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  1. #1

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    Deconstructing Walt: A Conversation with Neal Gabler


    Film critic and historian Neal Gabler's detailed biography on Walt Disney will be released on October 31st.

    Walt Disney is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To many, he is a visionary founder of an entertainment empire that includes movies, television, theme parks and Mickey Mouse. To others, he's "Uncle Walt," a paternalistic icon of a childhood fantasy world. To many of those who knew Walt personally, he is an ambitious, driven, even obsessive, creative force with a short temper and few friends.

    Contradictions. Walt was a series of them and biographers have attempted repeatedly over the years, with varying success, to capture the essential Walt. Books have ranged from the reverential (Bob Thomas's Walt Disney: An American Original) to the critical (Richard Schickel's The Disney Version) to the scathing and apocryphal (Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince).

    Neal Gabler may have finally nailed it.

    In his new book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Gabler presents a meticulously researched look at Walt, warts and all. Gabler was given unprecedented unlimited access to the Disney Archives with no caveats other than to write an honest assessment of Walt's life. The result is as thorough and detailed a book on Disney that has ever been written. Gabler does take occasional side trips to explore Walt's psyche that, more times than not, get in the way of the narrative, but the end result is a dense, fact-rich treatment that will appeal to Disneyphiles everywhere.

    I had the opportunity to talk with Gabler on the phone about his book, the mountain of research it took to complete it (the book contains over 160 pages of footnotes), and what it was exactly that made Walt tick. At the time of the interview, Gabler and his wife were in Atlanta visiting their daughter who is a student at Emory University. Gabler is an affable and charming man, with an unflagging enthusiasm for movies in general and Walt Disney in particular.

    disneytim: You put seven years into researching the book. Why such a long time?

    Neal Gabler: There was an awful lot of work that went into that book. I didn’t want people to think I cut corners in any way, shape or form because I didn’t. People may disagree with the interpretations. They may have objections to certain things I do or do not do in the book, but I didn’t want anybody to think that I hadn’t done the full research job. I was given a rare opportunity and I knew it. And I wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity.

    dt: When you first started, did you have any idea it was going to take that long to finish the project?

    NG: I knew it would take a long time. I set aside about five years—and I knew that was about how much money I had, but like Walt Disney, money became immaterial. It took me, obviously, at least two more years than I thought, and the money ran out. It was a difficult situation and my family was constantly wondering when I was going to finish this thing. But, again, I felt very much like Walt Disney. There is a kind of parallel when you write a book like that. Walt could never cut corners. He was constitutionally unable to do it and I was constitutionally unable to do it. I couldn’t do it to myself. I couldn’t do it to my readers. I couldn’t do it to Walt Disney.

    dt: So, did you set out to write the definitive Walt Disney biography?

    NG: Well, you never want to use the word “definitive” because somebody’s always going to slap your hand and say, “How dare you do that!” My delusion—and obviously you operate under delusions or you don’t get through seven years—was this was going to be the book that I thought was worthy of a figure that was as important as Disney.

    One of the reasons that I wrote this book in the first place was that it occurred to me years ago that there are probably two great visual imaginations of the 20th century. One was Picasso and one was Walt Disney. Picasso has two dozen biographies written about him. Walt Disney has a few biographies—Leonard Mosley, Marc Eliot, Richard Schickel, Bob Thomas—but he had never had a fully annotated full scale biography about him. And I thought that gap just has to be filled. He deserves a big biography.

    dt: I agree. For years I’ve considered Bob Thomas’s biography—there’s that word again—the “definitive” biography, but it was still a very Walt-friendly, very studio-friendly version of his life.

    NG: Well, he had access, obviously, to materials in the archives, although he didn’t have full access, or at least he didn’t take advantage of it. The very first day I went to the archives, after I got approved to use them, (Disney Archives founder) Dave Smith came (in) and he put a manila folder down on the table that was at least two and a half inches thick. I said, “Dave, what is this?” He said, “This is what Bob Thomas used.” And Dave had apparently filleted the archives and taken out key documents in his estimation.

