Remembering Walt Disney in December

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Christmas season has always been my favorite time of the year, where I overindulge in See's chocolates, egg nog ice cream, animated television Christmas specials, and other frivolities—including re-reading my worn childhood copies of Disney DELL comic books devoted to the holidays. I am also more fond of giving presents than receiving them, and the joy of finding just the right gift for the right person is always fun—especially while listening to radio stations that play Christmas music 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

However, the early part of December is always a time of reflection for me, not just to review the previous year with its successes and failures, but to remember Walt Disney, who was both born and died during the month.

On November 2, 1966, during pre-operative X-rays for upcoming surgery for an old polo injury to Walt Disney’s neck, doctors at St. Joseph Medical Center, located across the street from the Disney Studios, discovered a malignant cancerous tumor that had spread to his entire left lung. After removal of the lung on November 7, doctors informed Walt’s wife and daughters that his life expectancy was six months to two years. After two weeks of chemotherapy sessions, Walt was released from the hospital and returned to his studio to do some limited work. Eventually, he and his wife went to their Smoketree Ranch vacation home in Palm Springs, Calif., for him to recover, but he was only there a day.

On November 30, Walt realized something was wrong and he was taken back to Burbank where he was re-admitted to St. Joseph’s under an assumed name to avoid publicity. He only wanted his family to come and visit him, and the drug treatments sometimes made him confused and lose his appetite. On the morning of December 15, 1966, at 9:35 a.m., 10 days after his 65th birthday, Disney died of acute circulatory collapse, caused by lung cancer. He was cremated on December 17, 1966, and only the immediate family was present for the simple, private ceremony as his ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.

Many Disney treasures have been discovered and shared this year.

One of them that caught my attention was a six-page telegram sent by Roy O. Disney to the London Disney office and forwarded to the Paris Disney office at 4:46 p.m. on December 16, 1966. It was addressed to Mr. Thomachot, manager of film distribution in France, and Mr. Armand Bigle, who had founded and managed Disney’s merchandising in Europe. Bigle’s successful expansion of Disney merchandising in many European countries eventually resulted in him being named a Disney Legend.

Bigle saved the historic document and later gave it to Philippe Videcoq, who not only auctioned it off on eBay this last year, but was gracious enough to let the entire contents be shared with many Disney fans:

“Please convey the following statement by Roy Disney to all employees and associates:

“The death of Walt Disney is a loss to all the people of the world. In everything he did, Walt had an intuitive way of reaching out and touching the hearts and mind of young and old alike. His entertainment was an international language.

“For more than 40 years, people have looked to Walt Disney for the finest quality in family entertainment. There is no way to replace Walt Disney. He was an extraordinary man. Perhaps there will never be another like him. I know that we who worked at his side for all these years will always cherish the years and minutes we spent in helping Walt Disney entertain the people of the world. The world will always be a better place because Walt Disney was its master showman.

“As President and Chairman of the Board of Walt Disney Productions, I want to assure the public, our stockholders and each of our more than 4,000 employees that we will continue to operate Walt Disney’s Company in the way that he has established and guided it.

“Walt Disney spent his entire life and almost every working hour, in the creative planning of motion pictures, Disneyland, television shows and all the other diversified activities that have carried his name through the years. Around him Walt Disney gathered the kind of creative people who understood his way of communicating with the public through entertainment. Walt’s ways were always unique. And he built a unique organization. A team of creative people that he was justifiably proud of.

“I think Walt would have wanted me to repeat his words to describe the organization he built over the years. Last October, when he accepted the Showman of the World Award in New York, Walt said ‘The Disney organization now has more than four thousand employees, many have been with us for over 30 years. They take great pride in the organization which they helped to build. Only through the talent, the labor and the dedication of this staff could any Disney project get off the ground. We all think alike in the ultimate pattern.’

“Much of Walt Disney’s energies had been direct preparing for this day. It was Walt’s wish that when the time came, he would have built an organization with the creative talents to carry on as he had established and directed it through the years. Today, this organization has been built and we will carry out this wish. Walt Disney’s preparation for the future that Walt had begun—new motion pictures, the expansion of Disneyland, television production and our Florida and Mineral King projects will continue to move ahead. That is the way Walt wanted it to be.

“Private funeral services. No flowers.”

There were no flowers because the family requested that contributions be made instead to the California Institute of the Arts. I have little doubt that Roy actually wrote these words. They were not written or “cleaned up” by a professional writer at the Disney Studio. Notice that sentences end in a preposition, that projects do not bear the official nomenclature, the awkwardness in some of the sentence construction, and more that clearly indicate that this was not a Disney Legal sanitized and scrutinized document.

