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"What's New" Archives: March 2010

March 24, 2010:

Fess Parker

 

March 18, 2010:

Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League

 

March 16, 2010:

Dumbo in Print

 

March 12, 2010:

Dumbo's Premiere

 

March 11, 2010:

An Old Friend Returns

 

March 3, 2010:

Tell Me This, Walt...

 

March 1, 2010:

Solving Dumbo's Mysteries

 

March 24, 2010:

Fess Parker in 2005

Fess Parker

I took the photo above on June 16, 2005, when Phyllis and I visited Los Olivos, California, as the guests of Fess Parker at his Wine Country Inn. Phyllis was on her way to the hotel's spa, across the street; Fess and I were about to get into his Hummer and drive cross-country through some of his real-estate holdings in the Santa Ynez Valley, near Santa Barbara.

By the time Fess died last week at the age of 85, he was widely known as the proprietor of an excellent winery and as an ambitious land developer, but it was, of course, his earlier life as an actor, especially for Walt Disney, that was of the greatest interest to me. I met Fess in 1988, when I interviewed him for Nation's Business, the magazine where I worked at the time. He was then the owner of a large waterfront hotel in Santa Barbara, California—his winery was still just a gleam in his eye—and I interviewed and wrote about him in his role as a businessman.

Fess Parker's bootsIn 1988 we talked about Walt and about Fess' career in show business, but it was not until 2003, when I visited Los Olivos and interviewed Fess for The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, that we talked about Walt at length. A couple of long phone interviews in January and February 2004 followed that in-person interview, and I've posted the complete composite interview at this link.

In the summer of 2004, Fess approached me about collaborating with him on an as-told-to autobiography. Off and on for well over a year, we talked on the phone as he and I worked on a proposal to submit to publishers.

Fess was, as a real-life personality, very similar to the frontier heroes he portrayed, especially in his dry sense of humor; Phyllis said she could always tell when I was talking to him on the phone, because I laughed so much. He was also as strong-willed as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in his determination to realize his vision for the land he owned in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. "Development" is a fighting word in much of California, but even in his eighties, Fess did not hesitate to rile his neighbors when he thought he was in the right. One store just down the street from the Wine Country Inn had stopped carrying his wines in protest when Phyllis and I were in Los Olivos in 2005, but Fess ate lunch there with us, anyway.

Fess Parker singingI filled four cassette tapes as Fess and I talked during that visit, but there was time for more: Fess showed us his home, which overlooked the valley, and I photographed his boots, near the front door, and also took a picture of him with a huge seascape by his friend Peter Ellenshaw, the famous Disney matte painter (that photo is just below). We had dinner that evening in the hotel's wine cellar with Fess and his wife, Marcy, and a few other guests, all of them more colorful by far than Phyllis and me; I recall a baroness and a gentleman who claimed he was related in some manner to Jackie Kennedy. Then we adjourned to the hotel's lobby for the customary Thursday-night songs by Fess and Marcy and any guests who wished to perform. Fess is at the mike in the photo at left, with their long-time accompanist (whose name I'm sorry to say I can't remember) at the piano.

Ultimately, and sadly, nothing came of our book proposal. The proposal got high marks, but we ran into a wall of skepticism where Fess himself was concerned. His celebrity, it seemed, was too far in the past, his career too fragmented to permit targeting the book at Disney fans or oenophiles or business readers, despite its obvious appeal to all three audiences. He and I finally agreed to abandon the effort. I saw Fess for the last time when Phyllis and I visited Los Olivos in April 2007 with our friends Tony and Margie Skogen. I had offered to take Fess and Marcy to dinner anywhere they chose, and Fess chose the Wine Country Inn, naturally enough (he provided the wine). It was a delightful evening—Fess rolled out one story after another—and I was especially pleased that our friends could know that one of their childhood heroes really deserved the adulation they and so many others had given him.

I would never claim to have been Fess Parker's friend or confidant or anything of the sort, but I did have the opportunity to know him better than many other people did. I'll always be grateful for that.

Fess with Ellenshaw painting

Comments

From Michael Sporn: When Fess Parker died, I knew I had to wait for your note to readers. It was well worth the wait. I hadn't realized you were trying to do a book with him; it's sad for people like me that that was not sold. I'll reread the interview again later today and spend another few minutes with Fess Parker, the man, during my day. Thanks for the excellent piece—and the great photos.

