In this revised version of his best-selling book, Joe Flower tells the story of the second most important man in Disney history: Michael Eisner. Flower traces Eisner's career, from his privileged youth to his perch atop the Disney empire, in fair, unflinching detail.
The Disney company was in poor shape when Michael Eisner took the keys to the kingdom. The theme parks were stagnating, the animated films had lost their magic, and most important, Walt was gone. The company seemed to be holding its breath as corporate raiders closed in.
Eisner brought the pixie dust, but it was the pixie dust not of a dreamer and a visionary, but of a shrewd, ambitious businessman. Soon, new theme parks were opening, new animated films were setting box office records, and the so-called "Disney Decade" had begun.
Despite the success, Eisner was a polarizing figure. In the eyes of many, his unpardonable sin was that he wasn't Walt.
The birth of the modern Disney company, its transformation from a quaint little enterprise to a global goliath, began when Michael Eisner was anointed prince of the Magic Kingdom.
Chapter 1: When You Wish Upon a Star
Chapter 2: Late Bloomer
Chapter 3: The Sorcerer's Apprentices
Chapter 4: Trading Places
Chapter 5: The Fall of the House of Disney
Chapter 6: One Hundred Ninety-Seven Days
Chapter 7: Prince of the Mouseworks
Chapter 8: 1985—The Year of Starting Over
Chapter 9: Awakening Sleeping Beauty
Chapter 10: Laying the Foundations
Chapter 11: Masters of the Universe
Chapter 12: Chairman Michael and the Dark Side of the Force
“Mr. Flower? Please hold the line for Mr. Eisner.” It was a phone call from Michael Eisner, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company.
Eisner, the man who walks in the shoes of Walt, was calling me, it turned out, to tell me why he was not going to talk to me for the biography that I planned to write—a commitment, he said, to another author, if he should ever do a book. And he wasn’t doing a book. With anybody. Not now, not for a long time. It wasn’t time for a retrospective, he felt, because he wasn’t finished yet.
In a dozen years as a writer I had interviewed thousands of people. I had done scores of stories on business executives. I had done many stories on people who, for this reason or that, would not talk to me. Michael Eisner was the first person ever to call me up to tell me that he would not talk to me.
His words strangely echoed those of Bill Novak over scones and coffee in Watertown, Massachusetts. Novak had coauthored the wildly successful Iacocca. He had ghost-written Tip O’Neill’s book, and Nancy Reagan’s book, and coauthored Mayflower Madam. His agent had been after him to write about Eisner. “I can’t do Eisner,” he said. “He’s too young. He’s not finished.”
Every story has a story behind it, the kind of stories writers trade when they get together to complain about their dismal, grinding, oddly romantic business. But the call from Eisner was just the beginning of the strange contradictions coiled in the heart of the Disney story.
There was, for instance, the question of access, of getting people to talk. It was far from the simple matter it had seemed at first. I had grown up with Disney, like any child of the ’50s, and more closely than most. I was four when Disneyland opened, and went to it often enough as a child to track its changes, to still think of It’s a Small World as “that new ride” two decades later. My father, an artist, had tried to get a job at Disney, and had often pointed out the Disney studio standing just off the freeway. The Corcoran brothers, who played Davy Crockett’s kids, and the kids in Old Yeller, and numerous other “kid” characters in Walt’s movies, went to my grade school.
More important, the Disney mythology had helped shape my way in the world of dream and nightmare and imagination, and had introduced me to the deep pull of myth long before Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly let the word out.
So, for me to write about Eisner and Disney, as I turned 40, would not be like any other story. It would be an opening into innocence, into the child within.
Tracking the story down, I found that part, at least, to be true. There was something magical about Disney. I met people who swore they could never work anywhere else, people whose job it was to spin fairy tales into reality, to build giant toys, space ships, miniature worlds.
But I met something else as well—a corporation intent on the bottom line, a global entertainment conglomerate that could be as grasping, as controlling, as juiceless and impersonal as any company in America. This strange mix of the magical and the ruthlessly practical, of creativity and ferocity, took on, for me, a new sense of intrigue.
Eisner had told me, “I won’t discourage anyone from talking to you. If anyone tells you different, they have reasons of their own.” But Eisner is the boss, and once they heard that he was not talking to me, few of those who worked for him would talk to me. Of the scores of people in and out of the company who replied, “Let me check with Michael,” or “Let me check with Erwin” (Erwin Okun was Eisner’s vice president of communications at Disney) not one later agreed to an interview. Many in the company, those who would never think to ask permission to speak their minds, did talk to me, in their offices, on the lot, in the animation buildings in Glendale, on the job in Orlando. Others, more circumspect, would talk only anonymously. One met me in front of a supermarket and drove 30 miles with me to a public beach for the interview. Others would talk only in their homes or apartments, or only if I turned the tape recorder off.
