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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: June 2007

June 27, 2007:

Unbuttoned

Walt at KalamazooI've written on a number of occasions (most recently on June 10 and 14) about the wacky but imperishable story that Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button to the September 14, 1964, ceremony at which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson. Jim Korkis may have identified the shred of truth that has permitted that story so long and undeserved a life. He writes:

"Walt might have been wearing a button on his lapel...but it wasn't 'Vote for Goldwater.'  On his way back from Washington, D.C., Walt stopped over in Kalamazoo, Michigan, from September 17 to September 20 to visit with his old friend, Donald S. Gilmore, who was chairman of the board of Upjohn Pharmaceutical, one of the earliest participants at Disneyland. There is a photo of Walt getting off the plane and there is indeed a button on his lapel, a very famous and familiar button. It is the 'I'm Goofy About Disneyland' flicker button. Apparently he brought a handful to distribute as well; there's a photo of Walt with a cigarette [probably a Gitane —MB] dangling from his mouth as pins one of the buttons on Gilmore. These photos are in The 'E' Ticket magazine No. 34 (2000), pages 11 and 12, as part of a spread devoted to the Kalamazoo visit.

Walt and Gilmore"So maybe Walt was wearing a button on his lapel when he got the medal from Johnson, but it was a Goofy button. Maybe some Disney writers mistook 'Goofy' for 'Goldwater.'  After all, both begin with the letter 'G.' Certainly worse mistakes about Walt have been made over the years, and, unfortunately, are still being made."

I've reproduced a couple of photos from that "E" Ticket article, the ones that Jim mentions.

I can imagine Walt wearing the Goofy button to the White House, just for fun, then taking it off before the ceremony, after giving some Johnson staffers a few anxious moments. (Perhaps it was such an episode that Emile Kuri witnessed, and misinterpreted.) But wear that button, or any other, when he was receiving the medal from the President? No way.

I've recommended The "E" Ticket before, as a rich source of Disney historical material, but let me take this opportunity to do so again. You can visit its Web site, subscribe, and order back copies by clicking on this link.

Walt's People, Cont'd

The fifth volume of Didier Ghez's invaluable collections of Disney-related interviews is now available from Xlibris.com; it'll be available from amazon.com and other such outlets later this summer. The people represented in this volume include James Algar, Bill Anderson, Buddy Baker, Jack Bradbury, George Bruns, Alice Davis, Marc Davis, Al Dempster, Bill Evans, Vance Gerry, Hugh Harman, T. Hee, Winston Hibler, Lynn Karp, Ward Kimball, Dave Michener, Nadine Missakian, John Musker and Ron Clements, Maurice Noble, Fess Parker, Walt Peregoy, Walt Stanchfield, Erwin Verity, and Bill Walsh. I've read this volume in manuscript, and there's some remarkable stuff in it.

Two Days Away

Bird and O'Toole

Ratatouille opens Friday, and even though so much has already been written about the film, it remains a big question mark. I can't recall a similar atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension surrounding the release of any other Pixar feature. The Wall Street Journal has an article today that neatly sums up how hazardous an undertaking Brad Bird's film has turned out to be, with some exceptionally interesting quotations from Bird himself. (That's him in the photo above, with Peter O'Toole, the voice of the food critic Anton Ego.) I don't think the article is available on-line, so here are some excerpts:

Pixar has a track record of generating family-friendly hits, and the new movie has gotten positive reviews. Still, there are signs that getting the word out on the new film is more of a struggle than usual. In a move seen in Hollywood as an admission that Pixar has a challenge on its hands in a competitive summer, Disney recently held more than 800 sneak-preview screenings of the film on a Saturday night. Such tactics are usually reserved for films that studios believe need an extra boost. "It's not an easy film to sum up," says director Brad Bird. "Disney decided that the best advertisement for the film was the film itself." ...

Former Pixar director Jan Pinkava came up with the idea and spent several years working on it. But three-quarters of the way through, Pixar decided to switch directors, bringing in a rising star, Mr. Bird, fresh off "The Incredibles."

Immediately, Mr. Bird took a knife to the project, rewriting the script, cutting scenes and killing off characters. He replaced all but two lines in the dialogue. He also simplified the story to focus on Remy and Linguini. The overhaul was all the more demanding because he was determined to stick to the original timetable, giving him 18 months to finish the movie.

Mr. Bird says he wanted to embrace the premise, rather than dance around it. He decided to make the rats look more rat-like, giving them longer tails and putting many of them on four legs rather than two. Instead of avoiding the kitchen, these rats take it over, making it a bigger focus of the story. "If movies are supposed to be about characters overcoming obstacles, what greater obstacle than this," he says.

The animation team did extensive research to get the kitchen scenes right, including taking cooking classes. The movie goes into great detail on the workings of a gourmet kitchen.

With a budget of around $100 million, the movie needs to draw in a broad audience. But Mr. Bird says he never considered making the movie more overtly kid-friendly. ...

A merchandise campaign was also a challenge. They settled on a modest rollout that for the first time includes branded wine sold at Costco Wholesale Corp. Carrefour SA also has "Ratatouille" branded cheese and other foods. And high-end kitchen store Sur La Table is selling "Ratatouille" cookware and tableware for kids.

Mr. Bird says the challenges of selling "Ratatouille" remind him of a previous movie he did, "The Iron Giant," distributed by Warner Bros. That movie, a complex tale about a giant alien robot who befriends a boy, didn't do well at the box office. But Mr. Bird says he's confident "Ratatouille" will do better because "the Disney marketing team is the best on the planet at selling this stuff."

June 26, 2007:

Disney Wars

There's a fascinating piece on Jim Hill's site about what he describes as Disney's expectation that Ratatouille will perform at the box office much worse than its Pixar predecessors. The Disney publicity apparatus is certainly working very hard to generate good press and word-of-mouth for Ratatouille, as witness the unprecedented sneak preview on June 16 and the unusually large number of pre-release rave reviews.

Ratatouille

Probably more significant are the stories, either planted or massaged into existence, that pound home the idea that Disney's $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar last year was a great investment, no matter how Ratatouille performs. Such stories appear aimed at least in part at the internal dissent evidenced by a message Jim Hill quotes.

