To celebrate Black History Month, I am going to suggest that you might want to purchase a copy of my new book, Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? (at Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Like my other new book, The Revised Vault of Walt, it is filled with some interesting and fun stories about the many worlds of Disney.
While I enjoy sharing these stories, I spend almost more time trying to debunk Disney stories that just do not seem to die. In 2009, I talked about how Walt Disney was not born in Spain, and yet, at the end of January, I got an email from someone who read the article, ignored all the facts I shared, and wrote to say I was wrong because Walt looked like he was Spanish and spoke perfect Spanish (no, Walt did not speak perfect Spanish although he knew a handful of phrases like most people living in Southern California).
It is hard to try to convince people who have heard these stories passed down over the years with a sense of authority that they just aren't true. Sometimes I just decide it is a no-win situation and keep my mouth shut.
Walt Disney World Resort bus drivers, boat captains and various other cast members are firmly convinced they know the true story and it is hard to blame them since there is no central location where they can easily get information to confirm or deny their stories.
I wrote about attending a mini-reunion of four original Mouseketeers. I was seated at a table with my good friend Bill Iadonisi, who has been writing about Walt Disney World for the past four years on a variety of websites. We were talking excitedly about Disney history and our server overheard us.
"You two seem interested in Disney history so I have a question for you. Why did Walt Disney choose this area to build Walt Disney World?" asked the server, who stated that he had worked at WDW for more than 30 years and knew the answer.
The problem with knowing things is you sometimes know too much, so I started rattling off reasons like the location in the middle of the state, the weather, the ability to buy lots of land, the growth of tourism in Florida, that Walt's parents Elias and Flora married nearby in Kismet, Florida, in January 1888 (and worked briefly in Daytona Beach managing the Hallifax Hotel during the busy summer season… and, no, the hotel is no longer there although there is a Hallifax Avenue that is one of the main streets in Daytona Beach), and Walt had relatives on his mother's side that remained in the area for decades.
Shaking his head slowly and sadly and stopping me before I dug myself in any deeper, he said, "It is because Walt worked as a postman in Kissimmee before he moved to California. Dick Nunis told us all that years ago."
I looked over and Bill was doing exactly what I was doing: biting my lip and trying not to roll my eyes. There was nothing to be gained by trying to argue with this hard-working Walt Disney World cast member who had spent more than 30 years proudly believing that story and sharing it with unsuspecting guests.
No, Walt never worked as a postman in Kissimmee and I am sure Dick Nunis knew that quite well. I suspect the server may have misunderstood what he heard from Nunis all those years ago. I have run into that myself where someone has misheard what I said and will trot out the most outrageous stories.
When Walt was 16, he applied for work at the Chicago Post Office and was turned down because he was too young.
Walt went home, took a sketching pencil and drew a thin mustache on his face, penciled some lines on his forehead and along his cheeks and neck. He returned to the post office and announced he was 18. Walt got the job as a relief postman for several weeks before joining up with the Red Cross Ambulance group leaving for France.
This was Chicago, not Kissimmee.
It is not just the rank-and-file cast members who promote misinformation. I have to be careful when I interview older animators and Imagineers, because they often never saw the entire project or the exact chronology of something as it becomes more fluid over time.
However, never in a million years would I have suspected that a really great story that a legendary Imagineer told for more than 40 years was pure hokum.
I always loved the Snow White Grotto addition to Disneyland. I remember being in a group of folks as Disney Legend John Hench told the following story as an example of how when you worked at Disney, you had to come up with innovative solutions to challenging situations.
Fortunately, I don't have to use my notes because Hench retold the story in his book Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (Disney Editions 2003).
"We encountered a special challenge when Walt unexpectedly received a gift of statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs carved from pure-white Carrara marble, which arrived in wooden crates from Italy with no return address or any other indication of who might have made and sent them. Walt called me down to the studio warehouse to look at them, and told me he wanted them somewhere in Disneyland. I had to tell him that we would have a perspective problem with the figures. The sculptor had carved Snow White the same size as the dwarfs. 'Just figure it out," said Walt."
Hench's clever solution was to put the Snow White figure at the top of a cascading waterfall, next to an undersized deer and bird, and the dwarfs much lower and closer to the guests so it created a forced perspective situation where Snow White seemed in the right proportion.
On April 9, 1961, Walt Disney dedicated the Snow White Grotto and the illusion that Hench had created was enjoyed for decades by guests who never noticed his sleight-of-hand maneuvering.
One persistent addition to the story over the years was that the statues were a gift from an Italian sculptor who used a set of hand soap bars of the characters released in Europe as his reference and Snow White was the same size as the dwarfs in the set. Another addition was that students at an art school under the direction of this anonymous Italian sculptor carved each figure is a slightly different style.
Anyway, a great story and told by someone who was actually there and directly involved in the project.
However, after Hench's death, paperwork was discovered that the sculptures were actually commissioned by Disney. There was a message from Italy that there had been a mistake in the measurements. Each of the dwarfs were 31 inches tall, which was fine, but Snow White was only 39 inches tall. It would cost $2,000 to resculpt Snow White.
