American Experience: Early Problems

Race and Culture at Disneyland in the 1950s

by Todd James Pierce

Yesterday I woke to find a handful of messages about an American Experience clip that had been posted on YouTube. The clip was posted by PBS to promote its upcoming show on Walt Disney. While lying in bed, using my phone, I checked the DHI Facebook Page to find the clip—also a few dozen DHI Facebook Group members sounding off about its content. Sample respondents included individuals claiming that they had just canceled their pre-order of the DVD and others saying that they would terminate their PBS support pledges. Many people said that Susan Douglas—the expert featured in the clip—simply “doesn’t get it.” I watched the clip, which featured Susan Douglas discussing how Disneyland, in the 1950s, inculcated guests with ideologies of racism and classism. My initial response was: Seriously, this is how PBS wants to market the show, by alienating and offending its core audience? Even PBS should know that the fan base for the parks far exceeds that of for the early animated features.


As I started in on my day, I mostly let the clip go, as, for months, I figured the PBS documentary would have both positive and negative takes on Walt and his work. Personally, I believe that Walt and his studio transformed animation, elevating it, at its best, to an artistic form of moving illustration. I also believe that Walt understood America’s attachment to entertainment in his development of cinematic themed space (such as Disneyland). But even within that, there’s lots of room for informed disagreement. Should Walt have invested himself more fully in animation in the 1950s rather than focusing on the park? Was the Magic Kingdom in Florida a distraction from his more serious interest in community planning? Was it beneficial to encourage Americans to have closer emotional connections to commercial entertainment through the development of a theme park? Was Walt a demanding, distant or generous manager? Was Walt justified in his HUAC testimony? And so on.

But Susan Douglas’ comments stayed with me. I wasn’t bothered so much that I disagreed with her. Rather, I was irritated that her commentary—or at least the section the producers included in the clip—seemed to reflect a deep misunderstanding of the activities of Walt Disney, the Disney Studio and Disneyland, Inc. in the 1950s and early 1960s.

For me, these concerns were focused on two opinions presented in her commentary:

  • With footage of Disneyland running in the background, Susan Douglas explains that the park “in the end [was a] fake view of America. Disney held up a false mirror.” The section then transitions into an explanation of the original Disneyland layout.

This is one of the central misunderstandings presented in this clip, suggesting that there has been very little research completed either by the producers or by Susan Douglas on midcentury themed space, particularly as it relates to Disney. It’s hard to know who to blame. But regardless, Disneyland was not meant to “hold up a mirror” to America. Disneyland, specifically, was meant to represent filmic genres of the 1950s: the western, the adventure film, the historic drama, the animated feature. In recent decades, I believe that this connection has been blurred, but during Walt’s lifetime, the connection was evident.

Disneyland was designed by live action art directors to represent recognizable genre sets–including some sets that are lifted wholesale from non-Disney films.   The Golden Horseshoe Saloon, for example, was literally, under Harper Goff’s direction, a recreation of the Golden Garter set on the Warner Lot that had recently been featured in Rue Morgue and Calamity Jane. The relationship between Disneyland and film was further solidified with appearances by the Lone Ranger and Mousekeeters as well as the Guy Williams stunt show in which sword duels from theZorro-Disneyland-Mark-Twain-1   then-current Zorro TV show were re-enacted on the Mark Twain Steamboat. The park was presented and advertised in such a way that its identity was clear: it was an interactive space in which guests engaged the environment of film.

Beyond this, even the most casual survey of Disneyland would reveal that the park, as a whole, was not intended to be a recreation of America. Some of the Disneyland environments (i.e. lands) have connections to filmic visions of America, such as Frontierland. But even here, the park is primarily presented as an image of the popular western film genre, not a direct image of America. To put this in cultural studies terms, the park is interested in presenting the mediated image, not the historic image. And some themed lands do not even have connections to filmic visions of America. These would include Adventureland (which paid tribute to films such as The African Queen and the Tarzan series) and Fantasyland (which, in the 1950s, was almost wholly structured around the folk and fairy tales of Europe).

But this point should be clear, especially in a biography of Walt Disney: the primary Lone-Ranger-Disneyland-Sept-13-1955-WMvisual connections within Disneyland are not to history but to popular genres of film. As Ms. Douglas has (or perhaps the producers have?) missed this point, many of her opinions that follow, in my view, do not rise from an informed understanding of artistic intent of midcentury cinematic themed space.


  • Again, with Walt and Disneyland on screen, Susan Douglas says: “Disney promotes this very small town, Midwestern, wholesome version of the country where…the U.S. has the best values in the world. It’s a very white view…There were a lot of ways in which the Disney vision either ignored…or sought to keep marginalized people in their place.”

With this comment, I’m not exactly sure where to begin. But let’s start with Disneyland, as the PBS clip is focused on the park.

