Speaking of Walt

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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As a professional actor and director, when I first look at how to interpret a character, I usually consider three things.

First, what does the character say (and just as importantly what is the character not saying about things he has experienced).

Second, what does the character do (because actions can either reinforce or contradict what the character says).

Finally, what do other characters say about him (because the character may think of himself as a hero, but others perceive him as a villain, or vice versa).

I’ve shared in some of my past columns some of the obscure quotes credited to Walt over the decades. For this column, I thought I might share some obscure quotes from people who actually worked with Walt and what their perspectives were of this amazing man.

One of the favorite books in my collection is Remembering Walt, by Amy Boothe Green and Howard Green (1999 Hyperion), that offers a terrific perspective of Walt Disney as a person simply by bringing together quotes from his friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, employees, and more. It is also filled with some rarely (if ever) published photos of Walt from the Disney vaults showing him in some casual moments. Obviously, I highly recommend this book for all true Walt fans.

For decades, I have been proud to be a member of the National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC), now known as the Disneyana Fan Club. In addition, I am also a proud member of the World Chapter, which is the Orlando, Florida, chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club. I have attended many NFFC conventions over the decades, beginning with ones in Anaheim, and I was always grateful that they provided the opportunity for so many guest speakers to share their memories of working with Walt.

The NFFC/Disneyana Fan Club has an audio and visual library of many of these presentations going back to some of the earliest ones in the 1980s and I hope, someday, someone will transcribe all those “lost” gems of insight for current Disney fans and future researchers. Transcribing is no fun and takes time and money. There are many such extensive collections (like those of Disney historians Michael Barrier and Paul Anderson) that are desperately in need of being preserved through transcription.

Here is a selection of some quotes about Walt from the NFFC/Disneyana Conventions that I kept in my files and I have listed the year of the convention when it was spoken, so that others may be able to use these in the future.

I do have more of these if there is any interest.

“If you saw his lead-ins (to his weekly television show), you saw him….They say that Dad asked me what I would want in Disneyland that would attract teenage girls, and that I said, ‘Boys.’ I told him, ‘Dad, I never said that!’ He said, ‘I know, but it’s cute!’” — Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter (1998)

“I was at Disneyland on one occasion when a young girl mistook me for Walt Disney and asked for an autograph. I signed it without correcting her even though Walt was standing right there. Later that same day, someone called out to Walt “Are you Walt Disney?’ I was working a few yards away and Walt pointed to me and said, ‘No, he’s over there!’” — John Hench, Imagineer (1994)

“Disneyland is the road map of Walt Disney’s life.” — Van France, Disney University founder (1986)

“Walt had an eye for detail other people would miss. He made sure I rounded all the street corners because people don’t turn square corners.” — Bill Martin, Imagineer (1995)

“Walt had a way of finding other talents in you.” — X. Atencio, Imagineer (1995)

“Walt told me after one story meeting that he didn’t care how long it took, but to get it right.” — Eric Larson, animator (1986)

“Most people credit Roy Disney with being the money man, but Walt understood the numbers when we presented them. Walt had a consummate grasp of the financial situation.” — Harrison “Buzz” Price, researcher (1995)

“Walt had a good feel for music and always knew what was good. Walt always wanted to do it right.” — Buddy Baker, musician (1996)

“Walt was very enthusiastic, and it was fun to see him take a flit gun out of my hand and say, ‘Let me try this’, while I was working on a project. He was like a kid again.” — Harriet Burns, Imagineer (1997)

“Walt was such a really nice, genuine person. Some of the Tour Guides decided that they were going to send him a birthday card. And he sat down and wrote a letter back to the Tour Guides, mentioned them by name and signed the letter and thanked them for the card they’d sent.” — Cicely Rigdon, former supervisor for guest relations (1997)

“I ran into him once at the Beverly Hilton at the Thalian’s Ball with Debbie Reynolds. He was in another room, and I went up and I had a thread hanging from my dress shirt. I was in a rented tux. And he said, ‘You’re going to have to dress better than that.’ Then he put his arm around my shoulder and said to Hedda Hopper, ‘This is my lucky actor’. That’s the nicest thing he ever said to me.” — Tommy Kirk, actor (1997)

“He [Walt] thought that all the evil in the world came from misinformation. He had an absolute conviction that people were OK. He said this often and he really believed it. He had an enormous respect for people. He said that they act as they do, sometimes badly, because they get the wrong information…And he looked on Disney World as a future where they could get more reliable information.” — John Hench, Imagineer (1997)

“He was such a hands-on character. He had a temperament and instincts to know what was funny and what was a good idea. His intuitiveness was probably the most outstanding quality of the man.” — Joe Grant, animator (1998)

“Mickey’s always looking with exuberance toward the next pioneering achievement. Perhaps that is one of the ways he is closest to Walt.” — John Hench, Imagineer (1998)

“Mickey Mouse is made up entirely of curves and that’s very reassuring. People have had millions of years of experience with curved objects, and they’ve never been hurt by them. It’s the sharp and pointed things that give you trouble.” — Imagineer John Hench (1993)

“He’d (Walt) tell you what he didn’t like and he’d tell you what he did like and he’d do it in front of a bunch of people…make you feel pretty bad. But he would protect you. I had people threatening to fire me all the time, because I wouldn’t put their favorite scene in…And Walt would protect me from that. And he always sent my wife flowers when we had children. I remember a lot of wonderful things about Walt.” — Norman “Stormy” Palmer, film editor on the True-Life Adventures (1996)

