It may seem a contradiction, but Walt Disney was the toughest and best boss one could have. Incredibly focused, Walt knew what each new product should be. Whether it was a new movie, theme park attraction or magazine ad, Walt appeared to have an innate sense how the public would respond. Of course, he did this without any reliance on demographic surveys or 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. Walt Disney was always clear in letting you know whether you had succeeded or failed in your presentation.
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 around the world. 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 implored his boys to, as he put it, “give the girls a chance to show what they can do.” Despite tirades to the contrary by know-nothing Hollywood celebrities he employed minorities without regard to their race, color or ethnicity. Although the Old Maestro was my boss I knew little of the man beyond our interaction on the job. I was kid in my twenties while most of my colleagues were a good deal older. Keep in mine these were the people who created the films I saw as a child. Most were the age of my parents or grandparents. Since Walt Disney’s passing in 1966 I’ve tried to dig deeper and learn more about this incredible man in hopes of completing a challenging puzzle. Since that time, I’ve traveled 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 create this attraction at his famous theme park? Finally, I visited Disney’s Laugh O’ Gram studio now under renovation in Kansas City. This notable “failure” early in Disney’s ambitious young 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 Disney’s life. I leave that task to others far more qualified than myself. Yet, I was a Disney staffer during his final years and lucky enough to attend a fair number of his meetings. Most historians are tasked with pouring over books, tapes and volumes of notes. I gained my insights the easy way. I had the luxury of sitting in a meeting room with the old maestro himself. Not all Walt Disney Studio employees had that unique privilege. It’s why I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity and it’s why I share this experience with all those who share my interest. In recent years I’ve spoken to a fair number of people eager to learn more about this amazing man. My audiences have been everyone from comic book geeks, animation students and technology experts who are busily charting the future. Their interest in this unique individual comes as no surprise. Walt Disney was brilliant yet unpredictable. A man with little formal education yet one of the most insightful men I’ve ever known. He was conservative and progressive. Sophisticated yet down to earth. He was everything good about the common man.