The Forgotten Walt Disney Interviews 1959by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we approach another big celebration in 2023 where the Walt Disney Company will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the company in 1923, I am wondering about whether the man who actually started the company might be forgotten.
To me, it seems as if Walt Disney has become a "forgotten man" in terms of his over forty years of contributions to the Walt Disney Company before his passing in December 1966.
I was a media representative for the Hundred Years of Magic celebration in 2001 to commemorate his hundredth birthday and I was more than surprised that anything I wrote for the occasion had to be written twice.
First, it was written to acknowledge Walt as in "Walt Disney was an innovator who introduced such and such" and then a second time as "The Walt Disney Company has always innovated and introduced such and such".
At the time, Disney's surveys showed that those who had not grown up while Walt was still alive perceived him either as a corporate symbol like Betty Crocker who was someone who wasn't real or was someone like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken who was real but really was not involved in the company he created in his later years and was more just a marketing icon to be put on shirts and mugs.
Over the decades, I have been able to obtain some material that might not be readily available to most Disney fans and I have tried my best to share as much of that information as I could with readers of my columns and books.
I know others unfortunately to this day who chose to hoard their treasures and even a few who passed away with their collections being lost entirely because their families didn't realize or care or felt it was too much work to preserve those treasures. Sadly, some of those things were one-of-a-kind.
Anyway, I am sharing in today's columns two treasures from my personal archive of interviews done with Walt Disney in 1959 but both were done before the big opening in summer 1959 of the Monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage.
I wish I could have talked with Walt in person since every interview seems to reveal he was engaging, humorous, charming and passionate.
The Tony Thomas Interview (January 1959)
Walt Disney was interviewed by Tony Thomas, who was the host of a long running Canadian radio show where he interviewed celebrities like Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Basil Rathbone, and more and discussed Hollywood history.
Not all of Walt's many, many radio interviews were saved, but this one survives because it was released on a record album on the DELOS label in 1975 featuring several interviews Thomas had done from 1958-1964.
Walt Disney: I came to Hollywood and arrived here in August 1923 with $30 in my pocket and a coat and a pair of trousers that didn't match. And one half of my suitcase had my shirts and underwear and things…the other half had my drawing materials. (Laughs) It was a cardboard suitcase at that.
Tony Thomas: (Laughing) We don't think of you in terms of the silent picture era. What did you do when you finally got out here?
WD: Well, I tried to get a job doing anything I could in a studio, so I could learn. I was a little discouraged with the cartoon at that time. I felt at that time that I was getting into it too late. In other words, I thought the cartoon business was established in such a way that there was no chance to break into it. So I tried to get a job in Hollywood, working in the (live-action) picture business so I could learn it.
I would have liked to have been a director or any part of that. It wasn't open, so before I knew it, I had my drawing board out and I started back to the cartoon. And I was able to secure a contract for 12 of these short films. And I did all the drawing myself. I did. I had no help at all. I was all alone. I made the first six practically alone. Then, at that time, I was able to get some of the boys that had been with me in Kansas City to come out. So then, from the seventh on, I had some help.
And I got by the first year and they were fairly successful and that led to other things. And with some of the boys I'd worked with in Kansas City augmenting the set-up, I was able to eventually build an organization. And it reached a point that I had so many working with me and there was so much time and attention demanded that I had to drop the drawing end of it myself.
But I've never regretted it, because drawing was always a means to an end with me. And so through these other boys who were good draftsmen and artists in many different phases of this business…very talented people…and coordinating their talents is what has built this business. And if I hadn't dropped the drawing end of it myself, I don't think I'd have built this organization.
TT: When did you establish your own company to deal with that?
WD: 1923. My brother was here, and in effect, the government helped subsidize us. And I'll explain that to you. My brother was a veteran of the first World War and he had been hospitalized and things and so he was receiving a certain disability compensation. It amounted to about $85 a month. And we lived on that while we established the studio. And from that time on, my brother Roy and I have been together in this business and until the year 1940 we didn't have a stockholder.
TT: When was Mickey Mouse born?
WD: Mickey Mouse came about in 1928.
TT: With sound I presume.
WD: Well, no. The first Mickey Mouse was made silent and while we were making the first Mickey Mouse sound came. So we decided that there's no sense in making anything more silent. We immediately switched to sound and we didn't have any sound equipment or anything else but we went ahead and made 'em for sound and we eventually got sound on 'em. And of course it, I think, played the big part in establishing Mickey Mouse.