Several years ago, at a National Fantasy Fan Club (now known as the Disneyana Fan Club) function, I got to spend a few minutes with Imagineer Marty Sklar and had him sign my copy of the hardcover Disneyland book he had written in 1964. For nearly 10 years during Walt’s lifetime, Sklar was the only official “staff writer” at WED (now Disney Imagineering) and wrote personal material for Walt, including his messages for the Stockholders’ Annual Report, souvenir publications, presentations to corporations and more, plus the script for Walt’s EPCOT film.

On the spur of the moment, I asked him what the most difficult assignment was that he did over the decades and was surprised at his answer.

“Writing the official obituary for Walt,” he answered without a moment of hesitation. “On the day Walt died, Card [Walker, who would become an executive vice president and chief operating officer after Walt’s death] called me in and told me that Walt had died and that I was to write the official obituary and they needed it right NOW. I was taken to a small room with a typewriter and some paper and I did it. I was angry. They knew he had been ill, very ill. They should have told some of us. They should have already had something prepared just in case. I felt pressured because there wasn’t enough time to do it the way I wanted. I tried my best. I couldn’t even talk to Roy because he was in seclusion. He was devastated. I had to make up a quote from him. I had sometimes written his message for the Annual Report as well so I knew how he might sound. I was upset that Walt was dead, as well. I always wished I had had the chance to go back and rewrite that thing.”

Here is the official obituary as it appeared in the New York Times on the morning of December 16, 1966:

Walt Disney, who built his whimsical cartoon world of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into a $100-million-a-year entertainment empire, died in St. Joseph's Hospital here this morning. He was 65 years old.

His death, at 9:35 a.m., was attributed to acute circulatory collapse. He had undergone surgery at the hospital a month ago for the removal of a lung tumor that was discovered after he entered the hospital for treatment of an old neck injury received in a polo match. On Nov. 30, he re-entered the hospital for a 'post-operative checkup.'

Just before his last illness, Mr. Disney was supervising the construction of a new Disneyland in Florida, a ski resort in Sequoia National Forest and the renovation of the 10-year-old Disneyland at Anaheim. His motion-picture studio was turning out six new productions and several television shows and he was spearheading the development of the vast University of the Arts, called Cal Art, now under construction here.

Although Mr. Disney held no formal title at Walt Disney Productions, he was in direct charge of the company and was deeply involved in all its operations. Indeed, with the recent decision of Jack L. Warner to sell his interest in the Warner Brothers studio, Mr. Disney was the last of Hollywood's veteran moviemakers who remained in personal control of a major studio.

Roy Disney, Walt Disney's 74-year-old brother, who is president and chairman of Walt Disney Productions and who directs its financial operations, said:

"We will continue to operate Walt's company in the way that he had established and guided it. All of the plans for the future that Walt had begun will continue to move ahead."

Besides his brother, Mr. Disney is survived by his widow, Lillian, two daughters, Mrs. Ron Miller and Mrs. Robert Brown.

A private funeral service will be held at a time to be announced.

Weaver of Fantasies

From his fertile imagination and industrious factory of drawing boards, Walt Elias Disney fashioned the most popular movie stars ever to come from Hollywood and created one of the most fantastic entertainment empires in history.

In return for the happiness he supplied, the world lavished wealth and tributes upon him. He was probably the only man in Hollywood to have been praised by both the American Legion and the Soviet Union.

Where any other Hollywood producer would have been happy to get one Academy Award--the highest honor in American movies--Mr. Disney smashed all records by accumulating 29 Oscars.

"We're selling corn," Mr. Disney once told a reporter, "and I like corn."

David Low, the late British political cartoonist, called him "the most significant figure in graphic arts since Leonardo."

Mr. Disney went from seven-minute animated cartoons to become the first man to mix animation with live action, and he pioneered in making feature-length cartoons. His nature films were almost as popular as his cartoons, and eventually he expanded into feature-length movies using only live actors.

The most successful of his non-animated productions, Mary Poppins, released in 1964, has already grossed close to $50-million. It also won an Oscar for Julie Andrews in the title role.

From a small garage-studio, the Disney enterprise grew into one of the most modern movie studios in the world, with four sound stages on 51 acres. Mr. Disney acquired a 420-acre ranch that was used for shooting exterior shots for his movies and television productions. Among the lucrative by-products of his output were many comic scripts and enormous royalties paid to him by toy-makers who used his characters.

Mr. Disney's restless mind created one of the nation's greatest tourist attractions, Disneyland, a 300-acre tract of amusement rides, fantasy spectacles and re-created Americana that cost $50.1-million.