    Now, I’m not saying Bob Thomas didn’t conduct interviews and do other things, but I am saying this is where he began. This was the prime meat of his biography and that wasn’t the way I was going to operate. I looked through the folder, but then I proceeded to begin at the very beginning. I research my books chronologically, so I began with Walt’s grandfather’s deed in Ontario and worked my way all the way through to Walt’s death. That’s why it took two more years than I thought, because that just took years and years to read every piece of documentation in the archives.


    Disney archivist Dave Smith. Copyright © Disney.

    dt: I keep picturing the Disney Archives like the last scenes in “Citizen Kane” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where you have this massive warehouse of crates.

    NG: (Laughs) It was like that, except the people were a lot friendlier. I had people like (archives manager) Robert Tieman, Dave Smith and, probably above all, (assistant archivist) Becky Cline to assist me and to kibitz with me on those long, long days. But, that’s exactly what it was like. You’d take out one tray with all of these boxes and I’d start working through the first one, and then the second one, and the third one until I literally read every piece of documentation in the box. And then they’d bring out another one and another one, so I’d get all these carts one after another. It was a long and sometimes tedious process depending on what you were rummaging through at that moment.

    Continued . . .
    Last edited by Dustysage; 10-30-2006 at 02:14 PM.

  2. #2

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    dt: Of course you used other sources besides the Archives. Walt’s daughter was a big help to you too, wasn’t she?

    NG: She was. You know, it was funny that Diane Disney Miller and I circled each other warily for an awfully long time. She was very dubious about what my intentions were. She had been burned in the past, seeing things written about her father that she didn’t think were accurate, or they weren’t laudatory or whatever.

    dt: Marc Eliot . . .

    NG: I won’t mention any names . . . I was cautious because I knew that she was wary and I didn’t want to do anything to offend her or put her more on alert than she otherwise need be. And at the same time I didn’t want people to think, well, this was just going to be hagiography—it’s going to be Saint Walt again—and that was the kind of book I was going to write.

    When I finally did approach Diane, near the end of this process in fact, she could not have been more gracious or more generous. I told her when she granted the interview the first time, “You know Mrs. Miller, I don’t want you to grant this interview under false pretenses that this book is going to be a whitewash of your father and you’re going to like everything in it, because I guarantee that there are things in this book that you won’t like.” And she said to me, almost verbatim, “You know what I really hate? I hate books that make my father out to be a plaster saint. I don’t want that. I’d like an honest appraisal.”


    Diane Disney Miller. Copyright © Disney.

    She loved her father. This wasn’t one of those things where she had some kind of latent hostility toward him. This isn’t Mommie Dearest. She loved her father, thought he was a great father. That wasn’t the issue. What she did want—much to her credit I think—is an honest account of his life.

    dt: And you do take an honest approach to his life and even set the record straight on several of the urban legends involving Walt. For instance, you start the book right off by discussing the infamous story that he was frozen after his death.

    NG: I’ll never forget I went to the Walt Disney exhibition at the Ronald Reagan Library a number of years ago. There was this father and his two kids going through the exhibition. He bent down to the little boy, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, and said, “You know that Walt Disney’s frozen, and some day maybe they’ll thaw him and he’ll come back to life.” And I thought, “Oh my God!” (laughs). So I thought the best way to start the book was to address that right off the bat.

    dt: How important and how challenging was it to separate the Walt of legend from the Walt of fact?

    NG: I’ll tell you what made it challenging. The Walt of legend often subsumed the Walt of fact and he knew it. Part of the difficulty was that the image of Walt Disney was an image to which Walt frequently subscribed because he thought that it would be good for the company.

    dt: You quoted critic Richard Schickel. He said, “In the last analysis, Walt Disney’s greatest creation was Walt Disney.”

