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Ruminations: A sneak preview of the Walt Disney Family Museum

Ruminations: A sneak preview of the Walt Disney Family Museum

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It is no secret that I have many reasons to love the City that is San Francisco. Like many visitors, I find an attraction in the neighborhoods, the people, the places and the food. So, if something else were to come along that would make me enjoy it all the more, how would I feel about it? After today, I can say pretty darn great!

Loyal readers of this space may recall that last September, I shared a look at one of the oldest and most historical places in the City. Located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, The Presidio continues to be a place where the past meets the present and the future awaits. Under the direction of the Presidio Trust, this jewel of an urban park continues to evolve as reuse plans unfold. In a place where so much historic fabric exists, the challenge is how to incorporate the past safely and respectfully into the future.

One very important element of that future is The Walt Disney Family Museum. If everything goes as planned, sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, the doors will open to the public on a very special place to share the story and the legacy of Walt Disney.

So... how about a sneak peak at what lies in store for the guests to this Museum? If you were one of those lucky enough to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (in Simi Valley, CA) during the "Walt Disney - The Man & His Magic" events in 2001, then you have a head start on the rest of us. Check this link for a great description of the exhibition by Matt Walker of Started By A Mouse.

That exhibition came about as the result of contacts between Retlaw Enterprises and the Reagan Library. Preparation of the exhibit was financed by the Walt Disney Family Library and used a great deal of materials from its collection. When that exhibition closed, the materials were returned to storage with the hope that they might eventually find a permanent display location. In November 2004, plans were announced for the creation of the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. In the years since, the materials from the Reagan Library exhibition have been used to create what could best be described as a prototype for the San Francisco museum. I recently had the good fortune to visit that prototype, with a rare tour of these displays hosted by Diane Disney Miller and Ron Miller.

As much as Abraham Lincoln was a hero of Walt Disney's, General John "Black Jack" Pershing was another. General Pershing was commandant of the 8th Infantry Brigade at the Presidio during a period of the rebuilding of the City after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. With that history, the Presidio location will work very well in bringing the story of Walt and his legacy to life for visitors.

A great deal of what visitors will eventually see is very personal to the Disney family. For example, one wall display contained a series of artworks that had been in the Millers' home at one time. Among those works was a pair of Mary Blair character studies. Those came from the 1941 South American Disney trip (referred to as "El Groupo" by the participants) that lead to the production of 1943's "Saludos Amigos" and 1945's "The Three Caballeros." Next to that was a Jim Fetherolf painting of a pond and pasture view that had been a 1965 Christmas gift from Walt and Lillian to Diane and Ron. Walt had very much admired his work and gave both Diane and Sharon paintings of his as gifts that year. (It's also worth noting here that this Fetherolf painting was the very last Christmas gift that Walt ever gave to Diane & Ron. Which is why this particular painting has a special significance to the Millers.)

One truly interesting piece was a painting by Peter Ellenshaw of a Tennessee cabin of Davy Crockett in a winter snow scene. As with many of his famed matte paintings, it has special highlights of lighting that bring the image to life in the way he seemed to excel at.

While looking over a case with a series of medals awarded to Walt, Diane made a comment that "stories get lost." To illustrate that point, she shared the tale of a 1935 trip to Paris by Walt and Lillian along with Roy and Edna. Over the years since, the story about the trip had been told that Walt had specifically traveled to buy books about European fairy tales as reference materials for various Disney artists. Diane related how a transcript of a journal written by Edna, told of the trip and how one entry noted that "Lillian, Roy and I did this today, while Walt went off to buy more books." As Walt was always collecting figures, books and other items, this was easy to accept as being the truth about that trip.

The real reason for the trip was that Walt was being awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. It came with recognition of Mickey Mouse as "a universal symbol of goodwill." And of course, while she was telling that story, there was the 1935 Legion of Honor medal on display.

Disney archivist Dave Smith further related to Diane that it was on that trip that Walt noticed how the theaters in Paris were playing four and five Mickey Mouse cartoons at a time. And he thought, "Aha! People are finally ready for a feature length Disney cartoon." As Diane said, the truth is more interesting than some of the legendary stories (or myths) that have become accepted as reality. Offering those truths is a part of what the efforts behind the Walt Disney Museum are all about.

Diane also admitted that while she was pleased that Bob Iger had been able to re-acquire the rights to the Oswald properties, that she had (at one point) no idea who or what Oswald was. As it had all taken place long before she was born, it had been something of a mystery to her. But now, she is very glad that this early component of the Disney legacy had been recovered.

Ron Miller and Diane Disney Miller
with a display on Walt's early years.

The items on display are not all to be small in scale or nature. Take for example this group of items:

Photo by Roger Colton

In the foreground is an early prototype Autopia car with the finished production model behind. While both were driven around the Studio lot by a number of kids (in testing, of course), the prototype went to several car shows but never saw service on the highways of Tomorrowland. FYI: These cars were donated to the Walt Disney Family Museum by Walt's own grandchildren, Johanna & Christopher Miller.

Behind the cars is the train from Walt's backyard railroad, The Carolwood Pacific. Lead by the "Lilly Belle" steam locomotive and completed by the four-wheel bobber caboose, the train sits on a wooden trestle with various photos behind it. As much as Walt's railroad interest inspired others and was a factor in the growth of the live steam railroad hobby, I know that this particular display will be enjoyed by many future Museum guests.

The Lilly Belle.

Walt's caboose, complete with detailed interior.

