Walt's Canadian Connection

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt's Canadian Connection

I have several friends who are Canadian and who are also huge Disney fans. It is always surprising to me that despite their interest in Disney that they have little or no knowledge of Walt's connection to Canada.

As a 15-year-old, Walt had planned to cross the border with his friend Russell and enlist in the Canadian Army, which accepted younger recruits than the United States. The plot was discovered by their mothers and they eventually ended up joining the Red Cross American Ambulance Corps. If it hadn't been for Russell's mother's suspicions, Walt might have spent the tail end of World War I in the Canadian army.

Disney's True-Life Adventures film White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada. In addition, in the early 1960s, Walt produced three live-action films in Canada: Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, Big Red and The Incredible Journey.

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North released in July 1961 tells the story of a trapper and his wolf dog, Nikki, who get separated during a trip down river. Nikki is captured by a wicked trapper, who trains him to be a fighting dog who hates everything, but in a thrilling confrontation at the end of the film, Nikki recognizes his original owner and saves the day.

Two Canadian film units (one headed by Jack Couffer, who had worked on earlier True-Life Adventure films) were hired by Walt to try and capture the scenes detailed in the original book, Nomads of the North by James Oliver Curwood.

Set in the Canadian province of Quebec, Big Red is an Irish Setter who would rather run through the woods than be the perfectly trained and groomed show dog his sportsman owner wants. However, when Big Red saves his owner from a mountain lion attack, there is a happy ending.

Released in June 1962, most of the exteriors were shot in the Canadian province of Quebec, near the village of La Malbaie on the St. Lawrence River. The Disney crew stayed at the Manoir Richelieu, which had quite a strict dress code—and often after a dirty day of shooting, the staff would usher the film crew and performers in through the back door.

The Incredible Journey was released October 1963. A family going away for the summer leaves their three pets (a bull terrier, a Labrador retriever and a Siamese cat) with a friend who lives 250 miles away. The pets misunderstand what is going on and take off, clear across Canada, and encounter many adventures before being reunited with their owners.

However, Walt's strongest connection with Canada is the fact that his dad was born there.

Arundel Disney and his brother Robert sailed with their families in September 1834 from Liverpool, England to begin a new life in America. Once they arrived, Robert went to the Midwest and began farming. Arundel traveled to the Canadian frontier in the Goderich Township, Ontario.

Arundel built a mill beside the Maitland River and found success grinding wheat and sawing timber. His eldest son, Kepple, disliked the Canadian winters and in 1878 took off for the California gold fields with his oldest sons Elias (Walt's father who was 18 at the time) and Robert (Walt's uncle who later helped Walt when he came to California). However, passing through Kansas, Kepple was convinced to buy 200 acres of land near Ellis and that postponed the journey to California.

Elias Disney went through many other adventures and misadventures, including time in Central Florida, before ending up in Chicago where he worked as a carpenter on the Columbian Exposition. In 1901, Kepple's fourth son, Walter, was born in Chicago.

Elias Disney was in his 70s when he discovered he was an illegal alien. For nearly 50 years, he had diligently voted in U.S. elections. His voting status was challenged and it was discovered that in the eyes of the law, he was still a Canadian.

When Kepple had moved from Canada to Kansas, he had taken out naturalization papers and when he achieved citizenship, so did his minor children. Elias had come of age before the process had been completed so he remained a Canadian citizen. It also turned out that Walt's mother, even though born in Ohio, was also considered a Canadian because of her marriage to Elias.

Elias and Flora spent long hours studying the Constitution and American history for their citizenship examinations but when they appeared in court, the judge was so moved by their dedication at their age that he decided they didn't need to go through the exam and they were naturalized.

However, I am personally thankful to Canada because it produced a television show that interviewed Walt and has left us the legacy of Walt in black-and-white video talking about his inspiration for Disneyland, what he felt was his greatest accomplishment and why he felt that his brother Herbert was the "happy Disney."

The Canadian Broadcasting Company introduced Telescope in 1963 as a 30-minute television program that would "examine, reflect and project the Canadian image" and for 10 years, and this half-hour documentary series covered a wide range of subjects pertaining to Canadians.

Generally, the show featured a personality profile of a Canadian (national figure, international celebrity, or notable unknown citizen). Since Walt's father, Elias, was born in Canada, Walt was invited to be interviewed by Fletcher Markle on September 25, 1963.

At the time, the affable Markle, who was born in Winnipeg, had just finished directing The Incredible Journey, which was filmed in Calgary, Canada. Walt apparently liked Fletcher and agreed to the interview.

Markle was a director and producer for a number of television series such as Front Row Center, Boris Karloff's Thriller and Father of the Bride, as well as Telescope where he was also the host. Markle is given credit for signing up Lorne Greene, another Canadian, to play Ben Cartwright in Bonanza. While working for Orson Welles on the Mercury Theater radio show, Markle met and later married actress Mercedes McCambridge.