    NG: Sometimes people take that idea to mean that Walt was not fully aware of the process. Walt was a very smart guy. And he was fully aware of the process. He knew precisely what was happening and in some ways engineered it. That’s what made it difficult. The Walt of legend and the Walt of fact, particularly near the end of his life, began to converge more and more. And it’s a hard thing to tease out the real Walt from this image that surrounded him, particularly when he knew that that was this image he was subscribing to. I have a line in the book from (Imagineer) Marty Sklar (quoting Walt) where he says—I’m paraphrasing now—“Walt Disney doesn’t smoke, but I smoke. Walt Disney doesn’t drink, but I drink” as if there was this other Walt Disney.

    dt: That was the public persona of Walt Disney, especially in his later years. He was your Uncle Walt that appeared on television every week. He came across as this very gentle, fatherly figure, but the reality was he was a very difficult man to work for, wasn’t he?

    NG: He was obsessive and he was a perfectionist. I will say to his credit that, though he demanded tremendous loyalty and hard work, it wasn’t for him personally. Typically people in his position—and I know this from writing about other Hollywood moguls—demand this kind of loyalty, work and respect because they want it personally. But Walt didn’t really care about that. Walt wanted it because he was on a mission. He wanted it for the animation and he wanted it for the theme park. He didn’t care about himself in that regard. So that makes him different from so many other people that ran studios.

    dt: And because of that loyalty and because of that devotion, you liken the early years of the Walt Disney Studio to that of a cult.

    NG: After reading all this material and interviewing all these people, suddenly it struck me that the way people talked about Walt Disney, and the things they were willing to do for Walt Disney, were not customarily the way that one talks about his boss or not customarily the things one would do for his company. It struck me, my God, this is a cult with Walt as the head of it. He was like a deity. I’ve got the line in the book where (Disney gagman) Roy Williams is expatiating about how great Walt is and his sister-in-law, who was married to a minister, says, “You talk as if he were a god.” And Williams says, “He is.”

    dt: But Walt wasn’t always easy to work with and was very demanding of his employees. I compare him to an abusive football coach who bullies and berates his players, but they’ll do anything for him because he’s going to take them to the championship.

    NG: Exactly. That’s a very apt analogy. Everybody wants a championship. Everybody wants to be great and Walt was an avenue to greatness.

    dt: And, of course Walt was able to attract very talented animators at a time when animation was still considered a novelty—an entertainment—and not an art form. That he was able to offer this artistic potential to his employees made them support him all the more.

    NG: Yes. Some of them could’ve made more money elsewhere, but the Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion and later in Burbank, that was Mecca for animators. That was the place you had to make the pilgrimage to because that’s where the great work was going to be done. And to the credit of Walt, this was not personally directed. It was directed to the work. To the credit of the animators, their work was directed toward greatness too. There was that period—not a long period—when everyone at the studio was on a mission. And the mission was greatness.

    Continued . . .
    Last edited by disneytim; 10-30-2006 at 07:06 AM.

  3. #3

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    dt: One of my favorite parts in the book is right around the time that Snow White is going into development in the mid-1930’s and you see the talent that is coming to the Walt Disney Studio—many of the animators that would become the "Nine Old Men." That was truly the golden age for Disney.

    NG: That was exciting. All of these people were coming in on this new mission and nobody had ever done it before. And they were striving for new techniques and striving to triumph over the notion of a cartoon and striving for art. Gosh, that was an exciting time. That was just a time when everybody was so filled with that sense of mission.

    dt: There are several passages in your book where you try to get inside Walt’s head and figure out what made him tick. You talk about his hardscrabble upbringing, his stern father, and the idyllic days in Marceline, Missouri where he spent some of his younger years. How did these influences continue to affect him throughout his life?


    Walt's parents, Elias and Flora Disney.

    NG: That’s a very good question. Of course, life can’t be reduced to a series of factors because life’s more complicated than that. But it always struck me, in hearing Walt talk about his upbringing, that whether it was that bad or not, Walt thought it was that bad.

    dt: He did tend to do that in interviews, didn’t he? He gave more romantic recollections of how things happened in his life.

    NG: He was very much a self-mythologist in a lot of respects. (With the exception of his years in Marceline) he saw his childhood as very, very hard. I couldn’t help but think as I tried to project myself into this little boy that so much of what motivated Walt was to create a world that was as far from this one as possible. And he had one kind of afforded to him in Marceline. Because whether Marceline was as pristine as he recollected it was, that was clearly an idyllic environment. It still looks idyllic to this day. It’s not all that changed. The Disney farm is still intact. So is the tree that he used to play on—all those things are still there. One couldn’t help but feel again—and there is a certain degree of projection involved here—that this was Walt’s touchstone. How do you return to this? The animations—and later Disneyland and later EPCOT—were ways, in my estimation, of escaping the hardships of childhood and finding some kind of adult equivalent to Marceline.

    dt: He was always trying to create some kind of utopian ideal.

