The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

Waco’s Own Fairy Tale

Discovering a Disney connection in our fair city

8 years ago

By Kaila Lancaster

I’m a Disney freak. Disney nut. Disney devotee.

I have my ways of sprinkling pixie dust in my life. To enjoy a daily dose of Disney, I often take to Pinterest and search Disney movie titles to browse art, quotes, Disney destinations and more. Recently I was browsing a selection of “Beauty and the Beast” pins. It’s the 25th anniversary of this gorgeous film, and I was dying to find a little “adventure in the great wide somewhere.”

Lo and behold I found it right here in Waco — the Armstrong Browning Library on Baylor’s campus came across my feed.

It is said in certain web-o-spheres that the library was the direct inspiration for the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast.” My little Disney-loving heart skipped a beat.

Could it be that the inspiration for one of my favorite Disney movies and scenes of all time existed right here in Waco, Texas? I couldn’t get too excited just yet. I decided to do a little digging.

In my research, I came across a name that deepened the Waco-“Beauty and the Beast” connection. Jim Hillin, Baylor alum, worked as a computer-generated imagery supervisor for the film. I was fortunate to reach Hillin to discuss “Beauty and the Beast” and its connection to Waco.

Hillin graduated from Baylor University in the summer of 1979. He acknowledged the library’s steady presence during his time at Baylor. “The place certainly made an impression on me,” he said. “I can still remember its magnificent quiet.” He admired the “enchanting interiors replete with gold ceilings, beautiful marble floors, oil paintings, murals and the like,” he said.

After graduating, Hillin moved to California and worked his way into the movie and television business, creating visual effects and animation with computer-generated imagery (CGI). He got a call from Dan Han, a producer at Disney Feature Animation at the time, and was put in charge of the CGI components of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Here is where our story takes a slightly melancholic turn — the library was not the direct inspiration for the ballroom scene.

“The background painters had already started painting a view of the ballroom [before I began work on the film],” Hillin said. “My goal was to make it look as close to the painting as we could, but the only difference would be that we would float a camera through the one we built.”

Hillin does acknowledge the similarities of the ballroom and the Armstrong Browning Library.

“After visiting Armstrong Browning again recently, I can easily see the similarities, as can anyone who has seen ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and perused the library,” he said.

Although the library was not the direct inspiration for that beloved and iconic scene, I still can’t help but marvel at the film’s distinct Waco connection. A former Wacoan was at the helm of creating one of the most successful and beautiful animated films of all time.

How magical.

The final step of my research? Visit the library and see the similarities for myself.

I pushed open the heavy doors of the library and made a beeline toward the room directly to the back of the building, the room undoubtedly in question.

I was immediately enamored by the floor-to-ceiling windows, the golden ceiling with intricate details and the massive oil paintings that adorned the walls. The room reminded me of Be Our Guest at Walt Disney World, a restaurant that fully immerses guests in the “Beauty and the Beast” story.

Even though I knew this room was not the direct inspiration for “Beauty and the Beast,” I could easily see why the connection was made. The library is certainly a little nugget of enchantment and literature dropped in the middle of a bustling modern university. I couldn’t help but hum the beloved score of the film and waltz for a fleeting moment.

In that perfect quiet minute, I was overcome with Disney magic.