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Walt in his own words

Walt in his own words

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Next year will mark forty years since Walt Disney passed away and yet we are still fascinated by him and what he thought. After listening to some audio cassettes of the speeches I have that Walt gave to radio listeners back in the 1940s, I thought it might be nice to try to capture some of these speeches in print as just another insight into Walt Disney.

One of the last speeches Walt ever gave was on Saturday, October 1, 1966 when he received a new award from the National Association of Theater Owners. NATO was the result of a union several months previously between two massive exhibitor organizations, Allied States and the Theater Owners of America. The newly combined NATO represented more than ninety percent of all movie theaters in the United States or roughly fifteen thousand showcases.

On the evening of October 1, in New York's Americana hotel, nearly two thousand exhibitors and their wives from throughout the United States and Canada gathered together as Walt was presented with what NATO claimed was a salute "to dramatize the impact of his artistry and showmanship upon the entire world."

In fact, the award was designed especially for Walt and bore the following inscription:

"In a universe of unlocking secrets, creativity, diversion and recreation become symbols of man's civilized state. To bring us to this plateau, science and religion have probed the mind and the soul. Entertainment has ministered to the emotions. Above all others in a global configuration of The Showman of the World is one man. He stands alone. His sensitivity to the visual delights is unequalled; even unchallenged. His total involvement of the family is a credo. His uncompromising wholesomeness of subject matter and presentation give a mighty industry dignity and respect and recognition. But most of all his uncanny ability to bring joy and gratification to young and old alike set him apart. He is known and loved in every land, in every tongue. He is, indeed, the first...perhaps the only...Showman of the World. He is, of course, Walt Disney."

Pretty flowery stuff. It was preceded in September by a joint statement by Sherrill C. Corwin (the new president of NATO) and Marshall H. Fine (the retiring president of NATO who actually presented the award to Walt) that "Variety" called a "citation in itself".

Corwin and Fine, on announcing Walt as the recipient for the Showman of the Year Award, stated:

"The reasons why Walt Disney should receive unprecedented recognition and honor from the nation's theater owners are far too numerous for complete enumeration. Even the name Walt Disney is synonymous throughout the world with the highest level of creative entertainment. His brilliant and imaginative creations transcend all language barriers and geographic boundaries to brighten the world with the warmth of delight and laughter."

Walt's speech, probably prepared by Studio publicity man Joe Reddy, was constantly interrupted by outbursts of applause and laughter. Walt, who would pass away almost two months later, appears relaxed and happy in the photos that were taken and even Walt's wife, Lillian, seems very happy as she and Walt posed with Sophia Loren (NATO's Star of the Year award recipient) and her husband Carlo Ponti.

There is a lot of Walt Disney in the speech. Even when he was working with prepared material, Walt was such a natural storyteller that he would go "off script" and make the material his own. I know this speech appears in at least one website and one book ("Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography" by Kathy Merlock) but still may be fresh for the majority of the readers of this website as I kick off this new series of reprinting Walt's speeches:

Walt Disney's Speech Accepting the Showman of the World Award
from the National Association of Theatre Owners

October 1, 1966

Truly an imposing title. It makes a man wonder where do we go from here? For this occasion, I propose to go backwards-almost forty-five years ago to Kansas City, Missouri. Now don't let this frighten you, because I intend to hop, skip and jump through those forty-five years in ten minutes-if it takes longer you can accuse me of hamming it up-so here we go.

I was all alone then. I didn't even have a mouse. But I had some ideas. One was to do a sort of animated cartoon commentary on local topics for the Kansas City screen. Frank Newman- who owned three theatres in Kansas City was the first-in a long line of showmen-who gave me a helping hand. He bought those early efforts of mine at thirty cents a foot. Newman's treasurer at the time was Gus Eysell-later to become director of Radio City Music Hall. Gus was the one I had to catch to collect my thirty cents a foot. During the next few years I expanded several of my ideas trying to crack the animated cartoon field and I finally came to a great conclusion. I had missed the boat. I had got in too late. Film cartooning had been going on for all of six or seven years.

My only hope lay in live action movies. So, I packed all of my worldly goods in a pasteboard suitcase... and with that wonderful audacity of youth, I went to Hollywood-arriving there with just $40 as my total cash assets-with $200 worth of liabilities from my Kansas City ventures.

I didn't figure on setting the town on fire-at least not for a year or two. But I had to start with a job, for two months I tramped from one studio to another. Anything to get through those magic gates of big-time show business. But nobody bought.

My big brother, Roy, was already in Los Angeles as a patient in the Veteran's hospital. When he got out, we had more in common than brotherly love. Both of us were unemployed-and neither could get a job. We solved the problem by going into business ourselves. We established the first animated cartoon studio in Hollywood.