MB replies: It's always gratifying to hear from Michael, whose "Splog" is intimidating, it's so full of great stuff. We're particularly fortunate that Bill Peckmann has been sharing his fabulous collection with Michael, and, through Michael's blog, with us.

From Reijo Laaksonen: Just read your nice obituary of Fess Parker. Too bad you were not able to do the Parker biography. I, for one, would have bought a copy or two. If you have interesting facts about his acting career (and other careers, too) not talked about in your interview, please write an additional essay about him if you have time. I liked Fess Parker in the Disney films, a couple of which I still have not seen, and I liked him in the Paramount features The Hangman, The Jayhawkers, and Hell Is for Heroes. He should have made many more theatrical films. I remember that Parker was a friend of L.Q. Jones, another Texan, whom he introduced into film business. They both appear in Battle Cry (1955), Jones' first film, and also in Hell Is for Heroes (1962).

MB replies: I still haven't seen a number of Fess' theatrical features, including The Hangman and most of the early features in which he had bit parts, and I'm looking forward to seeing them eventually. I've always been struck, though, when I've seen him in both his Disney and his non-Disney roles, by how rarely directors exploited his great strengths: how open and natural he could seem, how believable he was as the man in charge. When he seems completely himself, as he does for the most part in the first three Davy Crockett episodes and in the first half of The Jayhawkers, he is an exceptionally engaging actor. In the last half of The Jayhawkers, though, he wears a frown that I've come to think of as a signal that his performance is going to be tighter and less satisfying. Better and more sympathetic directors would have made an enormous difference, and Parker never worked with any such.

[Posted March 24, 2010]

From Tom Carr: The one time I visited the Fess Parker Winery, he wasn't on the premises! A definite letdown. The only TV star from the classic 50's-60's era I ever got to meet was Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster), which was no disappointment; he was every bit as eccentric as his best-known character.

Too bad that your proposed book about Fess was rejected by some short-sighted publishers. That ties in completely with what I said about fame being fleeting. If the career of early television's Davy Crockett wasn't interesting to them— one of the medium's first real stars along with Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Oscar Levant, Groucho Marx, Spike Jones, Liberace, and Ernie Kovacs— whose career would be? What idjits...!

If you read the articles about Billy Murray's later career (and his physical decline due to heart ailments), his old friends were trying to interest Hollywood in a biopic about Billy. But no producer was interested in his life story, either; that of a man who'd made records for Thomas Edison before 1900, and remembered the days of minstrel shows, vaudeville, pioneering radio broadcasts, and the first sound cartoons. This was around the time when The Jolson Story had come out, and had been very successful at the box office. But there were no takers for a "Murray Story." Part of the reason seems to have been that Billy wasn't a great talker about his past, offstage. Al Jolson was just the opposite, even when he had to allow a younger man (Larry Parks) to play him in the film, and dub in his own still-strong singing voice over Parks's screen miming to it.

Fess Parker always came across on the screen as a true gentleman, and your brief account of his later years confirms it. Also, that huge Peter Ellenshaw seascape in his home is gorgeous, even in a small photo, and it must have been one of his most prized possessions... you can tell by the look on his face as he stands in front of it.

[Posted March 26, 2010]

March 18, 2010:

Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League

I've greatly revised and expanded an Essay I posted last May about the honorary degrees Walt Disney received in June 1938 from Harvard and Yale Universities. What was originally a "Day in the Life" posting, centering on a half dozen photos of Walt taken at the Harvard commencement on June 23, 1938, has become a much longer piece describing the circumstances surrounding the award of both of Walt's degrees, with reproductions of several of his letters to officers of Harvard and Yale. Accordingly, I've retitled that piece "Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League."

I'm afraid that many people—well, actually, most people—will regard the detail in the revised piece as excessive, but I can't apologize for it. I found as I pursued one lead after another, while making my revisions, that Walt himself came into a little clearer focus for me, and in a positive way. I was impressed by his ethical scrupulousness in his correspondence with the two schools, and, as always, I was struck by his capacity for enjoying himself. Walt was a remarkably active and interesting man; that's why researching and writing about him has been fun for me, and why I keep doing it.

Comments

From Tom Carr: You don't have to explain or justify your further research into the life and works of Walt Disney. Some of us out here in cyber-land enjoy every bit of it. And if you think you're getting into obscure territory, consider all the documentation, at this site, of the musical career of Billy Murray.

