Things You Never Knew About Walt Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
My most recent book, Call Me Walt: Everything You Never Knew About Walt Disney (Theme Park Press 2017) was inspired by my frustration and anger at all the misrepresentations that have sprung up about Walt Disney by people who claim "everyone knows these things about Walt that he hated women, was anti-Semitic, was a racist and more."
In addition, while I have dozens of biographies about Walt Disney—in English and multiple foreign languages—on my bookshelves, along with countless magazine and newspaper stories recounting his life, all of them seemed to have one major flaw in common: All of these stories tried to define who Walt Disney was by his accomplishments.
Most people, even if they are not Disney fans, can recount that Walt was responsible for: Mickey Mouse and his animated friends, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the first Technicolor animated feature film, Disneyland, Audio-Animatronics, and a host of other things that literally transformed not only America but the world.
Yet, even the simplest things about Walt have eluded people for decades.
Where did he buy his clothes? What cars did he drive? Did he also have cats as pets in addition to dogs? What charities did he donate to without fanfare? Did he believe in God and did he pray every day? What two television game shows did Walt and Lillian love watching in the evening as they ate on trays in front of the set?
The answers to all those questions and many, many more like them are in the book along with documentation. I even included a dozen chapters debunking the most frequent myths about Walt like that he was cryogenically frozen.
The book is not another biography. It is not chronological. It is not definitive. Every chapter is self-contained like many of my books. Basically, I wanted to present Walt as a person, a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and a grandfather, rather than as a brand.
The foreword to the book is by Disney Legend Floyd Norman who, among other things, shared this following insight that I don't think is commonly known:
"I personally never saw any racist behavior or words from Walt. When I was there in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew Claude Wilson who was the black janitor at the studio.
"A janitor is pretty much invisible in that people never pay much attention to him so he was able to overhear uncensored conversations as he was cleaning up. He never heard Walt being racist or others talking about Walt being racist.
"He also moonlighted as a bartender at many of Walt's parties when they were held as Walt's home in Holmby Hills. This older black gentleman who ran the bar always spoke well of Walt and loved working for him.
"Since we spoke privately, had there been anything to indicate racism, this old guy would have made his feelings known to me to warn me to be careful. I was always struck by Walt's openness, fairness and honesty."
It is amazing to me how many people today talk with such great authority about who Walt "really" was, and yet they never knew him or never talked extensively to those who did. Here are a few things you might never have known about Walt Disney:
Walt and Sports
One of Walt's favorite pastimes when he went to the mountains to ski was Ski-joring [a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse, a dog (or dog team) or a motor vehicle] and so that activity might have ended up at the never completed Mineral King ski resort. By the way, Walt still owned shares in the Sugar Bowl ski resort as the time of his death.
Walt loved playing badminton both at home and at the studio and was fairly good at it despite being notoriously uncoordinated when it came to sports. Animator Frank Thomas recalled to me playing against Walt at the studio and continually losing.
In 1926 at the studio on Hyperion Avenue, a noontime baseball game was started on a nearby vacant lot by the staff of the studio, and Walt would join for an inning or two on some days. Film Archivist Scott MacQueen discovered some footage of such a game from 1929 where Walt clumsily hits the ball and the players hesitate to throw Walt out at first base.
In 1963, Roy O. Disney stated: "Walt 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 the 1940s and 1950s, Walt and Lillian had a box that accommodated four people at Gilmore Field (on Fairfax and Third Street that is now the location of CBS Television City) which was the home of the Hollywood Stars baseball team of the Pacific Coast League. It was right behind the Stars' dugout, between the first base and home plate. They attended most of the home games.
"When I was about 12 through 14, I went with them to night games during the week and double headers on Sunday afternoons," Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter, recalled. "When the Stars were on the road, we listened to the games on the radio. After I was married, my husband Ron and I attended many games with my parents and friends."
The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and the Hollywood Stars ceased to exist as a Los Angeles team. Walt had a box at Dodger Stadium about three rows up behind first base. The Disney Studios had a box nearby as well. Diane and her husband often met her parents for dinner in the Stadium Club before the game.
"When Gene Autry formed the Los Angeles Angels, he offered to let Dad purchase some stock and credited him as an 'advisor,'" Diane said. "When I noticed this on the game program once, I was really impressed. Dad acknowledged it and said with mock ruefulness, 'But he hasn't asked me for any advice yet.'".
