Forgotten Tales of Disney History

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

In the past, I have harvested forgotten quotes of Walt Disney from old magazine and newspaper articles. It only recently occurred to me that these resources also contain quotes and information from people other than Walt that might illuminate the history of the Walt Disney Company and intrigue some of the readers of this column.

I was recently trying unsuccessfully to reorganize some of my files and ran across the following quotes that were very fascinating and, to the best of my knowledge, never appeared elsewhere. I have lots of disorganized file folders that have some of these gems so if MousePlanet readers find these as interesting as I do, let me know and I will put together another column or two in the future.

As a teenager, animator Don Bluth worked on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1955-1956. He left the Disney Studios but returned later in 1971 for another eight-year stint before leaving to create his own animation studio. Here is a quote from him from the “Dallas Morning News” from April 2, 1994:

“The first time I was there, I had only a fleeting relationship with Walt Disney himself. At that time, 80 percent of the focus around the studio was on Disneyland. A lot of people there were filled with fear of Walt Disney. The artists were competitive with each other, to a fault. I remember when I was 18 and at Disney, they sat me down, put a big blank sheet of paper in front of me and told me to draw the king in Sleeping Beauty. And I just froze. I sat there and couldn’t do anything. But I forced myself to draw a king, then some squirrels and some birds. But I had to force myself. Everything at the studio just resonated with fear, and when I came back as an adult, the corporation was still filled with fear.”

However, other people working at Disney had a much different experience. Here is a quote from Louis Prima, who provided the voice of King Louie in The Jungle Book, from a publicity interview during the making of the film:

“The thing that struck me most about Mr. Disney was that he changed the atmosphere of every place he entered. He had a tremendous physical presence that affected those he came in contact with. The only other man I can think of that had the same powerful personal impact on people was Franklin Roosevelt. And yet there was nothing pretentious about him. Mr. Disney was dynamic, and still casual, friendly, with a great sense of humor. A fellow like Disney you wanted to be around.”

Entertainer Danny Kaye was a huge Disney fan (he even hosted Disneyland's 25th anniversary special) although you may not think so after reading this quote from the article “How Does TV Affect Our Children” from the March 26, 1960 issue of TV Guide:

“In the time of my grandparents, children were thrilled and chilled by Grimm’s fairy tales, and grim they were and fairy tales they were also. The elders of the time certainly threw up their hands in horror at the violence of Grimm. Today, Walt Disney is heralded as one of the great storytellers of our time—which, indeed, he is. But what do we see with a Walt Disney film? We see horror and violence, after which good triumphs over evil. My daughter Dena had nightmares for a whole year after she saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I hold that neither Grimm nor Disney are the culminating factors in the definition of a child’s personality. I think we would throw neither rocks nor puffs at them, but accept the fact that Grimm existed in his time and Disney does very well in our time.”

Those feelings were echoed by director Steven Spielberg in this quote from the May 21, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Times:

“There were scenes of utter violence and sheer terror in those films [Walt Disney’s feature length animated cartoons]. They terrorized me as a child and I’ll never forget them. For a child, fantasy is more real in a film like Bambi, about the loss of a parent, than in Kramer Vs. Kramer. I also feel an obligation to work at Disney at some point as a sort of repayment for all the stuff Disney put in my imagination when I was growing up.”

Actress Mariette Hartley (perhaps best remembered for her Polaroid commercials with James Garner although she did appear in the 1973 Disney movie The Mystery of Dracula’s Castle) mentioned Snow White in the October 27, 1979 issue of Family Weekly:

“The thought of witches terrified me. That’s because the first film I saw, when I was 4, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I was so frightened of the witch that, for years afterward, especially on Halloween, I had nightmares about witches. The one in Snow White was so graphic, so close to reality. I’ll never forget those long, red fingernails.”

