The DHI Book Shop is now open for business and features a selection of Books, Walt Disney ephemera, Magazines, Paper, and more. Sales will help to support the Institute and ongoing research into Walt Disney's Creative Legacy.
Visit the Disneyland shop at: DHI DISNEYLAND STORE. (Updated 2/25/13)
Visit the Disney book shop at: DHI BOOK STORE. (Updated 2/25/13)


Friday, November 21, 2014

DHI at Destination D

This weekend at WDW, DHI's own Jeremy Marx roll's out the CGI version of the Tower of the Four Winds, freshly unpacked from the 1964 World's Fair.  As we are pretty sure that Destination D will bring some new folks knocking on our virtual door, we're putting up a little welcome sign and a note so you will know what DHI is all about.

The Blog
At the heart of DHI is the blog, which has been running now for five years.  The blog features longer, research-oriented articles about the history of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company.   Here are some good places to start:

* The 10-Part Series on Riverfront Square, the indoor amusement park that Walt Disney planned but never built in St. Louis in the 1960s.

* The Tomorrowland That Never Was - Early Designs for Walt Disney's Tomorrowland in California.

* The DHI Mythbusters Edition - The Truth about the Petrified Tree.

* Project Four Winds - The story of the CGI model presently on display at Destination D

The Podcast
The podcast features many blog articles presented "audio-book-style."  On the podcast, you can learn about the infamous Snow White Wrap Party and the second amusement park that Walt Disney, himself, wanted to build in the original Disneyland parking lot.  You can also find interviews with artists and celebrities such as Rolly Crump and Fess Parker.

The podcast.  You can sign up for it through iTunes:

There are two ways to participate in DHI through Facebook.  

First, our popular DHI Facebook Group offers historians and scholars a place to discuss their interest in the legacy of Walt Disney.  Even when the blog is slow, there's always something happening in the DHI Facebook Group.  Click here to join:

Second, if you'd like to receive a note in your Facebook feed each time a new article or podcast appears, you can "like" our fan page.  Click then "like" the page here: 

Lastly, we maintain an active Twitter feed which often sends out unique images of the parks, concept art, and sometimes ride construction not available anywhere else on the web.   Twitter link:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

New Podcast - DHI - 008 Fess Parker

DHI Podcast: Fess Parker

A new podcast is up, with a Fess Parker interview.   Did you know that Fess once wanted to build his own "Disneyland"?  He even bought the land.  Details are in the podcast.  Enjoy!

Subscribe to the Podcast:

Monday, October 13, 2014

DHI Mythbusters Edition - The Truth About The Petrified Tree

Lillian and Walt Disney, September 1957
DHI Myth Busters Edition:

The Truth about the Petrified Tree

By Todd James Pierce

[This article is also available in an audio edition as part of the DHI Podcast - click here]

Out in Frontierland stands the five-ton remains of a petrified redwood tree.  The official story, as told by the Walt Disney Company and others, goes something like this:  In 1956, for his thirty-first wedding anniversary, while vacationing in Colorado, Walt purchased for his wife, Lillian a fossilized tree stump, a magnificent specimen, millions of years old.  Walt arranged for it to be shipped home.  But Lillian didn’t much care for this odd gift, so the following year, in 1957, she presented the tree to Disneyland and reportedly joked that the stump was “too large for the mantle” at home.  In support of this story, at the base of this fossil, was placed this plaque: “Petrified Tree from the Pike Petrified Forest, Colorado…Presented To Disneyland by Mrs. Walt Disney, September, 1957.”

Now for the big question: Is the story true?   Not the part about “the mantle,” the part about the anniversary gift.   Was this enormous fossil really an anniversary gift that Mrs. Lillian Disney shifted from her home over to the park?

