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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Special Walt Disney Family Museum Event

I have been in rapt anticipation for the last month awaiting the arrival of September 17th.  So much so, I would gladly trade a week at Disneyland for the few hours I was about to spend at the Walt Disney Family Museum.  So, it was up early, over to the gas station to fill up the car for the 50 mile trek to San Francisco, and then on the road to the Museum.  Several times during the trip up, and at the Museum waiting for the event, Pam told, “You can stop grinning any time now.”  No I couldn’t, the grin was the only way I could control my racing heart and anticipation!   J

Maybe I should back up a bit.  Tickets first went on sale for this event on August 1st.  There was a call in number, but I thought they would also be sold online as usual.  I was wrong, and by the time I realized I was wrong… POOF, all the tickets were gone!  Fortunately, the Museum withheld a few tickets to be sold online on August 11th.  On that Thursday morning, I started to stalk the Museum website, even though tickets were not scheduled to go on sale until noon.  Logged into the ticket sales site, I would click on the calendar button, at about 10 minute intervals, to see if the calendar had gone active.  This activity culminated with a continuous loop of checking the calendar starting at about 5 minutes before the announced sales time.  When the calendar came up, I POUNCED!!!  Luckily, I got two tickets for the event.  I say luckily because I was told later that the online tickets were gone in 30 seconds.  I tell you all this only to stress just how much I wanted to attend this particular event, and that I was not alone in my desires.

So what kind of an event at the Museum could cause so much buzz and expectation?  None other than a one of kind event, really never experienced before by Disney fans; “Our Grandpa – Walt Disney.”

Yes, for the first time ever, 5 of Walt Disney’s grandchildren (Ron and Diane Miller’s children) gathered at the Museum to talk about their Grandpa and their memories of him with a public audience.  To some this may not be seen to be a big deal, but when you understand that the Miller family, as a whole, is a group of individuals who would rather keep their lives private, and with the exception of Walter Elias Disney Miller, most people probably never even realize there was relationship connection.  These are not people (that goes for their parents as well) who have searched out fame or notoriety because of their iconic relative.  They have not trade on the Disney name for their own gain.  They have stay in the background while the Museum, created truly to showcase the legacy of Walt Disney, is gaining in popularity.  So why now, after all these years, are they coming forward?  First, by doing this through the Museum that bears their Grandfather’s name, they could be relatively assured that they would be in front of an audience of true Walt Disney fans, who can understand their desires to remain private people, while still wanting to share these memories.  Second, as I have written in my research, there is still far too much mean spirits misinformation and myth perpetuated about Walt Disney.  This was a chance to experience and understand Walt in some of his most intimate moments with his grandkids.

The day start with our arrival at the Museum at about 11:30, and being met at the door by Trish, one the many volunteers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the last couple of years.  We stood and talked about the recent D23 Expo, as she had not been able to attend, and we expressed our excitement for today’s event.  Spent a few minutes at the front desk in the lobby, talking with a couple others Museum people, and got to do a bit of a good deed for the day.  At my Museum membership level, I get several free guest passes for the gallery each year.  This year I still had a few passes that were going to expire in a couple of weeks, so I left me at the desk to be given out to the next few guests coming to the Museum today.  I do enjoy sharing my Disney passion with others.  Next, it was into the Gift Shop to look for new things.  Pam had fun shopping!  J

I then met up with my Museum buddy Leo, who had arranged a meet up for the Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum Facebook members.  I was helping him with handing out a small keepsake he had made up for the occasion, for those Facebook members who had confirmed their attendance, along with a some of Museum staffers.  It is a nice button with Walt’s picture on it, the name of the event, along with the date and location.  After the first few got handed out, and people were wearing them, many others started querying where they could get one.  We hung out in the lobby, across the way from the case that houses some of Walt’s Oscar awards, until about 2 o’clock and I got to say Hi! to old friends and meet some new one. Leo, you already know this, but the buttons were a big hit.  Thanks you for your thoughtfulness and letting me help out.  A little after 2 I head out to find Pam and head down stair to the theater lobby.  When I didn’t see Pam where I had left her, I assumed she had gone ahead and went downstairs on her own.  I love my wife!!!  When I walked into the lobby, there she was smiling at me, at the front of the line.  She’d managed to beat Heather to the front, something we rarely do.  J  As we waited for the theater to open the lobby filled to capacity with the line eventually out the door again, but it was still, as always, fun visiting and catching up with the guests, staff, and volunteers I’ve met through the Museum.  A little before 3 the doors opened and we were ushered into the theater.  As first in, we had our choice of just about any seat in the room, yup… front row just about center.

