It may seem a contradiction, but Walt Disney was the toughest and best boss one could have. Incredibly focused, Disney knew what each new product should be. Whether it was a new movie, theme park attraction or magazine ad, Walt always knew how the public would respond. Of course, he did this without any reliance on demographic surveys and focus groups. Disney Legend, Ward Kimball related how Walt always kept the artists focused on connecting with the audience. “Anytime we went too crazy,” Kimball explained, “Walt would respond with, “I don’t get it.” That meant we had lost our connection with the audience and Disney seemed keenly aware of that. If Walt thought an idea would fail, he was usually right. Story meetings with the Old Maestro could be stressful but at least the meeting would end with a decision. The master story editor would either love or hate what you presented to him. Some story guys agonized over such pointed criticism while I considered it a blessing. Knowing where you stand is far better than remaining in the dark and Walt Disney was always clear in letting you know whether you had succeeded or failed.
Walt Disney was an American icon. Whether you loved the Disney product or not there’s no denying the incredible impact he’s had on our culture and culture worldwide. He was the ultimate conservative yet incredibly progressive. A man of his time, he restricted women to a separate building on his studio lot. Yet, he employed minorities without regard to their race or ethnicity. The Old Maestro was my boss and I knew little of the man beyond that. I was kid in my twenties while most of my colleagues were a good deal older. Since his passing in 1966 I’ve tried to learn more about this incredible man in hopes of completing a challenging puzzle. Since that time, I’ve travel to Kansas City, Mo. and Walt’s boyhood neighborhood. I’ve visited the Disney home on Bellfontaine Street and traced the blocks where young Walt and his little sister, Ruth attended Thomas Hart Benton Elementary school. The very same school where young Walt dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and recited the Gettysburg Address. Is it any wonder the Old Maestro would one day have this attraction at this famous theme park? Finally, I visited Disney’s Laugh O’ Gram studio in Kansas City. This notable “failure” early in Disney’s life would send young Walt to Hollywood where he would ultimately revolutionize the cartoon business and forever shape popular entertainment.
I’ve never considered myself an expert on Walt’s life. I leave that task to others far more qualified than myself. Yet, I was a Disney staffer during his final years and attended a fair number of meetings with the boss. I’ll be doing another lecture in San Diego next month. Hardly the ComicCon, this is a group of technology experts who are busily charting the future. Their interest in this amazing man should come as no surprise.