MORE GOOD NEWS~DHI FELLOW
By Paul F. Anderson
One of my early visions for the Disney History Institute was to operate as a think tank on the creative legacy of Walt Disney. A place where historians, scholars, authors, and enthusiasts could come together to discuss and share “new” history and provide insightful commentary on “old” history. To this end, the blog has featured prominent guest historians, with the likes of Jim Korkis, Jeff Kurtti, Didier Ghez, J.B. Kaufman, and Paula Sigman-Lowery (see here). In keeping with my original “semi-scholarly” concept, I also envisioned having Disney History Institute Fellowships, with the purpose of enhancing the study and exploration of Walt Disney’s creative legacy (the idea, I guess, is that two minds are better than one). A Fellow, at least as described in academic circles, in essence becomes a partner to facilitate a “group of learned people who work together as peers in the pursuit of knowledge.”
With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that I have invited Todd James Pierce to be a DHI Fellow. I am honored that he accepted!
I’ve known Todd for over two years. We immediately hit it off, exchanging historical documents, arranging joint interviews, discussing for hours the intricate history of early Disneyland, and so forth. Moreover, we both have a passion for oral history. In my lifetime, I’ve done close to 250 interviews with the Disney old-timers, and Todd is closing in on 150—though his interviews also cover the parks some WED designers built after leaving Disney. Yes, my kind of historian, someone who has an addiction to knowledge–that compulsive need to know more.
I would like to call this kind of scholar the Indiana-Jones-style of historian, but I don’t think anybody would let me get away with that. To be honest, the concept of a historian “that would do anything to get an interview with a Disney old timer” probably borders on O.C.D. (so, actually, this is a D.H.I.O.C.D. Fellowship!)
You see, when I say anything, I mean it. The very first “joint” interview with an old timer that Todd and I did together, we put our lives at risk (not to mention the lives of our families). We were so anxious to talk to this individual, as he had important ties to WED in the 1950s, that we were blind to the danger signs around us.
The individual from WED (name withheld—this story is embarrassing enough without it) was a major untapped resource, having only once been interviewed. At the time, Mr. WED—as I will call him—was hospitalized in Palm Springs, California. In the past Todd and I have both scheduled interviews where the individual passed on before we got to him or her, so we quickly set a date, with the interview to take place in the hospital itself.
To further set up this story, Palm Springs was also one of the last important Walt Disney holy sites I had yet to visit, so we decided to make a day out of it and visit Smoke Tree Ranch after the interview. My long-time friend (and unofficial sister) Rebecca Cline, who you may know as the most-awesome Director of the Walt Disney Archives, was free that weekend, so we invited her along as well.
There were many signs we were headed for trouble. We ignored them all. The first—the hospital receptionist reluctantly told us that our interviewee (Mr. WED) was now on the fourth floor, sequestered in an isolation room, and was not receiving guests. Since we were smart enough to schedule the interview with him over the phone—and had confirmed our appointment the previous night by calling his cell phone—we rather boldly proclaimed, “That’s okay. He’s expecting us.” We wheeled our cart of recording equipment past the guard, who skeptically pointed us in the direction of the elevators. We punched the button that would take us to the top floor. Between the two of us we were carting enough equipment to run a small radio station out of his hospital room. We dismissed the looks of confusion that various staff members tossed our way.
As we drew close to his room, the three of us grew excited. In 2011, the exploration of Studio history is mostly confined to working with documents and artifacts, exploring interviews conducted a decade or two ago. But here was fresh territory: one of the men hired in 1954 as a principal designer for WED.
We passed down one hallway and then another, the entire floor reeking of lemony-fresh Clorox. Did we notice the walls changing from a sanitary and hopeful shade of white to a rather somber pattern of amber and blue? Nope, we missed that. Did we observe that some nurses up here were decked out in thicker and more extensive HAZMAT-style gowns? Nope, that was lost on us as well. As for the signs that read “Isolation Room – Quarantine,” well, those we kind of willfully ignored. Danger was our middle name! (Actually, more like oblivious…but this was important Disney history work, and we were rogue Disney historians!)
As intrepid oral historians we just barged right through it all, into his room (he was ecstatic to see us), and began setting up our pyramids of recording equipment: two microphones, two table stands, two main drives and two back-up drives, yards of XLR cables, numerous power cords, a camera, and so forth.
And then the interview … the stories unspooled with detail so specific it was as though the 1950s happened for him last week or maybe the week before. He touched on Herbie Ryman and Dick Irvine, his one longstanding argument with Walt Disney. And just as things got interesting, as we got into the inner-workings of the old WED bungalow, the trouble began. At first, a nurse appeared demanding that we suit up in protective gear. “Like someone just let you all in here with street clothes,” she said, handing us three plastic-wrapped doughboy gowns. “You didn’t touch him did you?” “Well, I shook his hand,” I proclaimed nervously, expecting alarms and red lights to go off!
We had gloves, foot booties, pants (Todd and I just gave up on those), hats, and even surgical face masks with drawstrings that joined in the back. Call us slow or, if you’re generous, single-minded, but at this point, our excitement was on the retreat. We knew something was not quite right. Within minutes we were interrupted again by a rather unhappy lead nurse in the hall who was doing the come-hither-now motion with her index finger. There was no way, she later told us, that she was waltzing into that room without some high tech duds covering her body. Within minutes, we had an administrator … and security … and protective services … and someone who identified herself as the director…of what, I can’t remember…and a few agitated (and amused) hospital personnel that were “attending” to us and our immediate and remedial “needs.”
Suffice it to say, that we had effectively penetrated the top secret, secure, quarantined section of the hospital where the most dangerous cases of infection and disease were treated, all in an effort to get an interview with a Disney old timer. So dazzled by this opportunity to talk with someone who worked with Walt, we completely missed the ubiquitous-bright-in-your-face danger/warning signs posted throughout the area and barring the entrance to his room. Such is the love of Disney history.
To make a long story short, we abandoned the interview. Or rather, we were forced to. We were given a very caustic, high-grade cleansing fluid—a solution on wipes that we were told was at least 20 times stronger than bleach. We were told to wipe off everything that had been in the room: our clothes, our shoes, the portable NPR lab we’d set up beside his bed. But not to get it on our skin, or we wouldn’t have any skin left! Short of telling us to burn our clothes (it was hinted at! seriously), we were given strict, and extensive, instructions on how to rid ourselves of any contamination: showers, hot, maybe two or three of them, scrub vigorously with a strong antibacterial soap, don’t come in contact with any cherished loved ones we want to keep. And so forth.
We were all pretty dejected—and, well, a little freaked out—as our Mr. WED started out with some new and tantalizing stories. More importantly, he was enjoying our company because he’d been trapped in that room for months. He was in his 90s and had a “neglectful” family at best. So we felt bad for him, too.
Discouraged and dispirited we left the hospital and … ended up having a remarkable day at Smoke Tree Ranch. There was lunch, some time spent in their archive room, the opportunity to talk to a man who remembered the Disney family living there, and more! But that is another story for another day.
In the end, our time with Mr. WED was rewarding and he did recover from his serious ailments. And once he was released, Todd, my Disney History hero, drove back to Palm Springs—six hours down and six hours back—where he spent the day with him, interviewing him at his house, capturing the whole thing with a microphone.
And with this, again, I am pleased to welcome Todd to DHI.