The Walt's People series is an oral history of all things Disney, as told by the artists, animators, designers, engineers, and executives who made it happen, from the 1920s through the present.
Walt's People: Volume 10 features appearances by Walt Disney, Walt Pfeiffer, Lillian Disney, Edna Disney, Ub Iwerks, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Cottrell, Herb Ryman, Dolores Voght Scott, Ham Luske, Woolie Reitherman, John Lounsbery, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Hazel George, Marc Davis, Dick Huemer, Ollie Johnston, Ken Anderson, George Bruns, Larry Clemmons, Bill Anderson, Robert Stevenson, Bill Walsh, Roy E. Disney, Winston Hibler, James Algar, John Hench, Harper Goff, Dick Irvine, Card Walker, Donn Tatum, Wathel Rogers, Roger Broggie, Marvin Davis, Joe Potter, Robert Foster, Joe Fowler, and Bob Thomas.
Among the hundreds of stories in this volume:
The entertaining, informative stories in every volume of Walt's People will please both Disney scholars and eager fans alike.
A History of Bob Thomas’ Biography of Walt Disney by Jim Korkis
Bob Thomas by Didier Ghez
Bob Thomas by Paul F. Anderson
Walt's Secretaries by Jim Korkis
Roy E. Disney
Volume 10 of Didier’s series, Walt’s People, will be an unusual one in that it focuses only on the interviews that Bob Thomas conducted for his biography of my father, Walt Disney: An American Original.
Bob began his biography in 1973 at the request of the family and the company. He was assured of access to the family, and to company personnel and records, and was told by my husband, Ron Miller, “You will have complete freedom to write Walt’s story as you see it.” Bob knew my dad, and had previously written a book about animation and a children’s biography of him. In doing the latter he had spent hours interviewing Dad, who wanted to tell of his early years, “eager to sum up the lessons he had learned as a boy and tell young people how he applied them in his later life.”
Bob is the best sort of biographer. His writing skills are strong, the tools of a good and practiced journalist, and he views his subject objectively, without preconceived opinions. His book is the one we all reach for when doing our own research and fact check on Dad’s life. The many interviews he gathered, along with tapes Dad made with Pete Martin in 1956, are the most valuable material a biographer can have, and certainly belong in Didier’s remarkable anthology.
Having reached volme 10, I was bound to reflect on what has been achieved to date through this slightly crazy project. A key sense of pride comes from the community that is being built around Walt’s People: a community of Disney historians and enthusiasts all working together to make this series a reality.
Needless to say, the Disney historians who contribute their interviews are the keystones of the edifice, but the whole structure would fall apart or take shape much more slowly if it weren’t for a handful of enthusiasts who also play a critical part in this endeavor: digitizing and transcribing interviews, copying tapes, sending me links to new leads, spreading the word about the project… In other words, helping us uncover more lost treasures and making them available to a wider audience each day.
A few days ago I received the transcription by Germund Von Wowern and Jim Korkis of a long-lost interview with Paul Murry by Donald Ault. Earlier in the year, Jim Korkis had sent me a rare letter by English artist Basil Reynolds, another Disney comics legend. This week, thanks to Todd Pierce’s help, we managed to recover a two-hour-long, forgotten interview with Admiral Joe Fowler. Then comes the harrowing but highly rewarding task of transcribing the hundreds of interviews with Disney artists conducted by John Culhane from the 1960s to the 1990s. Not an easy task, when one takes into account the age of the tapes and the resulting amount of background noise, but a task that enthusiasts like James D. Marks, Edward Mazzilli, Daniel Caylor, Neil Sudgen, Robert Kolakowski, Scott Huitt, Michael Crawford, Dave de Caro, Andy Wakeley, Michael Earls, Mike Grygo, and Oswald Iten have tackled without fear.
Getting access to so much material also has the healthy effect of underlying the obvious gaps, which is how Julie Svendsen suggested to interview Walt Peregoy, how Pete Docter came to interview Art Stevens, or how I decided to contact Marge Champion, Ray Aragon, Vic Haboush, Joe Hale, Ruthie Tompson, and Carl Bongirno, who each filled a different gap in Disney history.
