One of Walt'sby David Koenig, contributing writer
Thankfully for this author, all cast members have great war stories. Most have a few gems at the ready that they can share at any gathering to captivate any crowd. And those who worked at Disneyland in the earliest years often possess a couple of pieces of solid gold: Walt stories.
Back in the late 1980s, when I first started interviewing cast members for my first book, Mouse Tales, I'd usually try to record their best stories, then quickly move on to another willing source. Dick May made me slow down. Dick, who passed away last week at the age of 89, had been a full-time Anaheim teacher and counselor since 1955 and a part-time cast member since 1956. He spent 25 years on attractions, but even at the park he was a guide and instructor first, training and encouraging his co-workers and then spending the 1980s with the Disney University, helping indoctrinate newcomers.
It was October 1990. As was the case with many of the most helpful old-timers I found, I located Dick because of a retirement notice in the Disneyland Line and his listing in the Anaheim phone book. I called and asked if he could share his stories. He was happy to, but in person. I asked if I could take him to lunch. He just wanted a cup of coffee at the nearby Winchell's.
There we spent several hours, where I quickly discovered his well of stories was inexhaustable, as was his love for Disneyland, Walt, and his fellow cast members. Yet Dick preferred to parcel out his countless anecdotes, interspersing them with lessons about Walt, his park, his followers, and life. He was trying to teach me that Disneyland was more than a collection of adventures. The place had a heart, and every story—even the wacky ones—had a lesson.
After a few hours, I had to get back on the road, but we set up a time to return for another cup of coffee and more lessons, and then another. And in all of our meetings, Walt was his favorite topic.
Here are a few of Dick May's Walt stories, from our first meeting:
"Walt designed the Hyperion Studio by himself. The studio grounds were beautifully landscaped, benches everywhere. You could see animators playing ping pong, football, remote control cars. Their various little stalls were decorated like you wouldn't believe. The environment he tried to create was that of a school, to nurture creativity."
"Walt lived at the park a lot. When I was a foremen in Tomorrowland, many nights Walt would come into the old Bell Telephone buildingw ith a pot of coffee, in his bathrobe and slippers, to talk about what he wanted to do."
"When we only had only one maximum capacity ride, the Jungle Cruise, Walt wanted them to extend the ride a few minutes, to improve it for the guests. Management explained why they couldn't. 'You didn't hear me. I said extend the ride.'"
"When they first built the (Swiss Family) Treehouse, I heard Walt say, 'Tear it down! I asked for a tree. You gave me a bush!'"
"When Walt walked the park, he never had people with him. He'd wear a brown suit and a brown fedora. He stood in line with everyone else. One day, I was taking tickets on Casey Jr., and a woman asked, 'Does Walt Disney ever come here?' Walt was standing right behind her and answered, 'Yes, I do.'"
"Walt was walking across Tom Sawyer Island and a rude gentleman from New York grabbed him and shook him. 'I want you to meet my kid.' Human nature is to react badly, but Walt knelt down to the level of kid and talked to child. He put his money where his mouth was."
Even in 1990, Dick recognized Disneyland had changed since the days of Walt. For one, the strike in 1984 had frayed relationships. But Dick figured it was inevitable, without Walt. "You might criticize some of the lack of intimacy because of (Disneyland's) loss of community, but we do not have a father as an example any more. It's human nature to study your boss, to discover what makes him successful so you can clone yourself after this guy."
Few cast members did a better job of that than Dick May.