Animation director Richard Williams, perhaps best known to Disney fans for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit shared this thought from the December 1988 issue of Starburst magazine:

“When I was 15, I saw Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and that made me take movies seriously. When I was 5, I’d seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and that made me take animation seriously. I never got over it and I never got over Rashomon either. I like to think those are my bench marks.”

Bill Peet is legendary as one of the top storymen at the Disney Studio during its Golden Age, and went on to an award-winning career as a children’s book author and illustrator. One of the reasons for leaving the Disney Studio was his disagreement with Walt over the story direction on The Jungle Book. From the December 23, 1990 of the Los Angeles Times come these insights from Peet:

“Walt was very sensitive about credit. He would say, ‘Damnit, we are all in this together.’ But what he meant was ‘the credit is all mine.’ I knew that ‘we’ stood for ‘Walter Elias.’ Everything comes out ‘Walt Disney Presents’ and the rest of our names might as well have been in the phone work. You can’t have a collective idea about what is funny. Creative work is a very personal thing. You have to have a single point of view.”

I still wear a simple Mickey Mouse watch that belonged to my late uncle even though countless battery changes and strap replacements were enough to buy several new watches. Here’s a cute story from the September 18, 1978 of Time magazine :

“America’s No. 1 mouse and Japan’s No. 1 man are old friends. Ever since his tour of Disneyland in 1975, Emperor Hirohito has treasured a memento of his trip: a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Even on the most formal occasions. His Majesty has been observed wearing his Mickey Mouse watch. Thus, there was dismay in the royal household when the trusty watch stopped ticking, and concerned palace chamberlains rushed it to Tokyo experts specializing in American timepieces. The diagnosis? A new battery was needed. Last week, his hands moving again, Mickey was reunited with Hirohito.”

Animation historian John Culhane has written an excellent book about Fantasia that adorns a frequently used section of my bookshelf and I thought I had heard every story about that classic film and—thanks to the research of animation historian John Canemaker—the never-made sequences, as well. However, this is the only time I ever heard the following story and it comes from the Philadelphia Inquirer and was reprinted in the October 1978 issue of Reader’s Digest:

“When Leopold Stokowski was recording the music for Walt Disney’s Fantasia with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the complex recording system set up in the basement of the Academy of Music was declared a fire hazard and work was ordered stopped. On the advice of friends, Stokowski called Joe Sharfein, then city solicitor and ardent music fan. Sharfain quickly withdrew the stop order and recording proceeded. Later, Stokowski expressed his gratitude and asked, ‘Now, what can I do for you?’ Sharfain said jokingly that one of his greatest wishes was to be rich enough to engage Stokowski and the orchestra for the single performance at which he would be the sole audience. (The price at that time would have been $10,000.) Stokowski asked, ‘When did you have in mind?’ Sharfain answered, ‘Oh, that’s a long time away.’ Stokowski countered, ‘How about tomorrow at 2 o’clock?’ The incredulous Sharfain appeared at the side door of the Academy of Music the next afternoon, to be escorted by a deputy of the maestro into the hall, empty except for the orchestra and conductor. The maestro turned to make sure Sharfain was there, raised his arms and conducted for four hours—all the music of Fantasia—just for Joe Sharfain.”

One of the things that interest me are the never-made projects. So here are two insights into unmade Disney animated features. The first comes from a Walt Disney quote that appeared in Newsweek magazine on February 16, 1953, just after the release of Peter Pan. At the end of the article, it was announced by Walt that, after Lady and the Tramp, “Beauty and the Beast and Walt Kelly’s Pogo are possibilities.”

More recent unmade projects appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News of July 26, 1992:

“At a press preview for Disney’s Aladdin, Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg announced several animated feature projects in development (besides King of the Jungle due next year with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice). Those projects include Homer’s Odyssey, Sinbad the Sailor, Pocahontas, Swan Lake (which Katzenberg described as ‘an original story dealing with the mythology of dragons’), Song of the Sea (about whales) and ‘a more lighthearted projected called Silly Hillbillies on Mars. These are in addition to Fantasia Continues (due in 1995).”

