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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A profile of Roy Oliver Disney

In my last article, I spoke of Walt Disney’s brother Roy being one of the unsung heroes of the Disney success story.  In this article I’d like to profile Roy O. Disney.

I find it interesting that while we can find dozens of books chronicling the life and times of Walt Disney, examining his successes and failures in microscopic detail.  There is no doubt that Walt Disney is an iconic figure in the entertainment industry, and the books about him are not undeserved.  However, I find equally of interest that the one person probably most intensely responsible for Walt’s success has one book about him.  Albeit an excellent work by Bob Thomas, “Building A Company – Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire” is the singular chronicle of the man that helped to create and company that today has revenues in excess of 35 billion dollars.

I hope this is because the annals of Roy O’s activities are not as well documented as that of his brother Walt, but I suspect, unfortunately, that Roy’s life and achievements are not of the same glamorous attraction of his little brother, also contribute to this oversight.  None-the-less, Roy’s life is one that is unquestionably worthy of celebration by any Disney fan, as it was as much due to his business prowess, as to Walt’s creative genius, that allowed the Disney company(s) to flourish.  There is a statue of a park bench with Roy and Minnie sitting together on Main Street, at Magic Kingdom, and copy in Legends Plaza at the Walt Disney Studios.  I have had the fortunate honor have sat with Roy & Minnie at both locations.

Roy never had any thoughts of college, as no one in his family had been educated passed high school.  Before entering the Navy toward the end of World War I, he worked for The First National Bank of Kansas City, as this he felt this would afford him an occupation with a future.  While working at the bank, Roy met Mitch Francis.  The two started a friendship that last a lifetime.  The other benefit of this friendship was that Roy met the future Mrs. Disney, Mitch’s Sister Edna, though it was several years before this came about.  Roy and Edna finally did get married in 1925.  In January 1930, Edna gave birth to their first and only child, Roy Edward Disney.  Roy E got his middle name as an homage to his Mother Edna, and passed the tradition on to one of his sons Roy Patrick, getting his middle name from his Mother Patricia.  This got me thinking, and I had to go back to find where Roy O got his middle name, assuming that it was some sort of family traditional to give one son a middle name corresponding to the Mother’s name.  But, Roy O’s Mother was Flora, so I went checking my books, and the web to see if maybe Olivia was her middle name.  I know this is a pretty minor point, but hey, that the way my brain works.  Given this need to know, I found my answer in Bob Thomas’ book; “Building A Company”, p13.  There his Mother Flora explains, “We had Roy as a name and we wanted to get a middle name or just a letter.  We couldn’t think of any name until one day there was a big load of lumber going by.  It said on the side of it, OLIVER LUMBER COMPANY.  We said, ‘There’s a name – Oliver – to go with Roy.’  So we called him Roy Oliver Disney.  I don’t think Roy liked the name.  He didn’t like being named after a lumber company.”  So Roy and Edna name their Roy Edward?  Maybe it was a family tradition of sort, modified to meet his needs, or maybe dislikes.

There has been much discussion, particularly on the web, about Walt Disney being a Master Mason and much of the associated conspiracy theories that surround the Masons.  As public a figure as Walt Disney was, I find it very interesting that the only verifiable connection to the Masons is his 1922 DeMolay membership card, which can be seen on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum.  I enjoy reading the conspiracy theorist claim as much as the next person, but, I take those claims with a serious grain of salt.  It was been claimed that DeMolay is a Masonic organization, however, all I can honestly find is fraternal association between the groups, as the founder of DeMolay was also a Mason.   So was Walt a Mason?  Along with the DeMolay membership in 1922, I found it at least interesting to learn that Roy was a Mason for a least part of his life.  Again in Bob Thomas’ book there is a brief passage where Roy explains to his Daughter-In-Law Patricia that he had resigned his membership in the Masons because of her being Catholic and not wanting to cause any conflict for her or Roy E.  This little tidbit adds, at minimum, further circumstantial evidence that Walt may have been a Free Mason, but it is still nothing more than that, circumstantial.  As far as Roy is concerned, I think his actions do show the measure of the man, and I would argue that he probably had not achieved an advanced degree in the organization.  I have known a several Masons in my life, a few who are Master Masons.  Because of the time and effort involved with advancement, very, very, rarely do you find a Mason of advanced degrees resigning from the organization.  That Roy was willing to resign would indicate to me that his membership was not a much more than a casual fraternal association for him.  As for Walt’s association, it makes sense that if his brother was a Free Mason, and coupling the DeMolay membership early in his life; that it would be logical to assume that he too was a member.  How deeply he was involved, conspiracy theorist will continue to make their claim, but until really evidence is presented, their claim will be dubious at best for this writer.