During the Disneyland 50th anniversary festivities, Diane mentioned how great it was to have had so many members of the Disney family able to be present. It was a family reunion that somewhat just happened. Initially, she had been invited to do a signing of the book, "The Story of Walt Disney". This a book that she denies writing, and so acknowledged in a forward to the 2005 edition. A scheduling conflict prevented her from attending the May 5th press event at Disneyland. When chatting about the July event, one thing lead to another and there were members from many branches of the extended Disney family who were able to be there on July 17th.

One highlight for the family was the opportunity to visit Walt's apartment for that day complete with a wonderful meal enjoyed on the balcony adjacent to the apartment. Being there with many of her grandchildren brought back wonderful memories of earlier visits with both of her parents. (Having been able to enjoy a Disneyland vacation with my extended family in October, I could easily identify the joy of family and just how special a part of the Disneyland experience it can be.)

Some of the furniture from Walt's Disneyland Apartment
now in storage waiting for the Museum.

Diane mentioned that she had not met Bob Iger until that day. There was a rehearsal that morning at 5:30. She had her speech all set to go on the teleprompter, able to read it without her glasses. It was Bob who suggested to her that she read Walt's opening day dedication.So she was doing fine with the rehearsal and started to recite the dedication. Then she turned and looked at the large video display and there was her father just as he had been that day, with his hair tussled, so earnest. So, she started to sob, overcome by the moment. So when it came time for the actual event, she was lead onstage by Donald Duck, who quietly offered her a tissue, just in case. She said she didn't need it, because she turned her eyes from the screen and just looked at her family. It was a very emotional day. (For the record, the audience only heard Diane say the opening words of the dedication, as Walt's dedication was replayed not only on the video display but also on the audio throughout the Park.)

Diane noted that that visit was also her first time to see Disney's California Adventure including "Soarin' Over California." She truly enjoyed the spirit of the Cast Members. The Parks looked great and everyone was very upbeat. Ron mentioned that from the Orange County airport to Anaheim that so much had changed over the years since his last visit that he didn't recognize the area until he was inside Disneyland.

Ron mentioned that he was particularly moved by the participation of the Disneyland Cast Members on that day. From the smiles and welcomes at the main gate as souvenir maps and golden mouse ears were handed out to the line along Main Street with Cast Members welcoming guests "home," it was a day to be proud of in many ways.

Among some of the many other items that I saw were a series of framed original Disneyland attraction posters, an early optical film printer, a restored World War I ambulance (a close relation to the one that Walt was so proud of having driven in France), a number of vintage motion picture cameras, and many items from Walt's collection of miniatures. Diane noted that there are so many of the latter that they may be arranged in themed groupings just as Walt had originally intended.

How's this for a rare piece of Disney art?
A complete cel set-up from 1953's "How To Dance"
(part of "The Complete Goofy" DVD)
with the portrait of "The Firehouse Five Plus Two."

The Building 104 location faces the former main parade ground of this military post. It will occupy over 44,000 square feet of one of the five 19th Century brick barracks buildings along Montgomery Street. With a wonderful view of the San Francisco Bay and the Presidio from the front of the structure and an especially impressive view of the Golden Gate from the rear, it will be the highlight of any visit to this area. As the Army had changed the use of the structure from housing to office space, much of the preparatory work for the conversion to the Museum has already been done. The work that remains now is to design and install the new systems and structures to make the building ready for the 21st Century and its new role as The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Building 104 facing the Presidio Main Parade Ground.

Ron and Diane pose for a photo in front of the future home of the Walt Disney Museum.

So... as much as many fans had looked forward to the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, now there is another great event and a great location to look forward to for 2008 or 2009. I know it will be worth the wait and hope that you enjoyed this preview.

Now this if you can't wait quite that long, there is a Disney exhibit coming to the Bay Area this year that you will not want to miss. May 6th will see the Oakland Museum opening of the "Behind The Magic-50 Years of Disneyland" exhibition. Diane Disney Miller and Ron Miller are among the sponsors of the Oakland showing of this unique exhibition.

The following description is from the Museum web pages:

Go behind the scenes to see how Walt Disney and his Imagineers envisioned, created, and brought Disneyland to life. This touring exhibition includes hundreds of images and artifacts, including original artwork, construction drawings, architectural models, archival videos, promotional materials, and historic souvenirs?as well as original vehicles from Peter Pan's Flight® and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride®. Meet Disney's first Audio-Animatronics® figure, Abraham Lincoln!

A vintage view of Fantasyland in Anaheim.
Image courtesy of the Oakland Museum

Dumbo the Flying Elephant exterior overall concept.
Bruce Bushman, 1953.
Image courtesy of the Oakland Museum

Previously, the exhibition had been shown at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Loyal JHM readers will recall a description of the exhibition and the Museum members preview event here by Dan Viets last September. (An interesting coincidence has the Baseball As America exhibit now on display at the Ford Museum, where it had recently been shown at the Oakland Museum. As former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, "This is like deja vu all over again!")

Now if you are a member of the Oakland Museum, there will be an opportunity to attend their 2006 Golden Gala event on April 29th. The theme for this is When You Wish Upon A Star and it will feature a preview of the "Behind The Magic" exhibit with Diane serving as the honorary chairwoman for this fundraising event. Details are still being confirmed and you may want to check the Museum web site for further information. Perhaps you might want to consider one of their membership opportunities as well, to take advantage of during this Disneyland exhibition.

If you haven't seen this exhibition, mark your calendar and do so while it is in Oakland. After it closes here on August 20th, it travels to Japan. Tickets are available now online from the Museum through this link.

Special thanks for making this tour possible go to Diane Disney Miller, Ron Miller and the staff of the Walt Disney Family Library in San Francisco. As well, thanks to Leo Holzer of the Northern California Chapter of the National Fantasy Fan Club, Matt Walker of Started By A Mouse and Elizabeth Whipple of the Oakland Museum.

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