By last year, when Disneyland observed its 10th birthday, it had been visited by some 50 million people. Its international fame was emphasized in 1959 by the then-Soviet Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, who protested, when visiting Hollywood, that he had been unable to see Disneyland. Security arrangements could not be made in time for Mr. Khruschev's visit.

Even after Disneyland had proven itself, Mr. Disney declined to consider suggestions that he had better leave well enough alone:

"Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world."

Ideas Met Skepticism

Repeatedly, as Mr. Disney came up with new ideas he encountered considerable skepticism. For Mickey Mouse, the foundation of his realm, Mr. Disney had to pawn and sell almost everything because most exhibitors looked upon it as just another cartoon. But when the public had a chance to speak, the noble-hearted mouse with the high-pitched voice, red pants, yellow shoes and white gloves became the most beloved of Hollywood stars.

When Mr. Disney decided to make the first feature-length cartoon—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—many Hollywood experts scoffed that no audience would sit through such a long animation. It became one of the biggest money-makers in movie history.

Mr. Disney was thought a fool when he became the first important movie producer to make films for television. His detractors, once again were proven wrong.

Mr. Disney's television fame was built on such shows as Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, Davy Crockett and the current Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

He was, however, the only major movie producer who refused to release his movies to television. He contended, with a good deal of profitable evidence, that each seven years there would be another generation that would flock to the movie theaters to see his old films.

Mickey Mouse would have been fame enough for most men. In France he was known as Michel Souris; in Italy, Topolino; in Japan, Miki Kuchi; in Spain, Miguel Ratoncito; in Latin America, El Raton Miguelito; in Sweden, Muse Pigg, and in Russia, Mikki Maus. On D-Day during World War II Mickey Mouse was the password of Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe.

But Mickey Mouse was not enough for Mr. Disney. He created Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy. He dug into books for Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Three Little Pigs, Ferdinand the Bull, Cinderella, the Sleeping Beauty, Brer Rabbit, Pinocchio. In Fantasia, he blended cartoon stories with classical music.

Though Mr. Disney's cartoon characters differed markedly, they were all alike in two respects: they were lovable and unsophisticated. Most popular were big-eared Mickey of the piping voice; choleric Donald Duck of the unintelligible quacking; Pluto, that most amiable of clumsy dogs, and the Seven Dwarfs, who stole the show from Snow White: Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, Sleepy and Doc.

His cartoon creatures were often surrounded with lovely songs. Thus, Snow White had "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and the dwarfs had "Heigh Ho." From his version of The Three Little Pigs, his most successful cartoon short, came another international hit, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" for Pinocchio. More recently, Mary Poppins introduced "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Exhibition at Museum

Mr. Disney seemed to have had an almost superstitious fear of considering his movies as art, though an exhibition of some of his leading cartoon characters was once held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "I've never called this art," he said. "It's show business."

One day, when Mr. Disney was approaching 60 and his black hair and neatly trimmed mustache were gray, he was asked to reduce his success to a formula. His brown eyes became alternately intense and dreamy. He fingered an ashtray as he gazed around an office so cluttered with trophies that it looked like a pawn shop.

"I guess I'm an optimist. I'm not in business to make unhappy pictures. I love comedy too much. I've always loved comedy. Another thing. Maybe it's because I can still be amazed at the wonders of the world. Sometimes I've tried to figure out why Mickey appealed to the whole world. Everybody's tried to figure it out. So far as I know, nobody has. He's a pretty nice fellow who never does anybody any harm, who gets into scrapes through no fault of his own, but always manages to come out grinning. Why Mickey's even been faithful to one girl, Minnie, all his life. Mickey is so simple and uncomplicated, so easy to understand that you can't help liking him."

But when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, he found words for Mr. Disney. He called him a "genius as a creator of folklore" and said his "sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity, with all its frailties and possibilities for good."

Honored by Universities

When France gave to Mr. Disney its highest artistic decoration as Officier d'Academie, he was cited for his "contribution to education and knowledge" with such nature-study films as Seal Island, Beaver Valley, Nature's Half Acre and The Living Desert.

From Harvard and Yale, this stocky, industrious man who had never graduated from high school received honorary degrees. He was honored by Yale the same day as it honored Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Professor William Lyon Phelps of Yale said of Mr. Disney

"He has accomplished something that has defied all the efforts and experiments of the laboratories in zoology and biology. He has given animals souls."

By the end of his career, the list of 700 awards and honors that Mr. Disney received from many nations filled 29 typewritten pages, and included 29 Oscars, four Emmys and the Presidential Freedom Medal.

There were tributes of a different nature. Toys in the shape of Disney characters sold by the many millions. Paris couturiers and expensive jewelers both used Disney patterns. One of the most astounding exhibitions of popular devotion came in the wake of Mr. Disney's films about Davy Crockett. In a matter of months, youngsters all over the country who would balk at wearing a hat in winter, were adorned in 'coonskin caps in midsummer.