To understand how a five-ton petrified tree eventually arrived at Disneyland, you need to remember that Disneyland back in the 1950s was different than the park as it exists today.  You’ll need to peel away the rollercoasters and thrill rides, the pirates and ghosts as well.   Disneyland existed, largely, as a cinematic theme park, a series of lovely outdoor sets, most dressed and propped with antiques.  Part of Disneyland even presented itself as a museum of sorts.  On Main Street, for example, the Penny Arcade featured antique coin-operated player-pianos and self-playing organs—such as the German Orchestrion, the Nelson-Wiggen, and the Welte Band Organ. It also featured hand-cranked mutoscopes and electric cailoscopes, those early wonders of the moving picture.  Out on the street itself were reproductions of streetcars, a horse-drawn fire truck, and a horse-drawn surrey—all of them presented somewhat in the style of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. 
Souvenirs from Mineral Hall

But more to the point, for our story, in June and July, 1956, Disneyland was preparing to open an actual natural history exhibit in Frontierland, a building called Mineral Hall.  Mineral Hall was to include a display of rare rocks and minerals, presented in a fashion similar to the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry, with a special backroom to demonstrate how fluorescent minerals took on a lovely iridescence under black lights.  A gift shop area in the building would sell souvenir minerals, originally priced between a dime and fifty cents, in packages labeled Walt Disney’s Mineral Land.

The Broadmoor Hotel - Colorado Springs
During the summer that Mineral Hall was to open, Walt Disney vacationed with his wife, Lillian in Colorado Springs, a trip that fell roughly around the date of their thirty-first wedding anniversary.  They stayed at the Broadmoor, a grand hotel at the foot of Pikes Peak.  The hotel itself was modeled after European resorts, with touches of marble and stone, thickly-slatted wood floors, and one wing opening directly onto Cheyenne Lake.

On July 6, 1956, Walt and Lillian visited a local attraction named Seven Falls, where they rode donkeys up a canyon past a series of waterfalls.  Of all scenic outposts in the country, Seven Falls was the one most touched by the world of entertainment.  At night, the park used stage lighting to brighten the canyon and to create a light show on the falls itself.  The water was illuminated with alternating floods of white and colored light, combining a man-made spectacle with the marvels of nature.  This was more or less the ethos of Disneyland itself, or at least those portions out by the Rivers of America.

That night, the Disneys would’ve returned to the Broadmoor Hotel, where, of course, Walt was recognized by a public who watched his weekly TV show.  Word got around town that Walt Disney was staying at the Broadmoor.  And this is where things got interesting.

Walt and Lillian at Seven Falls - 1956
One of the people who heard about Walt Disney’s visit to Colorado Springs was John May, a businessman who had built a small, privately-own natural history museum just south of town.  The May Museum was designed primarily to exhibit his father’s extensive collection of exotic butterflies and rare insects.  John May invited Walt Disney out to the May Museum, with an eye toward both introducing him to his father’s gorgeous collection and hopefully renting out part of it to be displayed at Disneyland.  To this request, Walt was surprisingly receptive.

A few years ago, to a reporter, John May’s daughters, Louise and Claire related the rest of the story of Walt’s visit to the Museum: “My dad was always looking for an opportunity to advertise the Museum,” Louise explained.  And what better advertisement could there be for a private museum than having part of your collection on display at Disneyland?
For a couple days the May family prepared their facilities for Walt’s visit: they cleaned up the cases that held the butterflies; they tidied up the outdoor grounds.  In all likelihood Walt and Lillian’s visit took place somewhere between July 9th and July 11th.  Walt viewed the insects captured and preserved by the May family, probably paying special attention to the colorful butterflies.  “He was very impressed with the collection, and he wanted to take it to Disneyland,” Clara recalls, though of course Walt didn’t want to display the entire collection, only a small portion of it.
The May Museum - Near Colorado Springs

But there was a problem: John May saw this primarily as an advertising opportunity.  He wanted the May Museum to be credited as presenting the preserved butterflies and insects at Disneyland, while Walt wished to buy a portion of the collection outright.  At Disneyland everything, except for the corporate and lessee areas, was tied to Disney.  Even Mineral Hall would label its souvenirs as coming from “Walt Disney’s Mineral Land.” 
“There were very intense negotiations,” Clara recalls, “and the deal fell through,” with Walt and Lillian walking away.  But the event demonstrates how clearly, back in 1956, Walt believed that Disneyland might function—at least in limited areas—as a type of natural history museum.