Roy seems to me to have been a natural born negotiator.  During the animation of “Snow White” Roy worked as an effective conciliator between Walt and Bank of America when additional loans were needed.  As the Disney merchandising juggernaut was in its infancy, it was Roy’s steadfast diligence that protected the Disney name and potential revenue stream, finding it better for the company in the long run to negotiate licensing deals with infringers as opposed to going straight to the courts to stop them.  During the construction of Disneyland, Roy was there in the background with his ‘sharp pencil’ boys working deals with sponsors and financiers to make sure Walt had the resources he need to make his vision and reality.

Toward the end of 1966 Roy was preparing to retired after over 40 years of building the Walt Disney Company, when the unthinkable happened and Walt passed away at the age of 65.  Roy came back to office and took over the management of “Project Future.”   You probably know “Project Future” better as Walt Disney World, and had been know to that point as Disneyworld.  One of Roy’s first decrees was that Disneyworld would forever more be known as Walt Disney World as he felt it a fitting tribute to his recently deceased brother.  Having just lost their creative leader, the direction of the Florida project was unsure.    It appears that Walt’s initial intention was to build the Experiment Prototype City of Tomorrow – EPCOT first, along with a Disneyland of the east.  While everyone knew what Walt intentions where, no one was sure that everything could be brought together to complete all that he wanted.  So, the decision was made to start with Magic Kingdom.  They knew how to build that one; after all, they already had a functioning blueprint in Disneyland.  Construction started in 1967, shortly after Walt’s death, and a scant 4 years later, Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971, with Roy giving the dedication on October 25th.  Sadly, a mere two months later we lost Roy, five years, almost to the day, after we lost Walt.

Roy was found by his bed at home in Toluca Lake by family members, and was rushed St Joseph’s hospital across the street from the studio.  He succumbed to a stroke on December 20th 1971.  He was supposed to have gone to Disneyland with some of his grandchildren that day.  One little known fact that I found in Bob Thomas’ book and thought rather poignant;  while Roy O lied dying on the 5th floor at St Joseph’s, his grandson Roy Patrick, lie fighting for his own live on the 3rd.  Roy P had, a couple of days earlier, taken a bad fall from a tree and suffered severe head injuries.  The prognosis on Roy Pat (as I have heard him called) was still very much touch and go when Grandpa Roy entered the hospital.  These are my thoughts only, but the poignancy came to me as I was reading those passages in the book; I can just see Roy O, the great negotiator, haggling at St Peter’s gate, “If you’re going to take one of us, please let it be me.”  And, I imagine it worked, Roy Pat is still with us today.  Finally, going back to my earlier discussion about origins of Roy O and Roy E’s middle names, Roy Pat’s middle also comes from his Mother – Patricia.

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

Monday, September 20, 2010

Our Dad, Fess Parker

We had yet another wonderful afternoon at the Walt Disney Family Museum.  Today we had the opportunity to spend some time with the children on Fess Parker as the final event to a Museum tribute to Davey Crockett this weekend.  Jeff Kurtti, a Disney authority who we had the opportunity to see a few weeks earlier with Tommy Kirk, played guess moderator again.  This time he was joined by Eli (Fess Elisha III) Parker, Ashley Parker Snider, and her husband Tim Snider.

