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Wednesdays with Wade: Another Walt-based urban myth

Wednesdays with Wade: Another Walt-based urban myth

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This year will mark forty years since Walt Disney passed away. Walt was very, very human. He never graduated high school, chain smoked, had a terrible temper, constantly struggled with his finances and had many other qualities that would be considered typical human flaws. Yet, as the decades have slipped by, more and more Walt has become less human in people's eyes and more of a legendary figure like a Paul Bunyan or a Johnny Appleseed.

There have been at least two generations who have grown up without seeing Walt on television every week introducing some special treat. Five years ago, the Disney Company discovered that the majority of college students thought that Walt Disney was either like Betty Crocker (completely made up as an icon for a company) or like Colonel Sanders (a real person who was a figurehead for a company but someone who really didn't have any day-to-day influence on the operation of that company).

Even during his lifetime there was an aura surrounding Walt that seemed to make him larger than life. The "Horatio Alger" story of his life, the accolades during the 1930s that placed Walt as America's premier artist, the awe of his technical accomplishments in his creation of a theme park and plans for a "community of tomorrow" and more combined to make Walt almost mythical.

One of the downsides to being a legend is that stories are created that have little or no connection to reality.

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Despite all the factual information to the contrary (including documentation and denials from the Disney family), people still seem ready to believe that Walt was cryogenically frozen (instead of being cremated) and his body is hidden somewhere on Disney theme park property, that Walt was an illegitimate child born in Mojacar, Spain and adopted by Elias and Flora Disney (Marc Elliot revived this groundless allegation in his error ridden book "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince"), or that Walt was going to build another Disneyland in some obscure location.

Recently, I discovered another Walt-related urban myth that is firmly believed by many sincere people and I hesitate to even discuss it because despite all my disclaimers, I am willing to bet that someone will then reference this article as "proof" that this story is true.

Displayed in the window of a prominent antiques shop in Asheville, North Carolina is an old draftsman's desk with Walt Disney's photo prominently displayed. The desk is priced at under $20,000 which the shop considers a bargain because -- according to the note attached to the desk -- this wooden treasure is actually "Walt Disney's drafting table. Used at the Asheville Citizen-Times while employed there in the 1920s."

Now before I continue this story, let me emphasize that Walt never lived in North Carolina and never worked for the "Asheville Citizen-Times" newspaper.

Apparently a local artist who owned the desk but passed away in 2000 had told a family friend repeatedly that the table belonged to Disney. Why did people believe him? Well, the legend in Asheville is that in 1924, Walt found work as a draftsman for Major Thomas A. Cox Jr. in the Jackson Building on Pack Square. Walt was apparently a competent draftsman but "he doodled little mice and other creatures on his work" and so Cox had to fire him.

Sounds pretty impressive until you actually examine this work supposedly done by Walt (and yes, the register of deeds for Buncombe County actually keeps a list of these alleged maps Walt supposedly worked on) and other than one that has a small set of hands drawn on it pointing to the north-south arrow, there is no indication that an aspiring cartoonist was involved in the creation of this work.

There isn't even a hint of a Disney signature and one of the stories I have always enjoyed is Ub Iwerks talking about all the time Walt took practicing his signature when they worked for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Walt was never hesitant to put his name boldly on everything he did.

However, citizens of Asheville will sincerely tell visitors that Walt's signature is all over the maps held in the courthouse and some even claim to have vague memories of making deliveries to the Jackson Building and seeing Walt there in 1924.

"I ran the blueprint machine for Mr. Cox, and Mr. Disney; he would make sketches and I would print them," Red Hoyle, 88, told a local reporter in 1997.

A 1966 article in the "Asheville Citizen" quotes Cox's wife talking about Disney, but it mentions she "struggled" with her memory and had only a photocopy of the original cartoon Disney supposedly drew for Cox after being fired.

The employment record for the "Asheville Citizen-Times" does not go back to the 1920s. However, there is plenty of evidence that Walt Disney moved from Kansas City to California in July 1923 and started his animation studio. By 1924 he was already working on three "Alice Comedies" in Hollywood.

But if you visit Asheville today, folks will still smile and tell you about their city's brief brush with Walt Disney. And no amount of facts and documentation can dim that legend. As is demonstrated by the community profile of Asheville, N.C. that's currently on-line over at epodunk.com. Were you to click on the Asheville link and then scroll halfway down the page, you'd see that this same old tired story ...

"Walt Disney worked here briefly as a draftsman for a construction company. He was fired for doodling"

... is still be trotted out as if it were the gospel truth.

So perhaps just like in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," this Walt-related urban legend will become "true" over time and eventually wind up in Disney history books.

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