Walt's Wonderful World of Awards

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Was Walt Disney the most honored movie producer of all time?

In 1963 columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that after a recent visit to the Disney Studios in Burbank, actress Lillian Gish returned to New York and “put in a pitch for [Walt] Disney to receive a Nobel prize. We should get back of the idea. I don’t think anybody’s done more than he has [and is] in the field of entertainment to promote decency, morality, and just plain goodness.” (Two years later, Gish was cast in the Disney live-action film, Follow Me Boys.)

Walt never won a Nobel Prize, but he certainly received countless awards over the years, both big and small. To me, it was remarkable that Walt continued to spend so much of his time on his cartoons, live-action films, television, Disneyland, and his family, and yet still had time to show up at the seemingly never-ending ceremonies honoring him.

There are countless pictures of him smiling patiently and being gracious as medals are tied around his neck, huge bowls and plaques are displayed in front of him and oddly shaped awards are thrust at him.

According to the Disney Archives, Walt Disney, along with members of his staff, received more than 950 honors and citations from every nation in the world—ncluding 48 Academy Awards and seven Emmys—during his lifetime.

Walt Disney's personal awards included honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, USC, and UCLA; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; France's Legion of Honor and Officer d'Academie decorations; Thailand's Order of the Crown; Brazil's Order of the Southern Cross; Mexico's Order of the Aztec Eagle; and the Showman of the World Award from the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Some of those awards have been well documented including the many Oscars and honors like the Showman of the World award from the NATO on October 1, 1966.

I previously transcribed Walt’s entire speech when he received that award at this link.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of the awards Walt received in 1965 to see the variety and frequency of these ceremonies:

Walt was presented with the Americana Award by the Women's Division of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (L.A. County Chapter), for “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom, on Armed Forces Day. Two years earlier, Walt was given the Freedoms Foundation coveted George Washington Award, its highest individual honor.

The 5,000-members of California Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) at their 1965 annual meeting in San Diego passed a resolution commending Walt for “his information, wholesome enjoyment and distinguished entertainment.”

Also in 1965, in New York, Walt was the recipient of the inaugural Marquis Awards for “outstanding citizenship and competent management,” presented by the American Institute of Management, at the Plaza Hotel. That same year, Walt was presented with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Silver Bowl Award of Merit and a received a lifetime membership. There was a screening of the Goofy cartoon Freewayphobia” The president of AAA remarked, “Walt Disney has the ability to point out our weaknesses and frailties and then teach us how to cope with them while we laugh at ourselves.”

In addition, Walt was at the San Francisco Film Festival to accept the Chamber of Commerce’s Native Son award, a huge silver bowl, just prior to a special screening of Snow White. Chamber President William Bird made the presentation: “Mr. Disney, through your genius you have brought happiness and pleasure to children of all ages and have become a symbol of good taste, responsibility and imagination to all the world. You are more than a citizen of any one geographic area. We hereby adopt you as an honorary son of San Francisco.”

Also, Walt picked up an honorary lifetime membership from the California State Park Rangers Association at the scenic Asilomar State Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. I was given to him “in recognition of his contribution to the field of conservation and the development of California’s great state park system.” And before the year was finished, the Deb Star Ball at the Hollywood Palladium for the first time in its history dedicated the event specifically to an individual, Walt Disney. Actress Vera Miles presented the plaque in recognition of Walt’s “many outstanding contributions to the motion pictures and television industries and in recognition of his wholesome entertainment and artistic excellence.”

Besides the Showman of the World Award and grand marshall of the Pasadena Rose Parade, the year 1966 brought Walt some additional honors. A few of them included:

In October of 1966, Walt was awarded a distinguished service award, along with Bob Hope, during the People to People 10th  anniversary dinner in Kansas City. People to People was founded by former President Dwight Eisenhower to advance international understanding and friendship. In introducing Walt, Eisenhower said Walt was a man “who has spread more understanding of the fun loving American than anyone else and has brought joy to the hearts of many people, both young and old.”

Walt replied, “I haven’t been conscious I’ve done anything. I’ve been going along my own way, doing things I had always wanted to do as a boy in Kansas City. I now find that at the same time, I’ve been serving a good cause.”

Walt received the first Photoplay Front Cover Award where publisher Frederick Klein praised both Walt and the Disney Studio “for their achievements in reflecting the highest standards via the American motion picture screen.” This was actually the second Photoplay award for Walt. He was presented a bronze plaque in 1954 for his “unique contribution to motion pictures.”

Within a span of 24 hours, first in Washington and then New York, Walt received two awards. In Washington, D.C., he got the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Dannebrog from Denmark’s King Frederik IX, the highest accolade that can go to anyone other than a Danish citizen, “as a recognition of your warm friendship for Denmark and your contribution to the world as a motion picture and television producer.”

Then Walt got a special once-in-a-century gold medallion from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The medallion, the only one of its kind ever given, was given to Walt according to ASPCA President James Jenkins in New York because “we feel that no man in the century has done more to instill a love and appreciation of animals in the hearts of generations of children and adults. It is fitting that the oldest and largest humane organization in the Western Hemisphere honor Mr. Disney on the 100th anniversary of its founding.”

Recently, I was able to find information about an award ceremony from 1957 and more importantly, Walt’s insightful comments at the event, so here is another piece of “lost” research and new Walt quotes for your enjoyment.

