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"Working with Disney" gives you an up-close look at Walt Disney, the man

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"Working with Disney" gives you an up-close look at Walt Disney, the man

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So when did Don Peri start collecting Mouse-related stories? Over 35 years ago. Back when genuine Disney Legends were still working at the Studios.

"Frank and Ollie were still doing animation back then. When I first met them, they were both working on 'The Rescuers' and were getting started on the research for 'The Illusion of Life,'" Peri recalled. "Which was harder than you might think. Given that Dave Smith was just getting the Disney Archives up out of the ground at this point."

When we talked on the phone last week, Don talked about visiting Dave in this early, early version of the Disney Archives. Which - back then - was housed in one of those old wooden buildings right at the edge of the Studio parking lot. Peri described Smith's office back then as being small and cluttered. Where - if you wanted to view one of the beautiful-but-massive background paintings that the Disney artists had created for "Pinocchio" ... Well, you first had to figure out which boxes you needed to move out of the way before you could then close Dave's door.

Copyright University Press of Mississippi
All rights reserved

Don has a great eye for detail. That extra added filigree that changes an average story into something really extraordinary. Which is why I'm so grateful that Peri went around from 1976 to 2005, collecting oral histories from folks like Frank & Ollie, Marc Davis, X Atencio and Bill Justice. Which have now been collected in a terrific new book, "Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers, and Artists" (University Press of Mississippi, January  2011).

This 192-page paperback is actually a follow-up to Don's earlier-but-equally-excellent collection of Mouse-related tales, "Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists" (University Press of Mississippi, March 2008). Which grew out of a 1974 meeting with Ben Sharpsteen, a retired Disney animator, director and producer. Sharpsteen recruited Peri to come help him write his memoirs. And while he was researching the 30 years that Ben spent working at the Studios, Don got to talk with other veteran Disney employees about what it was actually like to work with Walt.

"And what I found was ... Well, no two people who worked for Walt Disney ever saw that man the exact same way," Peri explained. "Some saw Walt as this tough taskmaster. While still others viewed him as being someone who was constantly creative, forever curious."

Bill Cottrell, Ted Sears, Lillian Disney, Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson and Frank Thomas
circa 1941. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That's certainly how Frank Thomas saw Walt. As a guy who never liked to repeat himself. Who was always looking for new challenges. In his interview with Don, Frank suggested that if "Fantasia" had succeeded at the box office when it was initially released to theaters back in 1940 ...

... I think we would have found ourselves in a different field. But Walt kept hunting himself. I don't mean to say that he curtailed his creative efforts. For instance, he loved Hiawatha.

DP: The short subject?

FT: No, just the idea of Hiawatha. He's done that just as a short. No, but as an idea, the poem. He said, "Unlock your thinking. Try thinking of something new. There is something in that that people like. There's a magic to it. There's mystery to it. There's something in that subject matter." He said, "I don't know what it is. Don't think film. Maybe it's live. Maybe it's in a theater out in the woods. Maybe it's on a mountaintop, I don't know where the thing is or what you do with it, but there's an idea that someone could get ahold of." Well, this is the way he was all the time. "An idea there that somebody could get ahold of." No limitations on him.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As for Marc Davis ... Well, he shared what it was like to be Walt Disney at the very height of his fame. When "The Wonderful World of Color" was broadcast by NBC every Sunday night. Which is how everyone in the world then knew what Uncle Walt looked like.

Which - as you might imagine - made touring crowded places like the 1964 New York World's Fair difficult for Disney.

...  we went to the Miss Clairol exhibit, because we were thinking that they might be interested in coming into Disneyland. This exhibit was for women only practically, but we went through it anyway with the man who ran it. After seeing a few exhibits, we came into a room and there were quite a number of young ladies there. They discovered Walt and they shouted, "Oh, Walt Disney! Walt Disney! Can I have your autograph, Mr. Disney?" I'd say he autographed maybe six or seven pieces of paper. Then a little girl came up wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt, bobby socks and tennis shoes. She said,"Oh, Mr. Disney, may I have your autograph?" He put his hands on her, and he said, "Look, honey, I just can't autograph any more. I'll be mobbed here." She starts screaming, "He touched me! He touched me!"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Now - you think - give how famous Walt was at this point of his life, that Disney would then pull rank. Insist that he be treated as a celebrity. But as Marc Davis recalled, that wasn't the type of man Walt Disney was.

