The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney: Part 1 (Aug, 1963)

This article is huge (50 pages) so I’ve broken it up into three parts.
Part Two
Part Three

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The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney

By ROBERT DE ROOS

Illustrations by National Geographic photographer THOMAS NEBBIA

ONE AUTUMN EVENING in 1928, a new actor appeared at the Colony Theatre in New York in a movie called Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon ever produced with sound. He had ears bigger than Clark Gable’s, legs like rubber hose, a grin wider than Joe E. Brown’s, and a heart of gold. His name was Mickey Mouse.

Beginning that night, Mickey and his creator, Walt Disney, grabbed the world’s funny bone and have never lost their grip.

The New York Times praised the new film as “ingenious.”

“A wow!” cried the Weekly Film Review.

Thus was born history’s most influential mouse. Mickey led the way in the development of anima-tion as a new art, to the exploration of the world of animals and faraway people and of their adventures and geography.

Mickey Mouse has skipped from triumph to triumph—always preceded by three words in big letters: “walt disney presents.”

Mickey is featured in comic strips and books in 15 languages, became the star of television’s Mickey Mouse Club, and, finally, founded a magic kingdom called Disneyland.

He is Topolino in Italy, Mik-kii Ma-u-su in Japan, Raton Mickey in Mexico, Micky Maus in Germany, Mikki Hiiri in Finland, and just plain Mickey in scores of other lands. He is known around the world—always with ap-probation and love.

Mickey, a versatile fellow, has been everything from farmer and magician to great lover and fire chief. He has directed planets and comets in their courses. He has defied time, space, and gravity. But, though bound to win, he has always fought the clean fight.

True to character, “Mickey Mouse” was the designation in World War II for diagrams of convoy movements toward Normandy’s D-day beaches, and Mickey rode into battles as the insigne on hundreds of ships and planes.

When King Bhumiphol of Thailand presented Walt Disney with a medal, he said quietly for Walt’s ear alone: “This is an honor from my government, but more than that, it comes from me. I grew up on your cartoons.”

Franklin Roosevelt demanded Mickey in the White House. Dowager Queen Mary of Britain liked to find Mickey on the bill when-ever she went to the movies.

It can be said that Walter Elias Disney, the man, and Mickey, the mouse, have made a lasting impact on mankind.

700 Awards From Around the World

Last fall, in Walt Disney’s outer office at the studio in Burbank, California, I got a glimpse into the dimensions of this durable pair, 35 years after the mouse clicked in the fertile Disney mind.

In cases ranged along the walls, on shelves and tables are some of the more than 700 awards the Disney organization has received (page 167). There are dozens of medals, citations, and plaques from appreciative governments attesting the international amity created by Disney’s make-believe characters —Mickey, Donald, Goofy the dog, and all the others.

Walt once sent a proud director home with a newly won Oscar. “How did the family like it?” he asked next day.

“The kids weighed it first thing,” the director said. “You might like to know an Oscar weighs 6 pounds, 12 ounces on our bathroom scale.”

The awards from the film industry mean most to Walt. But he is proud that conservation groups have also recognized his interest in protecting wildlife. He is proudest, perhaps, of the Audubon Society Medal awarded in 1955.

Walt’s office has become so crowded that recently four cabinets of awards were placed in the studio commissary. Some of the employees promptly nicknamed the commissary “the awards room.”

Disney Films Used in Teaching

Although Walt constantly denies he is an educator, his nature films, which he calls True-Life Adventures, have received accolades from educators. Films like Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and The Living Desert were pioneering achievements. Walt’s early edict for them and all the True-Life Adventure pictures was to get the complete natural history of the animals with no sign of humans: no fences, car tracks, buildings, or telephone poles. This concept, plus the intimacy, the extreme close-up view of the animal, completely won the public.

The True-Life Adventures; films of the nomadic Blue Men of Morocco, Japanese fishermen, Siam, the Alaskan Eskimo, and Switzerland; Donald Duck’s adventures in Math-magic Land; the man-in-space series, with technical advice by Wernher von Braun; Disney safety films, and many others are a solid part of the curriculum for thousands of school children, not only in the U. S. but abroad—including countries under Communist control.

I first saw Walt Disney sitting at a low coffee table, wearing his usual working garb: a short-sleeved sport shirt with a woolen tie, slacks, and a sleeveless alpaca sweater.

An aerial photograph of Disneyland dominated one wall. There were photographs of his family, including his five grandchildren; the Disney coat of arms; his first Academy Award.

“That first Oscar was a special award for the creation of Mickey Mouse,” he said. “The other Academy Awards belong to our group, a tribute to our combined effort. The whole thing here is the organization. And the big problem was putting the organization together.

“Look at Disneyland,” he went on, waving toward the aerial photograph. “That was started because we had the talent to start it, the talents of the organization.”

“What’s your role?” I asked.

“You know, I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, ‘Do you draw Mickey Mouse?’ I had to admit I do not draw any more. ‘Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t do that.’ Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Disney, just what do you do?’

” ‘Well,’ I said, ‘sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody.’ I guess that’s the job I do. I certainly don’t consider myself a businessman, and I never did believe I was worth anything as an artist.”