Fess Parker was born in Fort Worth, Texas and grew up in San Angelo.  At 6’ 6”, he grew up to be a Big Tall Texan.  After being drafted into the Navy, Fess was stationed in San Diego.  As was acceptable at the time, he hitchhiked up the coast in his free time, and as Ashley told us, fell in love with the Santa Barbara area.  Ashley went on to tell us that her Dad himself would say that he was not the most diligent of scholars, but finally graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in History.  After moving to Hollywood to pursue an acting career, Fess attended USC working toward a Masters in Theater History.  His acting career started as an extra in the play “Mr. Roberts” in 1951, and soon after found himself on location for “Untamed Frontier” with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters.

Fess caught Walt’s eye during a screening done for him of the movie THEM!  Walt was reviewing the acting of James Arness (you may remember James Arness as Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke) as he had in mind to play the part of Davey Crockett.  Fess had a little part in the movie and the luck that this was the part of the movie which was screened for Walt Disney.  Walt was taken by the sincerity portrayed in this scene featuring Fess, and as all of the panelists agreed, also probably felt that he could get this unknown actor a lot cheaper than the better established Arness at the time.  Almost immediately, Walt signed Fess to a personal 2 year contract.  Not with the studio, but with Walt personally.  Later when Fess retained the services of Ray Stark as his agent, Ray got him out of his personal contract and negotiated a contract with the studio.  Fess, always appreciative of the wonderful advice he received from Mr. Disney, felt that the relationship had somewhat soured some after the contract issue and was disappointed at that possibility.  Years later, while promoting Daniel Boone at NBC, Fess and his wife, ran into Walt and Lillian, also a the same NBC event promoting World of Color, Fess got a tap on the shoulder.  It was Walt, and he wanted to wish him the best of luck with Daniel Boone.  The Parkers and the Disney spent a good deal of the rest of the day in conversation, and Fess was relieved relieved to learn that Walt did not hold any animosity about the contract, because as we were reminded again Fess really did appreciate the opportunities and advice he’d got from Walt.  Eli and Ashley both admitted their Dad’s one frustration with his time at Disney was that he didn’t get the opportunity to play the kind of roles he really wanted to do, and ultimately felt like he was typecast.  One last comment on Fess acting career before we move on to Fess Parker’s other endeavors.  I did not know that the role of McCloud was originally offered to Fess, and Ashley told us that would have been a really problem for her as she had a serious crush on McCloud and Dennis Weaver as a young girl.  She wasn’t sure how that would have worked if her Dad had gotten the role.  Fess was also considered for the role of Jock Ewing in Dallas.  Eli commented that 30 years after his Dad’s last acting gig, Fess was still telling people that he was between pictures.

Fess was always thinking and looking for opportunity.  He could see the possibility when no one else seemed too.  Ashley told us that her Dad’s on real estate disappointment was in a project for some land he owned in northern California.  He just could muster the clout to pull the project off and had to sell out.  The project later became the Silicon Valley.  But Fess did have a knack for real estate developments.  He developed the Double Tree Resort in Santa Barbara along with other real estate holdings.  Fess bought about 23 acres of vineyard in Los Olivos, planning on growing and selling grapes to local wineries.  But, upon discovering his son Elisha’s interest in wine making, the Parker’s went into the wine making business.  We heard a story about a house that the Parker’s had on a hillside cliff overlooking the Pacific.  During some inclement weather part of the cliff fell away and took part of the home with it.  Some time later Fess was asked why he got into the grape growing business, to which he responded, ‘I was homeless and unemployed, seemed like the thing to do.’  Though it seems that Fess was not too handy, we heard a story about a house demolition at the ranch in Santa Maria where Eli was standing off of a porch, with Fess standing under the porch swing a big sledge hammer.  Before Eli could get “DON’T..!!” out of his mouth, Fess had swung the hammer and taken out a column on the porch, with the porch collapsing around him.

