As part of my continuing effort to understand my adoptive country (California), I just completed Neal Gabler’s lengthy biography of Walt Disney, serendipitously during the same week that Barron’s Magazine ran a cover story on CEO Bob Iger and the Disney Co.
But this editorial will be more about the man who died 53 years ago than the company he spawned.
I suppose that Disney has never been given the biopic treatment of some of his larger-than-life peers (Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin) because of allusions to racism and bigotry – which are disputed. There was also the congressional testimony during the McCarthy era where Disney testified about communism in Hollywood (he believed many of those workers who went on strike against his company in the late ‘30s had to have been communists).
*Ironically, Disney modeled the character of the early Mickey Mouse after Chaplin.
But what he created in Disneyland has spawned a cult-like, all-inclusive following which has transcended whatever personal biases the man may have had.
Disney was a native Missourian. Downtown Disneyland was ultimately modeled upon his gilded memories of rural Marceline, Missouri, where he spent a number of happy years before the family moved to Kansas City.
His move west to California was a matter of chance. Doctors discovered a spot on brother Roy’s lung on an x-ray which they judged to be tuberculosis. Roy was sent west to a sanatorium to spend his remaining days, and ultimately landed in California. Younger brother Walt came out to join him, and the two founded Walt Disney Productions.
Walt was the creative inspiration and Roy, who ended up outliving Walt, was the money guy.
So much of the early years was about innovation within this new medium of animation, and the battles waged against distributors and bankers who had leverage because the Disneys were constantly broke.
A reminder that so much of art is carving out the freedom and the space to do it. And Roy Disney really comes off as the unsung hero in providing that ballast and protection for his brother.
There’s one terrific anecdote where Walt signs a contract without consulting Roy, and Roy just about loses it. The reported conversation:
Roy: “Did you read this?”
Walt: “Of course I didn’t. What the hell. I wanted the equipment.”
At the outset, it was all about amassing talent, striving for perfection. And Walt was a hard-driving, inspirational ringleader. Gabler quotes a former employee as saying, “The outstanding thing about Walt … was his ability to make people feel that what he wanted done was a terribly important thing to get done.”
The brothers plowed everything back into the business. As Gabler writes, “Money was for quality, and money was for independence.”
The big leap came in the mid-1930s when Disney boldly decided to make the first-ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White.
Initially, Walt told Roy he thought Snow White would cost $250,000 to make. Of course, this was an absurd, lowball number for a film that would end up costing eight times that number.
“Roy was very brave and manly until the costs passed over a million,” Walt is quoted as saying. “The extra cipher threw him.”
Not only did Walt bet the whole studio on the film, but he literally micromanaged the entire process. It was his story, his direction, his baby. A stunning achievement both personally and artistically. And the film ended up setting box office records.
Liberated from the bankers for the first time in his life, Disney built a new studio campus (much like a college campus) and lavished bonuses on his employees.
But then came the bubble-bursting reality check.
The international outlook dimmed. World War II loomed. Pinocchio, which came out in 1940, lost money due to a disruption in foreign distribution. Bambi lost money. Fantasia (later lauded as one of the 100 greatest films ever made) was panned at its release and lost money. While Snow White was seen as an escapist diversion from the Depression, what followed just seemed darker.
But it wasn’t the financial hits which destroyed Walt Disney so much as the studio strike by employees he had regarded as family.
“He sincerely believed that he had created a perfect world for his employees and that they hadn’t appreciated it,” wrote Gabler. He was, according to longtime employee Ward Kimball, a “broken man.”
Disney Studios survived WWII making training films for the military; government contracts accounted for 94% of the studio’s output in 1943.
Formerly lauded as great artist, he was increasingly regarded by intellectuals as an “aesthetic troglodyte” who had lost his cachet. Meanwhile, Disney was surpassed on the animation side by Warner’s subversive “Merrie Melodies” (Bugs Bunny).
Frankly, he was bored and disengaged (despite this disengagement, Cinderella was a hit when it came out in 1950). In this lull period, he became obsessed with model trains, even installing a half-mile track on his own property.
This obsession became the genesis for his second act as the creator of a new type of amusement park. Yet another personal and very singular exercise, just like Snow White.
How he managed to build Disneyland – in a poetic way, he was now the “bank.” He had the content, and ABC, which was languishing as a last place television network with no programming ranked in the top 25, desperately needed him.
As Walt joked, “ABC needed the television show so damn bad, they bought the amusement park.”
And Walt capitalized by using the show as basically paid advertising. The show offered some new material (a Davy Crockett three-episode series) while recycling the old, keeping it in the public eye.
The show, which began every week with Walt addressing camera from behind a big desk, burnished his image as Uncle Walt. Though those close to him knew better. An associate described Walt as “steel springs inside a silk pillow.” He never trusted his success, and never really made peace with it.
The show immediately climbed to #2 in the ratings behind I Love Lucy and that first year accounted for 1/2 of the network’s ad billings.
The live broadcast of Disneyland’s opening the next year (1955) was watched by 70 million, or half the U.S. population.
So what was my takeaway from this book. 1.) It takes a lot of courage to walk away from what you’ve established to try something new, which strikes me as very Californian. 2.) Disney provides a great lesson in investing in oneself and one’s dreams.