In 1966, Walt Disney proposed to buy a minority share in the California Angels but the deal was never completed and Walt died shortly afterward. Gene Autry and Walt belonged to the Lakeside Country Club and often played golf or had lunch together. Walt served on the Angels' original board of directors.
"Walt loved baseball and thought it was a great asset for Orange County," stated Jackie Autry, the wife of Gene. "Gene always regretted the deal was never made. Walt thought it would be a natural marriage of baseball and family entertainment. He was a tremendous visionary. Walt also thought that a baseball team in Anaheim might help attendance at Disneyland."
Disney executive Jack Lindquist remembered:
"I remember the Grand Opening of the Anaheim Stadium, which would become the home of the California Angels baseball team. We were going to put on a spectacular show which would include Walt Disney's participation. I picked him up at the airport and we headed out to the new stadium.
"I thought I knew the area well, and took what I thought was a short cut. The problem was that I got lost and we found ourselves somewhere in the back roads of Orange County. We barely made it to the stadium on time.
"Walt could sense my confusion and embarrassment about the situation, but he didn't raise hell with me at all. However, he did kid me for quite some time about being the only guy he knew who couldn't find his way out to his very own promotion."
When Walt was working on the film Mary Poppins (1964), additions to Disneyland's Tomorrowland, the opening of New Orleans Square, plans for Mineral King, the Florida Project and California Institute of the Arts, he should have been completely exhausted with little time left for his family and the day-to-day demands at the studio.
Yet, he spent much of his free time pursuing a new hobby.
At his Palm Springs vacation home, Walt became passionate about lawn bowling and even entered the tournaments held at the Smoke Tree Ranch where he occasionally won a cup although, in general, he was not very good at the sport. He was also responsible for building the bowling green there.
He also bowled at Roxbury Memorial Park near his Holmby Hills home and was an early benefactor of the Beverly Hills Lawn Bowling Club that bowled there.
After Walt's passing, his Beverly Hills bowling buddies teamed with the Walt Disney Company to organize an annual international tournament in Walt's name that has continued for several decades.
The 4-foot tall perpetual trophy, made of solid Brazilian redwood, has imbeds of Walt's four personal lawn bowls along the base and is topped by a golden foot-high Mickey Mouse figurine. On the side is a plaque with a three-dimensional image of Walt.
The object of outdoor Lawn bowling, or "bowling on the green," is to roll grapefruit-sized resin balls, also known as "bowls," on a flat rectangular grass green and try to get closest to the target ball, better known as the "jack." The person (team) who rolls their bowl closest to the jack scores a point. The bowls are slightly lopsided and curve when rolled, making it more challenging.
In 1964, Walt participated in the United States Lawn Bowling Championships at Buck Hills Falls, in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania with his Beverly Hills team in the U.S. Doubles Tournament. He was excited that he was able to take the team and their spouses there for the competition.
At one point, he discussed going with two of his team members and their wives to the Australian Lawn Bowling Tournament. Although he had a hand-tooled bowling bag, his daughter Diane said he found the idea of bowling tournaments "silly".
Walt and Politics
Certainly, politics is very much on the minds of people today but Walt was fairly quiet about his own political leanings.
Walt never showed any interest in politics until later in life when he became a conservative Republican.
Walt's father Elias was a Socialist and voted for Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas for president. His parents also voted for Upton Sinclair, who won the gubernatorial primary in California.
Walt told writer Maurice Rapf that he became a political conservative because as a boy in Kansas City, he had been attacked by a gang of older boys whose fathers worked for the Democrat machine and they put hot tar on his scrotum because Elias was a vocal Socialist. Walt said the incident turned him into a "dyed-in-the-wool Republican".
Rapf and others felt that the story might have just been Walt's typical hyperbole when telling a good story.
His older brother, Roy, had always been a Republican. Walt's wife, Lillian, was a registered Democrat.
It is much more likely that Walt's political bent later in life was influenced by the 1941 strike at his studio where he felt betrayed by his employees and his rankling at having a union put in place that would challenge how he wanted to do things.
