New Disney History Discoveriesby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
This is a wonderful time for Disney history with new discoveries being made every day and a plethora of terrific blogs and websites sharing that information.
On March 16, 2011, Disney historian Michael Barrier, who inspired many other Disney historians—including myself—with his early research on animation and Disney, posted a short essay on his website about what Walt Disney was doing on July 4, 1957.
It turns out Walt was the grand marshall for the 36th annual North Evanston Fourth of July Association parade in Illinois. It was a pretty big deal with floats depicting Disneyland, 14 Disney costumed characters (those same strange Ice Capades costumes that were at the debut of Disneyland), Fess Parker, Jimmie Dodd with a half dozen Mouseketeers, and much more.
I never knew anything about that event before Barrier’s post. He includes photos and video, as well. There is so much that Walt Disney did every day of his life that, even after 40 years of research since his passing, we are just uncovering some of those moments today.
Anyway, I was inspired to dig a little deeper in my own archives and try to find out what Walt was doing on July 4, 1961. (Why 1961? The answer is at the end of this column.) First, here’s a little background most folks don’t know.
In 1912, a group of Danish Americans purchased a 200-acre plot of land in Rebild, Denmark, to celebrate America’s Independence Day each year on July 4th. Later, the property was donated to the State of Denmark and became Denmark’s first National Park. By 1912, more than 300,000 people had left Denmark for better job opportunities in America. However, they formed Danish clubs and societies to maintain their culture and wanted a location in Denmark to celebrate their new American ties.
Over the decades, many famous Americans participated in the festival in Rebild, including President Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Vice President George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Walter Cronkite, Danny Kaye, Art Buchwald, Victor Borge and many others—including Walt Disney.
Walt was the main speaker at the Danish-American Fourth of July Festival in the Rebild Hills on Tuesday, July 4, 1961. He told a gathering of nearly 20,000 Danes and Americans that “It’s a wonderful thing that Denmark is celebrating our Independence Day so far from our coasts, which is a good sign of mutual confidence between our two nations. Personally, I owe much to Denmark [since Disneyland] has been called the Tivoli of the United States.”
Walt was referring to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was an inspiration for Disneyland.
He also mentioned that he had been compared with the great Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen “which is, to me, the highest praise I could imagine.”
In addition, new information has recently surfaced about topics that folks have spent decades researching. (I hope those readers who enjoy these columns have purchased a copy of my book, “The Vault of Walt” and, if they enjoyed it, have bought a copy for their friends or recommended it to others. It does showcase intensive research I have done over the last 30 years.)
So imagine my surprise when just two months ago, new material appeared that had been lost for decades. I wrote in the book about the fabled Mickey Mouse comic strip by animator Fred Spencer for the DeMolay newsletter but no copies seemed to exist and no one knew how many were actually printed. Well, all five of those strips have been found (thanks to the combined efforts of folks like Didier Ghez, David Gerstein and Paul Anderson who were all intrigued by my original revelation of the strip’s existence) and there is the possibility that the strips will be published this year.
I also wrote about Walt’s love of being a newspaper boy. Well, just recently, I ran across more information. It seems that, in 1962, there was the First National Newspaper Boy Convention. According to the publicity, “In addition to enjoying the attractions of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom while headquartered at the luxurious Disneyland Hotel, the boys will participate in round-table discussions, a career clinic, a Carrierboy Olympics, a bowling tournament and other exciting events.”
I was able to obtain a copy of Family Weekly for October 15, 1961, thanks to the ever-helpful Kim Eggink. The cover had Santa Barbara newspaper boy Paul Fisher hanging out with Captain Hook at Disneyland. More importantly, inside Walt Disney wrote a short essay to the newspaper boys that I hadn't previously seen.
“When I learned that Family Weekly and its distributing newspapers were planning America’ first National Newspaper Boy convention at Disneyland next April 30 to May 5, it set me to reminiscing about my own days as a carrierboy.
“The first so-called summer job I had as a boy lasted through six continuous seasons—summer and winter. Its effects have lasted a lifetime.
“From my ninth year to my sixteenth, my elder brother Roy and I delivered The Kansas City Star on a residential route in Kansas City, Missouri. Twice a day, rain or shine, hot or cold, we pitched or tucked papers on neighbors’ porches.
“The job was necessary to help family finances in a lean time. At first, it was exciting: we had an active part in the life of the city and the affairs of grownups; we won the respect of our neighbors; we earned money of our own; we felt able to take care of ourselves; we carried the news of the day.
“After these first thrills, though, the task settled down to routine, and it often seemed irksome and tough. The temptation to loaf, play, and shirk was almost irresistible at times.
“But now, looking back, I have satisfaction, even pleasure, in tracing the effects these newspaper delivery days had on my mature life. Now I can appreciate the self-reliance, self-discipline, and self-respect gained from those responsibilities. Now, I can comprehend the wisdom of my parents, the sufferance of schoolteachers, and the encouragement of newspaper folk in directing youthful ambition toward still-distant goals.