In the end, I relied on a wide variety of sources, written and oral, inside and outside the company. I conducted scores of interviews, and augmented them with stock analysts’ reports, plus the company’s own annual reports and SEC filings. I personally explored the extensive Disney properties in Orlando, Anaheim, and Long Beach, the animation workshops in Glendale and North Hollywood, and the company lot in Burbank, and culled published reports from the United States, Japan, and Europe. I sent associates to sift the court records of Los Angeles and Orlando, and using computers, tapped into public database systems. The obstacles posed by Disney’s lack of involvement forced me to be more resourceful, but in no way dried up my sources of information.
Disney is a strangely closed corporation. At the time I began work on this book, Walt Disney World had just celebrated Mickey’s 60th birthday by inviting hundreds of journalists from all over the world, providing them with free hotel rooms, tickets, behind-the-scenes tours, meals, and an avalanche of information. Yet when I flew to Orlando myself, the press office would not even provide me with a basic press packet of information, much less arrange interviews for me, let me behind the scenes, or answer any of the accusations that the local press had leveled at them. It was a level of controlling paranoia I had never encountered in my years of writing about American business.
Writing about the difficulties of writing is usually a sophisticated type of whining. Writing is my job, it’s my passion, and nothing worth doing is ever easy. But the story of the roadblocks that I encountered writing this book points to something fundamental about Disney. The contradiction between the magical charm of the Disney image and the aggressive abandon of the Disney company points to something deeper, a dichotomy at the core of Disney, a spit in the seed that may yet be its undoing—the split between, on the one hand, imagination, energy, boldness, and the power of myth, and, on the other hand, the mindless greed of a major American corporation. The difficulty of writing this story rose out of Disney’s still-troubled inner spirit.
This is not a corporate history.
It is a history of a deeply human struggle over ideas, values, and hopes for which men and women were willing to give themselves over, values at times so evanescent that some people could dismiss them as silly, values so deep that others became students of them, dedicated their careers to making them come alive, became enraged and embittered when they seemed to be violated, and turned poetic and inspired in their defense.
This is what is impressive about the name “Disney”: no one is neutral. To a surprising degree, almost everyone I talked to in the course of writing this book had an opinion about Disney. Most people had a strong opinion, vividly expressed. Walt Disney was a genius or a charlatan, a hypocrite or an exemplar, a snake-oil salesman or a beloved father figure to generations of children, as well as to the child in generations of adults.
Those who managed the company after Walt’s death were incompetent fools or skilled men who suffered only by comparison with the founder; they were dedicated to Walt’s memory or they were witless slaves to a formula; they were risk-takers of an unusual scale or they possessed no vision. Michael Eisner and “Team Disney,” as the new management called itself, were heartless money-grubbers, or they were prudent developers of latent corporate assets; they were merely in the right place at the right time, or they were prodigiously talented; they were taking Walt’s vision to the next stage, or they were strip-mining an American legacy.
Few American institutions, and certainly no American corporation, can command anything like the place in the public mind occupied by Disney. Most Americans do not have strong opinions about other companies of Disney’s size, such as Xerox, National Medical Enterprises, or Rockwell; or even about other successful entertainment and media companies, such as Time Warner, Universal, or Paramount. Certainly no other American company carries the mix of expectations that Disney does, or has been able to carve itself such a strange, deep-setting hook of myth, magic, and values. No corporation is “about” something in so full and personal a way as Disney is. No corporation has excited so many letters to the editor, so much media coverage and even public demonstrations over its essence. For reasons rooted in mass psychology, the history of myth, and the changing face of America, this country cares deeply who is in charge of the Walt Disney Company and what they do with it.
At the center of this storm of opinion is Michael Eisner, one of the most peculiar men ever to run a major American corporation. The tall, gangly man with the lovably toothy, what-me-worry face charmed many people who saw in him a reincarnation of the beloved Walt. Others loved the exterior but distrusted the man behind it, seeing the “family man” image as a front for a voracious and arrogant global entertainment combine out to chum the money machine as fast as humanly possible. As Disney doubled and tripled in size, and the value of the stock increased 1,200 percent, Wall Street became enamored of Eisner, even while some analysts were privately reluctant to credit him with most of Disney’s success.