Once a very famous performer, and a stage and studio workhorse who made and sold so many cylinder and disc recordings that they haven't all been found and catalogued yet— in addition to early radio broadcasts and cartoon soundtracks for the Fleischer brothers. Billy's distinctive tenor voice is clearly present on some of the 1920's "KoKo Talkcartoons," doing the first-ever "Follow the Bouncing Ball" numbers. He was especially identified with the song "Casey Jones," which can be heard in his ancient Edison cylinder recording (circa 1911 or '12) at Pilsner's Picks.

And yet... some entertainers have a kind of staying power, while others fall through the cracks of history. Billy Murray being largely forgotten in 2010 is sort of like— let's say— hardly anyone remembering who Bruce Springsteen was in 2090. I personally have only vague memories of the late Fess Parker (R.I.P.), and those are from his later "Daniel Boone" TV series. But as Davy Crockett, Mr. Parker was a national phenomenon who— at least for a while— rivaled his contemporary Elvis Presley in popularity among the American youth of the mid-50's.

"Fame is fleeting?" Sometimes yes, sometimes no; and who knows why? Not me... all I know is that I'd never want it.

[Posted March 23, 2010]

March 16, 2010:

Dumbo in Print

I've explored Dumbo's curious origins as a Roll-A-Book in postings on February 4 and March 1, and I've now ordered copies of all the Dumbo and Roll-A-Book materials in the Helen Durney Collection at Syracuse University. When I have those materials in hand, along with a few other bits and pieces I'm tracking down, it should be possible for me to revise my piece called "The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book" so as to provide a reasonably complete picture of how the story of Dumbo made its way from an obscure publisher, in an unlikely city, to the Disney studio and lasting glory on the screen.

Dave Smith, the Disney archivist, told me a few weeks ago that Disney's royalty records show sales of only 1,430 copies of a 1941 Whitman book called Dumbo the Flying Elephant. That book bears the names of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl on its cover, as the story's authors, but not the name of Walt Disney. The Disney name appears only on the copyright page, along with a separate copyright line for Roll-A-Book Publishers. The Disney royalty records for the book include this notation: "This book was made to comply with contract." I've suggested that Dumbo the Flying Elephant was published with a tiny print run solely in order that Aberson and Pearl might have the story in print in something like its original form (their book's story differs considerably from the film's).

The Durney materials, which include galley proofs, will permit comparing the story for the original Roll-A-Book (which was probably never published, and was certainly not generally available) with the 1941 Aberson-Pearl book. I now own a copy of the 1941 book, and like the copy that Alyssa Manley owns, scans of which I've posted here, it includes advertising on its back cover.

Dave Smith has pointed out that Dumbo appeared in several other book incarnations in 1941, all of them with much larger sales than the Aberson-Pearl book. Here are some of the figures from the Disney royalty cards:

Dumbo of the Circus (Garden City) - 83,590
Dumbo of the Circus (K.K. Pubs.) - 402,179
Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Dell Fast Action) - 125,475
Dumbo (Whitman #710) - 209,000
Dumbo Big Little Book – 120,000
Dumbo Song Book (giveaway for Parker Pen) [Dave notes: "number given is the same as for the K.K. Pub. book, so an error somewhere"; the two books are not the same]

The exact meaning of those figures is open to question. The Disney royalty cards, Dave Smith says, show "the number of copies for which the publisher paid royalties. ... There is no way for me to tell whether the numbers sold corresponded to the numbers printed (or if some copies were unsold and thrown away)."  In later years, when Western Printing & Lithographing Company published comic books, including the Disney titles, through Dell Publishing (an independent company), it paid a royalty—a very small one—on each copy it printed, rather than on each copy it sold. I don't know when that practice began, and I don't know if it extended to publications other than comic books, but I would guess that it did. In the early '60s, with comic-book sales down sharply, Western began paying royalties on copies sold, rather than copies printed.

Dumbo Comic Paint BookWhen Western signed contracts for comic books in the early '50s, it paid an advance based on a print run of at least 400,000 copies for each issue, and paid additional royalties on any copies printed above that figure. I don't know if that threshold was in effect in 1941 when Dell published Dumbo the Flying Elephant as No. 17 in what later came to be called the Dell Color series, but, in any case, the Disney card shows royalties paid on 418,504 copies. (There was also a black-and-white Dumbo comic book in 1941, called Dumbo Comic Paint Book, No. 19, with royalties paid on 247,925 copies.) The sales of Disney comic books rose steadily in the 1940s, and by 1949, when Dell published a comic book in its Four Color series called Dumbo in Sky Voyage, No. 234, it yielded royalties to Disney from 1,675,066 copies. By then, a Disney comic book with a press run as low as the 1941 Dumbo comic books would have been a flop.