    NG: Oh, there’s no question about that. You are absolutely right. Walt’s a perfectionist. He’s a perfectionist in his work but he’s also a perfectionist in life. The perfection of life for Walt was creating this utopian ideal. He hoped that the studio would be a workers’ paradise, this utopian place where everyone would operate in happy camaraderie and make these great films. And later, after the strike (in 1941), that got transferred into Disneyland. And once Disneyland had reached a kind of maturity, that got transferred into EPCOT.

    dt: He was always moving forward with new ideas, but when he was creating these ideal environments, he was constantly getting let down by them. There were the issues he had with Charles Mintz (the cartoon distributor who wrested Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt along with many of his animators) and Pat Powers (the distributor of Disney's early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons) and then the strike. Those disappointments affected him deeply, didn’t they?

    NG: Oh, absolutely. All of those things affected him deeply. The problem with reality is it has a way of coming and biting you on the butt. And that’s exactly what happened to Walt Disney. Here he dedicates his life, essentially, to creating a better reality. Yet reality keeps on intruding. The situation with Mintz was devastating to him, having to start from scratch, having everything taken from him—even the betrayal of so many of his employees. Powers was another person in whom he had placed great trust and felt betrayed. And through Powers he was betrayed by (Mickey Mouse’s original animator) Ub Iwerks as well because of Powers luring Iwerks.


    Walt and animator Ub Iwerks. Copyright © Disney.

    dt: But Powers differed from Mintz in that Walt was more leery of Powers even though he saw him as a means to an end.

    NG: Yes. I think Walt became disillusioned with Pat Powers relatively quickly. I think when he met Pat Powers he thought, “Here is the answer to all my prayers.” (Walt’s brother) Roy thought, nuh-uh, he’s not. And Walt, who was way too trusting and naïve, did come to the realization that Pat Powers wasn’t everything he cracked himself up to be. But, Walt lived a life of disappointment. There were so many disappointments because, again, it’s very difficult to have your work live up to your aspirations for it. Walt had such high standards, impossibly high standards. Nothing could ever be as good as Walt wanted it to be or dreamed it would be.

    Continued . . .

  4. #4

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    dt: Roy, of course, was instrumental in the successes Walt eventually enjoyed, but their battles were legendary. Without that conflict, the studio would’ve never succeeded, though, would it?

    NG: There was no question in my mind that if Walt Disney hadn’t had Roy Disney, There would be no Walt Disney Studio. No one who wasn’t Walt Disney’s brother would’ve allowed him to do the things he did. Roy was tremendously indulgent. When you look at how difficult the financial situation of that studio was—and I think one of the revelations in the book was how often that studio was in financial difficulty. That studio was in financial difficulty all the time, except for a brief respite with Snow White, a brief respite with the war, and then Disneyland. But, other than that, it’s in constant financial peril in part because Walt’s demands are so great. And it’s Roy who has to find a way to meet those demands financially. Roy was not a creative figure. There’s no question about that. Walt often slapped him down because he wasn’t creative. In Walt’s assessment, he was essentially a bean counter.

    dt: Yes, but Roy was very creative financially.

    NG: Oh yes, very creative financially. Without that bean counter, Walt would’ve not been able to do any of the things he did. This really was a partnership of the sort that didn’t exist at any other studio because they were brothers. Any other financial officer at any other studio would’ve said to Walt Disney, “You can’t do this and that’s all.”


    Walt and Roy Disney. Copyright © Disney.

    dt: Besides Roy, the other thing that certainly saved the studio was all the work they turned out during World War II.

    NG: Yes, although Walt resented it deeply.

    dt: And that, of course, came on the heels of the strike. How did that period of time affect him?

