Return of Walt's Wordsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
One of the things that continues to amaze me about Walt Disney is how many interviews he managed to do for numerous magazines (many no longer published), local newspapers, radio programs, and more—and kept coming up with new insights and stories that were never repeated in other interviews.
Like most of you reading this column, I never had the opportunity to walk around the Disney Studio with Walt Disney and hear him just talk about whatever excited him at the moment. Thanks to some of these old articles, I get a little taste of what that experience might have been like.
So, several years ago, I decided to share with readers some of these forgotten quotes and insights from my musty and yellowing collection of old paper, so that they might not only be enjoyed by Disney fans today but help Disney researchers of tomorrow. Here are links to just a half dozen of those columns:
If those articles were interesting to you, there are many more for you to search out in the MousePlanet archives. I know there are some fans of this type of column, especially Paula, whose enthusiasm for these columns inspired me to once again do another installment.
Many Disney fans now know that Walt Disney enjoyed the activity of lawn bowling at his vacation home at the Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, Calif. However, I bet a lot of folks don’t know he was also active with a Beverly Hills bowling organization, as well as the American Lawn Bowls Association. I recently discovered this interview quote from Walt:
“There is a certain camaraderie among lawn bowlers not found in any other sport. It is excellent exercise, does not take a whole day of time, and good sportsmanship is always present. Millions of Americans, not just a few thousand, should be on the green, for once a person becomes a member of a club and gets on the green, he will find that his future will be filled with untold pleasures and many added years.”
In the following two excerpts, I have tried to eliminate all the fluff and familiar stuff in the articles and concentrate on Walt’s direct quotes or information that has not appeared elsewhere. For instance, this time there is the revelation that Walt was considering making an animated feature in the 1940s on the birth of Jesus Christ. And that working on Audio-Animatronics gave Walt a greater respect for God. And that Walt was considered the “second best” Charlie Chaplin impersonator in Kansas City by one of his schoolmates.
First, let’s start with some excerpts from an article titled Mr. & Mrs. Disney from Ladies Home Journal , March 1941:
“Look,” the fellow in the wine colored trousers, collarless shirt and scuffed moccasins was saying to Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor in one of the cork-lined conference rooms of Walt Disney Productions’ fabulous new studio, “I really don’t know beans about music.”
“That’s all right, Walt,” genial voiced Taylor said soothingly, “When I first started I though Bach wrote love stuff—like Romeo and Juliet. You know, I thought maybe Toccata was in love with Fugue.”
Walt roared. “Say, let’s hear Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony again,” he said to the man standing by a phonograph. And then a few moments later, “You know, I think this picture [Fantasia] will make Beethoven.”
Stokowski hesitated a moment. Then, “That’s right, Walt,” he agreed. “In a certain sense, it will. Some who have never heard his name will see this.”
“I like everything except the centaurs in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony,” Taylor says and adds a bit wistfully, “They should look more like lifeguards.”
Walt has a prodigious mania for detail. One day, when Fantasia was almost completed, Disney was discussing with Deems Taylor a cover drawing for the music critic’s new book on Fantasia.
“Look, Deems,” Walt pointed out. “How are you going to put the title on the back binding?”
“Well,” Taylor hesitated, “I really hadn’t thought…”
“The point is,” Walt went on, “how are people going to put this in their bookcases? Now, it’s a big book, over 12 inches high, too big for most bookshelves. That means people are going to lay it on its side. I think you’d better put the name at the right angles to the title on the front, so they’ll be able to read it…and now, Stoki,” he said turning to the conductor, ”about that fifth dewdrop fairy in the Tchaikovsky number…”
Diane Disney Miller once told me that her dad was not too impressed by formal college education and a paragraph in this article certainly supports that statement:
“Walt Disney is a living testimonial to the importance of moderation in education, including music appreciation courses. Disney’s intransigent attitude toward the intermediate and higher learning has softened somewhat since June 1938, when he consented on consecutive days to accept honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, but he is no campus fool. He is convinced that the New Haven award was largely an occasion trumped up to enable Billy Phelps, who made the presentation citation, to get off a gag about Disney laboring like a mountain and bring forth a mouse. But, as a gag man himself, this has only increased his appreciation of the event. Recipient in the past six or seven years of enough certificates to turn the head of a dentist, he meets college graduates without any hint of condescension, and frequently hires them without the slightest suggest of prejudice because their degrees have been won in a routine, unimaginative way.”
