I don’t know who came up with the bright idea but it was a darn good one. What about a lunch hour with the Vice Chairman of Walt Disney Feature Animation? Would Roy Edward Disney accept our invitation, we wondered? The only way to find out was to simply ask. The early eighties proved to be a turbulent time at the Walt Disney Studio. The company had just evaded a takeover by Greenmailers and new management was finally in place. A good deal of these changes were initiated by none other than Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Frank Wells had been brought over from Warner Bros. and Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived from Paramount. Sweeping changes were happening daily at the Disney studio and more than a few Mouse House staffers were concerned. Suddenly, the Disney Company had a bold new future and what would this future bring?
You can imagine the number of questions we had prepared. Who better to answer the questions than the man who not only represented old Disney but a whole new incarnation of Disney as well. Better yet, we knew we would not be dealing with the typical “Disney suit.” A businessman to be sure, Roy Edward Disney was that unique combination of tough business guy and creative individual. Affable and easy going, Roy Disney knew who he was, and had nothing to prove. What the hell! His name was on the damn building!
We reserved a small table in the Coral Room. This was a cozy dining area adjoining the Disney commissary. Roy arrived exactly on time and greeted each of us warmly. I won’t bother listing the names of the artists and writers who attended. Oddly enough, each of us worked in the building next door that was named after Roy’s dad.
Roy Disney still sported a mustache in those days and he had not yet given up his habit of smoking. As you can imagine, the first thing Roy did was light up a cigarette. He bore an incredible resemblance to his famous uncle, and like Walt, his manner was warm and friendly. We ordered juice and coffee, and our conversation began.
“Are you happy with the way things are going at the studio,” we ventured? Roy’s answer was simple and direct. “I am now,” he replied with a broad smile on his face. Roy spoke of his concern with the studio’s direction during the past few years. Disney had grown irrelevant and was now being upstaged by innovative filmmakers such as, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In the eyes of many in the Hollywood community the studio was totally out of touch and Roy E. Disney was determined to change all that.
The subject of Filmation Studios came up, and if you’ll remember, that sizable animation enterprise had embarked on a feature length motion picture entitled, “Pinocchio.” Well, Roy was furious about that and vowed he would do everything possible to prevent the well known television animation company from riding on Disney’s coat tails. I gather Roy was ready to turn up the heat on Filmation Studios should they attempt to market their feature film in any way that connected it to Walt Disney. I don’t remember how this battle eventually resolved itself, but the movie had a name change and I doubt anybody even remembers the pedestrian, second rate animated motion picture today.
Of course, I had my own questions and my main issue with the Disney Company was having animation booted out of their own facility and exiled to warehouses and trailers in nearby Glendale. To his credit, Roy apologized for that indignity to Walt Disney’s premiere animation unit. It was a necessary concession to the new management. There was no other facility on the Disney studio lot large enough to house all the new production units that would soon be ramping up. Roy gave us his word that a new animation facility would be constructed to house Walt Disney Feature Animation. It took a few years, but Roy Edward Disney delivered on that promise.
Unlike today’s politically correct weaving and dodging, no questions were off limits. We had concerns that Walt’s studio would now be run by major Hollywood players and studio big shots with their inflated egos and bloated salaries. Would they accept the Disney culture - or even understand it? Roy implored us to cut the newcomers some slack and give them a chance to prove themselves. “These young guys (Eisner was only 43 at the time) have some good ideas,” said the vice chairman. “Let’s see what they can do before you judge them.”
Eventually, the conversation moved to animation, and that’s when Roy truly got excited. “We’ve got some terrific projects in development,” said the vice chairman. “Animation is on the way back and people are going to be amazed when they realize that the Walt Disney Studio is just as creative as we ever were. We’re going to see some remarkable things in the next few years. I don’t have to remind you how Roy’s insightful leadership transformed Walt Disney Feature Animation.
The dessert plates were being cleared away and before we knew it our lunch hour had quickly slipped by. Since Roy had been our guest we insisted on picking up the check. However, Roy Disney would have none of it, and he made sure the lunch tab went on his own personal account. I guess he was good for the money. The waitress didn’t even bother checking his credit card.
Roy Edward Disney has now joined his dad and uncle in that big animation studio in the sky. The Disney tradition continues intact today largely because of his efforts and dedication. As for myself, I’m just glad I’ve been a small part of his creative enterprise and was able to spend a very special afternoon with a personal hero.