At a little after 3, Donna came down front to welcome us, do her house keeping spiel and remember to introduce herself as she’d forgotten in all her excitement, and introduce the moderator for this afternoon event – Jeff Kurtti.  Jeff probably didn’t need an introduction to anyone in room today; he has down several other sessions at the Museum, and was closely involved with the Museum’s design and content.  As well as being a Disney Historian and prolific author on the Disney story with over 30 books published.  Jeff welcomed to the Museum for and a small explanation of Grandparents’ Day, which really occurred the week before, but was sorely though understandably overshadowed by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and a very most appropriate acknowledgement given this day’s event.  Jeff introduced each of the of his guests on the dais today with a childhood photo on the screen behind him and the reading of a excerpt from one of Walt’s letters to his Aunt Jessie or his sister Ruth announcing the arrival of his most recent grandchild, first Chris, born in 1954, next Joanna – 1956, then Tamara – 1957, now Jennifer – 1960, and finally Walter – 1961.  The Miller’s two other children, Ron Jr. – 1963 and Patrick – 1967, were not with us today.  Given their births proximity to Walt’s passing, they probably have little or no memory of their Grandpa.  The one thing I notice when each one walked out was that slight apprehension in their eyes and step as they took their seats, the one of being a shy and a little scared about what they were about reveal, and giving up just a little bit of their private lives.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I found it endearing and a testament to the unrehearsed reality of which we were about to partake.

While I’m will touch on what I feel were comment that had some importance to me, I am not going provide a litany of the questions asked and answers given, but more a feelings and emotions these responses invoked in me.  While I enjoy and learn something at each of the events at the Museum, I have found that one of the side benefits, particularly at events that touch more on Walt’s personal life, is that they invoke fond memories of my childhood.

One of the early questions was about their perception of Walt personality as seen by the public and what they witnessed in Grandpa at home.  As children, they say the Grandpa they saw in public wasn’t any different than the Grandpa at home or in other private settings, he was always Grandpa.  Joanna remembered the kids going up to the TV and giving Grandpa a kiss when they saw him; though Chris didn’t recall them ever do that while Grandpa was actually sitting in the room with them.   Joanna even recalled friends of her saying that they did the same thing which she thought was a little strange since he wasn’t their Grandpa.  I am in the same age range of Walt’s earliest grandchildren, so I can relate, though I don’t recall kissing Walt on the screen myself, but in that moment I was overcome by the same warm feeling that I felt as a child, lying on the carpet of Grandparents’ living room watching “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”  To this day, hearing the opening music for or seeing the opening sequence, is one of the things that transports me back to that time of cherished memories of my Grandpa (the man whose name I bear and also a Walter) and Nana.

In recalling their memories of their Grandpa as children, I was not surprised to learn that all the grandchildren felt loved and cherished by the Grandparents and always felt that Walt was present and enjoying them being there, even he was working on things that he brought home from the studio.  Even at Disneyland, while he was very approachable to his guests, he wanted his grandkids to have fun too.  We’ve all heard, well at least I have, the stories about Walt not signing his autograph for guests because he couldn’t do the way it appeared on TV.  It didn’t surprise me to learn from the grandkids that he would stuff his pocket with signed piece of paper, in particular when they were there with him, and that would sign a few autographs for guests, and then start handing out the ones he had in his pocket, so that he could get along and let his grandkids have their fun.  It was also telling to me when Joanna recalled Grandpa talking casually with the young kid running the Monorail, and the conversations being warm and friendly.  Again, the Walt we saw publicly was very much the same Grandpa they saw privately.

