The History of the Partners Statue: Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week, I talked about how it was decided to create a “Partners” statue for Disneyland to be unveiled on Mickey Mouse’s 65th birthday. Disney Legend Blaine Gibson, who knew and worked with Walt Disney closely during the last years of his life, was chosen to sculpt the permanent memorial to a man and his mouse.
While Disney fans are quite familiar with the famous iconic monument in the Disney parks, that perfect pose was not the first choice.
There were several different compositions that were considered. One featured a young Mickey running ahead and pulling Walt along. It was rejected because it seemed awkward for Mickey to be dragging Walt forward. Another featured Walt with the rolled up blueprints of Epcot in his right hand and using them to point forward. Yet another had Walt with an opened handed wave (at the suggestion of Marty Sklar who didn’t like the concept of Walt pointing) while in Mickey’s hand was a small black globe with two mouse ears. One image that popped up in several sketches was Mickey with a one-scoop ice cream cone. Gibson liked that composition so much that he went so far as to make a finished maquette of it. He recalled the story in an interview with the Janzen brothers in 1995:
“Marty [Sklar of Imagineering], [Disneyland President] Jack Lindquist, [Imagineer] John Hench and I had a meeting about the ice cream cone and there were two concerns. First, we felt that it made Mickey appear a little too immature, and, second, we felt it might favor one lessee, like the Nestle Company or Carnation. John and the rest of us finally agreed to have Mickey’s arm at his side.I liked the way it came out…and design-wise it worked with more emphasis on Walt.
“Color was very important to me, for Walt, because even when he died, he still had dark hair, dark eyebrows, dark mustache and extremely dark eyes. His eyes were something that I felt you really had to get. It’s easy for us to think of the things that were obvious about Walt…like his strong features, his bent nose, his eyebrow that would go up…those are things that are important, but to me it was his eyes that could look through you, and you could look deep into them.
“This was something that I had to think out some way, sculpturally, to do, and I’m doing it with shadow…even though there is color in there, the way the form slopes back gave me a chance with shadow to give that darkness to his eyes. And the hair…I didn’t want it to look like hair. In the first place, you can’t make sculpture look like hair. So I made these deep textural grooves to pick up color so that they would become dark. I did it the same way with his eyebrows and his mustache, so that we would pick up a little bit of color value in there.
“Now with today’s techniques of foundry work, we were able to actually vary the colors with chemical oxidization on the bronze. You see, we were able to retain the darkness of the hair, and the darkness of the suit and tie and so forth. Now, I’m not happy with this patina, but I think we did get enough of that contrast in the one at Disneyland to maintain the fact that Walt had dark hair and eyes.”
Blaine did the clay model in Sedona, Ariz., where he moved after he retired from the Disney Company, working carefully on the head and body, but his young assistant helped “because that’s a lot of clay to put up.”
Gibson made the figure of Walt larger than life, roughly 6-feet, 5-inches tall. In real life, Walt was barely 5-feet, 10-inches tall.
The size of Mickey Mouse was chosen based on a brief moment from the animated short The Pointer (1939). A frightened Mickey as a hunter is overshadowed by a growling, threatening bear. Mickey tries to calm the beast by nervously stuttering: "Well, I'm, uh, Mickey Mouse. You know? Mickey Mouse? I hope you've heard of me, I hope."
"When he recorded the voice, [Walt] couldn't help but feel like Mickey and he added all these little gestures that were spontaneous with him. At one point [during that speech], he put out his hand like this (to indicate that Mickey was about 3 feet tall), it was the only time we knew how big Walt thought Mickey was,” animator Frank Thomas recalled.
Marty Sklar remembers being amazed seeing Gibson and John Hench spending hours discussing just exactly how Walt’s five-fingered hand should hold Mickey’s four-fingered one. It was finally decided to base it on the one time that an animated Mickey held the hand of a real person. In Fantasia (1940), Mickey shakes the hand of conductor Leopold Stokowski.
The attention to detail on the statue is amazing, if sometimes confusing to guests who may not be as familiar with Walt Disney. For instance the “STR” logo on Walt’s tie refers to the Smoke Tree Ranch vacation area in Palm Springs where Walt had a home. On Walt’s right hand is the Irish Claddagh wedding ring that he and his wife wore in addition to his regular one on his left hand. Walt bought them in 1948 on a trip to Ireland where his ancestors once lived.
On November 17, 1993, the Disneyland Hotel’s Grand Ballroom was packed with more than 7,000 children. These children were from many different countries and most had never before even ridden on an airplane. Many were from economically challenged areas so they didn’t even have shoes. The Disney Company supplied all of the children with shoes and all other clothing that they needed.
It was a huge event called “Mickey’s Worldwide Kids Party” with pizza, soda, games, music, and cartoons. Again, most of the kids had never had pizza before or even a soda and needed directions on how to open the can. Of course, costumed characters Mickey and Minnie, Donald, and Goofy soon joined the festivities and it was apparent that the children loved these characters.
These children were to be the guests of honor at the celebration the next day for Mickey’s birthday and the unveiling of the “Partners” statue.
On November 18, 1993—Mickey’s now official birthday date based on the premiere of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theater 65 years earlier—guests gathered for the ceremony. It began at 11 a.m. There had been a run-through earlier that morning.
The VIP guests were all Disney cast members: John Hench, Blaine Gibson, Marc and Alice Davis, Bill Farmer (voice of Goofy), Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor (voices of Mickey and Minnie).
At the Hub, a blue curtain surrounded the statue on all sides with rainbow-colored streamers extending from the top and dropping at an angle onto the makeshift raised platform that circled around the exterior of the curtain. There was blue bunting on the platform, as well.
