Walt Disney: Horrible Theater

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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In December, we celebrate not only Walt Disney’s birthday, but, sadly, 10 days later, the memorial of his passing. Unfortunately, after people die, there seems to be a frenzy to unearth all sorts of misrepresentations about them since they can no longer defend themselves. Whether it is in a poorly researched book or a theatrical production, there seem to be no common-sense boundaries and, sadly, many people will believe these presentations are true simply because they exist at all. (As an impressionable child interested in magic, thanks to seeing the Tony Curtis film on Houdini, for decades I had the wrong impression of how that great escape artist actually died.)

It probably comes as no surprise to frequent readers of this column that I have a pretty extensive background in theater and have performed in hundreds of stage plays and directed dozens of plays in the Los Angeles area. At one time, I was actively pursuing a career as an actor/director/playwright with several awards and countless accolades fueling that goal, which was prematurely abandoned in part to assist my ailing parents. It is a decision I have never regretted since the extra time I had with my parents was more than worth any recognition I might have attained in the theatrical world.

So, I am well aware of some excellent plays that are based on real people or real incidents that range from The Miracle Worker to Inherit the Wind to so many more. Of course, those plays had to take a few dramatic liberties to telescope actual events into a format that would tell a cohesive and emotionally engaging story—in the limited time available on the stage. However, the really excellent plays were still able to give enough of a glimpse of the truth of the original story to be true to the spirit of the real person or event.

Then, again, I am aware of some less-successful attempts to try to capture the “truth of history” in a theatrical production. Those attempts actually sullied or grossly misrepresented their original source material and, unfortunately, two of those plays tried to present a portrait of Walt Disney and his struggles.

If I ever needed some proof that the end of the world is indeed coming in 2012, then I only needed to glance at a news item that stated: “Famed composer Philip Glass has been commissioned to compose an Opera based on novel The Perfect American. That novel, by Peter Stephan Jungk, examines the last few months of Walt Disney’s life as seen through the eyes of a fictional animator who worked for him. The New York City Opera company should debut the piece in the 2012-2013 season.”

I think that notice would spark the curiosity of most Disney fans, unless they knew what I know about the book.

The Perfect American is not a good book. It is what the author describes as a “fictionalized biography”. The story is actually about a former Disney animator, the fictional Wilhelm Dantine (the narrator of the book), who Walt supposedly fired in 1959 and is obsessed with righting a perceived wrong done him by that Hollywood genius. It is actually a tale of obsession that purports to reveal what Walt was really “thinking” about things.

Walt is depicted as a racist, a misogynist, and an anti-Semite. However, that isn’t even the worst of it. Walt is a tormented creepy guy who is not only romantically involved with Disney Studio nurse Hazel George but is sexually obsessed with his adopted daughter, Sharon.

I don’t even know where to begin to tell you how incorrect all of those assumptions are, except to just say that those sentences don’t even come close to anything resembling the truth. Walt wasn’t a saint and he wasn’t perfect, but none of those accusations have any basis in fact at all—and I have been researching Walt and his life for decades. I’ve talked with former employees who knew Walt and did not care for him at all and left the Disney Company on bad terms—and even they, in their worst rants about Walt, never said anything like those accusations.

The book is error laden, primarily because the author has no understanding of the animation process and does things like confuses in-betweeners with ink and painters.

However, there are also a heaping handful of factual errors, as well, like a supposed visit to Marceline, Mo., in 1966.

Walt’s life is certainly interesting enough for an opera or a stage play, but, for crying out loud, it is so rich that writers really don’t need to make things up. Of course, this is not the first time this type of thing has happened.

I would imagine most of the readers of this column are unfamiliar with a play titled Walt and Roy that has been performed for the last 25 years.

The night in the 1930s, before Walt and Roy are to meet with a representative from Bank of America to plead for additional financing to complete Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they get together in Walt’s office in the Hyperion Studios. Walt, the wildly creative genius, and Roy, the calmer financially prudent brother, spend almost two hours being belligerent and sniping insults at each other to prepare for the important meeting in what the playwright described as “a harsh and haunting comedy about the price of genius and the courage to believe in a dream.”

