A Visit With Walt Disney in May 1959by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
In almost a 40-year span, Walt Disney gave thousands of interviews to various newspaper and magazine reporters. Over the years, many of these one of a kind insights into the world of Walt, especially those printed in obscure and defunct magazines and newspapers, have been lost and inaccessible for fans and researchers.
It always bothered me that the same “usual quotes” are always dragged out when something was written about Walt. Thanks to this MousePlanet forum, I have been able to not only locate but share many of those previously forgotten gems from decaying paper.
Checking out the archived Wade Sampson columns will provide a dozen or more columns devoted to reprinting Walt’s words. I recently wrote about Walt’s ideas on art recovered from the New York Times of 1938.
It is my belief that it is important to rescue and share this type of material not only for the writers that will continue to explore Walt’s life, but also for the casual Disney fan who takes great joy in any new discovery about what Walt thought and said.
The year 1959 was a busy one for Walt and the Disney Studios. Sleeping Beauty, the most costly animated feature Disney had ever made, was released after many years of work but did not prove to be a tremendous box office success. The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s first live-action film comedy that had originally been pitched and rejected as a television series to ABC, was a huge hit for the studio. It became the company’s highest-grossing picture at the time. Darby O’Gill and the Little People was also released that year along with Third Man on the Mountain that would help inspire the building of the Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction at Disneyland.
Speaking of Disneyland, the summer of 1959 saw the introduction of the first “E” Ticket attractions: The Submarine Voyage, the Matterhorn Bobsleds and, of course, the Monorail, the United States' first daily operating monorail system. In addition, the Disney Studio purchased the land that would become the famous Golden Oak Ranch location for shooting television shows and movies.
On a personal note, Walt Disney’s daughter, Sharon, married Robert B. Brown at the Presbyterian Church in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with a reception immediately following at the Hotel Bel Air in Beverly Hills.
Around this same time, Walt sat down to give another interview.
Recently, I was able to obtain a copy of that “lost” Walt interview. It appears in the May 1959 issue of “THINK” magazine (Vol. 25 No. 5). “THINK” was published by IBM as “a service to readers interested in the science of management and related contemporary ideas.”
“Think” was a one word slogan developed by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. to represent the company even as early as the Twenties. Over the decades, the word “Think” was prominent in IBM offices, plants, company publications like this employee magazine as well as calendars, photographs, signs and medallions. It was so well known that it was even parodied in cartoons especially in the Fifties and Sixties.
I think it is doubtful that readers of his column (or other Disney historians and enthusiasts in general) have ever seen this interview, so I take great delight in sharing this item from my personal archives.
Writer Lee Edson visited Walt Disney at his Burbank Studio. The first two paragraphs of the article:
“We have a business here we built from scratch and, boy, we had to scratch plenty,” the tall, sun-tanned man with the neat mustache was saying as he leaned back in his soft chair and sipped V-8 juice. We were sitting in Walt Disney’s handsome office, talking across a low, square, black-topped desk, an unconventional design which the staff good-humoredly calls ‘Disney Moderne.’ All around me, amid the atmosphere of subdued splendor, were mementos of Disney’s versatility—a set of frontier pistols, a case of children’s and nature books, a cartoon portrait of Mickey Mouse and dominating the décor, a huge aerial photo of Disneyland clamped to a wall and framed by colored posters of such fantasy and adventure pictures as “King Arthur,” “Down the Colorado” (both still in the dream stage) and the successful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. None of these items, however, could take your eye from the master wizard himself.
“At 57, Disney’s brown hair is flecked with gray and his face shows a few lines of age, but he is as dynamic, imaginative, and timelessly romantic as ever. He laughs easily and heartily, and his voice is often filled with tones of eternal small-boy wonder at the miracles around him.”
How cool is that description? When I read it for the first time, I felt I was in Walt’s office waiting to hear Walt himself tell me a great story. Later, the conversation continues at the Studio Restaurant where Walt ordered only a plate of lean beef and a side dish of figs.
