Charles Ridgwayby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Publisher's Note: Those of our readers who frequent many of the Disney-related Web sites out there will likely recognize the name Wade Sampson. For the last several years he has been writing articles on all topics of Disney historical interest over at a JimHillMedia.com (where you can find an archive of Wade's writings for that site)
I'm pleased to welcome Wade to the MousePlanet family and can only hope our relationship is as productive and long. Wade will continue writing on any topic of historical interest that catches his fancy. Also continuing will be Wade's appearance on Wednesday. Initially, though, he will appear every other Wednesday (though that may change since twice a month probably isn't enough for all the information he has to share).
Please join me in welcoming Wade Sampson and I hope you all enjoy his articles as much as we do.
Charlie Ridgway: The Story Behind the Legend
He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1999. He has a window on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom that states: "Ridgway and Company. Public Relations. Charles Ridgway. Press Agent. 'No event too small'." Yet for the many visitors to Walt Disney World each year, his name sparks no smile of recognition if they happen to notice the window.
Charles Ridgway's window on Main Street attests to his importance, but it goes unnoticed by most visitors. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
In March, I got the opportunity to spend a few hours with Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway who even in his early 80s is still as sharp, funny, and polite as he was when he worked for the Walt Disney Company. He was also excited that a book he had written about his experiences was due to be published soon.
"I got in at just the right time and left at just the right time," said Charlie Ridgway. He joined the Disney publicity office in 1963 when Walt was at his peak, and he retired in 1994 (although he stayed on doing consulting for several years) just before the Disney Company started having some difficulties.
Born July 20, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois, he earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Walt Disney and Charlie Ridgway had a lot in common. Both were born in Chicago, although 20 years apart, and spent part of their formative years in Missouri towns just 100 miles from each other. Charlie spent his teen years in Shelbina, Missouri, while Walt grew up in Marceline, Missouri.
In 1947, Charlie began his career writing and editing news for radio and newspapers. In 1952, he moved to Los Angeles where he joined the staff of the Los Angeles Mirror-News. During 1954-1955, he wrote some of the first articles about Disneyland to appear in any of the major metropolitan newspapers and covered its grand opening celebration on July 17, 1955. Ridgway lived only two miles from the park but realized it would be a historic and important occasion. On opening day, he wore a navy blazer. He took his wife, Gretta, who wore a new dress and matching shoes. Sadly, she passed away in 2001.
"I arrived with my wife at 9:00 a.m. and I don't think they were happy to see me show up that early. I picked up the press credentials and wandered around and had a wonderful time. Everything you heard was true. They ran out of food. Rides broke down. After 5:00 p.m., the park was almost completely empty but they had the rides back up and running so my wife and I rode everything. I loved the experience and that's the story I filed. I was surprised to see all the negative stories that appeared the next day."
When Charlie and his wife wisely decided to have an early lunch before the food ran out, they ate prime rib at a table near Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Ridgway smiles when he remembers that a chunk of window from the Mark Twain steamboat crashed on the head of an invited guest who happened to be a state senator. He saw people get into fist fights to get a ride on the Jungle Cruise. He watched as Walt Disney messed up over and over in rehearsals as he prepared for live television coverage of the opening.
"Over the next few years, I would always go to Disneyland because I knew it was always good for a feature story. I guess they liked what I was writing because they offered me a job in publicity first at the Studios and then later at Disneyland. When I was offered the job, I didn't know whether to take it or not. I had had bad experience[s] in publicity before but I felt that Disney would be different. And it was."
In 1963, Charlie was asked to join Disneyland's publicity staff for $64 a week. His background in radio and newspapers gave him some insight into what reporters needed and how to work with them.