My other great joy comes when Walt’s People helps “feed” or inspire other Disney-related projects: from the bonuses on the Snow White Blu-ray, to the upcoming books about Art Babbitt and “Walt before Mickey,” to name just a few.
And then sometimes there is sadness. Sadness when some of the artists I interviewed die unexpectedly. Sadness when Disney historians or enthusiasts pass away. Or a different kind of sadness when I realize that some documents seem to have permanently disappeared: some of Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz’s interviews, some of Frank and Ollie’s, and most of Bob Thomas’ notes and transcripts. The loss of many interviews that Bob Thomas conducted for The Art of Animation (1958) and for Walt Disney: An American Original is particularly tragic as it includes discussions with many artists that only Thomas interviewed.
The good news, however, is that thanks to the Disney Archives half of those interviews still survive and that, thanks to Bob Thomas’ special authorization, they are being released in this volume for the first time.
Even happier news is the fact that more than half of the interviews Thomas conducted for his biography of Roy O. Disney also survived and will probably appear in Walt’s People in the years to come.
Bob Thomas’ Art of Animation and An American Original have been a key source of inspiration for thousands of artists and Disney enthusiasts, from director Brad Bird and yours truly to new Disney historians like my good friend Tim Susanin. It is therefore with the utmost pleasure that I dedicate this entire special volume of Walt’s People to Bob Thomas’ interviews.
Didier Ghez has conducted Disney research since he was a teenager in the mid-1980s. His articles about the Disney parks, Disney animation, and vintage international Disneyana, as well as his many interviews with Disney artists, have appeared in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, Disney Twenty-Three, Persistence of Vision, StoryboarD, and Tomart’s Disneyana Update. He is the co-author of Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, runs the Disney History blog, the Disney Books Network, and serves as managing editor of the Walt’s People book series.
If you have a question for Didier that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
About The Walt's People Series
GHEZ: The Walt’s People project was born out of an email conversation I conducted with Disney historian Jim Korkis in 2004. The Disney history magazine Persistence of Vision had not been published for years, The “E” Ticket magazine’s future was uncertain, and, of course, the grandfather of them all, Funnyworld, had passed away 20 years ago. As a result, access to serious Disney history was becoming harder that it had ever been.
The most frustrating part of this situation was that both Jim and I knew huge amounts of amazing material was sleeping in the cabinets of serious Disney historians, unavailable to others because no one would publish it. Some would surface from time to time in a book released by Disney Editions, some in a fanzine or on a website, but this seemed to happen less and less often. And what did surface was only the tip of the iceberg: Paul F. Anderson alone conducted more than 250 interviews over the years with Disney artists, most of whom are no longer with us today.
Jim had conceived the idea of a book originally called Talking Disney that would collect his best interviews with Disney artists. He suggested this to several publishers, but they all turned him down. They thought the potential market too small.
Jim’s idea, however, awakened long forgotten dreams, dreams that I had of becoming a publisher of Disney history books. By doing some research on the web I realized that new "print-on-demand" technology now allowed these dreams to become reality. This is how the project started.
Twelve volumes of Walt's People later, I decided to switch from print-on-demand to an established publisher, Theme Park Press, and am happy to say that Theme Park Press will soon re-release the earlier volumes, removing the few typos that they contain and improving the overall layout of the series.
To locate them, I usually check carefully the footnotes as well as the acknowledgments in other Disney history books, then get in touch with their authors. Also, I stay in touch with a network of Disney historians and researchers, and so I become aware of newly found documents, such as lost autobiographies, correspondence with Disney artists, and so forth, as soon as they've been discovered.
Yes, some interviews and autobiographical documents are extremely difficult to obtain. Many are only available on tapes and have to be transcribed (thanks to a network of volunteers without whom Walt’s People would not exist), which is a long and painstaking process. Some, like the seminal interview with Disney comic artist Paul Murry, took me years to obtain because even person who had originally conducted the interview could not find the tapes. But I am patient and persistent, and if there is a way to get the interview, I will try to get it, even if it takes years to do so.
