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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
May 9, 2000

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BOB THOMAS examines Roy Disney's life and influence on the company

Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire
Bob Thomas
New York, Hyperion: 1998

Newly released in Paperback


Reading this book really reminded me of a teacher I had in college. His favorite comment to put on a paper was "Great answer, wrong question." I was really surprised how little this was a book about Roy Disney.  
  Haha, I love that! My initial reaction was a bit less dramatic, but along the same lines. I felt it was an uneven attempt, and as a book it was not up to Bob Thomas's standards elsewhere.
It was more like Thomas took a photo album of all of Walt's achievements and pointed out Roy standing in the background.  
  I agree entirely. That's a nice apt image. I noticed in particular that the first half of the book was not about Roy! It is a retread, and a tired one at that, of the Walt Disney story arc traced elsewhere by Thomas.
Yes, but for a relative Disney novice like me it was nice to have everything put into perspective a bit. It was just annoying that all the childhood stuff was more about Walt's relationship to Roy than about Roy growing up.  
  In all fairness, I do think the second half of the book was better at providing Roy's perspective. But the first half was really rough going for me. It's not a biography of Roy, since it seems to always view Roy with regard to Walt, from the premise right up to the end of the book. Is Roy not a strong enough figure to form the emotional center of the book? I rather suspect that we just don't know that much about his early life, and now it's too late to ask him.
That very well could be, though towards the end of the book Thomas makes it clear that he chronicled the Disney family for at least thirty years now. He certainly had enough time to talk to many acquaintances before they ALL died.  
  I noticed that passage too, where Thomas points out his access to the archives and the family members. I kind of got the feeling that he did it as a way of saving face, as if he anticipated readers' wrath on the matter of the Roy perspective.
What got me is that it was always "Walt got them in financial trouble, Roy saved them." Ten pages on the trouble, then one paragraph on the saving.  
  Oh no! You're stealing all my thunder! That was one of my biggest notes to myself about this book - we never get to see how Roy saved the company! Ever! Well, maybe the stock issuance.
Exactly! The subtitle of the book is "...and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire." How did Roy create this empire? All we know is he was friendly with his employees, that he let wives travel with husbands. Otherwise it is, "and somehow Roy got the money!" WHERE did he get the money?  
  You're right, Alex: we never hear it. It is vexing indeed. It's the one thing, in fact, that people would want to learn from this book. It would have been the book's one major selling point, if you will, and it does not deliver on that level. This is not to say that there is nothing interesting in the book, however. I quite liked that we got a much more detailed sense of the Disney family as a whole. Nowhere else have I seen such detail on Roy's role as a caretaker of the family and their fortunes. It was also nice to hear how the brothers and Ruth ended up.
Yeah, that was something about Roy that you came to understand. How much he valued his family. The two things that Thomas conveyed well were how much Roy loved Walt (he really captured it in describing the scene at Walt's death) and how much he loved Edna (who is someone I would like to learn more about).  
  I loved hearing how Roy Edward - the son of Roy and Edna - is a name derived from both parents! (Edward from Edna)
As a side note about names, I thought it a completely weird comment from Thomas that all the initials for Roy and his brothers formed words. Considering that one set of initial did not (RAD was not a word yet), it was quite a stretch to point this out.  
  Let's talk about Thomas's goals for a minute here. We've already pointed out that he's essentially redoing his work from the Walt biography. What's good about the Walt biography are the stories - the little quirks that help define the man: his raised eyebrow, the massage sessions, the polo injury. But we get very little of that here! Are we to assume that Roy is just plain uninteresting?
That's a good point. I think we get bits of it (I like the image of him in his basement everyday riding a mechanical horse), but it seems to me that Thomas is/was so overwhelmed by Walt's personality that Roy seems dry. This would have been fine, if there were more focus on Roy's business acumen. Unfortunately, all that is keeping this book afloat is Roy, the person.  
  I thought there were more details than just the mechanical horse. I liked the details about Roy's nervous leg, his odd collection of Jeffersonia, his insomnia, and the story of him ditching a soccer game to trump up business at a European movie theater. All these things build the character of the man - this is what a biography should do first and foremost. But there's too little of it. And Thomas doles them out so slowly, it's worse than teasing. Did you catch the fact that Roy had been a Freemason (p. 233)?
Yes! The only mention is something like "he had been a mason for forty years but quit for his daughter- in- law." The man had been doing something for decades and this is all we hear of it? You are right; Roy's character is given in such small pieces, the reader is left doing much of the work putting them together.  
