In the 1930s, polo was all the rage in Hollywood. Big stars rode horses and swung mallets. Eager to compete, Walt Disney put together his own polo team. His zeal for the trendy sport energized his creativity...and brought him a lifetime of pain.
Walt Disney never did anything by halves. Polo was no exception. Despite his dubious athletic prowess, he played aggressively on the field, while in the clubhouse he mingled with Hollywood elite—soon becoming one himself.
Scott M. Madden, author of The Sorcerer's Brother, the acclaimed biography of Walt's brother Roy O. Disney, delves into a little-known tributary of Walt's life, his infatuation with polo. Madden explores how Walt first took up the mallet, his triumphs and misadventures on the playing field, and how an injury plagued Walt for the rest of his life.
For those who think they know everything there is to know about Walt Disney, this book reveals new information about how a young Walt spent his time outside the studio, in the stressful, uncertain years before the release of Snow White.
A Brief Discussion of Polo
Chukker 1: 1933
Chukker 2: 1934
Chukker 3: 1935
Chukker 4: 1936
Chukker 5: 1937
Chukker 6: 1938
In the 1930s, playing the sport of polo was not “golf on horseback” but an invitation to great danger.
When artist Alex Raymond introduced the world to Flash Gordon on the Sunday comics page on January 7,1934, he had to quickly define his new hero for his eager readers of all ages.
In the sixth panel of that first installment, Raymond introduced Flash as “Yale Graduate and world-renowned polo player” because that immediately told his audience that the guy was really smart and so rough-and-tumble athletic that he would be able to handle any of the unexpected rigors he encountered on the Planet Mongo.
To achieve the same effect for an audience today unfamiliar with the harsh physical combat that is polo, Raymond might have chosen to make Flash a champion of mixed marital arts or a brawling football player (as was done in the famous 1980 feature film featuring the character).
Polo was not for the timid of mind or body, as people in the 1930s were well aware. However, in Los Angeles, it was also the social forum where many of Hollywood’s elite gathered, either as players or as enthusiastic spectators.
Oil executive, art collector, philanthropist, and famed polo player Charles Wrightman lent one of his friends who ran the Beverly Hills Hotel one of his prestigious trophies to display in the newly redecorated bar which was then dubbed the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge. It became the premier dining spot for power players in the movie industry and the place to go after polo games.
In the 1930s, Walt Disney was establishing himself as an independent film producer and so it was natural that he would gravitate to a sport that would offer him access to these movers and shakers. In the process, he developed friendships with celebrity polo players like Will Rogers and Spencer Tracy.
In addition, Walt had a great love of horses that began as a child on a small Missouri farm. In Hollywood, het would often ride in the hills of Griffith Park with his wife Lillian for enjoyment and exercise.
He had season boxes at both the Santa Anita and Hollywood Park racetracks. In fact, he helped finance the building of Hollywood Park with other celebrities in 1938 and still owned shares at the time of his death.
Walt was also highly competitive. On Sunday afternoons in the 1930s, he and his older brothers (Roy, Herbert, and Ray) would have croquet matches in Roy’s backyard that got very aggressive, a trait Walt would bring to his polo playing to compensate for his lack of coordination.
As always, if Walt was enthusiastic about something in his life, he found a way to bring it into his work, not just by dragging his studio personnel into the game but by producing a Mickey Mouse cartoon parodying the turmoil of polo called Mickey’s Polo Team (1936).
Unfortunately, this story has an unhappy ending, as Walt’s participation resulted in a painful injury that plagued him for the rest of his life, often putting him into an unexpectedly foul mood when dealing with others.
Walt’s world was full of so many interesting things that his brief polo career is often shortchanged in books discussing his life.
Fortunately, Scott Madden was curious enough to explore Walt’s polo career in much greater depth, and the result is a fascinating tale that provides greater insight into Walt Disney as a person.
Those familiar with Madden’s previous book, The Sorcerer’s Brother: How Roy O. Disney Made Walt’s Magic Possible, knows that he is a meticulous researcher. For this book, Madden uncovered information that most people not only have never seen but never knew existed, from the United States Polo Association to contemporaneous newspaper reports of the polo matches that Walt played.
Madden doesn’t stop with sharing these wonderful treasures but also connects how the disciplines of polo spilled over into how Walt approached his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a film that would transform both animation and storytelling.
Remember, during this same time, Walt was still producing animated shorts each month, managing a growing merchandise empire, and starting a new family, among other things, but he still found the time to mount up, take mallet in hand, and stubbornly keep improving at a game he should never have attempted in the first place.
There are six chukkers (a period of play of about seven-and-a-half minutes each) in a polo match and the following chapters are divided in a similar fashion in a chronological format. Each one weaves a plethora of details and verified facts into a fascinating story that captures the excitement of old Hollywood along with the very real perils behind the sport that at any moment could turn deadly.
I am grateful that Scott Madden took the time to research and share this part of Walt’s life and to do it so well. It enriches Disney history and brings a new perspective to an amazing man who continues to inspire. This is important material you will not find compiled anywhere else.
Scott lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife and their nine-year-old black lab. A medieval knight by trade, Scott is a skilled horseman and avid sportsman. He is the author of the novel Thunder Island, the first volume in a series of swashbuckling tales of pirates and dinosaurs; The Sorcerer’s Brother, a biography of Roy O. Disney; and The Mouse Thief, a novel about Walt Disney. You can learn more about his work and his upcoming projects at ScottMMadden.com.