I was born in 1961. Like most kids, I had an exposure to the name Walt Disney before I connected it to a human being. My first clear memory of a Walt Disney production is seeing my first movie in 1965. It was Mary Poppins, and I was hooked. My mother told me I sat in rapt silence, and the first thing I said after the houselights came up was, “Can we see it again?”
My other clear memory about a knowledge of the man Walt Disney is from December 15, 1966. I was barely five years old and found my mother watching television and crying softly. When I asked her what was wrong, she tried to explain gently that Walt Disney had died. I am told that I pondered this for a few minutes and then asked her, “Is Mickey Mouse dead, too?”
I don’t know what it was about Walt Disney and his life that fascinated me then. I have been accused of “wasting my life” in spending so much time studying his life and work. (I wasn’t offended, it was an accusation from a playwright who was trying to pass off as historical fact that Walt was a racist and anti-Semite, who went to Berlin and met with Hitler.)
Imagineering Legend John Hench and I once had a lengthy discussion about the attraction of people to Walt Disney, frequently with the zeal of the converted and the faith of children. He, too, pondered this idea. What was it within people that made this connection with Walt Disney and his work? He even contemplated that it might be genetic.
Certainly there is a superficial appeal in most of his work that deals with the often-overused expletives of the Company Lexicon: fantasy, magic, family, romance. The life’s work of Walt Disney is a canon of really unusual things, even though his work is frequently criticized as banal and accused of homogenizing culture.
Having studied the man and his work for many years, I have grown to appreciate the nuances of his character, and gaining life experience have grown to be able to contextualize the criticisms of his character and behavior as truly the handmaidens of his virtues. He was on many levels a simple man of simple tastes, but within him was complex thought and almost unerring intuition that created both his connection with the masses and perpetual ability to innovate in an accessible way.
I appreciate his doggedness. His confidence that his vision was worth pursuing, and his ability to get other people to buy into that vision wholeheartedly. I think the Davy Crockett song, “Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead” said a lot about Walt. He had several key moments in his professional life where he could just as well have closed up the Studio and gone over to his friend Sam Goldwyn’s and hung up a producer shingle. But he didn’t.
This relates to his other interesting (and American) quality, that of reinvention. After crisis, he would assess and parse, leave behind the debris, pick up the assets and move forward. He once said “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young. I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never had the feeling I couldn’t walk out and get a job doing something.”
I also love his oft-proven ability to gauge what people would be interested in, and never patronizing or “pre-consuming” product for his audience the way many producers do today. He trusted the audience, he trusted their intelligence, he knew that that trust was returned. “Never let that public down if you can help it,” he said. “And that’s what I try to do. I mean, if I’ve got a picture and it just is going to be a cheater, I feel like throwing it in the ashcan rather than putting it out to the public, you know? I believe that. I’ve had to do it lots of times, because I just had no way out. But I had things laying on my shelf that I’d never finished and wouldn’t put out because I just said, no you know, it just would do us more harm than good.”
Walt left behind a great philosophical foundation that is highly “gettable.” It has created an enormous resource for the Company, coupled with an enormous responsibility. And it’s a philosophy that Walt himself might have been unable to articulate, and that people still discuss and debate–and that’s why Disney has a stronger culture than ever. All of the stories that he merged into the Disney culture repeatedly contain vital positive elements: curiosity, optimism, confidence. Certainly all of the “collateral” of his career–films, consumer products, theme parks–are important, but they are really reminders of an underlying philosophy that continues long after the houselights come up or the car has left the parking lot.
I’m truly honored and blessed to have had a life and career so enhanced and informed by this great man and his work. His creative heirs had a giant shadow to stand in, and they often get slammed for their mishandling of Walt’s legacy. But look around–Disney is still here and still strong, and it’s because of a strong sense of identity and culture that Walt created. He was an amazing man, and my years of studying him and his works have only made him more fascinating. More important is the fact that what he did and what he left remains vital enough, and has enough layers of complexity, to remain a subject of thought, study, and reward for so many people around the world.
JEFF KURTTI is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, he is a consultant to several clients in the motion picture, theater, and themed-entertainment industries. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant , and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. His newest book, The Art of The Princess and the Frog, has just been published by Chronicle Books.
I want to thank Jeff (Mozart) for his heartfelt and profound contribution. It brought a tear to my eye. Paul F. Anderson (Salieri)