The Disney Family Album Complete Story Part 1by Wade Sampson, staff writer
One of the reasons I write this column is because I am continually frustrated in trying to locate information on Disney things that I love. Try to research Disney Family Album on the Internet, in Disney books, or in old issues of the Disney Channel magazine, and you will find your frustration continue to mount at each failed attempt to discover anything about this remarkable series that is beloved by so many Disney fans.
In an effort to correct that injustice, I am going to document the story of this show, give credit to some of the talented and passionate people behind it, list all the episodes (since no other location does so), share some interesting anecdotes, and, then, finally reveal why this show has never been released on video or DVD and why it might never happen unless a champion like John Lasseter or D23 steps up to correct the situation.
I would personally like to thank Cardon Walker, Mike Bonifer and Jim Fanning for being so generous with their time and sharing their memories when I interviewed them and for reviewing this material before it appeared in print.
The Disney Channel began broadcasting on April 18, 1983. It was a premium channel and only aired 16 hours a day, from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. The program that kicked off the channel's first day on the air was the Disney Channel-produced series Good Morning, Mickey! Other programs included Welcome to Pooh Corner and You and Me Kid. In April 1984, the channel extended its programming day to 18 hours a day by adding two hours to its late night schedule. On December 1, 1986, Disney Channel commenced full-time broadcasting 24 hours everyday. The slogan during those early years was “Everything You Ever Imagined and More!”
To fill that extra time, the Disney Channel re-ran old television series like Ozzie and Harriet and product from other studios that was very much in keeping with the family focus of the channel. However, the core was classic Disney programming like old episodes of the Disney weekly television shows, iconic Disney animated cartoons, and much more. (I loved the Dateline: Disney segments and specials giving a brief look at what was happening at Disney on new projects.)
In addition, Jim Jimirro, who was was the first president of the Disney Channel, greenlit original programming that was created just for the channel, including the sci-fi pilot Future Tense that had two separate story episodes as well as some clever animation. There was also Backstage at Disney (part of the Disney Studio Showcase series) hosted by animation historian John Culhane, who went backstage and saw the preproduction on the original version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, interviewed a young Tim Burton about his stop-motion animated short Vincent, and saw the mechanical wonders of the dinosaur known as Baby from the film of the same name. Wouldn’t it be nice to see those specials and others like the three episodes of a Dreamfinder (and Figment) show with actor Jack Kruschen performing the character that only ran once and was never rerun?
However, my all-time favorite original Disney Channel program was the incredible Disney Family Album. In roughly a half hour, each program showcased some living Disney Legends and had them tell wonderful stories, supported by terrific film clips. The show was accurate, informative, fun, and always over much too soon. It is a sheer delight even today for those who love Disney history.
First, let’s take a look at how this show was born and who was responsible.
E. Cardon “Card” Walker, who was the third leader of the Disney Company after the passing of Walt and Roy Disney, had a talented son named Cardon Walker who still works today for the Disney Company as vice president of Creative Content. While still in college at UCLA film school, the young Cardon worked on the Tron special; Once Upon a Mouse; Computers Are People, Too; and put together an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) for a rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That project was the second EPK ever put together (the first had been for the movie, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).
“The design of the Disney video home movies cases come from those cases,” said Mike Bonifer, who co-produced the Disney Family Album series with Walker and directed every episode in the series. “White cases with the artwork. Disney artist Paul Wenzel designed those for us.”
In 1980, Bonifer began working for Walt Disney Studios where he was the publicist for the motion picture Tron, and met Cardon.
“A real unsung hero in the story of Disney at the time was Tom Wilhite who was the vice president of creative development. Both were from small towns in the Midwest and hit it off right away.
"I brought in my writing samples and a copy of the book I had co-written and he took a chance on me, hiring me as a junior publicist. He did that for a lot of people like Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Jerry Rees, and so many others. A lot of people got a chance to move beyond their roles thanks to Wilhite,” said Bonifer, who produced a 50th anniversary reunion show for the re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in a recent interview I did with him.
“Snow White was the first movie I saw in a movie theater," Bonifer remembered. "It was in Jasper, Ind., and I had had dreams that haunted me for years both good and bad. I always had a curiosity about who was responsible for all this and I felt I owed a lot to Disney for my journey in life. Cardon started as my intern while he was still in college.”
Working on these projects, Bonifer and Walker realized that there were so many great stories that could be told about Disney history by people who had lived it and were still at the Disney Studio.
“People who worked directly with Walt who had some personal stories. People who I had grown up knowing at the Studio,” recalled Cardon in a recent interview I did with him.
“Doing the work on Snow White, I discovered what great storytellers these old guys were. Coming up with the Disney Family Album idea was inspired by that experience,” Bonifer said. “Originally, we wanted to do the life story of Walt Disney and that proposal turned into the story of the Walt Disney Studio utilizing the people who were still there who knew and worked with Walt.”