When John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull pulled the plug this month on the made-for-DVD sequels to Disney animated features, they undoubtedly were, as the Motley Fool has argued, rectifying a mistake from the Eisner years; but perhaps they were also eliminating a potential gathering point for resistance if Ratatouille's performance is poor enough to embolden the Disney studio's opponents—mostly quiet until now—of the Pixarization of Disney animation.

I'm reminded of what I wrote on February 1, 2006, when the Disney-Pixar deal was announced:

Lasseter's authority over animated features and theme-park attractions is so broad ... as to invite comparison with Walt Disney's. Lasseter is not Walt Disney, however; for a few years, at least, the control he exercises will rest on a much weaker foundation than Walt's ever did. A string of successes will surely cement his authority, but by the same token, an early stumble or two could embolden those Disney executives—I'm sure there are some—who already fear that their company has been bled dry to no good purpose.

I don't think we can assume that Steve Jobs's new position as Disney's largest shareholder will translate automatically into protection for Lasseter and his colleagues in such circumstances. The last time Jobs allied himself with a career corporate executive—John Sculley, a Pepsi-Cola marketing executive he recruited as CEO of Apple Computer—he wound up being pushed out of the company he founded. Jobs emerged on top, but only after spending years in the wilderness. He's twenty years older and, from all appearances, much wiser now, but he's still going to be part of a huge company whose corporate culture differs immensely from Pixar's. We don't know yet how quickly he'll master that culture's complexities, much less take the lead in transforming it into something more Pixar-like.

One thing I remember from my days as a business writer is how chancy acquisitions and mergers are, and how few of them work out as planned. ... The Disney-Pixar combination makes much more sense than most, but it's no sure thing. A few years from now, Disney animation may have entered a golden age under Lasseter's tutelage, or Jobs and Lassseter and a few other refugees may be licking their wounds at a new boutique animation studio. Either outcome seems entirely plausible to me.

Still does.

The Clipping File

I tend to clip pieces from The New York Review of Books more than from any other publication, and sometimes I find myself marking passages that seem to have some relevance to my preoccupations at this site. From my accumulation, these examples:

From a 2003 review by Andrew Butterfield of a Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpture show at the National Gallery of Art (which I saw, but frustratingly briefly): "The depiction of eyes had always been a problem for sculptors; the monochromatic character of most sculpture media makes it difficult to represent the light that is naturally reflected by the vitreous surface of the eye. To overcome this problem, Houdon invented a technique all his own. He formed the iris from a series of extremely fine lines, made a deep hollow for the pupil, and created a tiny wedge on top that projected from the rim of the iris to the center of the pupil. This wedge catches more light than the surrounding areas and thus effectively simulates the sheen and glimmer radiating from the eye."

From a 2002 review by Jennifer Homans of a book on the choreographer George Balanchine: "In Apollon Musagète, Balanchine used Petipa's classical language, but dispensed with defined poses and the tightly strung chains of steps which make the dancer pull the body in—stablized, centered, and contained. Instead, Apollo and his Muses traveled easily and lyrically, as if walking. It was not the positions that structured the dance, but the transitions between steps, the delicate lunges, walks on point, bodies bending into the next phrase. Freed from the ramrod spin necessary for position-to-position dancing, Apollo's body could collapse, bend, and twist."

From a 2002 review by Sanford Schwartz of an exhibition of the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti: "Surrealism was part of an atmosphere where 'the new' no longer constituted discoveries about color or form, which had animated Matisse, Picasso, and their contemporaries, but, rather, one's inner life—one's dreams, tics, sexual drives."

From a 2003 review by Schwartz of a Vuillard retrospective at the National Gallery (which I saw, happily): "What Vuillard, Vallotton, and Bonnard, and their friend Lautrec, and Edvard Munch, too ... were adding to poetical, personal easel painting was what now might be called cartooning or animation. Van Gough, Gauguin, and Seurat had begun a process where faces in paintings had a new hacked-out or curvy or posterish directness, and Vuillard and his peers, who were slightly influenced by the older painters, but also working very much on their own, nudged that process in new directions. They proceeded to make bodies that were squirmy, boneless wonders and faces where eyes might be no more than little black dots. Munch's terror-bound and quaking Norwegian citizens caught on a bridge to nowhere, Vallotton's darkened interiors populated with lovers, musicians, or dissociated couples, and Vuillard's dot-eyed ninnies scrunching about in Paris apartments are all members of the same new family, and forebears of a century or more of experimentation—it is still underway—in how much rough-edged simplicity representational painting can take."

June 25, 2007:

Links

When I launched this site, one of my aims was to avoid the bare listing of links that is typical of so many other sites. Instead, I put up a page called "Links" where I planned to describe other sites that I thought were particularly worthy of a visit.

Didn't work. There are just too many good sites now, and there is not enough time in the day to do justice to all of them. So, although my Links page will stay up, and I'll add to it or update it from time to time, you'll also find a bare-bones listing of links on the right-hand side of this page, beneath the links for other pages on my own site. My initial listing is mostly of sites that are among my RSS feeds; I'll add more links from time to time.

The links in the current list are not all of equal interest—you may find some of the Disney theme-park sites a little baffling if you're not deep into that side of Disney, as I had to be when I was writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney—but you may find a few pleasant surprises. For example, if you enjoy the popular music of the early 20th century, but you're not familiar with the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, you're in for a good time.

Here are a few postings on other sites that I've been intending to call to the attention of my own visitors:

° The analysis of films on the site that David Bordwell shares with Kristin Thompson is often remarkable, and far more sophisticated than anything you'll find at most animation-related sites. See for example, Bordwell's illuminating discussion of continuity editing that uses Lubitsch's wonderful The Shop Around the Corner as a starting point.

Willard Bowsky° Joe Campana's site, Animation - Who & Where, is making excellent use of the Web's resources (especially, I would guess, ancestry.com) to reconstruct the biographies of significant animation people who have until now survived mostly in stray anecdotes. See, for example, his page on the Fleischer animator and director Willard Bowsky (seen at right). I knew of Bowsky's death in World War II, but Campana has provided a lot of details of his earlier life that I'm sure originated in census reports and similar documents. The census is open to researchers now only through 1930; when the 1940 census reports are available in a few years, a lot of small mysteries should be solvable. Joe Campana is showing us how much can be done in the meantime.