At my request, Dave Smith provided a sampling of the sales figures for other Disney publications from the '40s, '50s, and '60s (no figures are available for the '30s). The figures are often remarkably large, especially taking into account that they're for the initial editions and don't cover reprints with different numbers. For example, one of my favorite books from my childhood, the original edition of Uncle Remus Stories, Giant Golden Book No. 554, with a striking Mary Blair cover, sold 543,555 copies. As Dave says, "it was kept in print for many years after that, with different numbers."

Likewise, he says, "Little Golden Books often sold in the millions; the list does not include later reprints with different numbers. It is interesting that of the Heath books, the Dumbo book had much fewer quantities than any of the other titles. The larger, more expensive books naturally sold fewer copies than the inexpensive ones."So, with those guidelines in mind, here are the quantities of assorted publications on which Disney's royalties were based, with, in most cases, the publishers:
Adventure in Disneyland (Richfield comic): 1,260,450
Adventures of Mr. Toad (Big Golden Book): 155,715
Alice in Wonderland (BGB 426): 549,470
Alice in Wonderland (Cozy Corner Book 2074):  653,000
Alice in Wonderland Meets the White Rabbit (Little Golden Book D19): 1,041,290
Animal Adventures in Lands of Ice and Snow (Whitman): 25,800
Annette in the Desert Inn Mystery (Whitman): 696,000
Ave Maria (Random House): 30,843
Baby Weems (Doubleday Doran): 16,032
Bambi (Grosset & Dunlap): 359,190
Bambi (LGB D7): 2,926,493
Beaver Valley (Whitman Tell-a-Tale):  859,000
Ben and Me (Cozy Corner Book 2403): 305,000
Ben and Me (LGB D37): 618,796
Bongo (BGB): 303,645
Brer Rabbit Rides the Fox (Grosset & Dunlap): 101,312
Casey Jr. (Garden City Pub.): 33,597
Cold-Blooded Penguin (Simon & Schuster): 401,920
Dance of the Hours (Harper & Bros.): 16,372
Disneyland Stamp Book (Simon & Schuster): 150,300
Donald Duck and His Friends (Heath): 337,056
Donald Duck in the High Andes (Grosset & Dunlap): 30,407
Donald Duck in Volcano Valley (Whitman BLB): 205,000
Donald Duck March of Comics No. 20: 278,200
Donald Duck March of Comics No. 56: 572,450
Donald Duck Sees South America (Heath): 167,810
Donald Duck Tells About Kites (premium comic): 830,000
Donald’s Penguin (Garden City Pub.): 16,278
Dumbo (Heath): 47,359
Fantasia (by Deems Taylor, Simon & Schuster): 15,619
Fantasia (Whitman cut-out book): 50,000
Gremlins (Random House): 24,565
Hans Brinker (Whitman): 208,500
Johnny Appleseed (LGB D11): 812,436
Life of Donald Duck (Random House): 15,777
Little Man of Disneyland (LGB D46): 837,871
Little Pigs Picnic (Heath): 318,557
Magnificent Mr. Toad (Grosset & Dunlap): 103,784
Mickey and the Beanstalk (Grosset & Dunlap): 63,868
Mickey Mouse and the Magic Lamp (Whitman BLB): 150,000
Mickey Mouse March of Comics No. 27: 471,900
Mickey Sees the USA (Heath): 226,752
Nutcracker Suite (Little Brown): 18,136
People and Places (Golden Press): 72,062
Peter and the Wolf (LGB D5): 1,889,071
Pinocchio (Heath): 302,812
Pinocchio (Whitman BLB): 299,000
Pinocchio Learns About Kites (premium comic): 276,500
Practical Pig (Garden City Pub.): 15,960
Reluctant Dragon (Garden City Pub.): 21,260
Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Grosset & Dunlap): 17,136
Story of Timothy’s House (Garden City Pub.): 33,557
Surprise Package (Simon & Schuster): 433,842
Three Caballeros (Random House): 25,258
Through the Picture Frame (S&S Little Library): 253,116
Thumper (Grosset & Dunlap): 292,347
Treasure Chest (Simon & Schuster): 129,192
Uncle Scrooge the Lemonade King (Whitman): 296,500
Victory March (Random House): 53,444
Walt Disney Parade (Garden City Pub.): 31,569

Dumbo giveawayAnd then, of course, there are the Disney publications for which sales figures don't exist because those publications weren't sold but were given away by Walt Disney Productions itself (unlike the March of Comics giveaways, which K.K. Publications sold to retailers to give to the children of customers).