    NG: He was very despondent. Walt was a man who was despondent at several points in his life. I don’t think he was a manic depressive or anything like that. I think his despondency came from a very understandable source. Walt lived to create great work and now the studio could only survive by doing essentially lousy work. Walt did not fool himself. That’s not Walt Disney. I think a lot of detractors of Walt Disney seemed to think that Walt was always deluding himself. Walt never deluded himself. He knew the kind of work the studio was turning out. He knew the quality of that work. Of course, it was for propaganda and for training films, so it wasn’t meant to be Bambi or Snow White or Dumbo. It was a completely different kind of film. It really hurt Walt that the studio was now dedicated to making these sorts of films. And it irked Walt that he was essentially subjugated to governmental officials, particularly military officers who were telling him how to make movies.

    dt: He didn’t like being told what to do.

    NG: No. Absolutely not. This was not a happy period in his life. Nor was the post-war period particularly happy.

    dt: You could see, particularly during this time, Walt got bored with things. If he felt he was doing the same thing over and over again, it didn’t interest him as much. You saw the passion and his hands-on involvement in his early films—with Snow White, with Fantasia. But after that early spurt he never really had his hands on animated films like he did before. Partly because of the enormity of running the studio, but also because it didn’t seem to interest him as much.

    NG: I don’t think it was so much boredom. I think there’s another factor. And that’s the factor of excellence. Walt came to believe, rightfully so, that he could never do films as good as those done before. He was passionate so long as he was making films that were improving on the preceding films. The animation in Pinocchio is superior to the animation in Snow White. When he goes to make Bambi, he’s doing something different—not necessarily better, but different—operating in a much more realistic vein. But when that’s completed, he realizes that because of the financial situation and partly because of the animators themselves, he’s never going to make a better animation. Walt Disney has a tendency throughout his life to disengage from things that he doesn’t believe will be great, and, by the same token, to engage with things that he thinks he can make great. So, I think the disengagement from animation is largely a function of the fact that he just feels that it’s not going to be great. You look at a movie like Lady and the Tramp. That’s a really good movie. But Walt didn’t have very much to do with it. He felt, “I’ve already done that, and I’ve done it better.”

    dt: His later animated films, Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan for example, were successful largely because of the skill of Walt’s animators. Walt had an incredible eye for talent, didn’t he?

    NG: He sure did, but it’s the difference between being personally invested in something and delegating. He was going to delegate at that point. He didn’t delegate Disneyland because that was a passion of his and, in the end, he didn’t delegate EPCOT because that was a passion of his. He thought these things could be perfected, but animation could no longer be perfected. It was the same thing with the television show with which he had very little contact. He appeared on the show and he essentially approved the scripts and the agenda, but he really didn’t have very much to do with those programs. That was (producer) Bill Walsh’s work.

    dt: But Walt did see television’s potential at a time when other movie studios didn’t.

    NG: That he did. He was very visionary in two respects. Visionary in the way that he saw the way in which that could finance his theme park, and visionary in the way in which he saw how the relationship between television and movies could work to the benefit of both. Those television shows were made at a tremendous loss financially if one just looks at the budget. But Walt thought they were being made at a tremendous advantage financially, because he was able to promote his films and promote his theme park.

    dt: It was a means to an end. It also helped attracted investors and corporate sponsors for Disneyland.

    NG: Yes. There was no question about that. It was very, very clever. Not too many people would’ve sat there and taken a loss—a very substantial loss—but Walt had the foresight to see the advantages of this arrangement.

    Continued . . .
    Last edited by disneytim; 11-04-2006 at 08:04 AM.

  5. #5

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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian

    Tim - Thanks for this awesome interview and the link. I just ordered my copy and can't wait to get it!

  6. #6

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    dt: One of the things I was surprised to read in your book was that Disney hated the Goofy cartoons. Why was that?

