped all the benefits of the new Disney renaissance Mr. Ashman helped create, however I also grew up amidst 9/11, housing market crashes, and general concern about the future. By the time I reached third grade, it was already ingrained in my psyche that, no matter which career path I take, I will almost certainly struggle and/or fail. Essentially, going into a creative field just didn't seem like a viable option. So I struggled through my science and math classes during the day and found solace and hope in my Disney movies when I came home from school mentally and emotionally drained. As I reached the end of my Senior year I came to the conclusion that I couldn't tolerate doing work I didn't love or enjoy. I was feeling incredibly lost when, during my Freshman year of college, I discovered the Theatre department. In the four years I have been doing Theatre, I have found more meaning and joy in my life than most find in a lifetime. It was in those four years that I discovered just how much Mr. Ashman has influenced me.

Entering the Theatre program did nothing but reinvigorate my interest and love of Disney. I began to read and watch more about the people and events that helped to create these films. I learned about The Nine Old Men, George Bruns, the strikes of the 1940's, the ups and downs of the 50's and 60's, the slow decline in the 70's and early 80's, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, the young squad of new animators, and the talented duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The more I read about Mr. Ashman, the more I admired him. I learned of his passionate love of Disney that began as a child, his success with Little Shop, his disappointment with Smile, and his eagerness to work on The Little Mermaid.

The true turning point occurred when I watched the lunchtime lecture he gave to the Disney animators while they were making TLM. He spoke of the deep-rooted connections of Disney movies and live Theatre and he explained how music entertained, but also fed into the story and development of the characters. In the fifteen-minutes it took me to watch this, I could see the puzzle pieces coming together, creating the mental map of how I got to where I am today. I spent the better part of my adolescence years of trying to fit in, trying to be something I'm not, and then finally found my passion in something I always loved. It finally made sense.

Last year I stumbled across the beautiful documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. I was able to see the struggles and the triumph of the new generation of Disney artists that made the art that influenced me so tremendously. I also saw, through the eyes and memories of others, the tragic death of Mr. Ashman. For all of the beautiful work he contributed to Beauty and the Beast, it is apparent he suffered great pain. By the time I reached the point in the film where they describe seeing him for the last time, I was sobbing. Sobbing over someone I had never met, and would never get to meet. I cannot watch The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin without thinking of Mr. Ashman.

It is still immensely upsetting that I will never get to express my gratitude in person, but that is why I wished to share my story here. His influence and legacy will be unending. The general public may not know his name but nearly everyone who grew up in the 90's has heard his songs at least once in their life. There are hundreds, if not thousands, who grew up dancing in their bedroom to Be Our Guest or sang Part of Your World while wearing a pillowcase over their legs, pretending to be a mermaid. Those kids that loved his songs during their childhood will show these films to their children, who will then show the films to their children, and so on. It gives me hope and joy to know that Mr. Ashman's work will never be forgotten.

I realize I have been a bit long-winded in this, so I will end this with my thank you. Thank you, Mr. Ashman for your beautiful work that gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul. Your effort to make great art is what has helped, and continues to drive me to be the best artist possible. When I was lonely and sad as a kid, your music kept me company, when I get frustrated or angry, all I have to do is turn on Under the Sea to start feeling better, and when I am happy and joyful, I sing and I dance and tell anyone who will listen about the young man from Baltimore that changed Disney and the lives of children everywhere. You have truly touched every part of my life and for that, I am forever grateful.

If you have made it this far, thanks for reading my story. I hope you have gained as much from Mr. Ashman's work as I have.



  • edited September 2016
    Katie, this was very well-written and very heartfelt. And I'm sure many people can share similar testimonies of how much Howard's work meant to them as they were growing up. My interests have changed a lot over the last few years and I'm sure that's true for anyone in their late teens to early 20s, teetering on the cusp of adulthood. But no matter how sophisticated or cynical I get, I cannot view Howard's work with anything but fondness and admiration. The characters he created may be idealistic and (literally) two-dimensional, but somehow there's this very raw yearning behind their words and actions that makes them, for me at least, beyond reproach and even noble. They're just so honest with the audience to the point where it pains you to see them so unhappy. That was Howard's special gift: he knew how to create lovable, sympathetic characters and make them the heroes in their own respective stories. It's no wonder that his writing is so relatable and so empowering, especially for young people. I too watched Waking Sleeping Beauty and I was fascinated by the indelible impact he had on his collaborators, many of whom were taken aback by his force of personality yet also drawn to his genius, humor, and vulnerability. And when I first heard Howard singing as the characters in his demos with such passion and longing, I directed all the affection I used to have for these characters toward the artist himself. For surely if Howard could create such beauty in his work, he must have been a beautiful soul himself. By living fearlessly and purposefully, Howard proved himself to be a brave artist, a wonderful storyteller, and an inspiration to many.
  • Thank you, I appreciate that. It has taken me a long time to process all that I've learned about Howard in the last few years, but I felt relieved to finally get it all down in writing. The optimism of his characters and lyrics have guided and become a part of me through the years, and I hope they stay with me the rest of my days. I've spent a couple months reading through the blogs and posts on this website, and I look forward to sharing more that I learn about Howard.
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