"One of the tours I set up was for a good friend of mine who was the editor of Parade magazine and her daughter. They went backstage to Owen Pope's Pony Farm. There was a little Corsican donkey there that was very cute and that Walt had picked up on one of his travels overseas. However, it had a terrible disposition. The little girl reached in to pet it and it nipped her hand. Well, everyone was in a panic and rushed her to first aid to get it bandaged up and she was just bawling away in tears. So they took her to see Walt and he said, 'He's the sweetest thing. He wouldn't bite anyone. He probably just got scared.' He was trying to comfort her so he took her back and he reached in to pet this donkey and it nipped Walt's hand! Shortly after that, the donkey disappeared," laughed Charlie.
In 1966, Charlie was promoted to Disneyland's publicity supervisor.
Charlie was the person who staged Walt and Mickey Mouse in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle in the last official photographs ever taken of Walt. "It might have been as early as August or September of that year (1966). We didn't know how sick Walt was. We were told he had the flu, which seemed reasonable, and when he went into the hospital, we were told that he was having pain in his back due to an old polo injury. When he passed away, it came as a surprise and I remember being called into the office and told that my job was to keep the media out of the park. They didn't want reporters in the park asking the guests and the cast members how they felt about Walt passing away."
In 1969, Charlie was prompted to publicity manager (and later Director of Press and Publicity) for Walt Disney World, which was then under construction. He and his wife moved out to Orlando. He helped launch the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. In his role, he often had to be what was considered the "guardian of the magic".
When Bill Knowles was at ABC News in the 1970s, he remembered that when he wanted to film an election piece in the Hall of Presidents, Charlie would not let them see the machinery that made it all work. He reminded Knowles: "Remember we deal in fantasy here, not reality."
"When I was doing publicity, I tried to keep my name out of it," remembered Charlie. "It was a lot different when I started than it is now. In those days, I never ran anything by anyone. They just trusted me and I guess what I was doing assured them that they could trust me. Also, the Company took great pride in the fact that it never paid for publicity. When Epcot opened, someone suggested that we take out a full page ad in the Orlando Sentinel and they were almost fired on the spot. We got all that free publicity in magazine articles and especially on television that when they surveyed people a week after Epcot opened, over 90 percent knew about Epcot. Today, they want measurements and that usually becomes measuring how many column inches in article or how many minutes on a television broadcast and that really isn't a good way of measuring how effective the publicity is."
"On opening day, I remember Card Walker and I think Don Tatum going up in a helicopter to see the traffic coming in to park. Originally, we had predicted there would be about 10,000 people but the newspapers kept increasing that figure. One paper on the East Coast predicted 200,000 and that was picked up by a foreign newspaper that added an additional zero so it was reported that two million people would show up. We purposely opened in the off-season to work out the bugs and it turned out we were right that there was about 10,000 that first day. Anyway, they are up in the helicopter and they see this long line of cars and they are smiling and then suddenly the line turns the wrong way and they realized that the cars weren't guests but cast members driving to work. We had about 5,000 cast members in those days."
There is the famous story that people have questioned over the years that the night before the press opening of the Magic Kingdom that Dick Nunis was out yelling at people to put "Green side up!" when they were putting in square divots of grass at the last minute outside the Contemporary and Polynesian. "It's true," Charlie told me, "All the landscapers were too tired. They were worn out trying to get ready for opening so we got some kids from Rollins College and they had never done anything like this before. No, Dick wasn't saying it with a smile in his voice. We were battling against time."
Charlie was also the one who staged the famous photo of Roy O. Disney sitting on a bench in the Magic Kingdom with Mickey Mouse that was later used as the inspiration for Blaine Gibson's sculpture that is now in Town Square. "Roy O. was a quiet man. Very much like a Midwestern banker." Charlie smiled when he recalled he restaged the same pose with Roy's son, Roy E. Disney, decades later for a Magic Kingdom birthday celebration.
Charlie helped open Epcot Center in 1982, among other Disney theme parks including Disneyland Paris in 1992. During this time, he was also involved with several special publicity projects including Donald Duck's 50th birthday. He officially retired in 1994 but consulted on special events including the launch of Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Disney Cruise Line. He even helped prepare media material for the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland.