TT: Where did the idea for Mickey come from?
WD: Well, it came about through a situation that…I was contracting with a middleman for my films. They were being released through Universal and he was a rather unscrupulous character and he thought he could cut in and move in a little better. And I pulled away from him and I was left alone and he had a right to the character.
So that was one of the big lessons I learned and from then on I said, 'There's no middleman.' He contributed nothing. We did everything. So I had to get a new character. I had been doing a rabbit. It was called Oswald the Rabbit. So I had to have a new character. I was coming back after this meeting in New York and Mrs. Disney was with me and it was on the train. In those days, you know, it was three days over, three days from New York and [that's] when I said 'We've got to get a new character.'
I'd fooled around a lot with little mice and they were always cute character and they hadn't been overdone in the picture field. They'd been used but never featured. So, well, I decided it would be with a mouse because at that time I didn't have Mickey as more or less a normal scale human being. I had him as a scaled mouse with over-scaled props. Well, that's how it came about. And then the name came. What would you call him? And the euphony there of 'Mickey Mouse.' I had him 'Mortimer' first and my wife shook her head and then I tried 'Mickey' and she nodded the other way and that was it.
TT: Is it true that you did the voice for Mickey yourself in the early days?
WD: (in Mickey's voice) Oh yeah. I still do it. (Laughs)
TT: I was going to ask you if you could and you still can. (Laughs)
WD: (in Mickey's voice) Well, it's just a falsetto. (in his own voice) And we were fooling around and trying to get a voice for a mouse and we didn't know what a mouse would sound like, so I said, "It's kind of like this". And the guy said, "Well, why don't you do it?" And I knew I'd always be on the payroll, so (laughing) I did it.
TT: When was Donald Duck born?
WD: Donald came about four or five years after Mickey Mouse and I heard the voice on the radio. It was, well, almost an amateur program and this boy was imitating animals and things and birds. He had this little gag that he ended his act with, about the little duck…he had it [as] a girl duck…
TT: A girl duck?
WD: …reciting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' It was an odd voice. When I immediately got in touch with that radio station, they didn't know who he was. He'd gone. I traced him down and found he was working for a dairy. And he was doing little lectures in the schools on bird life, wearing the uniform of this dairy, advertising the milk. An indirect way of getting their advertising. And he'd move to his classrooms and tell about the birds and how the meadowlark would sound and all of that.
So he wasn't making much money and I said, 'Well, I can pay you a little more than they're paying if you want to come over here and we'll find out what we can do with that voice.' So he was here on the payroll for about a year before I…the thing that kept throwing me all the time was the girl duck. And finally I said, 'Well, it don't have to be a girl. It could be a…boy duck!' You know? So, we ended up with Donald.
TT: What about the other characters, like Pluto? Did you think of these yourself or was it sort of a joint [effort]?
WD: Well, they evolved. Pluto. We were doing a short with Mickey Mouse I think was called "The Chain Gang" where he escaped from prison and they sent the hounds after him. And one of these hounds…we were fooling around with this hound…it was on the trail of this runaway mouse, and out of that came this friendly hound character. And from there on, we said, 'Well, we can use him.' And before we knew it, we had him in as Mickey's pal. Oh, we had changed him a little bit from the hound but that's how it started. And we'll spring out of something. Now the Donald Duck came from this voice and we tried to find the character. Then I had a little subject come up where I used a duck and it was Donald. And from there on he blossomed out.
TT: And the family grew.
TT: Where are they all now?
WD: Well, they're very active right now. We do an awful lot with them in television and we do a certain number of short features to accompany our longer features.
TT: Mickey is still working then?
WD: Oh, yes.
TT: We're very happy to know that.
WD: He's 30 years old now.
TT: That's a pretty old mouse, isn't it?
WD: Well, through the years, he's got…he's a little better constructed mouse than he ever was. I think that's he's…
TT: He's improved with age.
WD: He's improved with age, yeah.
THINK Magazine interview (May 1959 issue)
THINK was published by IBM as "a service to readers interested in the science of management and related contemporary ideas."
Writer Lee Edson visited Walt Disney at his Burbank Studio. The first two paragraphs of the article:
"We have a business here we built from scratch and, boy, we had to scratch plenty," the tall, sun-tanned man with the neat mustache was saying as he leaned back in his soft chair and sipped V-8 juice. We were sitting in Walt Disney's handsome office, talking across a low, square, black-topped desk, an unconventional design which the staff good-humoredly calls 'Disney Moderne.'
