Elephant Tale

Perhaps I’ve told this story before but back in the eighties I accepted a job in Disney’s publishing department as a writer. I confess after years of sketching cartoons it took me a while to accept my new title. After all, I never considered myself that much of a writing talent. Don’t believe me? Ask my Santa Barbara High School English Lit teacher. When it came to literary skills I was hopeless. The idea that I would ever write for a living was pretty much a Disney fantasy. Yet, here I was at the Walt Disney Studios pretending to do just that.

In spite of my lackluster writing skills, my boss decided I knew how to craft a Disney script. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought until I read through a stack of manuscripts on my desk. As I began to leaf through the pile of stories one thing became obvious. While well crafted, they were not Disney stories and each was clearly lacking in the fun, charm and unique sensibility that makes a story, “Disney.” Perhaps my new job was not a mistake after all, so I settled down to learn the business of writing. Assisting on this editorial adventure was a wonderful editor named, Jeanette Steiner. And, she is the subject of this unique Disney story. 

Some years ago, a package was sent to the Publishing Department of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. A local Burbank high school student had submitted a manuscript along with a stack of fanciful sketches illustrating the story he had written. The eager young student submitted his creation in the hope that Disney might publish his charming yet quirky story. Ordinarily, the Walt Disney Studio does not accept unsolicited material and the normal procedure would be to return the material unopened. However, the package ended up on the desk of editor, Jeanette Steiner. Although she was known as a serious publishing editor with little time to waste on some starry-eyed kid’s aspiration, Jeanette took the time to read through the manuscript and provide several notes for the young writer. She also examined his clever drawings and complimented the student on his rich imagination. Although the Walt Disney Studio could not publish the high school students book, Jeanette did not want to pour cold water on the kid’s creativity. She wrote words of advice and encouragement and insisted that the young writer/artist continue to pursue his dream. Amazingly enough, a copy of Jeanette’s letter remains on file at the studio even today.

You might be wondering what happened to the talented kid from Burbank California who dared to submit his odd, quirky story to the Walt Disney Studio for publication. After graduating he headed for art school and ultimately an internship at the Walt Disney Studios. Yet, it was hardly a success story and things did not go well at the mouse house. It would appear the Disney Animation Department found the young man’s quirky sensibility at odds with their sweet, cutesy vision of cartoon making. Marginalized, the young writer/artist worked on special projects apart from the rest of the cartoon department. However, he did spend a little time on “The Black Cauldron,” a misguided attempt to move the lackluster animation unit forward. In time, studio bosses provided enough money to film an engaging live-action two-reeler that would showcase the kid’s zany but dark humor. Luckily, I was around during the shoot and I was continually impressed by what I saw. However, such was not the case with the studio bosses who had absolutely no idea what to do with the finished product. The dark but clever motion picture went on the shelf and the creative filmmaker left the Walt Disney Studio never again to return. Well, not exactly.

At nearby Warner Bros Studios the young filmmaker paired with comic, Paul Reubens to create, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” and things would never be the same. The kid went on to become a notable Hollywood director and his name is associated with a number of movie blockbusters. The filmmaker has even returned to the Walt Disney Studio on occasion and he has developed numerous film projects for the company he started with so many years ago. I’ve been watching film clips from his newest Disney project and remembering the advice given the storyteller many years ago by my editor, Jeanette Steiner. Though highly supportive, I don’t believe the two individuals ever met. I find it interesting the Disney bosses had no idea what to make of the odd, and quirky filmmaker back in the day. Yet, they would one day welcome him back with open arms. Yes, it appears in Hollywood nobody knows anything. However we all know the name of the filmmaker currently helming the latest remake of the classic Walt Disney film, “Dumbo.” The odd, quirky filmmaker who simply didn’t fit in… until one day he did.

The storyteller we all know as, Tim Burton.

Tim Burton's Dumbo. Who knew?

Tim Burton's Dumbo. Who knew?