Walt Disney Productions President Ron Miller (husband of Diane Disney Miller) told TV Guide in the February 21, 1981 issue that the Disney Studio was working on several specials and at least a dozen pilots for the upcoming television season. Included on the list was Walt Disney: The Man, The Artist, The Dreamer, a series of three documentaries on the evolution of the late movie pioneer’s dreams and his accomplishments. It was to be produced by Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith. Could that adventurous project have developed into that star-studded, musical two hour special, Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream produced by Hemion and Smith that aired December 12, 1981?

By the way, writing this reminded me that Christian Hoff portrayed young Walt Disney in the special as long as we are trying to keep track of actors who portrayed Walt on television and film.

From the November 1978 of Valley magazine (a Southern California publication) came this cryptic comment from Nine Old Man Eric Larson who was training new talent at the Disney Studio at the time: “I’ve had to think more about Walt than ever lately. He was just so creative. There was never anyone like him. We couldn’t have done it without him. He had a strong knack of knowing what people want. I’ve come to realize if I’m not tough with them (the new artists) like Walt was with me, it won’t do anybody any good. ” Larson recalls a film Disney made, a sort of pep talk for the staff shown after his death. “He talked to us as if he was still with us. I was so glad he made that film. It was really necessary.”

Disney Legend Ward Kimball is always good for a quote and here’s one from “Cartoonist Profiles No. 15 (September 1972): “People won’t remember The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. They’ll remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They won’t recall The Absent Minded Professor as vividly as they’ll remember The Jungle Book or Cinderella.”

Mel Shaw, who was working on concept sketches for the Black Cauldron, was quoted in New West magazine (December 4, 1978) about the difficulties at the Disney Studio after Walt died:

“The old joke around here is that there used to be 2,000 artists and 50 bookkeepers and now there’s 50 artists and 2,000 bookkeepers and not one of those bookkeepers can draw.”

Author Bob Thomas ,quoted in the National Enquirer April 18, 1978:

“Walt was Mickey Mouse. It was his voice—in the beginning at any rate—and it was his personality. His widow says that even today whenever she sees the early Mickey Mouse on the screen, she cries because it reminds her so much of Walt.”

Animation historian John Culhane, in the November 11, 1978 issue of Saturday Review revealed that during an interview with Otto Messmer, the creator and legendary artist of Felix the Cat, that Messmer revealed the following:

“Walt designed a mouse, but it wasn’t very good. He was long and skinny. Ub Iwerks redesigned the character.”

In that same article, Culhane reprinted an excerpt from an interview he did with Iwerks in 1967 where Iwerks said:

“It was the standardized thing. Pear-shaped body, ball on top, couple of thin legs. If you gave it long ears, it was a rabbit. Short ears, it was a cat. Ears hanging down, a dog. With an elongated nose, it became a mouse. Mickey was the same basic figure, initially.”

Also included in that Culhane article was a story told to him by Imagineer John Hench about an incident that took place in the late 1950s involving Dr. Tom Dooley, the founder of Medico who was running a hospital ship off the coast of Southeast Asia that provided free medical care for whoever would come out of the jungle to his clinic. This is the story that Hench told Culhane:

“Dooley had a problem getting children. He wanted to know if he could use our characters—Mickey particularly. Dooley didn’t understand what was wrong at the time, but he knew from experience he’d had that the Red Cross didn’t work well—so he put Mickey on the side of his ship. Suddenly, kids who had refused to come out of the bush happily stood in line for a medical examination. Obviously, hardly any of them had ever seen a picture of Mickey. But they recognized something. It wasn’t the cartoon character; it was the symbol. Walt had an instinct for these very old survival patterns. I think that if anyone really wanted to take the time to examine it, he would see that these survival patterns are the basis of our aesthetics, our sense of pleasure. And Walt was always interested in why designs had their power. After all, he was in the business of communicating with form.”

There are plenty more short stories for another couple of columns but hopefully for now, these will tickle your fancy.