One funny anecdote involves the autobiography of the Head of Disney’s Character Merchandising from the '40s to the '70s, O.B. Johnston. Nobody knew that his autobiography existed until I found a reference to an article Johnston had written for a Japanese magazine. The article was in Japanese. I managed to get a copy (which I could not read, of course) but by following the thread, I realized that it was an extract from Johnston’s autobiography, which had been written in English and was preserved by UCLA as part of the Walter Lantz Collection. (Later in his career Johnston had worked with Woody Woodpecker’s creator.) Unfortunately, UCLA did not allow anyone to make copies of the manuscript. By posting a note on the Disney History blog a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to be contacted by a friend of Johnston's family, who lives in England and who had a copy of the manuscript. This document will be included in a book, Roy's People, that will focus on the people who worked for Walt's brother Roy.
That is a tough question. The more volumes I release, the more I find outstanding interviews that should be made public, not to mention the interviews that I and a few others continue to conduct on an ongoing basis. I will need at least another 15 to 17 volumes to get most of the interviews in print.
About Disney's Grand Tour
DIDIER: The research took me close to 25 years. The actual writing took two-and-a-half years.
The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the '30s, and we knew about the highly-prized, pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney's presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? And so forth.
I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney's first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen's career, and the overall picture simply was not there.
Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: "Do you know if any photos were taken during the 'League of Nations' event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?" And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This "simple" question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt's visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.
DIDIER: Yes, I believe that casual readers, not just Disney historians, will find it a fun read. The book is heavily illustrated. We travel with Walt and his family. We see what they see and enjoy what they enjoy. And the book is full of quotes from the people who were there: Roy and Edna Disney, of course, but also many of the celebrities and interesting individuals that the Disneys met during the trip. And on top of all of this, there is the historical detective work, that I believe is quite fun: the mysteries explored in the book unravel step by step, and it is often like reading a historical novel mixed with a detective story, although the book is strict non-fiction.
DIDIER: Those books provided massive new sources of inspiration to the Story Department. "Some of those little books which I brought back with me from Europe," Walt remarked in a memo dated December 23, 1935, "have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me."
DIDIER: There are still a million events in Walt's life and career which need to be explored in detail. To name a few:
The list goes on almost forever.
Didier Ghez has edited:
Lillian Disney gave few interviews, and never had much to say about a side of Walt few but her saw. For Bob Thomas, however, she made an exception.
It was an exciting thing to live with Walt. I remember how the girls at the studio would call and say, “Walt wants to talk to you.” And he might say that he had to leave for somewhere else and it would be exciting and fun to travel with him. He was never bored. He always found something to do and he always found someone to talk to. He could be walking down the street in a strange town and find things in store windows that fascinated him. Or he would find someone in the town to talk to. I remember when we went to Zermatt in Switzerland when he was making Third Man on the Mountain. We were only going to stay a couple of days, but he found so much to interest him there that we stayed on. He enjoyed going down into the town square and talking to the old characters who hung around there.
He had a terrific temper, just like his dad. But it would be over with in a hurry. Diane is the same way. Whenever he started to get mad at home, I’d ease out of the room until the temper was over. He’d sometimes blow up at the cartoonists at the studio. But he was usually right. They all profited by his direction. He’d work with them as long as they had talent, even if they went off the lot for lunch and came back after having had several drinks. As long as they produced, that’s all he cared about.
He loved children and had no trouble in talking to them. But he didn’t like fresh children. The one thing he couldn’t stand was rudeness in anyone.
Every Sunday he took our daughters to Sunday school. Walt was very religious, but he never went to church. He loved every religion and respected them, although he got upset with pious ministers. I never knew of his going to church. He never read the Bible or anything like that. But he was very religious.
Walt loved to talk to people as long as they were interested. After Disneyland opened, people sometimes came up to him in the park and asked him questions. If they seemed interested, he would talk on and on, but if they seemed a little bit bored, he just walked away. Walt knew every nail in Disneyland. He loved to show it off to me. I remember when they were building the Pirates ride he insisted that I walk through it with him, even though it was all dirt. He put a plank down over the dust for me to walk on, because he wanted me with him.