Their reluctance stemmed from the same fact that had nearly blocked Eisner’s rise to the chairmanship: he rose through ABC and Paramount, not through the “hard business” ranks, not from the financial sphere, not even from marketing, but from the creative side. He was a “story” man, whose skill lay in recognizing and developing creative ideas and people.
The Walt Disney Company had been founded by a charismatic creator, a ‘‘story” man. Walt Disney had laid down a theme and variations as solid as the opening lines of a Beethoven symphony. He had left a great many ideas and possibilities to be carried out by others—ideas that would need artists, sometimes even magicians. But he handed them to an orchestra of highly competent followers—sorcerer’s apprentices who had the book of secrets, but not the inner wisdom to read its arcane symbols.
Walt Disney’s theme was the structuring of mythic worlds. His variations led off into synthetic high adventure, future cities, structured environments, manufactured experiences, and the repeatable real moment. The reigning intellectuals of his time thought him a peripheral person, a talented hick with a knack for family entertainment. But his themes would turn out to be highly appealing to millions in the rapine and chaos of today’s world.
After Walt’s death, the company employed many creative people, but none of them were in charge, and the enterprise stuck to playing out the ideas Walt had been developing at his death. Over time, the company’s development slowed, it attracted corporate raiders, and suddenly, in 1984, a decades-long deterioration became a crisis. In what amounted to a “friendly takeover,” Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney teamed up with outside investors to install a lawyer, Frank Wells, as president, and a “story” man, Eisner, as chairman of the board. The men making this decision were not creative crazies. They were some of America’s preeminent deal-makers, money men of the first water. In their opinion, Disney was one company that didn’t need one of their kind at the lop. It needed a kiss of craziness. It needed a creative spark.
What that decision meant for Disney was years of unprecedented growth and profitability, some of it in unexpected and un-Disney-like directions. What it means for the rest of American business is less clear. It may be here—in creativity, in risk, in the urge to do something new—that American business has the most to offer the world, and that the example of Disney has much to offer American business.
I like Michael Eisner. I’ll admit that right up front. No one told me to like him. Disney didn’t publish this book or sponsor it in any way. I’m not trying to sell them a script. In fact, Eisner, and most of his Team Disney, wouldn’t even talk to me.
My publisher didn’t tell me to be nice to Michael Eisner. When you write about someone famous (especially someone rich, famous, and successful), publishers usually like it if you can dig up some dirt—alcoholism, sexual peccadillos, financial sleight-of-hand. If you can’t find that, if your subject seems to be completely clean and above-board, the next best thing publishers hope for is that you can lambaste what he’s doing. Publishers call it “controversy,” and marketing departments love it.
Michael Eisner has made some mistakes. Some of the effects of Disney’s success are worrisome, and the company’s attitude toward labor has seemed, at times, insensitive. Yet I can’t help but like Eisner as a human being.
This is not because he’s famous. Famous people are just people, and their fame is at best a necessary evil of the career they have chosen, at worst a destroyer of all that is personal and treasured.
It’s not because he has made sacks of money. If you think money defines life, then you might admire someone who has made a lot of it. But money doesn’t define life. Rich people are not happier, more noble, more attractive, or easier to be around than anybody else. On the other hand, if you think people only make money by ‘”ripping off” other people, then you might despise someone who has made a lot of it. Certainly many of the success stories of the ’80s were stories of men who came to great wealth by impoverishing others, milking great corporations, shrinking enterprises, and destroying jobs. But it’s equally possible to make money by creating new wealth, nurturing new enterprises, new jobs, new ideas. And I believe that is the case with Eisner and Disney.
It’s not because he is powerful that I enjoy Michael Eisner. Power is reach. A powerful person affects a larger part of the world. We all have power of one sort or another—in our family relationships, at work, in our communities. What is truly interesting is not the fact that people have power, but how they use that power. Do they make their world better, stronger, gentler, more varied, more interesting, more humane? Do they create wealth or hoard it? Do they foment wonderfulness or hideousness?
I like Michael Eisner because he has done something unimaginable: he has become rich, famous, powerful, and admired at least in part by bringing the child inside him out into the open, by fighting for his instincts, often against the conventional wisdom.