Tim, Ashley and Eli all talked about how much Fess enjoyed visiting.  I should probably mention here that during the talk there were pictures of Fess, the winery, and a few family shots scrolling on the screen in the theater.  As a picture of the winery went by, Tim talked about how, during events for the winery’s wine club members, Fess would set up directors chairs out on the lawn and spend about five minutes visiting with each of the club member.  As Ashley put it, “Dad said that they deserved that attention.”  Tim, as Fess’ son-in-law, said that he never felt like Fess would push into anything, he just has that kind of personality that you didn’t want to disappoint him.  Jeff Kurtti asked if this sounded like anyone else.  Ashley’s comment about how her Dad enjoyed visiting crystallized a thought for me and made me realize why I enjoy attending events at the Museum – it’s very much like sitting and visiting when we attend these events.  And I get the feeling that the people who come to visit with us enjoy it as much as we do.

As a kid growing up, Davey Crockett, and Daniel Boone were a couple of my heroes.  It is very comforting to learn that the man that played those characters was as genuine and nice a person in real life.  I know I shouldn’t be surprised, this has been a general theme in all of the events I’ve attended at the Museum.

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peter Pan

Unbeknownst to most people, even the men who really are affected by it, resides a special little place in the male psyche. It probably exists in both sexes, but, I think that the female of our species are given more freedom to acknowledge and express it. Since I claim no special knowledge of the feminine condition, I keep my observations to the guys.
The male being is raised from a very early age to be strong. We learn that public expression of emotion is a sign of weakness, and that success in life comes from being tough. Every effort is made to have us grow up, toughen up, and become men as early as possible. We are taught that we must live in the real world, and it is a cruel place. So, it is no surprise that this little place in our consciousness, of which I speak, gets obscured early in our lives. I think the best description I’ve ever heard is that this is our “inner child”. It is the place where unregulated imagination and complete make-believe lives. We can be or do anything any time, we are invincible, and we have no one to whom we must answer. Even though we often refuse to acknowledge him, he plays out in our lives every day. The list of activities is so vast it defies definition; it is unique to each of us. Be it sitting at our job, day dreaming for a few minutes about what might be, risking our lives in some activity that we know is dangerous, or something as simple as taking our children to a movie, our “inner child” finds ways to express himself, and so often we are completely unaware of his presence. For those of you, who have children, ask yourself the next you take them to a movie; why are you there? If you are honest with yourself, I think you may be a little surprised at the answer.

So now you are asking yourself, how does this have anything to do with Peter Pan, or even with Walt Disney? Well a little over 100 years ago a novelist and playwright, consciously or not, tapped into that place in our hearts, the “inner child”. In 1902 J.M. Barrie brought to life a young mischievous and magical boy whose life was the non-stop adventure of youth. Peter Pan lived his life with abandoned pleasure and happy thoughts secure in the comforting knowledge that he would never have to become a grown up. I don’t know without reservation if that is the wish of every man; though I suspect it true, but I can honestly say that would be my dream. A half century later, another dreamer brought the story to life through animation. As with many Walt Disney animated telling of classic fairy tales, his Peter Pan was told with much of the darkness of the original story excised.

Why am I so drawn to Peter Pan? As I have already said, my infatuation with one Ms. Bell started at a very early age, and I am sure that is one of the tugs I feel for Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan”, but I realized some time ago that there is more. In my twenties and thirties I did the grown up thing, I succumbed to the expectations of society and my peers for me to be the adult male I was suppose to become. I met the love of my life in my twenties. 25 years and two children later, she is still the love of my life and the one constant that has allowed become the person I am today. Even through the struggles that are a part of any life, we’ve had a good life together. Even so, there was something was something missing which for the longest time I eluded my understanding. As I began introspection of my life, a light in the distance began to glow, slowing growing in intensity until it became a clear vision emblazoned on my brain. For a multitude of reasons, I had lost touch with my inner child early in life; more accurately, I had banished him to the nether regions of my existence. In essence, I had settled for the life that others told me was mine. While I tried at every opportunity to better that life, for me and for those I love, it was a life that was the expectations of others, not mine. As the vision crystallized, at first there was anger, anger at the people that had done this to me. Then, finally, a realization that I had allow it to happen to me. It was about this time that my real interest in Walt Disney began flourish. I don’t know if I fully comprehended at the time, but, it was now that I began re-acquaintance with that inner child I had so long ago lost.