In some ways Mr. Disney resembled the movie pioneers of a generation before him. He was not afraid of risk. One day, when all the world thought of him as a fabulous success, he told an acquaintance, "I'm in great shape, I now owe the bank only $8 million."

A friend of 20 years recalled that he once said, "A buck is something to be spent creating." Early in 1960 he declared, "It's not what you have, but how much you can borrow that's important in business."

Mr. Disney had no trouble borrowing money in his later years. Bankers, in fact, sought him out. Last year Walt Disney Productions grossed $110-million. His family owns 38 percent of this publicly held corporation, and all of Retlaw, a company that controls the use of Mr. Disney's name.

Mr. Disney's contract with Walt Disney Productions gave him a basic salary of $182,000 a year and a deferred salary of $2,500 a week, with options to buy up to 25 percent interest in each of his live-action features. It is understood that he began exercising these options in 1961, but only up to 10 percent. These interests alone would have made him a multimillionaire.

Mr. Disney, like earlier movie executives, insisted on absolute authority. He was savage in rebuking a subordinate. An associate of many years said the boss "could make you feel one-inch tall, but he wouldn't let anybody else do it. That was his privilege."

Once in a bargaining dispute with a union of artists, a strike at the Disney studios went on for two months and was settled only after Government mediation.

Did Not Draw Mickey Mouse

This attitude by Mr. Disney was one of the reasons some artists disparaged him. Another was that he did none of the drawings of his most famous cartoons. Mickey Mouse, for instance, was drawn by Ubbe Iwerks, who was with Mr. Disney almost from the beginning.

However, Mr. Iwerks insisted that Disney could have done the drawings, but was too busy. Mr. Disney did, however, furnish Mickey's voice for all cartoons. He also sat in on all story conferences.

Although Mr. Disney's power and wealth multiplied with his achievements, his manner remained that of some prosperous, Midwestern storekeeper. Except when imbued with some new Disneyland project or movie idea, he was inclined to be phlegmatic. His nasal speech, delivered slowly, was rarely accompanied by gestures. His phlegmatic manner often masked his independence and tenacity.

Walt Disney was born in Chicago on Dec. 5, 1901. His family moved to Marceline, Mo., when he was a child and he spent most of his boyhood on a farm.

He recalled that he enjoyed sketching animals on the farm. Later, when his family moved back to Chicago, he went to high school and studied cartoon drawing at night at the Academy of Fine Arts. He did illustrations for the school paper.

When the United States entered World War I, he was turned down by the Army and Navy because he was too young. So he went to France as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. He decorated the sides of his ambulance with cartoons and had his work published in Stars and Stripes.

After the war, the young man worked as a cartoonist for advertising agencies. But he was always looking for something better.

When Mr. Disney got a job doing cartoons for advertisements that were shown in theaters between movies, he was determined that that was to be his future. He would say to friends, "This is the most marvelous thing that has ever happened."

In 1920 he organized his own company to make cartoons about fairy tales. He made about a dozen but could not sell them. He was so determined to continue in this field that at times he had no money for food and lived with Mr. Iwerks.

In 1923 Mr. Disney decided to leave Kansas City. He went to Hollywood, where he formed a small company and did a series of film cartoons called "Alice in Cartoonland."

After two years of "Alice in Cartoonland," Mr. Disney dropped it in favor of a series about "Oswald the Rabbit." In 1928 most of his artists decided to break with him and do their own Oswald. Mr. Disney went to New York to try to keep the series but failed. When he returned, he, his wife, his brother Roy and Mr. Iwerks tried to think of a character for a new series, but failed. They decided on a mouse. Mrs. Disney named it Mickey.

Added Sound to Cartoon

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, was taken to New York by Mr. Disney. But the distributors were apathetic. "Felix, the Cat" was ruler of the cartoon field, and they saw nothing unusual in a mouse.

When Mr. Disney returned from New York he decided that sound had a future in movies. He made a second Mickey Mouse, this one with sound, called Steamboat Willie. In October, 1928, the cartoon opened at the Colony Theater in New York. Success was immediate and the Disney empire began.

So, at this festive time of the year, I always take a few moments to pause and remember Walt Disney. I remember the joy he gave to so many and how nearly five decades after he passed away, he still seems so alive and continues to inspire so many.

I also light a little Christmas candle for him, because the world has grown darker without Walt in it. Researching his life, talking with those who knew him, and sharing those stories with others has been one of my best Christmas gifts.



  1. By Pammer

    Thank you so much for this article; I am so honored to share a birthday with my favorite imagineer (altough there are a FEW years between us)!

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