The True Story of Roy 'Big Mooseketeer' Williamsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Like many kids, I was intrigued by Roy Williams on the Mickey Mouse Club. He seemed huge, perhaps a little slow on the uptake and less articulate compared to the slender and perky Jimmie Dodd.
He was almost like Br'er Bear, obviously good-hearted but dangerous. I don't know what really bothered me about him. Did I fear he would eat one of the Mouseketeers or sit and crush Jiminy Cricket before the little insect could spell "encyclopedia"?
Made a Disney Legend posthumously in 1992, Roy made many amazing contributions to the legacy of Disney, from his story work on the animated shorts to designing over 100 Disney military insignias during World War II (including one for the Flying Tigers) and from coming up with the concept of the Mouse Ears caps for Disneyland to his appearances on the Mickey Mouse Club television show that helped inspire young artists.
Joseph Roy Williams was born July 30, 1907 in Colville, Washington. His father passed away before Roy was 12 years old and the family moved to the Los Angeles area. His mother worked in a candy shop and later as a chambermaid at a hotel.
Roy went to Fremont High School, where he gained fame as a football player and was known by his classmates as "Moose" Williams, and as a funny cartoonist for the school newspaper.
That "Moose" nickname stuck with him his entire life because of his large size and is one of the reasons he was known as the "Big Mooseketeer" on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show.
In 1930 at the age of 23, Roy was hired at the Hyperion Studio after a short 10-minute conversation with someone he mistook for the office boy because he looked so young. That young fellow was amused because he was actually Walt Disney.
Walt paid for Roy's training at the Chouinnard Art School for three years, and at the Disney Studio Roy progressed on the then-standard path from inbetweening all the way up to full animator.
However, his true strength was his ability to turn out countless gags quickly so Walt moved him into the story department after he saw him pitch an idea about Donald Duck swallowing a magnet and attracting everything metal.
As Jack Hannah, another storyman/animator, told me when I interviewed him, "Roy Williams seldom came up with a complete story, but he was exceptionally good as a spot gag man. He might come up with 100 ideas, but only one or two were really usable. That's still pretty good for a six-minute cartoon."
Marc Davis told me, "Roy Williams was primarily a gag man. Roy was the type of guy you would bring in to get some gags to punch up a scene. He was very volatile. Roy was an incredible character. Any of us who worked with Roy could tell Roy Williams stories for three to four hours each and never repeat a story."
Williams did receive full story credit on several Disney animated shorts. As Jack Kinney recalled: "One director said, 'Damn that Roy, he tells a story so damn funny up there, and then I put 'em in the pictures and they're not funny any more. Why did we even laugh?' He thought, gee, this is a funny story, because everybody's laughing but they were just laughing at Roy; they weren't laughing at the story."
Because of his size, his gullibility and his quick temper, Williams was often the victim of pranks, like using a water pistol to shoot him in the crotch so it looked like he had peed in his pants but with his overhanging belly, he never noticed until someone pointed it out.
Of course, Roy was known to do pranks, as well. He used to keep a large gift-wrapped package on the floor of his home in Burbank. Whenever a male visitor came to the house for the first time, he would be told the gift was for him and would be invited to take it away still wrapped. The "gift" was a hunk of iron too heavy for anyone to lift, but it amused Roy to see how long men would struggle before finally giving up.
Artist Ken Anderson in 1985 told me:
"Here's a story I love. Roy Williams was a legend. Roy was a 320-pound former All-American high school football player. He was a little baby. He was a child. He was a naïve child in this great body who could throw people around. An enormous gag man. He just churned out these cartoons like you wouldn't believe. Walt decided that Roy should be a little more dignified so we helped Walt out.
"When Roy was made a gag captain we made it an important thing. He had to wear a suit, tie, and a vest…and socks. Everything. Then he came over to this new building. They were really just a couple of apartments we had gutted and made into rooms for the storymen.
"We had Roy all dressed up. I got Ethel, who was his wife, to make sure Roy wore the suit and everything. It didn't really fit. Nothing buttoned. Nothing really worked. As gag captain, one of his jobs was to go around and 'pass' on the gags that everyone had done. He came into the room.
"We took this little guy, Joe Sable, who was a new guy, who was maybe 5-foot-2 and weighed all of 80 pounds. We took T. Hee's pants. T. Hee was a big man in those days. He lost over 300 pounds. We took his pants and wrapped them around and around Sable and tied it up with a belt.
"So Joe is saying, 'Mr. Williams, is this gag acceptable?'
"And Roy is going crazy. 'Are those your pants? For crying out loud, are those your pants? Have you been on a diet?'
"Joe says, 'Yes, sir but what's good for one person isn't necessarily good for another.'
"Roy is getting desperate. 'Never mind that. What have you been on?'
"Joe says, 'I hate to tell you but it was sauerkraut juice. You should probably check with your doctor. Now about this gag…'
"Roy bolts away and calls his doctor. At least he had that much sense. He got the nurse and asked her if sauerkraut juice is good for diets and she says 'yes, but…' and Roy hangs up before she finishes and runs across the street and got a gallon of sauerkraut juice and drank this whole can.
