The Walt Disney U.S. Postage Stamp Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The first Disney stamp was issued by the United States in 1968 and commemorates the life of Walt Disney. Like some of you reading this column, I have several examples in my collection as well as a variety of First Day covers with cachets.

A First Day Cover is a very popular collectible for stamps. It is a size No. 6 white envelope with the stamp placed in the usual upper right-hand corner. The "First Day of Issue" ink cancellation, indicating both the date and place of issue, is placed over the stamp itself.

A First Day Cover can be enhanced with a cachet where the left hand side of the envelope is a printed illustration/text or hand-drawn artwork, relating to the theme of the stamp issue and in the case of the Walt Disney stamp there are hundreds of variations some much more professional than others.

There are also what stamp collectors call "add ons" where the stamp and the cancellation happened on the actual date but the left-hand side was left blank and sometimes years and years later someone "added on" some appropriate artwork in that space.

The original painting that was the basis for the Walt Disney stamp.

In a ceremony held in Walt Disney's hometown of Marceline, Missouri, on September 11, 1968, the postmaster general and the governor of Missouri (who had declared the day officially "Walt Disney Day") presented Roy O. Disney and members of the Disney family the very first Disney postage stamp in a ceremony with a color guard, singers, speakers and more.

Two Disney artists, Paul Wenzel and Bob Moore, designed the 6-cent stamp that featured a portrait of Walt surrounded by "the children of the world" emerging from Sleeping Beauty Castle in the background very much in the spirit of the "it's a small world" attraction that was one of Walt's personal favorites.

Wenzel did the Walt portrait and Moore designed the rest. During his 42-year career with the Walt Disney Company, Wenzel created thousands of fine illustrations for motion picture advertising and retail merchandising including poster artwork for the movie Mary Poppins and the Walt Disney Company official Christmas cards.

Moore joined the Disney Studio in February 1940 after a two-year stint working for Walter Lantz and retired in 1983 after designing the Sam the Eagle mascot for the 1984 Olympics. He did many special projects over the years, including creating the wall murals for many of the Walt Disney elementary schools including the one in Marceline.

"No Disney cartoon characters appear on the stamp with Walt because we couldn't copyright the design. Since the stamp would be used on letters traveling all over the world, we worked into the design our world-wide characters from It's a Small World'," Moore told me in 1983 when I questioned him about the final design.

Moore used to call himself "Bob Moore, M.D." The M.D. stood for "Mouse Drawer." The first film he worked on was Fantasia. From animation he moved to the story department. After World War II, he moved into the publicity department as a temporary assignment that lasted more than three decades.

He became the director of special projects and he laughingly said, "That means they gave me all the things they didn't know what to do with."

Moore remembered Walt:

"He was a genius. Very demanding. He knew exactly what he wanted and so long as you gave it to him, you were OK. He expected it right. Very intense, extremely well read.

"I was always awestruck in his presence. He also had a keen sense of exactly what the public wanted. Walt surrounded himself with great people who could accomplish great things. And that's why everything always worked out."

"Ideas for commemorative stamps pour in from the public at a rate of 250 to 300 subjects a year; the current backlog is about 3,000," wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Sherri Blifford at the time Walt's stamp was issued in 1968.

"The Postmaster General selects about fifteen a year with the help of a Citizen's Advisory Committee, whose eleven members include philatelists, journalists, historians and representatives of the White House and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

"The committee was moved to recommend a Walt Disney commemorative by a flood of mail from industrialists, financiers, small children—even teenagers. It wasn't an organized campaign, unlike some of the recent date seeking—so far to no avail—postal recognition for such subjects as George Gershwin, Junior Achievement and the 50th anniversary of the Baltic States."

When Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966, one of the things he did was to eloquently promote through correspondence with the Postmaster General of the United States the creation of a commemorative Walt Disney stamp.

The stamp was issued almost two years after Disney's death in December 1966 and that was highly unusual at the time. The rules have changed, and now anyone honored on a U.S. stamp must be dead for at least 10 years. The only exceptions are U.S. presidents, who can be honored as early as their first birth anniversary following their death.

