By Steve Shapiro
SAN FRANCISCO--Often, when the name “Disney” is invoked, it is in one-word terms like the conglomerate Apple or like a nation (say, Dubai), rather than in purely personal terms.
Before “Walt Disney,” after all, there came Walt Disney; before the dazzling enchantments of the animated feature-length films “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” there lie the hard groundwork of a young commercial artist and animator whose business card read “Walt. Disney Cartoonist”—that period announcing his artistic independence from his farming-turned-newspaper-route-salesman father, Elias. As with other one-word wonderments—Elvis, Marilyn, Picasso—it is a mystery as to how much and how possible it is to separate the one from the other.
Many biographies, favoring either the sunny Uncle Walt or the union-busting corporate Colossus, have summoned up the energy and the resources to thus characterize him as the American ideal or (in a negative sense) the American ideal. The latest effort comes in the more direct form of the multi-million-dollar family-funded Walt Disney Family Museum, in San Francisco’s former military-complex-turned-public-park The Presidio.
The museum, newly opened on October 1, is not sanctioned by the Disney Corporation. It ceases with Walt’s death, at a surprisingly young sixty-five, from lung cancer, in 1966. If the familial influence in the form of photographs and personal artifacts (like a bracelet made for Walt’s wife Lilly imitating the one standard size Oscar and seven miniature Oscars specially awarded for “Snow White” in 1937), as well as in the shaping of the personal-public narrative, hews toward the genial genius, it is impossible to deny at least the genius.
The Disney persona is now so well ingrained in more than eight generations of Americans (as well as foreign Mousketeers) that his humble Midwestern beginnings are rarely referenced as anything more than an “early life” paragraph. Reading about and viewing photographs of his cross-country pursuits and cross-cultural friendships (he and Salvador Dalí collaborated; so did Walt and Robert Benchley; most famously, Stokowski asked to conduct in “Fantasia”) it seems that Disney the man must have materialized out of his own plans for Disneyland.
Yet his early life was everything to him; one can see it take shape in cartoon short after cartoon feature after live-action adventure after theme park: few artists have made over their inner lives as thoroughly and as transformatively as Walt Disney, born in Chicago but raised, first, on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, and then for six years in a thriving metropolitan Kansas City.
The Walt Disney Family Museum follows this slighted path to a degree; Marceline and Kansas City are given their due through wall labels and rare family photos without really making a point about how essential they were as homes and creative sanctuaries. If one knew little more about Disney than that he caught the drawing bug in KC it would not be apparent that Disney without the Midwest would be like Dickens without London or the photographer Atget without Paris. Of course, with his whole career set forth before him it is small to ask for more about his time on the family farm or young Walt’s Kansas City Star delivery route. What one misses, for all the museum’s love for its subject, is some subjectivity in making him Disney while keeping Walt, too.
A deeper immersion into his formative years, Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” pursues dates and places that allow the family to come to life like the brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: Elias bought forty acres a mile from Marceline from “the children of a Civil War veteran named Crane who had died recently” (and then bought five more acres, paid in installments); the farm was overrun with animals—hmmm, ducks and maybe mice—and the town proper seethed with neighborly help and steam engines running and once, even, Buffalo Bill with his Wild West Show: Gabler writes, “Bill himself stopped his buggy and invited Walt to join him. ‘I was mighty impressed,’ Walt later wrote.”
Farming was not Elias’s strong suit and so they moved to Kansas City, in 1911. Their addresses—2706 East Thirty-first and later 3028 Bellefontaine—reveal something of the family’s faltering finances. Reading further in Gabler, however, that Elias’s Star paper route was a social embarrassment that the father inculcated in his son who did all the work such that “forty years later he was still awakening in a sweat with nightmares about the route” says much more than most museum exhibitions would ever reveal. Reading, too, that Walt’s little free playtime “was stolen from the route; he said he played with toys he would see on the porches, then left them exactly as he found them” is a painful psychological irony for a child who would grow up to be a man who fully engaged in playtime.
The museum, with its wondrous interactive displays and audio headsets in which a visitor can hear encomiums about Walt from his staffers and its wealth of maquettes and animation aids that reveal the steps to creating Dumbo, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other animated icons, attempts to give the Disney family and then Walt as a family man equal weight. Personal letters and photographs parallel his budding, bustling career: one presumes the family wishes a visitor to view Walt in a gestalt sense, as a life inextricably one with a career.
The truth is that however pressed and purple the museum guides and guards’ uniforms are, however lively the presentation leading up to Disneyland (Midwesterners would be amused to know Disney first scouted St. Louis as a possible site), Walt’s death and a final farewell filled with Op-Ed cartoons and telegrams from Frank Capra and Jascha Heifetz, the museum is better equipped to show the work than the life because the former was the latter.
One commentator says that an overnight suite was built for Walt to stay over at the studio because he oversaw as much as he could; and Gabler, in contrast to the, well, familial terms in which Walt was remembered by staffers recorded for the museum’s purposes, writes of long-term employees feeling he more clearly knew Mickey and Goofy than he knew them as individuals. For a shy man from a small farm who grew to inhabit an empire, perhaps one should not always expect Mickey’s populist popularity: the life is in the artfulness of the artlessness.