° Jaime Weinman's site, Something Old, Nothing New, constantly amazes me because he finds so many interesting things to say about things (old TV shows, Martin and Lewis movies) that I would never have imagined could stimulate so much sophisticated comment. (I'm also amazed because I can't imagine how he finds enough time to watch all that stuff.) He turns his attention to animation only occasionally, but he's always worth reading when he does; see, for example, his May 4 post on Bob McKimson's Warner cartoons, or his May 30 comment on the recent uproar over the UPA cartoons (and John Kricfalusi's criticisms of them) at Michael Sporn's "Splog."

° At the site called Greenbriar Picture Shows, it can be hard to pay much attention to the text because the illustrations—old posters, trade-paper ads, publicity stills—are so mesmerizing. But it's worth taking the time to track down pieces like this two-parter on the MGM cartoons of the 1930s. John McElwee writes about cartoons, as he writes about films of other kinds, from a perspective that's not that of the typical fan but instead embraces budgets, marketing, TV packaging, and other real-life concerns. I do wish McElwee's pages were easier on the eyes, though.

I've been reminded, as I've tracked down the URLs for some of the items I've wanted to flag, how difficult it can be to find older postings in a blog. Most bloggers seem to live in an eternal present, their older work slipping into an "archive" where it will never be seen again. And what a pity that sometimes is.

Coyote

Allentoontown

The Allentown (Pa.) Art Museum has just opened an exhibition called "The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons," which will be up until September 16. This is an exhibition of more than 160 pieces from the collection of Steve Schneider, whose diligence in gathering and preserving Warner Bros. artwork rarely gets proper acknowledgment. Museums around the country have been showing art from Steve's collection for years—I attended such a show in Baltimore a decade or more ago—but opportunities to see it have been fewer in recent years. If you live within a reasonable distance of Allentown, and you haven't seen one of the earlier shows, take your cue from an immortal line in Bob Clampett's Gruesome Twosome: don't pass up a chance like this. For hours, admission prices, etc., visit the museum's Web site.

You Could've Fooled Me Dept.

From Film Daily, December 28, 1931, in an article titled "Cartoon Comedies Gaining New Importance, Says [Paul] Terry":

"Few people, Terry claims, realize the amount of research which enters into the preparation of Terryoons. In the matter of costumes, backgrounds and dances, everything must be authentic, down to the last detail. In addition to this, all music is especially composed by Philip Scheib, Terrytoon's staff composer and musical director. Terrytoons have had much influence in educating people to enjoy musical films by giving them the highest type of music against the element of the cartoon ... Terry believes."

June 23,2007:

Paperback Writer

Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age is "back in stock": I received a copy of the second printing of the paperback from amazon.com yesterday. Oxford University Press made all the corrections I asked for, so this printing is as error-free as I could make it. I'm particularly pleased that I was able to remedy some dumb mistakes in the pages devoted to Walt Disney's early career.

To see exactly what I've fixed, you can go to my Web page devoted to the book's errors. I'd like to make other changes, of course, including a couple mentioned on that Web page—I finished the book ten years ago, after all—but they'll have to wait for a revised edition.

University of California Press tells me that The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney will be published in paperback next spring, date not yet determined. I'll fix as many errors as possible in that book, too.

My mistakes in both books aren't numerous or serious, and you may question whether you really need to buy additional copies. Of course you do! Just as I needed to buy all four or five versions of Peter Pan, on laserdisc and DVD, that now clutter my shelves (and I don't even like the film that much). If it helps, think of the hardcover of Hollywood Cartoons as The Gold Edition (its dust jacket is kind of yellow), the first paperback printing as The Platinum Edition (it came with an "extra," a 2003 addendum), and the second paperback printing as The Fully Restored Masterpiece Edition—because it is a masterpiece, dammit, especially now that I've figured out that Red Lyon spelled his last name without an "s" at the end.

I wish I'd thought to add a few new errors to the second printing, so that I could correct them in the next printing and sell the book to you again (as The Ripoff Edition, perhaps), but, unfortunately, I'm not as creative a marketer as the Disney Home Video folks.

More on Walt Disney and T. H. White

I wrote on May 14 about a letter Walt Disney sent to T. H. White in 1952, in reply to White's apparent complaint about how slowly The Sword in the Stone was reaching the screen. Walt's letter is among White's papers at the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, but there's no copy there of White's letter to Walt. The Walt Disney Archives in Burbank has a carbon of Walt's letter, but it doesn't have White's. Probably that letter is locked away in Disney's "main files," the documents of continuing legal significance. (It's the inaccessibility of such material to researchers that makes talk of a "definitive" Disney biography, based on "complete access to the Disney Archives," so ludicrous.)

Sword in the StoneAs it happens, though, White himself, in his last book, America at Last: The American Journal of T. H. White, gives a pretty good idea of what he said in his letter to Walt. White was in Los Angeles on October 26, 1963, on an American lecture tour, and his hosts drove him to Disneyland, "which I felt it was my duty to visit—Mr. Disney having paid me the princely sum of 750 pounds for the rights in a film on which he is reputed to have spent five million dollars. He made the purchase a generation ago, when I was poor and innocent, and has held them strangled for more than 25 years, neither making the film nor selling them back to me, although I had other and magnificent offers."

It's clear from T. H. White, a 1967 biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner, that White was overstating matters a bit. White was negotiating his Disney contract in May 1939—this was when Walt was using his profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to scoop up all sorts of properties that had potential as animated features. By then, thanks to the success of Sword, White was not poor, not the way he had been a year or two earlier, but he did let Disney buy the screen rights for a bargain price. A 1947 Disney "story inventory report" showed a total investment in The Sword in the Stone of $1,910.32, most if not all of that figure undoubtedly attributable to the purchase of the rights, since there had been no active story work.

If White was trying to retrieve the rights to his story in 1952, that would account for what I've called the "strikingly cool and impersonal" tone of Walt's letter. A good friend has questioned that characterization, and it's true that it may seem harsh to someone who has not spent a lot of time with Walt's letters and memoranda. But he was in his correspondence typically warm and direct, and his letter to White doesn't sound like the same Walt to me. I'd guess that White's letter raised red flags in the Disney legal department and that Walt's letter was, if not drafted by a Disney lawyer, certainly vetted by one.

