Roy O. Disney Remembers His Kid Brother Waltby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
This December marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Walt Disney. Even though he has been gone for a half a century, Walt still seems very much alive. Those people who actually knew him still talk about him as if he might be stepping through the door to come into the room at any minute.
For those who didn't know him, those 50 years have created a distance that has made him a larger-than-life mythological figure, like Paul Bunyan. His many accomplishments are so overwhelming that they often steal all the attention away from the fact that he was a very real man with hopes and fears and things that made him laugh and cry.
He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father and a grandfather. He was prone to the same human flaws that plague each of us. He made mistakes, but his successes so far outnumbered his missteps that we still think that every decision he made was always the right one.
Few people knew him better than his older brother, Roy O. Disney, who had to step up and finish building Walt Disney World when Walt died in 1966. Roy and Walt were not just brothers. They were best friends who vacationed together, lived near each other and trusted each other.
While Walt had two other older brothers, Herbert and Raymond, he did not bond with them because of the vast age difference and that they left home when he was quite young.
Roy watched over Walt from pushing him around in a baby carriage on the streets of Chicago to sharing the same bed on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, when they were kids to always helping him out.
When he received the Milestone Award of the Screen Producers Guild on February 17, 1957, Walt Disney told the audience, "In my career, it helps to have some kind of genius. I've got it but it happens to be in the person of my brother Roy who runs the company, the whole works, at home and abroad. He has a talent for self-effacement which isn't going to do him a bit of good right at this moment."
Walt told writer Pete Martin in 1956:
"Roy was the one who would always see that [our little sister] Ruth and I had a toy. Roy didn't have much money, but by gosh, he always saw that we had a toy. Roy always saw we had little things like that. Roy was one of the kindest fellows I've ever known in my life to other people. He was really a kindhearted guy. Roy is very mule headed at times, too.
"My brother and I have always been very close and things but we've had many disagreements. My brother and I are right together. But a few hours later we might be arguing and fighting to beat the heck over some darn thing, you know. But we are together.
"I always go and check with my brother. Always. But I don't always agree with him. Roy had faith in me. I think that Roy has done a lot of things against his better judgment because he felt that I wanted to do it. Most of our arguments and disagreements I think have been because Roy has felt that he had to protect me."
In the article "Growing Pains," written by Walt for The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Editors (January 1941), he wrote:
"I came to Hollywood broke in 1923. My brother Roy and I lived in one room and Roy did the cooking. He was my business manager, and I didn't have any business. His job was to scare up three meals a day, and his job now is to conjure up three million dollars to meet the annual payroll.
"Both jobs have demanded just about the same amount of sweat, ingenuity, and magic. The main difference is that Roy sweats more red ink now. But no matter what the future deals me, I shall consider that I have come a long way, if for no other reason than Roy doesn't do the cooking any more."
Roy Oliver Disney was born on June 24, 1893 in Chicago. He was the longtime business partner of his younger brother, Walt, and the two co-founded 1923 the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923, which evolved into the Walt Disney Company. Roy said, "My job is to help Walt do the things he wants to do."
Los Angeles architect William Pereira, a friend of both brothers, told Newsweek magazine in 1962: "Roy has a mission which he, better than anyone else recognizes—and that's not to check Walt, but to see to it that he has the freedom."
During World War I, Roy served in the Navy as a petty officer on a cargo ship in the Atlantic and was in constant danger. Like many military men, he never talked much if at all about the experience. He was the father of Roy E. Disney, who was responsible for Disney's animation renaissance in the mid-1980s.
Roy Oliver was a quiet, modest man whose intelligence and financial acumen were widely recognized in the entertainment community. He was both the CEO and chairman of the Board for Walt Disney Productions for most of his lifetime.
He delayed his planned retirement and a scheduled European cruise with his wife Edna to fulfill his brother's dream of building a Disney venue in Central Florida that became the most popular vacation destination in the world.
Roy Disney fell into a coma at his home on December 19, 1971 just over two months after the opening of Walt Disney World.
He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Monday night, December 20, 1971 in Room 421 at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank, California at the age of 78. It was the same hospital where he had sobbed uncontrollably at the loss of his younger brother a half decade earlier in December 1966.
