|August “Gussie” Busch – mid-1960s|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 6 – Booze, Money and Respect
By Todd James Pierce
One of the best-known stories about Riverfront Square is that it was stopped by booze—a rivalry between August Busch (whose family owned the famous St. Louis brewery) and Walt Disney, but this story in its popular form, if not entirely wrong, is greatly misrepresented.
The popular version of this story can be traced back to Admiral Joe Fowler, a retired Navy man who oversaw construction at Disneyland and also participated in meetings for Riverfront Square. In the 1960s, Fowler was one of the most important individuals in the Disney Company, a man Walt trusted without reservation. Late in his life, when he was in his eighties, Fowler tied the failure of Riverfront Square to the brewery culture in St. Louis. In 1989, in Florida, he offered this story—a version that would become famous: “[Riverfront Square] was only two blocks from Anheuser Busch Stadium. And of course [August Busch] was a great man in St. Louis….We had a big banquet the night before the final papers were to be signed. Walt was there. The Mayor of St. Louis was sitting beside me. When Mr. Busch got up and he said, ‘Any man that thinks he can open and make a success of any amusement park and not sell beer or hard liquor ought to have his head examined,’ Walt was sitting beside me, and I saw that eyebrow go up…Sure enough we embarked the next morning. We had our own plane to go back to California. Walt said, ‘All right, fellas. No St. Louis.’ And that was it.”
This popular version—at least in a literal sense—cannot be entirely true.
There are two strong possibilities for Fowler offering this story: (1) The culture around the Disney studios is such that single stories, at times, are used to illustrate a general truth about a complex situation. The sale of alcohol was certainly an issue—a divisive one—in terms of Walt’s participation in Riverfront Square, but it was not the issue that prevented the park from being built. Or, (2) Fowler was confusing two stories, mixing them together. August Busch participated in the St. Louis Redevelopment Committee. Also, he oversaw the construction of his namesake stadium, a couple blocks from Riverfront Square. But during these same years (1963-1964) August Busch also wanted to partner with Walt on the development of a second park—this one to be located in Houston, TX. Disney’s participation in the Houston project was definitely stopped by issues pertaining to the sale of alcohol. (More on that later.) But alcohol in St. Louis was something else entirely.
Unlike easy-going, health-conscious California, St. Louis was a blue-collar, drinking town, with Anheuser-Busch one of the largest companies in the region. The two focal points for the new Riverfront District would be the Gateway Arch and the massive Busch Stadium. August Busch was particularly proud of his contributions to the redevelopment efforts and believed that he was now formally tying his family business to St. Louis with the stadium. He was happy with the original plans for Riverfront Square—plans that included locally-owned restaurants, a saloon, and a dance club, all of which would sell Busch beer. He admired the way Disney designers could transform physical space to create atmosphere. The problems started when the Disney contracts arrived for Riverfront Square—a project that was now officially called “Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square.”
In 1963, Walt Disney felt his name held “considerable economic value” in “the entertainment and amusement field.” Disney’s lawyers believed that any project that used the name Walt Disney would receive “greater attendance” and produce higher financial returns. In order to protect the value and brand of “Walt Disney,” the contract also stated that the Disney project and name could not be used to sell liquor and could not be used for any adult venture, such as a “playboy club.”
Walt and August “Gussie” Busch were social friends. General Joe Potter, who engineered Walt Disney World into existence, claimed they “had a great relationship.” But an alcohol-free amusement park was an issue for Busch. In addition to the obvious problem—that the revamped plans for Riverfront Square snubbed his family’s product—Busch wanted to build his own attraction in the Riverfront District—one right next door to the Disney park. Specifically, “Gussie” Bush wanted to build an Anheuser-Busch museum, one dedicated to the history of the Anheuser Company, with daily exhibitions of the Clydesdale horses, demonstrations of the brewing process, and the sale of beer. Busch felt that a beer-free amusement park right next door to his proposed museum was a rejection of his family’s culture and the culture of St. Louis. Moreover, it suggested that Walt believed the entire United States was filled with health nuts like one finds in California.
From there, the issue escalated.
Generally the CCRC felt that “no project developed by Disney or anyone else would be approved if they did not have provisions for the sale of beer, wine or liquor.” Preston Estep, a prominent St. Louis banker and a Redevelopment officer, added, the sale of beer at amusement events “is in the best St. Louis tradition.” Generally local residents—eager to see a Disney project revitalize their city—believed that Disney was trying to impose the social culture of California on Missouri. In terms of public relations, the problem became so serious that on Nov. 16, Walt appeared in an open forum and on TV to explain the uniqueness of the Disney project.
Dressed in his usual dark suit and tie—the same clothes he wore when hosting The Wonderful World of Color—Walt explained that this new park would be “something for the whole family,” with no beer or liquor and food at prices the average family could afford. “I’m not interested in a tourist-trap attraction,” he continued. “I want something we can be proud of and St. Louis can be proud of.”
One reporter asked, “Then it’s your idea, Mr. Disney, that none of these places in this development will serve liquor?”
“Not within this complex, no,” Walt replied. “There can be things outside if they want to go there.”
The reporter, following up, askedif Walt had personal beliefs against alcohol.
“Ah no, I’ll have a drink with anybody,” Walt laughed. “A lot of people don’t believe in drinking, and I respect their wishes.” But he intended to create “an area that will appeal to the whole family.”
Though Walt appeared cheerful and well-meaning on TV, his message was poorly received—so poorly that Walt and his designers soon understood that they would need to somehow compromise on this issue. Without a compromise, the St. Louis project would simply not move forward.
A few days later more bad news arrived: Buzz Price completed the second ERA report, the one that examined the financial feasibility of a Disney-produced indoor amusement park at Riverfront Square. The report suggested that there would be an adequate tourist-base to support a Disney park in St. Louis, especially with the Gateway Arch and the new Stadium further establishing St. Louis as a tourist destination. The report placed yearly attendance at the indoor park between two and two-and-a-half million, with the average person staying four hours. Price estimated the overall cost for the two-acre park at $20 million—that is, $3 million more than the initial cost to build Disneyland. The indoor park, Price believed, could prove profitable, though his figures showed, at best, a meager “5 percent return on investment.” In conclusion, Price termed the project a “yes, if” proposal; that is, he would support the Disney park at Riverfront Square if Walt’s team overcame specific difficulties. These difficulties involved cost. Riverfront Square, Price believed, would prove a reasonable investment for the company if the city of St. Louis or the CCRC paid for a large portion of the shell building and offered the land at subsidized rates.
By the start of December, Walt understood that the Riverfront Square project faced at least two significant problems—the enormous cost to build an indoor park and the sale of alcohol. Then Walt was met with a third challenge: a small, yet vocal group of St. Louis citizens charged that Walt Disney was cheapening local history, turning heritage in to commerce, even though the St. Louis theming of Riverfront Square had actually started with the CCRC plans. One reporter would later lay it out bluntly: [Riverfront Square] “will recreate in full, phony audio-animatronic riverboat glory just those local features that the city has destroyed.”
As the year came to an end, Walt knew that his full proposal would need to overcome or accommodate each of these concerns: (1) the plans for Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square would need to so impress the CCRC—and also show that its presence would prove a financial boon to the region through increased tourism and hotel revenue—that the city or the CCRC would pay for the massive shell building, (2) the plans would need to somehow account for the sale of alcohol and support local brewery culture without damaging the family image of the indoor Disney park, and (3) the specific films, rides, and attractions developed for the Square would need to demonstrate a respectful use and appropriation of local history.
In less than three months, Walt would give his full proposal to the city.