In terms of Disneyland, the most important event of the trip happened on the evening of July 11, as Walt and Lillian were driving on a road just outside Colorado Springs, most likely with the intentions of viewing one of the privately-owned fossil grounds in the mountains.  Walt eventually settled on the Pike Petrified Forest.
Toby Wells - 1956 - Petrified Tree
This portion of the story comes from Toby Wells, a boy who grew up on a ranch just east of the fossil beds.  For two years, as a summer job, he worked as a tour guide at the Pike Petrified Forest.  On the night of July 11, he saw a two-toned Chevy, turquoise and white, pull into the parking lot right at closing time.  Though there were two people in the car—husband and wife—only the man stepped from the car.  “He was a very distinguished man,” Wells recalls
Even though the charcoal tones of twilight were already pulled across the mountain, the man asked: “Can I tour the forest?”
Initially Toby Wells said no, but after considering it, he offered: “How about a small tour…I’ll still have to charge you thirty-five cents.”
To this, the man said, “OK.”

In Wells’ recollection, the man’s wife was anxious to leave, honking the horn and occasionally yelling for her husband to hurry up, but the man ignored her.  Instead he expressed a desire to buy what he called “a small specimen.”  Initially Wells directed the man to the gift shop where souvenir fossils were sold.  Then the man clarified his intentions.  “No, I want something bigger,” the man said, lifting his finger to indicate a seven-foot, five-ton petrified section of a redwood tree.  “Like that stump.”
Things like the stump, Wells explained, were not regularly sold.  But if the man was genuinely interested, he’d talk to the owner, John “Jack” Baker.
Guestbook - 1956
It was then that, as the man offered his contact information, that Toby Wells learned his name.  It was Walt Disney.
“I about fell over,” Wells later explained.  “It blew me away.”
Before leaving, a deal was arranged to sell Walt Disney the stump.  The price eventually agreed on was $1,650.  Walt signed the guestbook.  Then Walt and Lillian drove away.

Walt was reasonably good with people, even if he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his wife.  Most likely he would’ve understood that Lillian, who was unwilling to tour the fossil grounds at dusk, probably didn’t want a five-ton fossilized tree as a unique ornament for her garden at home.

Despite this, about one year later, Walt circulated a lighthearted story of how the impressive petrified tree had been an anniversary gift to his wife.  She didn’t like it, so she re-gifted it to Disneyland, with a brass marker attached to the stump confirming these events: “Presented by Mrs. Walt Disney, September, 1957.”

Over the following 50 years, the story was repeated, probably with some of its original playfulness drained away until it had the firm feel of history.  The story was repeated most everywhere—from the official Disney Parks Blog to numerous biographies on Walt himself, including the impressive and exhaustive volume penned by Neal Gabler.  In truth, I myself never thought to question the story.  Hardly anyone did.  We were all believers, myself included—that is, until 2009, when the family of John “Jack” Baker released a letter that Walt Disney had sent to the Pike Petrified Forest about the redwood stump. 

Here is the letter:

Letter - July 19, 1956
July 19th, 1956

Dear Mr. Baker –

This will serve as a confirmation of your telephone conversation with my secretary, Dolores Voght, on July 18th, regarding the petrified stump.

It is my understanding that you will deliver the stump direct to DISNEYLAND at Anaheim, California, within thirty days, along with approximately One Ton of small pieces of petrified stone.

The letter continues to discuss payment and optimal times for delivery and is then signed by Walt Disney.  But the important part is there, in the second paragraph.  The stump was never delivered to Walt’s house, nor does it seem it was ever intended to be delivered there. 

But even with this information, there are still questions: did Walt initially see the petrified stump as a type of anniversary gift?   Did Walt offer it as a gift on his actual anniversary, July 13, but then, after Lillian’s rejection, on July 18th, reschedule its delivery for Disneyland?

With these questions in mind, in 2010, I emailed Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney-Miller with 
the hope that once-and-for-all she could solve this mystery.  My email to her was fairly long, 
but at the bottom, I asked my questions: I'm hoping that you can clear up a small mystery 
for me…Do you ever remember that petrified tree at your parents' house in Holmby Hills? 
Was the tree ever intended as an anniversary gift--with perhaps your mother quickly 
telling Walt to ship it to the park? Or are parts of this story simply a tall-tale that 
has grown over time? 
Here is her reply:
The whole thing has been embellished. Mother and dad were driving through Colorado. Dad saw a sign that said Petrified Forest, and decided to seek it out.  He did a lot of things like this. Anyway... mother stayed in the car when dad went to check it out. The owner offered to take him around the forest, and dad accepted. He was gone for some time, and mother might have been a little bit annoyed by his absence, but not seriously so. It became a family joke. He did buy that tree stump, and told her, and everyone else that it was his gift to her. Of course it went right to Disneyland. Have you seen the photo of them with it?
Then I sent her a second email, just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I asked her again, if it was all a playful family ruse.