Until a few years ago, Walt was president of the company, Walt Disney Productions. He resigned and was made board chairman. His older brother Roy became president. Then Walt, tired of signing things, resigned as chairman too.

Walt laughed at the memory. “Now my only title is executive producer. I’m the boss of everything that’s produced here. I work on story ideas and gags; I work on every script, writing dialogue and planning scenes. When the story is set, I turn it over to the boys, and they make it.

“We film 25 new stories for television and six feature-length pictures a year—and, of course, we think up ideas for the park, Disneyland. The corporation gets its vitality from what we create.”

The corporation exhibits considerable vitality: In 1962 this magic world showed a gross income of $74,059,000—more than $20,000,000 from Disneyland alone—and a net of $5,263,000.

The Secret Life of Mickey Mouse

All this vitality stems from a mouse that was conceived in desperation, gestated in secrecy, and almost died at birth.

In the fall of 1927, Walt Disney returned to Hollywood from New York without a staff and without a star. He had gone east to negotiate a new contract for his series Oswald the Rabbit. His distributor refused to meet his price and threatened to lure his whole organization away.

“I’ve already signed all your animators,” the distributor told Walt.

Walt and Lillian Disney, his bride of two years, had a doleful trip across the continent. Walt needed a whole staff of animators. He also needed a new character—fast.

The idea for Mickey Mouse was born on the train. “I’ve got it,” Walt told Lilly. “I’ll do a series about a mouse. I’m going to call him Mortimer Mouse.”

Lilly Disney frowned. “I like the idea, but Mortimer sounds too dignified for a mouse.”

Walt thought a few minutes. “All right, we’ll call him Mickey Mouse. Mickey has a good, friendly sound.”

In Hollywood, Walt and Roy Disney and chief animator Ub Iwerks, now director of technical research, began work on Mickey. The defecting animators were still at the studio finishing the Oswald contract, and Walt did not want them to know he was starting a new series. So Ub Iwerks was sequestered in a locked office, and there in four hectic weeks, he animated an entire Mickey Mouse cartoon.

That first Mickey was entitled Plane Crazy, a bit of nonsense inspired by the Lindbergh flight. To get the drawings inked and painted on celluloid for the camera, Walt set up tables in his garage at home. There, Lillian Disney, her sister, and Roy’s wife Edna did the job. A cameraman returned to the studio at night to put the pictures on film.

When Walt took the movie to New York, distributors were not interested. They were also not interested in a second Mickey, produced while Walt was traveling.

Mickey Saved by Plinks and Toots

Mickey was close to death. But he was literally saved by the bell—bells, whistles, plinks, and toots. Sound had made its first real impact on motion pictures with the release of The Jazz Singer in the fall of 1927. Walt decided to try it.

He and Iwerks rigged a homemade radio with a microphone. They put up a white sheet as a screen and, with two helpers, stood at the mike behind it with noisemakers, a mouth organ, and a xylophone. For six hours, Roy projected a short bit of animation from Steamboat Willie, the third Mickey film. The sound makers watched the image and whanged away. It was ragged, but it convinced them that sound was for cartoons.

Walt hurried to New York with the film, and there Steamboat Willie was completed with sound. And it was ingenious and funny sound which transcended the mere novelty of actors singing or mouthing lines.

Sound was added to the first two Mickeys. Suddenly and dramatically, evervbody wanted the talking mouse.

Walt and the mouse have come a long way since. Nothing about Walt Disney’s background easily explains his success, though he began to draw at an early age.

His father, Elias Disney, was a carpenter in Chicago when Walter Elias Disney was born there in December of 1901. When Walt was four, the family—there were three older brothers and a younger sister—moved to Marceline, Missouri. Walt still recalls the horsecar ride to the railroad station.

At Marceline, one of Walt’s first chores was to herd the pigs on the family farm. The Disneys were forced to sell the farm, and in 1910 moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There Walt’s father bought a paper route with 800 customers. Roy and Walt were delivery boys. They started work at 4:30 in the morning and made their rounds on foot.

The family moved back to Chicago in 1917. Walt went to high school, attended the Academy of Fine Arts, and took correspondence courses in cartooning. He also worked at the post office sorting mail and delivering letters.

“As long as I can remember, Walt has been working,” Roy Disney told me. “He worked in the daytime and he worked at night. Walt didn’t play much as a boy. He still can’t catch a ball with any certainty.”

When Walt was 16, he joined an American Red Cross unit as an ambulance driver, but he did not set overseas until after the Armistice (page 163). He had 11 months in France, then went to Kansas City and set up as a commercial artist. He finally landed with the Kansas City Film Ad Company in 1920, preparing animated commercials for silent-movie houses.

Walt recalls those days. “The pull toward Hollywood became strong. Animation was big there, and if I couldn’t be successful at that, I wanted to be a director or a writer.”

In 1923 he went off to Hollywood with $40 in hand, and for two months tried to hitch on at the studios. His $40 disappeared.

“Before I knew it, I had my animation board out,” Walt recalls. He finally got an offer for twelve cartoons—Alice in Cartoon-land—at $1,500 each.

“I talked my big brother Roy into going in with me,” Walt told me. “I couldn’t get a job, so I went into business for myself.”

Business was good. Alice was followed by the successful Oswald the Rabbit series. Then came Mickey.

