Horsing Around With Walt and Polo

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Horsing Around With Walt and Polo

Before he rocketed off to the Planet Mongo to battle the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless, readers only knew two things about Flash Gordon. The very first Sunday comic strip page on Jan. 7, 1934 described Flash Gordon as a "Yale Graduate and world renowned polo player."

Artist Alex Raymond included only that information to let readers know quickly that Flash was smart and sophisticated because he graduated from a top Ivy League college and that he was tough as nails because he played polo.

In the 1930s, polo was a very popular sport, especially among the entertainment industry even though it is an unbelievably intense physical sport. This was a time when actors tried to emulate off-screen the macho characters they portrayed on the silver screen. While some of them were athletic, most of them were ill prepared for the demands of the difficult and challenging game of polo.

Actor Spencer Tracy loved to saddle up his polo ponies and for a time in the 1930s, played every free moment off the movie set. Studios pleaded with him not to play because of fear of injury, so Tracy played under aliases until he quit when his friend Will Rogers died.

Polo was also used for social networking in the Hollywood community. The famous Beverly Hills Polo Lounge was created at this time and remains a Hollywood social gathering location today.

In the 1930s, there were more than 25 polo fields in Los Angeles, including such popular spots where Walt Disney played as the Uplifters Polo Field (now bulldozed and replaced with a street) and the Riviera Polo Field (now the home of the Paul Revere High School). The Riviera adjoined a golf course and there were three or four polo fields and many celebrities kept stables there.

In Hollywood, the strongest champion of the sport was humorist Will Rogers, who was introduced to the game in 1915. During the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers popularized the sport among the elite in Hollywood, from Hal Roach to Darryl Zanuck to Walt Disney.

Walt had a personal friendship with Rogers. In fact, at one time, he was negotiating with Rogers to appear in Walt's first full-length animated feature film.

Snow White was not the first choice of a feature project for Walt. He had developed several possibilities including Alice in Wonderland featuring a live-action Mary Pickford as Alice interacting with animated characters.

When that project fell apart, Walt considered using the same basic concept but with Will Rogers as Rip Van Winkle interacting with animated characters. Rogers' untimely death put an end to that project. Previously, Walt had sent some of his top Disney animators including Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla to Rogers' Santa Monica ranch to sketch him in action.

The popularity of Mickey Mouse in the early 1930s brought great success and attention to Walt. However, the stress of running and expanding his studio and the many demands being made on him in other areas from merchandising decisions to publicity requests in addition to the stress at home with his wife Lillian suffering through two miscarriages resulted in Walt suffering one of his infamous nervous breakdowns.

Walt's doctor suggested that Mickey Mouse's father take up some form of exercise to help relieve the stress. Walt tried wrestling, boxing, and golf, but each attempt only frustrated him further rather than releasing tension. Walt had always loved horses, so he took up horseback riding and joined a local riding club.

Always a multitasker, Walt decided to combine his love of horseback riding with his desire to intergrate with Hollywood society by taking up the then popular sport of polo. At the time, Walt quipped that to him polo seemed to be just "golf on a horse."

In the beginning, Walt enlisted Disney Studio personnel, including Jack Cutting, Norm Ferguson, Les Clark, Dick Lundy, Gunther Lessing, Bill Cottrell, and even his brother Roy to participate.

They studied the book As To Polo by Cameron and had lessons and lectures by Gil Proctor, a polo expert. Eventually, they did practice in the San Fernando Valley at the DuBrock Riding Academy from 6 a.m. until they had to report to work at the Disney Studio at 8 a.m.

Walt built a polo cage at the studio so that during lunch breaks, the men could sit on a wooden horse and practice hitting the wooden ball into a goal. He even installed a dummy horse in his backyard so he himself could get in early morning practice before heading to the DuBrock Riding Academy. Finally, the Disney team started participating in matches with similarly inexperienced teams at the stadium on Riverside Drive.

Walt and Roy would play regularly with their employees on Wednesday mornings and Saturday afternoons. In addition, Walt and Roy joined the prestigious Riviera Club where such Hollywood luminaries as Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Darryl Zanuck and others held court on the playing field. During this time, Spencer Tracy became a close friend of Walt's, and Tracy and his wife were often invited to Walt's home.

In 1934, Roy Disney bought four polo ponies. At one point, Walt had more than a dozen horses in his stable. Polo players needed several horses because the horses would get hurt or tired and if a player didn't have a good horse to get him to the ball, he couldn't hit it.

