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Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: In Service to the Mouse

Back in July of last year, I, along with some friends and family of the Walt Disney Family Museum, got the opportunity to spend and couple of hours on two afternoons with Disney luminaries on the occasion of Disneyland 55 anniversary.  One of those Disney luminaries was Disney Legend Jack Lindquist.  Jack was hired as Disneyland first advertising manager and spent the next 38 years developing and implementing some of the most creative and memorable marketing campaigns in the Disney Theme Parks’ history.  Activities such as Grad Night at Disneyland, and The 30th anniversary: Gift Giver Extraordinaire were Jack’s creations.  Jack retired from the company as President of the Disneyland amusement park in 1993, received a window on Main Street, actually on the City Hall Building.  “J.B. Lindquist – Honorary Mayor of Disneyland.  Jack of all trades, Master of Fun,” and was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1994.  So on that joyful day, July 17, 2010, the 55th anniversary of Disneyland, we got to enjoy Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, and former Disneyland Presidents Matt Ouimet, and Jack Lindquist trade stories back and forth, and answer questions about Walt Disney and Disneyland.

So when I discovered Jack Lindquist was writing his memoires of his 38 years “In Service to the Mouse,”  it had to go on my reading list.  I've got to tell you how pleased I am that I did…  First, like most Disney or Disney related or inspired activities, the people distributing Jack’s book are top notch.  Since I wanted a signed copy, I ordered my copy from the Neverland Media LLC website (click side bar link for more information).  About a day after ordering, I got confirmation that my order shipped, and then received another very nice email the next day, informing me that there had been an error, and an unsigned copy was mistakenly shipped.  I was free to keep the unsigned copy, and that the signed edition would be on its way to me shortly.  The issue was resolved before I even knew one existed. KUDOS!!!  So now I have a signed copy to keep in pristine collector’s condition, and second working copy which I can read and re-read as often as I like…

Having just completed this tome, I have to say that “In Service to the Mouse” is a must read for any Disney Aficionado, especially those interested in the history of Disneyland and the Disney company.  Jack was there at Disneyland’s beginning.  It is a rare first hand account of what goes go behind the scenes at one of the most iconic companies operating today.  The stories are told in short little vignettes where Jack entertainingly recalls events and activities provides insights not know to very many during his tenure with the Disney Company.  I won’t reveal the stories here, if you want to know, please go pick up the book.  But, I will say that I found the unique and enterprising gin delivery system deployed during one Grad Night quite entertaining.  And, as a miniature Partners statue greets me every morning (the most prized item in my Disney collection), it warms my heart to know that Jack Lindquist played a role in bringing that amazing sculpture into reality.  The adventures and agonies of creating the Pavilions of World Showcase at Epcot are both enlightening and entertaining, and Jack provides a very honest, insightful and humanizing view of the management of a company that has becoming so iconic in today’s culture.

This may sound trite, but I laughed at parts, and cried at others.  However, foremost, I learned things I didn’t know about an organization which has become the gold standard in entertainment today.

Thank You Jack!

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A profile of Ron Miller

Ronald William “Ron” Miller was introduced to Diane Disney on a blind date while he was attending USC, where he played left-end on the football team.  After dating for awhile and with the approval of Diane’s parents they were married on May 9th 1954 in Santa Barbara.  Shortly after marrying, Ron was draft into the Army.  Diane related a story one evening at the Museum that, at her father’s request, she was even there on Disneyland’s opening day.  She was at Fort Ord, in Monterey, where Ron was stationed at the time.  The Miller’s have seven children, Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, Walter, Ronald, and Patrick.  Walter being named after his Grandfather – Walter Elias Disney Miller.

After leaving the military, Ron played a season of professional football for the Los Angeles Rams as a tight-end.  Walt attended two games, seeing his son-in-law get pretty seriously laid out on the field.  Ron related one incident where he was laid out cold in the 1st quarter and didn’t wake up until the 3rd.  Walt was pretty sure Ron was going to wind up dead or worse crippled playing pro football, and recommended that Ron come to work for him.  Ron took him up on the offer and went to work at Walt Disney Production as a production assistant.  His first job as a PA was to pick up Tommy Kirk from the studio and deliver him to the location set for old yeller.  Ron learned the movie business from the ground up from his father-in-law, becoming a director, and producer (assistant to executive).  He rose through the company ranks to the position of President in 1980 and Chief Executive Officer in 1983.  Only to be ousted in 1984 by his cousin-in-law, Roy E. Disney, in favor of having the team of Eisner and Wells come in to run the company.