  And Freemasonry is so secretive! This is the perfect opportunity to provide some dish on the man! Sigh... a missed opportunity. How about the salacious elements of the book? I don't know if you're familiar with Thomas's bio of Walt Disney bio, but he steers clear of troublesome topics and stays pretty G-rated. Disney-rated, if you will. Not the case here with Roy!
Isn't it nice to know that Walt really needed to have his own bathroom because he tended to camp out?  
  I caught quite a few moments where Thomas quotes the curses, including the F-word. This seemed out of character.
Thomas did do a decent job of letting us know Walt and Roy were real people, that an image was being projected to the world that wasn't entirely real. Thomas even quoted Walt at one point saying that the private Walt smoked and drank, but that wasn't the image Walt and Roy were projecting.  
  I can't decide if Thomas put in these details to humanize the figures as you suggest, or to sell more books. He points out Roy and Edna having sex at the doctor's office while trying to get pregnant, and skinny dipping at CalArts! It struck me as similar to the work of Marc Eliot, the man who did his utmost to demonize Walt Disney by including such salacious comments in his unofficial biography.
Hmmm... I've got to disagree with you there. I felt those two stories had very important non-salacious elements. The first, about having sex at the doctor's office, went a long way towards showing just how important children were to Roy and Edna. No details were given (such as whether the doctor was in the room, etc.). All we know is that Roy and Edna put themselves through that embarrassment so they could have kids. The CalArts episode ending up showing how committed Roy was to continuing Walt's ideas, that he put up with such an outrage just so the school wouldn't fold.  
  I hear what you're saying. I might make an argument like that myself if I were reading this book as literature, something to be interpreted. But I tend to look at biographies, and other such recreational reading, as a chance to have the author spell things out for me. As it happens, I quite like the readings you've come up with here. I just think that Thomas should have gone to greater lengths to make this obvious. As it is, it came across as sensationalist to me.
I agree that a biography should really explain the person to you, and that Thomas hasn't really done that with Roy. If this book is more salacious than the Walt biography, it is probably because Thomas doesn't hold Roy in such awe as a person, which allowed Thomas to bring in other elements. I must say that I didn't really run into much I considered superfluous sexuality and hadn't thought of those two episodes in such a light until you brought it up.  
  I'd like to latch onto what you said about a biography needing to explain the person. Thomas obviously has access to the company archives and even to family letters, some of which are mildly interesting to read. But I find it frustrating in the extreme that we do not have many financial memos, charts, or data that explain how Roy worked his magic. Worse, what few memos and letters we do see only receive cursory and superficial attention. We get no real INSIGHTS into Roy the man. I have no idea after reading this book what makes him tick.
No, and it's sad. Here we have a case of a man without much education who apparently was a financial savant, and we don't know how he did it. I notice that the cover (of the paperback edition) says the book is a biography "that will interest a business readership in addition to fans of Disney." I just can't a imagine a businessperson finding much of value in this book (other than "be nice to your employees").  
  I never noticed that, and it's a good point. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that only completists - diehard Disneyana fans - will want to buy this book. The casual observer of the Disney legacy can get much of this information from the Walt biography Thomas wrote. Of course, if you don't have the Walt bio, you might find this gripping from beginning to end. As we've said, there are entire chapters here that tell the company's story with a focus on Walt. This may be necessary to provide continuity in the narrative, but it makes for dry reading if you know the story already.
My final point is similar: I haven't read the Walt bio, but I knew he had written one. While reading this book, I frequently felt Thomas was feeding us a lot of anecdotes that hadn't found their way into the first bio, leftovers. I didn't really feel like he had done much original research for this book. And that may be why it comes off as so Walt-centric. He only learned about Roy in interviews as it pertained to Walt, because that was the thrust of the interview. I also knew, going in, that the bio was likely to be shallow, because the man has written 14 biographies (plus other books). You simply can not do a biography justice and spend so little time examining a subject.  
  I'm forced to agree with you, Alex. Roy was always an afterthought for Thomas, and it only partially works to make him the focus now. It sounds like we both conclude that the book is disappointing. It was full of such promise in its title and initial description, but from the first chapter onward, it sadly failed to realize its vision fully. Readers might be interested, but they're more likely to be bored.

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