“The sense of responsibility—yes, this I believe is the most valuable thing a boy can carry along into later life from his first job.
“As a former carrierboy, I can well understand the excited reactions of the young men who are eligible, through competition among themselves, to become delegates to the National Newspaper Boy Convention at Disneyland.”
So why was I looking at things from 1961? Well, I have often told the story that I attended Thomas Edison Elementary School in Glendale, Calif. I recalled how my third-grade teacher was Mrs. Margaret Disney, the wife of Walt’s mailman brother, Herbert. In my excitement, I grabbed a huge piece of paper from the easel and drew a picture of Jiminy Cricket (my favorite Disney character at the time because I called myself “Jimmy” in those days). I gave it to her in the vain hope that she would take it to the Disney Studios and I would be instantly hired and not have to learn my multiplication tables (which I still do not know to this day).
Well, I was wrong…sort of. My parents died a few years ago and, since we were very close, I hesitated to go through their things to donate, throw away and keep. Recently, because I needed some more room, I started to go through their stuff and I regretted I hadn’t done it sooner. There is a lot of water here in Florida and some of it during the storms of the last few years had seeped into the boxes, destroying into moldy mush some of the treasures I would have liked to keep.
Some things survived because mom and dad kept everything. I mean everything. There was every Mother’s Day and anniversary card that my brothers and I had ever given them from kindergarten onward. There were programs from all the plays we had been in as well as local newspaper accounts of our appearances on The Gong Show, The Dating Game, Family Feud and so much more. I also learned a lot of things about my folks that I never knew going through all the letters, receipts, photos, etc. that they saved.
For the Disney fans reading this, there was even my high school Disneyland Grad Nite ticket and list of instructions on how to behave and where to go for my free picture. Yes, they also saved the photo in the Disneyland Grad Nite souvenir folder. There I am in my suit and tie AND vest looking as dorky as I always felt.
There were also photos that had survived of my brothers and me on our first trip to Disneyland. There the three of us were with mom in front of the railroad station. Then there was another with the three of us with dad in front of the Monsanto Hall of Chemicals. It took me awhile to figure out that one of them always had to operate the camera since, in those days, it never occurred to anyone to allow a cast member or a stranger to take the picture for you. I was only 6 years old and my brothers three years younger in their joint stroller—so we were no help at all.
Somehow protected from damage was the report card from 1961. Mrs. Margaret Disney was NOT a third-grade teacher. She was a FIRST grade teacher! For decades I always thought she was a third-grade because I remember clearly at a rehearsal for the Christmas program I was singing loudly and she looked at me and told me I shouldn’t. So for the performance I just stood on stage and mouthed the lyrics. Yet another trauma of my childhood and one that I still remember clearly to this day in terms of where I was standing, how she looked at me from the piano she was playing, and how I instantly felt.
She taught in Room 6. Another thing I didn’t remember, although I bet I could have found the room if I showed up on campus. Clarence Hardy was the principal and I remember he comforted me when, at that early age, I discovered I needed to wear glasses when none of my peers did so.
Apparently, for all four quarters I got an “A” in language arts (reading, language usage, spelling, and writing). However, in art I got a “C” except for my last quarter where I got a “B”. (In music, I was apparently a “C” student so maybe she was right about me singing loudly and probably off key.) It now makes perfect sense that the Disney Studios wouldn’t hire a kid who got a “C” in art.
In those days, teachers wrote personal notes on the cards, as well. One of those comments really took me aback. There in a dark blue cursive that can be read as clear as the day it was written was the statement: “I can’t resist mentioning Jim’s heart-warming smile, which warms any heart. The minute he grasps a new idea—he learns all over.”
Mom wrote back a comment thanking Mrs. Disney for helping with my “shyness” and for her “kindness.”
I only remember Mrs. Disney mentioning Walt one time. For some reason, she was grumbling that Walt only gave them free tickets to Disneyland. I guess she thought that Walt was a multimillionaire and some of that should have been going to his older brother to buy a mansion and a yacht.
I never met Walt or Roy. For crying out loud, I was just a kid and confused about what life was all about and that heart warming smile never seemed to warm the hearts of any of the cute girls in my elementary school classes. I don’t even have a picture of me standing next to Mrs. Disney. Both of my brothers also were in Mrs. Disney’s class, as well. However, I do remember my fifth-grade teacher (and I do know definitely she taught fifth grade), Mrs. Yule, who supported my interest in performing.
So, once again, this is a cautionary tale for all of you to record your family history while you still can and to remember that water is the enemy of paper. Someday, someone might like to know all this stuff. By the way, with that report card was a certificate signed by the principal acknowledging that, for the year 1961, I had perfect attendance!
I wonder if I should include that on my current resume...