I’ve heard many claims that Ron Miller was an inept manager, and that the studio was bleeding cash from many failures at the box office, and that this was what led to his ouster.  I have found this information on several fan boards, where you can find a wealth of personal opinion on the anything Disney but a real dearth value and accurate data on this particular era in Disney History.  Ron was in the top executive leadership positions of the Walt Disney Productions for a very short time, President for about 4 years, and the top spot - CEO for a about a year. Let’s look at some of the accomplishments of Ron Miller during his very short tenure as President and even shorter term as CEO:

To start with, in 1980 Walt Disney Home Entertainment had its first releases, with Dumbo being the first animated release in 1981.  Disney had its first co-produced picture with Paramount Pictures – Popeye in 1980.  Epcot opened in 1982 with Tokyo Disneyland opening the next, and the Disney Channel, the cable network concept that began in 1977 and was announced in 1981, finally launched in 1983.  But the two events of 1983 and 1984 that I think laid a significant foundation for TWDC and Eisner’s early successes when he came in as CEO and Chairman of the Board, were the creation of Touchstone Films in 1984 and Silver Screen Partners in 1983.

Touchstone Films, later to be renamed Touchstone Pictures was created to the Disney Studios to create films that catered to an different audience then the traditional Disney animated and family friendly fare.  Disney’s earlier attempts to release movies targeted toward more adult audiences under the Disney banner failed to perform even marginally well at the box office, since audiences expected something different from Walt Disney.  With the other studios unencumbered by the expectation of producing a particular film genre, they had a pretty significant advantage competing for the audiences of the period.  While I rather doubt the hyperbolic claims that the Walt Disney Studio was hemorrhaging cash, the financial data doesn’t support this contention.  But, if the studio was losing money, it very well could have been the partially the result of releasing these adult oriented films under Walt Disney Pictures.  One also has to wonder if the movies had any negative impact on the normal stable of movies from Disney because of audience confusions.  Creation of the Touchstone label gave the Walt Disney Productions more options.

Silver Screen Partners is a Limited Partnership created to provide financing and ownership for movies of Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone.  After associated offering cost and fees, the public offering raised $74 million available for investment in films.  Seven films were produced with Silver Screen Partners investment funds.  Flashpoint, released 8/31/1985, Heaven Help Us, 2/8/85, Volunteers, 8/16/85, Sweet Dreams, 10/2/85, Head Office, 1/3/86, The Hitcher, 2/21/86. And Odd Jobs, 3/7/86.  Total investment from the partnership for these pictures was $73.8 million.  I can’t find box office figures for the first and last film, but the middle 5 grossed about $45 million.  Giving more credit than if probably due, and assuming a simple average of the other 5, I’ll estimate the box office for the first and last of about a rather generous $8.1 million.  I only do this to demonstrate that, with a rather generous estimate, these films grossed about $61 million, well short of the $73.8 million invested.  One might look at this as an abject failure, however, from Walt Disney Productions’ perspective this was a win.  Disney got to produce these movies, on the chance they would be box office smashes, without having their resources or income statement, on the line.  Why was this possible?  While I haven’t done a detail investigation of SSP, I suspect that it was formed to take advantage of tax codes of the period.  Now with a bit of tip to my proletariat upbringing, these tax codes allow people with too much money to invest in activities suspected to be losing ventures, what we all know are tax shelters.  This limited partnership was successful enough from TWDC point of view that the partnership saw an SSP II, III, and IV offered, and stayed active until the tax laws changed in 1998.  There will be more on this in future articles about the next period in Disney history.  But for now, I think Ron Miller deserves a great deal more credit for laying a solid foundation for his successors’ and the company’s financial success in his short 4 years at the helm, instead of the bashing he seems to take among uninformed detractors that he was inept or ineffective as Disney President of CEO.  Would the Eisner/Wells team have succeeded so quick, had Ron taken a different coast before he was deposed?  I don’t think so.