“The mouse gave us an opportunity to improve the cartoon medium,” Walt says. Experiment and expansion began in 1929 with the first Silly Symphony, in which music played a key role.

Walt worked at the studio all day and every night. Only in recent years has he mastered the compulsion to work all the time. “I still take scripts home,” he told me, “but I don’t read them at night. It’s a temptation to peek, but I wait until morning. I used to read at night and then worry until morning. I used to be tied up all night, but no more.”

Donald Duck Becomes a Star

Walt’s next enthusiasm was Technicolor’s new three-color process for film. A Silly Symphony, Flowers and Trees, was already fully photographed in black and white. Walt decided to remake it in Technicolor. It was a gamble, since Technicolor was extraordinarily expensive.

The picture was made in color and caused a revolution in the animated-cartoon industry. In 1932 it became the first cartoon to win an Oscar. Some of Walt’s funniest pictures were Silly Symphonies—notably The Three Little Pigs and The Tortoise and the Hare.

In 1934 Donald Duck made his first sputtering appearance in The Wise Little Hen. That egregious fellow became an immediate hit—and now has surpassed Mickey as the star of the stable.

“We’re restricted with the mouse,” Walt told me. “He’s become a little idol. The duck can blow his top and commit mayhem, but if I do anything like that with the mouse, I get letters from all over the world. ‘Mickey wouldn’t act like that,’ they say.”

Scenes Gain Depth and Motion

As the pictures were ground out, the art of animation progressed. Characters were being drawn in the round and in perspective, as contrasted with the first flat figures. But Walt was never satisfied. “I knew that locomotion was the key,” he told me. “We had to learn to draw motion. Look, pull your hand across your face and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t see a single hand; it’s sort of stretched and blurred. We had to learn the way a graceful girl walks, how her dress moves, what happens when a mouse stops or starts running.”

Disney set up an elaborate school for his artists. “It was costly, but I had to have the men ready for things we would eventually do.”

What “we would eventually do” was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cartoon. When word of this project got around Hollywood, many movie people said Disney was making his biggest mistake.

“They were thinking of the shorts—thought we were just going to string some together,” Walt said. “But we had a story to tell. They couldn’t get that through their heads.”

While his artists were training, Walt had technicians working on a new kind of camera he planned to use for Snow White. He was no longer satisfied with just round figures; now he wanted the illusion of depth. To achieve this, he developed the radically different “multiplane” camera—and won an Academy Award for it.

In photographing animated films, three separate drawings are usually involved, each done on a sheet of transparent celluloid. One shows the foreground, one the animated figures, and the last the background. Before the multiplane camera, the three celluloids were simply stacked together and the camera shot through them all, giving a flat image. With the multiplane, more than three celluloids could be used, and they could be placed in different planes, sometimes as much as three feet apart. The camera could focus in and out among these planes to give an astonishing effect of depth and motion.

Snow White brought up a new problem. “We had to learn how to put personality into the characters,” Walt told me. “Up to Snow White, we’d just had stock characters.”

A Disney artist enlarged on the theme. “Remember in Snow White when the dwarfs had the pillow fight and Dopey ended up with a single feather?” he asked. “Remember how he fluffed it out and lay down with it under his head? It was funny, but more, it was Walt’s way of expressing what kind of character Dopey is and creating audience sympathy for him.”

Snow White cost one and a half million dollars, and the bankers became restive before it was completed. Walt reluctantly had to show a man from the bank the unfinished product to try to retain their confidence.

“We needed a quarter of a million dollars to finish the picture, so you can guess how I felt.

“He sat there and didn’t say a word,” Walt told me. “Finally the picture was over and he walked to his car, with me following him like a puppy dog. Then he said, ‘Well, so long. You’ll make a pot of money on that picture.’ So we got the money.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (page 165) went on to make theatrical history and brought many honors to Disney. In 1938 Yale gave him an honorary master of arts. In presenting him as a candidate for the degree, Professor William Lyon Phelps said:

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin, and Walter Disney has charmed millions of people in every part of the earth… He has endeared America to the hearts of foreigners.”

That same year brought honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Southern California. (In 1960 Walt received an honorary diploma from the Marceline, Missouri, high school, which was pleasant, since he had never finished high school.)

After Snow White came other feature-length cartoons: Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. Fantasia, released in 1940, started out to be a kind of super Silly Symphony for Mickey Mouse, with Leopold Stokowski directing a full orchestra in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Walt built it into something more, a brilliant combination of animation and fine music—from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Fantasia introduced stereophonic sound 15 years before it was generally used in motion pictures.

Bambi Points Way to Nature Films

Bambi was the fictionalized story of a deer, and the animal studies it involved made it the forerunner of one of Disney’s” most important contributions: the True-Life Adventure films, about live animals in nature. “One thing always leads to another around here,” Walt told me. “In Snow White, we had cute little animals, more on the fantasy side. In Bambi we had to get closer to nature. So we had to train our artists in animal locomotion and anatomy.”

Walt introduced live animals into the studio, deer and rabbits and skunks. “But they were no good,” he says. “They were just pets. So we sent the artists out to zoos, and all we got were animals in captivity. Finally, I sent out some naturalist-cameramen to photograph the animals in their natural environment.

