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The Mouse Castle

My Conversation With Richard Benefield With the Walt Disney Family Museum

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by , 11-26-2009 at 01:56 PM
[SIZE=1][I]Walt Disney and many Mickey Mouses[/I][/SIZE][/CENTER]

When it comes to Walt Disney, Richard Benefield could really do without the urban legends. "We don't really talk about the fact that some people think he's frozen," he says. "We just state the fact that he's buried in Forest Lawn Cemetary in Glendale."

Not frozen after death, check. But, what about Walt's alleged anti-Semitism?

"It's an absolutely preposterous notion. That one still baffles all of us."

When you're the founding executive director of the Walt Disney Family Museum, there's more to your job than just preserving and showcasing the artifacts of one man's lifetime in entertainment. You're also tasked with protecting and defending his legacy.

[I][SIZE=1]Richard Benefield[/SIZE][/I][/CENTER]

"There are a few, weird, isolated rumors that no one seems to know exactly how they got started," says Benefield. "I met (Disney composer) Richard Sherman last December. I had lunch with him and with (retired Imagineer) Marty Sklar together in Los Angeles. Richard just looked at me from across the table and he said, 'Look, I just want to tell you something. This thing about Walt being an anti-Semite, look at us'--talking about him and Marty--'We're two of the biggest Jews in Hollywood! We loved him and we knew him, and he loved us and knew us, and we loved working with the man. So I don't know where that came from.'"

As the Walt Disney Family Museum begins its third month of operation in San Francisco's Presidio, it continues fulfilling its mission of revealing the man behind the myth. To some, it even proves that--SURPRISE!--Walt Disney was an actual person. Benefield says, "(The Disney family) learned through some market research and surveys that there was a whole generation of people who thought 'Walt Disney' was a made up name and it was just part of the brand name of the company. I think that this museum makes it really clear that there was a person behind it through every step of it, and that he really was the mastermind behind all that he oversaw."

[SIZE=1][I]Diane Disney Miller and Bruce Gordon[/I][/SIZE][/CENTER]

With ten galleries chock full of Disney history and family memorabilia, the museum leaves no doubt that Walt was a real live boy, a creative, ambitious and complex person of many accomplishments. Benefield gives much of the credit for the look and overall flow of the galleries to the late Disney Imagineer Bruce Gordon, who was a consultant with the museum in its early development stages. "The ramp that takes you from the second floor down to the first floor through Gallery 9 was originally his idea," says Benefield. "Many, many of his ideas have just lived on through the project. It's a great testament to his imagination and his own storytelling ability, and Diane (Disney Miller, Walt's daughter) is always very careful to give him credit for that."

As the former deputy director of Harvard University Art Museums, Benefield came to the Walt Disney Family Museum more as an art historian and curator than a Disney historian. Like most of us, though, he still grew up exposed to Disney films and entertainment. The first movie he remembers seeing as a child is "Old Yeller," and "Pinocchio" remains one of his all-time favorites. "I'm just astounded every time I watch it at how incredibly beautiful it is just to look at," he says.

His artistic eye gives him a special appreciation of the museum's collection. "I came into this job from an art museum background in terms of how you care for original works of art and artifacts of all kinds, really, and how you manage the public aspect of the museum. But, I find some of the original animation art--things like the scene paintings, the concept drawings--are the things that I find absolutely the most fascinating."

[I][SIZE=1]Mary Blair concept art for "Peter Pan"[/SIZE][/I][/CENTER]

Benefield is reluctant to name an item in the collection that is his favorite--it's an unfair question, really--but press him on the matter and he'll concede to having a preference for the work of Mary Blair. "I tend to gravitate a little bit more towards the original works of art that are in the collection," he says. The artwork that stands out most for him is a concept piece Blair did for "Peter Pan" showing the children flying over moonlit London. "I just think that it's a glorious work of art."

To mark the holidays, the museum will present in its theater "Christmas with Walt Disney," a film showing Walt at home and at work, celebrating the festive season. Narrated by Diane Disney Miller, it includes clips from Christmas-themed animated shorts and television programs. "The really great thing about the film," says Benefield, "is we have Walt's home movies from Christmas with his family. All of that has been artfully put together and culminates with an amazing reworking of 'The Nutcracker Suite' from 'Fantasia.'" "Christmas with Walt Disney" premieres at the museum on November 27th and will be shown six times daily most days through January 4th.

"Christmas with Walt Disney" is the latest in a series of monthly film presentations at the museum. In January, the museum will screen "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" followed by February showings of "Lady and the Tramp." Apropos for St. Patrick's Day, "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" will be featured in March. Says Benefield, "We've got some really great public programming going on along with this great museum."

Visit [URL=""][COLOR=#996699][/COLOR][/URL] for more information about the Walt Disney Family Museum and its many public events.

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  1. EC82's Avatar
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    So, I'm just curious -- anyone ask him why the museum's such a bust from an attendance standpoint? Or why they aren't visible in any meaningful way? I've read a couple of interviews with this guy and he comes across as unknowledgeable, uncharismatic and completely unaware of what interests Disney fans. Shouldn't he have a better answer for why Walt Disney is labeled an anti-Semite? (For instance, "Well, many of these allegations about Walt stem from the animators' strike, which was a very personal one. Many false rumors got started then, and as you know, false rumors can have an even longer life than real ones -- because they can't be disproven."

    Something other than "that still baffles us."

    I am concerned that this museum will be closed within a year, once again relegating these treasures and the history of this astounding, amazing man to the dustbin.

    But so far, the Walt Disney Family Museum has just come across as smug, arrogant, detached and uninterested in participating with Disney's overall marketing efforts. It's an astounding place, I was fortunate enough to go in the first week of operation. But the people who are running it, especially this guy, seem to completely misunderstand Walt Disney's ideas. I think Diane has the right ideas, but needs someone who can execute the museum and its outreach with PASSION and EXCITEMENT and FUN.
  2. disneytim's Avatar
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    The first thing to remember about the Walt Disney Family Museum is that it is not owned or operated by The Walt Disney Company. It's operated by a private family foundation that doesn't have the deep pockets to do a lot of expensive advertising. This isn't a theme park. It's a museum that relies heavily on private donations and support from its patrons to continue operating.

    As far as Richard Benefield, he was hired for his ability to run a museum, not for being a Disney fan. He's the first to admit that his knowledge about Walt Disney was limited at the time he was hired. He has since immersed himself in Disney history and now speaks quite well to it. In my conversation with him, he was enthusiastic about the collection, particularly the original concept art. He's very interested in Walt Disney as a person and supports the museum's mission in that respect. I found him to be neither arrogant nor smug. He was very pleasant to talk to and generous with his time.

    Regarding the animators' strike, it explains why Walt was anti-Communist, not supposedly anti-Semitic. Certainly, there were Jews among the union organizers in Hollywood, but Jews were also running the studios in the 1930s and 40s. Louis B. Meyer (MGM), Carl Laemmle (Universal) and the Warner Brothers were all Jewish. It seems unlikely that Walt could've operated his studio in such an environment if he was anti-Semitic. B'nai B'rith even named Walt as their Man of the Year in 1955--hardly an honor you'd give to an anti-Semite. So, yes, for Benefield to say "that still baffles us," I think, is a fair statement-- and he followed it up with the very good anecdote from Richard Sherman.

    I'm sorry you don't feel the museum is doing all it can to promote itself. I'd like to see it have a higher profile too, but it is what it is. I guess that's one of the reasons I wrote this article.