"The World That Walt Built" — by Georgia I. Hesse

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Editor’s note: Georgia Hesse‘s delightful story about the Walt Disney Family Museum was written especially for the BATW ezine/website.  Thank you very much, Georgia.]

Walt Disney in the early 1930s (photo © Walt Disney Family Museum)
Walt Disney in the early 1930s (photos © Walt Disney Family Museum)

When Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901, did anybody ponder the Sagittarius stars? If they had, they might have considered the Archer who represented the child’s sign: a Centaur (half man, half beast)  flinging his arrows (ideas?) in all directions. Enthusiastic, they might have predicted: overdosed with optimism; adventuresome, outgoing, curious, generous, exceedingly verbal.

earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse
earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

Certainly no one presumed the child Walter would one day create a cosmos of his own, complete  with ruling houses and planets; or that dwarf star Bashful was in Snow White and Pinocchio was approaching Mary Poppins.

By 1955, Walt owned his own Land in Southern California and about 10 years later built his World in Florida.  On Oct. 1 last, the Disney Family Museum debuted in San Francisco to detail the man behind the Mouse.

So the Magic Kingdom’s chief magician moved into a redbrick barrack built for the realities of wartime.  Given the exigencies of architectural conformity demanded by the National Historic Landmark District, I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have worried.  The place,  inside and outside,  sings in harmony.

The story begins where it should: in Gallery 1 on the ground floor just behind the award-filled entry hall through which I hurried, promising myself to return another day.  Here’s young Walter with his family photos, drawings, and other  mementos, the most surprising of which is the ambulance he drove (having lied about his age)  in 1918, after the end of World War I.

Generations of Disneyphiles who came of age with Mickey, Donald, the Seven Dwarfs and Dumbo cannot imagine Walt in anything but a success story.  Struggle? Why? Wasn’t he born with a silver spring bow pen in his hand?

Walt and Lilly Disney (photo © Walt Disney Family Museum)
Walt and Lilly Disney

Nope. Disappointments dogged Disney even as they have all other artists. But Disney had more than talent and imagination. His dreams came to him wrapped in persistence. In 1920, he and fellow illustrator Ub Iwerks formed Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The firm failed after one month. Two years later, Walt gave birth to Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc., with $15,000 in borrowed money. The company produced advertising and topical shorts and story cartoons and went bankrupt within a year. Walt moved to Hollywood to become a director.

Gallery 2: Hollywood (photo © Walt Disney Family Museum)
Gallery 2: Hollywood

Hollywood appears on the second floor, after a brief elevator ride, where Walt arrived in 1923 in to team up with his older brother Roy, a happy union of  extravagant talent with cheerful practicality.  When the Disney Brothers Studio landed a contract for a series called the “Alice Comedies,” in which a young girl filmed in live action interacts with animated characters, Walt began to hire other animators and to metamorphose into a master storyteller and director.  (The dance of real and imaginary characters in the Alice comedies – which I hadn’t seen before — struck me as delightfully reminiscent of the San Francisco Opera’s brilliant staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”)

Here in Hollywood (Gallery 2), we  meet Mickey Mouse (actually drawn by Iwerks) and Walt marries (in 1925) one Lillian Bounds who had come to work at Disney Brothers Studio as an “inker.”

In 1926, Walt Disney Studios replaced Disney Brothers and moved to a new building on Hyperion Avenue, later the birthplace of some of the greatest films.  The next year, Walt walked out on one of his characters, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, rather than lose his studio to distributor Charles Muntz, who was enforcing his trademark rights. Another unwary guy dehorsed.

Came the revolution, the talking-picture one.  (At this juncture, we have entered Gallery 3, New Horizons in the 1930s.)  In 1928, Walt – actually, the artist was Iwerks – created  Mickey Mouse, which was a bit like Johann August Sutter’s discovery of gold on the American River in 1848. (Disney’s own voice was Mickey for 20 years.)

Gallery 2: Steamboat Willie animation cells (photo © Walt Disney Family Museum)
Gallery 2: Steamboat Willie animation cells

The initial explosion of animation art joined to sound and innovative characters produced a cartoon hero named Steamboat Willie and Walt’s fortunes took off in a whirlwind. The Silly Symphonies, in which Donald Duck, Pluto, and the Three Little Pigs debuted, became the talk of the town – any town. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” served as theme song for the Great Depression.

In 1933, a daughter, Diane, was born to Lillian and Walt; in 1936 they adopted Sharon, and before the decade was over Wynken, Blynken, and Nod  and the Ugly Duckling had joined the family.

Somewhere between Gallery 4, The Move to Features, and Gallery 5, “We Were in a New Business,” I began to realize the adults were having more fun than the children, especially those adults Of a Certain Age. The children accepted; they’d seen such wizardry all their lives: interactive imagery, two-dimensional beings dancing and singing as if they were round rather than flat, buttons to push and images that did their bidding. Adults recognized that genius was afoot: in the more than 348 enlarged drawings from a Steamboat Willie that blanket one wall and constituted less than a minute of action; in the display of images from a notebook that, responding to touch, document the “life” of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.”

Gallery 4 shows off the pioneering of full-length features. Look! Right there! The Seven Dwarfs, each queerer and cuter than the last, march off to work singing “Heigh-ho!” with all the enthusiasm of childhood although today they are 73  years old: shy Bashful, silly Dopey, grouchy Grumpy, thoughtful Doc, rotund Happy, uncertain Sneezy, heavy-lidded Sleepy, Snow White soldiers all.