One thing I applaud in Jeff approach was how deftly he acknowledged some of the darker claims and public myths about Walt Disney, with sensitivity and not dwelling on them.  Like the hurtful questions to grieving children asking if their Grandpa was really frozen.  5 year old Walter’s retort was absolutely precious when ask if his Grandpa was frozen, “Is your Grandpa frozen?”  A brilliant answer, he you want my opinion.  Joanna did touched on how our media today treats living celebrities, so it not really surprising how Walt Disney is treated, even if it is hurtful.  I too, will not dwell long in this arena, I have written on before in this Blog.  I will only say, if you read something negative about Walt Disney, or anyone for that matter, please check the facts careful.  It has been my experience in fact checking my Walt Disney research that there are few in any facts that support the negative claims, and the few facts there don’t really support any of the atrocious claims being made.  And so, now moving on.

As the session went along, I was constantly struck how normal and down to earth these children of celebrity are today.  On this day we could see a bit of, as Joanna proclaimed, their shyness.  I could clearly see the humility and caring of their upbringing by their parents and grandparents.   Here they sat, sharing with us some of their most intimate memory, and you could see the little hesitations as they each decides how much of their privacy they were willing to sacrifice to share a thought.  Because, after all, that is what they were doing, forfeiting a little bit of privacy and laying themselves a bit more vulnerable with each memory shared.  Joanna shared with us a little chamber pot decorated with Disney character which she received when her son was born, as, a few left at the studio when he was born.  But years earlier, these were not gifts for select individuals, but rather, a gift Walt gave to each of his employees upon the birth of a child.  Joanna also share a moment in her life when she was feeling a bit spoiled by all the wonderful gifts she received at the holidays from Grandpa, until attending a holiday event at the studio and witnessed all of the children of studio personnel receiving a similar treasure trove of gift from her Grandpa.  This was then that she started to understand and appreciate her Grandpa’s true generosity.

When the conversation turned to other celebrities the grandkids were star struck by, the name Dick Van Dyke immediately came to almost everyone’s’ lips.  Walter said how he is to this day tongue-tied when he is around Dick.  Jeff took a moment to comment on how Dick Van Dyke, with all his success before Disney, held out his greatness praise and admiration for the chances he felt Walt was taking on him, and his true appreciation of the man.  Throughout the session, the Vancouver vacation was a recurring theme in the all everyone’s memory.  They didn’t know it then, but this was the last family vacation before Walt passed away in 1966.  As Chris recounts, this was probably the only true family vacation that he remembers.  There was no movie or project going on nearby that Grandpa was monitoring, and Dad (Ron Miller) was not working.  Jeff then talking about all the great home movies that can be seen in the Museum, announced a treat prepared for us by The Walt Disney Family Foundation’s Film Archivist and Preservationist – Scott Zone.  Down go the lights, and the screen comes alive with images of the grandchildren.  Photographs of each one of them, as we had seen at the beginning of the presentation, and then clips from the many home movies.  This viewing culminated with clips from the Vancouver cruise, and there in the dark, a tear came to my eye.  Everyone on the dais had turned to watch the video as well, and when they turned around as the light came back up at the finish, it was clear to see five damp set of eyes in front of us.  More than 40 years after the fact, and memories and emotions for their Grandpa are still very much present in their lives.

During the Q&A period, there was one question that stood out for me and not because of the answers for the Grandkids, but rather, Joanna turned it around on the audience by wanting to know what we all, “found so interesting about her Grandpa?”  Since it came at the end of the program, of course, we did not have time to answer.  But, the question has been posted on the Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum Facebook page, if you are interested in answering that question.  In thinking about it, I have found the question has a deeper meaning to me, and does not have a simple short answer, so I’ll be working a piece for this blog which will hopefully be finished and posted in a few days.

But, this event is, and should be, a reminder, as Jeff pointed out, that Walt Disney was a real man, with real thought, emotions, strengths, and fault, and foremost, a real family who loved him.

In closing, this session left me a little disappointed.  Not in the content, or the Grandkids, or even Jeff, but rather, that it ended so soon.  I could have sat for hours mesmerized in the stories and memories.  For me, this was more like a family visit then a presentation.  Thank you Jeff for your sensitive approach as an interviewer, your affection for Walt Disney and his family was obvious throughout.  And finally, Chris, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, and Walter; Thank You All for taking this time to share your Grandpa with us, in a way that no one else could, and a memory I will cherish forever!  Again THANK YOU!!!

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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