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Inside Eisner's Office

Inside Eisner's Office

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When I finished college and started at Disney in the early 1990's, I had been reading several news stories about Lee Iacocca, the corporate maverick from Ford and Chrysler. Mr. Iacocca has just recently shown up again in Chrysler commercials, and even though it is just as a paper-thin piece of live-action corporate branding at this point, it is great to hear him quoting those same lines that originally made him a TV commercial celebrity. My reading back then surfaced some really big ideas that I have clung onto to this day, justified by the fact that Mr. Iacocca seemed to be quite beloved by management, shareholders, dealers, and customers alike.

The biggest idea that I retained is from a quote attributed to Mr. Iacocca that went something to the effect that "when the five o'clock bell rings, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I stop working and I go home," testifying to the fact that Mr. Iacocca did not work on evenings, holidays, or weekends, in deference to the priority that his family had in his life. I had grown up as the oldest child in a large family, I had been around children and babies all of my life, and I looked forward to getting married and having a family of my own in the not too distant future, so this was something that I could identify with and truly value. Another hero of mine, Benjamin Franklin, had stressed the importance of balance and moderation in all things, which has been my mantra for practically all of my life. Lee Iacocca passed the Ben Franklin test, and became my default definition of what the CEO of a great big corporation should think and operate like.

Boy, was I in for a big surprise coming to Disney at the start of the "Disney Decade"...

Before the Burbank Team Disney Building was completed, (more commonly known as The Seven Dwarfs Building, and not be confused with the much-more-bizarre-looking Team Disney Building at Walt Disney World in Florida, which among other things, houses the Vista Federal Credit Union), Michael Eisner had chosen to occupy Walt Disney's former office in the old Animation Building (the original one on the studio lot that was built in the 1940's from the profits that Snow White made, not the much newer one with the Sorcerer Mickey Hat), as well as Michael had chosen to make use of Walt Disney's former secretary, Lucille Martin.

The first time that I went to work in that office, fresh out of college, and walking up from my studio trailer office on a hazy-sunny fall afternoon, images immediately formed in my mind of Walt's TV office from "The Wonderful World of Disney" (and also of Christopher Robin's live-action bedroom from the beginning of the Winnie the Pooh shorts...What can I say?...I watched re-runs of both shows on TV a lot when I was a little guy in my jammies in the 1970's, and the memories must have gotten mixed together...).

When I arrived at the offices, it could not have been more contrary to the rest of the building's architecture, as well as the visions in my head, and I simply could not believe my eyes! Everything was covered in enormous, glossy, midnight-black, highly-polished granite tile that you could see your reflection in...Even down to the private bathroom with a shiny black toilet, fixtures, and with the largest multi-line black plastic phone system that I had ever seen. There must have been at least fifty buttons just for different phone lines! My mind immediately went to visions of Michael taking lots of calls at the same time that he sat on the toilet with his pants around his ankles...I immediately stopped my mind from having any more of these kind of visions. One thing was sure, just based on his personal office space, and without Michael even being in the room, I could already tell that he did not espouse the Lee Iacocca corporate business philosophy.

The thing that woke me back up and saved me from this nightmare was Lucille Martin, Walt and Michael's secretary. As she was as professionally charming as they come, both in her demeanor as well as in her vocabulary (an example of her vocabulary is that when someone called for Michael on the telephone, as he was not in the office when I was there, Lucille would ask if the caller would like to "leave word," instead of "leave a message").

I quickly realized that interacting with Lucille in this office, in spite of its appearance of being a giant, corporate "black hole", was almost like interacting with Walt Disney himself. And that this was about as close to Walt as I was ever going to get, especially since I was born within a few years after Walt Disney passed away. Lucille showed me into Michael's office proper, and I went about my business. Within a few minutes, Lucille popped in and asked me if I would like a snack. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck with joy! For one brief moment, I was Walt Disney, sitting at his desk in his "Holy of Holies", and Lucille was my secretary asking me if I wanted a snack. I nervously nodded, "yes," and within a minute I was snacking away on chocolate-covered pretzels, peanut M&Ms, mixed nuts, all being washed down by a Diet Coke, over ice, in a tall glass.

I finished my work, smiled and politely thanked Lucille for the snack, and headed back down the hall of the fourth floor of the old Animation building, toward the elevator at the south end of the building. As I stepped into the smallish, metallic elevator from the forties, I realized that I was not alone. I looked up to see Roy Disney looking me in the face, smiling gently and politely, and wearing a cardigan button sweater, much like Mr. Rogers wore...I instantly knew that my career at The Walt Disney Company was not going to be a boring one.

Many years later, I would find myself back in that office suite on a sunny Burbank morning, long after Michael had departed for the trendier hallways and spacious office suites of the Team Disney Building, and Roy Disney had occupied the former office suite of his real Uncle Walt. I am happy to say that my second encounter with this office space more than lived up to the visions in my mind of what it must have felt like to be in Walt Disney's real office.

To see Roy behind the desk that had once held the dreams-in-progress of his uncle, it was not a huge or difficult task to see Walt in his place, especially because of Roy's strong resemblence to Walt. Some things in this world are definitely worth the wait...

 

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