On February 17, 1957, Walt Disney received the Milestone Award of the Screen Producers Guild, at a banquet held in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with leaders of government, science, education, music, art and literature joining the film industry in paying tribute to Walt’s creative contributions to those fields.

The Milestone Award was presented to a producer who had made "an historic contribution to the entertainment industry." Screen Producers Guild (comparable to the more famous Screen Actors Guild) was founded in 1950 and, in 1962, merged with the Television Producers Guild to create today’s better known Producers Guild of America.

When guests entered the ballroom after cocktails, they found figures of the most famous of Disney’s characters, all in tuxedos, seated in the 20 chairs on the dais, with Mickey Mouse occupying Walt’s chair.

Singer Eddie Fisher opened the ceremonies with the Star-Spangled Banner followed by an invocation by Lt. Thomas E. Moye, chaplain of Mine Force Pacific Fleet, U.S. Navy.

The Disney characters were replaced on the dais by Samuel Engel, Lowell Thomas, Lt. Thomas Moye, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Yul Brynner, Gene Kelly, General Omar Bradley, Perle Mesta, Dr. Frank Baxter, Joe Rosenberg and Walt Disney.

Samuel Engel, the president of the Screen Producers Guild, read a message from President Eisenhower to Walt that lauded Walt for his “contribution to the pleasure and understanding of the world community and your genius as a creator of folklore has long-been recognized by leaders in every field of human endeavor including that most discerning body of critics, the children of this land and all lands. As an artist, your work has helped reveal our country to the world, and the world to all of us. As a man, your sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity, with all its frailties and possibilities for good.”

A message to Disney from Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, praised Walt’s “great contribution to wider understanding of how man’s inventiveness can serve the cause of peaceful progress and enrich the lives of people everywhere.” Strauss mentioned Walt’s production of Our Friend the Atom as an example of this contribution.

Vice President Richard Nixon spoke via a taped recording. Perle Mesta, a well-known popular Washington political hostess, stated, “it takes a gentle spirit to create a character like Mickey Mouse who is so well known everywhere in the world.”

Lowell Thomas was emcee and introduced speakers General Omar Bradley (who lauded Disney’s contributions to Armed Services’ morale) and Dr. Frank Baxter (who echoed Bradley’s comments). Thomas then read a message from Leopold Stokowski (“Walt Disney is a rare creative personality”) and played a taped recording by Grandma Moses.

There was a tape recording by Cecil B. DeMille (the previous year’s recipient who was in New York and had delegated actor Yul Brynner to make the formal presentation) who referred to Walt as “Hollywood’s poet of celluloid, the man who has brought more sheer joy and happiness to more children of all ages than any other single story-teller who has ever lived.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, when it was time for Walt to talk, he “interspersed his speech with pertinent and humorous remarks.”

Walt began by talking about “the magic power that is at every producer’s disposal…the power of selling."

"I’ve always found it a beautiful thing to watch when someone like Mr. DeMille or Mr. Goldwyn finishes a picture. They know they’re just half way through the job. Then they roll up their sleeves and start in to sell the product they just made. They put as much imagination in the selling of a picture as they did in the creation of it.”

Then, Walt talked about how television was actually a “blessing in disguise. First, we went into shock or the ‘let’s get a stick and chase it under the porch’ plan. Then came the beat down, or ‘if we can’t lick ‘em, let’s join ‘em’ era. Now, at last, I think we’re coming into a period where both the picture and TVindustries can view each other with relative calm and find some methods of common benefit.

“During this time, television admittedly turned to Hollywood not only for old movies but for more production techniques, creative talent and a good hard look at something we laughingly call ‘costs’. Having done this for us, I think we should be equally gracious and see what we can swipe from them in return. Because like it or not, I think there’s much I’ve learned from television.

“First, instead of talking about it, tv has given immediate opportunity to young directors, writers and players. They believe in new ideas. They take chances, and if they fall on their faces, they fall forward. Television has opened doors to a new wealth of story and entertainment material.

“Television has done many jobs for us we have not been able to do for ourselves. From the sheer bulk of material pushed through the tv tube daily, it has dulled the sense of people to ordinary entertainment values. Under this pressure, it is forging a new selective audience, with a special capacity for quality entertainment.”

During the speech, Walt introduced Joe Rosenberg, former Bank of America official, whom he called his “personal fairy godfather” for having helped him in “anxious” times.

Walt also introduced his wife, family, and brother Roy. “In my career, it helps to have some kind of genius. I’ve got it but it happens to be in the person of my brother Roy who runs the company, the whole works, at home and abroad. He has a talent for self-effacement which isn’t going to do him a bit of good right at this moment,” Walt said with a laugh.

Following his speech, Thomas introduced Gene Kelly, who came out and introduced Walt to 80 small children, dressed in costumes of their native countries, who sang “When You Wish Upon a Star” and were joined by singer Pat Boone as the climax to the evening.

Of course, Walt received many congratulatory letters and telegrams from others including one from J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI who wrote: “You must derive great satisfaction from this recognition, and I want to be among the many persons in this country who will extend congratulations to you on this occasion. Your work in the past has been a credit not only to the motion picture industry but to the entire Nation, and I want to assure you of my every good wish for continuing success.”

(In Walt’s FBI files, a copy of this letter is accompanied by the note that there was “no derogatory data in the files on the Screen Producers Guild” nor its president who was actually a SAC Contact for the FBI Los Angeles office at the time.)

On March 6, 1966, Walt presented the Milestone award to Brigadier General David Sarnoff, then-chairman of the board of RCA.