Walt felt it was all Communist inspired, and he became a vehement anti-Communist, which led him to more conservative organizations and conservative friends with similar feelings, like Ginger Rogers, Robert Montgomery, and George Murphy. Up until that time, Walt was described as apolitical for the most part.
Walt had voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and became disappointed in him, later supporting Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940, but refused to publicly endorse the candidate. Walt wrote, "A long time ago I found out that I knew nothing whatsoever about this game of politics and since then I've preferred to keep silent about the entire matter rather than see my name attached to any statement that was not my own."
In 1944, Walt endorsed New York governor Thomas Dewey for U.S. president, donated heavily to the Republican party, and gave a speech in support of Dewey even as he told a radio audience in 1944, "As an independent voter, I owe allegiance to no political party".
Walt actively sought donations for the Dwight Eisenhower presidential campaign in 1956 and his studio produced the first animated television commercial for Ike. The little motorized cart Walt drove around the studio often featured bumper stickers supporting Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Disney Legend Ward Kimball told me that one of the arguments he got into with Walt was when he was called into Walt's office and Walt was soliciting donations for Nixon's campaign.
"Actually, it got into a big fight over politics," Kimball told me. "Walt wanted the staff to donate money to Nixon's campaign and I vehemently refused. Walt didn't like that and in fact, didn't talk to me for quite some time. He felt Nixon was going to do great things and was a great guy."
Walt was involved in Goldwater's campaign for president, donating money to him and offering him the use of the Disney plane. Walt even wore a small Goldwater pin under his lapel when he met with President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He mischievously flashed it to the Chief Executive when he approached him but Johnson never reacted or commented.
Walt encouraged actor conservative Republican George Murphy to run for U.S. Senate in 1964. He donated money to the campaign, loaned furniture for the campaign office, and took out a full-page ad supporting Murphy the last week of the election.
Walt told the New York Times in 1965, "I had my little fling at politics last year. It's really not interesting."
From a business standpoint, Walt certainly saw that by aligning himself publicly with any political party would damage the popularity of the films he was making and Disneyland by alienating a potential audience.
His daughter Diane told me:
"Politically, Dad was also kind of strange figure because he said to me, before he died, 'You know, I consider myself a true liberal'.
"He did, of course, support especially conservative people, like [Barry] Goldwater and had not much respect for [Lyndon] Johnson, as a president. But he was definitely not an ultra-conservative.
"For instance, he really felt that Social Security and those things were good…that you've got to help people…that Social Security took the burden away from children for caring for their parents when they got too old. He strongly supported conservation which was definitely not a conservative Republican platform at the time.
"I don't think anybody really knows him anymore. His name is so familiar and the brand is everywhere. As a daughter, I have been very upset by things that have been written and said about him that were not true. He was my trusted friend. I could tell him anything and everything and know that he would understand. He loved being a daddy and a grandfather.
"I remember going through Dad's dresser drawers one time looking for something. He kept things in them like a collection of matchboxes and soap packages from hotels and I used to find those fascinating. I found a newspaper clipping one time with the headline on it about his mother's death. He would never talk about her death."
Answers to the Walt Questions
By the way, I hate it when people ask questions but never supply the answer. So the short answers to some of my earlier questions about Walt are the fact that there were cats in the Disney household including a Siamese that would curl up in Walt's lap while he was reading scripts he had brought home from the studio.
His wife Lillian revealed:
"(Walt) was home by 7:30pm each night and we often sat in front of the television with trays eating our dinner. He said he didn't care much for television but he would even watch something that was bad.
"We most always eat in front of the television and he looks at everything. When we get a lousy program, I'll say 'Do you want me to change it?' and he'll say 'No. No. I just want to study it'. And he'll keep looking at it and I'll get annoyed and go upstairs and let him still look at it.
"We loved watching Groucho Marx [in the game show You Bet Your Life] and the quiz show with Herb Shriner (Two for the Money). Especially once things were well established, we would go to bed early around 9:30 p.m. so there wasn't much time to watch television."
For more answers and insights, I would suggest you put a copy of the book on your Christmas wish list. Believe it or not, despite its length, there are still more stories to tell about Walt as a person that I just couldn't squeeze into the text, even after leaving out a bibliography and index. Even 50 years after his death, I doubt we will ever really know who Walt Disney was.