Here is Diane’s second reply:

Of course it was staged, and is very playful on both of their parts.  The "gift to my wife" was just a gag. He was the consummate gag man, and proud of it. It's difficult to believe that others didn't see this episode that way.

So then this, it seems would be the answer: Walt used to tease Lillian by telling her that he’d bought that beautiful ol’ hunk of stone for her as an anniversary gift—a joke so obvious how could anyone see it otherwise?  And then, playfully putting on the costume of the eccentric producer, he later told friends the story, perhaps as a way of provoking Lilian’s ire—possibly to get something like an “Oh Walt, really” reaction from her.  And then, as he enjoyed the story, he told the world, with Lillian playing along and a brass plaque to corroborate his homemade lore. 

But, of course, it was never intended as an anniversary gift.  It was simply an item for the park—one of the curiosities he collected as Disneyland passed through a brief Natural History phase.

For me, there are many takeaways from this experience.  First, in the half century since Walt passed away, he has been canonized as one of the men who oversaw the development of American culture in the 20th century.  As such, it’s easy to lose sight of him as a jokester, a gagman, and a person who enjoyed a grand story.  Beyond this, I see the fingerprints of Walt the person—not Walt the producer: one of the impulses that animated him throughout life was the desire to entertain others.  In this story—back in 1956 and 1957—Walt pretended to be a stereotypical Hollywood producer, a man so ostentatious that he figured a five-ton tree stump would be just the right gift for his partner of thirty-one years.  It was, of course, a joke—a tall-tale played out inside his family and then played out for the world.  But fifty years later, sometimes it’s easier to see Walt as a legend, with all of its accompanying distance and grandeur, than as a person.  

The strangest part, I think, is this: so many of us believed him.

[Author’s Note: In this essay I’ve quoted from Bill Vogrin’s articles originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette.  I would like to express my gratitude to him for preserving the history of Colorado Springs and also memories of Walt Disney.]

==  ==  == ==  ==  ==  ==  ==  ==  

* Even when the DHI blog is a little slow, discussion is always lively in the DHI Faceboook Group.  

* Many of our more popular articles are available in audio format through the DHI Podcast.

* Some recent articles of interest include:

> Walt's Field Day - 1938: the story of the wildest wrap party in the history of animation. 

> How Abe Lincoln Found His Way To Illinois - the story of Walt Disney and the NY World's Fair.

> Walt Disney and the Griffith Park Zoo - the story of Walt Disney and the first zoo in Los Angeles.

DHI 007 - DHI Mythbusters Edition - The Truth About The Petrified Tree

One of the oldest mysteries at Disneyland, finally solved!

Check out this episode!

Monday, October 6, 2014

New Podcast - DHI 006 The Disney Penthouse Club

New DHI Podcast

Just uploaded - The DHI Podcast of the Disney Penthouse Club in the 1940s and 1950s. With a little music from MC Jack Wagner.

Subscribe through iTunes:

Direct Link to Episode:

Link to Original Article with PHOTOS: 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pardon Our Pixie Dust

Pardon Our Pixie Dust

The Signs of Construction in the Parks

By Jeremy Marx

Theme parks in the off-season and construction walls--they go together like a cartoon mouse hand and an oversized pair of puffy white gloves.  These walls often bid farewell to attractions past and hint at wonders soon to come.  Some walls really build up excitement for the work engineers and a construction crew are doing on the inside.  And some could be juiced with a little more imagination.  

Here, on the blog today, are the hits and misses--the walls that inspire wonder and the barriers that well up regret. 

Let's start with Disneyland's 1983 Fantasyland refurb:

Even though Fantasyland was surrounded by long construction walls, as you walked around it, you would come across signs that explained the forthcoming project.

