This December 5 we celebrate what would have been Walt’s 108th birthday.
I never get tired pulling out articles from Walt Disney’s lifetime that feature a unique perspective that doesn’t seem to appear in the numerous biographies and official memories of Walt. In fact, I am very thankful to MousePlanet that it has allowed me to write a half-dozen columns in the past that feature these “lost” quotes of Walt. If you missed them, then please make sure to check out the archives.
Here’s some more Walt words from the July 17, 1965 issue of TV Guide in an article by writer Edith Efron titled “Still Attacking His Ancient Enemy—Conformity” with the subheading “Walt Disney marshals the forces of his imagination to strike out in new directions—despite sneers of critics and sophisticates”.
In may be hard to imagine today, but in the 1930s, Walt was lauded as a serious artist with countless articles and testimonials to his genius. By the 1960s, Walt had lost that luster in the critical community and was regarded as corny, old-fashioned and primarily for children. This article presents an out-of-the-ordinary glimpse at Walt in the 1960s, about a year and half before his passing, and again features some great quotations that haven’t appeared since the publication of this article.
Efron wrote an interesting perspective of how Walt presented himself:
“The details of Walt Disney’s life have often been published. But all that is really essential to know is that his is a pure Horatio Alger story—the story of a very poor boy who was raised on a Missouri farm, who never finished high school, who worked incessantly to bring his innocent personal visions into existence, who succeeded after a series of bitter struggles, who rose to international fame by embodying some of mankind’s most endearing characteristics in a mouse, and who has been free, ever since, to produce his very special type of fantasies.
“If his name and achievements are a matter of household knowledge, the man behind the name and achievements is not. He has never emerged, distinctly, as a personality in all these years. In part, it is due to the fascination of his activities, which have tended to divert eyes from the man engaging in them. But, more profoundly, it is because Walt Disney is one of the most disguised personalities alive. His chief disguise is dullness.
“At first meeting, as profile writers have attested with seasonal regularity, Walt Disney seems almost unbelievably commonplace. One prominent Hollywood writer says of him: ‘He’s a mystery man. The biggest men in Hollywood are in awe of him. They call him The King. And yet, whenever you see him, he’s always dull and colorless. He has a halting way of speaking. You’d think he was a second-rate accountant.’
“More precisely, you’d think he was a first-rate hayseed. He is shy with reporters. His eyes are dull and preoccupied, his affability mechanical and heavy-handed. He gabs away slowly and randomly in inarticulate, Midwestern speech that would be appropriate to a rural general store. His shirt is open, his tie crooked. One almost expects to see over-all straps on his shoulders and wisps of hay in his hair.
“This dull, rural affability is an acute depressant to conversation—which is apparently its purpose. If one has the patience to persist, however, tossing questions like yellow flares into the folksy fog, the fog lifts, a remote twinkle appears in the preoccupied eyes, and the man emerges.”
So here are the quotes that the persistent Efron was able to cajole out of Walt:
“It all begins with dreams. As a kid, I was a dreamer. I’d sit in class and I’d be way off. What I was dreaming about I don’t know. I was always getting lectured: ‘Now, Walter, I know you’re intelligent’. I was always a creative kid. I built things in the backyard. I organized the kids of the neighborhood to build a tree house.
“People say I still have the innocence of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with wonder, and with all living things I have a terrific sympathy. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to imagine that mice and squirrels might have feelings just like mine.
“I didn’t have a formal education to speak of. I had only one year of art in night school. But the way to get an education is to do something. You get yourself into a problem, and you’ll do the research to solve it. I have a feeling that’s what’s missing in our schools—the tackling of the hard job, then the series of ‘Ahh…I see now where I was off’. That’s how you learn.
“Money is not my motivation. Money is a means to my creative end. Mondey doesn’t excite me—my ideas excite me. Somewhere, there’s a spark of creativity in everyone mentally sound. And yet, there are guys who don’t want to work. They seem to lack this desire, this drive. I envy them. I envy the guy who doesn’t want to do a thing in life but go fishing. I don’t believe in people getting things for nothing. We’ve reached the point where we can’t get people to do all kinds of jobs any more. I washed dishes. I carried parcels. I delivered newspapers. It didn’t hurt me.
