Walt Disney – King of Fantasy

Walt Disney combines artistry with vision, gives the tired old world a "laughing place"

Hildy Crawford PSL and Villager

Reprinted from the July 1965 Issue of Palm Springs Life magazine.


Walt Disney, whose Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck brought laughter to the world and whose Disneyland is a playground for the world's people, calls his home at Smoke Tree Ranch, "my laughing place."

Whimsical, as always, he refers to the Uncle Remus story where Brer Rabbit oh-so-casually mentions his "laughing place" and makes it sound so intriguing that Brer Fox insists on seeing it. Brer Rabbit takes Brer Fox to the entrance of a thorny thicket, saying, "It tickles you so that you have to laugh." After Brer Fox runs through and emerges bleeding from many scratches, he complains, "I thought you called this a laughing place." Brer Rabbit laughs. "I said it was my laughing place."

Disney made his earliest visits to Palm Springs when the downtown was little more than the Desert Inn, drug store and department store. By the 30s he was coming down to Smoke Tree Ranch and staying in the guest cottages. That was when Charlie Doyle owned the ranch, and Disney reminisces, "I remember Doyle trying to get me interested as a partner. I didn't have the money he thought I did, for I was still having problems financing my productions. Actually, it wasn't until after Mickey Mouse that we could afford to have a house there."

He and his wife and two daughters spent many happy days there and those days coincided with the first two of what Walt designates as the Three Ages of Girlhood: The first, a time for being in love with Dad, followed by a time for being in love with horses. It was at the ranch that he taught them to ride and both girls are considered good horsewomen. Then came the third stage, when the teen-age girls were more interested in boys and didn't want to leave home because they might miss a 'phone call. This came at a time when Disneyland was being born and Walt needed all the money he could raise ($17 million), so he sold the Smoke Tree house.

After Disneyland was in operation, he designed and built another house at Smoke Tree and it is this which he refers to as his "laughing place." Here he can relax and read the briefcase of scripts he brings with him. "Sometimes," he admits, "I relax so much that I find myself dozing over the scripts."

Disney, who played polo for 10 years and was once a golfer, has just one sport now — bowling on the green at Smoke Tree. He and his wife have established a Walt and Lily Disney trophy for the annual bowling tournament that attracts bowlers from all over Southern California.

Of Palm Springs, Walt says: "I think Los Angeles is fortunate to have it so close." When he comes to the desert he flies in his eight-place Beechcraft Queenair. It is just 35 minutes from wheels-up at Lockheed to wheels-down at the Palm Springs Airport.

A director of Smoke Tree Ranch, he has other desert interests, including a company house at Canyon Country Club and a 10-acre date ranch at Palm Desert, which he owns with Smoke Tree President Al Weinert and Smoke Tree Manager Herb Siemsen.

While he has these interests in the desert, he comes here chiefly to relax, for he has learned his lesson, that no man can work seven days a week without rest — not even a Walt Disney.

Living close to nature in his boyhood days on a Missouri farm may have inspired a series of films, the first of which was the Academy Award-winning "Seal Island." Of this series, "The Living Desert" has become a classic. It was filmed partly in Arizona and partly in Coachella Valley, where most of the floral shots were made. Headquartering in Palm Springs, the cameraman went to Salton Sea to photograph the mud pots and out on to the desert to record the opening of the night-blooming flowers. Director Lloyd Allen Smith of the Desert Museum worked with him, helping as he could, and his chief contribution was an unusual one. The cameraman had his lens trained on two land tortoises and tried to get some action out of them — but they lay there like two armored tanks, refusing to budge. He appealed to Smith who said, "That's simple" and brought a female turtle and set it down on the sand between the two males. The fight began and didn't stop until one of the turtles was tipped over on its back and rendered helpless.

"The Living Desert," which came as a surprise to all who think of the desert as being devoid of life and color, was made at a time when, as Disney phrases it, Hollywood was "going through the menopause." Everything had to be bigger and better. Wide screen had become Cinerama and color was as vivid as the blue skies of New Mexico. Then came "The Living Desert," a simply-told tale of the desert, its denizens and drama, its flora and fauna, filmed on modest 16 mm. It grossed $6 million.

The wonderful world on which Walter Elias Disney opened his eyes on December 5, 1901 was Chicago. His father, Elias Disney, builder and contractor, was Irish-Canadian and his mother, Flora Call Disney, was of German-American parentage. When the family moved to a farm near Marceline, Mo., the boy attended a country school. He grew up in Mark Twain country, and his boyish interests are reflected in Disneyland's Tom Sawyer's Island, the Tree House and the River Boat.

He was a newspaper boy and, later, a news butcher riding the trains between Kansas City and Chicago — a not too successful venture, as he ate up most of the profits.