Several years after producing one series after another on a shoe-string budget for the state rights market followed. Then sound on film panicked the industry and Mickey Mouse came into our life.

At first, it looked like he was going to have a harder time crashing show business than I had. Nobody wanted Mickey.

Then a second great exhibitor took a chance on a Disney project. He was Harry Reichenbach, who managed the Old Colony Theatre on Broadway. We didn't yet have a release for Mickey, but Harry wanted to book him in the Colony regardless.

At the time we were in desperate need for $500. To put it briefly, everything owned by Roy and me was mortgaged to the hilt. So I asked Harry for $500 for exhibiting the first Mickey Mouse one week. I knew that the price was pretty steep. So did Harry. But fortunately for us, he said, "Let's compromise." I'll give you $250 a week-and run the cartoon for two weeks."

Reichenbach had a great talent for showmanship and exploitation. If it was a picture Harry would sell it-whether it moved or not. He was the man who sold the public on that famous, naughty painting-'September Morn'. And this was back in the day when it was considered a mortal sin to peek at The Police Gazette-and even Mack Sennett had never dreamed of a bikini.

It was a far cry from 'September Morn' to 'Steamboat Willie', but Harry sold the public Mickey Mouse in just two weeks. Our red ink took on a blacker hue.

By nature, I'm an experimenter. To this day, I don't believe in sequels. I can't follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things. So-with the success of Mickey-I was determined to diversify. I had another idea which was plaguing my brain. It was The Silly Symphonies. A series without a central character which would give me latitude to develop the animated cartoon medium. The first was 'The Skeleton Dance'. The reaction was-"Why does Walt fool around with skeletons? Give us more mice."

So, for a while, it looked like the first Silly Symphony would not get out of the graveyard. But once more, a showman came to the rescue. Fred miller, who was managing director of the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, took a chance on the film.

"The Skeleton Dance' got a wonderful reception, and wonderful reviews. So another showman-the legendary Roxy-took up the ball. He booked the short into his Roxy Theatre of New York. Thus was the series launched.

In those days, we were like the bumblebee who didn't know how to fly-but we were flying anyhow. We kept fooling around with the Silly Symphonies until we came up with 'The Three Little Pigs'. I could not possibly see how we could top pigs with pigs. But we tried, and I doubt whether one member of this audience can name the other cartoons in which the pigs appeared.

The success of The Silly Symphonies gave us the courage for 'Snow White'. And you should have heard the howls of warning! It was prophesied hat nobody would sit through a cartoon an hour and a half long. But we had decided there was only one way we could successfully do 'Snow White'-and that was to go for broke-shoot the works.

There would be no compromise on money, talent or time. We did not know whether the public would go for a cartoon feature; but we were darned sure that audiences would not buy a bad cartoon feature.

As the 'Snow White' budget climbed, I did begin to wonder whether we would ever get our investment back. At this critical period, another great showman gave me the needed assurance.

W.G. Van Schmus-the General Manager of Radio City Music Hall-came to the studio. After seeing bits and pieces of 'Snow White' be booked the picture right on the spot-months before the film would ever be completed.

Then came a shocker. Roy told me that we would have to borrow another quarter of a million dollars to finish the movie. 'You've got to show the bankers what's been completed on 'Snow White' as collateral.' I had always objected to letting any outsider see an incompleted motion picture. And bankers to me were men after the fact. But Roy went ahead with the arrangements.

However, on the appointed day my big brother had found something to do elsewhere. I had to sit alone with Joe Rosenberg of the Bank of America and try to sell him a quarter of a million dollars worth of faith. He showed not the slightest reaction to what he viewed. After the lights came on he walked out of the projection room, remarked that it was a nice day-and yawned! He was still deadpan as I conducted him to his car. Then he turned to me and said, "Walt, that picture will make a pot full of money." To this day, he's my favorite banker.

Well, we had been stuck with mice and pigs. Now with 'Snow White' a huge hit, the shout went out for more dwarfs. Top dwarfs with dwarfs? Why try?

So as you may recall we experimented with-'Pinocchio'-'Fantasia'-'Dumbo'-and 'Bambi'-before the war intervened and our studio with all its talent and skills was taken one hundred percent producing hundreds of thousands of feet of vital film for the war effort. It was here that we learned the true meaning of diversification. We produced thousands of insignia for the various fighting units-hundreds of films on such subjects as-

  • How to Hate Hitler
  • The Vulnerability of the Jap Zeros
  • Fighter Tactics
  • Bomber Tactics
  • Meteorology
  • Briefing Films on the Hundreds of Islands to be Captured in the Pacific...