    NG: He talks constantly about how much he hates them, but never really specifies what he hates about them. He thought they were stupid, I think, at some point. There was no emotional engagement in them. They’re just a bunch of stupid cartoons with gags tied together, which in a way was getting way back to the early days of animation. Walt had striven so hard to get away from that notion of just putting a bunch of gags together that have no kind of larger narrative context and no emotional context. Walt always hated Goofy and he would’ve deep-sixed Goofy a long time ago if the studio didn’t need to make those movies to give ‘make work’ to so many of the animators. Boy, he hated Goofy (laughs).

    dt: Getting back to the strike and the unionization of the Walt Disney Studio. Certainly the unionization of the animation studios at the time was nothing new to Hollywood, but this still caught Walt by surprise and, to a degree, he brought it on himself, didn’t he?

    NG: In most respects, yes. Walt thought paternalistically. He thought, “I’ve created this great environment,” which he had. “Why would anyone want to turn on me after I created this great environment? Why would anybody want to spoil this place?” That’s exactly how Walt saw it. Walt saw it as, “These people are spoiled. This is paradise.” Now, to that extent, he brought it on himself because he didn’t think about the workers as employees with families and needs. He thought of them as kind of guild workers who were engaged in this great mission. But, to a certain extent, he didn’t bring it upon himself. That is the extent to which the unions seemed to be spoiling for a fight with Walt Disney. I think I indicate in the book that Walt thought this was all Communist-inspired—the Communists were going to get Walt Disney—and he wasn’t entirely wrong. And I say this as someone whose own politics are on the left. Walt Disney was, in some ways, targeted by Communists. Not Art Babbitt (the Disney animator who led the strike), certainly, but (animator) David Hilberman and later (union business manager) William Pomerance.


    Disney employees strike, 1941. Copyright © Disney.

    dt: Art Babbitt had more of a personal axe to grind than anything else.

    NG: Exactly. He and Walt had personal animus, but that wasn’t political animus. There was a sense in which the union thought Disney was the biggest, and taking him down in some way—winning over that studio—would have tremendous symbolic ramifications. Not only for labor but, I think, for culture. So, Walt wasn’t entirely wrong. But, by the same token, he could have diffused that situation in my estimation, if not easily, than without a great deal of effort. And he chose not to do so.

    dt: He probably listened too much to his legal counsel, who was strongly anti-union.

    NG: You’re absolutely right. Gunther Lessing was as much a villain as anyone in that situation. More of a villain, really, if Walt were to look at this objectively, than (Conference of Studio Unions head) Herbert Sorrell was. But Walt was also stubborn. He wasn’t going to capitulate to anybody. He wasn’t going to let anybody push him around. That, in a labor situation, doesn’t get you really far.

    dt: He wasn’t very flexible when he needed to be.

    NG: No. Now that’s a great quality to have when you’re making animation and creating art. It’s a terrible quality to have when you’re dealing with individuals who are, after all, human. They’re not pieces of celluloid. They’re human beings and they wanted something from Walt that he was adamantly opposed to giving to them.

    dt: And, of course, Walt’s belief that the strike was fueled by Communist influences helped motivate him to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

    NG: I think it was the reason for his testimony before HUAC.

    dt: Other Disney historians have made a big fanfare about Walt’s testimony, but after reading it in your book, it appeared to be just Walt’s sincere testimony of his beliefs and, ultimately, much ado about nothing.

    NG: Yes, I think that is absolutely right. The strike happened in 1941 and he doesn’t testify until six years later. So, a lot of time has passed, but Walt still burns with anger about what had happened to his studio. Now, Walt’s not a political man. And that’s something that I think a lot people who don’t like Walt Disney have a very hard time accommodating themselves to. Walt’s not political. Walt cares about his studio. Walt cares about his theme park. He really doesn’t care about politics. He only cares about politics insofar as they affect his studio and his theme park, which they did in the case of the strike. So, when he goes to Washington I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s Walt sincerely speaking his mind about the treachery that he felt had been done to him.

    dt: It was very personal to him. It wasn’t about Communists infiltrating every aspect of American life at the time.