At least one 1941 Dumbo tie-in appears to be of that type. Called on its title page Walt Disney's Dumbo The Story of the Little Elephant with the Big Ears, it's a booklet consisting of sixteen pages, counting covers, with publicity photos of Walt and staff filling the inside front and back covers; the front cover is at left. No publisher is indicated, and there's no suggestion of a price.

I can't even guess the circumstances under which this booklet would have been given away, but perhaps someone among my visitors knows. The cover of my copy of the booklet is at left.

Comments

From Dana Gabbard: Those Disney printed product sales figures from royalty statements that you posted courtesy of Dave Smith blew my mind.
 
And even those without an interest in comics and such should realize the income they generated played a key role in paying the freight for Walt's animation ambitions. Which is why their success is important to document.

[Posted April 22, 2010]

March 12, 2010:

Dumbo premiere

Dumbo's Premiere

My code name is Overkill, so brace yourself for a few more Dumbo items over the next week or two, in addition to my postings about the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.

You may recall an item I posted a year ago about Dumbo's New York premiere, on October 23, 1941. I mentioned in that item that among those attending the premiere were "eighteen soldiers stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, all of whom had worked at the Disney studio." Some of those soldiers are in the photo above, which was taken the night of the premiere. According to the "snipe" attached to my copy of the photo, "each soldier had a beauteous Conover model to help him celebrate the occasion!" (Wait a minute...were none of those guys married? Well, maybe not.) I don't have identifications, unfortunately.

March 11, 2010:

Family Tree

An Old Friend Returns

Back in the summer of 1967, when the historic World Retrospective of Animation Cinema was held as part of the Expo 67 world's fair in Montréal, La Cinématheque canadienne published a huge chart called the "Family Tree of the Origin and Golden Age of the American Cartoon Film 1906-1941." That chart, devised by André Martin, is roughly three feet tall and four feet wide. It's divided vertically by years and horizontally by "life-lines" for each of the studios included. The Family Tree shows when and how, in Martin's view, the various U.S. cartoon studios originated and grew out of one another, so that—to take the most obvious example—the Harman-Ising and Iwerks studios are shown branching out from the Disney studio, in 1928 and 1930, respectively, to form new vertical life-lines. The chart is filled with detail, like the names of studio personnel and principal characters and cartoon titles, and the life-lines are color-coded to indicate in which part of the country the studios were located.

Milt Gray and I had been corresponding then for less than a year. I didn't get to Montréal, but he did, and he bought a copy of the Family Tree for me. I soon had it mounted on a board, for easy reference, but in the course of several moves the chart was so badly damaged that I finally decided I had no choice but to scrap it. And that was that, until, a few weeks ago, John Benson wrote to ask if I'd like to have the copy of the Family Tree he'd uncovered in his files. I said yes, without hesitation. John's package arrived this week, and that's my newly acquired copy of the Family Tree in the photo above.

I remember how fascinated I was by the Family Tree when I first studied it more than forty years ago. It was extraordinarily difficult then to see most of the cartoons from the years the Family Tree covered—I had still seen almost no black-and-white cartoons from the '30s—and to have so much information about all those mysterious films laid out so clearly was an astonishing gift. Time has brought us cartoons on video and a flood of books, but it hasn't quite rendered the Family Tree superfluous. Glancing over it now, I'm impressed by how largely accurate it seems to be, even though it was compiled when reliable information about animation's history was much scarcer than it is today. Even the whole idea of a "family tree," which once aroused my skepticism, seems a little more plausible now.

So I'm very glad to have a copy of the Family Tree again. This time I'll leave it folded, however tempted I might be to find a space for it on my walls.

