It was not a magical time. Disney animation had lost its way, the theme parks were stagnating, and Michael Eisner had the legacy of Walt Disney by the throat and wouldn't let go. It took a second-generation Disney, shy, soft-spoken Roy E., whose passion was filmmaking, to beard the lion and save the kingdom.
Disney historian William Silvester's scrupulously researched new biography of Roy E. Disney spotlights Walt's unassuming nephew who cut his teeth on True-Life Adventure films and championed the cause of Disney animation at a time when the company was the target of hostile takeovers, internal apathy, and widespread disdain for the policies of Disney CEO Michael Eisner. The man who found it difficult to speak up at board meetings became the company's unlikely savior.
Silvester spins an engaging tale of Roy E. Disney's life:
FIND OUT HOW DISNEY WAS SAVED ... BY A DISNEY!
Chapter 1: Before Roy Edward
Chapter 2: Childhood
Chapter 3: First Jobs
Chapter 4: True-Life Adventures
Chapter 5: Disneyland: the Show
Chapter 6: After Walt
Chapter 7: Shamrock
Chapter 8: All the Way In or All the Way Out
Chapter 9: The Disney Decade
Chapter 10: Fantasia Continued
Chapter 11: Storm Clouds Gather
Chapter 12: Saving Disney
Chapter 13: Emeritus
Appendix A: Racing Roy
Appendix B: Roy's Awards and Honors
About the Author
Roy Edward Disney was an enigma. On one hand, his importance to the Walt Disney Company was arguably second only to that of his uncle Walt Disney and his father, Roy Oliver Disney. On the other, he was, and still is, barely known outside of the Disney community. That is unfortunate, for he was an exceptional man.
Though he eventually became a billionaire, the casual observer would not have thought of him as such. He often enjoyed eating at Taco Bell and savored a hot dog at Costco while he shopped there. He served peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which he made himself, on his Air Shamrock plane. He had a special cabbage concoction that he made with pineapple and mayonnaise to supplement the crew’s diet on the long Transpac voyages. Though he owned a red Ferrari, he often drove a little Mini to save on gas. While in Ireland, he purchased an older model Mini Cooper to drive around and tinker with.
It has been said that he never knew how much money he had, but Roy Disney knew the value of a dollar. On a trip to New York, he misplaced a few hundred dollars and stewed about it for some time afterwards. The mystery was solved after he returned to Burbank and found a letter from one of the bellhops at the hotel he had been staying in. Inside was several hundred dollars and a note from the man saying he thought Roy had made a mistake with his tip. Indeed he had, and Roy wrote back, thanking the man and enclosing a nice gratuity.
He also knew the value of his name and he would not hesitate to use it to write a letter or make a phone call that he knew would help someone’s career or make a difference in their life. He seldom flaunted his wealth or his name for his own purposes. He often waited in line in the theme parks like everyone else, even though he could have announced who he was and been given priority. He chatted with the janitor as easily as with royalty, and when chores needed to be done, Roy pitched in to help. When sailing in one of the numerous yacht races he so loved, he would steer, turn the spinnaker, and take his turn at cooking. He often flew economy instead of first class or in the corporate jet. He always carried cash and did not have an ATM card. The most annoying thing he did was to smoke whenever or wherever he was. He was not a considerate smoker.
His philanthropy was legendary. The Disney family would have meetings to discuss to whom they would make donations each year. California Institute of the Arts, founded in part by his uncle Walt in the 1960s and continued by his father, received $400,000 each year to support its performing and visual arts programs. Roy was a trustee for CalArts from the time ground was broken for the school, and in time both he and his wife, Patty, became honorary alumni. The institute was responsible for many of the talented artists who worked for Disney and Pixar, and quite fittingly they were often taught by Disney Legends who had retired and later taught at the school. Roy was also honorary chair for the inaugural TPC/West Ranch Art and Wine Gala which benefitted the arts in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Roy was shy and inclined to sit back and let others speak at meetings, but when he had something to say, he was worth listening to. In an interview on a fan site, animation director Ron Clements said:
He was a very low key, self-deprecating guy. Roy was very humble. He was very intelligent, and he gave us great notes. He didn’t come from animation, but he really loved the medium, and he understood it. It could have gone away if wasn’t for him. When Michael [Eisner] and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] came in, they didn’t know much about animation, and it was Roy who guided them through an understanding of it and how important it was to the company. He understood the philosophy and he was determined to make sure that that was preserved.
While showmen Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg proclaimed to the world how they had saved Disney animation and were responsible for the success and the rebirth of the Golden Age of Animation, it was Roy, sitting quietly in the background, who was the real driving force behind it all.
Roy summed up his own philosophy when asked in an interview if the Disney name had helped or hindered him in his careerL
It’s certainly got me in more doors than I would have got in otherwise. It’s helped me enormously. The biggest single thing it gave me is kind of an instant credibility. As long as I’ve played my cards straight with my own life, which I think people by now must have figured out, people trust you that you’re not being Joe Slick coming in the side door, you are who you are.