    NG: No, he didn’t care about that. What he cared about was he had this great studio that was perfect, and everyone was on line doing the same sorts of things and then, guess what? It was all ruined and things were never going to be the same after that, which they were not. That was a devastating blow for a man like Walt Disney who lived for his utopian vision. To have that utopian vision spoiled was something he could never reconcile himself to. But his politics were very personal. What people did to him at his studio was very personal. He was no ideologue. (There are) people who try to make him out to be some hidebound conservative who had this strong ideology. None of that is true. Walt couldn’t have cared less about politics most of the time, except insofar as it affected his studio.

    dt: And if you look at the bulk of Walt’s work, from animation to live-action films to television to theme parks, he managed to do it without getting tied up in any American social or political movement.

    NG: Yes, because Walt Disney saw himself insulated from all of those things. I won’t say (Walt’s films) were an escape from those things, because that’s too simplistic. But, I think everything Walt did was an alternative to reality. Now that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some kind of cultural subtext to virtually everything Walt Disney did. You can read that cultural subtext in a number of different ways in the book, in contradictory ways. You can read him as being the protector of very conservative values or you can read him as being the man who promoted, as Douglas Brode says in his book, counter-cultural values.

    dt: And you point that out in your book, particularly regarding the live-action movies of the 50’s and 60’s. Mary Poppins and Pollyanna, for instance, aren’t just the sweetness and light stories you may think they are.


    Pollyanna star Hayley Mills.

    NG: No. What makes them very effective is that they’re not all sweetness and light. Pollyanna is a young girl that is really challenging the prevailing social order. And Walt, for all the accusations of his conservatism, hated corporations, was suspicious of money, was suspicious of power, (and) was suspicious of authority. And that’s as much Walt Disney as the guy who kind of extolled 19th century American values. In fact, those things are not mutually exclusive. I don’t want to pin a label on Walt Disney politically, but one could say he was closer to being a Libertarian than he was to a Republican conservative.

    Continued . . .
    Last edited by disneytim; 10-30-2006 at 08:28 AM.

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    Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/29/06

    dt: What does it say about Walt Disney, as we’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of his death, that we’re still debating how Walt would’ve run the company? That mentality helped fuel the stockholder revolt that eventually ran off Michael Eisner. What does it say about Walt’s legacy that we still wonder how he would do things all these years later?

    NG: That’s a great question. I think what it speaks to is how profound his influence was and remains, how large his personality was, how overwhelming his imagination was. This is an outsize personality and, to this day, he is used as a kind of touchstone for our culture. Only the very largest figures in our culture have that kind of influence. Forty years he’s going to be dead on December 15th and yet there is a very real sense in which people say, “What would Walt do?” just like “What would Jesus do?”

    dt: One of the things I find amusing in that is, using a recent example at Disneyland, the changes made to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride—introducing Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow to make the ride more relevant to contemporary audiences—had many Disney purists in an uproar. This was the last big attraction Walt personally had his hand in. How dare they? After reading your book, however, it occurred to me that if Walt had lived longer, he may have tinkered with the ride a few more times himself.

    NG: He would never leave well enough alone. That wasn’t Walt Disney. In fact, the thing he loved so much about the theme park—and it’s been written about before my book—is that it was never going to be completed. It was always a work in progress. He loved that idea. This gets back to what we talked about earlier. When something was completed and couldn’t be improved upon, Walt disengaged. But, when something was always a work in progress and could always be improved upon, that engaged him.


    Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A. under construction. Copyright © Disney.

    dt: But even Walt disengaged from Disneyland with the promise of EPCOT, didn’t he? And by EPCOT, I mean Walt’s concept of the city of the future, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, not the theme park we know today.

    NG: Exactly, because he found something that was even more in the vein of perfectionism. It’s one thing to have a theme park where you cross the berm or go through the gate and you’re in this kind of fantasy world that is better than the reality outside. But, imagine if you could have the outside world being permeated by that perfection. EPCOT represented to Walt, in my estimation, a way of taking perfectionism and bringing it into life rather than bringing you and putting you into the perfection. The whole notion of EPCOT was absolutely his passion at the end of his life. The last year of his life it was the thing he was thinking about 24/7. EPCOT was going to be the culmination of everything he’d done. If you were a novelist and you put EPCOT at the end of a novel about a character like Walt Disney, people would say, “Oh, come on. That’s laying it on a little thick.” But that’s exactly the coda of all the things that Walt was working toward. Perfection in life.


