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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Walter Elias Disney, the lesser know man

Before we start to move on past the Walt and Roy period in my Disney history, I want to touch on some things about Walt Disney which are of a less favorable nature, but, I think should at least be reviewed. 

As I was travelling down to Anaheim last week for the first ever Destination D – Disneyland 55, I got my usual time for reflection as my co-pilot, navigator, and chief coffee steward sat snoozing next to me.  Having read Dan Brown’s “Lost Symbol” some time ago, the Apotheosis of Washington suddenly popped into my thoughts.  For those who may not know, there is a painting by Constantino Brumidi visible through the oculus in the dome of the Rotunda in Capitol Building in Washington D.C. called the Apotheosis of Washington done at the end of the Civil War.  The painting depicts George Washington ascension to the heavens to take his place as a god.  This elevation of our first President and Command-In-Chief to a deity in Washington DC, I believe was design to make the man mythic for his miraculous endeavors in the formation of this country, and give added power to those choosing to invoke his name in future endeavors, much as the Apotheosis of Jesus happened at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.

So now that you’re sitting there going HUH?  What the hell does all this have to do with Disney?  It has to do with Disney, I believe, because we have been witnessing, until fairly recently, the apotheosis of Walt Disney.  I don’t think it is necessarily a codified or even a conscious effort.  But, listening to claims and comment of many fan, apotheosis is the effect non-the-less when you hear comments haranguing current Disney management and Imagineering efforts like, “They have a perfect model on how develop a (park, ride, show, etc) left to them by Walt Disney.”  Or, claims that Disney management is only interested in how to make a profit, and that wasn’t Walt’s way, or the Walt wouldn’t cross market like current management.  I could list more, but and review of just about any fan site should garner any number of additional or like comments from multiple different individuals.  These comment support the idea that too many in Disney Fandom, Walt Disney should be consecrated as the Golden God of animation and theme parks.  Walt Disney, while a remarkable and creatively talented Icon of modern history, he is no God, nor should he be viewed as one.  Conversely you can always uncover individuals wishing to demonize iconic figures, weakly tying them distasteful activities through the use of weak claims of evidence and innuendo and insinuation.  This deification and demonization of Walt Disney, has presented, in this author’s mind, a dilemma for the company’s management that has followed the tenure of Walt at the helm, but that will be fodder for discussion later in my process.  For now, let’s look at some of the events in support of my views.

I have read on many fan sites what I would consider a derision of current Disney management.  The conclusion of these individuals is that Walt left the company with a perfect playbook for developing the company and continuing its advancement, and that management is failing for now following it to the letter.  While most of the writers making these claims would probably disagree, I put this comments and claim to be part of the deification process.  Their mistake to me would be their failure to recognize Walt Disney’s failures.  What failures you ask?  Well, if you remember back in an earlier post, both Iwerk-Disney Commercial Artists, and Laugh-O-Grams were failed businesses.  Walt lost Oswald and many artists to Universal Studios.  MGM refused distribute Mickey Mouse in 1927.  In 1940 the making of Pinocchio cost so much money that it lost 1 million dollars in its initial release, and Walt Disney never lived to see Fantasia become a success, to mention just few.   I think Disneyland could be classified as a “Grand Failure”, as it was never quite what Walt wanted to be, he was constantly looking to change it.  While every Imagineering Legend I’ve heard speak say that you never wanted to disappoint Walt, it is my opinion, listening to these people talk, the only real failure in Walt’s eyes was failing to try.  I have had the pleasure of listening to Disney Legend Marty Sklar speak on a couple of occasions.  Each time I have heard him claim that Walt Disney was a master casting director.  He always seemed to know just who to assign to a project to get the most creativity.  And I have heard others say that you never wanted to tell Walt that you couldn’t do it out of the gate, it was a sure way to never get another assignment.  These are not the traits of a God, at least not in any realm that I understand the concept.