With the Disney Channel launching, Bonifer and Walker pitched the idea of 10 half-hour episodes to Jimirro. (Later, when they got into production of the eighth episode, they pitched the idea of an additional 10 episodes and since the show was so well-received by the audience, the commitment was extended to 20 shows total.) However, the budget was minimal at best and there was some concern about doing the show “in house” because of union regulations about the use of non-union people.
“We really had no budget but that was the same for all of the original Disney Channel programming," Bonifer said. "We were willing to work on a shoestring because we were passionate about all of this. We had to jump through hoops. To Jimirro’s credit, he took chances and we were one of them.”
“The true geniuses behind Disney Family Album were Mike Bonifer and Cardon Walker," said Disney historian and popular writer Jim Fanning. "Mike had been a publicist in the Disney Studios publicity department, and he was (and is) a brilliant writer. Cardon Walker is the son of long-time Disney executive Card Walker, and is a passionate and knowledgeable Disney enthusiast. Mike and Cardon formed Mica Productions (MIke and CArdon) to produce Disney Family Album. I was part of the team fairly early in development, and did research for the entire series, even the episodes I didn't end up actually writing. I also came up with the title: Family Album. Mike and Cardon assembled a brilliant team, and I was honored to be part of it.”
“Yes, Jim gave the series its name,"Bonifer said. "Cardon and I were sitting around trying to think of a title. I can’t remember what we were coming up with because it was pretty early in the process. Jim came into my office and said, ‘Family Album’ and it was just perfect. It captured what the series was going to be. It was thematic. It could mean different things to different people. It implied a visual element and research. How people’s personal lives informed the work they did. Woolie Reitherman was an adventurer, a pilot during World War II. That experience was significant to his animation and his leadership, especially taking over direction of the animated features.”
“Mike was going to do most of the writing but it was obvious it would be too much, especially with him directing the episodes and all the production responsibilities so we brought in Jim Fanning who was like our own little intern," Cardon remembered. "He already had the reputation for knowing Disney history and the animators and he was enthusiastic and professional. But it is important to remember that when doing a documentary, the real writing comes after the interviews because those being interviewed will come up with a great story and it might send it off in another direction even though we would talk to them before we filmed the interviews.”
“Thor Challgren was our production manager but also a very fine writer and he also wrote a few because we needed the narration written," Bonifer added. "How did we choose who we were going to interview? I leaned heavily on Cardon for that, especially in the second set of episodes. There was no question we wanted to do Ward, Woolie, Milt Kahl, etc. While we were having conversations doing the first set of episodes, certain names just kept coming up. I regret we didn’t get to do some people like Irving Ludwig on the business side, Mel Shaw, Bill Peet. It was a big gap that Bill wasn’t included but I don’t know if he was interested in talking about Disney because of the way he left.”
“I knew these people and I knew who would be the most entertaining so that is how the choices were made on who was selected," Cardon recalled. "You wind up Ward Kimball and just let him loose. He’s always very entertaining. Herb Ryman is another one who could just go on auto-pilot and tell one great story after another. I remember the one with Milt Kahl being a little challenging but it worked out fine. I loved Eric Larson. He was such a gentle soul. In the show when he is drawing rabbits, those are my pet rabbits that I brought from home. I loved Ken Anderson and that story about how he felt he had upset Walt and Ken had a stroke and ended up making Descanso Gardens his laughing place. Killer story. I had met these people when I was just a kid. I knew them from childhood. We loved mixing in some of the shows the older guys with some of the newer guys.”
“Ward Kimball is such a performer," Bonifer remembered. "I loved him. The moment Ward is running out and scooping up a kid and jumping on the train is one of my favorite memories. I remember how serious he was at having fun. When the kids started to get unruly, he would shout, ‘Settle down back there. We’re having fun!’ I loved Woolie as an uncle. I had spent a lot of time with him, even at his own home where I would just sit and listen to all these great stories. We shot him at the zoo because we knew it would spark stories from him. That was awful that he passed away so soon after we filmed him. I always thought he would be the last to go. I love that last scene in the Clarence Nash episode where he is walking away with that ventriloquist Donald Duck dummy and just one person, Keith Wainwright a photo editor in the Publicity Department, comes the other way and says ‘Hello, Ducky. Hello, Donald.’ Just a normal everyday occurrence. The gentle little thing that could happen then. It could never happen now for a variety of reasons.”
“Everyone was a great inspiration to me, especially Mike who was a great guider and mentor," Fanning told me. "In producing and directing Disney Family Album, Mike became great friends with and a favorite of many if not all of the subjects of Disney Family Album, for example Marc Davis, Frank and Ollie (and their wives). I know this because they told me so, years after we made the show.”
