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Disneyland Article
This Man Has One Of Disneylands Most Unusual Jobs
Julie Tremaine
If you’re not looking for it as you stroll down Main Street U.S.A. (or, say, run for a first pickle award), you might miss it altogether. Only one little window reveals what’s inside the tiny shop, which is hardly even a shop at all. There’s no Disneyland merch, no ears, no spirit jerseys. The only things you can buy in the Silhouette Studio are memories.

People line up to get them, maybe for an hour or more. Sometimes someone is looking for a new personal silhouette, perhaps to hang up at home next to one they had done as a kid. Sometimes guests want two or three generations in one frame, memorializing family lines and special Disney memories. Sometimes, a person wants a silhouette of their own profile next to Walt, or with Mickey Mouse, or Tinker Bell. Sometimes, they’ll open up their phones, and show artist Bob Carlson a photo of their four-legged family, asking him to make art out of a dog or cat that isn’t even in the park that day. Becoming a pet silhouette artist wasn’t on Carlson’s bingo card, but it’s now one of the most popular requests that guests make.

“A lady came in and had me do her golden retriever, and she put it on social media,” Carlson told SFGATE. “And the rest, as they say, is history.” That was in August 2022, just after the Silhouette Studio finally opened its doors after its pandemic closure. Disneyland reopened from its 14-month closure in April 2021, but it took the studio — with its confined space and requisite removal of masks to be able to make a facial profile — another year to come back.

“Mothers were crying,” he said on the studio’s second first day. The first was the actual opening day of the park in 1955. “I kid you not. They were weeping that day we reopened. They were saying, ‘Thank you for reopening. We were waiting and waiting and waiting.’”

In the course of a day, Carlson will create up to 200 silhouettes, which are outlines of a person’s (or pet’s) profile cut out of black paper with tiny scissors, then put on special Disneyland logo paper and framed in a signature oval frame. Even if you don’t have one in your house, you probably saw one at your grandparents’ or an older relative’s house. They first became popular in the 1700s as “cutting portraits,” but hit their peak — and the popularization of the term they’re known as today — in the Victorian era. Now, they’re experiencing a resurgence, due in no small part to social media … and the fact that people figured out they could have them done of their pets.

“We could have our own separate studio just to do pets,” he said.

Carlson has worked at Disneyland for over 15 years, more than 10 of them in the Silhouette Studio. “I had always been an artist, and I was looking for a job,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’d be cool being an artist for Disney, no matter what kind of art you do.’ But could I pick a more difficult, unique art form than the silhouette?”

He was hired, and mentored by silhouette artist Sylvia Fellows, who worked in the studio for more than 35 years. “When I say mentoring, you don’t really teach it,” Carlson said. “There’s no book. That’s probably why there are so few of us.” He’s one of three artists currently working in the studio.

“It’s a labor of love to learn,” he added. “I mean, you got to hang in there, you got to have courage.” The stakes are high when you’re helping to make other people’s family memories, Carlson admits: “On the happiest street on Earth, on the greatest street on Earth. And you have to do it quickly.”

On that particular Thursday afternoon, there was a line outside the shop of maybe a dozen people, all dedicated to waiting their turn for a silhouette. But if he’s feeling pressure during our conversation, I never sense it. He’s smiling and joking, with an easy rapport with everyone in the room. As we’re chatting, Carlson is working on a three-person silhouette — well, two people who are in the park, and one dog, shown to him on a phone. He’s working quickly, making tiny precise cuts, while looking back and forth between me and his subjects. He makes a little small talk with them, then asks, “Do you know where Peter Pan had lunch today? Wendy’s.”

It takes him about two or three minutes each. Pets take longer because they’re harder to capture in a two-dimensional, monochromatic format. “I don’t do ears on people,” he said, “but most pets I have to do their ears. Cats aren’t so bad because their ears are above their heads, so they’re part of their silhouette. But a dog’s ears quite often flop over the side of their head, so you’ve got to cut into the silhouette.” Among the more unusual pet requests he’s done: a hedgehog, a giraffe, a flying squirrel, a dragon lizard.

Two hundred silhouettes a day, times five days a week, times 10 years equals … a lot of portraits. More than 500,000 of them. After all that time, I asked him, what keeps him going?

“Working with the kids,” Carlson said without a second’s pause. “Working on Main Street. I’ll get here early and walk the park” just to absorb the atmosphere, he said.

“I’ll ask people where they’re from, and they’ll say, ‘I’m from Albuquerque; I’m from London; I’m from Hawaii; I’m from Guam.’ And that’s any one day of the year. Any one day.”

“This is the amazing thing about Disneyland,” Carlson added. “My silhouettes are all over the world.”

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