“We captured a lot of interesting things and I said, ‘Gee, if we really give these boys a chance, I might get something unique!’”

But the war intervened: Walt Disney Productions became virtually a war plant for the duration. Disney training films for the Army and Navy, pictures for bond drives, and similar projects made an important contribution to our war effort.

As one of his first postwar projects, Walt sent Alfred Milotte and his wife Elma to Alaska. They sent back miles of film. In the footage—or mileage—Walt stumbled on one of the great stories of nature: the saga of the fur seals coming up from the sea to crowded island beaches in the Pribilofs, there to calve and mate.

The Milottes caught the cruel and mysterious reality of the fur seal—the courting and mating, the fury of the bulls defending their harems against bachelor seals, with babies being trampled and crushed in the turmoil. And, in the end, the eerie disappearance of the herds into the sea.

The picture was Seal Island. It won an Oscar as 1948′s best two-reel subject.

This success was followed by another, In Beaver Valley. Walt will go to the nth degree to get perfection, and for this film he kept cameraman-naturalist Milotte in the wilds for more than a year, studying the beaver’s life habits as he photographed. Out of Milotte’s footage came the story of a talented, fascinating animal (page 175).

The True-Life Adventure pictures used techniques learned in cartoons.

“Any time we saw an animal doing something with style or personality—say a bear scratching its back—we were quick to capitalize on it,” says a Disney writer. “Or otters sliding down a riverbank—humorous details to build personality.

“This anthropomorphism is resented by some people—they say we are putting people into animal suits. But we’ve always tried to stay within the framework of the real scene. Bears do scratch their backs and otters are playful.”

Old Indian Trick Still Works

The cameramen spent months in primitive areas, in African heat, in Alaskan blizzards, in South American jungles. A film by Murl Deusing for a National Geographic Society lecture formed the basis of many important sequences in Nature’s Half Acre, and many of the Society’s lecturers over the years have contributed footage to Disney nature films.

Disney’s cameramen-naturalists worked with telescopic lenses, zoom lenses, time-lapse cameras, and underwater cameras; from behind elaborate blinds, high in the treetops, and from fixed platforms.

Tom McHugh, photographing a buffalo herd for The Vanishing Prairie, found he could not get close enough, even with a telescopic lens. Then he remembered an Indian trick. He covered himself with a buffalo skin and sneaked in for close-ups.

James Algar, the writer and director of The Vanishing Prairie, recalls being surrounded by the torrential rush of buffalo.

“I’d always heard of the thundering herd, and the herd thundered all right. But what I had never heard of was the sibilant, silken swish which accompanies the stampeding buffalo. It was even more terrifying than the thunder.”

Alfred and Elma Milotte spent almost three years in Africa photographing The African Lion. One of their notable sequences shows a rhinoceros bogged in a water hole, helpless and raging. The, exer-tions and grunts of the doomed rhino attracted an audience of jungle creatures. Birds added their raucous cries. Antelope watched. An elephant surveyed the scene, panicked, and ran away. A baboon sat on the bank thoughtfully, as though trying to contrive some plan that would be of help.

Enraged Rhino Charges Benefactors

In the film the rhino was left to die. Actually, the Milottes decided to rescue him. Dodging the desperate animal, they got a stout rope under his head and rump, tied the line to a truck, and pulled him free.

The rhino was ungrateful. Once on dry land, he charged the truck, and they barely managed to get away.

The Milottes brought back much distinguished footage. They recorded a leopard lurking in a thorn tree above a herd of wildebeests, showed him drop on a calf and drag it back into the tree for his meal. Thev also filmed the kill of an antelope by a lion.

Other outstanding film records were produced by Disney’s naturalist-photographers: a bobcat in hot pursuit of a marten; the private lives, births, mating, and the search for food of the pine squirrel, golden eagle, raccoon, and crow; a goshawk striking a flying squirrel in mid-air.

They also recorded a goshawk slamming into photographer Paul Kenworthy’s shoulder as he worked high in a tree to film close-ups of its young.

As the technique improved, the photographers worked in compounds—sometimes as big as 50 acres. “It was a short cut” a writer told me. “We’re not faking nature. We gave the animals the opportunity to appear before the camera.

“Take the spectacular shot of the screaming bobcat scrambling to the top of a saguaro in The Living Desert. It may have been taken in a compound—but it wasn’t faked. The cat streaked up that cactus because he was frightened by wild pigs.

“When we follow the animals underground, we of course expose their tunnels. In Perri, the squirrel goes underground. We spent days conditioning her to the bright lights needed for color photography. Then, when we came to shoot, she didn’t pay any attention to us. We wondered if she had needed conditioning at all.”

“Our naturalist-photographers probably wound up knowing as much about animals they photographed as anyone around—including the scientists,” Walt said. “I don’t think there’s an animal on the North American Continent we don’t have coverage on.”

Merely documenting the lives of wild creatures was not enough. The cameramen’s footage contained drama, but it took the dramatist’s hand to make it coherent.

A fascinating fragment of one of Walt Disney’s critiques taken down during a screening of The Living Desert survives and shows him at work:

“In sequence where tortoises are courting, Walt said: They look like knights in armor, old knights in battle. Give the audience a music cue, a tongue-in-cheek fanfare. The winner will claim his lady fair….