"Standing there in Hong Kong Disneyland and looking at the castle, it just reminded me so much of being in Disneyland and looking at the castle. Out here in Florida, it is all so large. It isn't as intimate. I really like the Disney-MGM Studios because it is similar to Disneyland. You know, when Disneyland opened with Main Street, that era was only about 50 years ago, so there were still people who had a memory of that time. When the Disney-MGM Studios opened, I don't think you could find anyone who would have remembered that time period but they would have remembered a time that was 40 or 50 years ago, and that would have been the Hollywood of the '30s and '40s."
A Disney publicist to his core, the worst thing Charlie would say about the Disney Company was that it's "a lot more corporate now." He has fond memories of Michael Eisner. "I only had good experiences with Michael Eisner. He was always nice to me. The first time Eisner and Frank Wells walked through the Magic Kingdom, hundreds of workers lined up to shake their hands outside Cinderella Castle. I think there was a significant feeling of relief because there had been all that fear about take-overs. The death of Frank Wells was as devastating to the Disney Company as the deaths of Walt and Roy. That, combined with Michael's heart surgery, resulted in Michael not having the same level of self-confidence that I had seen in the beginning.
"One of the events I am proudest of was Donald Duck's 50th birthday. I am the one who thought it might be a good idea to have 50 baby ducks following Donald. Nobody knew if it could be done. It just seemed like it would be a great publicity idea. Anyway, we checked with someone who was an expert on ducks and he said it might be possible if the babies bonded with Donald as soon as they were born. So we had Donald there when these baby ducks were born and every couple of days he would be there and toss lettuce around and they learned to follow him. For a while, they were being trained in this area outside the back of my office. Then we decided they should wear little birthday hats and we figured out a way to attach them to their heads. Well, the first one we put a hat on, all the other ducks attacked him. So we came up with a divider and put a hat on one and put him on the other side of the divider and then another and another. If they were all wearing hats, then they never attacked each other. We also gave them little ties and nametags. We named them after Disney characters so we had to come up with 50 names," remembered Charlie fondly. "Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) was involved and he loved doing the Duck. Absolutely loved it. When Walt was alive, the voice artists didn't get much publicity and I think this was the first time that Clarence was really in the spotlight as the voice.
"Most celebrities when they want to come and visit, go through Guest Relations. They even have a special department to handle it. However, some of them like Bob Hope and Helen Hayes always called me for some reason. That's how we got Bob for the groundbreaking of Disney-MGM Studios. We had this billboard set up in the middle of nowhere where the park was going to be built and two days before the ceremony, Bob Hope called me and said he'd like to come down and visit, and I said, 'Since you are going to be down here anyway, would you mind helping out at the groundbreaking?' And he agreed without hesitation, which is why he is there with Michael Eisner and they are both dodging the pyrotechnics when they were set off. That's how I also got Bob as the grand marshall for one of our parades as well. It looked like I had this all planned out but it was just a happy accident," stated Charlie.
What was it like to work at Disney while Walt was alive? "It's amazing that most businesses that were started by one man who was so influential started to fall apart when that man died. But Disney continues to thrive and Walt's impact is as strong if not stronger than when he was alive. In the beginning, Walt was there most weekends, walking around the grounds, talking to people, getting ideas, seeing what they liked and what they didn't like. There was all kinds of energy, imagination, and creativity. It was just a great place to work. People would ask in the early days: 'When is it going to be done?' Walt would say: 'Never, as long as there is imagination.' And that has happened. Disney has outgrown that spot in Southern California and spread itself around the world."
Charlie has several foreign trips planned for this coming year and still occasionally writes a travel article. When I asked him if these stories that he shared would appear in his upcoming book, he smiled and replied, "They would have if I had remembered them at the time!"
If you enjoy reading the memories of those people who actually worked with Walt Disney and the Disney Legends, then I would strongly recommend you add the Walt's People series to your bookshelf. I transcribed some of the interviews that appear in the books so that these stories can be preserved for future Disney fans. The highly affordable third volume in the series was just released two weeks ago and is currently only available at XLibris (link). The previous two volumes can be ordered at Xlibris or from Amazon.