In America, business is our field of struggle and play. It’s the ground on which we choose to have our contests. Too often, we seem to think there are only two models for the person who wants to make a success on that ground. One model is the cool technocrat, full of formulas and case studies, the MBA working alchemy with numbers, chi squares, moving averages, and statistical filters, cerebral and Apollonian. The other model is the corporate buccaneer, rapacious, a gambler, visceral and Dionysian. Neither model is particularly cuddly. And more important, they do not stake out all the possibilities between them. Yet to be successful in business, we tell ourselves, means being either calculating or piratical. If you care about the heart, if you want to build things, if you have humane values and would like to improve some portion of the earth, business is not your field of play. Business is not for the creative or the sensitive. It is not possible, we tell ourselves, to mix ambition with a heart that is still beating.
Michael Eisner’s career displays a third possibility, a possibility that is creative and powerful, that combines the traditional capabilities of powerful business leadership—such as a clear vision, the ability to communicate that vision, and the intelligence to process vast amounts of information from many sources at once—with the mind of a child—direct, fascinated, innocent, intuitive, enthusiastic, and capable of being astonished. Like a child, Eisner has a steep learning curve. Like a child, he will pursue an idea not because he has some scheme in mind, or because it was the most outrageous thing he could think of, but simply because he likes it.
So Michael Eisner’s story, like many a classic Disney tale, has a moral, a model that we could profit from: in ourselves and others, competence is important. So are intelligence and vision. But equally important are fascination, intuition, innocence, and a path with heart.
Joe Flower is an independent consultant and architect of the American Hospital Association’s curriculum on change and the future. His most recent books, available on Amazon, include:
Michael Eisner was a child of wealth and privilege. He lived with his parents in a Park Avenue apartment. He had a Picasso on his bedroom wall. But he was not a stand-out kid. His grades were average, his interests superficial. He never went to see any of the Disney film classics. He didn't dream of being Walt Disney. And yet...
Michael Dammann Eisner bloomed late. The man who would one day peer from the covers of Time, Newsweek, Fortune, and Business Week did little to distinguish himself until he was in his late 20s, married, and a father. Until well into his 30s, in any family history he would have been overshadowed by his ancestors.
He was born on March 7, 1942, in Mount Kisco, New York, a suburb 20 miles north of New York City. He came from old money (at least as this country counts it), from generations of upper-crust merchants and lawyers who dabbled in government and community service.
Michael Eisner’s grandfather, J. Lester Eisner, typified the family. J. Lester grew up in a three-story frame house on expansive grounds on the banks of the Shrewsbury River in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father, Sigmund, had grown wealthy as a uniform manufacturer, making everything from Boy Scout uniforms to Army parachutes. After attending Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, J. Lester first joined the family firm, then started his own trading company. He served in the First World War and returned as a major; he stayed on in the reserves and the National Guard as a lieutenant colonel—and afterwards styled himself “Colonel Eisner.” In the Great Depression he served on, founded, or chaired a half-dozen state and local government commissions dealing with the crisis, once offering to serve without salary if necessary. When his parents died, he and his brother donated the family house to the town of Red Bank for use as a library. At the outbreak of World War II, he shipped off to London, and later to Paris, to organize transportation for the Army Reserve Corps. He was a joiner, an organizer. A member of a number of yacht clubs, the Harvard Club, the Army and Navy Club in Washington, and the American Club in London, he was knit into the working establishment of the country. He believed in making a contribution.
J. Lester Eisner’s eldest son, Lester Jr., attended Princeton and graduated from Harvard Law School. He married Margaret Dammann, the daughter of Milton Dammann, one of the founders of the American Safety Razor Company (eventually sold to Philip Morris). Margaret and Lester had two children, Margot and Michael. Not quite 30 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Lester Eisner volunteered for the Army Air Corps, and emerged from the war as a captain. He was tall, and he looked much like his son would one day: the same floppy ears and dark curly hair, but the face more lean, saturnine, sometimes given to brooding. A more private man than his father, Lester Jr. shifted his attention from one business to another, first starting a small airline and merging it with another with routes in Latin America, then producing trade shows at the Coliseum and other arenas in New York. What increased his fortune, though, was his sure-handed investment in New York real estate. A Republican, he would later shuttle between private business and high housing posts in the state and federal governments. During this time Margaret, in addition to being a mother, volunteered for public service, eventually becoming the president of a medical-research institute.
Michael lived the sheltered, serious childhood of a member of New York’s elite, in a quiet, luxurious apartment three floors above Park Avenue on the prestigious Upper East Side, and in the family’s “country place” in Bedford Hills, near Mount Kisco.