Speaking of the 1967 retrospective, I can't resist sharing this paragraph from a letter Milt Gray wrote to me that August, just after he returned to L.A. from Montréal:

I am thrilled to be able to say that I met Bob Clampett while at the Expo! He was very pleasant to talk with. He mentioned that back in the old days when he was directing at Warners, people used to talk about cartoons as freely as they talk about popular records today, and on Sundays after each of his cartoons was released (they were always released in Los Angeles on a Saturday) he used to go to the beach where the UCLA kids hung out and pretend to be just sunbathing while he eavesdropped on their conversations as they discussed what they liked or didn't like about his latest cartoon.

Not only was Clampett at Montréal, but so were many others of the most famous names in American animation's history. On the retrospective's opening night, someone took a picture of Bob with a few of his fellow pioneers. From the left are Dave Fleischer, Paul Terry, John Randolph Bray, Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett (with Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent), and Otto Messmer. An extraordinary occasion, one that never was, and never could be, repeated.

Clampett at Montreal

Comments

From Tom Carr: That's a remarkable photo; who'd have thought that such Founding Fathers of American animation as Terry, Bray, Lantz, Messmer, and Dave Fleischer would still have been not only alive, but ambulatory and apparently healthy as late as 1967? In this group, middle-aged Bob Clampett looks like a kid, which reminds me of a line from (I think) Woody Allen: "You want to know how to look young? Hang around with old people." That toupee of Bob's was never too convincing, though; I remember snickering at it when I saw him on the screen in Bugs Bunny Superstar in 1975. I was a rude kid... now I'm a rude adult.

MB replies: Actually, all of those guys were ambulatory for quite a few years after that photo was taken. I met and interviewed all of them, except for Paul Terry, between 1969 (when I met Bob Clampett) and 1976 (when I met Bray, Messmer, and Fleischer). The Bray and Fleischer interviews were disappointments—I got to them too late—but Lantz and Messmer and (of course) Clampett were all bright and lively interviewees.

[Posted March 12, 2010]

From Don Peri: I have a copy of this chart, too.  Someone by the name of Steve Gilbert sent it to Ben Sharpsteen back in the '70s and Ben gave it to me.  The Disney Family Museum has copied it.  I found it a great resource when I put together a draft timeline for the museum a couple of years ago.  My copy is worn but still readable. Thanks for reminding me of it.

[Posted March 21, 2010]

March 3, 2010:

Tell Me This, Walt...

A couple of weeks ago, in a post called "Parlor Games," I wrote about the animation/comics people I wished I'd been able to meet, Walt Disney naturally being at the top of the list. Milt Gray has come up with an extension of that idea:

If you could go back in time and meet Walt Disney, what questions would you like to ask him? Or is it enough just to gauge how congenial he is? In view of how much you already know about Walt, and my own comment under Parlor Games about how tricky it is to really find out what one really wants to know about one's heroes, what kinds of questions would you try to prepare to ask?

Walt circa 1944Let's see...the questions would vary, depending on when my time machine deposited me in Walt's office, but let's say it's the early '40s, when the Disney studio had already enjoyed its greatest triumph (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and suffered through its greatest disaster (the 1941 strike). The publicity photo of Walt at right was taken around that time; RKO Radio distributed the photo in 1944. Here are a few of the questions I might ask Walt; his answers would of course suggest followup questions:

What do you think you could have done differently that might have averted the strike? Do you think you shared enough information with your employees about the studio's financial situation?

You spoke on a number of occasions in the late 1930s about animation's being a "caricature of life," but a couple of years later, you spoke of some of your animators, the ones working on Dumbo, as "caricaturists" whose work was in your estimation a notch or two below that of the animators who were doing illustration-style work on Bambi. What led to your change in thinking about the importance of caricature in animation?

What are the lessons you've drawn from the disappointing box-office performance of Fantasia? Do you think you've run up against the limits of what audiences will accept in animated films?

Looking back to your beginnings in Hollywood, were you ever really serious about becoming a director in live action, or was animation always foremost in your mind, as your brother Roy believed? What do you think led you to commit yourself so strongly to animation and to its development as an art form?

And, oh, yes,one more:

Have you ever considered giving up cigarettes?

