Magician of the Movies

The Life of Walt Disney

by Bob Thomas | Release Date: May 21, 2016 | Availability: Print, Kindle

From Marceline to the Magic Kingdom

Award-winning Associate Press reporter Bob Thomas' original biography of Walt Disney is fast-moving and insightful—the perfect introduction to Walt for readers of all ages.

The stories told in Magician of the Movies unravel the man who fascinates us to this day. Thomas puts us in the wagon with young Walt making the rounds with Doc Sherwood in Marceline, Missouri. He makes us feel Walt's despair at the loss of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit—and Walt's jubilance not long after with the creation of Mickey Mouse.

We follow Walt to France during World War I, sit alongside him at the premiere of Snow White, and weather with him the dark days of World War II. We watch as orange groves give way to magic and pixie dust. Even if you've heard these stories before, Thomas brings them—and many others—to vivid life, with wit and charm, and deepens your admiration for Walt Disney.

Bob Thomas wrote two biographies of Walt (and one of Walt's brother, Roy), and he counted the Disneys among his many Hollywood friends. Walt himself gave his future biographer a personal tour of Disneyland when the park was still under construction—driving Thomas to the site in a convertible! No other biographer writes of Walt Disney with such authority and authenticity.


Table of Contents


Chapter 1: No Time for Foolishness

Chapter 2: A Young Charlie Chaplin

Chapter 3: News Butcher

Chapter 4: Student and Mailman

Chapter 5: Off to War

Chapter 6: The Art of Animation

Chapter 7: Hollywood

Chapter 8: A Star Is Born

Chapter 9: Mickey Finds His Voice

Chapter 10: In Glorious Color!

Chapter 11: Enter Donald Duck

Chapter 12: We’re in Trouble

Chapter 13: The Disney Studio Goes to War

Chapter 14: Breakthrough: Seal Island

Chapter 15: The Carolwood Pacific

Chapter 16: Disney’s Folly

Chapter 17: Disneyland: The Dream

Chapter 18: Disneyland: The Reality

Chapter 19: New Worlds to Conquer


My association with this book goes back a long time.

In the small town where I grew up, the usual kind of small town where the carnivals came through every summer and the leaves were burned in big piles every autumn and the old doctor (not the young doctor) would still make a house call, there was a little brick building near the railroad tracks, our public library.

It was endowed, in part, by a man named Roger Blough, who had also grown up in this small town, decades earlier, and had gone on to became the chairman of U.S. Steel. His wife liked to read, and so, in 1966, he made sure she had a library where she could find lots of new books.

I remember walking into the library for the first time and asking for a borrower’s card. I was six, maybe seven years old. I had ridden my bike into town; in those days, you could do that, and you didn’t even have to tell your parents where you were going, because there wasn’t anywhere you could go where you wouldn’t be safe.

The sweet old lady behind the desk filled out my card for me. Her hand shook a bit as she wrote my name in pen—she didn’t print it, she wrote it; this was serious business.

Then she asked me what kind of books I liked to read. I bit my tongue before I could say “comic books.” I really wasn’t sure. “All kinds, I guess, but a friend of mine has a book about the Alamo, and so I want one about cowboys.”

She took me into the stacks and we found a biography of Kit Carson. It was a little hardcover book, not many pages to it, with what looked like a cowboy holding a gun on the cover, and it smelled like a book.

While I was looking at Kit Carson, the librarian was tut-tutting about someone who had put a book back in the wrong place. I looked over at it and thought I saw the word “magician.”

“Is that a book about magicians?” Because I liked them, too.

She was confused for a moment, and then said, “No, it’s about Walt Disney. The book is just called Magician of the Movies.” When I had nothing to say, she asked me if I’d heard about Disneyland (there was not yet a Walt Disney World). Sure I had! “Well,” she said, this book is about how Walt built Disneyland, and how he made his movies, and how he grew up.” She held the book out to me. “Do you want to take it home and read it?”

To this day, I think she just didn’t want to be bothered finding out where it belonged and putting it back there. But I took that book home, and I did read it.

And nearly fifty years later, here I am publishing it, with the greatest of pleasure.

Please take this book home and read it.

Bob Thomas

Bob Thomas was an award-winning Hollywood biographer and reporter. Born in 1922, his career with the Associated Press spanned nearly seven decades. In that time, he met and interviewed and mingled with a who’s who of Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Marlon Brando, Betty Grable, Jack Nicholson, Groucho Marx, and of course, Walt Disney.

