Walt Disney's Final Awards

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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In 1963 columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that after a recent visit to the Disney Studios in Burbank, actress Lillian Gish "put in a pitch for [Walt] Disney to receive a Nobel prize. We should get back of the idea. I don't think anybody's done more than he has [and is] in the field of entertainment to promote decency, morality, and just plain goodness."

Gish visited Stockholm, where the Nobel prizes are given out, and she was invited to speak in the city where among other things proposed that Walt be given a Nobel Prize.

During an Oslo press conference, Gish said, "I remembered seeing the word Nobel everywhere, and was impudent enough to suggest Disney be given a Nobel prize. The next day it was headlined in the papers. The committee was working on it when he died. Regretfully, the awards are never given posthumously.

"He deserved it for the beauty he's given us, and for what he's done for children, for animals, for all of us."

Walt never won a Nobel Prize, even though a French magazine proposed he should be awarded one in 1964, but he certainly received countless awards over the years, both big and small.

Even decades after his passing, Walt Disney still retains the honor of being the individual with the most Academy Award nominations and the most Oscar wins.


Walt still retains the honor of being the individual with the most Oscar wins.

Walt was honored many times for his Americanism. He received an award from the American Legion "for dramatizing to old and young alike the unique heritage of America."

The Freedom Foundation presented him with its coveted "George Washington Award" for promoting the American Way of Life. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who read the citation in a ceremony, praised Walt as an artist who excelled in "communicating the hope and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet."

In 1964, Walt Disney was one of several Americans chosen by President Lyndon Johnson to receive the President's Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The award ceremony was held at the White House on September 14, 1964.

Upon delivering the award, President Lyndon B. Johnson simply stated, "Artist and impresario, in the course of entertaining an age, he has created an American folklore." Walt playfully responded by quickly flashing a Goldwater (Johnson's Republican rival at the time) pin he wore under his lapel to Johnson who did not react.

The lobby of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco displays 248 awards that Disney won during his career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many of the Academy Awards, including the honorary award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that consists of one full sized Oscar along with seven miniature ones representing the Seven Dwarfs.

To me, it was remarkable that Walt still found time to show up at the seemingly never-ending ceremonies honoring him despite handling the responsibilities of his studio, Disneyland, the preparation for Epcot, the planning for Mineral King and California Institute of the Arts among many other things he was deeply involved in doing the last two years of his life.

There are countless pictures of him smiling patiently and being gracious as medals are tied around his neck, huge bowls and plaques are displayed in front of him and oddly shaped awards are thrust at him. Because he appeared so confident and self-assured, few Disney fans realize that for his entire life Walt had a Midwestern shyness. His wife Lillian said that he was often embarrassed by being given any type of award and just as often embarrassed if he was nominated but didn't win.

According to the Disney Archives, Walt Disney, along with members of his staff, received more than 950 honors and citations from every nation in the world—including 48 Academy Awards and seven Emmys—during his lifetime.

Let's take a quick look at just a few of the awards Walt received in the last two years of his life. Remember these were the ones where he physically showed up to accept the honors but there were many more awards given to him where he was unable to attend.

Walt was presented with the Americana Award by the Women's Division of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (L.A. County Chapter), for the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln attraction. It was held at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom, on Armed Forces Day.

The 5,000-members of California Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) at their 1965 annual meeting in San Diego passed a resolution commending Walt for "his information, wholesome enjoyment and distinguished entertainment."

Also in 1965, in New York, Walt was the recipient of the inaugural Marquis Awards for "outstanding citizenship and competent management," presented by the American Institute of Management, at the Plaza Hotel.

That same year, Walt was presented with the Automobile Club of Southern California's Silver Bowl Award of Merit and a received a lifetime membership. There was a screening of the Goofy cartoon Freewayphobia. The president of AAA remarked, "Walt Disney has the ability to point out our weaknesses and frailties and then teach us how to cope with them while we laugh at ourselves."

In addition, Walt was at the San Francisco Film Festival to accept the Chamber of Commerce's Native Son award, a huge silver bowl, just prior to a special screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Chamber President William Bird made the presentation: "Mr. Disney, through your genius you have brought happiness and pleasure to children of all ages and have become a symbol of good taste, responsibility and imagination to all the world. You are more than a citizen of any one geographic area. We hereby adopt you as an honorary son of San Francisco."

Walt also picked up an honorary lifetime membership from the California State Park Rangers Association at the scenic Asilomar State Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. It was given to him "in recognition of his contribution to the field of conservation and the development of California's great state park system."

Before the year was finished, the Deb Star Ball at the Hollywood Palladium for the first time in its history dedicated the event specifically to an individual, Walt Disney. Actress Vera Miles presented the plaque in recognition of Walt's "many outstanding contributions to the motion pictures and television industries and in recognition of his wholesome entertainment and artistic excellence."