The majority of Walt's introductions for his weekly television program were done in a studio film set intended to represent his personal office. The various awards and mementos seen on the set were real because Walt felt more comfortable with his own items close at hand. Then after filming they were moved back into his real office.

It would not be cost effective for Walt to film his introductions to the television show on a weekly basis. The solution was to film a number of introductions at the same time. Disney staffer Jack Bruner recalled at one point Walt filmed 12 to 14 introductions over a three-day period.

I suspect that the Telescope interview was filmed on this set after Walt had completed a series of introductions. In the beginning, Walt appears haggard and hoarse as if he had been talking all day, but perks up very quickly as he excitedly talks about his life and his plans for the future.

There is a section of the interview that rarely appears in clips that focuses on Walt and Canada so I thought I would transcribe that section and share it with Mouse Planet readers:

Fletcher Markle: Our Telescope viewers are naturally interested in your plans for Canada. They remember, of course, "Nikki the Wild Dog of the North," which I think was your first Canadian production.

Walt Disney: Yes, we did that between Calgary and Banff and we worked with the Canadian Wildlife ... uh ... what do you call it? Canadian Wildlife....

FM: Society, I guess.

WD: Is it society? No, it's the government. Anyway, they let us have an experimental station that they had ... was abandoned ... that they weren't using and we put a company there and they went right through the winter and we got some wonderful stuff on the film.

FM: And then with the second film, you went to Eastern parts to make "Big Red."

WD: Uh ... hum.

FM: For the locations of "Big Red." And coming up in the next few days, Canadians are going to be seeing your third Canadian production, "The Incredible Journey."

WD: That's Sheila Buford's best-selling story...one of my favorites. I think the animals in that are terrific. I hate to say that to you, Fletcher, because you directed the humans. (Walt laughs). I'm always partial to animal actors, anyway.

FM: Well, I found the animals pretty pleasant, too. I must say. But it's certainly the animals' picture and one of the most remarkable animal stories of its kind that I've ever read, let alone had anything to do with as a film. I gather Walt that you first found out about the story even before it was published in North America.

WD: Yes.

FM: During its English publication...

WD: Yes, It was first published in England. That's where we caught on to it.

FM: You had your plans long before it became a best seller.

WD: Yes. We got into quite a hassle. Some bidding went on to get that story and it all ended up and I found out it was my good friend, George Seaton, was bidding against me. (Walt laughs.) George apologized. He said, "I'm sorry I ran the price up on you, Walt. I didn't know you were bidding against me."

FM: These are the things you can never know about in advance. Actually, the part of the Canadian story that interests me more than any other is the fact that your father was born in Canada and lived a good part of his life there before he moved to parts of the south and began producing sons.

WD: Yes, he was born in a little town I think they call it Blue Vale. It's right out of Goderich and the Disney family were Anglo-Irish and they migrated over there in the 1830s, which make me feel that the Disneys had foresight because it was 1840 when they had the potato famine in Ireland. But they were smart enough to get out before that.

And my father was born there and he was raised there, went to school there. In fact, he went to school in Goderich. He was about 20 years old when my grandfather went to Kansas, out in the same area where General Eisenhower, ex-President Eisenhower, came from. He was an alien, of course, being a Canadian. And he had to buy his land. He couldn't homestead. He bought a section of railroad land and that property stayed with the Disney family until just a few years ago.

And my uncle had it and I told him, "Before you sell, let us know." And so finally he wanted to sell it and retire. And I went to my brother and said, "Let's buy this. This virgin land that our ancestors acquired." And he said, "What do we want with farming land?" He wouldn't go with me so I didn't go ahead. I found out later that they struck gas and oil on it. (Walt laughs.)

FM: Well, you can't win them all!

WD: NO!! (Walt laughs.)

FM: Tell me, Walt, have you been back to your father's homestead at all in recent years?

WD: My father and I had planned to go back 'cause as a boy, my father always told me about his boyhood in Canada. You see here 4th of July is a big deal here but my father always referred to the Queen's birthday and that was Victoria and that was when they had their big doings, you know. I always wanted to go up there with my father because as a youngster, you know, he told me about all these different things that he did. And the country. He thought it was the most beautiful country in the world and yet he came down here to live. And he died before we had a chance to do that.

FM: Well, after your father's death, did you finally get a chance to get back up to the old homestead?

WD: Yes, I finally made it. I took Mrs. Disney along and she's not too interested in ancestors and things, you know. We got up there and she really fell in love with the town of Goderich. It was a beautiful town and she was quite happy about it. But I wanted to find my homestead where my grandfather went out and cut the trees down and pulled the rocks apart, where my father was born.

So they gave me directions and everybody was trying to be helpful and everything and Mrs. Disney reluctantly went along and I found this old place and I said, "This is it ... there." It was really deserted. There were cows running through the house and chickens around and I had my camera and I got out and photographed that thing from every angle. When I got through I found out I had photographed the wrong homestead. (Walt laughs.) Ever since, Mrs. Disney has never forgot. She tells that to everybody. About when Walt went up to Canada and he photographed the wrong homestead!