The History of the Partners Statue: Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I was the recipient of the Partners in Excellence honor in October 2004. For those unfamiliar with that award, it was part of a recognition program developed by the Disney Company in the 1990s as the highest honor you could receive as a cast member. Less than 2 percent of the cast members who worked for Disney ever received it because there was an intense scrutiny process once you were nominated.

You literally had to demonstrate, in front of a secret review board, that you made continual superior contributions in the areas of cast excellence, guest satisfaction, and business results. I was nominated for three consecutive years before I was finally given the honor. Among the physical rewards was a small replica of the famous “Partners” statue of Walt and Mickey, as well as a small pin of the same image that could be added to a nametag.

Those friends who have visited my home know that the statue proudly sits on top of my computer desk so that, as I write Disney-related articles, I can glance up at Walt and Mickey’s smiling faces. I am quite fond of the “Partners” statue in the Disney parks, although I understand there are others who are not so happy with it and its placement in the hub at Disneyland Park and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

I was delighted to see that a new “Partners-ish” statue is going to be part of the rehab of Disney California Adventure Park. Walt, with his jacket jauntily thrown over one shoulder and looking like a dapper younger Howard Hughes, along with a small early version of Mickey Mouse, standing atop an upright travel trunk, look like they both just stepped off a train and are ready to conquer Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. (However, I hope they consider adding a film can reel with a title referencing the Alice Comedies and also maybe an image of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit on a travel sticker on the trunk.)

“The statue is also an amalgam of young Walt and early Mickey Mouse," said Imagineer Ray Spencer, creative director for Buena Vista Street at DCA. "Mickey Mouse—although not created until after Walt’s arrival in Los Angeles—was, according to story, created on a train and was part of Walt’s travels and his muse, and is a fitting travel partner. It could be considered a ‘bookend’ in that in Disneyland Park, the Partners statue is a mature Walt and Mickey, already wildly successful and the guests are the benefactors of their effort. Walt has realized his dreams and is sharing with us. Also, the Partners statue is more of a ‘monument’ at Disneyland park.”

While casually browsing the Internet, I see there are a lot of outrageous assumptions, misleading information and just plain untrue statements about the iconic “Partners” statue.

The real story of the "Partners" statue is certainly much more fascinating than some of the incredible untrue tales that have been circulating for the last few years and are being accepted as the truth.

I have heard that the statue was designed so that Walt was pointing toward the future. Or, even more specifically, pointing to the future location of Epcot. Or, within the last decade, the story has evolved that Walt is pointing to the statue of his brother Roy at Walt Disney World to symbolize Walt telling Roy to carry on with the dream. I have even heard two different Disney park tour guides tell me that Walt is pointing towards the trains rather than the castle because of his great love of trains and the whole concept of the theme park began with trains.

None of those stories are correct. They are no more correct than telling guests that the bride in the Haunted Mansion threw her ring out of a window and it imbedded itself into the cement, or that Cinderella has her own horse and that it has ribbons on its tail on the carousel in Fantasyland. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, these stories and others continue to take on a life of their own and people believe them and repeat them.

Now, more than ever, I think it is important to tell the story of the “Partners” statue. When it was first installed at Disneyland in 1993, I talked with sculptor Blaine Gibson and he told me that Walt was pointing down Main Street and saying to Mickey at his side, “Look at all the happy people who have come to visit us today.”

While that is basically correct and Gibson has told others that same simple statement, there is always more to the story.

Disney Legend Gibson began his Disney career in 1939 as an apprentice animation artist. He spent 10 years working in effects animation and then briefly became animator Frank Thomas’ assistant. Walt Disney noticed Blaine’s interest and skill in sculpture and transferred him over to WED (Imagineering) to work on things for Disneyland.

Gibson ended up sculpting everything from Indian chiefs to mermaids to bathing elephants to, eventually, President Lincoln, Haunted Mansion ghosts and blood-thirsty pirates—among just a few of his many accomplishments. He retired from the Disney Company in 1983 and moved to Sedona, Ariz., with his wife, Coral.