I remember one time when we were building the Monsanto exhibit. Walt was showing me around and when we tried to enter the building a guard stopped us. “I can’t let you in without permission,” the guard said. “But don’t you know who I am?” Walt asked. “Yes. You can come in, but she can’t,” the guard said. Walt told him, “She owns the joint,” and we went in. Walt fired the man. He reasoned that if the guard talked that way to him, he might be ruder to other visitors. Walt simply could not stand rudeness.
Walt was terribly honest. When he was in a lawsuit and it seemed easier to make a settlement to get rid of it, Walt said, “No. We’re in the right, and we’ll see it through.” And usually he won.
You couldn’t give Walt anything that really pleased him. He bought gifts for me, often perfume because he could order it by phone. But usually I would have to exchange it because it wouldn’t be something I liked. Occasionally, he would buy me things like antique jewelry that he knew I wanted. Once a jeweler sent up some pins for me to see and I said they were too expensive. But Walt later ordered them for me anyway.
He didn’t really like to shop for the girls and me. One time he handed me a pamphlet on fur coats and said, “Here’s your Christmas present.” I never really bought him anything that he liked. Once I bought him a firebox for the fireplace, made of brass. He looked at the firebox and said, “I’ll get you a cord of wood next year.” If he found out I wanted something, he would go out and buy it, but he hated to shop.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 10"!
Walt hired Admiral Joe Fowler to help him build Disneyland, and later, after Walt's death, Joe was instrumental in the construction of Disney World, as well. Whenever Walt gave Joe a task no one else could handle, his response to Walt was always the same: can do.
BOB THOMAS: He was nutty about trains, wasn’t he?
JOE FOWLER: Yes. You know, that was another experience. When I first came to Disneyland he wanted a monorail. He had some plans that had been given him by some of the authorities in Los Angeles. He asked me to look at them. Well, my God, they were just… A high school senior in manual training could have done a better job. There was nothing there to put your teeth into. No evidence of anything that would be at all satisfactory from an engineering point of view. I explained that to Walt and he said, “All right, but keep on the lookout.” Well, in 1957 I went to Europe and met him at the Oktoberfest. I had four of the most wonderful days of my life there with Walt and Lilly and my wife and myself. I told him that I had heard of this monorail in Cologne, Germany, which was running on an experimental basis on a mile-long track, and I was going to look at it. He said, “Fine.” I did and I got all the data (I had all the pictures and everything) and I came back to the studio and I told Dick [Irvine], “Dick, if we show these to Walt, we’re sunk. He’s going to build it, I’m sure.” And he did. And that was the beginning of the monorail.
There’s another incident that I would like to just mention, just to show you what a great guy he was and how he could be vitally disappointed but not be at all emotionally, shall we say, upset. We had the little Casey Jr. train and he loved it. And just before we opened, this was the first time the train had come back, down from the studio, and we ran it around and it was top-heavy. I told Walt, “Walt, I’m sorry, but we just shouldn’t run that train for the public until after we get some keepers on it so that going around the curves or if she’s loaded on one side or the other, it won’t tip over. Otherwise, very frankly, it would be very dangerous.” He said, “All right, Joe,” and he walked away. And I heard afterwards he was very disappointed. But that’s all he said. In two weeks we got the keepers on. And that was all there was to it.
BT: That train you looked at, at Los Gatos, did he find it interesting? Was it something that helped?
JF: Very interesting. Walt had known the man who owned it, a fellow named Jones, for a long time—Casey Jones, they called him. The train ran through Casey’s orchard right next to my ranch that I had up there, my home. But he wanted a fabulous amount of money for a lot of broken-down, obsolete equipment. And I told Walt, at the time he asked me, I said, “Walt, I think we’d be far better off to build our own train, because by the time you get through renovating this and so forth… That would be my offhand opinion.” Which was what we did, as you know. Roger Broggie built our trains. But Walt was fascinated. We rode the train around.
