Lunch at the Disney Family Museumby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I am still basking in the warmth of my time at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where I had the honor to be a guest speaker in July. If you have even the slightest interest in Walt Disney, you need to make plans to visit. If you are a Disney fan, you need to prepare to be overwhelmed. I have visited many museums over the decades, and this is one that I eagerly look forward to revisiting.
The museum includes 10 galleries, in chronological order, recounting Walt’s life and career. Each gallery is filled with interactive displays and never-before-seen treasures, including rare glimpses into Walt as a man not an icon. You can literally go through those galleries 100 times and have 100 different experiences. Every nook and cranny is filled with a new surprise.
Where else would you be able to see Walt’s reading glasses, or his shaving bag that included mascara and brush that were used to touch up his moustache for photographs? Or Roy O. Disney’s letter to Walt about his encounter with author P.L. Travers in 1944 (20 years before the film was made) to try to obtain the rights to Mary Poppins and convince her that the Disney Company was capable of combining live-action and animation?
Or the revelation that actress Deon Raeb was the live-action reference model for Tiger Lily in Peter Pan? Or that Walt’s first and last visit to the Pasadena Rose Parade until he was Grand Marshall in 1966 was when he was on the balcony of the Constance Hotel on January 2, 1939, with Lilly and their daughter Diane?
I have an entire 48-page notebook crammed with notes that I scribbled down while studying exhibits for 10 hours over two days—and I still missed so much. No photography or video are allowed in the galleries for fear of damage to some of the items. I promise to share some of these discoveries with the readers of MousePlanet in the coming months.
In addition to a beautiful, plush and colorful 114-seat theater used for screenings and lectures, there is a museum store, featuring exclusive Disney Family Museum merchandise, including a book with photos of the galleries. The staff there, as I discovered everywhere else in the museum, as well, was friendly, helpful, and professional.
Just across from the store is a small cafe, operated by Wolfgang Puck Catering and offering a menu inspired by fresh, local ingredients including healthy, organic items and many child-friendly options.
An hour and a half before my tech and dress rehearsal, Diane Disney Miller and her husband Ron invited me to a quick lunch at the cafe. Ron was especially considerate that those visiting the museum all had a place to sit and eat before we sat down. As we were finishing the meal, Diane bussed the table for the next occupants, despite my plea to let me do it.
I was almost too excited to eat anything, but they bought me a turkey sandwich and a lemonade (both great) while Diane had a salad and Ron, in true Disney fashion, had a bowl of chili! What do you talk about when you are having lunch with Diane and Ron? Well, if you are smart, you shut up and listen, and perhaps occasionally ask a question that might generate some interesting stories.
Here are two of the stories from that lunch at the Disney Family Museum.
WALT AND DE SOTO
Just before lunch, historian Frank Teurlay was showing Ron and Diane some print advertisements featuring Walt, including two ads from the late 1930s that featured Walt next to a De Soto, “America’s Smartest Lowest Priced Car." I am going to show off and add that the car was the 1939 De Soto S6 (The De Soto was introduced by Chrysler in 1928 and went out of production in 1961).
The text copy for the ads were identical:
“This is certainly one of the ‘Best Pictures’ ever made,” says De Soto-owner Walt Disney. And who are we to argue with a man who never misses? With his artist’s eye for line and order, Mr. Disney likes his De Soto for symmetry, color symphonies between upholstery and enamel, and sheer poetic smartness. Mr. Disney is a practical man, and he wanted the convenience of De Sotos’ new Handy-Shift.”
The ad also promoted the upcoming Disney animated feature, Pinocchio.
These ads pop up on eBay fairly frequently, but to view them I am going to direct you to two blogs (blog one and blog two) that I enjoy reading in the hopes that you will discover the other treasures there.
These advertisements were shot at 4053 Woking Way. Walt and Lillian built this four bedroom, five bathroom, 6,388 square foot home on almost five acres in the spring and summer of 1932 and they lived there with their two daughters from 1932 to 1949. This is the home that featured the Snow White dwarf cottage in the backyard for Walt’s daughters.
This July, the house (with the playhouse still in the backyard) came on the market for approximately $3.5 million. The listing may still be available.
You can also read a vintage article about the house.
In the car advertisements, Diane recognized the service door for the Woking Way house and the kitchen. Notice that Walt wears the same pants and shoes in both photos. Diane knew that her dad never owned a De Soto. Around that time, Walt drove a Packard custom convertible coupe. (Walt was very fond of convertibles. Over the years, he drove a 1948 Oldsmobile 98 Deluxe Convertible Coupe as well as a 1963 Mercedes SL230.)
Diane and Frank were debating that perhaps Walt had done the ad to raise money for some project. I was puzzled and said, “Of course, you know the story behind the ads, don’t you?” I had done some research when I had obtained my copies of them years ago. I shared the story.
Katherine and Richard Green had interviewed Walt’s younger sister Ruth and she recalled, “They [the De Soto car company] said if he'd pose in front of a De Soto, they would give him a car. Walt said he didn't drive a DeSoto and he wasn't going to claim he did. But Mother asked, ' Why not? You can give it to us!' So Walt did it and they loved that little car.”