“Pepsis wasp and tarantula sequence: Our heavy is the tarantula. Odd that the wasp is decreed by nature to conquer the tarantula. When her time comes to lay eggs, she must go out and find a tarantula. Not strength, but skill helps her beat Mr. Tarantula….

“Then the hawk and the snake. Our other heavy is the snake…. With wasp and tarantula it’s a ballet—or more like a couple of wrestlers. The hawk should follow. Tarantula gets his and then Mr. Snake gets his… Pepsis wasp doesn’t use brute strength, but science and skill. Should be ballet music. Hawk uses force and violence. One could follow the other and have a different musical theme as contrast.”

Nature Documentaries With a Plot

Walt has an amazing capacity to dramatize his work. When he is in a story conference, he takes the parts himself. Before Snow White he gave a four-hour performance of the entire picture, taking all the parts from Snow White to the smallest rabbit.

“That one performance lasted us three years,” an animator told me. “Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it that night.”

Next Walt Disney laid plans for a new kind of animal picture. “We decided to combine nature’s truth with fiction,” Walt told me.

“We would use the documentary material straight from nature, but give it a plot.”

Perri, the story of a squirrel, by Felix Salten, who also wrote Bambi, was the first of these. Naturalist-photographers spent three and a half years in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, filming the life cycle of every animal in the cast. They sent back more than 200 miles of film!

“Just viewing their films took weeks,” Winston Hibler, the co-producer, told me. “Then it took painstaking editing to fit the film to the story. And by adding music and animation, we produced a paradox— a true-life fantasy.”

Petri was followed by a continuing series of similar pictures that tell stories about animals in relation to man.

“The animals have names and we kind of pull for them,” a writer told me. “Stories are believable as long as-the audience knows the things actually happened. We have to contrive to get the animals to do what the plot calls for without their appearing to be trained animals. But we aren’t asking them to talk.

“In The Legend of Lobo, for example, the script called for the main character, the wolf, to walk a narrow log spanning a deep chasm. This was achieved by training the wolf, first to walk across a log near the ground, then to continue to cross the log as it was raised higher and higher.

“When the picture was shot, the wolf actually crossed a log about 75 feet long spanning a chasm several hundred feet deep.”

From animal pictures Walt Disney has gone on to live-action pictures about people on an astounding variety of subjects.

Disney stuck to timeless pictures at first: Treasure Island, Robin Hood, and Davy Crockett—films which can be released many times. “Then I got to thinking, ‘When it comes to making comedy, we’re the ones’; so we did The Shaggy Dog. So far it’s been seen by 55 million people.” The live-action comedies closely follow the Disney cartoon techniques. “We’ve always made things fly and defy gravity,” Walt told me. “Now we’ve just gone on to flying flivvers, floating football players, and bouncing basketball players.”

The geographic scope and variety of the Disney activities are awesome. Besides a com-pany in the Burbank studio filming a new movie called Summer Magic, Walt had camera crews in Florida, Yellowstone Park, and New England, a complete production unit in Canada for The Incredible Journey, a production unit in Majorca and another in Vienna, a feature cartoon in the works, plus four television cartoons, and a Western being shot at the studio ranch.

I had been told that Walt makes all major decisions on all his pictures, and I wondered how he kept track of things.

I found out when I sat in with him as the “dailies”—excerpts from various pictures— were projected. About fifteen of the staff— musicians, directors, song writers, producers, and writers—came in.

We listened to Burl Ives sing “The Ugly Bug Ball” a dozen times as the camera covered him from different angles. Sad Sam, the original shaggy dog, appeared on the screen with a caterpillar on his nose. We saw a scene from a Western played over and over from different points of view. The dogs in The Incredible Journey went through their paces.

Disney himself, in full color, flashed on the screen in a lead-in for his television program, The Wonderful World of Color. He began suavely and then blew his lines.

“I’m not only getting wrinkles,” he said from the back of the room, “I’m losing my eyesight, too.” He told a cameraman, “Don’t use that diffusion on me. I look out of focus. Let the wrinkles show.”

We were in the projection room two hours. This, I learned, was how Disney keeps on top of his many projects. His men send their product to be appraised. A shipment of film from Europe arrives every Tuesday. Walt also makes frequent trips to Europe and flies key personnel to the studio for conferences. He is not a memo-writing man.

“After we tie down the shooting script, it’s up to the boys to make the pictures,” Disney told me. “If they run into trouble, I always tell them, ‘If you bring me a problem, have a solution.’ Lots of times, their solution is the answer and it’s just a matter of saying O.K.”

Magazine a Friend to Researchers

On one of my first trips around the studio, I saw the National Geographic almost everywhere I went: in the animators’ offices, in the machine shop, on writers’ desks. I saw it in the wardrobe department, where it’s used in designing the correct clothing for various countries, and in the staff shop at Disneyland, where the realistic animals are cast for Adventureland.

“Looks like I planted them,” Walt said, “but we really use the Geographic. We couldn’t be in business without it” (page 174).

When I dropped into the library to inquire about the meticulous research that backs up every Disney picture, Koneta Roxby,the chief of research, told me: “The Geographic is one of our basic research sources. We use it almost every day.

“We certainly used it when Disneyland was being built,” she went on. “This library was a madhouse. There would be ten or fifteen people waiting in line for research materials and, of course, the phone rang every minute.”

