Busting Walt

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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How often do we (and I include myself prominently in this group) take for granted the many marvelous little treasures at the Disney theme parks?

These items are not the big and grand attractions, restaurants or even Hidden Mickeys, that seem to consume our time and attention (and quick snapshots), as well as sparking lengthy discussions on websites and blogs and all forms of social media.

I am talking about those simple things that blend in so well that we ignore them as we race somewhere, especially since visiting Walt Disney World parks these days seems to be an "appointment vacation" experience. I never occurs to us how nice those things are and how lucky we are that Disney included them.

In late September 2016, walls went up around the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) Hall of Fame Plaza without warning in preparation for its removal that was confirmed by Disney officially in early October. The area will be replaced by "a food and beverage marketplace" according to the Disney spokesperson and was planned to be cleared completely by Thanksgiving.

The Plaza was located to the side of what is now the Hyperion Theater showing "For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration."

There have already been many changes to Disney's Hollywood Studios in preparation for the building of Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land, and many more things will disappear before those new lands debut.

As I think about Walt's passing 50 years ago this week, I thought I would take a moment to remember and also explain the importance of that ATAS Hall of Fame Plaza. I can understand why the Disney executives no longer felt it had any value for today's guests, who probably don't remember some of the stars or their accomplishments that were being honored. But, once upon a time it was really a cool thing to have there. To me, the coolest thing was the bust of Walt Disney by Disney Legend Blaine Gibson but there is more to that story so let's begin at the beginning.

The Television Academy of Arts and Sciences is the group that hands out the fabled Emmy awards for excellence on television.


Walt Disney's bust was in front of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza, until the attraction was shut down.

The Hall of Fame was founded in 1984 by the president of the Television Academy, the late John H. Mitchell who died in 1988. It was Mitchell's intent to recognize extraordinary contributions to television and specifically honor particular individuals.

In the words of the selection committee, the Hall of Fame is for "persons who have made outstanding contributions in the arts, sciences or management of television, based upon either cumulative contributions and achievements or a singular contribution or achievement."

The first ceremony in 1984 celebrated Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Lear, Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, and David Sarnoff. All of them were diverse pioneers who transformed television from a simple mindless pastime to something much more significant.

The second year, the honorees were Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, Walter Cronkite, Joyce C. Hall (of Hallmark fame), Rod Serling, Ed Sullivan, and Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver Jr.

The third year ceremony in 1986 inducted Steve Allen, Fred Coe, Jackie Gleason, Mary Tyler Moore, Frank Stanton, Burr Tilstrom, and…Walt Disney.

The honorees received glass statuettes in the form of two ballet dancers that were created by sculptor and painter Pascal to reflect the self-discipline required in all facets of the arts. Beginning in 1988, inductees received an award designed by Romain Johnston of a crystal television screen on top of a bronze base.

Over the years, more than 150 individuals (and the show "I Love Lucy") have been inducted. In the beginning, there was no physical location for the Hall of Fame. It was simply a televised annual black-tie ceremony.

In May 1991, when the Academy moved to new headquarters, a spot on the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim boulevards in North Hollywood, California, was reserved for the Hall of Fame Plaza, an outdoor exhibit of statuary and wall sculptures honoring past inductees.

The third-annual televised ceremony, when Walt was inducted, aired over NBC on April 21, 1986, and was produced by Hemion-Smith. (The actual induction with all the paperwork took place March 23, 1986.)

The show included a tribute to the late puppeteer Burr Tilstrom, especially famous for the children's show Kukla, Fran & Ollie, which was also enjoyed by adults. Jim Henson was the presenter who also spoke about Tilstrom's career and its effect on other puppeteers. Henson would be inducted the following year.

Dick Van Dyke was the person who talked about Walt Disney's career and presented the award to his widow, Lillian. I blame show writer Buz Kohan for having Van Dyke say with such confidence that Walt was born in Chicago on "December 8, 1901.". Walt was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901.

The entire tribute, lasting roughly 10 minutes, included Van Dyke narrating a film tribute to the career of Walt. It was followed by many Disney costumed characters appearing on stage to the tune of a newly written song titled "Come and Join the Disney Parade".

Frolicking on stage were Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Dumbo, Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, Alice (from Wonderland) along with the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and the Walrus and, of course, Mary Poppins who popped open her umbrella.

