It has been fascinating to see the range of narrative on the hundredth anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. As has always been the case when it comes to “Waltology”, the stories range from the scholarly to bare snippets of legend with some pretty credible first-hand accounts threading through the middle. The sure bet though is that one way or another, this unusual turn of the 20th century mid-westerner touched something in the collective human consciousness with a strong lean in the direction of a kind of reverence for a mythic America.
I’m going to be honest-I didn’t watch the TV special and really haven’t paid a lot of attention to the “official content” (I think I’m being a proper 21st century person here-isn’t “content” what we’re supposed to call it now?). I think part of the reason is that, like so many people, I have a cherished story of my own in which I have woven a relationship with Walt and what he and Roy set in motion, and I rather like my version the way it lives in my mind, and you can keep your “facts” to yourself, thanks very much!
I’ll admit to privilege as the basis for my protective stance. Like so many of us Boomers, I grew up with the Disney zeitgeist-cartoon shorts, animated features, the Sunday night TV show as a ritual defining the true start of the weekly family cycle of life and, of course Disneyland. But for me and my brothers, it went deeper.
Me and some other employee kids with Walt and Mickey, early 1960s.
When Petty Officer 2nd class Robert C. Allen returned to his birthplace of Corona California from service in the Navy during the Korean war, he was reunited with his bride, my mother, and a feisty squaller with a head full of black hair, an attitude and an appetite he had not yet met-me. My dad was what I’d call a “poetic pragmatist”. He was always imagining a better something but stayed fully grounded in the here and now reality of life. (I always felt that was one reason Dad resonated so much with Walt). So, the freshly minted civilian toted his bride and first-born down what is the 91 freeway from Corona to Anaheim and scraped together enough dough courtesy of the GI Bill to buy a two-bedroom house at 1007 S. Lemon Street about a block from where it intersects Ball Rd. and less than a half mile from this new place that advertised that it was hiring. He stood in the long line of aspirants three days in a row and finally got hired. Later-on, he asked the guy who hired him why he picked him, and the answer was “you were the only guy in line that day who wore a tie”-we’ll save those stories for another time.
The upshot was that the job riding on the caboose of the Casey Jr. to make sure no guests fell off turned into a 32-year career that began a few days before July 17, 1955, and during which my dad-honored after his early passing as a Disney Legend, by extension our family, had a very special perspective on a good deal the 100 years of Disney. It did in a way become the “family business”. My mom as the glue that held it all together and my brothers and I accounting aggregately for something like 80+ years of our own tie as cast members, Imagineers and show-folk.
It’s this dual outside-inside view that forges the mash-up of personal experience, anecdotes, odd brushes with fate and the richest panoply of remarkable people imaginable that I carry around in my noggin with extraordinary gratitude and we’re I to begin listing this would quickly take on the character of the “begats” in the Old Testament!
Dad on the far left, Walt on the right during the early planning for the Mineral King Project.
So, here’s where I fall out on 100 years of dreaming and doing. I sheepishly smile at the Real Walt, and he’s a different guy than either the “Historical Walt” or the “Mythic Walt. He, to me, stands in the company of Aesop, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Sondheim, Tolkien, Bradbury, Rowling, Gaiman and their like. I admire the entrepreneurial leaps, dogged courage, and steadfastness not to a business plan or a strategy-all of that came later as an outgrowth-but to a hero’s journey of their own in which great storytelling combined with extraordinary artistry met a reverence for fresh, innovative thinking and a leathery mid-western American turn of the century work ethic. All of that, supported by a foundational principle of respect for the audience whether 6 or 66, in a theater seat or an E-Ticket ride is what one of Walt’s first Disneyland hires and one of my mentors Van France sook such great pains to remind us to cherish and protect. The actual magic to a century of Disney is that to this moment, I am absolutely certain that Walt and Roy did all they did specifically for me and hundreds of millions of people know it’s true for them too. On the day before EPCOT opened, I got the chance to interview 3 generations of Walt’s family. His wife Lilly Disney, his Daughter Diane Disney-Miller and his granddaughter talked to us about Walt, and we asked the kind of hack questions you ask when you’re in your late 20s, don’t know much and are gob smacked. To the Big Question: “What do you think Walt would have to say about EPCOT?”, Mrs. Disney laughed and said a version of “Well, look, I think you’ve all done a wonderful job and I don’t know what Walt would have said but I know he would have already been thinking about what to do next and how to change it.”. I hope that the new generation of Disney folk will own that mantle and stay true to those early principles just as I hope the new generations of Disney audiences will keep up the demand for new and better stories. He’d have liked that.