While he was there, he continued to work on projects for the Disney Company, including sculpting a new president every four years for the Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World. (President Obama is the only president he did not personally sculpt but he still consulted on the head.)

Gibson became a Disney Legend in 1993, the same year the “Partners” statue debuted at Disneyland.

In 1962, at the urging of his WED supervisor, Richard “Dick” Irvine, Gibson sculpted a bust of Walt Disney as a “thank you” gift for Walt. Blaine now claims he was tired, working on the project late at night, and that the foundry work was not very good and he couldn’t quite control what he wanted. In any case, when he presented it to Walt, Gibson claimed that Walt said, “What am I going to do with this? Statues are for dead people.”

Gibson wanted to destroy the bust and replace it with another, but it was kept at WED for awhile and then at RETLAW. Gibson kept the clay original in his garage and told me that “I couldn’t bring myself to put a hammer to it.” He did a cartoon sketch of himself sculpting the bust and Walt saying, “That dummy thinks it looks like me.”

Years after Walt’s death, Gibson worked on a Cal Arts memorial medal that featured a head shot of Walt and Walt’s widow Lillian told him at the time that “she didn’t ever want a bust or a portrait or a statue of Walt to be done.”

At the Hall of Fame at the Academy Plaza, out in front of the Academy of Television Arts & Science (ATAS) headquarters in North Hollywood, Calif., there are some full-size statues, as well as busts of the inductees. Walt Disney was inducted into the ATAS Hall of Fame in 1986 and a bust of Walt by Gibson is in the courtyard.

A duplicate of that bust is also at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the ATAS Hall of Fame Plaza next to the American Idol attraction. On the back of the bust are Gibson’s signature and the date “1991.”

These first attempts at trying to capture Walt Disney in bronze would later help inspire Gibson’s work on the “Partners” statue.

Disney Legend Charles Boyer joined the Disney Company in 1960 and eventually found himself in the unique position as Disneyland’s master illustrator. During his 39 years with Disneyland, Boyer produced nearly 50 collectible lithographs (one of my favorites is “Walt’s Self Portrait”), as well as a wide variety of artwork for magazine covers, brochures, flyers, and more.

In 1981, in honor of the 200 millionth guest at Disneyland, Boyer was commissioned to make a special lithograph, titled "Partners," to honor Walt and Mickey Mouse. The original edition was a limited to just 2,500 prints that were only available for sale to cast members.

Walt is standing on the righthand side, not the left, of the portrait. His left hand is in a fist on his hip. He has a solid red tie and a light tan suit. Mickey is on the left and holding Walt’s hand. Mickey is mimicking Walt’s pose with his right gloved fist on his hip. He wears his long black coat jacket, long red pants, and big yellow bow tie. They are both smiling and looking forward. While the design is different than the “Partners” statue, the concept of Walt and Mickey as partners and holding hands as they faced the world together was apparent in the painting.

The Disneyland Employees Federal Credit Union changed its name at the request of CEO Michael Eisner in 1987 to become the Partners Federal Credit Union. The new name was chosen because of Boyer’s print. A copy of the “Partners” lithograph hung in the Credit Union's offices at Disneyland for many years until those offices closed in 2010.

In July 1999, Boyer got his own window on Disneyland’s Main Street above the Emporium. The inscription is “Partners Portrait Gallery—Charles Boyer, Master Illustrator”.

When Eisner came on board in 1984 as CEO of the Disney Company, he was full of ideas and was constantly experimenting. One of his goals was to increase the attendance at the theme parks.

Eisner approved new attractions but realized that it took time for those to be built so he looked for some short-term promotions that would drive more attendance. Some of those multiweek events included “Blast To the Past” that celebrated the culture and music of the 1950s and, in the Hub, obscuring the castle was a huge jukebox with a disc jockey at the bottom. Another promotion was “Circus Fantasy” with a huge classic “Cage of Death,” an enclosed metal ball with a rider on a spiralling motorcyle building up so much momentum that he could seemingly defy gravity by going around the inside of the globe. That huge “Cage of Death” was smack dab in the middle of the Hub and blocked the view of the castle.