And our series on simple sanitation with such alluring subjects as:

  • How to Control the Malaria Mosquito
  • How to Avoid the Hook Worm
  • How to Get Rid of the Body Louse
  • How to Build and Where to Locate a Privy So as Not to Pollute the Drinking Water...

And many more I don't care to mention in spite of the new liberalized production code. You might say we didn't come out of the war smelling like a rose-but we had acquired a wonderful education and a determination to diversify our entertainment product.

So we started experimenting with the living nature subjects and live-action features. Just as we were beginning to get rolling with this new program the panic over television struck. We studied the medium carefully and decided it was here to stay. But never in the foreseeable future would it replace motion pictures. Meanwhile, why not use it? If television could sell soap, couldn't it sell movies? So with this thought in mind, we went into television.

For one of our early programs we tried a little experiment. Our feature Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' was being readied for release. So we built an hour-long television show around the making of the movie. In a sense it was pure exploitation. But we felt the public would not mind exploitation so long as it contained sufficient interest and entertainment.

More than any other single factor this television show helped us to sell '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' to motion picture audiences. Furthermore, the show won an Emmy as the best single television program of the year. Even Jules Verne might have found this hard to believe.

But it was Bob O'Donnell-the late, great exhibitor of Texas-that gave us a lesson in daring showmanship. Our Davy Crockett series had been a hit on television. So Bob suggested we take three of these episodes, tie them together and release the package as a picture.

I was inclined to ask O'Donnell is he had lost his mind. But I had too much respect for his judgment. So we did exactly as he suggested. Bob exhibited the movie in his theatres and broke house records in over half of Texas.

After a long concentration on live-action and cartoon films, we decided to try something that would employ about every trick we had learned in the making of films. We would combine cartoon and live-action in an enormous fantasy-'Mary Poppins'. And what a far cry that was from 'Snow White'! As the original 'Mary Poppins' budget of five million dollars continued to grow, I never saw a sad face around the entire studio. And this made me nervous. I knew the picture would have to gross ten million dollars for us to break even.

But still there was no negative head-shaking. No prophets of doom. Even Roy was happy. He didn't even ask me to show the unfinished picture to a banker. The horrible thought struck me-suppose the staff had finally conceded that I knew what I was doing?

The suspense was too much. It was I who finally asked David Wallerstein of Balaban and Katz-to take a look at the completed 'Mary Poppins'. This magnificent showman, exhibitor and friend always leveled with me. And he could smell a hit-or a flop-through a six-foot wall. Dave said, "You can relax, Walt. The picture will be a tremendous success." So I started smiling right back at the staff.

After seeing the completed 'Mary Poppins' another friend-a great showman and a champion of clean, quality pictures-Sam Goldwyn-called me and said, "Walt, don't let your distribution group settle for less than a thirty-five million dollar gross."

Now there's nothing wrong with my imagination, but a thirty-five million dollar gross seemed to out-fantasy the picture itself. However, when I tried to lower the figure on Sam he became so emotional he hung up on me.

Some months later, on being informed by our distribution team that Sam's prediction was coming true, I called Sam to give him the good news. There was silence on the other end of the line. I said-"Sam, are you listening?" he replied-"I'm thinking. I've been thinking on it since I gave you that figure and I now estimate it will gross eighty-five million dollars before it is through." This made me so emotional I nearly hung up on Sam.

Most of this talk has been about me and big brother Roy and a few of the exhibitors-but actually, in my hopping, skipping and jumping I have landed on only a few of the milestones along the way. There were many other exhibitors who lent us a helping hand throughout our career. And, also, there is the Disney organization with its three thousand employees. Many have been with us well over thirty years. They take pride in the organization which they helped to build. Only through the talent, the labor and the dedication of this staff could any Disney project get off the ground.

We all think alike in the ultimate pattern. And right now, we're not thinking about making another 'Mary Poppins'. We never will. Perhaps there will be other ventures with equal critical and financial success. But we know we cannot hit a home run with the bases loaded every time we go to the plate. We also know the only way we can even get to first base is by constantly going to bat and continuing to swing.

Now I could tell you of another little project. You might say that we've been doing a little moonlighting with our left hand. It's called Disneyland... you know, out in Anaheim... the home of the California Angels. But that's another story.

Now before sitting down to count my blessings I want to make you a promise. I promise we won't let this great honor you have paid us tonight go to our head-we have too many projects for the future to take time out for such a thing. On top of that-after forty some odd years of ups and downs in this crazy business of ours we know too well-you are only as good as your next picture.

So a great big thank you-to all of you-from all of us... and God bless.

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