Bill Silvester is a prolific author, with hundreds of articles, mostly historical in nature, to his name.
As a philatelist, he began writing about Disney postage stamps, a previously unfilled niche in Disneyana. This resulted in numerous articles in philatelic publications and a bi-monthly newsletter. In the 1990s, his Handbook of Disney Philately was published, followed by Harry Potter Collector’s Handbook in 2010 and A Solo Wargamer’s Guide in 2013. In 2012, the American Topical Association published his Handbook of Disney on Stamps with full-color illustrations of all the Disney stamps issued from 1968 to date and the stories behind them.
Having long been fascinated by tales of Walt’s early life, Silvester began to research and gather information for his first book, The Adventures of Young Walt Disney (Theme Park Press, 2014), which chronicles the beginning of a rag-to-riches story that is often ignored by writers interested only in Mickey Mouse, Snow White, or Disneyland.
Learn more about Bill Silvester at williamsilvester.weebly.com.
During his early years at Disney, especially when Walt was alive, Roy spent most of his time working on films for the True-Life Adventures series, and developing his life-long passion for conservationism.
Lloyd Richardson mentored Roy for the next year and a half as The Vanishing Prairie was put together. Roy described him as “an original thinker who didn’t just make one cut match another cut, but always considered the whole story”. Richardson was born in Portland, Oregon, in April 1915. He left school early to work for Eastman Kodak, then Adohr Dairy, and landed a messenger boy job with Disney in 1937. Over the next few years, he worked his way up in the company to editing, where he worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. During WWII, he edited Disney-produced training films for the armed forces. After the war, Lloyd worked on most of the features that were produced, and was involved in the True-Life Adventures with Bear Country. While Stormy was finishing up The Living Desert, Lloyd started work on The Vanishing Prairie.
Like its predecessor, The Vanishing Prairie, in Leonard Maltin’s words, was “a dazzling collection of sequences, brilliantly photographed and edited for maximum results”. Like The Living Desert, it too would win an Academy Award.
For the first time, Disney came in conflict with the New York state censorship board over a sequence in which a cow buffalo gave birth to her calf. The board decided to ban The Vanishing Prairie, but when the American Civil Liberties Union lodged a complaint and the board became subject to a great deal of ridicule across the country, they backed down and allowed the film to be shown intact. Walt commented that “it would be a shame if New York children had to believe the stork brings buffaloes, too”.
The humorous sequences had been considerably reduced in this film, but the critics still found something to complain about in a scene where bighorn sheep butted heads to The Anvil Chorus. Other scenes espousing the circle of life, survival of the fittest, and the life cycles of various animals, capped by the natural drama of a lightning strike wildfire and the subsequent flash flood from the rain storm, brought well-deserved praise.
The footage was shot over a long period of time as the photographers waited for just the right shot, such as the birth of the buffalo calf or the hawk attack on a prairie dog. Disguised in buffalo hides to mask their scent, cameramen would infiltrate the herd for close-up shots. Five or six cameramen often filmed the same shot to provide a variety of angles. These techniques resulted in an abundance of exposed film. Some 120,000 feet of 16mm film was shot, which Roy and the other editors reduced to 30,000 feet in the final print.
Roy had moved on to other things before the film was released in August 1954. After a year and a half working on The Vanishing Prairie, Roy was sent to Utah as a cameraman to spend a year working on a new film titled Perri.
The original idea was for Roy to concentrate on taking still shots, so before he left he stocked up on “a whole bag of really good cameras”. Having been around cameras all his life, both still and movie cameras, he was looking forward to the opportunity to show what he could do. There were already six or eight cameramen assigned to the film, but they would be shooting the footage for the feature and Roy was assigned to capture the “rich stills that nobody was shooting”.
Just before he left the studio for Salt Lake City, Roy stopped by Uncle Walt’s office to say goodbye.
“Why don’t you take a movie camera along and try to shoot some of the behind-the-scenes footage that we can use,” Walt said.
Roy said “sure”, knowing that behind-the-scenes footage was often used for the “plug show” on the Wednesday night Disneyland TV show whenever a feature was being made. Roy took along an Arriflex and in addition to behind-the-scenes filming he also was often “needed as one more cameraman because you don’t know what’s going to happen, so put a camera here, here, here, and here, and maybe one of them will be in the right place”. In time, the behind-the-scenes footage was used in the Disneyland TV show “Adventure in Wildwood Heart” as advertising for the release of Perri.
Continued in "Saving Disney"!
In one of many corporate clashes with Michael Eisner and the Eisner-controlled Disney board of directors, Roy resigns from the board&but does not retreat.
