Dietrich’s introduction to the world of scenic design was the product of two chance encounters. In 1938, he met Charles Lautrup, an esteemed conductor from Denmark, who called him months later, asking if he would like to design the sets for a one-night performance of the Danish national music drama, “Elverhøj,” or “The Elves’ Hill,” as part of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Without hesitation or a background in scenic design, Dietrich agreed and suddenly found himself moving from L.A. to San Francisco to begin research and concept sketches for a production that would garner international attention. On opening night, he found himself sharing an opera box with two Danish-Americans: the heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior, and the veteran Hollywood character actor, Jean Hersholt. Heaping praise for his work on Elverhøj, they urged him to return to L.A. to pursue production work in Hollywood. Dietrich subsequently landed a job in the Art Department at Twentieth Century-Fox, creating storyboards and blueprint projections of scenic sketches to facilitate set construction. His first film projects were musicals starring Betty Grable and featuring Carmen Miranda and Harry James. After Fox, he was hired by Paramount Pictures to create storyboards and continuity sketches for the Hemingway classic, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Building on the work Dietrich had been doing at the film studios to aid in set construction, Charles Lautrup suggested that automaker-turned-shipbuilder, Henry Kaiser, hire him to translate one-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional blueprints for warship construction to support America’s entry into World War II. This work took him to Portland, Oregon, where he commuted by ferry to the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, British Columbia, and later to another Kaiser shipyard located in Richmond, California. After returning to Hollywood in 1943, he got a job in the Art Department at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and began work on “Up in Arms,” starring Danny Kaye, and “The Princess and the Pirate,” starring Bob Hope. This in turn led to an assignment at Walt Disney Studio to create background drawings for the live-action sequences of “Song of the South.
Dietrich met many people over the course of his lifetime whose careers intersected with his that led to lasting friendships. Leonard Clairmont was one such person. Also hailing from Sweden, Clairmont was a world traveler who initially worked as a photographer and a journalist before becoming a director, cinematographer and book author. At the time of their meeting in the early 1940s, Clairmont was a journalist covering Swedes working in Hollywood and had built up a sizable network of contacts from his native country who were making a name for themselves in L.A.’s film community. It is perhaps for this reason that he approached Walt Disney in 1946 about serving as the director, translator and casting director of the Swedish version of the American box office hit, “Dumbo.” However, unlike the original, which featured a wide range of character actors lending their voices to the cartoon, Clairmont’s “Dumbo” included voices from Swedes in L.A. working in creative, talent and production departments. Among them was an aspiring artist named Dietrich Grunewald working in the studio’s Art Department. “Dumbo” was released in Sweden on September 16, 1946.
“Song of the South” was pioneering for its use of live-action cinematography and animation