Roy always deferred the spotlight to his younger brother and, when he was interviewed, it was often to get some insight into Walt rather than Roy's personal perspectives.
Perhaps it was his Midwest upbringing of not wanting to draw attention to himself, or perhaps it was just his appreciation and pride in his brother's showmanship, but Roy remained in the shadows and enjoyed the blessings of anonymity to the general public.
I just recently released a book of quotations by Walt Disney and in the process of researching that book, I accumulated several quotes from Roy Disney, as well.
Currently, I am helping two young authors (Scott Madden and Chloe Shelton), who are each writing books about Roy from different perspectives. I am so excited about the original research they are doing, uncovering information that has never previously been shared with Disney fans about this very underrated man who among many accomplishments made Walt Disney World a reality in Florida.I can't wait to read those books and I have to smile that each of the writers are discovering that the more answers a writer finds, the more questions arise.
In addition, like the entire Disney family, Roy was very private about his personal life and, as the years pass, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the answers to those new questions.
To help commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Walt Disney and Roy as well, here are some quotes from the person who certainly knew Walt the longest and might have known him in a way that others never could.
In an article titled "Roy Disney Tends the Wallet of Walt's Motion Picture Empire" for The Evening Independent newspaper (January 22, 1964), Roy told writer Bob Thomas (who would later go on to write outstanding biographies of both Walt and Roy):
"I'm 8 ½, almost 9 years older than Walt so I already had a job when he was still growing up. After the war, when I was moving around the country in Army hospitals, I used to send Walt money. I told him for heaven's sake to spend it on himself and not put it into that business of his. He always looked skinny and underfed.
"[Walt's] a grand guy. It has always been a job keeping up with him. He gets the ideas then I have to look at them from a practical, prosaic view. There have been times when I just couldn't get the money.
"Sometimes I've had to say 'no' and he'll accept it if he knows that my decision didn't come from lack of vision. He's not a bad guy to work with. He knows what he wants and he'll listen to you – if you know what you're talking about. But if you're just shooting off your mouth, he won't hear a thing."
In LOOK magazine for July 26, 1955, Roy shared the following information:
"Dad was a good dad and a rigidly honest man. He just didn't know how to handle boys. From the start, we were all as stubborn as Missouri mules. I guess we still are. We had all sorts of pets — even pigs. Walt always felt sorry for the runt of the litter.
"Walt's outstanding characteristic is single-mindedness. When he decides he wants to do something or do something a certain way, nothing stops him —literally nothing. He's a terrific optimist; he always thinks everything will turn out for the best. Usually, his plans and ideas do — in the long run. But this lack of realism can also be a handicap.
"[Walt] was a bright little fellow: everybody liked him. Even then, he had a powerful urge to draw; once he drew pictures all over our white-painted house with black tar."
Roy told writer Richard Hubler in 1967:
"Walt found a pocket knife on the street in April of 1906. He was 4 years old. I took it away from him and must have said something like, 'Look, you can't be trusted with a knife. You'll be cutting yourself.' Within the last two or three years, here at the Studio, something came up and he accused me of bullying him and he said, 'You've been doing that ever since I was born. I remembered you tried to take that knife away from me in Marceline!' This is 60 years later. Talk about the memory of an elephant!"
In the article "The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney" by Robert De Roos for National Geographic magazine (August 1963), Roy revealed:
"As long as I can remember, Walt has been working. He worked in the daytime and he worked at night. Walt didn't play much as a boy. He still can't catch a ball with any certainty."
In a memo to all employees of Walt Disney Productions, released on December 15, 1966, the day of Walt's death, and credited to Roy Disney was the following statement:
"The death of Walt Disney is a loss to all the people of the world. In everything he did Walt had an intuitive way of reaching out and touching the hearts and minds of young and old alike. His entertainment was an international language. For more than 40 years people have looked to Walt Disney for the finest in family entertainment.
"There is no way to replace Walt Disney. He was an extraordinary man. Perhaps there will never be another like him. I know that we who worked at his side for all these years will always cherish the years and the minutes we spent in helping Walt Disney entertain the people of the world. The world will always be a better place because Walt Disney was its master showman.