Disneyland really started more than 20 years ago, when Walt got the idea for an amusement park that grownups as well as children would enjoy.

“I had all my drawing things laid out at home, and I’d work on plans for the park, as a hobby, at night.”

At the time, amusement parks were dying all over the country. “I talked Disneyland, but no one could see it,” Walt recalled. “So I went ahead and spent my own money.”

In 1954, for the site of his kingdom, Walt bought 244 acres of land—mostly orange groves—25 miles from Los Angeles, near Anaheim, California. “I wanted flat land that I could shape” he said.

He surrounded the entire park with a high earth embankment. “I don’t want the public to see the real world they live in while they’re in the park. I want them to feel they are in another world.”

When the preliminary plans for the park were completed, the cost estimate was $4,700,000, but Joe Fowler, who is in charge of Disneyland, says, “That was only a guess.” The over-all cost to date is approximately forty-four million dollars!

Disneyland: the Geography of Imagination

At the Disneyland opening, in July, 1955, a year after the first orange tree was uprooted, Walt said, “Disneyland will never be com-pleted. It will grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” It seemed, at the time, a pleasant sentiment, but few took it literally. Walt did, and that is why Disneyland remains unique; he is forever enlarging it (painting, pages 180-82). Now he is building an old New Orleans Square, complete with a bayou boat ride.

Disneyland, on a fall day, is full of warmth and zest. I paid my respects to the giant portrait of Mickey Mouse, in living flowers, that adorns the slanting earth embankment at the park’s main entrance.

I stepped into the Town Square—and right into Walt Disney’s childhood: The Square with its red-brick Victorian elegances is a distillation of Walt’s early memories of Chicago and Marceline and Kansas City shortly after the turn of the century.

A gaily cockaded band was tootling. A horsecar rolled along, the horse’s rubber shoes making muffled thumps; a double-decked bus stood at the curb; and a balloon seller, hidden behind a great cluster of his wares, looked like a gigantic chrysanthemum. Over a loud-speaker from the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad station came the measured voice of the train announcer:

“… now leaving for Adventureland, Fron-tierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland— all aboarrrd!”

Main Street, U. S. A., sets the tone and pace of Disneyland: It is a place for strolling (page 187). People stop to peer into the windows of the apothecary shop and the old-time general store, and to look over the shoulder of a sidewalk artist as he sketches a portrait. Most of the visitors are grownups. As the park statistics prove, adult guests outnumber children three and a half to one.

Visitors Fooled by Live Swans

At the end of Main Street, faraway jungle noises made me turn to the left and enter Adventureland.

I took the jungle river cruise (pages 192-3) aboard the sturdy river boat Ganges Gal, which chugged past menacing crocodiles, a ruined temple, and a group of bathing elephants. Gorillas and a tremendous African elephant roared from the tropical vegetation which choked the banks of the stream.

There was some discussion among the passengers about the animals. Were they real? (They were, of course, animated.) But in Disneyland, it is sometimes hard to know where fantasy ends and reality begins. A little later, I watched a pair of ladies peer intently at the live swans sailing on the moat of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

“They are not real,” one lady finally said with authority.

I met Bill Evans and Ray Miller, landscape architects for the park, and complimented them on the effects they have created along the jungle stream. They have made Disneyland a must for visiting horticulturists. The park has close to 700 species of plants. It takes at least 30 gardeners to keep them in trim.

We wandered to the base of the Swiss Family Tree House, which opened last fall. I asked what kind of tree it was.

“It was modeled after the ban-van tree, Ficus benghalensis” said Ray Miller, “but we call it Disneyodendron eximius, which means an out-of-the-ordinary Disney tree.”

The 70-foot tree is a copy of the Swiss Family Robinson’s tropic domicile, complete with furniture salvaged from their ship.

I took a short cut through Frontierland (pages 183-5) just in time to be caught in the middle of a running gun fight between a rootin’-tootin’ sheriff and a Western bad man. Happily, they were using blank cartridges, or the slaughter would have been awesome.

The Mark Twain, the stately white river packet, was just leaving her dock for a cruise on the Rivers of America. Across the water, I saw some energetic boys romping on Tom Sawyer Island, while others helped Indians paddle war canoes or rode the high-sided keel boats, the ones used in Disney’s Davy Crockett movie and television series.

In Fantasyland (pages’188-9) I found myself face to face with larger-than-life-size impersonations of famous Disney characters: the Big Bad Wolf, one of the Three Little Pigs, Minnie Mouse (page 202). The Mad Hatter, his rubber jowls quivering, was trapped in a corner. He was having a hard time defending himself against a mob of children.

The Most Marvelous Submarine

In Tomorrowland, I boarded the submarine Skipjack, one of eight submersibles in the Disney fleet. It took me on one of the incredible journeys of the world, though it was made in a mere six million gallons of water rather than an ocean.

The sub “went under” in a swirl of bubbles and sailed serenely (guided by sonar, the skipper said) through treacherous coral reefs ablaze with animated tropical fish. Giant turtles dined on sea grass. Barracudas, sharks, and a dangerous moray eel loomed from the shadows. In a plunge to the abyss, we saw phosphorescent creatures of the deep.