June 22, 2007:

Also Playing...

Hans Perk continues to post a lot of extraordinary Disney material on his site, including drafts (most recently for The Three Caballeros) and such oddities as "Walt Disney Studio Bulletin No. 12," dated March 9, 1936, and bearing the ungainly title "How to Catch, Build and Maintain the Interest of the Spectator in the Picture - A resume of the examination in the 'Course Fundamentals of Cartoon Story and Expression' First Semester."

This was a course taught by the famous, or infamous, Boris Morkovin, and the bulletin is made up of quotations from members of his class, including Jim Algar, Milt Kahl, Homer Brightman, Bianca Majolie, Ed Penner, Chuck Couch, and Frank Thomas. They comment on how Disney cartoons succeeded or failed when measured against the criteria that Morkovin had laid out in his course.

The Golden TouchFor example, under "10. Importance of sympathy with the character," Milt Kahl says of The Golden Touch, "One of the reasons for failure is that sympathy is not aroused for King Midas. He's simply a fat gourmand, who loves gold - a very unappealing character - and his unfortunate predicament leaves the audience cold."

Under "23. Stories that are memorable vs those which are easily forgotten," Jim Algar says, "Three Little Pigs is of course the most memorable story we have ever produced. It benefited from a certain psychological contribution from the audience not accorded later pictures that were equally as good technically. The simple, direct story is the one that will be remembered. Flying Mouse, Tortoise and Hare and Band Concert are memorable chiefly because they have one simple theme that moves ahead steadily to its solution."

Which sort of sums up my central reservation about Ratatouille, come to think of it.

I read this "bulletin" and a lot of other Morkovin-related stuff on one of my visits to the Walt Disney Archives, in December 1994, but I couldn't fit a photocopy within my allowance of 20 pages a day, or whatever it was in those good old days when outside researchers were still welcome. Now, thanks to Hans, anyone can print a copy off his Web site. And he's posted things I've never seen before, too, like a four-page summary of a discussion on "Use of the Gag File," the compilation of jokes that Hal Horne sold to the Disney studio. The gag file was, by general agreement, a poor investment, but that doesn't make the document Hans has posted any less interesting.

Jeff Watson has been a welcome contributor to Hans's site, as to mine. His mosaic for The Klondike Kid, with frame grabs aligned with animators' credits from the draft, went up recently, and as with Jeff's other mosaics, it's a marvelous sort of summary of the cartoon.

June 21, 2007:

Deranged in Deutschland

I've heard nothing more from John J. Powers, author of the very strange play Disney in Deutschland, but the dustup over Powers's play has had the welcome effect of flushing out somewhat varying German-language accounts of Walt and Roy Disney's visit to Germany in the summer of 1935. You can read about them on the page devoted to "Corrections, Clarifications, and Second Thoughts" for my Disney biography, The Animated Man.

The leading Disney scholar J. B. Kaufman, co-author of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series and author of a forthcoming book on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, has called my attention to one of these accounts, which includes some plausible details about Walt and Roy's business purpose in visiting Munich. He also says:

Despite what Powers apparently alleges about Walt calling in a favor from his buddy Adolf, the wrangle over funds frozen in Germany went on throughout the '30s and only became more complicated as Europe descended into war.  As you know, despite strong interest in Snow White in Germany, the red tape was never resolved, and the film never commercially shown there, until much later.

Are Myklebust writes about the Nazi newspaper that supposedly reported the meeting between Hitler and Walt Disney:

The newspaper Völkischer Beobachter was the Nazi Party’s official newspaper, and an organ full of intentional lies and propaganda of the worst kind on almost every page. Whatever could be printed as “proof” in the Nazi regime’s increasing war against the Jews during the 1930s would find its way to this newspaper. The editor was the top Nazi figure Alfred Rosenberg, who was sentenced to death as a war criminal at the Nuremberg trials in 1946.  So it’s not impossible that Walt Disney, as a non-Jewish Hollywood producer, was praised in positive terms in some connection in the newspaper.

Disney was already a well known and respected filmmaker in Europe in 1935, so a meeting with Hitler, if it occurred, would have been a great news event. Such a meeting would also have been of great propaganda value for the Nazis, since Disney films were so popular in Europe. No such meeting is reported in any book I have consulted about Hitler and the history of the Nazi regime. An argument that this was supposed to be a secret meeting won’t hold up, either, since in that case the Völkischer Beobachter—or any other German newspaper, for that matter—wouldn’t have printed anything at all about the meeting, as a matter of course.

Bror Hellman wrote about Powers's reference to the German national anthem, pointing out that the title of the anthem is not as, Powers wrote, Deutschland Über Alles but Das Lied der Deutschen (The Song of the Germans). The first stanza, in which the phrase "Deutschland Über Alles" appears, is no longer part of the anthem.

Although Powers hasn't written to me again, he sent a message to Cartoon Brew that includes several extraordinary statements (Leonard Mosley's shoddy biography of Walt is "scholarly," it seems). Among them is this revelation: "Until his death in 1966 no Jews or blacks were allowed to be employed at any Disney facility: that is a matter of record." That would come as a surprise to a great many people who thought they were Jewish or black and who thought they worked for Walt Disney. Joe Grant? Floyd Norman? The list is endless, all of them presumably delusional. Powers seems to have slipped into an unfortunate and all too familiar pattern: If you're challenged for voicing a falsehood, respond with an even larger and louder one. Somewhere Dr. Goebbels is smiling.

June 20, 2007:

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Lucy and Donald

The irresistible charmer in the photo above is my 3 1/2-year-old great-niece, Lucy Dugan, who recently visited Walt Disney World with her parents, my niece Catherine and her husband, Jim Dugan. When confronted by an enormous duck, Lucy showed more sang-froid than I would have, but then, Lucy was born in L.A. and exposed to Disneyland at a very early age, so she long ago learned to take enormous ducks in stride.

June 19, 2007:

Out of the Night...

[A June 26 update: I've corrected an error in my original post, thanks to Bob Gay. Beatrix Maurine McCulley was Johnston McCulley's daughter (and executrix of his estate), not his widow. Also, I should have mentioned that she filed her suit in April 1961.]