And, oh the time we had in the Oktoberfest. God, it was funny! He had come in from Sweden and the countries through Germany and to Munich. And I had landed in England and gone south to France and Italy and up through Austria and we met in Munich. So, we went out to the Oktoberfest and, of course, we had a wonderful time. But we saw the first of the so-called mouse rides. A small car that comes down, it’s a very small car, two people get in it, and it’s like a roller coaster. They call it the Wild Mouse and it was a very flimsy construction. I told Walt the night before that I had lost seven pounds since I hit Europe, because Maurie and I had bought this little English car and I had to unpack and pack that damn baggage every day. Well, all right, we get in the car and we go up and we come down the hill, hell-bent-for-an-election, and by the time we got down to the platform to get out we were wedged in. Neither one of us could move. The attendants had to give us a hand to really get us out. And Walt turned to me and he said, “Joe, you damned liar, I don’t think you’ve lost a pound.”
BT: Did he learn something from that ride?
JF: We learned that we didn’t want it. That was one great thing about Walt. Anything that we did had to be especially adapted or designed by ourselves. The one or two things at Disneyland that we bought we completely redesigned. There was no real semblance or similarity to what we had.
BT: The sky ride?
JF: Yeah, the sky ride. We changed the attachments. We made our own cabins which were entirely different. And the Astro-Jet. We redesigned that completely with regard to the way the cars went up, etc.
Of course it was quite interesting when we started Disneyland. Some of the old-time operators, owners of parks… One of them in particular told Walt, “Now Mr. Disney, you should never pay over $25,000 for a ride. I mean anybody who does that ought to have their head examined.” Well, of course, Walt started right in the first contract we had with Arrow, why, we paid $47,000 for [an attraction]. And God knows some of our things cost way into the millions. But they all paid off.
At the same time, contrary to what you might hear, Walt and Roy were a great team. Because whereas Walt would never compromise with perfection or a complete situation that he wanted himself as he saw it, he was the first to criticize spending money that you didn’t get your returns on. He was very, very definite on that. When I started in building Disneyland I didn’t know a damn thing about what we were getting into. In July I had a budget of 4.5 million. That was before we had any plans at all. And in September it went up to 7. And in November we talked 11. Of course, we came to a crisis in December. See, we built Disneyland, from the day we pulled the first orange tree until we opened our gates, in 11 months.
I went to Roy in December. I had the steel for the opera house on the ground. And by that time I had made up my mind we simply could not get the millwork accomplished outside, either with regard to the degree of perfection we needed or with regard to its volume. We had to have our own metal. I needed $40,000 to put my steel up and get a roof on so I could put the mill in the opera house. Roy said, “Jesus, Joe, can’t do it. We’ve borrowed on the life insurance and everything. Can’t get any more out of…” I went back the next day, I said, “Well, Roy, how about it? Can I have my money?” And he said, “Yes, I’ve got your money. Go ahead.” And that was the turning point.
Of course, we had subsequent crises. On the first of January, plans had been to board up Tomorrowland with a fancy construction fence. Walt suddenly decided that wouldn’t do. So we had to get in Tomorrowland and make some semblance of an opening. But, of course, the Tomorrowland we opened with in 1955 was never a happy situation for him. He always had in the back of his mind… And in 1959 we completely rebuilt it. I can remember sitting on the old hill with Walt in Tomorrowland and listening, just listening to him plan what he was going to do with it.
BT: What did he say?
JF: He said, among other things, “You know, Joe—this was the beginning of the toboggan, the concept of the Matterhorn. Do you suppose we could get some snow and have a toboggan ride here?” This was in Tomorrowland. Of course, the hill was only about half the height of the Matterhorn. I said, “Well, Walt, I think we could, but, man, it would be [complicated] to try to keep a machine supplying snow for the summer season. It would be a terrific job and would involve a lot of drainage and so forth.” He forgot about that, but then very shortly he came up with the Matterhorn.