Was the audience at Disneyland in the 1950s primarily white? Yes. But by the mid-1950s, Walt had become both an internationalist and a multi-culturalist. Walt repeatedly used the park to showcase cultural diversity within America, not to “keep marginalized people in their place.” Among the many ways this was accomplished was the yearly international Christmas pageant in which Disney invited cultural performance groups to the park (representing Asian, Latina/o, and Middle Eastern communities) as a means of showcasing the vitality of non-white cultures integrated into Euro-American society. Beyond this, Walt Disney, himself, opened the Mexico Street Exhibit on Main Street, co-sponsored by People-to-People and the Mexican Tourist Council, and for the remainder of his life, he supported the Native American cultural center that existed for 15 years in Frontierland. (Oddly part of the Native American village is included at the end of the Susan Douglas clip.) This is to say nothing of the planned, but unbuilt projects such as International Street and International Land.dlwalt3A mexican 763

These projects at the park are very much in line with Walt’s studio activities during the period. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Walt wanted to use the park-oriented Circlevision technology to create an understanding of world cultures through film. Walt explored the possibility of creating regional Circlevision theaters in world cities. By 1961, he had produced two Circlevision films, one on America and one on Italy and was interested in expanding international offerings. This plan, however, was never fully realized.

From 1953 through 1960, Walt produced seventeen theatrical short subjects for the People & Places series. These films were packaged with features and sent out to thousands of theaters across the country.   Most every film focused on the culture of one world region: Alaska (Alaskan Natives), Japan, Thailand, Morocco, etc., with an eye toward bringing greater understanding to America of non-American, often non-white cultures. These films aren’t available on DVD or even VHS. In my office, I have a stack of 16mm copies of some titles as I was interested in understanding how race and culture were handled in studio projects in the 1950s. I wouldn’t expect the casual fan to track down these titles, but I would expect producers of a four-hour documentary on Walt and on-screen experts on race and Disney to have reviewed them.

At the very least, I think the People & Places films on international culture, by themselves, would negate the view that Disney consciously used film to indoctrinate its audience with the belief that “the U.S. has the best values.” Disney was certainly patriotic—admittedly more so than myself—but along with that, he was also a multi-culturalist, particularly in the last decade of his life. So this makes me wonder if any of the experts on Disney and culture in this PBS documentary examined this seventeen-film series that speaks directly to these concerns?

I think most regular visitors to the DHI site know that I’ve been interested in issues of race and diversity as they relate to the Disney workplace for a while. Could Disney have more fully integrated minority artists into the studio in the 1930s and 1940s? Certainly. Though studio artists were predominantly white, they were not exclusively white. The work of Hispanic artists at the studio, such as animator Rudy Zamora, animator Tony Rivera, and background painter Carlos Manriquez, date back to 1928, the year that Mickey was born. The work of Asian-American artists, such as storyman Bob Kuwahara and conceptual artist Tyrus Wong, date back to 1932. Moreover, the studio employed a significant number of LGB artists, particularly at WED, some of whom—in as much as the culture of midcentury America would allow—identified sexual orientation within the workplace.

PeoplePlacesI will point out that, though the studio employed multiple, long-term Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern artists before 1950, I did notice a lack of African-American artists at the studio. The first African-American animator at Disney—or any of the Hollywood animation studios—appears to have been Clyde White, who worked there for less than three months (from May 26 to July 8, 1939). He was followed by Frank Braxton, hired in 1948, again an animator who spent a short time at Disney before building a career at Warner Brothers. Only in 1954, with Floyd Norman, would Disney establish a career-oriented African-American animator. Part of this is the studio’s fault: they could’ve done more to establish long-term African American artists before 1954. But part of the problem is a labor supply issue: from the late-1930s onward, Disney tended to hire artists directly from local art schools, with art schools themselves having a low percentage of African-American students.

But even with this, in the 1950s the studio had, for decades, defined itself as something different than “the very white” homogenous culture suggested by Susan Douglas. Moreover, in the 1950s, the professional activities of Walt Disney sought to decrease the white-centeredness of its entertainments through cultural installations at the park, the People & Places series, and  various unbuilt projects. That is, the historic image of Walt Disney at this point in his life lies in direct opposition to the image of Disney presented by Susan Douglas in the clip.

Admittedly I am a little confused by the inclusion of Susan Douglas in this documentary on the life of Walt Disney. No doubt that Susan Douglas is an accomplished cultural critic and writer, but, at least on her webpage, I couldn’t find any strong scholarly connection to the life of Walt Disney or to midcentury cinematic themed space. I also realize that this clip is a two-minute promotional spot for a four-hour film. Maybe it’s merely an unfortunate blemish on the face of an otherwise well-researched and engaging project. Maybe it’s merely a two-minute misstep in a four-hour informed discussion of Walt Disney. I guess we will find out—those of us who still want to see the program—next month.


For more discussion on the history of animation and themed space as it relates to the life of Walt Disney, join the DHI Facebook Group Page.

Pin It on Pinterest

Enjoy this?

Then, share this post with your friends!