“I’m getting my weight down,” Walt explained with a grin. “The only exercise I get these days is walking around the lot.”
As usual, I have harvested the Walt quotes and eliminated the usual background information of Walt’s life that most of us can recite in our sleep.
Here are those forgotten Walt quotes from 1959, just before his daughter got married and just a month or two before Disneyland celebrated its “Second Opening” with the major expansion in Tomorrowland.
“I came here in 1923 from Kansas City and couldn’t get a job. So I went into business for myself. My brother, Roy, went in with me. We had about $750. We took a lot of bumps along the way, but we always kept striving for the same goal: How could we best use this medium of the film? How could we use this artistic talent we had developed? We were never interested in how much money we could make, only in how good a job we could do on film.
“I guess we found the way all right. I can make a flop now and nobody pays attention. We always have two or three other things going to save us.
“We’re still doing a bit of everything. We’re building a top-notch show at Disneyland called Pageant of the Presidents. It’s the story of America through the Presidents, and it’s got the darndest electronic system you ever saw. All you do is push a button and it takes off. It’ll have full-size animated figures. No actors.
“You’ll walk down Liberty Street and into Liberty Square. All the figures of the 34 Presidents will be in wax in front of you. I’ll have Lincoln standing up and delivering an address. I’ll have other speakers and I’ll even have hecklers in the audience booing them. It’ll open a year from June.
“We’re going to have a monorail, too. Like the one in Cologne, Germany. I just signed with Axel Wenner-Gren, the Swedish industrialist who holds the patents. You know, I think monorail is going to be the rapid transit of the future, and we’ll be giving a preview of it.
“Disneyland was a natural. It was so close to what we were doing in film. I thought of it a long time, but very few people believed in it at first. Now look at it. Five years ago Disneyland was just a flat plain of orange groves. It cost us $4,500 an acre. The bank recently appraised it. Know for how much? $20,000 an acre. Imagine! $20,000 an acre.
“We’re doing True-Life Adventures all the time. We have cameramen all over the world. Sometimes they disappoint us, though. We had one team in Australia, but they didn’t come up with anything. Australia isn’t a good spot for animals. No predators there. What can you do with a koala bear? He looks at you and eats a eucalyptus leaf. (Walt laughs)
“This year we’ve put five new films in production, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Toby Tyler, the children’s circus classic. We’re also doing Westerns. The sponsors insist I do them. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good Western, but I agree there are too many of them.
“I’m always close to projects when we’re chewing over the basic idea. Once the pattern is set, the answer to your question is simple. I let the staff take over and I go on to other things.
“We’re doing some 26 new films for TV. We did a short called Mathmagic Land with Donald Duck which took two years. It’s tough to explain mathematics in cartoons, but I think my staff did a good job. We also just finished Eyes in Outer Space, a theatrical film on the weather satellite, like the film we did on the moon rocket in our science factual series.
“We went into TV with one thing in mind. Not to go out of the motion picture business, but to keep the audience aware of motion pictures. We lost $2 million last year in TV. But we sold our motion picture product.
“We made a funny picture called The Shaggy Dog which has become one of our most successful releases. Americans like to laugh. They have a sense of humor. Apropos of this, did you ever hear about the neurotic cannibal who went to see a psychiatrist? Seems he was all fed up with people.”
At that point Edson laughed. Walt laughed. They waved good-bye and Edson walked down Dopey Drive “thinking that life was pretty full of joy and zest after all. Disney has that effect on you.”
What else was in the magazine? Articles on a sculptor who used a blowtorch to create his art, discoveries in an illusion lab of scientists trying to learn how eyes deceive people, how people can influence foreign policy, and Vermont’s Shelburne Museum among other things. All fascinating subjects but for me, the highpoint is Walt’s interview and him trying to tell a joke. He seemed on top of the world, but things were only going to get better and better.