I only knew the “Old Maestro” as an older gentleman. Stout in stature, with greying hair and wearing a conservative business suit. I never knew Walt Disney as a young man and I’m pretty sure he would have been a very interesting guy back in the day. These thoughts are inspired by the photograph below where we see Walt and his team discussing ideas while all are intently focused on a storyboard. As expected, it’s an “all boys club,” with one notable exception. That’s color stylist, Mary Blair attending the meeting. A few of the other faces look familiar but I can’t remember their names. Although it’s easy to spot a younger, slimmer Roy Williams standing with Walt Disney and his colleagues. Could this photograph have been staged for media hype or some studio publicity need? There’s something about the group photograph that strikes me as not exactly genuine.
However, my eyes immediately go to a scowling Walt Disney as he studies the board in the photograph below. His intent gaze brings back memories of another young man I worked for some years ago. The young man also had dark hair and the same piecing eyes. Much like the Old Maestro he always looked you directly into the eye while speaking. Was it scary or intimidating, you ask? On both counts, the answer would be, yes, it was. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m referring to Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs. Some years ago, we lost Steve Jobs in the month of October and even though it was common knowledge the Apple leader was ill, his passing still came as a shock to all of us. Like his predecessor, Walt Disney, Jobs had the ability to focus intently on a problem as he eagerly sought a solution. Both men could seem gruff and detached, but that’s because each had the unique ability to focus like a laser on a given challenge. Unfortunately, this behavior was often misunderstood and people sometimes came away with the wrong impression. Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were not cold, detached individuals, rather they were men with a vision. They had the ability to see what the rest of us could not. And, it was a challenge to keep up with them. Today, I find myself in a unique position. How many of us have had the opportunity to be in a meeting or several meetings with both Walt Disney and Steve Jobs? I’m guessing that number would be a small one.
The Walt Disney in the photograph was a Walt I wish I could have known. He’s cool, casual and even sporting a t-shirt. Hardly the grumpy older gentleman I knew. This was clearly the forties and the Old Maestro (then the young maestro) was just hitting his stride. He had created a feature length animated feature film that captured the world’s attention and he had constructed a massive cartoon factory in the barren valley of Burbank. Never distracted by his success, Walt moved forward to the next challenge whatever that challenge happen to be. He would pioneer stereophonic sound with Fantasia and raise the level of animation photography with new camera systems. What must have been on Walt Disney’s mind in this photograph we might wonder? I would venture not just the problems at hand, but a multitude of other challenges were more than likely in the back of Walt’s mind. In this historical photograph, a young Walt Disney could easily have been a version of Steve Jobs in the early nineties. Jobs returned to Apple in the nineties to turn technology on its ear and lead his company to overwhelming success in a business that had already declared them dead. Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were remarkable leaders. They were talented, focused, and remarkably confident. It almost makes you feel sorry for todays leaders who in spite of their best efforts… never even come close.