Since the article is titled Mr.& Mrs. Disney there are some insights into the Disney household and Walt himself:
“The Disneys live comparatively modestly in a 12-room house in the Silver Lake district, a section inhabited by Los Angeles businessmen, rather than motion picture people. Walt likes to roughhouse with his daughters, Diane Marie, 8, and 4-year-old Sharon Mae, who is adopted; to act out scenes from such future projects as Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and the birth of Jesus Christ to get reactions of his wife, an Idaho girl named Lillian Bounds, who worked in his studio before their marriage….They have been married 16 years now, and friends are likely to point out it’s one of the happiest—if least publicized—marriages in Hollywood.
“She and Walt both like family get-togethers and a Sunday group at their home is likely to include such assorted Disneys as Walt’s father, his Uncle Robert, Roy and two other brothers, Raymond and Herbert, who are an insurance broker and a mailman respectively. Ray handles Walt’s $750,000 policy and all the insurance for Disney employees, but Herbert, the eldest of the four brothers, has no connection with the business. Roy and Walt have offered to take him in, but Herbert feels that the fresh air which his calling enables him to breathe is healthier for him, and moreover, he is in line for a pension in a few years. The Disneys are homespun, unpretentious people and they consider Herbert’s stand perfectly sensible.
“Although Disney is naturally a modest fellow, he has made something of a cult of his simplicity. He drives to work in a blue coupe and was full of apologies when it leaked out that he also has a bigger car in which a chauffeur sometimes drives him around. He once cut off his mustache after reading in a magazine that a mustache is a sign of conceit, and although he grew it again, it is this point of view that prompted his Uncle Robert to say, ‘I give Walt credit for holding himself just like a real sensible fellow would. He hasn’t swelled up a bit.’
“He took up polo a few years ago, and used to play a good deal at the Riviera Country Club with Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy and others, but soon gave it up, partly because he felt it was too expensive and partly because he fell so often that his staff persuaded him his life—and their livelihood—was in danger. He gets most of his exercise from badminton, taking rumba lessons, doing gym work and jumping about while conversing. He likes other people to talk this way also, and is distressed because his brother Roy, a tireless listener, is a non-histrionic conversationalist. ‘Roy’s patience sometimes gets on my nerves,’ he says. ‘I like people to jump and shout with enthusiasm.’
“He is called ‘Walt’ by all his employees except Mr. Rogers, the studio carpenter, who calls him ‘Mr. Disney’. Mr. Rogers, an elderly man, is one of the few people over 40 in the studio, and Disney reciprocates by calling him ‘Mr. Rogers.’
“Walt is admittedly a wretched draftsman and it is not at all likely that he could get a job in his own animation department, even with all his pull. This is a source of occasional discomfiture to him, as when autograph hunters and dinner partners ask him for a sketch of Mickey Mouse as a souvenir. On a trip to Europe a few years ago, he considerately took along a sheaf of Mickey Mouse sketches by one of his animators, and palmed them off as original Disneys to insistent acquaintances."
“The fact that his employees rarely get public credit for their work is the result of a policy calculated to prevent inter office jealousy rather than a desire on Disney’s part to hog the show. It was at his suggestion that the credit for the picture bought by the Metropolitan Museum was amplified from “Walt Disney” to “Walt Disney and Staff.” (The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed a painted cel of the vultures in Snow White.)"
The article also refers to Walt’s acting ability:
“In 1913 Kansas City, there was a hive of Chaplin-impersonation contests. ‘I’d get in line with a half dozen guys,’ Walt says. ‘I’d ad lib and play with my cane and gloves. Sometimes I’d win $5, sometimes $2.50, sometimes just get carfare. I made the wig out of old hemp used to stuff pipes; it stunk of creosote. Later I got wise to crepe hair.’ According to Alva Johnston, a student of the period, Disney was the second best Chaplin in Kansas City. His theatrical career never got much farther than this, but he still likes to act things out, and his conversation is punctuated with expressive gestures and facial contortions.
“Disney takes an innocent pleasure in the grisly, and his colleagues are sometimes at pains to make him tone down macabre pieces of business. Nevertheless, a certain code of conduct has evolved for Disney characters. If they indulge in gunfire, bullets must glance off, not penetrate. As a general thing no animal may be killed. ‘A chicken can eat a worm if we haven’t had a close-up of the worm to show he has character,’ a member of Disney’s staff explained recently.”
Here is some information from an article titled Citizen Disney by Arthur Miller in Los Angeles Magazine, November 1964. This article has been used as a reference in at least two recent Walt biographies but, even in those cases, some great information was not shared.
“I like perfection,” Walt said, “but I also like corn. I don’t make pictures for sophisticates. Styles may change on the surface, but at the bottom the big audience taste doesn’t change. They like sympathetic characters and life-like action. And that’s what I like, too, whether it’s cartoons, live action or all those creatures at Disneyland.”