Thomas holds two Guinness Book of World Records: one for the most consecutive Academy Awards shows covered by an entertainment reporter (66) and one for the longest career as an entertainment reporter (from 1944 through 2010).

One of his biggest stories had nothing to do with the entertainment business. In 1968 he was assigned by the Associated Press to cover Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s California primary. Thomas wound up filing the first A.P. bulletin that Kennedy had been shot. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his eye-witness account of the assassination.

In 1988, he was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Thomas wrote four books about Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company:

  • Walt Disney: The Art of Animation (1958)
  • Magician of the Movies (1966, re-released 2016)
  • Walt Disney: An American Original (1976)
  • Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (1998)

He wrote many other books as well, including biographies of Howard Hughes, Liberace, Marlon Brando, Bing Crosby, and Abbott & Costello.

In 1955, Walt Disney drove Bob Thomas down the Santa Ana Freeway in his convertible to the construction site of Disneyland, where he took the young reporter on a memorable jeep tour of the unfinished park. Walt’s evocative descriptions (related by Thomas in Chapter 17) brought the future Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street, U.S.A., to life amid the denuded orange groves on that hazy California afternoon and convinced Thomas that Walt really did have something magical in store for the world.

Bob Thomas died on March 14, 2014.

Doc Sherwood gives seven-year-old Walt some much-needed artistic self-esteem.

By the time he was seven, Walter was hurrying through his work for still another reason. He knew that if he finished up early enough, he could accompany the country doctor on his rounds. That was real fun.

Doc Sherwood was a kind and thoughtful old man who, unlike Walter’s father, patiently listened to all Walt’s young ideas and problems. The doctor often let the boy drive the surrey for him, and willingly answered the youngster’s endless questions. But best of all, the old man took an interest in whatever Walter did.

One spring day Walt rushed through his chores and ran all the way to Doc Sherwood’s house. He reached the doctor’s house just in time. The old man was already hitching up his high-stepping stallion for a tour of the countryside.

“Afternoon, Doc,” said the boy. “Can I go along with you today?”

“Why, surely, Walter,” Doc Sherwood answered. His chin whiskers seemed to wiggle when he spoke. The strange motion always amazed the boy. “I could use a strong hand on the reins, while I make out my reports,” the doctor added.

Walt leaped onto the surrey with one jump, as Doc Sherwood gave a gentle snap to the reins to signal the stallion. The surrey swung out of the yard and down a country lane, past orchards of apple trees still fragrant with blossoms.

“Where we goin’ first?” asked Walt.

“To the Mulvehills’ farm,” said the doctor. “The twins’ve got the mumps.”

“What’s mumps?”

“That’s a disease where the jaws swell up. Makes it hard to swallow.”

“Is it serious?”

“Not for the twins. For grownups, it can be.”

Walt thought about that for a long while, until the surrey rumbled up the curving driveway to the Mulvehill farm. Doc Sherwood took his bag and went inside. As soon as he had gone, Walt removed the pad and pencil from under his jacket and began looking around for a likely subject. He spotted a mockingbird sitting on the limb of a sycamore tree and quickly penciled in the bird’s outlines on his pad.

The mockingbird flew away before Walt could finish, but Walt completed the sketch from memory, then drew the tree boughs around it. When he heard the door of the farmhouse open, he tucked the pad and pencil back under his jacket.

Doc Sherwood climbed back on the surrey, and handed Walt the reins. The boy clicked his tongue and swatted the stallion’s rump with the leather. The horse turned his head and stared with disdain for a moment. Then he began to walk slowly down the driveway.

“How are the twins?” Walt asked.

“Fine, just fine,” said the doctor, as he wrote in his ledger. “They’ll be back in school next week.”

“Can you die from mumps?” the boy asked.

“It’s not likely,” Doc Sherwood answered.

“Who’s next?”

“Mrs. Crandall. She’s got a bad hurt in her chest.”

“Is she going to die?”

“Yes, Walter, I’m afraid she is.”

That gave Walter much to think about. He watched solemnly as Mr. Crandall came out of the farmhouse and hurried Doc Sherwood inside. They were gone a long time, and Walter once more brought out his pad. This time he made a sketch of the Crandalls’ setter, snoozing in the shade of a flowering peach tree. Once more he hid the pad as the doctor emerged from the house.