As for those who wish to demonize the man, just Google “Walt Disney Conspiracy.”  You may be surprised.  I not sure why, but I was… Walt Disney was a Master Mason.  Not sure why this is a bad thing, except that conspiracy theorists have been trying to hang the ills of mankind on the Freemason for decades.  As I explained in an earlier article, there is enough evidence to support a conclusion that Walt was a Freemason.  He was a member of DeMolay (an organization with Mason connections), and his brother Roy claimed to be a Mason at one time.  The address of Disneyland at 1313 Harbor Blvd and the private club in Disneyland being Club 33 are curious, as 13 33 are numbers of symbolic significance to the Masons, but that does not constitute proof of Walt’s membership in this fraternal order.  Short of actual evidence, any claims of Walt’s association with the Freemasons will be speculative at best.  But then, that is the nature of most conspiracies.  To go along with the Freemason conspiracies, we can find claims that Walt Disney was an Illuminati Master involved with mind control experiments.  Complete speculation, in my opinion, derived from fertile if not deluded minds.  But again, given a loose Masonic connection and a seeming joy that some in our society apparently find in destroying public images, it is not a real surprising attempt to draw a negative conclusion design to denigrate a societal icon.  Since the advent of the world wide web, the free flow of information (verified or not) has been taking place at break neck speed, and as we have seen (and I will discuss next) we have seen that a well design “journalistic” piece (even if slanted or false) can be used effectively to paint an effective negative picture of people or events.  Such tactics have most definitely use on one Mr. Disney.

In an attempt to maintain some objectivity, I feel duty bound as a researcher to at least address a few of the more negative claims about Walt Disney which anyone can find on the internet.  These claims go to show, one that Walt was very human, and did some things which he probably shouldn’t have done.   But, I think these things have been presented in a manner designed to present Walt Disney in the worst light possible.  The particular piece I am basing most of this section on is Walt Disney “Secret Lives” which can be found as a 6 part series (of less than 10 minutes each) on You Tube and appears to have been produced in the mid 90’s.  This ‘documentary’ starts with an opening leading the viewer to believe that Walt Disney had a dark side unknown to most.  The first interviewee is none other than Bill Melendez of “Peanuts” fame.  Mr. Melendez opens with a statement that Walt Disney was in real live, very much unlike the public image of “Uncle Walt” and was a “rascal” who did many reprehensible things.  He goes on to make statements about Walt’s lack of artistic talent (a claim also made by the narrator at the beginning) and Walt’s refusal to give credit to his artists and animators.  It appears to me that the producers of this show, were attempting to put Mr. Melendez forward as a Disney expert, yet as far as I can tell, Bill Melendez spent only about 5 years at the Disney studio from 1937 to 1941, before he left for other endeavors.  And, there is nothing that I can find too indicate why he left Disney so soon after he arrived?

What I am going to write next is probably going to irritate many Peanuts or Charles Schultz fans and probably Bill Melendez fans.  That is not my intent; the Peanuts gang has been an important and enjoyable part of my life since early boyhood.  I think most guys relate to the challenges of adolescences depicted by Charlie Brown.  So while I am an unapologetic Disney fan, I too am a Peanuts fan.  As such, I must question Bill Melendez’s motivations for the comments he made in Walt Disney “Secret Lives”.  One wonders why Mr. Melendez left the Disney studio, and I would suspect from the comments he made that they were not on the most favorable grounds in his mind.  Having invested much time watching animated works (new and old) and of late with a much more critical eyes, I can say comfortably from my perspective that Bill Melendez’s animation (as represented in the Peanuts cartoons) is very stylistically different than most of what I have witnessed from the Disney studio.  I have also interacted with many artists of various disciplines over the years, and the one thing I have seen consistently is personalities that tend to be ego driven, and particularly where their own works are in question.  To that end, I found it interesting when doing some research on Bill Melendez that the NNDB website’s profile on him has a comment that claims, Charles Schultz (who passed away in 2000) had expressed his wishes that no more Peanuts special be produced after his passing, yet Melendez continued to produce them, claim inspiration from older Peanuts comic strips.  All of this would leave me to wonder if Mr. Melendez might have been encouraged to pursue opportunities at places other than Disney, and none too pleased to have his artistic endeavors critiqued by an individual (Walt Disney) whose talents he most likely considered inferior to his own?  It should also be noted that Bill Melendez was at the Disney studio during a time of developing conflict between Walt Disney, his animators, and the fledgling unionization efforts, and that a union shop would be more favorable to the younger developing animators.

With regards to Walt Disney’s alleged failure to give credit to his artists and animators for the work and claims that he stated, “if there are any awards to be given, I’ll receive them,” it is my understanding that the artists and animators where given on screen credit for the contribution, and that promotions to position of increased responsibility were often given to those who excelled.  As to the awards, I will only note that I never heard Walt Disney claim that his failures were the result of his employees’ short comings, nor have I heard an account of any of these employees coming forward and claim responsibility for any of these failures.  So, it would seem reasonable that he receive any award for the company’s accomplishments, and it should also be remember that in the public’s view Walt Disney the man, and Walt Disney the company were indistinguishable to most people.  I also think that Walt Disney had an innate understanding of human psychology.  I believe it shows it presence in his choice of stories to tell, and the way he choice to tell them.  I believe it also manifested it presence in the way he put together his project teams and talents, and that he understood that a project’s success was truly a team effort.  So it appears, at least to me, that he may have believe that it was better for him to be the company’s lightening rod for both good and bad, in an effort to minimized individual competitive efforts within the team that often accompanies efforts to recognized individual achievement in a team environment.

