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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Choice(s) --- Walt's People

Here's how I found out Walt died: There was an afternoon kid show on Charlotte's Channel 9 where Joey The Clown ran cartoons, sometimes a serial, and chatted up local moppets often in cub scout/brownie gear. Joey wore greasepaint and red nose but seemed an ordinary 9 to 5 station man past that. In fact, there was melancholia to JtC I found compelling, this a clown who one day might really cry. On the December 1966 date in question, Joey nearly did when he stepped close as I'd ever seen to the camera's eye and told us a dear friend had passed on. The Winston-Salem Journal had gone up that day with Carolina Theatre ads for upcoming Follow Me, Boys, with Disney's personal guarantee we'd like it. So what would come of The Wonderful World Of Color then? Could there be Sunday nights without Walt? I don't remember how long it was before NBC retired his weekly lead-ins. Here was loss beyond mere celebrity departure. We knew Disney personally, or so it seemed for a face and voice familiar as any adult's and more welcome than most of those. My fascination with the man would make easy morphing Greenbriar into a Disney Digest where he'd be all I'd talk about (plenty of bloggers have). As it is, I'll go days reading/watching solely on WD, lately so with aid of newest in a fabulous book series called Walt's People, edited by Didier Ghez and made up of interviews with artists/executives/family members/imagineers who knew and worked with Disney.

Editor Ghez is mid-mission toward finding every interview extant on a topic I don't expect ever to tire of. These sit-downs make Disney films that much more interesting to watch, being ideal reading companions to Blu-Ray discs recently out. I'm on an Alice In Wonderland dig that will culminate with a GB two-parter down the line. Latest Volume Ten of Walt's People devotes to interviews Bob Thomas conducted for Disney bios published when recalls were fresher and many artists since gone were around to speak on beginning days at the studio. All this stuff is priceless and previously unpublished. Didier Ghez has his own Disney History site where you'll lose yourself in his outstanding research. It's there he provides updates on coming volumes and offers recent text/visual discoveries. Amazon has previous volumes of Walt's People along with newest # 10, each a treasure trove of information.

So allow me back into footie pajamas and reminiscence of World Of Color nights and Disney days at the Liberty. Ann and I just had lunch near what remains of the latter. Some thousand or so Sundays back, there'd have been lines up the block for 1:00's show of That Darn Cat, the roof fairly rocking over slapstick ungovernable but house-filling. Colonel Forehand would open two balconies for Disney shows. My first outing there, related before, was to see The Shaggy Dog in 1959. Two years later, a tick-infested cur presented itself and I named her Nikki after WD's Wild Dog Of The North. Disney somehow brings to mind limitless concessions, candy bars big as felled trees. Full-length cartoons were so-called, but often came in shy of run times live action accorded, so there we'd be relay-running with Yellowstone Cubs or hounds who thought they were raccoons. My mother fitted me in bow tie for our 1962 venture to a reissued Pinocchio, so most of what I remember about that show is a neck chafing. Sometimes Disney pics could be shockingly bad. Bon Voyage comes to mind. I'd walk out on Monkeys Go Home and declare myself well shed of live-action from Buena-Vista, but hadn't mere three years before found me rolling in aisles when Merlin Jones empowered a cat to chase a dog up a tree? My generation thought flubber the most uproarious concept movies yet devised. Would we find it so now?