Besides being made the Grand Marshall of the Pasadena Rose Parade, the year 1966 brought Walt some additional honors.

In October of 1966, Walt was awarded a distinguished service award, along with Bob Hope, during the People to People 10th anniversary dinner in Kansas City. People to People was founded by former President Dwight Eisenhower to advance international understanding and friendship. In introducing Walt, Eisenhower said Walt was a man "who has spread more understanding of the fun loving American than anyone else and has brought joy to the hearts of many people, both young and old."

Walt replied, "I haven't been conscious I've done anything. I've been going along my own way, doing things I had always wanted to do as a boy in Kansas City. I now find that at the same time, I've been serving a good cause."

Walt received the first Photoplay Front Cover Award where publisher Frederick Klein praised both Walt and the Disney Studio "for their achievements in reflecting the highest standards via the American motion picture screen." This was actually the second Photoplay award for Walt. He was presented a bronze plaque in 1954 for his "unique contribution to motion pictures."

Within a span of 24 hours, first in Washington and then New York, Walt received two awards. In Washington, D.C., he got the Commander's Cross of the Order of Dannebrog from Denmark's King Frederik IX, the highest accolade that can go to anyone other than a Danish citizen, "as a recognition of your warm friendship for Denmark and your contribution to the world as a motion picture and television producer."

Then Walt got a special once-in-a-century gold medallion from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The medallion, the only one of its kind ever given, was given to Walt according to ASPCA President James Jenkins in New York because "we feel that no man in the century has done more to instill a love and appreciation of animals in the hearts of generations of children and adults. It is fitting that the oldest and largest humane organization in the Western Hemisphere honor Mr. Disney on the 100th anniversary of its founding."

One of the last speeches Walt ever gave was on Saturday, October 1, 1966 when he received a new award from the National Association of Theater Owners. NATO was the result of a union several months previously between two massive exhibitor organizations, Allied States and the Theater Owners of America. The newly combined NATO represented more than 90 percent of all movie theaters in the United States or roughly 15,000 showcases.

On the evening of October 1, in New York's Americana hotel, nearly two thousand exhibitors and their wives from throughout the United States and Canada gathered together as Walt was presented with what NATO claimed was a salute "to dramatize the impact of his artistry and showmanship upon the entire world."


Walt received the Showman of the World Award from the National Association of Theater Owners

In fact, the award was designed especially for Walt and bore the following inscription:

"In a universe of unlocking secrets, creativity, diversion and recreation become symbols of man's civilized state. To bring us to this plateau, science and religion have probed the mind and the soul. Entertainment has ministered to the emotions. Above all others in a global configuration of The Showman of the World is one man. He stands alone. His sensitivity to the visual delights is unequalled; even unchallenged.

"His total involvement of the family is a credo. His uncompromising wholesomeness of subject matter and presentation give a mighty industry dignity and respect and recognition. But most of all his uncanny ability to bring joy and gratification to young and old alike set him apart. He is known and loved in every land, in every tongue. He is, indeed, the first…perhaps the only…Showman of the World. He is, of course, Walt Disney."

Walt's speech was constantly interrupted by outbursts of applause and laughter. Walt, who would pass away almost two months later, appears relaxed and happy in the photos that were taken and even Walt's wife, Lillian, seems very happy as she and Walt posed with Sophia Loren (NATO's Star of the Year award recipient) and her husband Carlo Ponti.

Among his remarks, Walt said:

"Most of this talk has been about me and big brother Roy and a few of the exhibitors but, also, there is the Disney organization with its three thousand employees.

"They take pride in the organization which they helped to build. Only through the talent, the labor and the dedication of this staff could any Disney project get off the ground.

"Now before sitting down to count my blessings I want to make you a promise. I promise we won't let this great honor you have paid us tonight go to our head–we have too many projects for the future to take time out for such a thing. On top of that–after forty some odd years of ups and downs in this crazy business of ours we know too well–you are only as good as your next picture."

Screen Producers Guild Award

Recently, I was able to find information about an award ceremony from 1957 and more importantly, Walt's insightful comments at the event, that I don't think has ever been documented because it was just another of the many award ceremonies for Walt. Of course, some ceremonies like this one were pretty elaborate.

On February 17, 1957, Walt Disney received the Milestone Award of the Screen Producers Guild, at a banquet held in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with leaders of government, science, education, music, art and literature joining the film industry in paying tribute to Walt's creative contributions to those fields. The Milestone Award was presented to a producer who had made "an historic contribution to the entertainment industry." Screen Producers Guild (comparable to the more famous Screen Actors Guild) was founded in 1950 and, in 1962, merged with the Television Producers Guild to create today's better known Producers Guild of America.