"As president and chairman of the Board of Walt Disney Productions, I want to assure the public, our stockholders and each of our more than 4,000 employees that we will continue to operate Walt Disney's company in the way that he has established and guided it."
In an article titled "Unforgettable Walt Disney," credited to Roy Disney in Reader's Digest magazine (February 1969), Roy wrote:
"My brother Walt has been gone for more than two years now, yet his influence lingers like a living presence over the studio where he turned out the cartoons, nature films and feature movies that made him known and loved around the world.
"Even now, as I walk around the studio lot, I half expect to encounter that gangly, country-boy figure, head bowed in thought about some new projects. Walt was so much the driving force behind all we did, from making movies to building Disneyland, that people constantly mention his name as if he were still alive.
"Every time we show a new picture, or open a new feature at Disneyland, someone is bound to say, 'I wonder how Walt would like it?' And when this happens, I usually realize that it was something he himself had planned. For my imaginative, industrious brother left enough projects in progress to keep the rest of us busy for another twenty years.
"Walt was a complex man. To the writers, producers and animators who worked with him, he was a genius who had an uncanny ability to add an extra fillip of imagination to any story or idea. To the millions of people who watched his TV show, he was a warm, kindly personality, bring fun and pleasure into their homes.
"To the bankers who financed us, I'm sure he seemed like a wild man, hell-bent for bankruptcy. To me, he was my amazing kid brother, full of impractical dreams that he made come true.
"When Walt told a story, it was a virtuoso performance. His eyes riveted his listener, his mustache twitched expressively, his eyebrows rose and fell, and his hands moved with the grace of a musical conductor.
"Like many people who work to create humor, Walt took it very seriously. He would often sit glumly through the funniest cartoon, concentrating on some way to improve it. Walt valued the opinions of those working with him, but the final judgment was always unquestionably his.
"Once, after viewing a new cartoon with evident displeasure, Walt called for comments from a group of our people. One after another they spoke up, all echoing Walt's criticism. 'I can get rubber stamps that say, "Yes, Walt,"' he snapped.
"Walt involved himself in everything. During one story conference on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, the storyman, pointer in hand was outlining a sequence called 'How to Ride a Bicycle.' 'Now when you get on your bicycle…' he began. Walt stopped him. "Change your bicycle to a bicycle," he said. "Remember every kid isn't fortunate enough to have a bike of his own."
"The story of Disneyland, perhaps better than anything else, illustrates Walt's vision and his stubborn determination to realize an idea he believed in. Like a kid with a new toy—the biggest, shiniest toy in the world—Walt used to wander through the park, gawking as happily as any tourist.
"The overwhelming success of Walt's 'crazy idea' triggered a dramatic about face in the Disney fortunes. Yet success never changed the simplest of men. He hated parties, and his idea of a night out was a hamburger and chili at some little restaurant.
"What do you do with all your money?" a friend once asked him. Pointing at the studio, Walt said, "I fertilize that field with it." And it's true that Walt plowed money back into the company almost as fast as it came in.
"Walt used to say that Disneyland would never be finished, and it never will. I like to think, too, that Walt Disney's influence will never be finished; that through his creations, future generations will continue to celebrate what he once described as 'that precious, ageless something in every human being which makes us play with children's toys and laugh at silly things and sing in the bathtub and dream.'"
In addition to the anniversary of Walt's passing, this year is also the 45th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World.
At a press conference held April 30, 1969, at the Ramada Inn in Ocoee, Florida, Roy showed the plans for WDW and reminded the audience:
"I know Walt would like what his creative team is doing because these are the ideas and plans he began. Everything you see here today is something Walt worked on and began in some way.
"It seems strange now to recall that this day really began in 1953, when Walt and his creative staff started the planning of Disneyland in California.
"Disneyland is typical of everything we have accomplished at Walt Disney Productions over the years. The real strength of our Company has been that Walt and the staff he built always seemed to be able to reach out and touch the heart of the public.
"The important thing in our Company has always been sticking to the basics, and upholding the high standards and quality of our product. After 46-some years in the entertainment and recreation business, that's really how we have arrived at this exciting day."