A good example is the use of the same sign in two different locations, which were both well-placed. One was on a wall, where you could see some of the construction above, with the second placed inside so that those passing over could also understand the project.

The best Fantasyland '83 sign helped to build anticipation for the new land, soon to be finished.

Wondering why the other attractions were not added to the sign.

Snow White's Scary Adventures

Mr. Toads Wild Ride

Pinocchio's Daring Journey

Peter Pan's Flight

And at night it lights up!

The following signs literally speak for themselves--touched with humor and a sense of excitement. (Added bonus question: as most of these signs were painted at a park shop, either in California or Florida, some of the characters are a little "off-model."  Your assignment--which is the most and least "on-model" of the signage Mickeys?)

Disneyland's Toon Town

And now for the cookie-cutter, boring signs that could be used just about anywhere:

If you made it this far, you may be wondering we have already covered many of the good, and not so good. How about the signs for attractions that were placed, but were never built!

That's it for today.  See you next time!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

SEPTEMBER 11th: The Hope Fostered by Walt Disney's Creative Legacy

Photo taken on September 11, 2001 by Disneyland Cast Member Dave Marquez.
EDITOR'S NOTE: From time to time here at the Disney History Institute we feature guest editorials and essays; and to me, this is one of the most important that we have done. Over at our DHI Facebook Group we always have an active and lively historical conversation underway regarding Walt Disney and his creative legacy. This is often peppered with unseen images, fantastic pieces of Disney art and spectacularly rare visuals--you can learn more about it at: DHI Facebook Group.

This morning a member posted a story about her family vacation to Disneyland ... which just happened to be on 9/11. Within moments of reading just the first few paragraphs I knew that this was something I wanted to share here--something permanent on our DHI site, and not ephemeral as Facebook often is.  For the last few days I had been trying to decide what the best way to memorialize 9/11 here at DHI was--going through the usual suspects, such as patriotic American imagery featuring a Disney bent, or whatever--but I was continually troubled by what my options might be. And it was like Walt Disney was watching me and saying: "Kid, don't fret, I have just the right thing! Something that, even to me, represents what I want from my Happiest Place on Earth, and how I want it to be remembered." It was this story. It was just what I wanted, and I was happy that the author, Diane Grimaldi Whiting, was willing to share it. 

And if I needed some image to share, Walt made sure that happened too (although I know he did not like photos of his Park without people -- but for this occasion, he made an exception). The above image was taken by an old friend of mine who I had not talked to for almost a decade--David Marquez. Dave was working in Guest Relations at Disneyland on that fateful day and shot the above image in the afternoon, complete with our American flag poignantly at half-staff. It was just one of the few times that Disneyland was closed for a national tragedy (other times Disneyland was only partially closed were on the assignation of JFK and on Yippie Day). I'm happy to say that Dave was also very happy to share.

So, with all of this in mind I am happy--and honored--to share this story of how Walt Disney's creative legacy helped one family remember hope. I think all of us that lived through the 9/11 experience can remember how strong the feelings were and probably also recall when hope started returning to us; and I dare say that for many of us here at DHI, Disney was in someway involved in our own journey back to these feelings of hope.

Paul F. Anderson, co-historian and founder of the Disney History Institute

By Diane Grimaldi Whiting

My family was there on 9/11/2001. We were on our way to Disneyland (actually spending the night in Vegas), when the terrorists struck back east. We didn't know what to do. My husband and I decided that we were going to go to California anyway. When we were driving through the desert, we heard over the radio that Disneyland was closed. I finally managed to get hold of someone at Disney Dining reservations, who said to just come, and everything would work out.

We were staying at the Disneyland Hotel (my favorite!), and when we stepped into the lobby, we were surrounded by characters. My kids were 10, 7, and 9 months at the time, and we were trying to shelter them from the awful events of the day. Disney really came through. Buzz and Woody immediately started playing with my son. They were having a "Space Ranger shootout" through the lobby. And Snow White and Cinderella came up to see my dd. She was star struck. They sat and talked with her, and her eyes were as big as saucers. Pluto was playing peek-a-boo with my baby, who loved squishing his nose. The hotel was practically empty, because all flights had been grounded, so no new guests were arriving, and other guests who were scheduled to leave had made other hotel and travel arrangements. It was so odd to see it that way.