“One time, Vince Jefferds [a long time marketing executive at Disney who was in charge of toys and books] pulled me aside when I was at the studio and demanded roughly, ‘You need to make one of those about me.’ We never did but that was the only time I remember someone really wanting us to make a particular episode,” Bonifer said.
“Usually we would shoot these guys over two days, but with the Sherman Brothers it was just one day….one long day. Whatever bad blood they may have had between them, they put it all aside for that one day.
"You know the sons put together that great recent documentary about them [The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story] and they told me that one of the things they loved was in the Disney Family Album," Walker said. We asked them to demonstrate the process of creating a song and no one had ever asked them to do that before. When they were making the documentary, they went back and found our raw interview footage for that show and used a lot of it.”
“That was a great day!” Bonifer said. “The Sherman Brothers put on a great show. I never suspected that they didn’t get along with each other. We got to see their process. That was a real gift. Music became the illuminating factor in that story. The shows were just interviews, clips and research but we tried to find a theme connected to each subject. In this show, more than just relating anecdotes, we got to watch it happen in the moment. It really connected with the family aspects of the studio. When they got to that moment of Walt’s favorite song, it was a total surprise and so moving. Watching that show, I finally realized why Walt wanted to build Epcot, not the version finally built but the one he had imagined.”
That particular show was also a favorite of singer Michael Jackson who loved the entire series. One day, he called up Bonifer and invited him and Walker to come over and bring the Sherman Brothers with them, an invitation they readily accepted.
“I’ve told that story so many times,” Bonifer said with a laugh. “What a day! We went to his Encino home before Neverland. One time all five of us were sitting in this huge dining room and in another room we kept hearing this phone ring. It did it several times and Michael whispered, ‘I wish that phone wouldn’t ring.’ And it stopped immediately and didn’t ring again! At that moment I suspected he was wearing a microphone and someone was listening and following those orders. We gave Michael a complete library of all the Disney Family Album shows.”
“I thought Buddy Ebsen was an excellent choice as narrator as he had a Disney connection but not an exclusively Disney connection. I know that Mike and Cardon wanted a narrator with a lot of character in his voice and Buddy certainly had that," Fanning said. "Jean Shepherd was another candidate for the narrator role."
“That’s right,” Walker said. “Mike and I went to the Disney Channel with this list of potential narrators and they shot them all down for one reason or another. They didn’t even want Buddy Ebsen but we pushed and they allowed us to try it for one episode before they would make a permanent decision. Obviously, they liked what they heard. Buddy was a real kick to work with, very professional and avuncular. He’d show up and smile and say ‘Who are we doing today?’ He got a huge kick out of the episode we did with him and Fess Parker. They hadn’t seen each other in years and it was obvious they loved each other and had great stories.”
“Yes, I was a big fan of Jean Shepherd [a storyteller perhaps best known for the film A Christmas Story based on his semi-autobiographic stories). We didn’t know how to get in touch with him. It was also a money issue,” Bonifer said. “Our relief when we got Buddy was huge. We wanted someone with idiosyncracies and almost got more than we bargained for. Buddy was just a wonderful human being. Super professional. Great stories. One day, Buddy came in and this was just after Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk and he said, ‘I figured it out.’ Then he did a Moonwalk in his white patent leather shoes across the soundstage and that sparked a whole series of dance moves and him telling us memories of working with his sister in vaudeville. I didn’t care how much time it was taking or how much it was costing us, that was just an amazing moment,” grinned Bonifer. “He had such broad interests outside of show business. You could talk to him about anything in pop culture or martial arts where he was some level belt and even in his Eighties he did a kick for me and smiled, ‘Never been mugged!’ He was a major Civil War buff, as well.”
“The first time I met Buddy, he comes in to the soundstage and I’m already in the booth. There was this sense of anticipation. He came in wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and this leather attache case that he opens and takes out a script to read. I was used to voice performers coming in much more casual, I wondered what was in that briefcase and I came out to introduce myself and inside the case was a clean pair of jockey shorts and a bottle of Lavoris! He had gotten it down to the pure essence: clean underwear, fresh breath and your lines. ” Bonifer said with a laugh. “It was a real treat to do the show where he and Fess Parker were together at Disneyland. I was happy to get them back together and there were huge crowds there watching them. It was a real visceral response from all these people who had this joy of seeing them together at the keel boat. They were full of stories and it was a joy to talk to them.”
Next Week: The Disney Family Album Complete Story Part II (and yes, the column is already completely written and ready to go): Why it was John Lasseter’s last project at Disney before leaving and the big challenge he wasn’t able to overcome in the opening titles; a complete listing of every episode and its original airdate; a listing of what was snipped from episodes for re-release; the secret Life of Walt Disney mini-series that almost was; and most importantly, why these amazing shows are not available on DVD!