The Disney Family Album Complete Story Part 2

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

In Part I (link), we discovered that the Disney Family Album series was created by Cardon Walker and Mike Bonifer (as MICA Productions) for the Disney Channel, and how, working on a shoestring budget, they produced 20 outstanding half-hour shows spotlighting some of the talented people who worked at the Disney Studios and knew Walt Disney. Now, we continue the story by giving credit to some of the other unsung heroes who worked on the project, a complete list of the episodes and the reason Disney fans can’t purchase the series on DVD today.

Once again, 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 conducted interviews with them and for reviewing this material before it appeared in print.

The show's title tune was composed by John Debney. Today, Debney has a well-regarded and impressive career composing scores for television and more than 70 films including: The Passion of the Christ, Bruce Almighty, Elf, Sin City, Chicken Little, Liar Liar, Spy Kids, The Emperor's New Groove, The Scorpion King, and The Princess Diaries.

Debney’s father, Louis, joined the Disney Studio in 1934 at the age of 17. He is best remembered for his work on the original Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro television shows where he was producer of about 100 episodes of the first series and virtually all episodes of the second. In the 1960s, he became production coordinator on The Wonderful World of Color and seems to have remained active at the Studio until his death on April 8, 1986.

Some of John Debney's fondest childhood memories are of weekend visits to the Disney studio.

"We'd invariably bump into Walt," the composer recalls. "He would rough up my hair a little bit. I remember my dad saying, 'That's Mr. Disney.' I grew up in that wonderful extended Disney family."

"I was very lucky," Debney said. "Two weeks after I graduated from CalArts, I got into the copying department at Disney. They needed a runner, someone who could paste scores, organize scores. One day [veteran Disney composer] Buddy Baker said, 'Hey kid, come in here.' Buddy would give me assignments: arrange this little French song for musette, write a German polka. … They were building Epcot [at Walt Disney World in Florida] and needed a lot of music for different pavilions and rides." (Debney later wrote the music for Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor.)

After three years at Disney, Debney freelanced for composers like Mike Post and Hanna-Barbera's Hoyt Curtin, eventually breaking into studio films with Disney’s Hocus Pocus (1993) as a last-minute substitute composer.

Title Design for the Disney Family Album was credited to John Lasseter and Brian McEntee (who would become a layout artist and art director on several animated films). Lasseter had been hired by Disney Feature Animation shortly after his graduation from California Institute of the Arts and spent five years working at Disney. In 1984, he had become so excited about the possibilities of computer animation that he tried to pitch the project of doing the story Brave Little Toaster in computer animation which was immediately rejected.

As Lasseter remembered: “In our enthusiasm, we had gone around some of my direct superiors, and I didn't realize how much of an enemy I had made of one of them. I mean, the studio head had made up his mind before we walked in. We could have shown him anything and he would have said the same thing. Ten minutes after the studio head left the room I get a call from the superior who didn't like me, and he said, ‘Well, since it's not going to be made, your project at Disney is now complete. Your position is terminated, and your employment with Disney is now ended.’”

One of the last projects Lasseter did before moving to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic (for a month that became six months and then later a career when the department was purchased by Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar) was the title sequence for Disney Family Album.

“Lasseter wanted to make the titles in CG,” Bonifer remembered. “That’s one of the reasons he got involved in the project. Everything was CG with him. He had just done the Where the Wild Things Are test with Glen Keane where he told me that using the computer was the only way to get the cross-hatching of Sendak’s original drawings and was on the prowl for anything that he could do in computer animation. He was a friend of ours. We used an outside post production facility. I think it was Pacific Post. We just didn’t have access there to vector graphics. It was just analog. When the album graphic opened, we could not get the spine to stay together. It would float apart. John did the original art, but then he left to go up north for his dream job. Brian came to the rescue and finished it up for us. John and I were so frustrated working on those opening titles that we were literally about to cry. I think he learned from the experience to never go near analog tools ever again. I don’t blame him for leaving. He was following his passion.”

How did MICA originally get Debney and Lasseter on the project?

“Very simple,” Walker said. “We were best friends. I had been making 8mm home movies with John Debney since I was a kid. The three of us were all scuba divers and for three summers we’d go to Hawaii. Basically, I just called in favors because we had no budget. I told John Lasseter we had some pictures and we needed some movement.”

Why didn’t the Disney Family Album continue since there were still so many stories to tell? Management had changed and had a different vision. The Disney Channel was responding to criticism that it had programming for very young children on in the morning and for the older adults in the evening but nothing original for the teen viewers. The demographics for the Disney Family Album were 30- and 40-year-olds, so the Disney Channel decided to cancel it and concentrate on producing programming for the teen demographic.