Diane Grimaldi Whiting and Family.
September 12, 2001
Snow White came up and asked if she could take my older kids to the conference room down the hall where they were showing Disney movies and serving cookies and lemonade to the kids. There were other characters there who were watching the movies with the kids. Let me tell you, that was my dd's dream come true! They also had other conference rooms set up for parents with banks of TVs showing the news, and more cookies and lemonade.

After we'd checked in, we headed to our dinner reservations at Goofy's Kitchen. The place was practically empty, and it was like the staff and characters were there just for us. They were amazing. 

It was such a hard day, and I felt worn out trying to be happy for my kids while I wanted to break down and cry over what happened in NYC, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Goofy saw me standing by the buffet, and just walked over and hugged me. It was so sweet. A lot of hugs were given that day between characters and adults. And even as a grown-up, when you feel awful, hugging a giant Eeyore does help.

The park was closed for the rest of the day, but the pool was open, and the kids had a great time swimming. All of the games in the arcade were free, and ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney (the only place open...and only for Hotel guests) had free sodas for everyone, and all of their games were free as well.

The next morning Disneyland reopened, and we were part of the handful of people in the Park (no new people were arriving, locals were home...glued to the TV, and people who were stuck there were out of money, so they weren't in the Park). Mickey came up to greet us, took my oldest kids by the hand, and skipped with them down Main Street. It was amazing. We have wonderful photos in front of the castle with literally not another soul around. When we rode the rides, the CMs just let us stay in the vehicles and ride as many times as we wanted.

The next day, or maybe the day after (not really sure, as everything was still a blur), Disney started having a moment of silence during the day, where everyone in the park stopped what they were doing, and we all stood and sang "God Bless America." It was very moving. There were many people visiting Disneyland from overseas, and after the ceremony was over, several of them came up to us and asked if we were American. When we told them we were, they all hugged us and said they just wanted to let an American know how sorry they were for what had happened, and that they support us and were praying for us. We were all crying. And it still brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it.

So it was a very bittersweet and emotional time at Disney for us. We wanted to be happy for our kids, and most importantly, not frighten them, but we also wanted to do nothing but watch the news 24/7. I was so impressed at how kind and sweet every single cast member was during the week we were there. Especially the characters. They were very attentive and engaging, and sought out my children at every opportunity. I think we all wanted to feel better and find some hope in the world during such a bleak time, and nothing helped more than hearing children's laughter. Disney made my children laugh that week...and they gave me hope.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I changed the header photo (flag at half-staff on Main Street) because there was a mistake when I posted the original image. As it turns out Dave Marquez had not taken that particular photo, but one very much like it (he had mistakingly posted on our Facebook page that he had taken the photo). This was brought to my attention by the brilliant, whimsical and always vigilant (when it comes to Disney History!) Douglas E. Marsh (and close friend of DHI).  Doug explained that the photographer wishes to remain anonymous, otherwise I would give them credit here. Dave Marquez notified me and found the photo he had taken (which is remarkably similar--almost identical, so easy to see why there was a mistake...I mean how many photos are there of a half-staff flag at Disneyland with NO ONE in the Park?). This photo by Dave is now the one at top.  Thank you to everybody for bringing this to my attention.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Duck in the Hat

Duck in the Hat
(or How Dr. Seuss Secretly Wrote a Book for Walt Disney)
by Didier Ghez
For years it has been assumed that Walt Disney and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), two of the best-known creators of children’s entertainment, never collaborated on a project.  There is no project that includes both of their names; however, recently-discovered documents reveal that Geisel did secretly write one book for Disney—a book that has had a following for over 70 years.  Today, on the blog, I’ll lay down how Dr. Seuss secretly wrote a famous book that, when published, only held Walt Disney’s name.

Bennett Cerf
In December of 1939 Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of the publishing company Random House, and John Clarke Rose, an executive at the Disney Studio in Burbank in charge of publications, were discussing the upcoming Disney book slate. Among the ideas envisioned, several books based on Pinocchio and Fantasia, of course, but also a biography of Donald Duck titled The Life of Donald Duck, which Random House hoped to release in October 1940.