Miller mentioned that writer Ray Bradbury had maintained that Walt Disney, with his innovative vision, should be mayor of Los Angeles.
“Gosh, not for me," Walt replied. "Sam Yorty, for all anyone knows, may be a very good mayor. But how can he prove it? He hasn’t got the authority to get things done. Talk about rapid transit—he had all he could do to get the garbage picked up. It’s not a mayor we need—it’s some power for him, whoever he is.”
Miller then suggested that Walt might take the role of a West Coast Robert Moses. Walt replied.
“He’s quite a man. Steps on lots of toes. No politician, I guess, but he believes in New York and he’s sincere. I found him great to work with at the New York World’s Fair. But Mayor of Los Angeles—that means committees and money interests. We’ve stayed independent here at the studio.
“Except for the time in the Depression when money got control. Then when war broke out in Europe we lost most of our overseas market. That war hit the motion picture business long before this country was in it. Especially cartoons—they take years to make. We had worked seven years to complete our first feature-length cartoon in color Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and were working on Pinocchio when the boom was lowered. My brother Roy—he ran the money end and still does—called me in and said we owed $4.5 million and the bankers were breathing down his neck. The only answer I could think of was ‘Remember the time we couldn’t even borrow a thousand?’ That got a small laugh and somehow we got the help and pulled through.
“For years we got by on ‘shorts’—borrow some money and make a ‘Mickey’ or a ‘Duck’ and then pay off enough to borrow some more. Animated cartoons are more expensive to make than live-action films. Where they pay off is on revivals. Every seven years they come back for a new audience. And they don’t date like live action does.
“Look, I know we built up the business here in Los Angeles and got help here, too. But I’m no politician. I’m a cartoonist and an animator and a film producer. I’ve surrounded myself with artists—painters, musicians, writers, idea people. We got the ideas and directors, actors, architects, engineers and technicians make them work. It’s almost like a laboratory. And one thing leads to another.
“I had independent cameramen go out and shoot live-action films of birds and animals so our animators could study them and make their cartoon animals more lifelike. That’s how we got into the live action film field. I had a hard time getting those fellows to shoot enough film. To them, film was expensive. To us, it’s the cheapest thing in the business. Now they stay out in the wilds for years to get just the right shots.
“What I mean is that my worrying has always been about the ideas, the stories, the thing we were making, not the money. Money is Roy’s problem. Politics, too.”
Miller mentioned that he thought the New York World’s Fair could hardly have opened without Walt’s participation and asked if Walt was involved in the California Fair project. According to Miller, Walt thought frankly that “World’s Fairs were out of date. Only hotels and restaurants profit by them and people get sore at the city because they can’t get a room and a bite when they need them.”
“What we need now is a permanent exposition that shows what the region has to offer,” said Walt. “Updated every year. [Near Disneyland was suggested.] Well, Orange County’s quite a place. It’s another world. Things really move there. It wouldn’t make me mad.”
Walt was excited to talk about “The Cal Arts Story,” a short color film that ran at the invitational premiere of Mary Poppins.
“This is a really new, exciting idea—all the arts taught on one spread out campus, the students of each getting together to broaden their knowledge and stimulate their creative powers. It grew out of our experience in the studio where a person might come in as an artist but wind up as a writer, a musician or an actor. This is something I’ve set my heart on and we have high-powered people ready to help it become a reality. But it’s too good to go off half-cocked. We’ll hold our fire until some of these other big cultural projects here are completed. Then watch us go.”
Miller mentioned that he thought the chimney sweeps ballet went on too long in Mary Poppins and whether Walt had though of cutting it.
“No,” said Walt. “I kept saying let’s cut it but the people around here said ‘no’. You know you have to watch this cutting thing. It’s like a painting—you do it and then you start changing this and that and the first thing you know the life’s gone from it. And it’s an old rule of the theater: if you hit on something good, milk it. Sophisticates may get bored but the people in the seats like it that way.”
On a tour of the backlot of the studio, Miller felt that it was the “neatest lot in the film industry…all the usual sets for live-action films but everything spick and span like Disneyland.”
Walt and Miller stopped to inspect two swaying elephants destined for Disneyland.\
“They’re checking these elephants for skin breaks,” said Walt. “And found a tiny one.”
Miller commented that “around the studio, it’s legend that nothing escapes Walt’s eye”.
Across the street, Walt and Miller looked at a small army of men “like watchmakers” working on an Audio-Animatronics human figure.
Miller exclaimed, “I doubt if even God goes to this much trouble to make one.”
Walt put down the head he was holding and said, “I don’t know about that but it sure gives one added respect for Him.”