Several cities campaigned for the honor of being the location for the first day release of the stamp including Walt's birthplace of Chicago, Illinois; Burbank, California, where Walt's studio was located although it could also be considered in a broader sense a part of Hollywood; and Anaheim, the home of Disneyland.

Walt's own statements during his lifetime seemed to make it clear that Marceline represented the happiest time of his life and a time where he received inspiration for many of his later accomplishments. Marceline, for roughly four years, was the boyhood home of Walt and Roy, where their father had owned a small farm.

The Walt Disney stamp was one of the few U.S. stamps that were printed outside the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and so resulted in more errors, freaks and oddities in both printing and perforation creating the opportunity to find many variations.

The Achrovure Division of Union-Camp Corporation was chosen by Postmaster General Lawrence F. O'Brien since he felt the company would be able to handle the color nuances necessary. O'Brien wanted the stamp to accurately capture the soft pastel colors of the final approved design so the U.S. Post Office contracted with the company to print and perforate the colorful image.

The Walt Disney stamps were printed in press sheets of 400 subjects (twice the number on a standard commemorative stamp plate), eight panes of 50 stamps each. It was printed using five inks: brown, black, blue, red and ocher (yellow). The initial printing was a 120 million stamps because it was felt the demand would be large.

It was only the second U.S. postage stamp printed by the gravure method. As a result a host of errors and minor variations were produced, some of which are still being discovered today.

However, since it was an unproven printer and perforator, it was not particularly knowledgeable with the rigors of producing nearly error-free postage stamps that seldom reach either collectors or the general public.

The Walt Disney stamp was released in 1968, and quickly after more than 150 million were sold.

The prestigious Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers lists seven major errors including ink errors from omission to smearing and some without the words "United States" or the price value although other variations exist.

When Santa Fe's Walt Disney Special train left Kansas City for Marceline on the morning of September 11th, six months of planning had been completed by the 2,900 residents of that central Missouri community. The First Day of Issue celebration for the Walt Disney commemorative stamp had begun.

On board the train were seventeen members of the Disney family, other special guests and members of the press, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center Band and 450 underprivileged children from the Kansas City area (including many African American youngsters which would have pleased Walt because he believed and practiced diversity).

The back of the train had a big, red, round sign proclaiming "Walt Disney Special" on one side and another round sign proclaiming "Marceline Missouri Celebration" on the other.

Representing the Disney family at the ceremonies were Lillian Disney; Roy Oliver Disney and his wife, Edna; Diane Disney Miller; Sharon Disney Brown; Roy Edward Disney and his wife, Patty; Joanna, Christopher, Jennifer, Walter Elias Disney, Ronald W. and Tamara Miller; and Abigail, Timothy, Roy Patrick and Susan Disney.

Studio employees Bob Moore and Paul Wenzel, with their wives, were also on board as honored guests because of their artwork on the stamp and they were each to have their own cars in the forthcoming parade.

In the official program book for the ceremony, it states:

"The Walt Disney Commemorative Stamp was designed by staff members of Walt Disney Productions. C. Robert Moore designed the stamp and Paul E. Wenzel painted the Disney portrait. Mr. Moore is known to many in Marceline in that he was the Disney staff member who designed and coordinated in 1960, the murals in the Walt Disney Elementary School which were a gift to the children of Marceline from Walt and Roy Disney."

After the 120-mile train ride to Marceline—the first train ride for many of the Disney grandchildren—the official party rode as special guests in an hour long, fourteen band, fifty float parade. The parade was viewed by an estimated 12,000 people or four times as many people as the total population of Marceline at the time .

One float featured a rather tall homemade Mickey Mouse costumed character whose head looked to be made of paper mache. He was surrounded by a half-dozen children costumed as children from different countries. Shriners riding their little bikes zoomed up and down the street. Even Bill Cottrell, Walt's brother-in-law, rode in a convertible and waved to the crowds.

There is approximately 15 minutes of Disney home movies shot on color 16mm film of the event that exists and it reveals a truly small hometown and homemade affair that may have been the most important event that many of the participants had ever witnessed.