MICA Productions continued to do projects for Disney including the EPKs for Splash and Never Cry Wolf. However, it was decided that in order to be truly successful that MICA couldn’t be solely dependent on Disney for work so would need to aggressively expand. In addition, a special four part mini-series about the life of Walt Disney by MICA was abruptly cancelled and Bonifer wanted to explore other writing opportunities. So MICA closed up shop.

Walker and Bonifer turned over boxes of legal paperwork, including approvals to likenesses to Disney but the boxes disappeared.

MICA also turned over all the raw material, including all the raw interviews (only a small fraction of which ended up being used in the final show) and the Master tapes around 1986. All of that material was lost for more than a decade since the Disney tape vault was not computerized and the material was either mislabeled or misfiled or unmarked. The Disney Archives had transcripts of all the raw interviews and copies of the shows but the original material could not be located. Fortunately, the material was eventually found. Animator Andreas Deja frantically searched for quite some time through the Disney Channel material to find the Milt Kahl interview and didn’t locate it until a few years ago.

“It was truly guerilla filmmaking jumping from place to place like taking Woolie [Reitherman] to the zoo for a half day,” Walker said with a laugh. “Crews kept to a minimum. The only thing that made it possible to do the show on the budget we were given was the introduction of Betacam video format. As a co-producer I was in charge of scheduling, hiring the crews, permits, etc. We’d meet with the interview subjects before hand and go over the questions with them. Mike did some great set pieces.”

Disney Family Album was the first broadcast show to use Betacam video technology. (For the Splash EPK in 1984, MICA was the first company to use Betacam underwater.) Bill Hogan, who was a consultant to Sony, made the tests for production quality.

“I also did the editing of the shows. I started making movies when I was 9 years old and loved it," Walker said. "A mentor of mine who worked on the show was Art Swerdloff and I learned a lot from him and in turn I helped teach him about some of the new technology. My dad was always supportive of me but looking back on it, he may have been happier if I had become a lawyer rather than going into entertainment.”

“Art really became family. He was just amazing,” Bonifer emphasized. “We talked about story. He would break things down and explain how edits work. You couldn’t find this stuff in film school. Where else when you were editing would you stop for 30 minutes for art to expound on editing and how to find the emotion in a scene. All of these things he was sharing with us had immediate commercial applications.”

Disney Family Album was my film school," Bonifer said. "I was looking to learn as much as I could not just to find a sound bite and move on. How do you find the timeless elements? The patience to listen and observe. We did that scene of Frank Thomas’ dogs eating spaghetti and meatballs. There was not even a similarity between that live action and how it appeared on the screen. The animation was a reflection of ourselves. If Frank had not taken time to observe people in restaurants and in love, we never would have had that moment. It didn’t come from watching his dogs. They all wanted to make Walt cry and what made him cry was when it connected on a human level.”

“The Disney Family Album is a series that is exactly what the Disney Channel should have had (and still should)—a show that celebrated Walt Disney through the people who worked with him, and a show that was itself a great Disney production, worthy of what it was saluting,: Fanning said. "I think Disney Family Album is tremendously important as (for the first time, in many cases) the details of many stories of these Disney folks was told. I am particularly proud and happy that we did episode about Milt Kahl, and also Woolie Reitherman and Eric Larson, as these members of Walt's famed Nine Old Men team died not all that long after Disney Family Album was cablecast.”

“Yes,” Walker said sadly. “This was the last interview or only interview for some of these guys. We were the last ones to get to talk to them.”

“I wrote (or co-wrote) the episodes about Ken Anderson, Disneyland designers, Jimmy Macdonald, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, The Ellenshaws, Fess Parkerand& Buddy Ebsen, Woolie Reitherman, and animation voices, so I wrote nine out of the 20 episodes," Fanning said. "It was my understanding that Disney Family Album was the most popular newly produced show on the Disney Channel. The priceless interview footage within the show has been used over and over again through the years in for example DVD making-of documentaries.”

The show was nominated for two Cable Ace awards in Best Informational Series category, an award given from 1978-1997 to honor excellence in American cable television programming. The Emmys now include cable television in its awards.

When the shows were rerun in the 1990s, several small edits amounting to a handful of seconds were made in four of the shows. In the "Voice Actors" episode, deleted were a few seconds where Paul Winchell talked about creating the voice of the stereotypical Chinese drummer cat in The Aristocats. In the Annette episode, a segment mentioning that she was the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter, along with two short clips from the commercials was removed. In the Clarence Nash episode, a Donald Duck Orange Juice commercial extolling the “quality and good taste that is Donald Duck” is gone, along with a few seconds of director Dave Michener showing Nash a storyboard for Mickey Columbus, an animated featurette that would have featured Mickey, Donald and Goofy discovering the New World, in particular a sequence where Donald was painting the masts on the ship and ends up making one look like a barber pole is missing. Finally, in The Milottes and the Beebes, the sequence from the True-Life Adventure, where a female lioness pounces and kills a wilderbeest, was edited out.

