The Walt Disney I Knew

Each morning, his classy, but modest vehicle (by Hollywood standards, anyway )pulled into the covered parking space on the Burbank studio lot. As you might expect, Walt Disney drove himself to work each day. I really can't say I knew the man. After all, I was just a kid when I worked for the Old Maestro. Walt Disney was an older gentleman more the age of my grandfather. If you want insights about Disney there are two published biographies written by Michael Barrier and Neal Gabler. What I have to say about the amazing character I call, "The Old Maestro" is purely from my own observation over a ten year period. Of course, this was at the amazing studio he and his brother co-founded back in the thirties.

You have to dig deep if you really want to know a person. Like most people, I had read books and articles about Walt Disney. I grew up watching the gifted storyteller in glorious black&white on analog television back in the fifties. Naturally, I had hopes of one day working for the Old Maestro - however, that would take a while. I paid a visit to the Burbank studio after my high school graduation and I was given some sound advice. "Go back to school," I was told. "Then come back and see us." Sure enough, in my third year at Art Center College of Design I received the unexpected but eagerly anticipated telephone call. In a matter of days I found myself an employee of Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney was already a legendary figure as far back as the fifties. As young, aspiring artists all we hoped for was a glance of the Old Maestro, but he was nowhere to be seen. All that changed one morning when Walt Disney himself approached us on the third floor of the Animation Building. I've described this event many times, and I'll risk doing it again. All of us young animation artists backed against the wall and stared in disbelief as Walt Disney, much like Moses in the scriptures, appeared to descend from the mount.

Before we knew it a decade had passed. I guess time flies when you're having fun. Of course, there were other "Walt sightings" but now we had grown use to seeing the boss on a regular basis. On occasion, Disney would say, "Hi guys!" as he walked passed. Other than that, there was no other interaction with the visionary leader. We clearly understood that if Disney called a meeting only studio big shots would be invited. That's why I consider it remarkable I began attending meetings with the Old Maestro himself. And, how did this happen, you ask? It all began when Walt and his top storyman, Bill Peet clashed over the treatment of the new movie, “The Jungle Book.” Subsequently, Peet walked off the film and a new story team took his place. By caprice, I was one of the new storymen selected for the assignment and that meant meeting with the boss himself. It may seem a contradiction, but Walt Disney was the toughest and easiest boss one could work for. Incredibly focused, Walt 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 demographicsurveys 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. 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 most (but not all) women to a separate building on his studio lot. Yet, the same boss 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 gentleman in hopes of completing a challenging puzzle. Since that time I’ve traveled to Chicago to visit Walt’s birthplace. Found my way 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 to recited the Gettysburg Address. Is it any wonder the Old Maestro would one day create this attraction at this famous theme park? Finally, I visited Disney’s Laugh O’ Gram studio in Kansas City. The notable “failure” early in Disney’s life that would send young Walt to Hollywood where he would ultimately revolutionize the cartoon business and forever shape popular entertainment.

 Over the years, I’ve spoken with Disney historians and had the pleasure of visiting Walt Disney’s daughter at her home in Napa Valley California. On a beautiful Saturday morning I sat with Diane Disney Miller and chatted with her about her famous dad. She hated the misinformation and distortions from the media and clueless celebrities. For some sad reason people seem inclined to believe the worse about their heroes. I’ve no agenda when I present this observation and my views are simply my own. What makes Walt Disney so remarkable was the fact he was such an ordinary man. Walt was authentic and free of the pretention that characterizes so much of the entertainment business today. He was our boss, visionary and leader and I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of him again.