We passed through the hull of a sunken ship and glimpsed chests filled with gleaming treasure. And, as the skipper explained that we could not expect to see mermaids since they were only figments of imagination, we nosed impolitely into a mermaids’ boudoir (opposite).

The sub visited the lost continent of Atlantis, went under the polar ice cap, and finally passed what may be the largest sea serpent in the world. Certainly the largest cross-eyed sea serpent.

When I talked with Joe Fowler, the retired admiral who is vice president for Disneyland operations, he said his former Navy colleagues are delighted with the submarines. One, a sub skipper, said, “That’s the only time I’ve ever been on a sub and could see where I was going.”

“We were apprehensive that some guests might suffer from claustrophobia in the subs,” Fowler told me. “But in my Navy experience, I had learned that few peo-pie suffer from claustrophobia if you have moving air and something to see. That’s why there’s an air jet in front of every porthole.”

How to Build a Mountain

Fowler has one besetting problem: “Almost everything we undertake in the park has never been done before,” he told me.

He cited the Matterhorn as an example (pages 194-5). The 146-foot-high mountain, which is one hundredth the height of the real Matterhorn, contains 500 tons of structural steel, and almost no two pieces are the same length, size, or weight.

The Disney Matterhorn is a close copy of the real mountain. Disney designers studied hundreds of pictures of the rugged peak, pictures taken during the filming of Third Man on the Mountain. Like the original, it also has its mountain climbers, athletes in alpine attire who scale and rappel it eight times daily.

Whereas the real Matterhorn is extremely solid, the Disneyland version is hollow and houses an exciting bobsled ride.

I rode one of the bobsleds and was lifted high inside the mountain. Then my bobsled dipped over a sharp edge and I was on my own—moving around curves, through icy grottos, past waterfalls, and under the Skyway’s ski-lift buckets, which take visitors through the mountain for a view of the ice caves. Finally my bobsled dashed into a tumbling mountain stream, which braked it, and the ride was over.

One of the greatest attractions

is the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System which loops in and out of the park (page 197). Disney and Alweg engineers collaborated in the design, and the trains were built at the Disney studio. The monorail is the first of its type—a “piggy-back” design in which the cars are locked to the track.

I rode the monorail from the Disneyland Hotel to the park several times. A uniformed girl handed me aboard the long silver train. It started gently, smoothly. We glided over the magic kingdom at 20 miles an hour, silently surveying the wonders below like some satellite from space. Most passengers, myself included, leave the monorail convinced it is the answer for rapid transit of the future.

I wandered backstage at Disneyland to visit Bud Washo, the head of the staff shop. There I got a glimpse of the Disney future, though its subject matter in this case was the dim past.

At WED Enterprises in Glendale, where all the design work for Disneyland is done, I had watched Blaine Gibson modeling a series of small-scale dinosaurs, cave men, and other prehistoric creatures. Now Bud Washo took me into a barnlike room where Gibson’s dinosaurs were being re-created—life-size. An enraged Tyrannosaurus rex with a two-foot mouthful of six-inch teeth is something to stand beside—even if it is just clay.

Once the clay figures are completed, plaster molds are made, and then the carefully detailed skin is cast from 3/s-inch Duraflex, which Washo described as a “hot-melt vinyl reformulated for strength.”

“Hardly anything affects it,” Washo said.

“It can take weather, most oils, or gases. It’s enormously flexible and durable.”

When the casts are finished, the figures are trucked carefully to the studio machine shop, where their animation machinery is installed (page 203).

Dinosaur Will Go to World’s Fair

I pointed to a sail-backed dinosaur which was being fitted into its skin and asked: “What will that one do?”

“It will be able to swish its tail from side to side, open its mouth, flex up and down like a lizard, and the sail will sway,” Washo said matter-of-factly.

“Where will the dinosaurs and cave men be used?” I asked.

“They’re for the Ford Motor exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York,” Bud said.

Plastic Birds Come to Life

One day after lunch, Walt grabbed my arm. “Come on,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

We walked in the bright sunshine between the stages on the movie studio lot and turned into the machine shop. Four elephants without skins sat in a row, gravely nodding their heads. On a bench lay what looked very much like a human hand, closing and opening silently. Farther down, a prehistoric man waved his arm; someone had incongruously placed a handkerchief in his hand.

On the machinists’ benches stood a variety of plastic birds, opening and closing their beaks, turning their heads, and flipping their tails.

Walt stopped to talk to a machinist. I looked at one of the birds. Without its feathers, the creature was a mass of wiring and air tubes. As I watched, this unearthly bird puffed out its chest and began to sing.

A machinist told me that every bird contains five air lines and four sets of wires, plus a tiny loud-speaker.

“This is the latest thing we’ve done with Audio-Animatronics,” Walt said. “We are using the new types of valves and controls developed for rockets. That way we can get extremely subtle motions.”

“About that word,” I said, “Audio-Animatronics.”

“It’s just animation with sound, run by electronics,” he smiled. “Audio-Animatronics. It’s an extension of animated drawings.

“We take an inanimate object and make it move. Everything is programmed on tape: the birds’ movements, lighting effects, and sounds. We turn on the tape and the birds do their stuff. At the end, the tape automatically rewinds itself and starts all over again. With tape we could present a program of an hour and six minutes without repeating anything.”

