Over the years there’s been a fair number of stories told about Walt Disney. As a matter of fact, I’ve told a few of them myself on this journal and elsewhere. However, this particular story is one of my favorites. Let me take you back to the late fifties when this curious event took place. I find this studio incident insightful because it reveals a good deal about a wonderful gentleman named, Walt Disney. It’s also a cautionary tale for all top level Disney managers and the responsibility that job entails.
The story takes place during Disney’s remarkable mid-century growth explosion. The time during the opening of the Disneyland theme park and the move into network television. The Disney Company had hired many new staffers including a new vice-president. This executive’s office was located on the first floor of the Animation Building. It was the wing on the buildings east side facing the Ink&Paint facility. The new manager was somewhat full of himself and usually posturing so Disney employees would recognize how “important” he was. Unlike most Disney managers at the time, he even insisted on putting his name on his office door.
As the executive was making a telephone call one morning he was distracted by the sound of a lawn mower outside his office window. The Disney studio gardener was going about his morning task of mowing the well manicured studio lawn. As the gardener continued his work, the short tempered executive finally had enough. He opened his window and screamed at the hapless gardener at the top of his lungs. “Turn off that damn lawn mower you son of a bitch! I’m trying to make a telephone call!”
It wasn’t long before the recently hired vice-president had a visit from Walt Disney. It appears the boss had heard about the incident, so he made his way downstairs to deal with the matter. “I heard you called my gardener a son of a bitch!” The Old Maestro growled. “I want you to know that man has been with this company for over twenty years. You call him that again, you won’t be with this company another twenty minutes.” Finally, Walt Disney capped off the brief exchange with this final remark. “By the way, there’s only one son of a bitch at this studio…and that’s me!”
I often hear negative things said about Walt Disney these days. Yet, this particular event is something I’ll always remember. Walt could easily have been a crass, petulant autocratic ruler with subordinates jumping to his every whim. Yet, Disney was exactly the opposite. He was a gentleman who treated everyone with respect. You might be an executive or a gardener. Or, you might be employed as a producer or a janitor. One thing was always certain. All would be treated the same. A few thoughts you “high level executives” might want to keep in mind on this cool November morning.