Then actress and singer Michelle Lee came out to join the costumed characters singing another newly written song "Let's Be Children Again" that began "Take my hand and come with me and let's be children again in that land of fantasy…"

At the end of the song, Van Dyke approached the podium and respectfully said, "For a lifetime of dedicated service to the cause of wholesome family entertainment, for his vision and stamina in bringing to fruition many revolutionary concepts in the live and filmed programming, for allowing us to enter the wonderful world which he inhabited making us feel young again…

"The Television Academy and children of all ages take pride in the induction of Walt Disney into the Hall of Fame. And to accept for Walt Disney is his wife, Miss Lillian Disney…"

The short, white haired woman made her way from her table to the stage assisted by two young men who had been sitting with her. The audience erupted in applause. She got a quick kiss and hug from Van Dyke and then went to the microphone.

She said: "First, I want to introduce these two gentlemen…Walt's and my grandsons. This is Christopher and Walter Elias Disney Miller. And I want to tell you how happy we are to be here tonight. And I also want to tell you how proud we are to pick up this award for Walt. I want to thank you (on behalf) for my family, for myself and my Walt. Thank you."

Let's talk about how it all impacted the Disney-MGM Studios a few short years after that park opened.

On May 6, 1993, actress and producer Mary Tyler Moore (who had been inducted the same year as Walt into the Hall of Fame) joined a costumed Mickey Mouse (wearing a tuxedo and holding an oversized jackhammer) at the Disney MGM Studios for the groundbreaking of the Hall of Fame Plaza.

It was CEO Michael Eisner's intent that each fall, television legends and industry executives would gather at the location to honor present and former inductees. Following the groundbreaking, there was another ceremony inside the SuperStar Television attraction building (that attraction was the reason for the Hall of Fame being located outside since the attraction celebrated television history).

Moore announced the next Hall of Fame inductees and that the ninth annual induction ceremonies would take place November 20th at Disney-MGM Studios.

The plaza itself was unveiled on November 20, 1993. Bronze busts of Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, Bill Cosby (who was removed in 2015 because of all the negative publicity), Mary Tyler Moore, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle and of course, Walt Disney, were in place for photo opportunities.

The plaza also featured the second-largest permanent Emmy statue in the world. The figure measured 10 feet from its toes to the top of its electron-ball and overall was 14 1/2-feet tall on its base. It weighed 700 pounds and required 11 months of preparation and the efforts of more than thirty artisans, including a polishing technique that required more than 300 hours to render a brilliant golden sheen.

In comparison, the traditional Emmy statuette given out on the television awards show are just more than 15 inches tall and weigh seven pounds.

The bronze bust of Walt Disney was the work of Disney Legend Blaine Gibson who sculpted the piece in 1991 and signed it on the back of the base as "B. Gibson 1991." Gibson had first sculpted it for the new plaza that opened in North Hollywood in 1991.

Gibson began his Disney career in 1939 as an apprentice animation artist. He spent 10 years working in effects animation and then briefly became animator Frank Thomas' assistant.

Walt Disney noticed Gibson's interest and skill in sculpture and transferred him over to WED (Imagineering) to work on things for Disneyland.

Gibson ended up sculpting everything from Indian chiefs to mermaids to bathing elephants to, eventually, President Lincoln, Haunted Mansion ghosts, and blood-thirsty pirates — among just a few of his many accomplishments.

He retired from the Disney Company in 1983 and moved to Sedona, Arizona, with his wife, Coral.

While he was there, he continued to work on projects for the Disney Company, including sculpting a new president every four years for The Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World. President Obama is the only president he did not personally sculpt, but he still consulted on the head.

Gibson became a Disney Legend in 1993, the same year the "Partners" statue he created debuted at Disneyland. He died on July 5, 2015 at the age of 97.

The original model for the head of that statue and for the Hall of Fame bust has an interesting back story.

In 1962, at the urging of his WED supervisor, Richard "Dick" Irvine, Gibson sculpted a bust of Walt Disney as a "thank you" gift for Walt. Gibson now claims he was tired, working on the project late at night, and that the foundry work was not very good and he couldn't quite control what he wanted.

In any case, when he presented it to Walt, Gibson claimed that Walt said, "What am I going to do with this? Statues are for dead people!"

Gibson wanted to destroy the bust and replace it with another, but it was kept at WED for awhile and then at RETLAW, the company owned by Walt himself. Gibson kept the clay original in his garage and told me that "I couldn't bring myself to put a hammer to it."