When guests entered the ballroom after cocktails, they found figures of the most famous of Disney's characters, all in tuxedos, seated in the 20 chairs on the dais, with Mickey Mouse occupying Walt's chair.

Singer Eddie Fisher opened the ceremonies with the Star-Spangled Banner followed by an invocation by Lt. Thomas E. Moye, chaplain of Mine Force Pacific Fleet, U.S. Navy.

The Disney characters were replaced on the dais by Samuel Engel, Lowell Thomas, Lt. Thomas Moye, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Yul Brynner, Gene Kelly, General Omar Bradley, Perle Mesta, Dr. Frank Baxter, Joe Rosenberg and Walt Disney.

Samuel Engel, the president of the Screen Producers Guild, read a message from President Eisenhower to Walt that lauded Walt for his "contribution to the pleasure and understanding of the world community and your genius as a creator of folklore has long-been recognized by leaders in every field of human endeavor including that most discerning body of critics, the children of this land and all lands.

"As an artist, your work has helped reveal our country to the world, and the world to all of us. As a man, your sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity, with all its frailties and possibilities for good."

A message to Disney from Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, praised Walt's "great contribution to wider understanding of how man's inventiveness can serve the cause of peaceful progress and enrich the lives of people everywhere." Strauss mentioned Walt's production of Our Friend the Atom as an example of this contribution.

Vice President Richard Nixon spoke via a taped recording. Perle Mesta, a well-known popular Washington political hostess, stated, "it takes a gentle spirit to create a character like Mickey Mouse who is so well known everywhere in the world."

Lowell Thomas was emcee and introduced speakers General Omar Bradley (who lauded Disney's contributions to Armed Services' morale) and Dr. Frank Baxter (who echoed Bradley's comments). Thomas then read a message from Leopold Stokowski ("Walt Disney is a rare creative personality") and played a taped recording by Grandma Moses.

There was a tape recording by Cecil B. DeMille (the previous year's recipient who was in New York and had delegated actor Yul Brynner to make the formal presentation) who referred to Walt as "Hollywood's poet of celluloid, the man who has brought more sheer joy and happiness to more children of all ages than any other single story-teller who has ever lived."

According to the Hollywood Reporter, when it was time for Walt to talk, he "interspersed his speech with pertinent and humorous remarks."

Walt began by talking about "the magic power that is at every producer's disposal…the power of selling.

"I've always found it a beautiful thing to watch when someone like Mr. DeMille or Mr. Goldwyn finishes a picture. They know they're just half way through the job. Then they roll up their sleeves and start in to sell the product they just made. They put as much imagination in the selling of a picture as they did in the creation of it."

Then, Walt talked about how television was actually a "blessing in disguise. First, we went into shock or the 'let's get a stick and chase it under the porch' plan. Then came the beat down, or 'if we can't lick 'em, let's join 'em' era. Now, at last, I think we're coming into a period where both the picture and TV industries can view each other with relative calm and find some methods of common benefit.

"During this time, television admittedly turned to Hollywood not only for old movies but for more production techniques, creative talent and a good hard look at something we laughingly call 'costs'. Having done this for us, I think we should be equally gracious and see what we can swipe from them in return. Because like it or not, I think there's much I've learned from television.

"First, instead of talking about it, TV has given immediate opportunity to young directors, writers and players. They believe in new ideas. They take chances, and if they fall on their faces, they fall forward. Television has opened doors to a new wealth of story and entertainment material.

"Television has done many jobs for us we have not been able to do for ourselves. From the sheer bulk of material pushed through the TV tube daily, it has dulled the sense of people to ordinary entertainment values. Under this pressure, it is forging a new selective audience, with a special capacity for quality entertainment."

During the speech, Walt introduced Joe Rosenberg, former Bank of America official, whom he called his "personal fairy godfather" for having helped him in "anxious" times.

Walt also introduced his wife, family, and brother Roy.

"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 said with a laugh.

Following his speech, Thomas introduced actor and dancer Gene Kelly, who came out and introduced Walt to 80 small children, dressed in costumes of their native countries, who sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" and were joined by singer Pat Boone as the climax to the evening.

Of course, Walt received many congratulatory letters and telegrams from others including one from J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI who wrote: "You must derive great satisfaction from this recognition, and I want to be among the many persons in this country who will extend congratulations to you on this occasion. Your work in the past has been a credit not only to the motion picture industry but to the entire Nation, and I want to assure you of my every good wish for continuing success."

There are many more interesting stories of the many, many other awards that Walt was given in his lifetime and this is just a brief glimpse.