I can remember Disney World. You know the thing I miss more than anything else? It is Walt’s passing before we’d opened Disney World. I spent a lot of time with him, walking around the area down there listening to his plans. And the amazing thing is the degree to which we have followed those plans in building Disney World. It’s almost identical. And many times I can almost… I don’t believe in the supernatural, but nonetheless I had a feeling that he’s looking at the boats there. He’s looking at these things that are operating just the way he planned it. And the number of people coming in and their wonderful reaction. But to have been able to have him there and see it come into being would have been even more of a great pleasure.
BT: How did Roy solve the financial problem of Disneyland? Were you aware of where he got the money from?
JF: Yes. There was a man named Dean in the Bank of America at that time, a great, great guy. This was in April and we were still talking 11 million. And we walked down Main Street and Mr. Dean looked on all sides and he turned to Roy and he said, “Roy, you know if ever I have seen anything that appeared to me to be a little bit of variance; I think we’re looking at 15 million rather than 11.” Actually, we spent 17. But the secret of the whole thing was the fact it took off and was a tremendous success from the day we opened, in spite of the press. If you’ll forgive me… I mean…
BT: That’s all right. I think I gave it the only good review.
JF: Is that right? Well, you know, it was a problem, a real problem. My God, I can remember the day we opened, all that tremendous number of people. I was tied up in part of the Jack Sayers show. I was in the cabin of the Mark Twain with Irene Dunne. And we were marooned there for an hour and a half. She was perfectly delightful, but because of the crowds we couldn’t get off. Then I finally got a call when I hit the beach that we had a problem up in Fantasyland and we did. We had a gas leak. And you could smell gas coming up through the courtyard there somewhere. The question was, “What the hell will we do? Will we close up and get everybody out of the park?” I got hold of the fire chief and we decided we’d rope off the area. I don’t think half a dozen people knew it, because we had this area where it was apparent there was a leak through in the gas, so nobody could get in and there couldn’t be any question of any concentrated explosive mixture.
BT: Was Walt aware of that situation?
JF: No. We never told him those things. He knew about it afterwards. Walt knew everything. And it must have been a couple of weeks when he said, “Gee, Joe, you had a little problem up in Fantasyland.” And I said, “Well, yes, Walt, we had, but it worked out all right.” He said, “Well, that’s fine.”
BT: What about those last frantic weeks when you were getting ready for opening? Were there any real problems then?
JF: Oh, man. Well, we had two critical ones. In the first place we had a plumber’s strike.
BT: I remember.
JF: We had all the plumbing on hand and we couldn’t get it installed. So, we had a wonderful relation with labor. We had a committee. And I got this committee of management, my people, and the labor boys. The teamsters, who as you probably know are a very powerful outfit, said, “Now, if the plumbers won’t put this in, we’re not going to have this park defeated. We’ll put it in for you.” That word was passed along and the plumbers said, “All right.” I told the plumbers, “Tell you what we’ll do now. We’ll guarantee you that whatever the settlement on your ultimate finishing of the strike, we will pay you the same thing. Now, under those circumstances will you put it in?” And they said, “Yes.” The other thing is: all the hot-asphalt plants in Orange County went on strike. And for my last roads I had to haul it all from San Diego. Jesus, what a cost! But we did it. We opened.
BT: You made these decisions without consulting Walt?
JF: Oh, no, no. Put it this way. He would say, “Well, what about it?” And I said, “We’re gonna open.” There was a time when C.V. Wood in June said, “Joe, we might just as well postpone it till September. We’re not going to make it.” And I said, “Woody, we have to make it.” Course I’d been sort of indoctrinated during the war. I had been working right under limits, I had twenty-five private shipyards and by doggie, we had to make dates! There wasn’t any two ways about it. That was probably the greatest thing in the world that we opened in July. If we had waited until September when the crowds sloughed off, and so forth, we might never have gotten it off the ground.
BT: Did anybody come to Walt with that decision to make?
JF: No. no. All Walt would say was, “Are you going to make it?” And I said, “Yes.” That was as far as it would go. He never opened it up.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 10"!