    Walt shows off plans for the "Florida Project" that would include EPCOT.

    The Epcot that exists now, which is essentially a glorified world’s fair, couldn’t have been more different. Walt had in mind a fully operational city of roughly—and it kept on changing—100,000 people with greenbelts and underground transportation systems and underground garbage collection and, at it’s most grandiose, a giant dome that would protect the city from the vagaries of weather. It would have outlets to deal with juvenile delinquency, with senior citizens, even with religion. This was a fully engineered environment. That’s what Walt Disney thought of EPCOT as being. And he thought this community—the things he developed here—would then be disseminated throughout the country and throughout the world so that other cities could be made perfect too. That was Walt’s last dream.

    dt: How would you sum up Walt’s life and legacy?

    NG: Walt Disney affected so many areas of American life, from animation to theme parks to conservation to history to space exploration and technology generally. But, I think if you had to focus on one thing, to me it would be this idea of the power of wish fulfillment—the power of the human mind to conquer our reality and perfect it. I think he somehow got that consciousness into the American consciousness. When you think of Walt Disney, you don’t just think of a series of animations, or theme parks, or live-action films or the EPCOT he had planned. You think about a way of thinking about the world. Walt Disney is as much a mentality and a consciousness as he is either a human being or a series of accomplishments. He is a state of mind to all of us, even those who hate Walt Disney. Even if they don’t want to live inside the Walt Disney state of mind, they do, because it’s so pervasive in our culture.

    Walt Disney is an endless source of debate. That’s what he does. If I’m part of that debate, that’s good. I don’t intend for this book to foreclose debate. Quite the contrary. I hope that it will get people to think about Walt Disney. There are going to be other biographies of Walt Disney, other versions, and that’s as it should be.


    Copyright © Disney.

    --disneytim--

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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler

    WOW! Thanks Disneytim! Too bad this is in the news section... a lot of people might miss it here compaired to the front page of miceage!

    Thanks Disneytim! I read every word and now am rushig to go buy some books about Walt.




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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/2

    Excellent work dt! Really enjoyed this interview, so open and detailed. I ordered this book and look forward to Mr Gablers version of the events and life of Walt.
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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler

    USA Today printed a review of the book today. The review was excellent and makes me want to read the book even more! Thanks so much DisneyTim for sharing your interview with the author. He obviously knows and cares a lot about the subject and I know a lot of people are interested in what he had to say.

    http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/r...0-gabler_x.htm
    Last edited by dramaqueen; 10-31-2006 at 02:25 PM.
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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler

    Hmm, an excelent interview DisneyTim. I'm going to put an order in with Amazon right now!

    The thing I find the most interesting is the fact Walt hated Goofy and wanted to dump - I just really can't imagine a world without the lovable charm of Goofy (though the charachter has advanced quite a fair bit since his 2D persona in the One-Reeler days). I guess I'm just happy he didn't get the axe.

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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler

    Quote Originally Posted by drnilescrane View Post
    Hmm, an excelent interview DisneyTim. I'm going to put an order in with Amazon right now!

    The thing I find the most interesting is the fact Walt hated Goofy and wanted to dump - I just really can't imagine a world without the lovable charm of Goofy (though the charachter has advanced quite a fair bit since his 2D persona in the One-Reeler days). I guess I'm just happy he didn't get the axe.
    The book is full of great little nuggets like that. One of my other favorites is when Disney was searching for a distributor for his new Mickey Mouse cartoons, he approached movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer refused, saying pregnant women in the audience would be scared and upset if they saw a mouse on the big screen.

    Good stuff.

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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/2

    Just got my copy, but won't be able to read it for a couple of days. Look forward to reading it. Plenty of people I have run into have heard the NPR interview. Thanks Neal!
    Last edited by Dustysage; 11-02-2006 at 07:47 AM.
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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler

    Great interview.

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    Re: Disneytim Talks with Walt Disney Historian Neal Gabler - MiceChat News Team, 10/2

    Wow Disneytim, that was a great interview !! Thanks for posting it. I cant wait to buy the book !!
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