Q and A about Walt Disney

 
 


Did Walt have a horrible childhood?
Was Walt dishonorably discharged from the army?
Was Walt a mean boss?
What was Walt's favorite attraction at Disneyland?
How did Walt die?
Was Walt frozen?
How many children did Walt have?
What was the greatest tragedy in Walt's life?
Is it true that Walt testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee? If so, why?
Is it true that Walt couldn't draw?

 


Did Walt have a horrible childhood?

Walt's earliest years on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, were idyllic, and provided inspiration for many of the farm-based films he made later in life. When the family moved to Kansas City in the summer of 1911, his life grew more difficult. He had to work for his father, delivering newspapers. That required getting up during the night and venturing out into ice and snow in the winter. It was not an easy task, and Walt would remember the hardships he suffered for the rest of his life. But the often-repeated claim that his father, Elias, was a domineering tyrant is simply untrue. Elias was certainly demanding, but he was also a dedicated father who took pains to provide art lessons for Walt and a piano for his sister Ruth. Elias took pride in Walt's early accomplishments in amateur theatrical competitions. He often invited poor people to their house for food and conversation. Walt loved his father deeply, and said so often.
 


Was Walt dishonorably discharged from the army?

No. First of all, he was never in the army. He was in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps for a year, following World War I. And he wasn't dishonorably discharged from that, either.
 


Was Walt a mean boss?

Walt was unquestionably one of the most demanding bosses an employee could ever have. He didn't hesitate to cut down an employee with a harsh word, or even a public tirade. He was uncompromising in his desire for quality, and he held his staff to the same high standards as he did himself. What's more, he never thought money was the reason to do good work, and he had difficulty understanding others whose main motivation was cash. That said, Walt had an unerring eye for talent, and he rewarded good talent abundantly. He was willing to spend time and money on training and teaching, long before that was fashionable. He hired women -- and promoted them -- in a time when that was the exception, not the rule. He really cared about his employees, and there are repeated instances in which his generosity and support were extraordinary. When one valued staffer needed to get over a lengthy illness, he sent him on a vacation to Europe. Another time, animator Ollie Johnston was ill for a period, and Walt took pains to reassure him that his job was safe and he should take all the time he needed to recover. Though more than one staffer left the Disney Studio unhappily, many others stayed with Walt for decades. Thirty years after his death, a number of former employees still welled up with tears when they talked about his death. This is hardly the mark of a "mean" boss.
 


What was Walt's favorite attraction at Disneyland?

One time, shortly before Walt's death, a reporter asked him this question. He began describing a ride that featured pirate ships and cannons. Few in the audience knew that he was talking about Pirates of the Caribbean, an attraction that was still in development. The point is, Walt's favorite attraction was always the one he was working on.
 


How did Walt die?

He had advanced lung cancer, probably caused by many years of smoking. Walt's smoker's cough warned employees that he was near. He generally had a cigarette in his hands; for years he preferred unfiltered Lucky Strikes. Later, he smoked strong French cigarettes called Gitanes. His daughter Diane has made it one of her life's goals to stop young people from smoking.
 


Was Walt frozen?

No researcher has discovered where this myth began, but it certainly is widespread. Quite the opposite, Walt's daughter Diane recalls that her father spoke frequently about his desire to be cremated -- and in fact he was. When Disney archivist Robert Tieman researched the issue, he discovered that the first attempts at freezing a person weren't even discussed until after Walt's death. In any case, the people who knew Walt and loved him never heard him utter a word about trying it out himself. What's more, his family lingered around him for some time after his death. No white-smocked physicians rushed his body off to some kind of freezing chamber as would undoubtedly have been the case if he was being preserved.
 


How many children did Walt have?

Walt and his wife, Lilly, had two children. Diane was born in 1933. Her younger sister, Sharon, was adopted in January 1937.
 


What was the greatest tragedy in Walt's life?

Walt never answered this question, so it's impossible to know for sure. But based on interviews with most of his closest family members, it's possible to make a reasonable guess. Though he had many business failures -- particularly early in his life -- he would not have considered any of them tragic. In fact, he had a firm belief that every young person should have a failure or two. One such event was the acrimonious strike that hit his studio in 1941. It was terribly unpleasant for Walt -- and it changed his relationship with his employees for the rest of his life. But as unhappy a time as the strike was, it seems likely that the most painful event was his mother's death in November 1938. Walt and Roy had purchased a home for their parents some months before. Flora had been complaining about the gas furnace. Walt sent a studio handyman to fix it, but he didn't do an adequate job. Early one morning, poisonous fumes spread through the house. The couple's housekeeper began to get woozy and checked on the couple upstairs. She found Elias lying in the hall. Flora was on the bathroom floor. They were able to rescue Elias, but it was too late for Walt's beloved mother. Many years later, according to his daughter Sharon, Walt still found the subject nearly impossible to talk about.
 


Is it true that Walt testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee? If so, why?

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a congressional committee in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was concerned with the threat of communism to America. Although its concerns may be justified in the context of the time, there were unreasonable excesses that destroyed the careers of a number of men and women employed in the film industry. And Walt did, in fact, willingly testify before the committee in 1947. He believed strongly that he was taking patriotic and honorable action. In the years following World War II, as the Soviet Union became a frightening world power, the idea that communism presented a genuine threat was not irrational. Walt's thoughts about communism were clear: "I believe it is an un-American thing . . . they really ought to be smoked out so that . . . all the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go on without the taint of communism." What's more, Walt's testimony wasn't an attempt to vilify individuals; it primarily dealt with his feelings that the studio strike of 1941 had been manipulated by communists. They "smeared me," he said. "Nobody came near to find out what the true facts of the thing were. . . . They distorted everything, they lied; there was no way you could ever counteract anything that they did; they formed picket lines in front of my theaters and, well, they called my plant a sweatshop, and that is not true."
 


Is it true that Walt couldn't draw?

No. Walt did drawings for his high school newspaper. They show the work of a very talented young artist. What's more, Walt single-handedly animated some of his earliest cartoons. As the years went on, however, Walt was able to hire staffers who were more talented artists than he. As a result, he stopped drawing and turned his attention to bringing out the best in those he hired to do the job.
 

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