Over the last couple of years, my inner child and I have become much better friends, and I have learned that he really is Peter Pan, or at least he wants to be Peter. I’ve also discovered that he and I can peacefully co-exist as long as we remember… We really do need each other. All this because one man had the vision to create a character to whom all, especially men, can relate, and another the vision to tell that story as only he could. Thank you J.M. Barrie and Walt Disney for helping me to make sense of my life.

Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Brother’s Love

What can you say about a Brother’s love, and particularly that of an older brother?

Being the older brother to two kid sisters (okay they’re not kids anymore, and I am certainly not), I can tell you that an older brother’s love knows no bounds. I can’t say how older sisters feel, but I suspect the same idea applies. Okay that may not always the case, but it is generally an accurate statement.

Walt Disney had three older brothers and a younger sister. His two oldest brothers where well on the way to becoming young men when Walt was born, so that left the youngest of his older brothers – Roy Oliver Disney the duty of remaining behind to help his Mother care for his younger brother and sister when Ruth arrived couple years later. It was written that Roy used to push his younger siblings’ pram around, and would watch the two toddlers when needed. From all that I have read, the brothers had a very close relationship. As I wrote early, Walt tried to follow Roy into the military during WWI. When Roy was convalescing in after the war, the brothers kept a steady stream of correspondence flowing. Walt keeping his brother up-to-date on his current business effort, successes, and failures, Roy offering whatever advice he could and few bucks to help him get by, as he knew his young brother was struggling.

I think it was this true brotherly love that help to form the symbiotic relationship between the two as they founded and grew the Studio later. No matter what happened they trust that each had the others back. They were a whole that was honestly greater than the sum of it part. To the point that when Walt past away – way to early – Roy completed his brother final dream in the creation of Walt Disney World, a name that Roy gave the complex after his brother’s passing as a tribute to him. I use the term symbiotic as the best describes the brothers. Walt was without question the creative force behind the company, however, without Roy’s acumen the Walt and company would not have had the resource that where need to create. It is my ardent opinion that Roy Oliver Disney is one of the unsung heroes of the Disney Legacy and success.

Examples of Roy’s business intellect: While it was Walt who was first approached about merchandise licensing, it was Roy’s keen sense to recognize the value of merchandising and it value to the company leading it to become the marketing juggernaut it is today. When Roy found merchandisers who where marketing products with Disney trademarked likenesses, it was Roy and his team who pursued a remedy. More often than not to negotiate with the violator to legally license the product and continue their operation, versus just coming in with a legal injunction to shut down the operation because he understood that negotiating meant a better chance to bring need resources into the company coffers. Roy work tirelessly with banks and bankers, such as A.P. Giannini and his Bank of America, to secure an manage financing for Disney features. To my mind, one of Roy’s most significant accomplishments was the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 1971, the most expensive project in Disney’s history to that time and a fulfillment of his late brother’s legacy. As it sadly turns out, the Magic Kingdom was the final piece of Roy’s own legacy, as he too passed away - shortly after it opened. Walt Disney World came into being under the name Disneyworld; it was at Roy’s insistence that the name became Walt Disney World as a tribute to Walt. In my opinion, one of the most significant business accomplishments came with the opening of the Magic Kingdom. At the park’s opening, the balance Walt Disney Productions balance sheet showed no debt as a result of the construction. A remarkable feat given the construction cost of the Magic Kingdom was about $400,000,000.

The brothers never really encroached on the other domain within the company. Oh sure, there were squabbles between them, so even very heated, usually about money. Walt, while often reminding his staff to the contrary, never paid a lot of attention to the fiscal prudence of his actions, unless he had recently been reminded of the company’s limited resources. Roy recognized his brother’s creativity and understood his goal to create the best product possible, and never tried to interject his view of how the process should be done; only reminding Walt that the company has not an unlimited source of funds. Both acknowledged the need of the other to the success of the company overall.

I think it was the love of the brothers for each other, and to lesser degree the love of what they were creating that laid the real groundwork for the success of the Disney Brothers Studio and what has become the Walt Disney Company today.

Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at