However, it was only $611 to carve some small animals.
When Tokyo Disneyland wanted a duplicate of the Snow White Grotto, the sculptures were removed from Disneyland and copied. Since they had suffered in the weather over the years, they were warehoused with duplicates taking their place in the park.
Then, Disney forgot they had the originals stored away until during some moving, the Snow White figure was dropped and seriously damaged. The little princess did get repaired, the other figures rescued and all of them are now safely housed at Imagineering in California. I just saw a recent photo of them and they look great.
Why did Hench come up with the more creative story? No one seems to have an explanation, but I applaud Adventures by Disney for including the real story in their six-day Backstage Magic tour in Southern California. Some guests on the tour get to have a glimpse of these Disneyland treasures.
In 1988, the Disney Gallery at Disneyland offered a hand-signed limited edition (300) 31 ½-inches by 20 inches lithograph of Hench's concept artwork for the Snow White Grotto. It sold out quickly.
Amusingly, the discrepency in Snow White's size was going to be corrected for Tokyo Disneyland with a proper-sized Snow White, but the Oriental Land Company wanted the statues exactly the same size and style as the ones at Disneyland. So, mini-Snow White is in Tokyo as well.
In 2006, I wrote a short essay about a Disney urban myth that still persists today despite all evidence to the contrary.
Displayed in the window of an antiques shop in Asheville, North Carolina, was an old draftsman's desk with Walt Disney's photo prominently displayed.
The desk was priced at less than $20,000, which the shop considered a bargain because, according to the note attached to the desk, this wooden treasure is actually "Walt Disney's drafting table. Used at the Asheville Citizen-Times while employed there in the 1920s."
Walt never lived in North Carolina and never worked for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper. Yet the legend of him doing so persisted for years.
Apparently a local artist who owned the desk, and died in 2000, had told a family friend repeatedly that the table belonged to Walt.
Why did people believe him? Well, the legend in Asheville is that, in 1924, Walt found work as a draftsman for Major Thomas A. Cox Jr. in the Jackson Building on Pack Square. Walt was apparently a competent draftsman but "he doodled little mice and other creatures on his work" and so Cox had to fire him.
Sounds pretty impressive until you actually examine this work supposedly done by Walt (and yes, the register of deeds for Buncombe County actually keeps a list of these alleged maps Walt supposedly worked on). Other than one that has a small set of hands drawn on it pointing to the north-south arrow, there is no indication that an aspiring cartoonist was involved in the creation of this work.
There isn't even a hint of a Disney signature, and one of the stories I have always enjoyed is Ub Iwerks talking about all the time Walt took practicing his signature when they worked for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Walt was never hesitant to put his name boldly on everything he did in his early years.
However, citizens of Asheville will sincerely tell visitors that Walt's signature is all over the maps held in the courthous,e and some even claim to have vague memories of making deliveries to the Jackson Building and seeing Walt there in 1924.
"I ran the blueprint machine for Mr. Cox, and Mr. Disney; he would make sketches and I would print them," Red Hoyle, then 88, told a local reporter in 1997.
A 1966 article in the Asheville Citizen-Times quotes Cox's wife talking about Disney, but it mentions she "struggled" with her memory and had only a photocopy of the original cartoon Disney supposedly drew for Cox after being fired.
The employment record for the Asheville Citizen-Times does not go back to the 1920s. However, there is plenty of evidence that Walt Disney moved from Kansas City to California in July 1923 and started his animation studio. By 1924 he was already working on three "Alice Comedies" in Hollywood.
For many years, the community profile website included the sentence "Walt Disney worked here briefly as a draftsman for a construction company. He was fired for doodling."
That "fun fact" is no longer on the site perhaps because of the work of Joshua Warren. Local historian Joshua P. Warren mounted an exhibit in May 2011 titled "Walt Disney Mystery" at the Tourism Center and Free Museum in Asheville.
Warren and Vance Pollock, who also worked at the museum, tracked down the infamous Disney maps at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds Office. An independent art authenticator's analysis couldn't determine if Walt might have been involved, but an investigation at other county offices and private collections could not produce any documentation whatsoever.
"I would much rather be telling you that Disney lived here," Warren Pollock stated at the time. "It almost seems like the legend is an odd conspiracy from people who wanted him to be here."
He speculated that the rumor might have started as a good-natured "tall-tale from a father to his children."
Certainly I receive several emails a month where someone writes saying that their great aunt or grandmother worked at Disney or that Walt gave some distant relative a piece of artwork. Sometimes the stories are true. Most of the time, these stories are just family legends that have grown over the years.
You might think that, thanks to the work of people like Warren Pollock, that a Walt Disney myth is debunked and the record is finally set straight.
However, even if you try to stomp out one story, another springs up to take its place. Within the last couple of years, I have started to hear another urban myth that Walt was considering building Walt Disney World in Asheville, North Carolina.
While Walt did look at several different locations, Asheville was not under consideration.
It seems the legacy of Walt inspires people to create some intriguing but false stories. At the end of my live presentations, I always remind the audience that it is up to them to go out and share the stories with others. Perhaps, I need to add that they should be sure that they are sharing the real story.