"The meeting with Walt on gags is due to come up in less than 10 minutes. This whole business began to work on poor Roy's insides and there was a lot of Roy to work on.
"Have you ever heard elephants trumpet? That was the sound coming out of him. Roy would come in to the boards and these sounds are starting. 'Boom. Boom'. He runs down the hall to where we had a lavatory and we hear 'Bang! Bang! Bang!' We had the doors all locked.
"Then we had the next building fixed the same way. Wherever he went there was no chance for him to get any relief.
"Walt comes in and sits down on a camp chair and he is already drumming his fingers and saying, 'All right. All right. What have you boys got here?'
"Roy tries to start telling Walt the gags and he just can't take it any more. Roy bolts out of the door and knocks over everyone in his way and makes it across the street to the main building finally."
Roy was so prolific a cartoonist that during the 1940s and 1950s he sold several one panel cartoons to a variety of top magazines at the time including The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, American Legion, This Week, True and Liberty just to name a few of the most prominent ones.
There were two compilations of some of these cartoons, the hardcover How's the Back View Coming? (Dutton 1949) and the paperback The Secret World of Roy Williams (Bantam Books 1957).
He dedicated the paperback collection "To the man who has meant the most to me in faith and inspiration: Walt Disney, whose patience and guidance through a lifetime of association are in greatest degree imaginable responsible for the best of Roy Williams."
Williams was apparently popular or at least prolific and persistent to appear in so many highly competitive magazine markets. His artistic style lacks "line weight" and his faces are surprisingly inexpressive for an artist whose gags often depend upon facial reactions for their effectiveness. He was a "soft" cartoonist. There is no malice in his work and, unfortunately, it usually only provokes an occasional grin rather than a laugh. His line work is wobbly and characters' eyes are usually two black dots with the eyebrows either pointed down for anger or up for a more whimsical expression.
Only one cartoon in the Secret World has a Disney reference. A panhandler uses a Davy Crockett cap to solicit contributions.
The other cartoons in the book? A boss says "Smithers you've got an eye for business." And Smithers stands there with one of his eyes replaced by a dollar sign. A parrot keeps repeating "Polly wants a cracker" while the annoyed pet shop owner lights a fire cracker with glee to give to the unsuspecting bird. (Cracker, firecracker, get it?) Yet another shows a woman leaving a supermarket with not a dog on a leash but a kangaroo who carries all the purchases in its pouch.
Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club Magazine for December 1956 (Vol. II, No. 1) had the short article Tips on Magazine Cartooning by Roy Williams where he told aspiring cartoonists: "Remember one picture is worth a thousand words but one picture, well-staged, might well be worth a million laughs."
Apparently, Walt Disney and his brother Roy pulled Williams aside and asked him not to submit any more gag cartoons to magazines because he might be giving away his best stuff that could be used in the Disney animated shorts.
Like other artists at the studio, he would turn out lots of quick gag caricature sketches of his peers. The Sherman Brothers reprinted several that Roy had done of them in their book Walt's Time: From Before to Beyond (Camphor Tree Publishers 1998).
This ability to draw quickly and be personable and funny made him in demand for events, especially with children and the press, where he would amaze audiences by doing multiple quick sketches of Disney characters in seconds and even demonstrating how to draw Mickey Mouse. Walt first had him do it for the studio in 1951 at press events for a re-release of Snow White.
It was something he would later do in the early years at Disneyland usually at the Art Corner and sometimes outside of the Red Wagon Inn off of the Hub with special easel paper with his name and listing him as a Disney artist. He would appear in Disneyland parades as his health permitted.
Many people saved those quick, loose sketches, since it was their only personal encounter with a real Disney artist. A Mousekartooner kit was issued by Mattel in the mid-1950s with a ten-inch tall lithograph tin full-figure of Roy that could be moved to trace the drawing underneath to help teach kids how to draw cartoons.
He was personally chosen to be the Big Mooseketeer by Walt Disney. He told an interviewer, "I was scared to death….I was no actor but I had faith in Walt's vision. One day Walt walked into my office and said, 'Say, you're fat and funny lookin'. I'm going to put you on the Mickey Mouse Club and you can be the Big Mooseketeer'."
On Williams's AFTRA membership application, filled out on October 24, 1954, he lists his occupation as "Specialty Act (Cartoonist)," and notes he is a member of the "Screen Cartoonists Guild," also indicating his gross income was less than $2000 during the past year.
In 2012, I got to interview several of the original Mousekeeters and here are some of their memories that they shared with me about Roy:
Sherry Alberoni: "I remember that Roy Williams had this beautiful backyard pool that was done up in luau décor like tiki torches and a volcano. He would have swim parties there and have us all over like it was a family birthday party. Roy was incredible. In the studio cafeteria there would be these paper placemats with scalloped edges and while we were eating, Roy would walk by and draw cartoons on them. I think I may have saved some they were so good."