His life was carefully ordered. His parents took care to expose him to the proper kind of culture. They arranged for an art collector friend, Victor Ganz, to loan them a Picasso, The Bullfight, to hang on young Michael’s bedroom wall. They took him to Broadway shows and to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts at the Philharmonic.
He went to school a few blocks south of the Park Avenue apartment at Allen-Stevenson School on East 78th Street, one of the city’s most elite private schools. Founded in 1883, it was an all-boys school in a fine old four-story Georgian building. The school was known all over the city for its children’s orchestra. Decades later Michael would still remember fondly his music teacher, Stanley Gauger. Michael played every sport, but as a student he was only average. He went to school every day outfitted in a tie, a button-down blue shirt, and a blue blazer, with the escutcheon of the school in gold on the pocket bearing the school’s symbol: the lamp of learning.
At home in the evening he came to dinner in a tie and jacket. Dinner was formal. The boy who would later be considered a television programming genius was allowed to watch only one hour of television each day—and that only after reading for two hours.
His parents only occasionally took him to the movies, where he could escape to other worlds that were full of possibilities. He was no adolescent movie maven. As childhood friend Susan Baerwald put it, “We all went to movies, but it was nothing special. We both came from families in the business world, and Michael didn’t show any sign of steering from that.”
Yet, like most children of his generation, he was steeped in television and movies. Television and Disney came of age as Eisner did. Eisner was a member of the first generation to grow up with television, the first generation that would be comfortable with television’s peculiar plasticity and its constant play with stories. In the mid-1950s, Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger were joined on the television networks by Walt Disney. When Michael was 12, The Mickey Mouse Club, soon to be the most popular kids’ show on television, debuted on ABC. On Sunday evenings Davy Crockett and his fellow Disney icons captured the hero-hungry kid hearts of America on Disneyland.
Eisner would later say that, like other children of his era, “I grew up on Disney.” But if he did, it was the Disney of Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club—the Disney of television, not the Disney of the great animated classics. These years were the peak of Walt Disney’s creativity. Off in California, in sunny Burbank, Disney had artists at the drawing boards turning out Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. While Eisner was growing up, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi were reissued. Oddly, unlike most children of his generation, Michael never saw any of them until he was married and had a child of his own. He would later reflect on the world of animated classics: “I wish I could say this was in my blood. It wasn’t.”
Continued in "Prince of the Magic Kingdom"!
The kingdom of Disney, on the eve of Michael Eisner taking over as CEO, no longer shone as the studio on the hill. There would be no honeymoon for Eisner. As he saw for himself his first day on the job, years of poor management and mediocre projects had depleted the pixie dust, and Eisner had to come up with more of it, a lot more of it, in a hurry.
Michael Eisner once described his feelings on becoming CEO of Disney as equivalent to being asked to spend all his time in a toy store: “I don’t know which toy to take home because they’re all fabulous and they all work and I’m so excited I can’t sleep at night.”
Eisner couldn’t wait until Monday morning, his first day on the job, to visit Disney. As soon as he was elected, Eisner and Wells went to lunch with the Disney board at the Lakeside Country Club near the studio, then drove to the lot to meet with Flom and other attorneys about the state of the company. The next morning Wells came to Eisner’s house again, and the two of them took their families over to the Disney lot to look over their new corporate home. It was a quiet little family tour. They looked the place over. They walked the lot.
By 1984, Disney had 30,000 employees worldwide, and was represented on every continent except Antarctica. But the heart of it was here, in this quiet 44 acres just off the Ventura Freeway in Burbank. It was humble for a kingdom, small even for a movie lot. Its entrance sported nothing like Paramount Pictures Corporation’s grand faux-Roman double-stucco arch. There was just a kiosk for the guard, and low sheds to cover the VIPs’ cars. There was nothing like the hurly-burly of Paramount. Here, according to Hollywood legend, even the birds sang on cue and in harmony. The main buildings, now 43 years old, with their minimalist curves, glass brick, and circular cutouts, showed Walt’s futurist mood. Across from them glowered the newer, massive, modern, and undecorated Roy O. Disney building, as if the serious, practical “Roy men” were still trying to cow those creative goof-offs next door.
No cars poked in among the buildings. Festooned with trees, bushes, and flowers—palms, poppies, and rhododendrons, like some northeasterner’s dream of California—the Disney lot held the softness of a campus. And Mickey showed up everywhere: on the mailboxes, on the street signs. In front of the commissary, a topiary had been trained in the shape of Mickey. Even the double doors of the huge sound stages sported Mickey, peeking through a fence, with the legend, “No Looky-Loos.”
