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WDFM fifth anniversary, Diane's "book" could become a never-ending story

WDFM fifth anniversary, Diane's "book" could become a never-ending story

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Today marks the fifth anniversary of the public opening of The Walt Disney Family Museum at The Presidio of San Francisco. And, while the museum gears up for a full year of special events, including today's extended hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., I thought it was appropriate to review the museum's past, look ahead a bit and honor the museum's co-founder, Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller, who died Nov. 19, less than a month away from her 80th birthday.

Tributes to Diane Miller from Disney historians, museum staff members, volunteers, frequent visitors and others will be posted daily for the next few weeks at this Facebook address.   As one of her three daughters said, it's important to gather these memories now before they are lost to time. If you had a meaningful exchange with Diane Miller and would like to participate, please email your anecdote or recollection to [email protected] Those exchanges do not need to be related to the museum.

Diane Miller liked to call the museum her "book" - a place where she could present an accurate picture of her father, an American original who had pixie dust in his pocket and a sincere desire to make the world a better place.

"The truth is so important to me. Not an exaggeration or a beautification of his life," she told Paula Sigman Lowery in 2005 for "The Origins of the Walt Disney Family Museum."

The Walt Disney Family Museum has earned high praise for including both Walt's triumphs and tragedies - even when dealing with the acrimonious 1941 studio strike. Most Yelp reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

"I just thought it would be a little family museum and maybe I'd pour tea or something," Diane told me, laughing during my first interview with her in April 2005 at Silverado Vineyards, the family's Napa winery and estate she shared with her husband, Ron Miller. "Then our second son, Walt, said: 'Mom, we have to do more for Grandpa. People would expect more from this guy and his family.' "

Ron Miller & Diane Disney Miller pose for a photographer in front of the World War
I era barracks that will soon be home to the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Even then in 2005, The Walt Disney Family Museum was something the family had been planning for several years. Diane told me the family considered several possible locations, including near her father's birthplace in Kansas City as well as near the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, before settling on San Francisco.

For several years, a makeshift museum of sorts was set up in the Walt Disney Family Foundation's Office located in The Presidio, a few blocks away from The Parade Grounds and three buildings that would later become The Walt Disney Family Museum. The Gorgas Street office held Walt's numerous awards; his train, The Lilly Belle; his miniature collection; original Disneyland attraction posters; a WWI-era Red Cross ambulance, which had been part of a Walt Disney exhibit at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum; two Autopia cars used by his grandchildren; and other memorabilia.

I first visited the foundation's office with Roger Colton in 2006 as Diane and Ron showed us some of the artifacts that would be used to tell Walt's story. Diane gave us an interview and then showed us around. Inspired by some asset, she paused several times to offer details about her dad's life, telling us how Walt created the pot-bellied stove and a miniature checker set in the caboose of The Lilly Belle and how Walt had borrowed a piece of material she had to make doll clothes for use as a bedspread in a miniature bedroom he handcrafted. So many great stories: The dolls her parents brought her and her sister Sharon upon their return from South America in 1941; the hat her father had shaped into a heart and bronzed to give to his wife, Lillian, for her birthday after she had yanked it off his head and tossed it into a bull-fighting ring.

Walt's numerous awards filled several walls in the Walt Disney Family Foundation's
offices. The awards were transferred a few blocks and put into secure display
cases in the lobby of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Every time I visited the Gorgas Street office, I left fearing a fire would destroy priceless artifacts in what Roger and I both called a five-minute building, even with its sprinkler system.

The family soon realized using the office for a public museum was impractical. "The project grew from a very small idea into something larger," Diane said. "Our sights just soared and so did the budget ... but it was necessary to tell the full story" of Walt Disney's life.

Ultimately the family chose San Francisco "because we're living here," Diane told me in 2005. "I knew it had to be in a population center and there's a lot of tourism in San Francisco." She was also excited about the idea of preserving a historic structure at The Presidio, putting something wonderful inside, and giving it new life. "It's in my dad's spirit to renovate an old building and he was a fan of (WWI) Army Gen. 'Black Jack' Pershing."

Ron & Diane outside of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

While many people bashed the San Francisco location, those who've visited the museum and seen the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge from the museum's ingenious courtyard infill display space understand why the family chose the spot. This location also enabled Diane to visit often and participate from her seat in the back of the theater during several special talks.

Miller said the museum would offer "an audio visual walk-through about his life" - from before Disney's birth, through his childhood, his service in the Red Cross during World War I, to his films, TV shows, Disneyland and how his legacy has influenced today's artists and society. Walt's own voice would provide much of the narration. The museum would include a learning center and an archive where students and Disney historians could do research.

"What I've learned working on the museum and listening to people is that they really want this. ... I have no doubt that people will come." The museum will tell young people of a compelling story about a dreamer and a doer, she said. "I hope Dad's story inspires them."

Diane points to miniature bedroom set crafted by her dad and says
the bedspread was made from fabric she had for doll clothes.

With an eye toward the eventual museum, the family assembled a top-notch team of architects, engineers and exhibition planners and consultants. Two key members of the creative consultant team - Jeff Kurtti and Paula Sigman Lowery - will be discussing working with Diane, her family, Bruce Gordon and others on the initial planning during a special members-only talk on Oct. 10 and a public session at 3 p.m. Oct. 11. For information, please click on this link

The Walt Disney Family Museum was built at a cost of $110 million, including $58 million in bonds from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank. The family foundation has poured millions more into the museum to keep its doors open and remains committed to honoring not only Walt Disney but also his daughter, a beloved wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandma. The former gymnasium converted into the Special Exhibitions Hall was renamed in Diane's honor March 12 at the preview opening of the Mary Blair career retrospective.

I visited the museum a handful of times prior to its public opening, including going on a hard-hat tour led by Diane during construction. She spent several days on site, guiding VIPs on tours and taking delight in the process.

Ron & Diane share a laugh during their photo shoot.

I attended one of the D-23 preview days, and a couple of media open houses. I was there bright and early on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009, when Walter Miller, Founding Director Richard Benefield and Diane Miller spoke to a small crowd of 200 or so. In Disney fashion, the scissors failed when Diane went to cut the ribbon. The museum staff members - dressed in purple and black uniforms - stood squinting in the sunlight, along with Diane's husband, Ron, their children and grandchildren.

The museum opened while California was still reeling from the economic downturn, double-digit unemployment and a mortgage meltdown and struggled a bit, but it's been making slow and steady gains, especially in the past three years, with increased programming and special exhibits honoring the 75th anniversary of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and career retrospectives showcasing the works of Tyrus Wong and one of Walt's favorite artists, Mary Blair.

The museum attracted 100,000-plus visitors in 2012, and about 150,000 in 2013. The special Mary Blair exhibition earlier this year attracted about 50,000 visitors between March 13 and Sept. 7. "All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt's Trains" is set to open Nov. 13 and run through Feb. 9 and could set records with its widespread appeal and timing over the winter holiday break. For more information, please follow this link.

Diane discusses how Walt Disney's life would be told in chronological way using
Walt's own voice along with photos, film and physical artifacts.

A pending change in IRS status may facilitate additional revenue through matching employer contributions and allow other fundraising. The museum has also launched its Walt's Circle Memberships which grant high-level donors ($2,500 to $50,000) early access to special program tickets and other perks. More information is available here.

As Diane Disney Miller's book, there are several of Walt Disney fans who hope it becomes a never-ending story with the museum's continued growth, more programs and special events because Walt's life offers inspiration to dreamers and doers everywhere.