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 firstname.lastname@example.org