The commissary was in its own time warp. The sign still advertised chili dogs for 35¢. Tom Hanks, who had eaten there when he worked on Splash, his break into the big time, compared it to “a Greyhound bus station in the 1950s.”
Beyond the neat offices and the sound stages, the usual back-lot industrial jumble had grown: the electrical department, the carpenters, the plumbers. Around one comer stood a quiet Midwest town of false-front buildings with verandas and cupolas, a run-down curling-shingle version of Disneyland’s Main Street, held up from behind by half-rotten two-by-fours. A brick building carried a sign reading, “Kansas City Star Gazette”; a window read, “Mary’s Barber Shop.” It had been built for Pollyanna and used over and over. Down the way stood another main street, this one a western set. Next to it was the set for Zorro, out of production for nearly three decades. A 20-foot satellite dish pointed high and to the south, out along the back fence. The silver water tower stood over it all, emblazoned with Walt’s famous signature.
That first day, wandering the Sunday-quiet lot, might have seemed a moment for celebration for Eisner. A great victory had been won. He had been appointed head of the company he most wanted to run. But the state of the Magic Kingdom was not good. Even now there were barbarians massed at the borders. No sooner had one corporate raider been repulsed, bought off with massive tribute, than another appeared at the gates. The movie studios lay fallow. And the employees of the old guard were in revolt, raising the banner of the great and sainted King Walt, now long dead.
The company was emotionally exhausted from months of attacks. It was financially exhausted as well. Already deeply in debt when the year began, Disney had more than doubled its debt, to $900 million, after paying off Steinberg and muddling through another year of less-than-sizzling operations. And now it faced yet another threat in Irwin Jacobs, who had pledged to take the company over and dismantle it.
The Disney Channel was still hemorrhaging money; it had slowly been gaining subscribers, but it still had not broken into the black. The movie studio was moribund. It had one great success under its belt—Splash had grossed over $70 million. The Touchstone label had begun to break through the prejudice against Disney among Hollywood “names,” but only in dribs and drabs. The old Hollywood saw still held: “Disney gets you on the way up, or on the way down.” It was not the studio of choice. In fact, it was not even a major studio. Daily Variety, as a matter of course, counted six: Columbia, MGM/UA, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers. As one animator put it, “Disney was absolutely bottom of the barrel, the laughing stock of the motion picture industry. There was no one who was going to dispute that.”
Attendance at the parks, too, had been declining for years. The number of people coming through the doors at Disney World had peaked with the opening of EPCOT Center in 1983, and had fallen the following year by nearly 10 percent. Attendance at Disneyland had peaked at 11.5 million in 1980, and had drifted steadily lower, to less than 9.5 million. Under parks chief Dick Nunis, the parks management had decided to handle that problem by cutting wages. The union contracts at Disney World in Florida were coming up soon. They had always been semi-sweetheart deals, with the unions just glad to have the members in such a union-poor state. But those members wouldn’t stand for much more. In Anaheim, the old contract for a third of Disneyland’s workers had expired a week before, and Nunis had asked them to take wage cuts of 17 percent over the next three years, plus some hefty cuts in benefits. There were 1,800 people on this contract, including ride operators, ticket sellers, sales clerks, candy makers, blacksmiths—hard-labor, front-line employees. The most any of them made was $11.60 an hour, and some of them put in full shifts at $3.74 an hour. They had said no to the wage cuts, and the self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth” drifted toward picket lines, arrests, and violence.
And now the problems of Disney had been thrust into the hands of Michael Eisner, who had never run a whole company before. Eisner had to do a number of things quickly. First, he had to stabilize the company. He had to slow down, if possible, the wave of attacks—suits, proxy fights, and takeover attempts—from dissident shareholders. He had to gain control of this massive, old, inbred dinosaur of an organization. Most of all, he had to gain the appearance of control, since the appearance of control and the reality are so often the same. If he wanted to scare away the vultures, he had to get the company moving. Just as important, he had to appear to get the company moving. He had to impress people both inside and outside the company that things were different, that Disney was once more a great place to work, a creative and expansive organization, a locus of excitement and growth. Finally, he had to raise revenues. He had to get more money in the door in every division.
All this had to start soon. His honeymoon was bound to be short, perhaps just a few months, and some people were not likely to give him any honeymoon at all. The very people who had put him in office—especially Irwin Jacobs and the Basses—were likely to dismember the company from under him.
Moments this fertile are hard to come by.
Continued in "Prince of the Magic Kingdom"!