A good friend and fellow Disney enthusiast, Jerry Edwards (who once upon a time put together an outstanding index to the first 33 issues of the sadly no-longer-published E-Ticket magazine that I still use all the time) has put together the definitive listing for the Disney Family Album that appears nowhere else. I thank him for allowing me to share it:

Disney Family Album

No. 1 June 1984: Clarence "Ducky" Nash
No. 2 July 1984: Ward Kimball
No. 3 August 1984: Sherman Brothers
No. 4 September 1984: Jim Macdonald
No. 5 October 1984: Milt Kahl
No. 6 November 1984: Ken Anderson
No. 7 December 1984: Disneyland Designers (on camera interviews with John Hench, Herb Ryman, Bill Evans and a very young Tony Baxter)
No. 8 January 1985: Eric Larson
No. 9 February 1985: Peter and Harrison Ellenshaw
No. 10 March 1985: Woolie Reitherman
No. 11 April 1985: Frank Thomas
No. 12 May 1985: Voice Actors (on camera interviews with John Byner, Phil Harris, Will Ryan, Sterling Holloway, Dickie “Pinocchio” Jones, Paul Winchell, Wayne Allwine, Hal Smith, Alan Young, John Hurt, Kathryn Beaumont, Eva Gabor, Adrianna Caselotti and Ward Kimball talking about the voices of the Seven Dwarfs)
No. 13 June 1985: WED Imagineers (on camera interviews with Randy Bright, Bill Justice, Tim Delaney, X. Atencio and Dave Feiten)
No. 14 July 1985: Golden Horseshoe Revue (on camera interviews with Wally Boag, Fulton Burley, Betty Taylor and Dana Daniels)
No. 15 August 1985: Ollie Johnston
No. 16 September 1985: Annette Funicello
No. 17 October 1985: Marc Davis
No. 18 November 1985: The Milottes and the Beebes (True Life Adventures photographers)
No. 19 December 1985: Fess Parker/Buddy Ebsen
No. 20 January 1986: The Storymen (on camera interviews with Vance Gerry, Larry Clemmons and Jack Hannah)

The success of Disney Family Album sparked the creation of a very special project by Mike Bonifer and Cardon Walker: A four part mini-series on the life of Walt Disney.

“I wanted to make Walt Disney’s life story and Jimirro decided it should be a mini-series," Bonifer said. "I wrote a four-part mini-series with L.G. Weaver, who was my co-author on that book about Notre Dame football, Out of Bounds. It was 500 pages long and the Disney Archives has a copy. I put two years into that project. Traveled to places where Walt lived. Talked to people who had known Walt like Clem Flickinger, Russ Johnson, Hazel George. I talked with Hazel on her deathbed and she told me everything from the first day she met Walt up to his death. There are certain things in the script that don’t exist anywhere else."

"Then Michael Eisner came on board," Bonifer said. "His reader, Chris Vogler called me up and said, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this but wanted to tell you that this is the best thing I ever read.’ Vogler went on to author the book The Screenwriter’s Journey. So it was not surprising when Cardon and I went in to see Eisner and he was all excited about the script and we thought it was going into production. He gave a few notes and wanted a final polish. However, around that time, Eisner was on the cover of Time magazine and he was being hailed as the new Disney and suddenly he started putting roadblocks in the way of the project. As the new Disney, he didn’t want comparison with the original. I know for a fact that he screened episodes of Disney Family Album for his new executives but was using it as an example of where he didn’t want the brand to be. He wanted to revitalize the brand and not just reminisce about past triumphs. So the project died and that’s when I decided to leave,”

So why aren’t the valuable treasures of Disney Family Album available on video or DVD?

“That answer is simple: Money,” Walker said. “Back when we did these shows, all the rules were different for music usage, Screen Actor Guild issues, etc. So it would be very expensive to get the necessary clearances today. Many of these people in the shows are dead so Disney would have to negotiate with their estates. We did turn over the releases we had but they disappeared. It would be nice if D23 could arrange to re-release these shows to its membership since it is very much in keeping with their mission. I absolutely loved the shows and working on them and I get constant requests when they will be available again.”

“I don’t feel money is that big an obstacle," Bonifer affirmed. "I know that John Lasseter has asked what it would take to get these shows out on DVD and if John really wants it done, it can get done but right now it is just a casual interest. I think you could negotiate with the estates and explain there is not a lot of money in all this and wouldn’t it be nice to have this material out there for the grandchildren of the artists we featured. In the old days, it was never released on video because Disney home video was just not equipped to handle this type of project. I finally decided why people still love those shows. Our secret is that our fun shows."

People enjoyed talking to us and we enjoyed talking to them," Bonifer added. "That is timeless.”