Disney archvist Dave Smith has confirmed that seven of Walt's ponies were named June, Slim, Nava, Arrow, Pardner, Tacky, and Tommy.

Roy Disney was a fair player but Walt was highly aggressive. Walt was neither athletic nor coordinated. One Disney employee wondered aloud how Walt was able to stay on the horse and swing the mallet at the same time.

Unlike other young boys, Walt never really participated in sports. For most of his childhood, his spare time was filled with a morning and afternoon newspaper delivery route that was very demanding of his time and energy. While other young children played sports after school and on the weekends, young Walt worked.

Walt compensated for this lack of sports experience and coordination by being a focused competitor. Actor Robert Stack, who was a teenager at the time, remembered that Walt would "run right over anybody who crossed the line." Stack gives a marvelous interview about Walt's involvement in polo at this link.

"Walt was a good polo player—and he loved the game... And I have a couple of trophies at home with Walt's name on them. We hadn't won the world's championships but we had an awful lot of fun," remembered actor Robert Stack.

Rogers was even more aggressive than Walt and lost a few fans with his attempts to hog the ball all the time.

Walt's wife, Lillian, would spend most of her Sundays sitting on the sidelines, munching a bag of popcorn while Walt played.

A program from 1937 declared: "Benefit Polo Game Sponsored by Santa Monica Charity League and Santa Monica Junior Chamber of Commerce: May 9, 1937 Riviera Country Club." The first match was the Mickey Mouse Team against the Hollywood Team. The Mickey Mouse Team: James Gleason, Robert Presnell, Happy Williams and Walt Disney. The Hollywood team included J. Walter Ruben, Mike Curtiz, Paul Kelly and Dr. Percy Goldberg.

Walt Disney captained the "Mickey Mouse Team" when it came to polo matches. However, many Disneyphiles may be unaware there was also a "Donald Duck Team."

Disney producer Harry Tytle was quite a polo player in college but in the depths of the Depression there were few slots for polo players. However, he did get to play with Will Rogers in August 1935 (which turned out to be Rogers' last game).

He also knew Harold Helvenston, who was a professor of dramatics working at the Disney Studio at the time. One night at dinner, through the kindness of Helvenston, Tytle met some Disney employees, including George Drake and Perce Pearce, and found himself hired at the Disney Studio in the traffic department.

Once at the studio, Tytle was introduced to Walt as a polo player and found himself invited to play with Walt at the Victor McLaughlin Arena. Walt must have liked the competitive spirit of the young man because Tytle also found himself playing with Walt at the Riviera Country Club against Spencer Tracy and his family.

Tytle, who didn't have the artistic skill to compete with other aspiring animators at the studio, found himself pinch hitting in many different departments at the Disney Studio.

However, he still had time to teach polo to a group of editors and cutters from other studios, played polo for the Junior Chamber of Commerce and formed the "Donald Duck Team." The "Donald Duck Team" (including people like Mel Shaw and Larry Lansburgh) played a wide area as far off as Arizona. They once took the group down to Mexico City in 1938 and won their match.

Tytle thinks the team won because they were constantly being underestimated because they had a portrait of Donald Duck emblazoned on their shirts. "A clever touch suggested by Walt," remembered Tytle in his autobiography.

Walt's enthusiasm for polo even inspired a popular Mickey Mouse cartoon.

"Mickey's Polo Team" was released on Jan. 4, 1936 and was directed by Dave Hand, whose attention was already focused on his directing responsibilities for Snow White.

There isn't much of a storyline in the cartoon. It is just an interesting premise for physical gags of a polo game between four popular Disney animated characters against a team of four Hollywood celebrities. The spectators in the stands are a mix of Disney animated characters and Hollywood celebrities (Clarabelle Cow kisses Clark Gable, Edna May Oliver sits next to Max Hare, Shirley Temple cheers next to the Three Little Pigs, etc.)

The Mickey Mouse team consists of Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy and the Big Bad Wolf. The Hollywood team of movie stars are Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx.

While modern audiences may struggle to identify the caricatures of some of the then-famous stars like Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, even the most astute viewer of classic films on Turner Classic Movies might have trouble identifying the referee.

The referee is a caricature of Jack Holt, who was a popular silent screen star who made the transition to talkies primarily in Westerns. In fact, Holt was the father of famous Western movie cowboy star, Tim Holt. Jack Holt was a "manly man" and a strong supporter of polo as terrific physical exercise. He played at the Riviera alongside Walt Disney but is unfortunately forgotten by modern audiences.