The Woking Way house was the second Disney home in Hollywood. In 1928, Walt Disney and his brother Roy bought side by side Pacific Ready-Cut houses for lots they owned on Lyric Avenue in Silver Lake within walking distance of their studio. Diane later told me, “One of the Lyric homes was sold to [animator] Norm Ferguson, the other to a very nice family named Lyons who some times came to our pool to swim in the summer. Norm, his wife, and daughter were often there, and were a lot of fun.”
Diane is knowledgeable, full of energy and has a real passionate interest in Disney history. You can clearly see the reflection of her father in her. Her husband, Ron, is quieter but listens carefully to everything and is filled with even more stories.
RON MILLER AND CHEYENNE
Ron W. Miller, of course, was Walt’s son-in-law. After his military service, he was a professional tight end for the Los Angeles Rams football team. Walt convinced him to come work at the Disney Studio and got him into the Screen Director’s Guild where he began work as a second assistant director in 1957.
In 1958, one of the most popular television shows was the first hour-long Western program titled Cheyenne. Produced by Warner Brothers and broadcast on ABC (which was also the home for Disney’s weekly television show), it was so successful that it spawned an impressive string of Warner Brothers-produced hit shows, including Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
The premise of the series was that Cheyenne Bodie, a loner in the old West who was raised by Cheyenne Indians after the loss of his parents, traveled from town to town each week taking on different jobs and solving problems.
The lead role was played by 6-foot 6-inches-tall Clint Walker, who was part Native American, in his first lead performing role. Cheyenne ran from 1955-1963, but in, 1958, Walker literally walked out and went on strike.
He wanted increased residuals, reduction of the Warner Brothers edict that he had to pay 50 percent of his personal appearance fees to the studio and released from the restriction of only recording music for the Warner record label. Warners was notorious for its contract and financial issues with its other television stars including James Garner (Maverick) and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip) often resulting in them walking off the production for a period of time as well.
While Walker was on strike, Warner Brothers quickly rushed into production the adventures of Cheyenne’s cousin, Bronco Layne, played by Ty Hardin. When Walker finally returned to the series in 1959, Bronco was spun off into its own successful series.
Walker may have worked out a deal because he was prohibited from seeking other work during the contract re-negotiation, saw that the fill-in series was successful, and also knew that Warners was actively looking for a replacement for his role.
William T. “Bill” Orr was the producer of the Warner Brothers television series and he called in Ron Miller, who had chiseled good looks and a massively imposing football player physique, to audition for the part.
At lunch, Ron shared the following, “I had no acting experience at all. None. Not even in high school. I did have a small appearance in a Boy Scout film. I didn’t know what to do with my hands during the scene and Bill told me to grab on to the back of a chair and I did. I held on tightly for dear life.
“They gave me three pages to read from John Wayne’s movie Hondo (1953, Warner Brothers). It was the part about Hondo’s wife being killed and I looked out a window at some point. I thought I had blown it completely but Bill obviously saw something he liked and he phoned me to come back for a screen test.
“Walt heard about it and called me into his office. ‘What are you doing trying to be an actor?’ he lectured. ‘ Forget about it. You’d be a lousy actor. I am grooming you to be a producer!’ So I forgot about it and I never pursued any other opportunities as an actor.”
“Did Dad really say that?” asked Diane and Ron confirmed that Walt did. “I am glad that Ron didn’t pursue it.”
Knowing that I was going to mention Moon Pilot in my presentation, Ron volunteered that he had been with Walt when he went to the Vandenburg Air Force base to see the launching of an Atlas rocket.
“Walt really wanted to see something go up,” Ron explained. “We partied and drank too much with the generals and top brass the night before so it was difficult to get up in the morning for the launch but we did. It was dark and foggy and we couldn’t see anything. We heard an explosion and saw a burst of light in the gloom and that was it.”
Diane added, “Dad hated funerals. That was the same day as the funeral of his brother Herbert and I’ve often wondered if he scheduled that so he could avoid going to the funeral.”
To demonstrate Ron’s sharp sense of humor, during the presentation I pointed out that the film Moon Pilot, which Ron worked on as associate producer, was definitely not a Disney classic, but a nice candy-floss piece of entertainment. We all love the Sherman Brothers’ songs, but they wrote many songs for the Disney company that have been forgotten, including “The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae” for this film. I showed clips of Sally Field’s first film appearance where she was not even credited, ran an excerpt with the song and told about Walt going to the Vandenburg Air Force base to study technical details like the control room, the rocket launch and more for the film.
At the end of my presentation, Ron came up and said, “That was very entertaining. But I have to disagree with one thing, Jim. I think Moon Pilot was one of the finest films ever made by the Disney Studio and the Sherman Brothers song was their best work.”
As I started to stumble out an apology of “I am so sorry, Mr. Miller. I didn’t mean to offend….”, Ron broke out into a huge smile that filled his entire face and he slapped me on the side of the arm as he walked off. I felt I had been awarded a medal.
So, yes, I am eagerly looking forward to returning to the Disney Family Museum and strongly urge those of you reading this column to add it to your vacation plans.
Did you know that on Saturday, September 17, the museum will feature a once-in-a-lifetime program: “My Grandpa, Walt Disney.” Walt’s grandchildren: Walter, Joanna, Jenny, Tamara and Chris will talk about what it was like to grow up with Walt as their grandfather, including visiting the famed Disneyland apartment and spending Christmas with Walt and Lilly.
Of course, every Disney Family Museum presentation is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can only be found at the museum. What new stories about Disney history will you uncover when you visit?