A neighbor boy wrote Walt Disney in 1965, asking for his autograph, and a few weeks later received it. A sheet of note paper this was, like ones Walt was said to carry around at Disneyland for youngsters approaching to get a signature. Next time I see Lee around town, I'll ask if he still has his souvenir. But wait --- are these so uncommon? Walt must have given or mailed out thousands. (Autograph collectors please advise). Oh, and on that subject, I watched several Worlds Of Color at Lee's as ours contined its black-and-white orbit. Also there were gatherings before my aunt/uncle's 1961 RCA, installed in tandem with Disney premiere show (9/24). I remember Tinker-Bell dousing their 22" screen with paints and figured progress could never go beyond this. Programs ran hot/cold. A cartoon-dedicated night was best, while comic otters and Way-Out seals amused less. However mixed his content, there was at least Walt's intro to cap a weekend ... manys a night I'd tune in/out with his entrance/exit. Ann's been less enthralled with my Disney jabbering for what I realize is fact she was born in 1960 and too young to savor his weekly visits. It's doubtful I'd care nearly so much were it not for fact Walt spoke direct to me for those forming years. I didn't need an autograph to feel we knew each other well.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

It's a truism that everybody of "a certain age" knows where they were when they learned JFK had been shot. But I'll give you dollars to donuts that those same people remember just as clearly when and how they heard that Uncle Walt was gone. Myself, I was outside the offices of the State Hornet, campus paper at CSU Sacramento. They had a bulletin board where they posted breaking news, on sheets ripped off the teletype, and I had stopped by after a class to check it out. Ruined my day -- plus, IIRC, it was a Friday, so the weekend was shot too. People who didn't spend their childhoods looking forward to Disney's next chat with them can never know what they missed, true; but they don't what we lost, either -- and that's lucky for them.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Duane Fulk said...

I was 21 in the US Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It was about 4am. I had the rank of seaman working 3rd watch in the "radio shack" with about 5 other sailors. It was my job to file all ships messages. So I read of Walt Disney's death exactly as the ships antennas was receiving the news from UPI as it was printing out over the noisy teletype machine. I remember feeling so sad.
In the 1950's mom and dad took us kids to the Disney movies and I loved The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland on Wednesday then Sunday nights.
A week later I was on liberty in Cannes, France. I stopped at a newsstand and looked at the popular French magazine "Match" with the now famous cover of Mickey Mouse crying. Sure wish I would of bought that issue.

12:58 AM  
Anonymous dbenson said...

I don't remember precisely when I heard of Uncle Walt's passing, but I do recall that the Sunday show fairly quickly became "Wonderful World of Disney", with Walt himself reduced to a single shot in the opening credits for a long while. The closest they came to a regular host was that offscreen narrator with the very familiar voice.

Even now, there's something comforting about the original World of Color closing: The Disneyland castle by night, the speeded-up theme music and the little RCA and Kodak logos at the end of the rolling credits. Always followed by an ad for the next Disney feature. Sometimes wondered if that was an actual commercial slot or if Disney simply made it part of the program they delivered to NBC.

1:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Since reading the latest posting, I've been trying to remember how I heard of Uncle Walt's passing, but I can't.

But in the same era, I remember being a freshman in college, walking back to my dorm from the post office when a fellow student ran by me shouting that Karloff had died.

The human brain is a most interesting thing.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

One of my older brothers informed me of Walt's death; there was a little bit of needling in his voice, as I recall, as if daring me not to believe it.

I think, however, that by 1960 Walt had confused "silly" with "entertaining." There was something vaguely condescending about much of his live-action productions in the last several years of his life. Almost like, "This is stupid -- the kids will love it!" Only "Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" holds up. When that was released on DVD, I ran it for my wife (who didn't watch it when it originally aired) and daughter on successive Sundays, just as it originally aired. They loved it. And, equally important, they found Walt's intros oddly comforting. They were sorry to see it end after three parts.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I don't remember where I was when I heard Walt Disney died. (Moe Howard, yes -- Mr. Cline is right about the vagaries of the human brain.)

Anyway, what I remember most about the passing of Disney was a rumor that went around shortly thereafter: Disney was still going to preside over his annual studio meeting after his death. The way I heard it, Disney had filmed spoken remarks with many possible outcomes, like championship boxers staging all sorts of maneuvers for a computer-scripted fight. Disney's remarks, good and bad, would be edited according to the state of the studio ("Good job, animation department" or "We'll all have to work a little harder next year" or whatever), and Mr. Disney's customized pep talk would be shown to the staff.