(And when Walt and I toured the New York World's Fair fairground, we) finally ended up at the Ford exhibit - I think we skipped Lincoln - and they wanted to VIP (Walt). But he said, "No, I want to go through the whole thing. I want to go through like the public." So the three of us, plus the man who ran the show and a couple of Ford managers went through the whole serpentine -

DP: Was this in the car?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

MD: This was the long walk going in there. You're on your feet for a good half hour before you ever get up to those cars. There was that long serpentine line going back and forth that eventually lined you with the exhibit car. In the line were a heavyset but well-dressed woman and a well-dressed man with a hat - typical New York types. I saw them look at Walt. We serpentine so that we were next to them. This woman looked at Walt, then she looked back at her husband, and she said , "It isn't either!"

That's what's great about "Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers and Artists." You get funny true-life stories about Walt Disney and the type of person he was. Not to mention peeks at never-built theme park attractions. Like this one that Bill Justice designed back in  the mid-1970s,

... Mickey's Madhouse in glorious black and white! It would have been a ride-through. You'd see film clips of these old cartoons on each screen, there would be about five or six different scenes, and there's be an overall music track. Fun music, with maybe Goofy playing a washboard here, and you'd hear the washboard sound, and maybe Mickey's on a bunch of pots and pans over there, and you would then hear [the sound] from there. So as you go through, you'd see all these different things, and we'd have little animated figures, dimensional figures, that would keep time to the music, like [It's a] Small World.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

DP: Or the Mickey Mouse Revue [then at Walt Disney World].

Yeah. That would set the mood for this thing, and each time you'd go through there, you'd probably see a different scene on those screens, you see. Then in the second room, your car would start to climb up through an old dilapidated castle-looking thing. On the screens in there, there'd be ghosts and goblins and skeletons and black cats and torture chambers and all this weird stuff: lightning and thunder and screeches and screams and bats and all kind of spooky stuff. As you go through there, you climb, climb, climb, and then you get to the top of the building. When you break out of that, you come down through a thrill ride that takes you through train tunnels and through a tornado from The Band Concert. The car would just break loose and go fast. We'd have projected things going by you.

DP: That sounds great!

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

BJ: I think it would be a wonderful ride. It would bring back memories to those people that had seen some of that stuff, and it'd be a whole new experience to the younger generation.

Of course, the best part of "Working with Disney" is - because Peri collected most of these oral histories back in the mid-1970s - you then get these real-time slices-of-life moments in regards to what was going on within the Company at that point in history.

Take - for example - this interview with X Atencio. Who - circa 1978, anyway - was clearly frustrated with the way work was going on the Epcot project.

Ray Bradbury stands in front of an early model for
EPCOT Center.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

I have worked on the Transportation Pavilion that will be sponsored by General Motors. Ray Bradbury and I worked together on the Spaceship Earth. On the World Showcase, I've worked on the Mexican pavilion. I did a concept. And now we are getting down to the nitty-gritty. Even though these concepts were done a couple of years ago, we've got to get down to it. We've got to face it! The next four years are going to be hectic around here. [Epcot opened on October 1st, 1982.] I think in essence it is an exciting project. But we keep vacillating; we keep getting away from the original theme, which is discouraging to me. That's one of our big problems in working with industry: we not only have to please ourselves, but we have to please somebody else.

Well,  "Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers and Artists" certainly pleased me. Don Peri's new collection of oral histories by Disney Legends featured some stories that I'd never, ever heard before. Which is why - if you're a Mouse House history buff - I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of this University Press of Mississippi book. If only so that you can then read Don's definitive account of Walt's very last trip to WED.

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  • "No, I want to go through the whole thing. I want to go through like the public."

                                                                                                -- Walt Disney

    I really admire that man.

  • I don't read non kindle books.

  • Any book that makes my True Uncle Walt look more of a hero to you is a wonderful treasure, frankly.

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