In the opening scene, a gun and a half empty bottle of Jim Beam whiskey litter Walt’s desk as he contemplates suicide. (Trust me on this one; that hypothetical situation NEVER happened. If anything, Walt was excited to “sell” the film to the bankers and convince them how groundbreaking the film would be although worried about showing the uncompleted elements of the film.)

At another point in the first act, Roy chides Walt with the fact that Ub Iwerks is the real reason for the success of the company. (Again, even then Roy knew what it took others years to learn that whatever amazing people worked at Disney, it was always Walt that made it magic, especially when those people left and never achieved the same level of success they had at Disney.) Near the end of the first act, Walt imagines shooting Roy dead and mocking him by saying why he is better off dead.

Let me just say that four of my friends who are well-known and respected in the animation industry at the time saw the play in its American debut. They left in disgust at intermission because even their curiosity couldn’t sustain their interest as to what might happen in the second act.

The playwright, cast, and director insisted this was not a “hatchet job” about Walt but portrayed him “as the human being that he was.” (No, this is not how Walt was, especially at that time. Walt was charismatic, passionate, hypnotic, inspiring and, yes, troubled and stressed but certainly not in the way he is portrayed.)

Canadian playwright Michael McKinaly who wrote Walt and Roy at the American premiere stated, “There are so many stories about Walt. I’m not vilifying him in any way, but talking about the creative process. Playwrights are always looking for that one moment of decision and to me, this seemed to be it. The characters [of Walt and Roy] are cartoons; they are larger than life. When he was in his 30s, Walt was really a Doug Fairbanks kind of guy. This is letting an audience see him as this dashing, good-looking guy, whereas Roy was rather paunchy and just recovering from TB. You look for dichotomies.”

The idea to dramatize the intense relationship between the Disney brothers came to McKinaly when he first visited the Magic Kingdom at the age of 22 and still a graduate student. He supposedly did some research and wrote the first version of the play as his thesis for the University of Alberta. Theatre Network in Edmonton staged the play for the first time in 1985 and it continued to be staged across Canada for several years.

It was the recipient of the Alberta Culture Award, Best Play (Full-length), 1985 and the recipient of the Alberta Writers' Guild Award, Best Play, 1985. Nominated for Canada's prestigious Governor General’s Award with three other plays, it lost. The winners and nominees were selected by a panel of judges administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.

At the time, there was even talk of an American tour and a movie deal.

The first American Production was staged more than a decade later at Bare Stage Productions in Los Angeles (3707 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake) in July of 1998 and ran to early September. John Allore played Walt and Tom Babuscio played Roy.

You can read Variety’s review of this little theater production (link).

I don’t think McKinaly fully understood the deep, close bond between the two Disney brothers. It was much more than just a wonderful business relationship. The two brothers genuinely loved and respected each other. Roy was completely devastated at the death of his little brother.

“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 on February 17, 1957, when he received the Milestone Award of the Screen Producers Guild, at a banquet held in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California.

Walt, despite whatever personal disagreements he had with Roy over the years, constantly and without hesitation praised the more reclusive Roy at all sorts of public events and in interviews. Roy constantly praised his brother and expressed amazement at Walt’s vision and creativity.

Dick Morrow, who served as general counsel for the Disney Company, recalled that despite the bitter arguments the two brothers sometimes had, “the love between the two brothers never diminished in the slightest, and I heard that from each of them individually. People who tried to take advantage of [the situation] and tried to play off one against the other faced trouble.”

While the idea of a play based on an interaction between the two brothers at a key moment in the history of the Disney Studios is a great idea, McKinaly’s execution falls short. He didn’t understand the process of animation, the nature of the time period, and, most importantly, the emotional relationship of the two brothers.

I truly believe there is a great play or movie that could be written about Walt or the relationship of the Disney brothers, but these two attempts fall short not only in their understanding of the Disneys but also in the basic facts about the business they where in and its processes.

I guess I am grateful that according to the Mayan calendar the world will end in 2012 so that I will not be able to see the Glass opera based on The Perfect American or any other horrors depicting a flawed view of Walt’s life and feelings that might be in the works.