The Other Disney
by Erin Blackwell
AllEars® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the January 18, 2011 Issue #591 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
In 1957, two years after Disneyland opened, the Los Angeles chapter of the Big Brothers of America asked Walt Disney to talk at a benefit dinner honoring one of his boyhood friends, Walt Pfeiffer. As they darkened the house lights so everyone could see him clearly, Walt spoke warmly. "I was fortunate. I had a big brother. And he's still with me. And I still love him. I argue with him. Sometimes I think he's the stubbornest so-and-so I ever met in my life. But I don't know what the hell I'd do without him. He's the president of the company now…"
From out of the darkened audience came a voice: "I'm Chairman of the Board, Walt."
Everyone laughed, and the loudest was Walt himself, for that voice was that of Roy Disney, Walt's older brother.
Have you ever believed so much in one of your ideas that you were willing to risk everything? Your home, your car, your future, your family's future… honestly bet every single thing so you'll have NOTHING if you're wrong? Now, have you believed in someone else so much you'll risk everything on them — when everyone else is willing to bet it all against them? That's harder in some ways. That's what Roy Disney did.
And yet, I'd bet an annual premium pass that I can tell you one fact about Roy Oliver Disney that you didn't know, one fact that will show what Walt meant, when he said, "My big brother would say, 'Kid, go ahead!' He said, 'Kid, I'm for you!'"
1. Roy, not Walt, got them into animation: If you see "One Man's Dream," you hear Walt talk about the big failure he had with Laugh-O-Gram. That failure came from a bad contract that stole every dollar the Alice shorts made and left a bitter taste in Walt's mouth that he never wanted again. Instead, his visions centered on live motion pictures and he wanted nothing but a job directing them. Roy was the one who pulled his baby brother aside and got him back in animation: talking, cajoling, holding fast until Walt agreed. Then, he made it possible for Walt to start again. For that alone, anyone who has had a moment of Disney magic owes Roy a thank you, because without his getting Walt on the path that led to Oswald, Mickey, Disneyland, and more, we wouldn't be part of this community.
2. Roy convinced Walt to make a live action film: When Walt's "True Life Adventures" caught Roy's imagination, he insisted they could do a full film. Walt said no one would go for it, so Roy talked, got the backing, and convinced his brother here was the chance. The movie won an Academy Award and gave Roy the opportunity to make a huge gamble by creating a company named "Buena Vista Distribution Company."
3. Roy told Walt to go large with Disneyland: Walt envisioned a carnival next to the studios so people could enjoy rides as well as learn about Disney filmmaking – a concept that came to life with Disney's Hollywood Studios. But once Roy believed in the idea, he told Walt it had to be BIG, not just a carnival. That's when Walt's dream grew to be the full theme park that it became.
4. Roy took work home only once: He and Walt both felt that work stayed at the office, but he broke that rule for the ABC deal that would help pay for Disneyland. The deal was so important to that dream and Roy felt his most important rule so keenly — never hurt Walt — that he studied the paperwork at home so he could speak knowledgeably.
5. Roy bought out everyone who had a share of Disneyland: As soon as the park opened successfully, Roy went around to anyone who had invested in it. He saw that if Disneyland was going to stay true to Walt's vision, no one else could have a hand in it or they'd twist the dream. He was shocked to find out that Walt sold shares to carnies in order to get some of the money they needed, and those people had started putting up booths around the park. Roy paid each of them well for their shares and the last one he tackled was ABC itself who was souring on the whole Disney idea. At the end of a long, arduous process, Roy paid ABC back their investment plus 15 times more. ABC bragged to the industry about the profit they had made, but found the industry roaring in laughter and claiming Roy the winner. They pointed out to ABC executives that if they had held on to Disneyland, they'd have made a thousand times or more on their investment.
It was at this point that Roy sat back with a happy sigh: everything was settled. The movies did well, Disneyland was theirs and doing well… everything was good and paid off. He could close the checkbook… and then Walt walked in with new ideas. One weekend when it rained so hard, Walt and a few Imagineers were stuck in the Disneyland Hotel. Confined, Walt had focused time to just imagine and came out with new major projects. The Imagineers joked that the weekend had cost Roy three million dollars.
6. Roy told his secretary that he could never pay her what she was worth, so he'd give her Disney stock. At one point, her niece went with her aunt to a stockholders meeting; looking over her shoulder, the niece discovered Roy had made her aunt a millionaire.
7. Roy himself took a smaller salary for a CEO — in fact, he joked he had the smallest CEO salary in Hollywood, which was true. Even at Disney's highest peaks, he received only $52,000 a year.
8. Roy came up with the idea of merchandise partnering, out of necessity of saving Walt's reputation. Early in Mickey's success, Roy found out someone in Germany was making Mickey Mouse watches (before Disney was even doing it). But the watches were garbage and people bellowed about how Disney ripped them off. Rather than wipe out the merchandiser, Roy made him an offer that stands today: the person could make Disney merchandise with permission IF they held to the quality standard that he checked on. In the end, everyone was happy.
9. He decided to copyright Walt's name, again out of necessity of saving the family. He discussed buying the rights for the Oz books from L. Frank Baum's family. To his utter shock, he found they had nothing. Baum hadn't known about how to protect his creation for his family, so it was gone with his death. Roy raced back home, now afraid for his nieces and their families and told Walt so. He set up incorporating Walt's name and his ownership for his creations so the Baum tragedy would not happen to his brother's family.
10. Roy called for Mickey to be at his side when he opened Walt Disney World. He had lost his beloved brother. Mickey was the heir to Walt's spirit, and so he brought the famous Mouse from out of the crowd of characters to stand by his side. You can see this photo at "One Man's Dream" and now understand the emotion as Mickey stands, hands solemnly folded, by Roy as he reads the park's dedication in Walt's memory.
Did I tell you anything you didn't know before? I hope so. During my last trip to Walt Disney World, I heard a man ask his wife, "Who's that?" pointing to the "Sharing the Magic" statue. "That's Roy," she answered calmly. "He paid the bills." Well, that's true, but I hope you'll see how much more he was. You've heard all the takes on Walt's famous saying: It all started with a mouse… It all started with a man… on a train… Here's mine:
It all started with a man who had a big brother who made sure his baby brother's dreams came true. They were the Yin and Yang of each other, integral parts of the whole. Without one, the other could never have made it happen.
Either way, I strongly suggest you check out Roy's biography, "Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire," by Bob Thomas. You'll find all the stories I told you in there plus so many, many more that I would love for you to know. I'll give you one more fact: on the book's cover is the photo that they used for Roy's statue. The only difference is he's sitting with Mickey in the picture.
The next time you go by one of the Roy statues or his photo at Disney Studios, stop and think about how none of it would be here without this other Disney. (And i f I didn't tell you anything new, I humbly point out that I said I WOULD bet an annual premium pass, not that I AM betting. It's all in the details!)
I'll end with my other favorite Walt and Roy story. Roy learned a few things about making movies and animation; after all, he started as Walt's camera man for the Alice shorts. So when he walked through the studio one day and saw a young animator struggling, he stopped for a look and then offered his advice. Aggravated by a bad day, the animator tossed over his shoulder, "Who are you? God?"
"No," Roy answered. "I'm his brother."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erin Blackwell loves being part of the AllEars.Net team and primarily works on menus, the Fort Wilderness Fact Sheet, the PhotoPass page, and Disney desktops. When she's at Walt Disney World, you can find her in her home away from home, Fort Wilderness, with her husband and dogs.
RELATED LINKS: If you're interested in the book Erin cited, "Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire," by Bob Thomas, you can find it in the AllEars.Net Amazon Store:
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.