On May 29, I posted an item called "Valuing Walt's Services," which dealt with a murky period in Walt Disney's life. In late 1952 and early 1953, Walt was deeply involved in two personal projects, Disneyland and Zorro, that were not financed by the Disney studio. At the same time, he was negotiating, through his attorney, Lloyd Wright, for a new employment contract with Walt Disney Productions; his previous contract had expired in 1947. Walt and the studio signed a new seven-year contract in the spring of 1953, and it was quickly challenged in an ultimately unsuccessful shareholder's lawsuit. The records of that lawsuit, which I reviewed last April, suggested that the contract negotiations were pretty rough, to the point that Walt might even have contemplated leaving the company that bore his name.

ZorroI've just received the records of another lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, this one directly related to the Zorro television series. Walt and Walt Disney Productions were essentially innocent bystanders in the suit, which was filed by Beatrix McCulley, the daughter of Johnston McCulley, author of the Zorro stories. Beatrix's quarrel was mainly with Mitchell Gertz, her father's literary agent, whom she accused of cheating Johnston McCulley. Gertz, claiming ownership of the TV rights to the Zorro stories, had sold the rights to Walt.

The two most interesting documents are "interrogatories," answers by Walt and the studio executive Spencer Olin to questions posed by Beatrix McCulley's attorneys. Olin's answers reveal that it was the studio itself that first negotiated for the rights to the Zorro stories, from July to October 1951. It's not clear from the documents why those negotiations failed, but, in any case, a year later, in October 1952, Walt himself began negotiating with Gertz for a contract. He had the help of Nat Winecoff, who was on his personal payroll, as well as Olin and Jack Lavin, who were employees of Walt Disney Productions. A contract was drawn up that was dated December 1, 1952, but it wasn't executed—that is, signed—until February 19, 1953, apparently because of lingering questions about who actually owned the stories.

Walt bought the Zorro rights as an individual but assigned the rights to his personal company, Walt Disney Incorporated (later WED Enterprises), on May 11, 1953. Walt Disney Productions bought the rights from WED in 1957, for $150,000.

The interrogatories confirm that Walt always thought in terms of a Zorro television series, not a feature, and that he hired writers "to develop treatments and screenplays"; Bob Thomas puts the number of completed screenplays at fourteen. It's no wonder that Walt shelved the Zorro project when, as Thomas writes in his biography, the TV networks refused to buy the series without a pilot. Walt surely couldn't find the money to invest in a pilot when he was already pouring thousands of borrowed dollars into the planning for Disneyland.

As to how Zorro fit together with Disneyland and the contract negotiations, it is hard to say. Did Walt hope that the TV series would generate income he could spend on the park? Was he trying to establish a track record as a TV producer, independent of the Disney studio (which wouldn't enter weekly TV until 1954), in case he felt compelled to strike out on his own? Or were his motives cloudy even to Walt himself? I'd bet on the latter, but the answer, if there is one, is probably locked away in the Walt Disney Company's "main files"—the documents with continuing legal significance—and thus inaccessible to researchers.

In any case, there's enough solid new information to justify additions to my errata pages for both The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney and Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. See the entries for pages 236-37 in The Animated Man and page 505 in Walt Disney.

The Triumph of the Swill

Disney in DeutschlandJohn J. Powers, author of the San Francisco production Disney in Deutschland, has written to me and Harry McCracken to protest our skeptical response to his play, which depicts a meeting of Walt Disney, Adolph Hitler, and Leni Riefenstahl at Hitler's mountain retreat—a meeting that I'm sure never happened, although Powers seems to believe that it did.

He wrote the following to Harry, who reviewed the play (most unfavorably) at his site:

Firstly, the evidence for the meeting of Disney and Hitler is in the Disney Archives and in the Volkische Beobachter, the German Nazi newspaper. The Archives point out that Munich newspapers, in the summer of 1935, welcomed Disney (with headlines, no less) as "the great white hope against the Jews of Hollywood."  Disney's anti-Semitism and anti-unionism were well known in Hollywood, and Leni Riefenstahl came to Hollywood in 1938 and was wined and dined by Disney while all other studio heads boycotted her. For information on Disney's anti-Semitism, please read Disney's World by Leonard Mosley or Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Elliot, or again, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler.

NONE OF THESE HAVE BEEN REFUTED BY THE DISNEY ORGANIZATION. There was no bar code on the book onstage (you have a vivid imagination), and, while you mentioned you were just joking about "It's A Small World," the music I used at play's end was a Haydn String Quartet that was the basis for Deutschland Uber Alles.  In case you don't know, that's the German national anthem; was during the Nazi period and to this day. Please do your research or even see my play (I wonder if you did, considering your misinformation) before commenting!

Powers copied me on his message to Harry and sent this additional note:

Have already sent you my comment on McCracken's loony observations.  Please relay what I have said, if you have any sense of responsibility, or see the play or do research yourself.   

"Do research yourself." Well, yes, I have, a little. A whole lot more than Eliot or Mosley, whose books are the worst of the Disney biographies, filled with errors and distortions. As for Gabler, I've been posting a list of the errors I've found in his book, and it now fills nine printed pages; but more to the point, Gabler actually absolves Disney of the charge that he was anti-Semitic. To cite him as a source for this play is simply weird. And none of those authors describe a meeting between Hitler and Walt Disney.

According to the archivist Robert Tieman, the Disney Archives has almost no documentation of Walt's very brief visit to Germany in 1935 (for more on that visit, see my page devoted to addenda to my own Disney biography, The Animated Man). The Archives certainly has no documentation of a meeting with Hitler—unless, that is, one chooses to believe that such evidence has been suppressed. As for that Nazi newspaper, I would have to see it, and a good translation of any Disney-related article, before I could believe that it even exists.

Leni Riefenstahl did visit the Disney studio, I gather, but so did Sergei Eisenstein, and no one has ever suggested that Walt was a Communist. He was a curious guy, and he talked to a lot of interesting people whose opinions he didn't share, from Charlie Chaplin to Benito Mussolini. Riefenstahl was an exceptional filmmaker (Olympiad, The Triumph of the Will), and I'm not surprised that Walt, an exceptional filmmaker himself, would have received her (if not "wined and dined" her) despite her Nazi taint.

In short, Powers's messages make me even happier that I'll never have to see his play.

