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Wednesdays with Wade: Remembering Rush Johnson

Wednesdays with Wade: Remembering Rush Johnson

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I've been delaying writing this column for a couple of months now in the hopes that one of the Disney fan websites would write something more elaborate. I never knew Rush Johnson, who by all accounts was a wonderful man and the father of Kaye Malins who now supervises Toonfest in Marceline, Missouri as well as being the director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum that resides in that city.

However, I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Kaye several times. She is an inspirational woman. Walt once compared her to Tinker Bell. I have no doubt that the warmth, humor, spirit and generosity that she demonstrates to everyone she meets is a reflection of those same qualities from her mother and dad.

Rush Johnson passed away on July 25, 2005. Kaye Malins wrote:

"Mom and Dad were on a cruise and I had spoken with them the night before. They were sitting on their balcony having a glass of wine watching dolphins. He was air lifted to Seattle from Anchorage. Luckily I made it there to be with him for a couple of hours. His service was on the 29th and it was truly a celebration of his life. Several of his friends spoke recalling good times they had with Dad. We all even shared a few laughs."

Another piece of Disney history is now gone and what may be saddest of all is that there are Disney fans who are unaware of Rush and his Disney connection.

On July 4, 1956, Walt and Roy Disney and their wives visited Marceline, Missouri for the dedication of a park and a swimming pool named in Walt's honor. Marceline was the well beloved hometown of Walt and Roy.

"More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since-or are likely to in the future," wrote Walt Disney in a 1938 letter to Marceline about his boyhood in Marceline from 1906 to 1911.

Festivities during Walt and Roy's visit included Walt judging a local bathing beauty contest and the premiere of a new Disney live action film, "The Great Locomotive Chase," at the Marceline Uptown Theater.

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"Walt and Roy stood outside and greeted every child that went into the theater," remembered Kaye Malins, who attended the premiere as a child. "When Walt took the stage that day he said, 'You children are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.'"

Walt and Roy explored their old haunts and in the local schoolhouse, Walt even found the school desk where he had carved his initials many years ago.The town fathers didn't want their favorite son to stay in a hotel in nearby Brookfield so they asked local businessman Rush Johnson and his wife, Inez, if they would host Disney at their home, one of only three locations in Marceline that had central air conditioning in 1956.

"After everything was over, he and I retired to our den," Johnson recalled of his first meeting with Disney about something that would become known as 'The Marceline Project'."

"First thing he asked me was 'Rush, who owns the Disney family farm?' I told him and he said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can. Buy it.'"

Rush would tell people in later years that he remembered Walt settled in an easy chair and sipping a drink as he talked about his hometown. Someday, Walt predicted, American children would have no idea where milk and eggs came from. To help modern children to learn the importance of early farm life and to learn about animals, he decided to build a Disney attraction based around a working farm in Marceline, a town about two hours northeast of Kansas City.

"He was such a visionary," remembered Kaye Malins, "He said there will come a time when a child will not know what an acre of land is. There will come a time when a child will not know what happens when you put a seed in the ground. We're there now."

When Rush expressed concern that Marceline was too off the beaten track to support such a project, Walt smiled and told him that to just wait until during introductions to the popular weekly Disney television program Walt would look at the camera and smile and say, "When you are visiting Missouri, make sure you stop by and see my boyhood farm" and just like Disneyland, there would be shows devoted to the building and maintenance of the attraction. (Buzz Price later determined that even with that type of publicity the project could not be profitable so Walt decided it would be a non-profit project.)

With Johnson's help, Disney bought his father's old Marceline farm and the land adjacent to it in the hopes of creating a secret project that Walt referred to as "Walt Disney's Boyhood Farm" although for security purposes it was dubbed "The Marceline Project" so that land prices wouldn't soar.

Inez Johnson, Malins' mother and a volunteer at the Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, said Disney was a very thoughtful person who was concerned about everyone. "His legacy is the importance of his rural influence as a young boy that stayed with him for life," Johnson said. "It shows how the simple pleasures of life are worth more than we think they are."

Walt imagined a living history farm where young and old could relive a simpler time and discover their roots. Rush corresponded frequently with Walt over the next decade and visited the Disney Studios in Burbank at least ten times to discuss the project's development with an excited Walt. Rush became not only a business partner but a friend.

With Walt's death in 1966, work on the project slowed considerably as all the resources of the Disney Company were focused on the building of Walt Disney World. With Roy's death in 1971, the project was abandoned and the land was re-purchased from the Disney Company at a bargain price by Rush Johnson.

When his daughter, Kaye, married Wally Malins, Rush and Inez gave the couple the Disney family home and farm as a wedding present. Though the house has been expanded and remodeled, many of the original architectural details were preserved.

So -- with these pieces still in place -- maybe Walt's farm dream isn't dead after all. Kaye Malins, one of the organizers of the celebration, was six when she first heard Disney talk about his Marceline plan. A designer has produced concept sketches to show a working farm with Disney-style production values but not run by the Disney Company. Kaye is the ultimate ambassador for Marceline, constantly promoting the Walt Disney Museum and Toonfest for no salary. The museum contains over three thousand Disney family artifacts including personal letters, recordings and more."We've always been on the map," Malins said. "You just didn't know where to look. When children come to Marceline, we'll say, 'How old are you?' and they'll say, 'Oh, I'm nearly five'.

"We'll say, 'That's the exact age Walt Disney was when he came here." Suddenly it's like an epiphany. They think, 'Goodness, he was a farm boy?' Yes. 'He did chores?' Yes. And look what happened. Look what he aspired to become. So anything in possible. In Marceline, you truly do know anything is possible."

Anything is possible, even the rebirth of a project close to the hearts of both Walt Disney and his friend, Rush Johnson.

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