The home movies make me smile because Lillian shared a convertible with Roy O. Disney and his wife, Edna. However Roy and Edna sat in the back seat with a sign on the side of the car that said, "Mrs. Walt Disney" while Lillian sat in the front with a sign on the side that said, "Roy O. Disney." That may have confused a few onlookers for a moment who sat along the curb or stood in front of the shops on the main street as the convertible passed them.

Lillian was very stylish in a white outfit with black striping that created big diamond patterns. She wore dark glasses, white gloves, a pearl necklace and carried a small white purse.

Both Diane and Sharon were also stylish in white dresses. Roy O. Disney's wife, Edna, was in a red dress that stood out in all that ocean of white. The young Disney children in their little suits and ties and best dresses didn't seem too excited or happy to be out in the hot sun with a bunch of adults jabbering away.

More than 300 people attended a luncheon held in the Disneys' honor in the multipurpose room of Marceline's Walt Disney Elementary School. Yes, the multipurpose room looked pretty similar to most schools of the time. There were long rows of cafeteria tables covered with a white tablecloth and cafeteria folding chairs. The room also had one of Moore's Disney character murals covering the wall high above the guests.

This was the third Walt Disney Elementary School to be built in the United States. It replaced the Park Elementary School that Walt had attended as a child.

In 1960, Moore designed and coordinated the installation of a series of Disney character murals for the school. Walt attended the dedication of the school and also gave the school a Mickey Mouse flag (a flag that had flown at Disneyland Park), a 55-foot cast aluminum flagpole from the most recent Winter Olympics where Disney provided the entertainment, and school material like playground equipment and a filmstrip projection system.

Mid-afternoon the formal ceremonies began with the arrival of Missouri Governor Warren Hearnes and Postmaster General W. Marvin Watson. First, a plaque commemorating the day was unveiled at Marceline's post office. Watson and a smiling Lillian Disney unveiled the plaque that read "Commemorative Stamp Honoring Walt Disney Marceline's Favorite Son was Issued from This Post office September 11, 1968."

Then came the official ceremonies, attended by 5,000 people in the town square. Many sat on the grass and fanned themselves with the official program. Children scrambled about in their strollers. Some attendees had brought lawn chairs to offer some comfort during the lengthy speeches.

As far as the eye could see, people filled the open tree-filled area. Some men were dressed in suits and ties and hats. Some women were dressed up with their best necklaces.

There was a raised stage that had been erected and it was surrounded by red, white and blue bunting, with a single podium downstage center. On the front of the podium was the official seal of the governor of Missouri. The backstage wall had huge photos of President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a little to the side of the vice president was a photo of Governor Hearnes.

Between those photos was a huge photo of the Walt Disney stamp that interestingly was placed significantly higher than the pictures of the politicians. The dignitaries sat on folding chairs on the platform with the adult Disney family members in the front row on stage left: Roy O. Disney, Edna, Lillian, Diane and Sharon.

During his remarks, Postmaster General Watson said that the young and old, from every corner of the country, from every walk of life — governors, members of Congress, the greats of the entertainment world — had joined in requesting a postage stamp honoring Disney.

"From the prison in Jackson, Michigan," Watson said, "Inmate No. 114477 wrote these appealing words to me: 'A stamp to commemorate Walt Disney is a very good idea. Walt Disney is part of us'."

The Postmaster General said Walt spoke "a language of happiness and good cheer, of wholesome, decent values of robust high adventure and in nature films, of astonishing beauty."

Governor Hearnes said that all Missourians could take pride that a career that was to span borders, oceans and continents began in Missouri. He concluded, "I think it is fitting, and I know it is proof of the success of his work that while the names of presidents and kings and heroes and conquerors may escape our conscious memory, there are but few who will not remember or soon forget a mouse named Mickey, or a duck named Donald or a man named Disney."

Roy, Lillian, Diane and Sharon were each presented with a black folder containing the stamp.