Though he seldom spoke at these meetings, Roy decided to put his thoughts before the Council. His name and his quiet demeanor brought a hush to the assembled when he started to speak about the creative part of the company. He explained how the relationship with Pixar had soured because Steve Jobs could not deal with Eisner. He talked about how the parks had suffered through layoffs and lack of maintenance and how the loss of benefits and cuts in hours reflected the cast members’ attitudes toward not only management, but guests as well.
As the days passed, it became more and more apparent to the Disney board that they were losing the war. State pension funds, mutual fund companies, and retirement fund holders representing millions of shares began announcing that they would vote in favor of Roy and against Eisner. To their detriment, the Disney board remained largely silent in the face of the onslaught. In early March, George Mitchell announced that the Disney board “listened and took action” and that Michael Eisner “encouraged speedy implementation”. But it looked like it was too little, too late. SaveDisney was projecting a 30% proxy vote against Eisner, but polls suggested it might be as high as 40%, an unprecedented withhold vote against the CEO of a major American corporation. Still, the board felt they had to keep Eisner and satisfy the shareholders at the same time.
Roy was not the only one who had noticed a shift in the theme park quality. Long-time fans of Disney in general and the theme parks in particular had been complaining that the experience had deteriorated over the past few years as the bottom line apparently became more important than the magical experiences of the guests. That was also reflected in the direct-to-video movies with their Saturday morning cartoon animation which detracted from the beauty and the expertise of the feature films as experienced animators were fired.
The SaveDisney meeting was scheduled for March 2, 2004, in Philadelphia at the Loews Hotel, not far from the Convention Center where the Disney Company would hold their annual meeting the next day. A long line had already started to form shortly after noon, even though the meeting was not scheduled to begin until 4 o’clock. When Roy arrived, the line was around the block. He was dressed casually and he stopped to chat, shake hands, get hugs, and sign autographs. He was still outside with his people an hour after the meeting was supposed to begin.
Stan Gold was the first on the stage, his job was to introduce the main players on the SaveDisney side. Sitting in the front row were Roy and Patty with their four children, Roy Patrick, Susan, Abby, and Tim, along with former board member Andrea Van de Kamp. Standing to acknowledge the crowd, they were met with thunderous applause.
First on the agenda was a trip down memory lane with a slide show presentation of Disneyland as it was 45 years ago. Next Michael McConnell, a Shamrock executive, rehashed all the old arguments against the current Disney board of directors. Finally, Roy walked to the podium. Perceived as the embodiment of all things good about Disney, he was greeted by a long and heartfelt ovation.
Roy began by saying that there were a lot of changes that he would like to see made, first and foremost being management, and after that, “improving the cleanliness, the maintenance, and the guest services in the parks, and that would include putting the smile back on the faces of both cast members and guests”. He also wanted better television shows, an improved ABC network, improved feature films, and “to just plain being Disney again”.
After the applause died down, Gene Krieger, another Shamrock executive, started reading questions from the audience. Roy responded to a Pixar question by saying, “We want the whole gang at Pixar back.” He said he had heard that they would all return “when Michael Eisner is no longer at Disney”.
There was an awkward moment when Roy pointed out that they had “thirty-one thousand registered names so far … I used to say, if we had enough rifles, we could have this over tomorrow”. When his daughter Abby cringed, Roy realized the comment had not been taken as the quip he had intended, and immediately regretted saying it.
Krieger quickly steered the audience’s attention to another subject by reading a question about Comcast and the possibility of a takeover. Roy replied that “if we run everything well, we’ll be worth too much to entice other companies to take over”.
More applause and the session was over. Roy stepped forward to sign autographs by the hundreds as the band played in the background. He mingled with the crowd as beverages and hors d’oeuvres were served. He shook a hand here, said a word or two there, all under the ever-present eyes of television cameras. He was where he liked to be, amongst those who most appreciated all things Disney.
The next day the venue shifted to the Philadelphia Convention Center. Shareholders mingled with costumed Disney characters as the press corps arrived in force. The meeting began at 10 a.m. as Michael Eisner stepped up to the podium, introduced himself to scattered applause, and started talking about the brilliant future ahead for the Disney Company. He was followed by brief remarks from retiring directors Ray Watson and Tom Murphy, who then turned the microphone over to Roy and Stan.
Gold let the applause go on for longer than was necessary before he spoke. “Roy Disney and I have been on a mission … not to promote ourselves but to save the company.” He reiterated the complaints against the present board, including the statement “Michael Eisner must leave now.” Turning to face the CEO, he said, “You have compromised your soul and lost your integrity.”
Michael Eisner stared straight ahead and seemed to be struggling for control throughout Stan’s speech. He must have wondered if any other CEOs had ever been subjected to such a tirade before their shareholders.
Now it was Roy’s turn, and again the applause was loud and long as many in the audience stood up to clap. He waited until the noise died down before speaking.
Continued in "Saving Disney"!