"All around me, amid the atmosphere of subdued splendor, were mementos of Disney's versatility—a set of frontier pistols, a case of children's and nature books, a cartoon portrait of Mickey Mouse and dominating the décor, a huge aerial photo of Disneyland clamped to a wall and framed by colored posters of such fantasy and adventure pictures as King Arthur, Down the Colorado (both still in the dream stage) and the successful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. None of these items, however, could take your eye from the master wizard himself.
"At 57, Disney's brown hair is flecked with gray and his face shows a few lines of age, but he is as dynamic, imaginative, and timelessly romantic as ever. He laughs easily and heartily, and his voice is often filled with tones of eternal small-boy wonder at the miracles around him."
Later, the conversation continues at the Studio Restaurant where Walt ordered only a plate of lean beef and a side dish of figs.
"I'm getting my weight down," Walt explained with a grin. "The only exercise I get these days is walking around the lot."
As usual, I have harvested the Walt quotes and eliminated the usual background information of Walt's life that most of us can recite in our sleep.
Here are those forgotten Walt quotes from 1959, just before his daughter got married and just a month or two before Disneyland celebrated its "Second Opening" with the major expansion in Tomorrowland.
"I came here in 1923 from Kansas City and couldn't get a job. So I went into business for myself. My brother, Roy, went in with me. We had about $750. We took a lot of bumps along the way, but we always kept striving for the same goal: How could we best use this medium of the film? How could we use this artistic talent we had developed? We were never interested in how much money we could make, only in how good a job we could do on film.
"I guess we found the way all right. I can make a flop now and nobody pays attention. We always have two or three other things going to save us.
"We're still doing a bit of everything. We're building a top-notch show at Disneyland called Pageant of the Presidents. It's the story of America through the Presidents, and it's got the darndest electronic system you ever saw. All you do is push a button and it takes off. It'll have full-size animated figures. No actors.
"You'll walk down Liberty Street and into Liberty Square. All the figures of the 34 Presidents will be in wax in front of you. I'll have Lincoln standing up and delivering an address. I'll have other speakers and I'll even have hecklers in the audience booing them. It'll open a year from June.
"We're going to have a monorail, too. Like the one in Cologne, Germany. I just signed with Axel Wenner-Gren, the Swedish industrialist who holds the patents. You know, I think monorail is going to be the rapid transit of the future, and we'll be giving a preview of it.
"Disneyland was a natural. It was so close to what we were doing in film. I thought of it a long time, but very few people believed in it at first. Now look at it. Five years ago Disneyland was just a flat plain of orange groves. It cost us $4,500 an acre. The bank recently appraised it. Know for how much? $20,000 an acre. Imagine! $20,000 an acre.
"We're doing True-Life Adventures all the time. We have cameramen all over the world. Sometimes they disappoint us, though. We had one team in Australia, but they didn't come up with anything. Australia isn't a good spot for animals. No predators there. What can you do with a koala bear? He looks at you and eats a eucalyptus leaf. (Walt laughs)
"This year we've put five new films in production, including Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Toby Tyler, the children's circus classic. We're also doing Westerns. The sponsors insist I do them. Don't get me wrong. I like a good Western, but I agree there are too many of them.
"I'm always close to projects when we're chewing over the basic idea. Once the pattern is set, the answer to your question is simple. I let the staff take over and I go on to other things.
"We're doing some 26 new films for TV. We did a short called Mathmagic Land with Donald Duck which took two years. It's tough to explain mathematics in cartoons, but I think my staff did a good job. We also just finished Eyes in Outer Space, a theatrical film on the weather satellite, like the film we did on the moon rocket in our science factual series.
"We went into TV with one thing in mind. Not to go out of the motion picture business, but to keep the audience aware of motion pictures. We lost $2 million last year in TV. But we sold our motion picture product.
"We made a funny picture called The Shaggy Dog which has become one of our most successful releases. Americans like to laugh. They have a sense of humor. Apropos of this, did you ever hear about the neurotic cannibal who went to see a psychiatrist? Seems he was all fed up with people."
At that point Edson laughed. Walt laughed. They waved good-bye and Edson walked down Dopey Drive "thinking that life was pretty full of joy and zest after all. Disney has that effect on you."