Today marks the 115th birthday of the great Walt Disney. While he passed in December of 1966, his loss still elicits sadness for what might have been. . . a creative genius cut short. Professor and author Andi Stein shares this fascinating look at how Walt was memorialized by the media.
How do you characterize the loss of greatness in just a handful of column inches? How do you sum up the contributions of a man’s life in a way that objectively informs the public while communicating the essence of his genius?
When Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65, journalists scrambled to report on the passing of a cultural icon whose premature demise sent shockwaves reverberating across the globe. While the passing of a Hollywood showman might not necessarily have been breaking news, the unexpected death of this showman was no ordinary story.
At the time of his death, Walt Disney was a household name. Millions of people had grown up watching his family-friendly movies, following his weekly television show, and visiting his iconic theme park. The challenge of summing up the greatness of this man was by no means an easy task. Journalists not only had to report the story of his passing, they also had to reflectively capture his vast contributions to the world of entertainment.
So, how exactly did the media cover the death of Walt Disney?
For many newspapers around the United States, Walt Disney’s death was Page 1 news. Headlines proclaimed, ”Walt Disney Dies at 65,” “Walt Disney Dies on Coast,” and “Walt Disney Dies After Surgery.”
At the local level, the Los Angeles Times ran half a dozen articles about Disney on December 16, 1966, the day after he died. The front-page story by reporter Harry Trimborn was typical of what is published when a well-known celebrity suddenly dies. It announced Disney’s passing and included an overview of his many accomplishments. The article did hint this was no ordinary celebrity with the line, “The Flag was lowered to half-staff at all county facilities by order of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors,” a practice generally reserved for government officials and dignitaries.
An editorial run by the paper reflected on the magnitude of the loss of Disney to the world. “There will be grief in Bangkok and Bangor, in Cairo and Chicago, in Paris and Philadelphia, as grown-ups and moppets alike realize that this man’s wonderful talent has been stilled.”
Several days after Disney’s death, L.A. Times columnist Charles Champlin wrote about his early years as a newsboy in Kansas City, delivering newspapers in the cold and snow for his father. “It seems entirely possible that this kind of indelible childhood experience had a great deal to do with the unique persistence of Disney’s unique creative vision,” he said.
The most touching of the L.A. Times articles gave readers a meaningful perspective on the impact of Walt Disney’s death. It featured tributes to Disney from politicians, industry veterans, and performers who worked with him such as Julie Andrews and Fred MacMurray.
Senator George Murphy was quoted as saying, “I know of no individual who has contributed more to the general welfare of mankind.” Hollywood executive Lew Wasserman characterized Disney as “one of the few irreplaceable men of our time.” Actress Annette Funicello lamented, “It makes me so sad to think my daughter will never know him. He was truly the leader of our industry, and there will never be another one like him.”
In Chicago, Walt Disney’s birthplace, his hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, ran a story titled, “Disney Never Forgot His Chicago Days.” The article chronicled Disney’s adventures as a “train butcher on the Chicago to Kansas City run,” and as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts.
In a separate article, Chicago Tribune reporter Walter Trohan praised Disney for his international reputation. “By appealing to the child that is in every man, Disney did more for the American image abroad than many costly and involved government cultural exchanges and doles.”
East Coast journalists wrote about Disney’s passing as well. New York Times columnist Bosley Crowther recalled visiting Disney in the early 1950s and seeing him obsessively tinkering with his miniature railroad. Crowther said that at the time he was concerned Walt Disney had lost his zest for making movies. Then a few years later he realized, “Mr. Disney, the cinema artist and tycoon, was even then joyously gestating another Mouse. It was born as Disneyland…. It is a place of delight for millions who escape into its massive fantasies.”
A Washington Post editorial marveled at the far-reaching impact of Disney’s creations. “Is there anyone reading these prosaic lines who has not been thrilled by Disney’s extraordinary nature-study films or charmed by that unique amusement park called Disneyland or entertained by one or another of his nominated productions such as Mary Poppins?”
The coverage of Walt Disney’s death went beyond the borders of the United States. Newspapers and magazines all over the world ran stories similar to those in their American counterparts. Great Britain’s The Guardian published an article written by its U.S. correspondent, Alistair Cooke. Paris Match magazine ran a cover story called, “Adieu a Walt Disney,” featuring photos of Disney with his family and pictures of Disneyland. Even the Russian newspaper, the Literary Gazette, quoted Soviet Director Grigori Alexandrov, who said, “The death of Disney is a tremendous loss for the entire art world. His creative discoveries will go down as a vivid page in the annals of art of our time.”
There were also numerous editorial cartoons generated to express the grief of the world at the loss of the famous showman. Many of these are on display at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
A cartoon in the Miami News by Don Wright showed Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in tears, surrounded by other familiar characters. Charles Brooks’ cartoon in the Birmingham News displayed an assortment of Disney characters bowing their heads in grief as they crowd around his gravesite. One of the most famous editorial cartoons, drawn by Karl Hubenthal for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, depicted a globe forming the head of a crying Mickey Mouse.
In looking at the media coverage of the death of Walt Disney, there is no doubt that his passing tugged at the heartstrings of millions who mourned him. Perhaps Chicago Tribune columnist Walter Trohan said it best in capturing the sentiment of what the loss of Walt Disney meant for the world. He said, “Few of his fellow Americans and few citizens of the world knew Disney personally. Yet, all feel that they have lost a friend and something of themselves in his death. But they can also be happy that he will never die so long as men can dream of great adventures and so long as children can laugh.”
Fifty years later, these words still ring true.