Just the Disney Facts, Ma'am

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Never underestimate the power of ignorance.

Especially when it involves Disney history. It seems to me that some days I spend more of my time correcting misconceptions and urban myths about Disney that people sincerely believe are the gospel truth than I do researching and writing about the true aspects of Walt and his world.

As I write this column, two animation scholars that I like and respect and who have both been personally very kind to me in the past are involved in a brawl that resembles an elementary schoolyard tussle with supporters on both sides egging each of them on to even more fiery outbursts.

Unfortunately, it has devolved into personal attacks and tangent topics rather than focusing on the original reason for the heated disagreement, which is the accuracy of a piece of Disney history.

It started when one of them on a discussion board stated that the city of Burbank would not allow Walt to build his Burbank studio unless it was designed as a hospital. The other quickly responded that this statement was incorrect and probably mutated from the traditional story of Walt trying to ease his father's fears about what would happen if Walt's business collapsed. Walt supposedly reassured him by saying the studio could be converted into a hospital with its wide hallways and airy rooms. Walt's father had very bad experiences in business and worried that his sons would be stuck with this expensive building if their animation studio went bankrupt.

There has been some speculation that this story might just be another Walt story with little basis in reality although it has been repeated for decades by employees at the Disney Studio as if it were carved in stone. Walt was quite a storyteller and didn't hesitate to tell a story if it made a great sound bite for the media.

Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller recalled in the book Remembering Walt that "Dad was very earnest but he could contrive things too—little 'cute-ims'. I had read in several sources this story that my Dad told—'Walt asked his daughter Diane what girls her age would like to see in Disneyland, and she said, 'Boys'. I called Dad on that. 'I didn't say that!' 'I know,' he said, 'but it's cute!'"

Certainly the fact that the architect involved with designing the Disney Studio never mentioned that he was given a double agenda and the fact that the building seemed ideally suited for the production of animation seems to suggest that the building was never intended for any other purpose. In addition, no documentation exists either at Burbank City Hall nor the Disney Archives that there was any communication between Burbank and Disney about making the building a hospital.

The fear is that misinformation about Disney spreads more quickly on the Internet and is more readily accepted as fact and then this misinformation is repeated in other forums with a sense of authority because it appeared in print. Nobody ever seems to remember if there was any rebuttal.

Today, most people use the Internet rather than their local library as their primary source of research and seem quite content with the original posting rather than further research that might have challenged the fact they have found.

It is difficult enough that there are books out there that have been discredited that people use for reference. For some reasons, people really do believe that if it appears in a book then it must be true.

The infamous Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot is known throughout the Disney historical community as having little to no merit. There are major errors in facts and dates not just in Disney history but in American history in general. So even if Eliot discovered some new fact about Disney, it would be difficult to trust it since so many easily checked facts are completely and extremely wrong and much of Eliot's unverified research is questionable at best.

In fact, even the Disney family who prefers to remain quiet and discreet in these matters came out to publicly refute the book and Disney Archivist Dave Smith had so many pages of corrections that it could have been a book itself.

Yet, I was personally appalled to see that Neal Gabler's well-reviewed biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination used Eliot's book as a resource and a reference. Even just including the book in the references will encourage a future Disney researcher to seek it out.

Any book author or magazine writer will share with you horror stories where a well-meaning editor (or sometimes just a clueless editor) changed their material before publication or some printer's error crept in at the last moment even after the final copy was reviewed and corrected.

I have been very pleased with the editing of my material here at MousePlanet. The only speed bump was when the name of a Disney person was spelled correctly in my column but incorrectly in the title and that was quickly corrected. I haven't always been that lucky.

There have been times when a well-intentioned editor who was sure his information was correct tried to save me embarrassment by changing facts and dates in one of my articles without telling me. The first time I saw the corrections were when they appeared in print with my name connected to them and of course, the punch line to the story is that the corrections were wrong.

However, what bothers me is that recently the Disney Company seems to be churning out misinformation at an alarming rate that can't be discounted as a printing error nor merely a misleading but correct piece of information.

The Disney Company is considered the official source of information on the Disney Company and is held to a higher standard. I and many other Disney researchers use past Disney Studio publications like Disney Newsreel and Eyes and Ears to confirm information.

Let me list just three examples from the past year that still trouble me greatly as a Disney researcher and fan:

First, the book Around the World With Disney by Kevin Markey (Disney Editions 2005) that states very authoritatively that "On May 5, 1955 Disneyland opened its doors—and the rest is history."

Perhaps it is history on a bizarro world in an alternate universe because in the world in which the rest of us live, Disneyland opened July 17, 1955 and that famous birthday was celebrated for decades at the park. Sometimes there were even very elaborate celebrations.