“I learned early that a lot of talented people are often conforming to what is already being done. I’ve prowled around their offices at night, you know…and studied their work. I look for the things that will give me the key to their talent. The little things that they love to do on their own. Often, they hide their own ideas. They’re afraid not to conform.
“They (the other movie producers) were all screaming you had to have huge screens, spectaculars…I went out and shot a little nature film (The Living Desert)…small screen…It was a hit.
“These avant-garde artists are adolescents. It’s only a little noisy element that’s going that way, that’s creating this sick art. I don’t think the whole world is crazy! Those plays like Wine and Roses—cut it! I don’t want to see that kind of thing. If I did, I’d go down to the county nut ward, or something—cut it! My own audience is the honest adult, the one who hasn’t reached such a level of boredom that he can’t laugh or cry; that he actually wants this sick stuff. Virtue triumphs over wickedness. Tyrannical bullies are conquered by our good little people, human or animal. There is the happy and satisfactory ending. There is no cynicism in me and there is none allowed in our work. I think, we have made the fairy tale fashionable again.
“I don’t like snobs. You find some of the intelligentsia, they become snobs. They think they’re above everybody else. They’re not. More education doesn’t mean more common sense. These ideas they have about art are crazy. They’re the ones who call Disney a ‘cornball’—‘There’s another one of Disney’s saccharine things.’ Early in the game it bothered me. It doesn’t bother me now. But it affects my artists sometimes. They read reviews in the New Yorker or Time magazine. They get all upset. I tell them, ‘Oh, that’s just the way they are.’
“I don’t care about critics. Critics take themselves too seriously. They think the only way to be noticed and to be the smart guy is to pick and find fault with things. It’s the public I’m making pictures for.
“You’ve heard of Millikan? He was a wonderful person to talk to, a Nobel scientist at Cal Tech. He used to come over and have lunch with me. One day he called and said, ‘You know, what you’re doing over there is something we’re doing’. He brought over 12 top scientists, most of them Nobel Prize winners. They questioned me endlessly. It was so interesting.
“The Russian film director Eisenstein was here all the time, too, while he was working at Paramount, and Supreme Court Justice Burton. He’s dead now. But I used to get letters from all all the time. He saw everything I’d ever made. So did Alex Woolcott…Henry Ford, too. He’d bring his engineers in to see Bambi. He’d run it over and over.”
On why Walt won’t do any more World’s Fair exhibits:
“I’m interested in doing things of lasting value. It’s heartbreaking to tear them down after two years.”
On his reputation of being a dictator:
“Benevolent! You can’t run anything by committee. Someone has to say, ‘We’ll go this way.’“
‘Once in a while I make a bluff at being a genius. But what is a genius anyway? Edison said it was 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. That’s what I think, too. The most important thing about me is that I have always lived for pleasure. I have gone on doing what I had fun doing as a boy. I am a pleasure-seeker.
“This has been a good year. Mary Poppins’is a hit. Everybody’s happy…but not me. I’m on the spot. I have to keep trying to keep up to that same level. And the way to do it is not to worry, not to get tense, not to think ‘I’ve got to beat Mary Poppins’. The way to do it is just to go off and get interested in some little thing, some little idea that interests me, some little idea that looks like fun. Listen. You want to understand? We’re living. There’s work to do. It never stops.”
This fascinating article had a single quote from Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney who said, “I’ve never known him when he wasn’t working.”
Oh, by the way, that week (Sunday, July 18) on the Wonderful World of Disney, the show was Ida, the Off-Beat Eagle that was first telecast in January of 1965 and captured critical praise and the series’ highest ratings of the season, believe it or not. Filmed on location in Idaho’s Sate River Valley, this story of a golden eagle who crashes into the cabin of Uncle Billy Kipp (Clifton Carver) certainly doesn’t ring any bells for me. It was up against The Ed Sullivan Show, My Favorite Martian, and Wagon Train in its timeslot.
Let’s fill out the remainder of this column with a few short quotes from Walt.
“What Has Disney Got that We Haven’t?” was the title of an article by Frank Taylor in the October 1938 issue of The Commentator.