Comments

From Milton Gray: A few years ago I almost wrote a lengthy piece for Apatoons on what I would love to say to Walt prior to the strike, and  prior to his huge expansion of artists after Snow White. The gist of  it would have been in the territory of the hidden dangers of hiring artists who have not volunteered to apply for work at the studio, because unlike those artists hired earlier, who presumably like cartoons, most other artists probably do not, and worked to develop their talents and skills to serve other purposes, and even consider cartoons utterly beneath them. This feeling can only lead to malcontent attitudes, and the certain destruction of the morale of the studio. Plus, Walt needs to realize that he is asking these artists to do something that he himself would be unwilling to do—to do only what  he wants, not what they want. For myself, if I were at the Disney studio in the late '30s and early '40s, I would be one of the most  enthusiastic, loyal artists on the payroll, but that's probably the complete opposite of the feelings of the disgruntled new hires at that  time. I'd bet that Walt could scarcely imagine that artists wouldn't feel challenged and excited to work on his pictures, as they were (at  that time) continually breaking new ground in subject matter and  visual concepts.

[Posted March 3, 2010]

From Paul Dushkind: How is it that Disney was hiring artists who didn't apply for work at Disney? I know that the studio went through a lot of changes to produce training and propaganda films during the war, but that was years later, and involved many live-action films.

MB replies: I asked Milt Gray to elaborate, and he did: "Anybody with even a casual interest knows that Disney sent people out to recruit artists around the country several years before World War Two, to expand the studio staff during and after the production of Snow White.  Many of these artists accepted employment at Disney's studio simply because there were no other art jobs during the depression, and had to move across country to Los Angeles to accept the employment."

[Posted March 4, 2010]

From Mark Evanier: If I could get my mitts on one of them time machines and go back and ask Walt Disney questions, I'd read him a list of things that the Disney studio has done since he died and after each, I'd ask him, "So, what do you think of that?"

MB replies: Well, we can guess what the answer would be in many cases, can't we? I think, to start with, of the abandonment of EPCOT, the acquisition of Miramax and its very un-Disney film library, dismal animated features like Home on the Range and Chicken Little...I could extend the list indefinitely, but then again, maybe Walt would have been OK with a lot of things that make me flinch. (Is there all that much difference between Annette Funicello and Miley Cyrus?) Walt put his name on a lot of less-than-stellar stuff, after all; if you doubt me, I could post a list of Walt-era live-action features and TV shows to avoid. The difference between then and now, I think, is that the Disney regimes post-Walt have produced many things as weak as the worst of Walt's own output, but nothing as good or as original as the best (the great animated shorts and features, Disneyland as he conceived it).

From Tom Carr: The strike is a perennially fascinating subject, but I'd go back to an earlier period of upheaval at the Disney studio and ask Walt, "Why didn't you make more of an effort to keep Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling from leaving? They were both very essential to your success, and Stalling even invested his own money in the business." A counter-offer to [Pat Powers's] wouldn't have been financially impossible, but maybe that thing Walt had about disloyalty (real or imagined) stood in the way.

[Posted March 6, 2010]

From Floyd Norman: I confess that unlike you guys who require a time machine to ask Walt  Disney questions, I was actually in the same room with the Old Maestro on many occasions. Sadly, I was so intimidated by Disney I doubt I could even muster the courage to ask one "softball" question. Had I only known the unique opportunity I was afforded, maybe I would have been able to muster up enough courage to at least ask a few questions. Ah, the regrets of youth.

MB replies: Not to worry, Floyd! We'll save you a seat in the time machine.

From Gordon Kent: I guess I'd take him to Disneyland and ask him what he thought of the place and how it's "changed"... ask him what he thought of Michael Eisner and how the studio is being run.... what he thought about the treatment of the artists...

MB replies: I wonder if some such questions might unleash some of Walt's well-documented profanity...

From Stephen Del Signore: Your "Tell Me This, Walt" article is such a great topic.  Mark Evanier's reply certainly reminded me of  the Larry Pontius book Waking Walt,  which is a rather fun read.

MB replies: I haven't read Waking Walt, but maybe I should; it's still available through amazon.com, at this link.

[Posted March 8, 2010]

From Vincent Randle: I've been spending a great deal of time catching up on some of your older posts, and this particular entry inspired me to comment.  There are literally hundreds of questions I'm sure I would've liked to ask Walt Disney; some more significant than others.  So if you could all save a spot for me in that time machine, I'd be most grateful.  What I would take with me are all of the biographies that have been written so far about Walt's life.  It would be very interesting to get his take on each one.

Instead of focusing on events that occurred after his passing, here are a few I would've asked while he was still among us:

"Let's imagine that you are given the chance to live a second lifetime, but your current career wouldn't be an option. Where do you see yourself and what other passions would you like to fullfill?"