During the first 10 days that the Disney stamp was on sale throughout the United States, more than 150 million copies were sold, and the Post Office Department was considering an additional printing. This, plus the fact that almost one million "First Day Covers" were canceled in Marceline and forwarded to stamp collectors throughout the world, marked the Disney stamp as one of the most popular and successful issues in United States history.

That is why it is still easy today to locate a copy of the stamp or the First Day Cover inexpensively for your own collection from a variety of sources.

For those like myself who never got the chance to attend the ceremony, here is the agenda for that day in September from the official program:

First Day of Issue Ceremony honoring Walt Disney
Showman of the World
Wednesday, Sept. 11, 1968
3 p.m.

Presiding: The Honorable Harry L. Porter

Presentation of Colors: Military Color Guard

National Anthem: The Naval Training Center Band (Great Lakes, Illinois)

Invocation: Most Reverend Joseph M. Marling, C.P.P.S. Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri

Welcome: The Honorable William F. Haley, City of Marceline

Introduction of Distinguished Visitors: The Honorable John R. Allison

Remarks: The Honorable Warren E. Hearnes; The Honorable Edward V. Long United States Senator Missouri; John S. Reed President Santa Fe Railway

Address and Presentation of Albums: The Honorable W. Marvin Watson Postmaster General

Response: Roy O. Disney

Musical Selection: Choral Group Brookfield High School (Mrs. Ida May Womtwell, Director)

Benediction: The Reverend Walter B. Price (Baptist) Executive Director Missouri Council of Churches

Kaye Malins who created the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline told D23:

"It was a huge event here in Marceline. They had 750 dignitaries come in. They sent invitations out, 1,200 formal invitations. Every foreign consulate in the U.S. got one to come to Marceline. The town worked so hard on this. Every store had decorations in it.

"The Disney family, of course, was leading the parade. When they turned around and came back, which everybody that comes to Marceline thinks is so funny, that our parades go one way and turn around and come back, they got out because they wanted to take pictures of the parade. So they all stood in front of the Masonic Temple and took pictures of the parade that they had led down the street.

"Everybody was here. It was huge. They brought a train in from Kansas City that they called The Walt Disney Special. The president of the Santa Fe Railroad was here with his daughter because of the huge Disney/Santa Fe connection and they put that special train on. It left Kansas City and they had bands playing at the station when the train pulled up.

"It brought the Disney family, a lot of the dignitaries and 400 of the inner city children that were sponsored by groups in Kansas City, to bring them to Marceline. They had lunch for all of them and they went to the Uptown Theater and saw the movie Mary Poppins, and then they had a lunch at the Walt Disney Elementary School for all the dignitaries that day."

In 1979, the stamp was part of a "Historic Stamps of America" series. This version also has a Marceline, Missouri, postmark (September 11, 1979), but it's on a "then-current" 15 cent regular American flag postage stamp. The commemorative stamp itself is located underneath a raised plastic covering on the left side of the envelope. Inside the envelope was an information card explaining about the stamp and Walt Disney.

On August 23, 2004, the post office in Marceline where the 1968 postal tribute was first issued was officially renamed, "The Walt Disney Post Office" as a result of an Act of Congress on November 11, 2003 (PL 108-110). Inside the post office is a collection of framed black-and-white photos from the 1968 event.

The huge success of the stamp inspired another stamp featuring the likeness of Walt Disney. Two years later, on December 22, 1970, the tiny European Republic of San Marino issued a set of stamps showing Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Uncle Scrooge, and five others including one stamp with a picture of Walt Disney and a scene from Jungle Book, the last animated film in production when Walt passed away.

Since that time, dozens of foreign countries have produced stamps with Walt Disney's image for the same purpose of raising funds.

Believe it or not, I have a lot more to say about the Disney philatelic heritage and will try to get to those more common Art of Disney commemorative stamps from the beginning of this century, foreign stamps and some historical surprises (like the first Mickey Mouse cachet was released on New Year's Day 1934 to commemorate that year's Rose Bowl football game in Pasadena with an image of Mickey rushing with a football and wearing cleats) hopefully sometime within the next few weeks.