June 17, 2007:

Ratatouille

I saw the sneak preview last night, as did, probably, most of the people reading this, so you don't need me to tell you what to think about it. But I'll tell you what I think, anyway, if you'll click on this link.

Disney in Deutschland

Harry McCracken, bless him, has seen the awful-sounding San Francisco production I wrote about last week. You can read his review by clicking this link. After reading it, you will probably say, "There but for the grace of God..." or some variant thereof.

June 14, 2007:

The Disney Stories That Will Not Die, Part One

From John Donaldson, in regard to my recent posting about the curious (and almost certainly false) story that Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson in September 1964:

At the "Medal of Freedom" ceremony in 1964, only recipient Carl Sandburg was reported to have been "uninhibited" and "prankish." From my files, I am sending a newspaper photograph from the reception that followed, which shows a lapel pin being discussed. This is perhaps how the whole story started.

Sandburg and LBJ

Look at that picture closely....could it be that it was LBJ who was wearing the Goldwater button on his lapel? Well, hell...of course not. But it's about as likely that Walt was wearing one.

An Associated Press story on the ceremony mentioned Sandburg's "prank": he "stopped short at attention in front of Johnson, saluted briskly, and announced 'Six[th] Illinois volunteers.' The President smiled warmly and pulled Sandburg around to his proper position in the spotlight."

[A June 18 update: I found a little more about Sandburg's "prank" in the Washington Post's account of the ceremony:

When Carl Sandburg was called, the venerable white-haired poet stood and said, 'I'll salute you from here and then I'll come up to the podium.' Then he stepped forward, saluted sharply and said, 'Sixth Illinois Volunteers!' The President smiled and saluted back.

Sandburg was a member of the Sixth Illinois, the first unit to move out of America during the Spanish-American War.

Like every other account I've seen, the Post's makes no reference to Walt Disney's wearing a Goldwater button.]

The Disney Stories That Will Not Die, Part Two

Another canard that stubbornly refuses to expire is that Walt was anti-Semitic (and a hothouse of other prejudices). As Are Myklebust tells me, that particular lie is about to be given new life in San Francisco, at the Next Stage Theater at 1620 Gough Street. Disney in Deutschland by John Powers will premiere Friday, June 15, at 8 p.m., with five more performances scheduled through June 24. Here's a summary:

In 1935, Walt Disney arrives in Europe to receive an award. He also visits Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat where he meets with Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl, the great German film maker and Hitler's documentarian. Munich newspapers hail Disney as "the great white hope against the Jews of Hollywood..." Disney in Deutschland is based on reports of this meeting at the famous Berghof retreat.

Reports? Reports? What reports, and by whom? We know for sure that Walt met Mussolini, but who has ever said that he met Hitler at Bertechsgaden? Not even Marc Eliot was brazen enough to suggest such a linkup. But if you're curious enough (or maybe masochistic enough) to spend $15 or $20 to see such lurid speculation spill onto the stage in Disney in Deutschland, here's a link.

Walt did visit Germany in 1935, briefly. Are Myklebust has provided me with the fullest account I've seen of that visit, from a German publication. Don and Antje Draganski have translated it, and I've added their translation to my page devoted to "Corrections, Clarifications, and Second Thoughts" for The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. A caveat: I don't know how far to trust the accuracy of the German account, since it's not well sourced.

Roger Armstrong

Roger Armstrong

From Alice Powell Armstrong, the sad word that her husband, Roger, died a week ago today, at the age of 89.

Roger was one of comic art's true good guys. I first wrote to him forty years ago this summer—he was one of the very first animation/comics people I approached—and we sustained a lively and tremendously enjoyable (for me, certainly) correspondence for a number of years. I saw Roger on my first two trips to Los Angeles, in 1969 and 1971, and on the first trip I acquired one of his watercolors, a voluptuous nude, which hangs now in my home.

I wrote to him because I'd learned that he drew many stories for Western Publishing's comic books of the 1940s, the ones with the Warner Bros. characters in particular. (In the photo above, he's working on a story for Looney Tunes No. 8, published in 1942.) I felt, and feel, a tremendous affection for those comic books of my childhood, and corresponding with Roger, and spending a little time with him, only increased that affection. We corresponded more sporadically from the 1970s on, especially as my interest in animation intensified and Roger turned away from the comics to devote his time to teaching, but we never lost touch.

To learn more about Roger's career, you can read a lovely tribute from Mark Evanier, who I'm sure is growing tired of writing such memorial tributes for the many good people he has worked with in animation and the comics. There'll be a memorial service for Roger on Friday, June 15, at 1 p.m., at Rancho Capistrano, 29251 Camino Capistrono, San Juan Capistrano CA 92675. Directions to the Rancho are available on its Web site or by calling (949) 347-4000.

June 13, 2007:

The Raj

The business press has paid a good deal of attention this week to Disney's initiatives in India, specifically its partnering with Indian filmmakers to produce Disney films with distinctively Indian content. As the Wall Street Journal put it, "Disney has struggled to make big money in India with its classic American fare. Now it has persuaded Yash Raj [Films, an Indian studio] to make Disney-branded animated films, with the voices of Bollywood stars. The joint effort, to be announced tomorrow, is part of the U.S. entertainment icon's strategy to remake itself in high-growth foreign markets such as India. In many cases, that means discarding Disney's historic obsession with going it alone—and instead joining with local experts to produce culturally customized fare."

I was most struck by these paragraphs in the Journal story:

To help change the direction in India, Disney's Indian television executive, Nachiket Pantvaidya, spent time in Burbank learning Disney's style of storytelling and talking about Indian styles. At one recent retreat, he found himself sharing ideas with creative executives including Disney's head of animation, John Lasseter, the director of Pixar hits like "Toy Story." Mr. Pantvaidya says they combined Disney Channel and Indian values to come up with three core themes for their shows: "believe in yourself, express yourself, and celebrate your family."

In effect, he says they created a new genre of children's programming in India they call "aspirational storytelling," aimed at a generation of children with broader ambitions than their parents.

"Aspirational storytelling"...damn, what a shame that Walt himself never thought of that, instead of making cartoons that just about everybody in the world could enjoy, even though those cartoons weren't "culturally customized." Before long, I'm sure, American mothers will be telling their children something like this: "Watch your Looney Tunes, dear, and be grateful that you're not like those poor children in Asia, with nothing to watch on TV except 'aspirational storytelling.'"