“As soon as I receive the additional Donald Duck drawings and cells that you have promised me,” wrote Cerf on December 26, 1939, “we will get to work in earnest on this book which, as you know, is very close to my heart.”[i] In the same letter, Cerf added: “The matter of the authorship of this book is still open. Robert Benchley [American humourist and star of The Reluctant Dragon] would be a good name, but I do not consider this important. If possible, I would like to list the book as ‘The Life of Donald Duck BY Walt Disney.’ It is understood that the illustrations for the book will be taken from old Donald Duck releases.”

Walt Disney, c1940
Four months later—after moving beyond Robert Benchley—the studio decided to create The Life of Donald Duck in house, using two storymen: Joe Grant and Dick Huemer.  Joe and Dick were stars of Disney’s Story Department, men with a deep familiarity with the Duck and the Disney concept of narrative. In theory, with Joe and Dick on board, this project should’ve gone smoothly, but by the following May the book was in trouble.  Even though the turn-in date was quickly approaching, the studio had no usable manuscript.

Cerf was puzzled and anxious, regularly checking with the studio to see when the manuscript might be delivered.  Rose, who understood the problems, stalled and dodged Cerf’s requests.  In a letter to a publicity man at Disney, Cerf wrote: “I hope you hear from the unpredictable Mr. Rose in the next day or two in regard to The Life of Donald Duck and take it you will call me about this as soon as possible.”[ii]

Four days later Cerf received news from Rose and sent him a short note which read “It is really good news to know that the first draft of the text of The Life of Donald Duck looks swell. I still think this book is going to be a whooping success from the word go.”[iii]

But in reality Cerf had rejoiced too soon. On June 27, 1940 John Rose finally admitted that things were not progressing as planned: “Re The Life of Donald Duck: Circumstances beyond our control have delayed us and we are profoundly sorry.”[iv] A few weeks later things looked even worse when Cerf wrote to Rose: “I thought that the suggested layout and pictures selected for The Life of Donald Duck were absolutely perfect, but I am afraid that I can’t say as much for the text, which struck me as corny and singularly lacking in sparkle. I would deeply appreciate your telling me your honest opinion of this script sometime. I hope we will be able to fix it up; I think the idea is good enough to repay our leaving no stones unturned to make the product as good as we possibly can!”[v]

Replying to this note, Rose sent a rough drawing of Donald with these simple words: “Confidentially it stinks!”

On August 3, John Rose wrote tongue-in-cheek: “It would appear that nobody wants to buy a duck, or rather that our little duckling grew up to be a turkey – anyhow, Donald lays an egg!”

In that same note to Whitman Publishing executive Sam Lowe, Rose also explored other possible authors who might produce a good manuscript on the Duck: “Bennett once said he’d be willing to take a crack at the text and I wish you could prevail upon him to come to the rescue. […] I don’t think [author of children’s books] Margaret Wise Brown is the answer. As you know, my good friend, Dr. Seuss, is visiting the family in La Jolla these days and even before you guys turned loose on me I’d confessed my worries to him. He offered me the personal Christmas present of doing the job – incognito, of course – and by golly I think he could do it if no one told his publisher and his publisher didn’t want the job himself.”[vi]
Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) c1957

To understand why Theodor Geisel would even consider tackling the Disney job—in secret, as a personal favour to Rose—one has to circle back to the late ‘20s and move from Los Angeles to New York.

In 1927 Dr. Seuss, fresh from his college years at Dartmouth, was still unknown, living with his parents in Springfield, Massachusetts, and had placed only a few of his drawings in magazines and newspapers. But on July 16, 1927 he sold a cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post, which gave him the confidence to move to New York to try and kickstart his career. In New York, Geisel moved in with an artist friend from his Dartmouth undergraduate days… John Clarke Rose, who had a one-room studio in Greenwich Village.

Here is the way Dr. Seuss himself told the story to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in April 1976: “The last thing we used to do at night was to stand on chairs and, with canes we'd bought for that purpose, play polo with the rats, and try to drive them out, so they wouldn't nibble us while we slept. God! What a place.