Next time their names are a challenge on “Jeopardy,” shout them out: two S’s, two D’s, and three emotions. Do their personalities represent the seven stages of cocaine addiction, as some ’70s spoilsports suggested? Bunk! I didn’t care when I was four and I don’t care now.

Curiouser and curiouser! In Gallery 5, a dandy and dramatic device called a multiplane camera extends down through the floor to the level below.  Wikipedia describes it thus: “(It) moves a number of pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and at various distances from one another. This creates a three-dimensional effect…The movements are calculated and photographed frame-by-frame, with the result being an illusion of depth by having several layers of artwork moving at different speeds – the further away from the camera, the slower the speed. (A variation) is to have the background and foreground move in opposite directions. This creates an effect of rotation. An early example is the scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the evil Queen drinks her potion, and the surroundings appear to spin around her.”

Is that as clear as the Golden Gate Bridge on a tule fog twilight? The first such camera was invented for Disney by his renowned animator/director Ub Iwerks in 1933, although Walt usually gets credit for it, and indeed it may well have been his idea. Iwerks used parts from an old Chevy. (Creativity springs eternal.)  This camera served the studio superbly until 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” It was rendered obsolete by the CAPS process used for “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (The acronym stands for Computer Animation Production System.)

Let the wizard himself explain it: Google “youtube Disney multiplane camera” and in seven minutes watch Walt sum it all up.

In 1938, Disney Studios moved to a 50-acre lot in Burbank. In 1939, “Snow White” won an honorary Academy Award and an unusual one:  a casting of one full-sized Oscar and seven miniatures, stand-ins for the dwarfs. (Walt still holds the record for Oscars: 32, they say.)

Artistry doesn’t always  insure a boffo boxoffice.  “Snow White,” was a succès fou, but “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi” bombed in 1940-42 despite technology that preceded stereo and surround sound by two decades. Clips in Gallery Five startle the senses even today as we see the sounds of flutes, bassoons, even drums in a show of synesthesia created by Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra. While I watched a young visitor swayed delicately before the screen in a dream dance of her very own.

“The Toughest Period in My Whole Life” comes in Gallery 6: America marches  into W.W. II, half of Disney Studios is requisitioned by the Army, animators and Imagineers go on strike, long-eared “Dumbo” flies to modest heights, Walt’s father dies and he turns to propaganda and morale-boosting films such as the anti-Nazi “The Ducktators” and a “Blitz Wolf,” starring three pigs and a slavering wolf called Der Fewer. Wow! Who knew?

Gallery 9: model of Disneyland (photo © Walt Disney Family Museum)
Gallery 9: model of Disneyland

By Galleries 7a and 7b, The Natural World, I felt a swivel of the senses, an exhaustion of the eyes, a failure of the feet, a muddle of the mind. Finally, at the entrance to Gallery 9, The Big Screen and Beyond, I suffered a serious stroke of imaginary indigestion. There, beyond a window wall, spread a truly impossible image: the pampered Presidio grounds, green as a studio sea, centered around one perfect palm pasted on a blue sky and backdropped by a Golden Gate Bridge flawlessly fake.

Clearly, the time had come to leave. I spiraled down the ramp, slowly so I wouldn’t stumble into the Lilly Belle (a train from the Disneys’ back yard), a red car that modeled for the Autopia, an 83-year-old Dick Van Dyke hologramming Mary Poppins, or any of the recreations of all the rides of Walt’s lifetime. Lights, cameras, action: I was stunned by it all.

Back to the first floor: I staggered out through the museum store and the café; on the lower level  I spotted the media and art studios and the theater where screenings, lectures, performances, and classes are held. “I’ll be back,” I said aloud to myself, “and I’ll start in Gallery 9.”

In Disneyland, decades ago, I had experienced a similar eccentric illusion. The Disney Museum is clearly the reality; San Francisco is the myth.

Georgia I. Hesse

If You Go:

The Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery Street
The Presidio of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA 94129
Tel: (415) 345-6800

Wednesday-Monday: 10:00 a.m.-6 p.m.
Closed on Tuesdays, on Jan. 1, July 4, Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25

Members: Free
Adults: $20
Seniors (65+ years): $15
Students (valid I.D.): $15
Children (ages 6-17): $12.50
Less than age 6: Free with adult
Alert! All entries are on timed-entry basis (every 15 minutes) to cut down on crowding: available online at www.disneymuseum.com

Getting there

Alert! The 104 Montgomery Street address is not the street downtown in S.F.; it’s in the Presidio.

From downtown:
drive north on Van Ness, turn left on Lombard St., continue onto Richardson Ave./US 101N, slight left toward Gorgas Ave. (signs for Presidio Crissy Field), continue on Gorgas, turn left at Halleck St., turn right at Montgomery

From 19th Ave./Park Presidio:
turn right onto California St., turn left at Arguello Blvd., continue on Arguello through Arguello Gate into the Presidio, turn left on Moraga Ave., turn right on Montgomery

From Marin County/Golden Gate Bridge:
head south on US 101S, go sharp right at Gorgas Ave., turn left toward Edie Rd., Take 1st right onto Edie Rd., Edie becomes Girard Rd., turn right at Lincoln Blvd., go left onto Montgomery St.



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