The greatest showman since P. T. Barnum, Disney has always been attracted to the theatre (he did impersonations of Chaplin, and with a friend, worked up a vaudeville act called "The Two Walts"), but he had an even deeper interest in drawing. In high school he did illustrations for the school paper, some with pen and some with camera, and studied cartooning at night.

There was a manpower shortage due to the war and, after the Army and the Navy and a Canadian recruiting station rejected him because of his youth, he applied aging makeup to his face and went to work for the post office. He finally succeeded in going overseas with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. His vehicle was eye-catching, for it was covered from bumper to bumper with original Disney sketches.

After the war he had to choose between the stage and the drawing board and decided there was more future in art. He worked for a Kansas City advertising agency, doing art work for farm journals; he freelanced as a commercial artist, and, finally, in February, 1920, got a job as a cartoonist with a Kansas City agency. This marked the beginning of his work with animated cartoons.

Experimenting at home with a borrowed camera, Walt improved on the cut-out method of animation then in use, applying a new idea, which he found in a library book. He filmed short reels of Kansas City subjects which he sold to a local theatre owner at 30 cents per foot, a fractional part of today's costs.

With some other freelance artists, he worked six months animating "Riding Hood." When it was completed, he quit his job and formed a $15,000 Missouri corporation. They produced seven films which they sold to a New York distributor who, unfortunately, went bankrupt.

By selling short subjects and even taking baby pictures and, finally, selling his camera, Disney raised enough money to get to Hollywood. In August of 1923 he arrived in the film capital, wearing a two-year-old suit, carrying a sweater and his drawing materials, and with $40 in his pocket. With him he brought a print of the last fairytale cartoon, which he peddled unsuccessfully and mailed off to New York as a last resort.

Walt and his brother Roy, the one with as much business acumen as Walt has imagination, were partners now. When the sample film sent to New York brought an order for a series of pictures, they borrowed $500 from an uncle and were in business. They filmed "Alice in Cartoonland," forerunner of the combination cartoons and live action which Disney developed later. One of the two girls they hired for $15 a week was Lillian Bounds, who was to become Mrs. Walt Disney.

After six films, they discontinued the "Alice" series and he created "Oswald the Rabbit," which proved popular. Everyone was happy except Walt, who had ideas for improving his cartoons. This led to an open break with the New York office, which not only refused to go along with him but continued to make "Oswald" without him. This was the best thing that could have happened to him; it pushed him into creating Mickey Mouse.

A tiny, bright-eyed mouse, so fearless that he could creep on to Walt's drawing board while he was working, was the prototype of Mickey Mouse, foundation of the Disney career. Now 37 years old, Mickey Mouse is still going strong; his cartoons are in demand, and replicas of the friendly little fellow with the big ears continue popular in toy shops everywhere.

The first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, in black and white and silent film, never achieved much circulation. It was "Steamboat Willie," third of the series, synchronized with sound, that caught the fancy of the movie-going public in 1928. As his popularity grew, the studio and Disney Enterprises prospered accordingly, as there was Mickey Mouse money for expansion.

Disney hired artists, requiring only that they be skilled draughtsmen, for he preferred to train his own. It was a method that worked. Today, with hundreds of employees — all of whom are encouraged to advance new ideas which, if acceptable, are shaped up by teams of experts — the cartoons, the movies, the Disneyland projects all emerge with the typical Disney touch. Disney himself hasn't drawn a line in 30 years.

Mickey Mouse was still young when Disney brought out the Silly Symphonies, combining sound and action and expensive Technicolor. First was "The Skeleton Dance," which New York theaters refused to book, saying it was macabre. But, after it was a hit at the Carthay Circle screening, Roxy took it to New York where audiences flocked to see it.

War came again and, while the highly skilled technicians scattered into every branch of the service, the Disney studio was geared to the war effort. Navigators, nurses, pilots, weather experts and others learned their jobs faster and better because of Disney-made training films. Lives were saved by the new visual training methods that illustrated graphically how to combat disease and malnutrition. Tanks, planes, jeeps, ambulances, LSTs and even blimps carried the cocky Disney insignia, bringing a grin and a reminder of home to GIs on land, at sea and in the air. On D-Day the password was "Mickey Mouse."

Reconversion after the war found Disney and his artists offering a bright new kind of entertainment such as "Make Mine Music," which used the voices and talents of Nelson Eddy, the Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman and others, combined with cartoons. As key artists doffed their uniforms and returned to the studio, he went into production with "Song of the South," the Uncle Remus stories, part live and part animated.

There followed "Treasure Island," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan" and the two-years-in-the-making "20,000 Leagues under the Sea." "Lady and the Tramp," first feature-length animated film, followed and in 1959 his most ambitious animated feature, "Sleeping Beauty," was acclaimed as the greatest since "Snow White." Since then he has given the world "Swiss family Robinson" "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," "The Absent-minded Professor" and "The Sword in the Stone," which the studio considers the best it ever produced. This year "Mary Poppins" reaped a harvest of awards and promises to top all records.