However, the press event for the year-long promotion of "The Happiest Celebration on Earth" was held on May 5, 2005 so that the date would be "050505" to be a "cute" tie-in to the 50th birthday. Many people assumed that May 5 was the official birthday since the Disney Company made the unfortunate decision not to celebrate Disneyland's birthday per se on July 17 but the anniversary of the "concept" of a theme park so that they could try to bully guests to go to other Disney theme parks as well. (Don't get me started on the fact that nothing will be done officially to celebrate Epcot's 25th birthday this year.)

To make matters worse this mistake was repeated on the theme park calendar produced that year and all the calendars had to be pulled and destroyed as soon as the mistake was discovered. The opening of Disneyland is not an obscure date that would be difficult to locate or difficult to confirm.

Second, the Disney Newsreel (Vol. 36 No. 19) for September 15, 2006 states : "The Walt Disney Studio was one of the first to produce original programming for this new medium, with the Christmas Day show 'One Hour in Wonderland' on ABC in 1950. Four years later, he teamed up with ABC again to create the Disneyland television show."

The historic "One Hour in Wonderland" was originally scheduled to run on CBS but CBS could not guarantee the required number of stations specified in the contract so NBC aired the special on 62 of its stations at 4:00 p.m. Christmas Day in 1950. However, CBS was so upset by all of this that it made sure it aired Disney's second Christmas special, "The Walt Disney Christmas Show", on Christmas Day in 1951.

ABC was not even considered a player in the world of broadcasting and at the time people joked that ABC stood for the "Almost Broadcasting Company." That is one of the reasons ABC submitted to all of Walt's requests (including supplying money for the Disneyland theme park) when they signed the contract for the Disneyland television series because they wanted to become a major player in broadcast television. NBC and CBS were offered the first option on the series but balked at supporting the theme park.

This information is easily available in a number of sources, including Bill Cotter's The Wonderful World of Disney Television.

Finally, Walt Disney World Eyes And Ears (Vol. 36 No. 26) for December 21, 2006 – January 3, 2007 takes great pride in announcing: "Several parts of the Company celebrated milestone anniversaries this year: The Disney Institute opened 20 years ago."

The Disney Institute opened at Walt Disney World on February 9, 1996 which was 10 years ago, not 20. Not only is the correct information the first line in Dave Smith's description of the Disney Institute in his Disney A-Z book but I was there on that day and took some of the first classes offered at the new venue. There were lots of other folks there as well who miss the wonderful opportunities provided at that venue.

Sadly, these three examples are not out of the ordinary. I am wary of trusting non-Disney books simply because the writers do not always have the access to necessary material to confirm facts, especially since the Disney Archives closed its doors very tightly to outside researchers many, many years ago. However, now I can't even trust Disney produced material.

Even sadder, the Disney Company has driven content experts out of the company and their knowledge was never recorded for future use. Some leaders are intimidated if a subordinate knows more about the history of the company than they do. In some cases, they don't want to be reminded on how things used to be done. In some cases, they don't even care to know.

Even sadder still, there are still content experts in the Disney Company but because they are not in the appropriate department, they are often chastised and harassed if they share correct Disney historical information. They are told it is not their "place" to provide this information even though it has been demonstrated that Disney history is one of the things that improves cast morale and retention.

Cast members and even executives know who these experts are who have information that even the Disney Company no longer has or can access. These are experts whose expertise is honored and recognized outside of the company. Cast members are often forced to contact these experts secretly to avoid political retaliation from other Disney leaders. Unfortunately, this is quite common in large companies.

However, some cast members don't know who these experts are and as a result there is a great deal of misinformation that they inadvertently share with great authority with guests. They go to unofficial Disney Web sites, books with misleading information, and urban myths passed down from other cast members to gather their "facts" because Disney has not offered alternatives.

Remember that the Disney Archives is only a handful of dedicated people who spend most of their time researching material for Disney Legal to either create lawsuits or defend against lawsuits.

For some observers, the Disney University has become an elitist bastion with political intrigue to rival a Shakespearean play unable to address the real training needs of the Disney Company and for business reasons dismantled an outstanding Traditions orientation program into a four-hour format that is as satisfying and effective as a constant diet of fast food. Disney University is supposedly the content expert of Disney history.

Disney history has always been in danger of being lost but lately even the Disney Company seems eager to rewrite that history and "forget" other parts in order to justify the current Company decisions. It really is a shame because if the Disney Company really understood Disney history, they would find untold treasures that would enrich its business and the Disney Company has cast members who can make that dream a reality.