Then there was the greenmail and corporate raid that was being attempted in 1984 by investor Saul Steinberg, with the intention of breaking up the company and selling off the pieces.  Roy E. resigned his board position and mounted his first “Save Disney” campaign leading to Ron’s ouster and replacement with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells at the head of the company.  Again this takeover attempt is touted by many as evidence of Ron’s ineffectiveness in leadership and a failing company.  While this may be a popular notion of corporate raids, fostered by movies like Pretty Woman and Wall Street, the truth in this case is that the Disney Company was worth more in separate pieces than as a whole operation.  The studio was probably being the weakest performer at the time, not surprisingly because Ron’s initiatives to correct the studio’s performance issues had only recently been instituted and yet to produce any real results.  Again, I have to challenge whether Eisner and Wells would have been able to enact their “turn around” strategies as successfully without Touchstone and SSP in place upon their arrival.  So, the takeover attempt was not a result of a failing company, but rather, and solid success company experiencing a momentary downturn and undervaluation in the market.  Those conditions create a perfect and prime target for corporate raiders.

I would content the Ron was a victim, so to speak, of his own success, not the inept or ineffective leader, as many claim.  It is impossible to say now, but, it is my opinion that The Walt Disney Company we all know today would not exist today with the actions of Ron Miller back in the earlier 80’s.  He deserves far more credit the he is receiving 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

Company History – The Next Chapter

Let spend some discussing what brought the Walt Disney Company to current incarnation.

Sadly, we have reached a point where our two founding fathers or brothers in this case, have passed on.  Walt Disney in 1966, while planning for his next great adventure in Florida, and Roy O. Disney in 1971,  shortly after completely the first installment of his brother’s dreams for Florida.

In 1968 Donn Tatum was promoted to the position of President at Walt Disney Productions (later to become the Walt Disney Company), it appears that Donn shared the duties of President with Roy O until his death in 1971.  This would make sense, as Roy was busy bringing Walt Disney World’s first park, The Magic Kingdom, from dream to reality.  I imagine Donn was more responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Company as a whole, but there is a void in the information available for the Disney Company during this period.  Upon Roy death in 1971, Donn ascended to the top leadership role for, the then, Walt Disney Productions, become the CEO and Chairman of the Board, with Esmond Cardon “Card” Walker assuming the post of President.  Prior to becoming President Card served as Executive Vice President and COO. When Donn retired in 1976 Card assumed the role of CEO, with Ronald W. Miller, Walt Disney’s Son-In-Law, ascending to the position of President a few years later, in 1980, and the CEO in 1983 upon Card Walkers retirement.  Donn Tatum remained Chairman of the Board until 1980, with Card Walker holding the position from 1980 until 1983.   Ron Miller never achieved the COB position, and with a major shake-up, and some family strife, was ousted from all leadership responsibilities in favor of the incoming management team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.  More on the Eisner/Wells era later.

Unfortunately, there is not a much else to be said factually about the Disney history for the years 1972 through 1984.  Apparently, Donn Tatum and Card Walker, who have both passed on, did not leave memoires and the time at Disney, and no one has been able to get Ron Miller to sit down and talk while he is still with us.

Note for Ron Miller if you happen to read this…  I would love to be the person you sit down with to relate your Disney experiences too, but please, do sit down with someone.  You are an amazing person, and an invaluable well of information for a period in the Disney history where little is available now.

So unless TWDC (The Walt Disney Company) green lights a book or access to the Archives for a book on the Disney history of this era, there is not much information available to do a reasonable assessment of this period, and we’ll need to examine the rumor and innuendo that have become the pseudo-facts of the period, trying to make some sense of the period.  I have tried to piece together a coherent analysis of the period with the extremely limited information available.

The couple of actual facts we can address are, one, there were 58 feature movies released between 1972 and 1983, and three of which were animated.  In comparison there were 60 features released in the preceding 11 year period, with 4 being animated.  No significant difference there, but, I think it should be noted that with film production schedule taken into consideration, some of the movies released during the early Tatum/Walker period began production during the preceding management’s reign, as well as movies released in the early Eisner era were green-lit during his predecessor’s administration.  Since I have been unable to find any consistent or reliable financial documentation online to assess individual film success, I’m am left to assume for now that the financial success of film released between 1972 and 1988 is relatively comparable to the period of 1960 to 1971.  I have heard claims on a few fan boards that the Disney Studio was hemorrhaging cash during the time that Ron Miller was president, but I can’t find evidence to support that claim, and the historical stock price for that period do not support that contention either.  In 1984, before his departure, Ron Miller is credited with creating the Touchstone label to allow the Studio to get into the productions of movies not normally associated with the Disney name.  Touchstone’s first release was the resounding success, Splash.