Walt remembered the time on the Missouri farm when his pet rooster stretched his neck and pecked out a loose baby tooth in Walt’s mouth:
“Golly, he just seemed to know I didn’t want to tie a string to that tooth and slam the door on it. He seemed to understand the situation," Walt said. "He could almost talk to me, just as my dog Sunny does, when I go home now. Animals can talk without using words. They’re sort of like Dopey in ‘Snow White’. They don’t talk out loud because they never tried.”
‘No matter how good a picture we turn out, I can always see ways to improve it, when it’s too late. So I try to put the idea to work in the next picture. I’m just as amazed at the success of our cartoons as anyone else. Sometimes I pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming,” he said.
Some other interesting information in the article that I haven’t seen any elsewhere are the following:
“His first bona fide art job was drawing pictures for an advertising agency that served several local farm journals. He drew pictures of happy hens filling their nests with golden dollars after eating a certain magic egg mash. He was good, too, at contented cows that licked with glee the right kind of mineralized rock salt bricks. No matter how doleful the animal, Walt could make it register joy, and his farmers were the acme of contentment with their new implements.
“Ask Walt what he proposes to do with all his money. His eyes grow large and his smile spreads from ear to ear. He is going to build a new studio. One with lots of room for everybody. One with room for a zoo, so they can keep all kinds of animals right on hand where the artists may watch them. At present, the artists have to go out with cameras to make studies of cows or geese or goats or whatever they need in the picture in production. Walt’s going to take the whole works out into the country, where they can have acres and acres to expand.
“One day last fall, the management of the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona awoke with a start to find young men with candid cameras crawling in the straw to snap odd angle close-ups of the old sow serving dinner to her brood. Others were shooting angles on the bulls, the sheep, the horses. To make matters worse, the snapshooters were borrowing little pigs and putting them with the calves and mixing the animals up generally. The caretakers were just about to throw everybody with a camera out of the place when somebody discovered that the snapshooters were a bunch of Disney artists, gathering atmosphere and action for The Barnyard Symphony. Walt had sent them out there to get truthful action for the picture.
“To Walt Disney, the characters have to be real. ‘Get a better waddle on those geese,’ he tells the animators. ‘That colt and calf running along the fence ought to stop and look at each other, and maybe the colt gives a little whinny.’”
Here are a few quotes from Reader’s Digest, August 1960, and an article called “The Magic World of Walt Disney” by Ira Wolfert that focuses primarily on Disneyland.
“Twenty years ago, I was always trying to think of a place to take my two small daughters on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon—a place where I could have fun, too. At an amusement park, the only fun provided for a father, besides having his bottom dropped out from under him on the roller coaster was the same one he enjoyed all week: buying the tickets.”
On Main Street lighting being modern:
“I’m sorry you noticed that. We had to change the gaslights here—people complained that they made the goods look too gloomy.”
On Main Street:
“It’s not apparent at a casual glance but this street is only a scale model. We had every brick and tile and gas lamp made 5/8ths true size. This cost more, but it made the street a toy, and the imagination can play more freely with a toy. Besides, people like to think that their world is somehow more grown-up than Papa’s was."
On Tom Sawyer’s Island:
“Everything on the island is free; you only need a ticket to get there. I put in all the things I wanted to do as a kid—and couldn’t. Including getting into something without a ticket.” (The article pointed out the bottomless pit in Injun’s Joe’s Cave was 3 feet deep. The chances of catching fish around the island were good since a net had been hidden there and was well stocked with catfish.)
On the Trip to the Moon attraction:
“Two of the leading figures in the space field, Wernher Von Braun and Willy Ley, helped us with the engineering of this ride.”
Wolfert ends his article with:
“In Walt Disney’s magic kingdom there is nothing to convey the feeling you get at most amusement parks—that you’re watching a nervous breakdown and being invited to share it. In pace of a neon nightmare to lure customers at night, tiny lights resembling fireflies have been set twinkling in the trees. Something unique and intangible is expressed in Disneyland—the creative personality of a master of the fairy tale.”
Happy Birthday, Walt! I truly wish you were around in more than just spirit to enjoy it.
(Send an email to Wade Sampson)
Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.