This could be total balderdash, of course. But... given how important the issue of control was to Disney, and how he always looked toward the future, I can see him taking those kinds of measures.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous dbenson said...

When you get right down to it, Scarecrow is surprisingly dark and even subversive for any 60's television, much less Disney (although most certainly unintended):

- The Scarecrow is frankly in the business of tax evasion, generally with the assistance of foreigners. The one mitigating factor is that the profits go to the poor.
- Early on, good Dr. Syn basically explains that this is a tiny blow against tyranny (he almost says "a thousand points of light" decades before GHB) in a speech that could have come from a 60s protester.
- Chapter one is about draft dodging (the press gang) and anti-government agitation (the American), with a touch of anti-military sentiment.
- Chapter two is about how a criminal organization intimidates its members (Surprisingly, they let you feel really sorry for the poor loser caught in the middle).
- Chapter three is about a military deserter and a jailbreak. And the nominal romantic lead resigning from the army to prove his virtue.

Of course, the government in question was that of George III -- the original anti-American (He even makes a cameo appearance to drive the point home). Even so, Scarecrow seems to stand alone as an actual rebel. Zorro was loyal to the Spanish crown: His villains were actual bandits, or local officials who betrayed their trusts. Johnny Tremain was loyal to the older and wiser statesmen who'd soon be the American government. Even Robin Hood was all about restoring the rightful king.

Again, it's safe to say nobody at Disney intended the Scarecrow to echo 1960's politics -- and so far as I know, nobody at the time made the connection. Maybe the costume and voice were so darn cool nobody noticed.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Being of a later--what's the word for half-a-generation?--I grew up with "The Wonderful World of Disney" on NBC in the mid-1970s, and remember thinking of "Disney" as sort of an abstract concept rather than a person. "The Wonderful World of Wonderfulness," perhaps. Probably what the corporation would like us to think nowadays, yes?

I remember very little of the shows, except, for some reason, vividly recall a sequence in a live-action show about a dog in which havoc was wreaked in a very 1950s supermarket, and then a 1956 Ford station wagon got stuck in the mud. Those shows were being passed off in the 70s as what theater people call "modern dress," but my future archivist's brain knew better.

Happiest memories of Disney (aside from our week staying at the Orlando Contemporary Inn in 1976) were actually of 16mm projections in the school "cafetorium" on rainy Friday afternoons when our usual half-day recess was cancelled. Candleshoe, anyone? Hot Lead and Cold Feet? The North Avenue Irregulars?

10:01 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Funny nobody has mentioned the original black and white ABC DISNEYLAND shows. Around that time my younger brother was still tiny, but even then he preferred the many western themed shows, where as I was all about the cartoons. Of course, even after the show jumped networks, they were all black and white at our house. One of my most vivid memories was a telecast (ABC? NBC? Not sure) with lots of musical numbers featuring Mouseketeer types singing and dancing and Walt at the end announcing the studio's plans to make films based on the Oz books. Huge impact at our house, much excitement... my sisters were crazy about all the original L. Frank Baum volumes. Alas, the movies never materialized.
And, for the record, I was babysitting for some neighbor kids when I heard of Disney's demise. At that time I had dog, a nutty yellow mutt named Dizzy... but the official license document (which I still have) lists his recorded name as 'Walt Disney.' Really.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

The episode Dave K mentions, the Fourth Anniversary Show, is in the "Your Host, Walt Disney" Treasures tin. The songs are cute and the original Mouseketeers perform them, along with a musical tribute to the Disneyland show itself.

The Oz movie was presented as an official Mouseketeer vehicle. Unfortunately, the story description sounds cheesy so perhaps it's just as well it didn't happen. My understanding is that Disney held onto the rights for some years and even did design work for an Oz ride, but nothing happened until the totally unrelated "Return to Oz" decades later.

5:41 PM  

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