My wife wanted to know why I have been researching the life of Walt Disney over the last few months, absorbing tons of videos on YouTube and soon to be purchasing many books. Perhaps it’s the great American story behind him that I respect and have been yearning to learn more of. True men of genius fascinate me and there are many other unappreciated geniuses I would eventually love to talk about. Walt is not like the others I have posted about such as Jim Henson and Mozart, two men in totally different eras in different places and working in different arts. Those two geniuses I described as being “tortured”, constantly wrestling with their own minds to create new art and never quite satisfied, whether it be music or with storytelling and film. Walt’s mind was not tortured to create, but driven to innovate not for his sake but for everyone’s benefit and enjoyment. And the biggest difference between them all was he was allowed to stoke the fires of his genius by being successful. He also was what Ray Bradbury called an “optimal behaviorist”, going out and trying new things, experimenting without thought to success, failure or even profitability. If the idea works, great. If it doesn’t, oh well. Let’s move on to the next idea.
People of the present, learned or not, can either defend or lambaste the reputations of people from history. My choice is to defend the defendable and chaste the inexcusable. It is difficult to defend the dead however without knowing the ins and outs of that person’s lifetime and that is why I have been studying Walt.
At the 90th birthday of a certain celebrity mouse, there’s a new book coming out, stating in so many words, that Walt Disney deliberately and with malice stole the character of Mickey Mouse from his creative partner and co-creator Ubbe Iwerks for his own use and purposes. We know that Mickey Mouse is the intellectual property that began an entire entertainment empire. Scandalous as that sounds, as I believe the intent is, it is completely preposterous according to Disney historians, family friends and those that knew and worked with the man.
For decades after his death, Leftist haters have spread so much rumor and innuendo about Walt, from slave driving his employees to rampant racism, sexism and anti-Semitism from himself and in the entire Disney organization. Walt didn’t make many friends testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 following the unionization of his cartoonist staff and the strike against Disney Studios in 1942 and the personal attacks by union agitators. That may have a lot to do with the hate, jealousy and conjured derogatory myths towards him that continues today and seeing that future president Ronald Regan also testified in front of that same 1947 committee provides insight into why he was despised as well.
Jealousy is, in my view, simply fear of others successes. Walt’s entire life was dedicated to proving naysayers wrong, either producing high-quality art and story through his cartoons or his ventures into technology and innovation, including theme parks and urban planning. And in most cases he both proved them all wrong and made tremendous profit on it. Even when he lost money on projects, his optimal behaviorism looked forward to the next project. And there was always another project.
His commitment to American free-enterprise and cooperation with American industry and belief of working closely wrankled anti-corporate rewriters of history. Walt’s affection for other large corporations and his love of innovation goes hand in hand–working together to promote new ideas and technology for everyone’s benefit. He saw corporate America as something not to be feared but a relationship to use to reap those benefits. It is true there would not have been a successful American space program if Walt hadn’t shown the interest and passion to go into space and his efforts to educate the public on the need to invest time and money. His promotion of space exploration on his television show in the 1950s garnered the public’s understanding.
Walt’s belief in and promotion of sacred traditional American values is what I believe is the most important aspect of the man. To always work hard, dream and achieve is a hallmark of the American story. As the following article written in 1968 by critic Richard Schickel for American Heritage puts it, Walt was “a man whose taste and morality comfortably reflected those of the middle-class American majority“:
For the last fifty years, intellectuals have pooh-poohed middle-class values. If you look at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, the Main Street that typifies middle America is celebrated and appreciated out of a partially nostalgic yet practical view that those Main Street values do matter. I don’t know what is to hate about that.
Schickel also in this same article points out that Walt was an ‘inarticulate, withdrawn man. Intellectually and emotionally he remained a child, but he was anything but childlike when it came to managing and directing the only thing he greatly cared about—his business or, to use the phrase favored by his publicity department, his ‘magic kingdom’.” Shame on Mr. Schickel for calling Walt, one of the best storytellers of this century inarticulate. I think that many of learned academia lookdown on and condedsend those with little education pedegree–Walt never completed a high school education–that are more successfulthan those who ridicule. Again, jealousy.
Sadly, Disney has become more of a brand name than a legacy, only superimposed (rightly so) on a corporate logo. Walt was a lion of business and creative ingineuity yet very few understand what a difference in the world he made as an individual. I tend to believe the people who ran the empire after his passing slowly lost the passion and energy he had for making the world a better place. Yes, that sounds totally banal, but can you imagine a world without Walt’s influence? How sad it would probably be. What is sadder that people who had a strong positive influence on our lives as Americans are being torn apart after the fact.