“Is she dead yet?” Walt asked in a whisper.

“No—not yet,” the doctor said with sadness.

This time the stallion started down the road without Walt’s signal, and Doc Sherwood, who was writing out his report, broke his pencil.

“May I borrow your pencil, Walter?” he asked.

The boy handed it to the doctor, and the doctor finished his writing.

“Now why don’t you show me what you’ve been drawing?” Doc Sherwood asked, as he laid his ledger aside.

Walt blushed. “Oh, you wouldn’t want to see it,” he said, trying to figure out how the doctor knew about his sketching.

“Yes, I would,” the doctor answered.

The boy slipped the pad from inside his jacket and handed it to Doc Sherwood, who studied the scene of the sleeping dog under a profusion of blossoms.

“Why, that’s very good, Walter,” he said. “That’s very good indeed.”

Walter’s face reddened again, half with pride and half with embarrassment. For he was a quiet, shy boy, and no one really had ever complimented him on his drawings before—except, maybe, Aunt Margaret or his mother. He sucked in his cheeks to keep himself from smiling with pleasure, and silently drove on.

Continued in "Magician of the Movies"!

It's hard to believe today, with his universal popularity, but at one time Disney felt that Mickey Mouse had become too predictable, too dull, to keep the public entertained. What the company needed was an anti-Mickey...

One night at the studio, Walt was discussing the plot of a new cartoon with several of his men. All of them were weary after a long day’s work, and the ideas were not coming as quickly as everyone had hoped they would.

“Well, let’s quit for tonight,” said Walt. “Maybe if we get a good night’s sleep, we can lick this story in the morning.”

While the men talked, a radio played quietly in a corner, and one of the men walked over to turn it off.

“Wait a minute,” Walt said. “Leave it on.”

He heard a strange noise coming from the loudspeaker. It was a squawky voice reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

It took him a minute to identify the singer. Then he realized why.

“It’s a duck,” he laughed.

The men nodded their heads in agreement, as they too suddenly recognized the sound. Everyone was smiling at the job the impersonator was doing.

“That’s the funniest duck I’ve ever heard!” Walt exclaimed. “Let’s find out who does the voice. Maybe we can use him in a cartoon.”

The voice belonged to Clarence Nash, a traveling performer who made a specialty of animal noises. He was invited to visit the studio. As soon as he exhibited his wide range of barnyard sounds, he was quickly added to the staff of actors who supplied voices for cartoon characters.

“I like that girl duck you do,” Walt told him. “Maybe we can think of some way to use her in a cartoon.”

Months passed, but no plot appeared that called for a female duck. Then one day when Walt was working with his story men on a new Silly Symphony, The Wise Little Hen, he got an idea.

“We’ll play it the same as in the nursery tale,” said Walt. “The Little Hen will ask all the animals in the barnyard if they will help her plant the corn. They’ll all say no, and she’ll do it herself. Then she’ll have to water the corn, and pick the crop, and make the meal by herself. In the end, they will all volunteer to help her eat the corn dinner, but she’ll have other ideas.

“The hen will have to be the straight character. To get the laughs, we’ll have to dream up some good comedy characters to play opposite her. Got any ideas?”

“What about that girl duck you’ve been hoping to use, Walt?” asked one of the men.

“No, it wouldn’t be funny to have two females playing a scene together.” Walt paused a minute. “But say—why does Clarence’s voice have to be a girl? It could just as easily belong to a boy duck—a lazy, good-for-nothing boy duck. I think we could have some fun with him.”

One of the men started sketching the outline of a jaunty, self-confident duck.

“Make him kind of cocky,” Walt suggested. “And I think we ought to give him something to wear. How about a sailor suit? Ducks like the water. Give him a sailor’s jacket and a cap.”

The sketch turned out to be promising, and a new Disney performer by the name of Donald Duck was added to the cast of The Wise Little Hen. Donald’s first line was: “Who—me? Oh, no! I got a bellyache.”

Donald Duck has been bellyaching ever since. He was such a sensation in The Wise little Hen that Walt put him into a second cartoon called The Orphan’s Benefit. This one starred the studio’s top name, Mickey Mouse. With the voice of Clarence Nash, Donald recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” until the audience began booing and throwing vegetables, and Donald erupted in a flurry of angry squawking that became his trademark. Soon Donald was starring in his own cartoons, and later in feature films as well.

Continued in "Magician of the Movies"!

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