This cartoon was made at the height of the Disney Studio's involvement in playing polo. However, this was not the version that Walt originally intended.

There was to be considerable footage devoted to a caricature of Will Rogers.

In fact, it was Rogers' death in an unfortunate plane accident in August 1935 while Mickey's Polo Team was in production that resulted in his caricature being removed from the cartoon.

The cartoon generated its own little controversy that has been forgotten over the years. The January 11, 1938 edition of the San Francisco Examiner ran a photo of Walt in Los Angeles looking pensive as he flipped through some papers. The caption stated:

Disney Faces Accuser in Court

Walt Disney, creator of the famous Mickey Mouse, shown during his appearance in court to answer charges of John P. Wade, writer and actor, that his animated cartoon, 'Mickey's Polo Club' (sic), was taken from a scenario submitted by Wade. 'Mr. Disney told me the script could not be used. Then, several months later, I saw the film,' Wade testified. Disney contends the idea was his own.

This was the type of nuisance suit that has plagued Disney animated projects for decades. Time magazine for Jan. 24, 1938 revealed the outcome of this particular court action:

"When actor-author John P. Wade saw the Walt Disney cartoon, 'Mickey's Polo Team,' he sued Disney for a share of the film's profits. Alleged plagiarism that the gag of the horses riding the riders had been lifted from author Wade's skit: 'The Trainer's Nightmare.' In court, attorneys for Cartoonist Walt Disney identified the device as a variation on 'the reversal gag' easily traced it to Aesop. Said Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Gould, dismissing the suit and plagiarizing Ecclesiastes: '...it appears there is nothing new under the sun'. "

Although it probably never popped up during the trial, in the January 1934 issue of Radio Stars magazine is a photo of Walt in his full polo outfit riding on a cartoon drawing of a running Mickey Mouse with the caption: "He rode to glory on a mouse."

By 1938, Roy Disney was becoming worried that the combination of Walt's aggressiveness and the inherent danger of the sport itself might rob the Disney Studio of its visionary leader. In fact, Roy himself had quit the sport that year and was getting rid of his polo ponies and urged Walt to do the same. Walt resisted that suggestion to hang up his mallet even after he seen matches where fellow horsemen had suffered fatal injuries.

Here is the prime example of what scared Roy O. Disney: Always pushing himself, Walt eventually wanted to play with the better players. There was a South American team (known as "The Argentines") who were practicing on a field at the Riviera and Walt wanted to practice with them.

Actor Robert Stack remembered, "Any time the Argentineans would come in they would bring their horses with them. The reason they came, most of these great polo players came was to sell the horses and make a lot of money which they did. You could see some of them red-hots in our [movie] profession, and I think Walt was among them, bidding these fantastic sums for these magnificent horses."

Even then, it was almost impossible to tell Walt "no" so Walt took the field. One of the players hit the ball just as Walt, who was on his horse, was turning around and the ball hit Walt hard enough to knock him from the saddle.

Walt had four of his cervical vertebrae crushed and was in tremendous pain. Instead of seeing a doctor, he went to a chiropractor, who manipulated Walt's back. Sadly, the injury might have healed if Walt had been placed in a cast. Instead, it resulted in a calcium deposit building up in the back of his neck that resulted in a painful form of arthritis that plagued Walt for the rest of his life.

In his later years, Walt required a couple of shots of scotch and a massage from the studio nurse in order to get home at night. When the back pain flared up, Walt was often unpleasant in his interaction with his staff. When he went into St. Joseph's Hospital for the final time, it arose no suspicion when employees were told Walt was taking care of an "old polo injury."

In 1938, Walt sold off his ponies, resigned from the Riviera Polo Club and with the huge success of "Snow White, concentrated on his next animated projects including Pinocchio and Bambi.

His young daughters never knew much about their father's brief sojourn into the world of polo. They grew up in a large playroom surrounded by framed head portraits of their father's polo ponies and a case of polo trophies. In the backyard was a polo cage with the dummy horse Walt used for practice. It was always locked and had been abandoned for quite some time so the girls were warned not to try to get into the cage and play on the horse because there were black widow spiders in there.

Hollywood's interest in polo had already begun to wane by the end of the 1930s and today, even Flash Gordon is no longer described as a polo player but instead has had his past changed so that he was a football player before that flight to the Planet Mongo. The intensity of the sport is forgotten by modern generations and Walt's involvement has also become just another forgotten footnote in his very long list of achievements and adventures.