Tommy Cole: "Roy Williams was a little risqué but nothing really bad. He would tell jokes that were a little off-color. He was the fastest artist I ever saw. You could draw a little squiggle and, in seconds, he had turned it into a cartoon. He never ever never had time for the kids. Sometimes I thought he had pool parties at his house just to see the girls in bathing suits."
Doreen Tracy: "I helped hide his liquor bottles on the set so he could drink undiscovered when he got bored during rehearsals."
Don Grady: "Roy Williams dive bombed Uncle Walt on the golf course with his private plane and almost lost his job. He liked to take a few nips (of alcohol). He was not always as kid-friendly as Jimmie Dodd, who was totally kid-friendly."
Roy owned a Cessna plane. Disney would sometimes play golf at Griffith Park, and Williams would fly his plane over the golf course and playfully skim right over Disney. When Walt finally found out it was Roy, he told him he'd have his pilot's license pulled if he ever did that again.
Once when he falsely assumed he had cancer, Roy told his co-workers he was going to die by crashing his plane into the studio water tower. In 2004, the privately-owned but public-use Hi-Desert Airport in Joshua Tree (San Bernardino County, California) was renamed Roy Williams Airport in his honor through the efforts of the airport owner Park Richardson, who was Williams' son-in-law having married Williams' daughter Maureen.
"He was one helluva pilot," Richardson said. "He was the first person to fly upside down down the main street of Burbank and he was always doing stunts and flying low over the Disney Studios." The site was going to be turned into a solar farm starting in 2017 but that project has been indefinitely delayed.
Toward the end of his life, Roy was preoccupied with thoughts of death.
Marc Davis told me:
"Here's one of my favorite Roy Williams stories. He came home one day. His wife wasn't there. So he goes to the mail box. Looks at the mail and here's a thing from Forest Lawn cemeteries addressed to 'Mr. and Mrs. Roy Williams'.
"He opens it up and it turns out his wife had purchased two crypts for them. Roy was appalled and practically shook the house apart. Then he got a sly feeling. He calls up Forest Lawn:
'Hello, my name is Roy Williams. I am a diabetic and they are going to amputate my right leg. When they amputate the leg, I want the leg put in that crypt because when I die completely I want to be all together.'
"You can imagine the effect it had on them. He left them shaking for about a month. He never delivered the leg and they kind of breathed a sigh of relief I guess."
Roy took part in a very brief three to four minute on-camera appearance for the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder in January 21, 1975, that had six of the original Mouseketeers as guests. Roy was also interviewed in person by Jerry Bowles that same year for his book Forever Hold Your Banner High (Doubleday 1976) about the original Mickey Mouse Club.
Roy died on November 7, 1976, the victim of a heart attack, probably brought about because of his obesity and diabetes.
"Ever a colorful character," reported the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Newsletter, "Roy stipulated that he, much to the astonishment of morticians, but not his many friends, be interred wearing his Mickey Mouse Club hat and his Mickey Mouse Club T-shirt, with his name inscribed on the front thereof, in full regalia."
If Bela Lugosi could be buried in his iconic Dracula cape, it certainly seemed appropriate that Roy would be buried with his famous mouse ears. It was something we all believed for decades. However, he was actually cremated and his ashes reside at Forest Lawn Cemetery Hollywood Hills near his old home in Burbank in the Courts of Remembrance, Crypt 2290, Space 2.
One of the reasons I have Roy Williams on my mind is that, for over a decade, I have been searching for a copy of his limited-edition memoirs of his time at Disney.
A former Disney cast member who worked at the Disney Feature Animation Studios Florida in the 1990s first alerted me to the fact that the animation library when it was in the trailers at the Disney MGM Studios (before the Animation building was built) had a copy of it with a yellow cover featuring a caricature of Roy and some not "Disney approved narrative" stories.
Roy was known for his off-color humor and supposedly the manuscript includes stories like going on picnics at Griffith Park and getting drunk with the ink and paint girls and the notorious party at the Norconian Hotel after the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the Disney staff went wild for the weekend.
In one of his last interviews before is death, Williams said, "You know how things get exaggerated over the years. Most of that stuff was never true to begin with. When you get as old as I am you want to forget most of the stuff you've done."
The cast member said that when he realized how rare the book was and went back to the library to get the Williams book and try to make a copy, it had disappeared and no one had any ideas where it might be.
Williams' daughter remembers the book, but the family does not have a copy because, toward the end of his life, the family situation was strained. She also remembered the memoir as being "racy". She has given permission for the book to be reprinted if I can ever locate a copy.
Roy apparently also wrote a limited-edition book of poetry about death titled Vaporisms (Weather Bird Press 1967) and I haven't been able to track that down either because only 50 copies were ever printed. Were only 50 copies printed of the memoirs, which is why it is so difficult to find?
I am hoping that writing about Roy might attract the attention of someone who knows more about the missing memoir or even knows how to locate a copy.
Roy was definitely a colorful character and there are many more stories to be told.