June 11, 2007:

That Sticky Flypaper, Cont'd

ComparisonThe returns are in, and the cartoonist who drew those five pages of sketches for the flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto is...well, who the hell knows, but you can read about the latest developments in the ongoing investigation by clicking here.

Some of animation's finest minds can't agree on the authorship of the sketches, but the case for Norm Ferguson may be a little stronger now, thanks in large part to mosaics created by Jeff Watson. The mosaics align the sketches with corresponding frames from the finished film, so that comparisons can be more precise (and interesting) than before. Jeff is, with Mark Mayerson, one of the Web's M.M.'s (Masters of Mosaics). The value of such mosaics has never been more obvious than in this case, I think.

Donald W. Graham

Don GrahamHe was the great teacher whose classes in life drawing and action analysis made such an enormous contribution to the Disney studio in the 1930s. He was one of the people I most wanted to talk to when I was conducting research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, but he lived in Washington state then, and I hadn't yet tried to get in touch with him when I learned of his death, in October 1976, while I was visiting the Disney animator Bob Carlson in northern California. I still remember vividly the shock and disappointment I felt.

Now there's a Web site devoted to Graham, with a biography and examples of his paintings and drawings. There's also a page devoted to his great book Composing Pictures, but that book is out of print, unfortunately, and you'll pay a great deal for a used copy. It's time some savvy publisher brought it back.

You can read more about Graham in both Hollywood Cartoons and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. The publisher accidentally omitted the index entry for Graham from Hollywood Cartoons, a mistake I didn't discover until after the paperback was in print. I've asked for a correction in the new printing of the paperback, but, in the meantime, you can find Graham quoted and his work described on these pages: 84, 90, 110, 112, 139-40, 199, 207, 209, 210-12, 216, 217-18, 500, 542.

(Thanks to Dana Gabbard for the tip.)

Curing Libraries' Lapses

Didier Ghez, proprietor of the Disney History blog and editor of the Walt's People series of collections of interviews with Disney veterans, wrote in response to my June 10 posting in which I expressed skepticism about libraries' handling of their special collections:

I was reading your post this morning about libraries and the way they handle the material given to their care. In addition to what you mention is the terrible difficulty, even when the material is preserved properly, of accessing that material, either because of costs barrier or simply because the libraries are too far away and do not provide service by internet or snail mail.

The more I think of it, the more I tend to believe that for all of us, one of the best solutions is to spread our documents as much as we can:

° Publish all that is publishable.

° Scan what is not publishable and post it on the web.

This is why I applaud your efforts and those of Hans Perk, Michael Sporn, Mike Mayerson, Jim Korkis, Mark Sonntag, Jenny Lerew, and a few others when they use their sites to spread documents that they spent years to collect. This is of course, also why I started the Walt's People series. I only wish that we could publish more and faster as we are all mortal.

To summarize, I believe that online, networked private libraries might be a big part of the solution.

The only problem being that, as I've suggested before, much of what is on the Web, in blogs particularly, is more evanescent than anything that's on paper. (I print almost everything I see on the Web that I want to keep, and I'm certainly not alone in that.) Not to mention the difficulty, even with search engines, of tracking down relevant material scattered among a variety of sites. I applaud Didier's own contributions, but I suspect that his books, the excellent Walt's People series, will turn out to be a greater contribution to Disney scholarship than anything he does on the Web.

June 10, 2007:

Walt at the White House

Walt and LBJ

I've written several times—see my postings for January 29, January 30, and March 12—about the bizarre story, widely retailed by Neal Gabler, Howard and Amy Boothe Green, and Charles Ridgway, among others, that Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in September 1964. Neil Sugden of South Africa has reminded me that there is one first-person account of that alleged incident, by Emile Kuri, a longtime set decorator for the Disney live-action films. It's in John G. West's The Disney Live-Action Productions. West quotes Kuri about the button incident on page 25:

Walt didn't like Johnson at all ... and he was wearing a button saying, "I'm for Goldwater." I was wearing the same button. But before I entered the White House, I took the button off! Walt didn't. When he went into the White House, the aides to Johnson said, "Mr. Disney, please take that off." He said, "Why should I? I'm voting for him." You know he had the courage to do that. I didn't. I had to take my button off. That man had such tremendous courage.

I don't think "courage" is the word that most people would use. It was the inherent implausibility of that story, and others, that led me not to rely on Kuri as a source when I was writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.

There is, however, no question but that Kuri traveled with Walt on a number of occasions in the 1960s, to the New York World's Fair in 1964-65, for instance. Kuri was, in John West's words, "born in Mexico of Lebanese Christian parents and fluent in several languges (including Arabic)." Walt enjoyed such people, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, when he had become a sophisticated international traveler. His favorite companions on his travels tended to be British—Richard Todd, Peter Ellenshaw—but what West calls Kuri's "cosmopolitan outlook" would have recommended him to the Walt Disney of 1964.

But was Kuri even at the White House with Walt? Surprising it may be, but there seems to be no way to know for sure. The Walt Disney Archives in Burbank does not have passenger manifests for flights like the one Walt made to Washington in a company plane. There's good evidence that Walt's secretary Tommie Wilck and her husband accompanied him—and that Lillian Disney did not—but the Archives has no list of Walt's guests at the ceremony in addition to the Wilcks (he was allowed a total of four). Neither is there such a list at the LBJ Library in Austin. A researcher there checked all the likely collections for me, with no results.

The photo above is the only one in the LBJ Library's collection that shows Walt at the Medal of Freedom ceremony. There's no button visible, of course, although the angle of the photo makes it unlikely that we could see one even if it were there. There are two photos from the ceremony at the National Archives in Washington, taken by a Park Service photographer; I've ordered copies of them, and I'll post them here after they arrive. But to judge from the photocopies I've already seen, they won't allow a definitive resolution of the button issue, either.

So we'll probably be left with this question: Is it even conceivable, given Walt Disney's history, that he would have insulted the president of the United States at the very moment when he was receiving from the president the nation's highest civilian honor? It's certainly conceivable that Walt might have joked with Kuri about wearing a Goldwater button, but that he actually wore one—? I think not.