"And I wasn't selling any wares. I tried to do sophisticated things for Vanity Fair; I tried unsophisticated things for the Daily Mirror.

"I wasn't getting anywhere at all, until John suddenly said one day, 'There's a guy called ‘Beef Vernon,’ of my class at Dartmouth, who has just landed a job as a salesman to sell advertising for Judge. His job won't last long, because nobody buys any advertising in Judge. But maybe, before Beef gets fired, we can con him into introducing you to Norman Anthony, the editor.'"

The result of the Geisel-Anthony meeting was the offer of a job, as a staff writer-artist for the humor magazine, at a salary of seventy-five dollars per week—enough encouragement to cause Ted Geisel and Helen Palmer to marry. The wedding took place at Westfield, New Jersey, on November 29, 1927.[vii]

In other words, Geisel owed Rose not only his first job but also, to some degree, his wife. No wonder they stayed good friends. No wonder Dr. Seuss may have felt that he owed John a favor.

Walt Disney c1940
Thirteen years later, in 1940, Bennett Cerf was ecstatic to have Dr. Seuss secretly pen the Disney Duck book for Random House: “I honestly think that Ted Geisel could do a magnificent job on the text of The Life of Donald Duck. Did you discuss the question seriously with him back here? If he won’t tackle it alone, maybe he will consider doing it jointly with me.”[viii]

 “I was also serious about Geisel,” Rose wrote, “but I hesitate to impose on his generous good nature. You see, he knew I was worried about the text, on account of he’s visiting my family in La Jolla and can hear me talk in my sleep when I join them on weekends. He would be making a personal gesture to me and would not expect any compensation.”[ix]

A week later Cerf wrote back: “I will be looking forward to seeing what the unpredictable Doctor produces in re The Life of Donald Duck.”[x]

On August 19, John Rose explained with clear delight: “You will be pleased to know that the unpredictable Doctor is sitting in my office [at the new Disney Studio in Burbank], hard at work on The Life of Donald Duck. He has already made himself quite at home here at the studio and intends to toss the medicine ball around this noon in our new Penthouse Club. If all goes well on this project, Ted may be assigned to other Disney book projects.”[xi]

“I will be holding my breath until I can see the Seuss version of The Life of Donald Duck,” answered Bennett.[xii]

“I can tell you more about the Seuss version of Donald’s Life after this weekend. Too bad you aren’t out here collaborating with Ted on La Jolla’s sands,” shot back Rose.[xiii]

When Cerf got Dr. Seuss’s text he loved it and knew that all of the problems with the old manuscript were now fixed: “Ted Geisel’s version of The Life of Donald Duck is just about a dream come true. That book is going to be a honey.”[xiv]

The book was released in April 1941 and remained a classic for years. In 1994 a facsimile was re-issued by publisher Applewood.

Dr. Seuss’s collaboration with Disney remained the best-guarded secret of his entire career and a total revelation to Disney historians and Seuss historians alike!  Though Walt Disney’s name is on the cover, next time you see the book be sure to mentally add the name of Dr. Seuss, as his words frame the text.

Didier Ghez is the author of Disney's Grand Tour: Walt and Roy's European Vacation, Summer 1935 and is the editor of the Walt's People series which collects interviews on the men and women who worked with Walt Disney and for the Walt Disney Company.  He also manages the fabulous Disney History Blog.

[i] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated December 26, 1939. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[ii] Letter from Bennett Cerf to Dick Creedon dated May 24, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[iii] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated April 28, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[iv] Letter from John Rose to Bennett Cerf dated June 27, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[v] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated July 17, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[vi] Letter from John Rose to Sam Lowe dated August 3, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[vii] The Beginnings of Dr. Seuss – An Informal Reminiscence by Theodor Seuss Geisel in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine dated April 1976.
[viii] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated August 6, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[ix] Letter from John Rose to Bennett Cerf dated August 10, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[x] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated August 16, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[xi] Letter from John Rose to Bennett Cerf dated August 19, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[xii] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated August 21, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[xiii] Letter from John Rose to Bennett Cerf dated August 23, 1940. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.
[xiv] Letter from Bennett Cerf to John Rose dated January 24, 1941. Random House Records 1925-1992. Columbia University – Special Collections.