“He loved to tease me because I couldn’t call him Walt. So I told him that a bird doesn’t sing because it’s happy, it’s happy because it sings. And he said, “OK, if you can’t call me Walt, I’ll call you Happy Bird’. And for a long, long time, he called me Happy Bird. The last time I saw him was just after I went to the Disney studio to get some publicity about my work…I saw him across the lot and I was so excited that I said, ‘Hi, Walt!” It was the first time I’d ever called him Walt, and he just doubled over.” — Mary Costa, voice of Sleeping Beauty (1999)

“One time, I was working the canoes [at Disneyland] and Walt came down with his granddaughters. As we left the dock, someone in another canoe said, ‘Let’s race!’ We got back into dock and Walt was soaking wet. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, boy, am I in trouble’. As it turned out, Walt was actually happy that he had been in the winning canoe.” — Ray Van De Warker, Disneyland employee who first started working at the park in 1955 (2000)

“If you were sitting down having a cup of coffee, he’d just come over and sit with you. He wanted to hear what you had to say.” — Bob Penfield, Disneyland employee who first started working at the park in 1955 (2000)

“He was a genius. He was very easy to talk to. He loved Disneyland and loved to talk to you about the Park, asking you what you thought of it.” — Renie Bardeau, photographer (1999)

“Walt could tap into the heart of people and nobody really understood that. But he did somehow, and the rest of us just went along. ‘Well, if Walt’s doing it, it must be OK so we’ll just do it.’ And everyone just built on that trust after a while.” — Bob Gurr, Imagineer (2001)

“I walked by with my mother and my brother [on a childhood visit to Disneyland] and I said, ‘That’s Walt Disney’. And they said, ‘No, it isn’t.” So I said, ‘Yes, it is. I know Walt Disney. He comes to the house every Sunday.’ And, sure enough, it was Walt. I sat with him for a while and we shared popcorn and talked….He said, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and I said, “Work for you.’ He told me I could…and here I am.” — Russi Taylor, voice of Minnie Mouse (2003)

“We took the approach that we were going to kill that damned prince.” — Wolfgang Reitherman, animator on the dragon-prince battle scene in Sleeping Beauty and Walt’s suggestion on staging it. (1985)

“The first sequence we animated was where the princess is walking through the forest with the animals, talking about her dream lover. Walt often liked to start with a scene in the middle of the film, which proved an ideal opportunity to develop characters and personality.” — Eric Larson, animator on Sleeping Beauty (1986)

“The problem with working at a place like Disney is that you have to live life going forward and you can only understand it looking backward. Looking back, it was normal to be feeling hyper six days a week and feeling so bad on Sunday that you had to wait until Monday to get back to it.” — Bob Gurr, Imagineer (1997)

“Just before the opening of Walt Disney World, Roy O. Disney was talking to me and he said, ‘I worried about it and I still don’t know whether it’s going to work or not. But, I knew I had to build it. I knew I had to do it, because when I see Walt again, if I hadn’t, he’d give me hell.’" — John Hench, Imagineer (1997)

“These people (the True Life Adventures cinematographers) would send in ten million feet of film of nothing happening and you had to make a sequence out of that…The owl in the tree was our most famous cutaway. When nothing could be made to really work, there was always an owl somewhere around.” — Roy E. Disney, on the making of the True-Life Adventures (1999)

“Today, everybody’s professionally trained. You know, MBA, everybody’s highly organized. You have to have a chart before you can do anything and you have to have meetings and then you have to have memos, then you wait for another meeting….But, in that period of time [the construction of Disneyland], there didn’t seem to be any meetings…It was like a very small gang all moving really, really fast and you had to pay attention to what was going on because nothing was ever really written down.” — Bob Gurr, Imagineer (2001)

“Walt gave me a great deal of freedom. One Sunday afternoon I went browsing through antique stores with my wife. It seemed appropriate to be looking for Captain Nemo’s set dressing while wearing my captain’s hat. One shop had these bronze dolphins….I called my wife over to look at them. ‘What would you do with them?’ she asked. ‘For my submarine,’ I answered. Well, at that point, I happened to look up at a number of open-mouthed people who were listening in wonder to my submarine’s furnishings.” — Harper Goff, Imagineer talking about working on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1985)

“The thing that was extraordinary about Herbie Ryman…and all the other people that we’re all very aware of (who worked with Walt) was that they embraced failure. Within those walls there was constantly the reminder that it’s OK to fail, that it was OK to be human, that it was OK to experiment, because that’s how you blossom as a student.” — Andrea Favilli, Imagineer and sculptor (2001)

“I absolutely love Disney. I love what Disney stands for. I love the magic. I love the people that I worked with. I can’t say enough. If I say too much, I’ll start to cry.” — Alice Davis, artist and widow of Imagineer Marc Davis (1997)

“It wasn’t that you had to do these things, you wanted to do them. You were so proud. Every write-up the Studio got, everybody went out and got it. Very few people have ever, as a group, experienced that type of excitement.” — Marc Davis, Imagineer (2000)

“[Disney] stands for quality. It stands for family. It stands for getting your money’s worth. It stands for a lot of innovation and a lot of new and creative ideas that make things fun every time you visit a Park or go to a film.” — Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew (2004)

 

Comments

  1. By petesimac

    I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed this article. As for "more," if you have 'em, we'll read 'em!

    I love what Walt stands for and cherish his memory; it's one of the reasons why I enjoy going to his parks so much. I can feel his pride; I can share his enthusiasm for what he created; and I think I know how much it meant to him to have people enjoy his creations. Thanks for such a wonderful piece!

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