Speaking of John West's book: It's a solid piece of work, and anyone with a serious interest in Disney should have a copy, even if, like me, you believe that Walt's best live-action movies fall well short of his best animated efforts. The book doesn't provide much in the way of illustrations, but for that I'm sure we can blame the usual suspects, the Disney lawyers, rather than the author.

Barks on the Block, Cont'd

From Dana Gabbard, a Bonhams press release about the auction described in my June 5 posting. The press release mentions only two Barks items, an artist's proof of one of his lithographs (which sold for $9,600) and this painting:

Barks painting

An original and highly sought after Carl Barks “Money Bin” painting entitled Hands Off My Playthings sold for $204,000 – setting a world auction record for a comic painting. Barks, an unsung comic book hero, drew Donald Duck for decades while working for Disney Studios [sic]. His offered work featured depictions of timeless Disney characters Huey, Duey [sic] and Louie making a castle out of thousand dollar bills and gold coins while Donald admires himself while donning a crown and Scrooge throws a fit in the background. Dated 1975, the highly recognizable oil on masonite work is signed in the lower left. Barks commented publicly that this was his favorite “money bin” painting -- according to the auctioneers, it was one of the most compelling examples of Barks’ paintings ever brought to public auction.

There's no mention of how the total realized for the Barks material compared with the pre-auction estimate.

The Scattering of the Barks Estate

In regard to the dispersal of Barks's papers and other personal property, David Gerstein—editor of Disney comics and author of books like Mickey and the Gang: Classic Stories in Verse—writes:

You say in your recent blog that "...I doubt too that the heirs ever gave serious thought to donating  any of Carl's papers to an institution, if only because there aren't  many institutions that would be interested." If I might respectfully disagree, there are several institutions in  Europe that I think would have been very, very interested. Barks is so big in Denmark, for example, that when he passed away, the  country's largest newspaper devoted an entire special section to him  in the subsequent Sunday edition. As a result, a lot of my Euro-colleagues are particularly shocked at the dispersal of his effects  in this way.

I have to wonder: Did any of those European institutions make an active effort to acquire the Barks materials? Did they they approach the Barks heirs, or better yet, Carl himself, when he and his wife, Garé, were still alive and well? Was there any sort of campaign to raise the money to buy Carl's papers? Or were these anguished scholars just sort of hoping that the collection might somehow fall in their laps? I'd guess that the latter was the case.

I'm afraid I've developed a healthy skepticism where libraries and other such institutions are concerned. In the last few years I've heard too many horror stories—papers sit unprocessed for years, donated collections of rarities wind up on eBay, unique copies of old newspapers go into the trash because idiot librarians think that murky digital copies are all anyone needs. I've sometimes seen such horror stories, as when I dug through Alexander de Seversky's papers, exposed to the elements in an open and unlit warehouse on Long Island. My exposure to such malpractice has left me increasingly pessimistic about the disposition of my own papers, although I haven't given up yet.

June 5, 2007:

Barks on the Block

Barks at easel

[Click here for an observer's June 6 comment on the auction prices.]

I haven't yet seen any overall report on the big Barks auction at Bonhams in Los Angeles yesterday, but I did check on the sale price of Carl's personal copy of my 1981 book, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book, which I inscribed to him and his wife Garé on two separate occasions. It went for $225. Not bad. Carl's easel—evidently the same one that I photographed in 1969 (above), when I first met him at his home in San Jacinto—sold for $1,100.

I've seen lamentations on the Web about this auction and the ones that will soon follow. Fans' unhappiness is easy to understand. Carl's drawings and papers, rather than being housed in some library or museum like the excellent Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, will be scattered around the world. The estate shrank even before Carl's death. Caregivers skimmed some of its cream years ago, and I learned just recently that Carl trashed his work records, which I consulted in preparing my bibliography, when the Barkses moved to Oregon.

Carl's heirs evidently kept nothing from the estate. His family history was not the happiest, and I can't imagine that his heirs felt sentimental attachment to anything he left behind. I doubt too that the heirs ever gave serious thought to donating any of Carl's papers to an institution, if only because there aren't many institutions that would be interested.

However regrettable that there will be no "Carl Barks Collection" at some great manuscript repository, at least the things sold at auction are going to people who cared enough about them, and Carl, to pay substantial sums to own them. Some things may yet wind up properly cared for in libraries and museums if, as I hope and expect, awareness grows of Barks's stature as one of the twentieth century's greatest comic artists. And at least we have the Bonhams catalog as a record of some of what Carl valued enough to save until he died.

[To read my essay on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Carl Barks's birth, click here. And click here to read Dana Gabbard's review of a Los Angeles comic-book exhibit devoted in part to Barks.]

A June 6 update, from Brent Swanson via Dana Gabbard: "The sales prices didn't exactly set records. This may be the time to buy something worthwhile (if it's offered). I couldn't help but remember when a little square of paper with a 'barbwire' duck sketch would sell for a few hundred at the [San Diego Comicon]—not that opportunists won't be present this year with some of this estate stuff, trying to make lightning strike again."

June 4, 2007:

Hollywood Cartoons Comes Back

Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age has been "out of stock" the last couple of months, which can be a euphemism for "we haven't decided if we're going to reprint it." The official word, though, is that it'll be available again next week, on Wednesday, June 13. I sent Oxford University Press corrections for the few remaining factual errors that I was aware of— small ones that I've listed on my errata page for the book. I'm assuming that those corrections have been made, although I haven't seen page proofs.

Wild About Harry

Nothing further has turned up to connect Harry Reichenbach with the Colony Theatre—and thus with the premiere of Walt Disney's first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie—in November 1928. (See my May 24 item.) As I thought, the Walt Disney Archives has nothing more on the premiere than what I'd already seen. Dave Smith tells me: "We have no actual documents here on the release of Steamboat Willie at the Colony; it may have all occurred by handshake rather than document.  Things were so much simpler in those days."

Perhaps the answer lies in some of the trade papers I haven't seen yet. In the meantime, David Lesjak of the exceptionally valuable blog Disney—Toons at War has provided me with scans of a Colony ad for Willie in the New York Times for the premiere date, November 18, 1928. I've seen this ad on microfilm, but this is a scan from the actual newspaper:

Colony ad

And here, in another scan, is what the Times said about Steamboat Willie on November 19, 1928, in a review by Mordaunt Hall:

Steamboat Willie review

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