He did a caricature sketch of himself sculpting the bust and Walt standing nearby saying, "That dummy thinks it looks like me."

Gibson shared with me the many challenges he faced on making decisions about the bust. Should he include Walt's famous raised eyebrow? Should he make the face look younger? What should he do to make the individual strands of hair on the head look as realistic as possible? Gibson said that Walt was so animated in real life and constantly shifting in appearance that it was hard to capture a frozen moment in time.

Years after Walt's death, Gibson worked on a California Institute of the Arts memorial medal that featured a head shot of Walt. Walt's widow Lillian told him at the time that "she didn't ever want a bust or a portrait or a statue of Walt to be done."

However, since this was to raise money for the institution that was a personal favorite project of Walt's, she reluctantly approved.

So Gibson pulled out his old model, done while Walt was alive, and used it as a reference for the medal, the Hall of Fame bust and the Partners Statue.

The introduction of Walt Disney's bust to the plaza at the 1993 ceremony was done by Hall of Fame Chairman Edgar Scherick:

"Walt was a creative genius who had a tremendous impact on every area of the entertainment business, especially television…

"Walt Disney understood the power of television perhaps better than anyone. He used it to create a national fascination with his new theme park in the orange groves of Anaheim. He created the first television movie, Davy Crockett. He used television to educate and enlighten with his True-Life nature series.

Through television, Walt became one of the most loved and trusted individuals in America as we welcomed him into our living rooms every Sunday evening. Walt was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 and it is particularly fitting that we should unveil his sculpture here, in his world."

CEO Michael Eisner attired in a tuxedo but wearing a white Mickey Mouse bowtie, pulled the covering from Walt's smiling bust.

Eisner remarked:

"Walt Disney had an enormous effect on all of our lives. I think Walt Disney was the first man in Hollywood, in the movie business, to recognize the importance of television. It was Walt Disney and Leonard Goldenson (head of ABC) who decided the time had come for Hollywood to join the television world.

"Up until a certain year, all of television was live out of New York, and Leonard Goldenson flew out to California and met with Walt Disney and decided that the time had come to bring the motion picture studios in California to the American people. (Korkis note: Actually, Walt's brother Roy had originally brokered the deal earlier with Goldenson in New York.)

"And they created a show called Disneyland which later became a place. Therefore we have a bust of a man that actually brought Hollywood and New York together and created television. Walt Disney understood more than anybody else the importance of that cathode ray tube.

"If Walt Disney were alive today, he would be in every form of interactive television, cable television. He would probably own a telephone company or two, just to make sure he was on the cutting edge of bringing entertainment and information to the public.

"So as one of the people…and 65,000 others who try to carry on the tradition of Walt Disney, we always remember two things: It started with a mouse and it all started on television."

Disney has stated that all the busts will be shipped back to ATAS in North Hollywood because it is considered their property, and there is no room in the new theme for the park for tributes to classic television.

At one time, CEO Michael Eisner tried to lobby the Imagineers to remove all the caricatures from the interior of the Brown Derby restaurant at Disney-MGM Studios because "nobody knows who those people are".

Eisner had suggested putting in newer caricatures of celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially since he was in negotiations with them to open a Planet Hollywood on Disney property in 1994.

Truthfully, how many of even the most fanatic of Disney or Hollywood fans look at the Dockside Diner ship in Echo Lake and think, "Wow! That ship is based on Bill's trawler in Min and Bill, the 1930 runaway hit film from MGM that won actress Marie Dressler her Best Actress Academy Award for portraying Min and inspired the even more popular film Tugboat Annie!"

If any idea arises, it is probably, "Hmm. Shouldn't they be selling fish and chips there?"

Time marches on and tributes to classic television and movies no longer appeal to the new demographic for Disney's Hollywood Studios. Walt continues to disappear little by little at Walt Disney World.

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    Such a great article , Jim. It saddens me how much of our cultural history is being lost to the younger generations because of the argument, "they've never heard of these people". Your last sentence brought a tear to my eye. So true...

  2. By Dave1313

    Great article, I agree with carolinakid's sentiments.

    I was saddened to hear this area was being so quickly removed with no prior announcement.

    I really like visiting the One Man's Dream attraction too, not just as a place to hide out when it starts raining.

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