During Card Walker time as CEO, Epcot opened at Walt Disney World as its second gate, at a cost estimated to be between 800 million and 1.4 billion dollars.  While Epcot never approached the level of Walt Disney’s original concept for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), I think Epcot along with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland the following year, and the recreation of Touchstone really set the stage for the creation of the entertainment mega-corporation known today as The Walt Disney Company (TWDC).

Before we start looking at what became TWDC a few years after Ron Miller, the last Disney family member. left the executive management of Walt Disney Productions.  It should probably be noted that Roy E. Disney, Roy O’s son, had, in 1977, resigned the board position he’d held since 1967 and left the company.  But, I’ll be doing a more in depth profile of Roy E in a later posting.  But for now, what lead to Ron’s departure?

Since I don’t have memoirs or other documentation of the period to know exactly what happened, I’ve got to use more subjective information.  Fortunately, the best I could find is pretty good.  I was able to find historical stock price information from 1962 to present.  While it doesn’t tell you what was going on, fluctuation in closing prices and timing to known events can give you a pretty good idea.  With a split adjusted price of about $37 a share in January 1962, the stock rose to a price of about $100 a share in October of 1967.  This would indication to most analysts that the company’s financial performance was good.  In Oct ’67 the company announced to 2 for 1 stock split.  For those who may not be financial savvy, that would give each shareholder one additional share of stock for each one he or she owned before the split.  The value of your holding doesn’t change, just the number of shares you own.  Shares are revalued to account for the new shares available, so a stock valued at $100 before a split would now be worth $50 post split.  I only point this out because I have seen analysis done by untrained individuals that conclude a serious financial problem when witnessing a significant drop in stock price related to a split.   So through the end of the 60’s the stock continued to do quite well, and another 2 for 1 stock split occurred in March of 1971.  This is fairly easy to assess this we know several fact of the period.  Shortly before his death in 1966, Walt Disney announced the acquisition of several 1000’s of acres in central Florida, about 27,000 acres, which has grown to almost 33,000 today.

With the major addition to the corporate balance sheet created by the land acquisition, Walt and Roy’s penchant for proving financial people wrong, and the prospect of the associated increase in future earnings, it is relatively easy to understand why the stock continued to rise into the early 1971, even with the passing of one of the founders, and creative force behind the company earlier successes.  Armed with Walt’s plans, Roy was able to muster the creative forces Walt had developed be bring an east coast Disney experience to life, and the company was rewarded amply for the effort in increased stock value.  Even though Roy O passed away shortly after the Magic Kingdom open at Walt Disney World, the success of the park provided for the company’s performance to continue to increase stock value, and another 2 for 1 stock split occurred in January 1973.

After the 73’ stock split, the stock dropped to a low of $19 in beginning of December 1974.  As memory serves, we were in a recession around that timeframe, created by the 1973 oil crisis and the costs from waning gasps of the Vietnam War.  So, barring actually documentation to the contrary, one would assume that this recession, coupled with nothing in the way of significant advancement from the company, was the majority contributory factor to this decline in stock value.  Tracking Disney stock prices against the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) of the time we can see a direct correlation, with Disney actually performing better than the Dow on several occasions.  This would lead me to conclude that, while there were no really significant positive corporate events that would elevate stock prices during this period, there were also no negative events as well.  Much like any sitting President of the United States gets credit or blame for current events that are really outside of his (one day soon I’ll have to use the his/her describer) control, the same often befalls the presidents and CEO’s of corporate organizations.  Stock prices is one of those items considered to be under a CEO’s controlled, even though these stock values are as much controlled by the current global economic conditions, as by a company’s executive leader.

So now we move to the rift that led to a family to a Disney family split. 

In 1977, Roy E. Disney left the company, citing poor product quality and issues with manager as his motivation, but did maintain his board position.  So, he was not there for day-to-day operations when Cousin-In-Law Ron Miller became President in 1980.  One does wonder if Roy may not have been in line for that promotion, had he stayed.  With the company, his Father and Uncle founded, was facing a corporate raid and greenmail attempt in 1984, Roy from the Board of Director in 1984, a position he’d held since 1967, to launch his first “Save Disney campaign, citing lack of creative quality, poor use of company resources as his reasons for pursuing an ouster of current management – his cousin-in-law, Ron.  The campaign which was successful, led to the installation of the Eisner/Wells team as the new management team.

In our next blogisode, we’ll profile Ron Miller, who in my opinion is probably the least appreciated of the Disney company leaders.

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