Over to the left, conductor Stan Freeze (in a white tux jacket) and the Disneyland Band (all in black tuxes and ties) awaited as well. There was a huge circular sign with the “Mickey’s Worldwide Kids Party” emblem above the band.
Jack Lindquist, the President of Disneyland, officiated the ceremony. He also officially retired from the Disney Company at the end of that same day. He spoke briefly and then introduced Roy E. Disney whose warm words charmed the audience.
Then in the front of the platform, the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto) appeared and the curtain was dropped to reveal the statue. Joining the characters on stage were some of the children each wearing a different solid colored (red, blue or yellow) sweatshirt with a large Mickey face on the front and black shorts and white shoes.
They were also joined by other Disney costumed characters including Snow White, Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear, Chip and Dale, Pinocchio and Gepetto.
There was a plaque by the statue that remains there today: "I think most of all what I want Disneyland to be is a happy place...Where parents and children can have fun, together. — Walt Disney"
At the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World the plaque states: “We believe in our idea: a family park where parents and children could have fun — together. — Walt Disney.”
Disney sculptor Blaine Gibson told the media at the unveiling in 1993:
"I thought that it was an honor to do a statue of Mickey and Walt who was, in my opinion, the real genius behind all of this. For me, it was a labor of love. Walt gave me and many others some of the happiest times of our lives, and this project was important because it wasn't just for Walt...it was about Walt.
“Our faces are all we really have that can tell people who we are. Many people asked me what Walt might be saying as he stood there with Mickey, and the expression I tried to capture was Walt saying to Mickey, 'Look what we've accomplished together', because truly they were very much a team through it all."
Also at the dedication, Marty Sklar who was then president of Imagineering told the press, "From now on you can get three symbols of Disneyland in one photograph. What a memory and souvenir of Disneyland that will be!”
The Disneyland “Partners” statue was re-dedicated on Walt’s 100th birthday, December 5, 2001, in a short, simple ceremony.
With a piano set up in front of the statue, Disney Legend Richard Sherman played Walt’s favorite song, Feed the Birds, from the film Mary Poppins. Thousands of people were there for the dedication.
“I’m going to play this song for Walt,” Sherman said. When he reached the line, “Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag,” a lone bird flew down and swept above his piano, as the crowd collectively gasped. Sherman took it as a sign from Walt that he approved.
After the success of the “Partners” statue in Disneyland, “Partners” statues have been installed around the world. In June 1995, the next one appeared in the Hub of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The coloring on the statue was different than the one at Disneyland to blend in with the color scheme at the Florida park.
Tokyo Disneyland has a “Partners” statue at the exit of the World Bazaar (their version of Main Street) as it opens up into a wide courtyard. At the base of the statue is the dedication plaque for Tokyo Disneyland:
“To all who come to this happy place, welcome.
“Here you will discover enchanted lands of Fantasy and Adventure, Yesterday and Tomorrow. May Tokyo Disneyland be an eternal source of Joy, Laughter, Inspiration and Imagination to the people of the world. And may this magical kingdom be an enduring symbol of the spirit of cooperation and friendship between the great nations of Japan and the United States of America.
“April 15, 1983
E. Cardon Walker
Chairman of the Board
Walt Disney Productions”
There is no “Partners” statue at Disneyland Paris but there is one at its sister park next door, Disney Studios Paris. It is situated near Disney Studio 1, a huge soundstage that houses a replica of Hollywood Boulevard as a movie set.
Currently, there is no “Partners” statue at Hong Kong Disneyland.
A statue of Walt’s older brother, Roy O. Disney seated on a park bench beside Minnie Mouse at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Florida, is located approximately where Roy stood when he dedicated the park in October 1971. In was installed in October 1999 and was also the work of Gibson.
A decade ago, I had the opportunity to much too briefly talk with Gibson about the “Sharing the Magic” statue of Roy O. Disney. It sits by the flagpole in Town Square across from the shadow of Roy’s name on the upper window of the confectionery shop.
“Roy is sitting back in the bench which indicates he was there first and Minnie came to him, not that he came up to her to ask why she was sitting down and not working or coming up to harass her,” laughed Gibson, who based the pose on photographs taken of Roy in the park in October 1971 sitting on a bench with Disney costumed characters. “Also he is holding her hand underneath so he is supporting it, just like he always supported Walt’s dreams. Roy was very underrated.”
Originally, the statue was put behind a low fence but so many guests climbed over the fence for photographs that it was moved out of the fenced area.
A duplicate is located outside the Team Disney building at Disney's corporate headquarters in Burbank, Calif. There is a third statue at the Tokyo Disneyland theme park.
Fascinatingly, the Janzen brothers asked Blaine in 1995 if there should ever be an Audio-Animatronics figure of Walt. Gibson was adamant:
“There are several reasons I would be against doing that…and it isn’t just the ‘sacred’ aspect of it. I know just how crude our medium is, relative to the human figure. You can’t get Walt’s smile…you can’t program that smile that I’ve got on Walt’s statue and have him be able to go into that. You’d have to move from a scrowl to a smile, because Walt at times would get a twisted up expression and one eyebrow would go up. He had a facial range that was absolutely beyond our capability.
“Lincoln is believable because we have no personal memories or films of his speech and mannerisms…Walt was a man whose movements meant something, and his expressions were so lively and enthusiastic. You can’t get that with an animatronic figure. The statue to me is of Walt during one of those moments when he’d say, ‘Let’s do it this way…’”
Both the “Partners” and the “Sharing the Magic” statues are favorite photo locations at the Disney parks today as they continue to honor the two brothers who made a dream come true for generations of children of all ages.
I hope by putting this story into print that others will share it so that there will be no further need for some of the unusual and incorrect versions that now appear.