Those intrusions into Walt’s carefully designed architectural storytelling, that almost completely hid the intimate Sleeping Beauty Castle from the guests’ view as they walked down Main Street, irritated many Imagineers. In particular, it really upset Marty Sklar and John Hench.

However, the promotions including a “State Fair” with pig races and pie-eating contests (and a Ferris Wheel in front of the Main Street Train Station) really did increase attendance in the short run and got positive reviews on guest surveys. Even bolder promotions were being discussed. Something permanent needed to be done so that, in any future promotions, at least the view of the iconic castle would remain safe.

Officially, the idea was pitched that just two decades after his passing that Walt Disney was being forgotten. A new generation of children had grown up without seeing him on television every week. Examples of other forgotten innovative businessmen were shared, including how people might enjoy eating a Hershey chocolate bar but had no idea there was a man named Milton Hershey to thank for their enjoyment. It would be good business to spotlight the memory of Walt Disney.

Eisner eventually agreed, thinking it would help promote the brand, but there was still the challenge of convincing the surviving Disney family members, especially Lillian, that a statue would be a good way to remember Walt. The statue would be unveiled to celebrate Mickey’s 65th birthday, a significant milestone.

Sklar and Gibson were good friends. Sklar actually got Gibson, once he was retired, into the business of sculpting statues. Working with a talented young assistant in Sedona who could handle some of the heavy work since Gibson was now in his 70s, Gibson sculpted an 8-foot-tall statue of Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn for the front of his museum in Texas, thanks to an enthusiastic recommendation from Sklar.

“It started one day when Marty Sklar called me on the phone and asked if I’d be interested in doing a life-size statue of Walt, holding Mickey’s hand,” recalled Gibson in a 1995 interview with the Janzen brothers who produced “E Ticket” magazine. “I don’t presume to be able to capture all of the uniqueness of Walt…but at least his physiognomy….I started making some little drawings…fairly crude sketches, because I don’t like to spend too much time drawing. Knowing the real work is going to come in three dimensions, I don’t like to tie myself down with drawings.”

While working on the project, Gibson told another interviewer, “I chose to depict Walt as he was in 1954. I think that was when Walt was in his prime. It was tough trying to match the media image of Walt Disney, the one the public knows, to the real Walt, the one we knew. I don’t like to leave a sculpture until it has a feeling of life. I had done a bust of Walt in terra cotta while he was alive, but it wasn’t quite right. I hope this time I’ve captured that magical spirit of his. I think Walt is admiring the Park and saying, ‘Mickey, look what we’ve done’.”

Believe it or not, that is not the end of the story but only the beginning.

Next week (and yes, that column is already completely written so you are guaranteed to see it), I will discuss the many different variations on the composition of the statue, re-create the dedication ceremony and talk about the “Sharing the Magic” statue of Roy O. Disney that Gibson did for Walt Disney World. All of that and more!

 

Comments

  1. By jpg391

    Great article.

  2. By ChurroGirl

    Thank you so much for this article.

    My DH and I were just in the park and had visited the Blue Sky Cellar to see all the new things going on. We had an encounter with a wonderful CM named Debra. It is so nice to read what you have to say and have that fresh memory.

    Can't wait for the follow up article next week.

  3. By Lovethemouse

    Thank you, Jim for a wonderful article. There is some great history around the Partners statue that most of us never would have known. I can't wait for next week's article!

  4. By peanutj

    I'm loving this article and can't wait for next week's conclusion. Ever since the Partners statue was installed I've thought it was a great addition to the parks. In fact, a few years ago I dressed up as Partners for Halloween.

  5. By jozabad

    Thanks for this article, Jim! I'm looking forward to part 2. I recall reading somewhere that a Disney tour guide told guests that the ring on Walt's right hand was a "Hidden Mickey." Unfortunately that's not the case -- it is actually based on the Claddagh ring that Walt bought during a trip to Ireland, the same trip that led to the production of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Hopefully I'm not giving anything away for your next installment! I'll keep my mouth shut about the tie tack just in case.

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