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Happy Birthday, Walt Disney!
by Debra Martin Koma, ALL EARS® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the December 5, 2006, Issue #376 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
I remember Walt Disney. Maybe that sounds a little odd, coming from someone who was just 7 when he died in 1966.
But I remember him very clearly, almost as if I'd known him.
My first awareness of Walt Disney, was, of course, just of his name. I didn't visit Walt Disney World in Orlando until I was 34 and had a child of my own, but I was just 3 when my parents took me to Disneyland in California. I have very vivid memories of that trip, despite how small I was -- Monstro the Whale in front of the Storybookland Canal Boats, the majestic Matterhorn, and Aunt Jemima's Pancake House... I have the photos to back up these memories -- or maybe the photos are why I have the memories. Regardless, I remember being there, and seeing Mickey, and thinking that whoever built the place must have been a genius, because it was the most wonderful and fun place I'd ever seen.
How I really remember Walt Disney the man is from television. Every Sunday, we'd go to my grandparents -- my grandmother was very much of the opinion that children should be seen and not heard (no warm and fuzzy grandma baking cookies for me!). But that meant that my sister and I were relegated to the front room with the television and each other for company while the adults talked and played Chinese rummy or pinochle in the kitchen. And Sunday night meant... Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and its subsequent variations, hosted by Walt himself.
What a guy, huh? In his very proper suits of the day, skinny ties, moustache -- he looked like such a kind man, and he had a gentle, happy manner about him, always smiling, always talking right to you. I wanted him to be my grandfather. (No offense to my real grandfather, who took me places and did lots of things with me.) I have very clear memories of watching Walt and getting lost in his stories, loving Jiminy Cricket and Scrooge McDuck and Tinker Bell and all the others that marched across the screen. What a happy recollection!
When I asked a few friends and family members if and how they remembered Walt Disney, though, I was a little surprised and disappointed at their answers. Some, like me, remembered the television shows, or an early trip to Disneyland. But others had dim recollections of Walt the man. And still others, like my 14-year-old son, who is as big a Walt Disney World enthusiast as I am, know very little about the man who started it all. In fact, the only time my son has heard Walt's voice or seen him in action is in the attraction, "One Man's Dream" at the Disney-MGM Studios.
I thought that was pretty sad.
So, on this December 5, which would be his 105th birthday, I remember Walt Disney. It happens, coincidentally, to be my 25th wedding anniversary -- thank you, thank you very much. (And no, I didn't get married on Walt's birthday on purpose. I didn't even realize it was his birthday 25 years ago when I chose the date -- I actually chose it because it was my dog's birthday... and I'm not making that up.)
I decided that a fitting observation of Walt's special day, would be to read the recently released biography, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," by film critic Neal Gabler (Alfred A. Knopf).
It wasn't an easy undertaking. The book is a fully annotated biography, 851 pages, with 32 pages of photos, not a quick read by most anyone's standards.
But what a tribute to a man who clearly shaped our country's popular culture. The book traces Walt's roots, fleshing out the Disney family tree in an effort to recreate for the reader the feeling of the times Walt Disney was a product of. It is as complete and as insightful a biography as I have ever read.
Most devout Disney fans probably already know Walt's basic story: that he was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois; that, when he was very young, the family moved to an idyllic little town called Marceline, Missouri, which influenced the later creation of Main Street USA in Disneyland; that he married a woman named Lillian Bounds and had two daughters; that he was an animation pioneer and won more Academy Awards (48) than anyone ever; that he was responsible for creating Disneyland in California, and later conceived Walt Disney World in Florida; that he died from cancer in December 1966.
But what biographer Gabler attempts to do is not simply chronicle the key events in Walt Disney's life, but to show how those events, along with many other smaller circumstances, shaped the man, who in turn influenced so significantly the world around him.
With meticulous detail, including numerous footnotes and pages of notes following the main text, Gabler describes aspects of Walt Disney that many of us may not have known. Admittedly, I was not the most educated Walt Disney scholar when I began this biography, but I learned many things about the man who was ever-present in my consciousness as a child of the 1960s. There was Walt, the very young man, full of fun, who loved to perform, and once dressed in his sister's clothes as a gag. There was Walt, the older teenager who came back from a stint with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during WWI changed and ready to pursue his career as an artist. Walt the "go-getter" and his early successes... followed by some failures. Walt the devoted father who, though maybe not an ideal husband, loved nothing more than spending time with his daughters. Walt the extrovert who, ironically, seemingly had no close friends. Walt the demanding boss (some might say "control freak") whose employees worked like dogs to get his approval. And above all, according to Gabler, at least, Walt the restless workaholic whose imaginative vision kept the company always moving forward, if not always profitable.
All these Walt Disneys made up the man who quite simply changed our world. The impact he had on the movies, on television, and our other forms of diversion, such as amusement parks, is undeniable. But he also developed a public persona, the rather wholesome, kindly and affable character that I as a little girl grew familiar with and fond of. It was a persona that stood as a symbol of the times, and it embodied so many values to which we attach such great importance: hard work, creativity, perseverance, quality. These were values that imbued his work, Gabler notes, and it's this tradition of quality and wholesomeness that we often associate with the Walt Disney Company today.
I recently read an interview with Neal Gabler, the book's author, who said, "Walt Disney helped change the national consciousness. He got people to believe in the power of wish fulfillment -- in their own ability to impose their wills on a recalcitrant reality... He managed to replace reality with his illusions -- what some people now refer to disparagingly as Disneyfication. He sold us on the idea of control because Walt Disney was himself a master of control."
In the biography, Gabler tends to focus on the idea of Walt Disney as control freak a bit heavy-handedly. Yet it may be for that reason that Walt Disney succeeded so well at carving a place for himself in our collective consciousness. In a way, it may be why even I remember Walt Disney so fondly... why even as a little girl I was drawn to his creations like The Mickey Mouse Club, the Wonderful World of Disney, and movies like Mary Poppins. That idea of being able to impose your own will on a "recalcitrant reality" must have appealed to me on some subconscious level. It appeals to me still, in fact, if I'm honest. Perhaps, on some level, that's why returning to Walt Disney World again and again is so important to me -- it IS a place where I am in control, as I have noted on many occasions before. Wish fulfillment is not only possible there, but expected. It's a place where illusions don't just replace reality -- they ARE reality.
I'm so happy that I have had the chance to experience that -- to have had a Walt Disney in my lifetime who shaped my my world in such a positive way.
Yes, I remember Walt Disney, and am glad to celebrate and recall his life and contributions today.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Disney.
Walt Disney: One Man's Dream: http://allears.net/tp/mgm/m_oneman.htm
Disneyland: The First 50 Years: http://allears.net/dlr/tp/dl/dl50.htm
If you're interested in purchasing Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler, visit Amazon.com, using our special link:
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.