Next, let spend a little time discussing the studio unionization and strike in 1941, also discussed in Walt Disney “Secret Lives”.  Unions in the 30’s and 40’s were making significant inroads into American labor, in many cases where corporate management had been exhibiting abusive and exploitive labor policies, some for many decades.  The fallout, as is the case with many movements like this one, is that some of the organizers of labor unions become as abusive and exploitive as the organizations they are advocating to control, and that often good companies got caught up in the melee.  From the best of my research the Disney studio was probably one of those good companies caught up in a difficult time.  The accounts I have found indicate that Disney paid one of the best wages in the industry at the time, and paid for additional training of its artists and animators.  From what I have read, and recording of Walt that you can listen to at the Walt Disney Family Museum, he thought of the studio as more of a family, even though it’s success had forces it to grow beyond that family feeling small business.  It also sounds like Walt was not opposed to a union and representation for his people, as long as that was what the majority of they wanted to create, and from some accounts, the studio did have an in-house governance group well before the unionization efforts.  Disney wanted a vote from his people, and was willing to abide by their decision.  Herbert (Herb) Sorrell, the union organizer, fearing a loss in any vote, chose to strike inside, according to published claims.  Understanding a little about group dynamics (an idea not lost on Mr. Sorrell either), I believe many of the Disney employees who did not favor unionization also feared the ridicule and repercussions that might be forthcoming if they crossed the picket lines, and so chose the latter.  After the union issue was finally settle (during Walt’s trip to South America), and feeling somewhat betrayed it appears that there was a house cleaning of the individuals Walt felt were the ring leaders of the betrayal.   Interestingly, in context with my two previous paragraphs, Bill Melendez was among the people who left during this period.  While there is no direct evidence, which I am aware, that Mr. Melendez was in fact one of the union supporters, his departure does give one pause to contemplate his comment some 50 years later.

Finally, the last piece to address from the documentary, and a point that may have helped to elicit the “reprehensible” comment from Mr. Melendez, is Walt Disney’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)where he names people he believes to be communist.  While the HUAC has been proven, over time, became a government witch-hunt, I don’t believe that you can fault everyone who chose to testify before the committee or the early motivations of the committee given the circumstances of the time.  We have all seen representations or heard accounts of those days and the actions of some committee members where the order of the day was guilt by association, and indeed, some thought there was a communist behind every tree.  However, I have read Walt Disney’s testimony in 1947 before the committee (there is a link above) and I didn’t find anything in his answers that I would consider indicative of his was being vindictive for calculated to deliberately do damage anyone who stood against him.  If you read the testimony, you find that he did actually name anyone as a communist.  His answers indicated that he thought Herbert Sorrell was communist and that if he wasn’t, he should be considered one.  Two of the names mentioned in the testimony were of Sorrel associates and representatives.  This may be an attempt at “guilt-by-association”, but Disney testimony does not directly or purposefully draw that conclusion.  The one person Walt named as a communist, in his opinion, was done so with what he felt was evidence, albeit circumstantial, and I have seen lives destroyed by far less. 

This documentary, while employing notable and respected Disney Biographer, Bob Thomas, to lend an aire of reasoned thought, was presented by an unseen and unidentified narrator, two former Disney animators, and another Disney biographer (Not Bob Thomas) of questionable intent.  I would personally like to see all the footage shot to see what was left out and how it might have been manipulated to represent an inaccurate as possible of Walt Disney.

I have no delusion that Walt Disney was anything more than a man, subject to the same temptations and emotions of anyone.  He was not perfect, he was not infallible, and he was certainly not a god.  He was a masterful storyteller, an inquisitive innovator, and a keen judge of talent, who parlayed his talents into an amazing body of work.  It is an unfortunate by-product of success that there are those who will attempt to diminish success and achievement in any way possible for their own ego gratification. 

I will forever, view Walt Disney as an amazingly creative genius, whose creations have brought a great deal of pleasure into 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

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