"Compare Walt Disney before and after the war."

"If you could talk with one of the animators who bitterly left your studio after the strike, who would it be and why?"

"What are your feelings on the art styles of your animated films of the 1960's?"

"If you could pick any person in the world or in history to have lunch with, who would it be?"

Perhaps I'll think of more.  Thanks for the stimulating post!

[Posted April 26, 2010]

March 1, 2010:

Solving Dumbo's Mysteries

Last month, I posted an Essay page about the origins of Dumbo in a mysterious object called a Roll-A-Book, a "book" that was apparently never published, or at least not generally available, since a copy of the Dumbo Roll-A-Book has never surfaced, not even at the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank.

Dumbo 1941 bookHappily, my post caught the eye of Alyssa Manley, who owns a copy of the 1941 paperback book that was Dumbo's first real appearance in print. Alyssa wrote to me about how she found her copy of the book, and she also provided me with scans of the complete Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which you can view by either clicking on the book's front cover, at left, or by clicking here. Either link will take you to the first index page, from which you can navigate to individual pages in the book.

You can also go straight to Alyssa's comment by clicking on this link. Alyssa's message allowed me to frame the right questions for Dave Smith, the Disney archivist. Dave provided even more pertinent information than I was hoping for, as you can see by reading my response that immediately follows Alyssa's message.

I think the essential elements of the Dumbo Roll-A-Book story are now almost all in hand, and so in the next few days I'll revise and correct my Essay page to take the new information into account. One great virtue of the internet is that it permits such revisions and updatings, and I try to take advantage of that capacity on my Essay pages, in particular. I think of those pages—and, for that matter, most of the rest of the site—not as standard-issue blog postings, but more like chapters in an ever-changing book.

In case you're as interested in Dumbo as I am, I'll alert you on this home page when the revised Essay page goes up. Likewise for my revised Essay page on the successive days in June 1938 when Walt Disney received honorary degrees at Harvard and Yale universities, two days that were the high-water mark for Walt's (and animation's) acceptance by America's intellectual establishment. The New Haven Free Public Library is sending me the last bits of information about the Yale ceremony that I've been seeking, so posting that revised page should be just days away.

Comments

From Jim Korkis: Perhaps you should have a section on your site labelled "CSI: Disney" based on your continuing detective research on the mysterious Dumbo book. Just wanted to chime in that the back cover of my copy of the book (with stiffer covers than interior pages) does NOT have any advertising on the back cover. It looks like the back cover that has been posted, so it is yellow with the derby-hatted robin in the center but no lettering of any kind. Also, as I may have mentioned to you previously, on the front cover is a pencilled "10 (cent mark)" at the very top in the center.   Excellent work uncovering all this information. I, too, doubt the Roll-A-Book exists but you never know; like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, it may one day surface to the surprise and delight of us all.

From Alyssa Manley: I did some digging around and uncovered some examples of Helen R. Durney's illustration art to compare it with the illustrations in the 1941 Dumbo book. Although my eye is not especially trained in this regard, the style does not seem terribly similar to what is seen in the Dumbo paperback, which could add some evidence that the galleys in Syracuse University's archives really could be the only record of the Roll-A-Book; and that the 1941 book was llustrated in-house by an unknown Disney artist.

MB replies: I agree with Alyssa that the Durney illustrations (you can see the examples she sent just below) have nothing in common with the illustrations in the 1941 Dumbo book.

Durney illustration 1

Durney illustration 2

Durney illustration 3

Durney illustration 4

[Posted March 2, 2010]

From Peter Hale: It's really great to see all the original 1941 book, thanks so much to Alyssa for providing the scans. I am looking forward to MB's revised essay.

Whilst I accept the premise that this represented Helen Aberson's only chance to see her story published under her own name, I do wonder if this entirely represents the original Roll-A-Book text or whether Disney encouraged her to expand the story a bit, to play up incidents that the story department had liked. (Presumably the last bit at least—"Dumbo is going to act in the movies"—was added after Disney bought the rights.)

Obviously there is no way of knowing, in the absence of any correspondence, and not knowing the length of the Roll-A-Book. (What chance of the "Lost Stone of Agog" turning up for comparison? Was it "a fast-moving story" because it was packed with events, or just because it was short?)

[Posted March 3, 2010]

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