“Is anyone else doing this kind of thing?”

“I don’t know anyone crazy enough,” Walt laughed.

Disney Birds Sing Popular Songs

Several weeks later, Walt invited me to the studio for a showing of the completed mock-up for the Enchanted Tiki Room, scheduled to open in the park this summer.

Now all the birds had been bedecked in colorful feathers, and were individually lighted. Four macaws opened the show with a line of chatter and then swung into a lively calypso number, followed by Offenbach’s “Barcarole.” A fountain jetted in time to the music under colored lights.

The fountain sent up a particularly high jet and, as it fell back into the bowl, a Bird-Mobile slowly descended from the ceiling, bearing yellow and white cockatoos. They broke loose with

“Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” and brought down the house.

There was much more: songs sung by orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers; a rain storm; chants by tikis —carvings representing various native gods—accompanied by animated drummers. It is a tremendous show—the climax of more than two years’ work at a cost of approximately a million dollars.

Abraham Lincoln Returns to Life

I went out into the street again with Walt and Wathel Rogers, who supervised the Enchanted Tiki Room. We entered another building and I got a shock; I almost bumped smack into Abraham Lincoln!

The illusion was alarming. The tall, lonely man sits in a chair much as in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. But this is no cold stone figure; this Lincoln is man-size—and so realistic it seems made of flesh and blood (pages 206-07).

Wathel Rogers made adjustments at an electronic console, and Lincoln’s eyes ranged the room. His tongue moved as if to moisten his lips and he cleared his throat. Then with a slight frown, he clasped the arms of his chair, stood up, and began to talk in measured tones.

“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?” he asked.

And then he answered: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us….”

To get an idea of the tremendous animation job this is, try it yourself. Sit in an armchair and pull yourself to your feet, observing how many muscles are called into play and the subtle balance required.

The Lincoln skin is the same Du-raflex that has worked so well on the other Audio-Animatronic figures.

“Duraflex has a consistency much like human skin,” Rogers said. “It flexes as well as compresses. Rubber, for example, will flex, but won’t compress correctly for our needs.”

Rogers described the mechanics: 16 air lines to the Lincoln head, 10 air lines to the hands and wrists, 14 hydraulic lines to control the body, and two pairs of wires for every line. Rogers ran the Lincoln face through some of its 15 expressions. Lincoln smiled at me (first on one side of his face, then the other). He raised each eyebrow quizzically, one at a time, then, fixing me with a glance, frowned and chilled my marrow. And just to show he wasn’t really angry, he ended by giving me a genial wink.

“Lincoln is part of a Disneyland project called ‘One Nation Under God;” Wathel Rogers explained. “It will start with a Circa-rama presentation of great moments in constitutional crises.

“Circarama is a special motion-picture technique Walt developed for Disneyland and the Brussels World’s Fair. The Bell Telephone Circarama now at Disneyland tells the story of the great sights of America. It has a 360-degree screen. The audience is surrounded by the continuous action, as if they were moving with the camera and able to see in all directions.

“The Circarama for the ‘One Nation Under God’ showing will have a 200-degree screen. After the Circarama showing, a curtain will close, then open again to reveal the Hall of Presidents. The visitor will see all the Chief Executives modeled life-size. He’ll think it’s a waxworks—until Lincoln stands up and begins to talk.”

Audio-Animatronic figures are now being planned for Disneyland’s French Quarter square in old New Orleans. They will also add chilling realism to the Haunted Mansion now under construction in Frontierland. (Visitors who ask about the mansion are told, “Walt’s out capturing ghosts for it now.”)

Never Do the Same Thing Twice

What next? Walt enjoys the past but he lives for the future.

“The fun is in always building something,”

he told me. “After it’s built, you play with it a little and then you’re through. You see, we never do the same thing twice around here. We’re always opening up new doors.”

I asked him a doleful question, “What happens when there is no more Walt Disney?”

“I think about that,” he said. “Every day I’m throwing more responsibility to other men. Every day I’m trying to organize them more strongly.

“But I’ll probably outlive them all,” he grinned. “I’m 61. I’ve got everything I started out with except my tonsils, and that’s above average. I plan to be around for a while.”

9 comments
  1. [...] Part One Part Three [...]

  2. [...] Part One Part Two [...]

  3. [...] Boing has links to a National Geographic articled scanned in and posted at Modern Mechanix (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I love these old vintage articles where the world was still trying to figure out [...]

  4. Asymmetric says: May 3, 20079:55 pm

    The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney: Part 1…

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  5. [...] pictured sitting in, was a good example. This 1963 National Geographic article revived thanks to ModernMechanix.com has some great insight about the [...]

  6. fun math review games says: June 26, 20082:10 am

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  7. Capsule Blog says: September 15, 20104:12 pm

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  8. [...] in this series included “Seals Island”, “In Beaver Valley”, and “The Living Desert”. An article on Walt Disney in a 1963 edition of Modern Mechanix magazine said that, “Walt’s early edict for… all the True Life Adventure pictures was to get the [...]

  9. [...] Mechanix” blog has scanned in all of this giant fifty-page article, in three parts:  One, Two, and Three.  Part two contains a particularly nice fold-out map of 1963-era [...]

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