In the field of color television, competition has paled before his "Wonderful World of Color," around which American families plan their Sunday night television viewing.

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and his cartoons could have been a career by themselves. So could his feature-length movies or his "Wonderful World of Color." And so could Disneyland. Any one of them would have written his name on the pages of theatrical history; but he goes on, scattering his fancies with open hand so that they take root and grow, flowering into beauty.

There's a pinwheel scintillation and a Main Street appeal to Disneyland which this year is celebrating its Ten-cennial. There on the flat land of Anaheim, where orange and walnut groves grew 10 years ago, is Fantasyland, fabricated of wood and stone, paint and mortar. Disney imagined the rivers and the mountains, the forests and the towns and brought them to reality.

More and more people pour into this land of enchantment which gives them back their childhood as they fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, ride the mirror-flashing carousel and drift through Storybook Land. It takes them back to their yesterdays, as they ride down Main Street in a horse-drawn vehicle, climb up into the Tree House or sip a soda in the ice cream parlor. It's a Magic Kingdom of castles and princesses, rivers and sailing boats, waterfalls and jungle beasts — a world peopled from fairy books, infiltrated by Disney characters and overrun with tourists from all over the world. It's illusion, charm and pure Disney — and a darn good show.

These 65 acres, which has been called "the happiest place on earth," today represents a $50 million investment and has been visited by 50 million persons — including kings and queens, presidents and other heads of state.

Disneyland was the first assignment for WED Enterprises, imagineering department for the Disney productions. This same crew of architects, engineers, artists, model builders, sculptors and technical men designed four of the stellar attractions at the New York World's Fair: Ford's "Magic Skyway," General Motors' Progressland, "It's a Small World," which will be brought to Disneyland after the Fair, and "Great Moments of Mr. Lincoln."

This summer "Mr. Lincoln" will open in the revamped Opera House on the Square, at Disneyland. This is not the same Mr. Lincoln of the Fair but is an improved model. Built to life scale, it stands six feet four inches tall and its face is modeled from a life mask of the 16th President. It can stand, sit and move and makes an impressive 10-minute address. The entire show — lighting, sound effects, curtain, complex body actions and facial expressions — is programmed on a magnetic tape, one inch wide.

The sensitive and complicated robot is the outgrowth of years of electronic research in audio-animatronics. Out of this study came the Enchanted Tiki Room, easily one of the most popular and colorful shows at Disneyland, and similar techniques were used for the realistic animals along the river in the Jungle Ride. It has also made possible the life-like pirate figures that will fight, dance and rowdy around in a new attraction, Pirate of the Caribbean, that will be part of the fabulous New Orleans Square.

Another major attraction scheduled to open this summer is a rococo-styled restaurant, The Plaza Inn, that will be the most elaborate of Disneyland eating places and will seat 534 persons. Inside will be rich, red brocade and crystal chandeliers; outside will be two terraces for al fresco dining, under colorful umbrellas by day and romantic gaslight by night.

The Haunted House, spectacularly spooky and delightfully other-worldish, isn't entirely off the drawing boards yet. It is rumored that it may make gasping ghosts or lively skeletons out of all who enter. They'll die laughing.

Disneyland has been a catalyst for a great tourist and convention business in Orange County, a business that has spilled over into adjoining counties and which has been responsible for the building of 112 hotels and motels, in a five-mile radius.

Ten years ago Jack Wrather, who owns the Disneyland Hotel, as well as L'Horizon in Palm Springs and the Balboa Bay Club at Newport Harbor, was one of the few who could appreciate the tremendous possibilities of Disneyland. Today, the Monorail makes regular stops at his hotel, which has grown as the park has grown. Since opening night, when all seven of its completed rooms were occupied, it has expanded so that today it has 450 guest rooms and suites, as well as convention facilities, and under construction is an additional tower containing 160 rooms.

Walt Disney has won many honors. He never finished high school but he received an honorary degree from Marceline (Mo.) High School. He holds a doctorate of Fine Arts from UCLA and honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, USC and the Chouinard Art Institute. In addition to his 29 Oscars, he has several Emmys and the Golden Globe and, in all, has received more than 800 awards. Next New Year's Day he will join a select group who have been similarly honored, serving as Grand Marshal of the 77th Tournament of Roses Parade, a parade which will be themed to his own "It's a Small World.”

It has turned out to be a big, wonderful world for a midwestern boy with a big imagination, who goes from one triumph to another — and he's made it a more wonderful world for all who go to the movies, watch television or walk through the magic gates into Disneyland — the world's laughing place.

Photographs courtesy Palm Springs Life archives.