Episode 5 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
In 1962, Walt invited his daughter Diane and her husband Ron over to his house. He was holding a special screening of the new film “To Kill a Mockingbird”, an adaptation of Harper Lee’s coming-of-age novel about a young girl witnessing racism and bigotry in her small Alabama hometown during the Great Depression. Even though it didn’t come from the Disney studios, Walt knew it would be something special, and he wanted to experience it with his family.
Sure enough, the movie turned out to be a masterpiece. When it ended, Walt was silent for a minute. When he finally did speak up, he muttered “That was a hell of a picture. I wish I could make a picture like that.” But he knew he couldn’t. Uncle Walt’s formula was simply too dependent on the “happily ever after” to allow for such a complicated story. But just because happiness and harmony was Walt’s brand, didn’t mean he had any intention of becoming culturally insignificant. The 1960s would produce Walt’s own masterpiece, as well as setting into motion a life-changing idea for the world of the future. Sadly, it would also be the decade where Walt was taken from us much too soon.
Welcome to Episode 5: The Challenge and Promise of the Future.
By the early 60s, Walt had spent nearly a decade visiting Americans every Sunday. His face on TV was as recognizable as President Kennedy’s. His new anthology series “Wonderful World of Color” continued to ensure that friendly Uncle Walt, whose dark hair and mustache had now turned gray, would be a weekly fixture in our living room. Warm, friendly, low-maintenance, and he always had a story to tell.
But truth be told, Uncle Walt was a fictional character. Walt had always admitted that there was a big difference between his public and private personas. He told a friend “I’m not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney doesn’t do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink.” But the differences didn’t end with the vices. His personality was very different, too. He was a demanding boss. Always high energy, restless, and still an incorrigible perfectionist.
When he entered the halls of the Burbank studio, Walt’s trademark was to emit a loud cough, a habit that came naturally given his 40 year smoking habit. His animators recall that this was their cue to get ready for the boss. They had an inside joke: when Walt was near, they’d call out “Man is in the forest!”, a reference to the danger which accompanied that scenario in Bambi. When he came into the room, you could feel the power he brought with him. He wasn’t one for idle chit chat. He would march up to his team and get right to the point: “All right fellas. What’ve you got?”. If he liked what they showed him, his response was always the same. “That’ll work”. That was Walt’s idea of high praise.
As he got older, many of those closest to him recall that he began wishing his private persona could match the warm, friendly, unassuming “Uncle Walt” that he portrayed in public. But he knew that a sweet, kindly pushover never could never have become such an influential businessman and creative powerhouse.
Yet, for all his influence, and for all his accomplishments, he had one nagging, lingering insecurity that had followed him since he was 37 years old. By 1960, he had won more Academy Awards than any other individual in the history of Hollywood. Still, he had been denied the holy grail of Academy recognition. He had never even been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. He knew he was running out of time to accomplish that lifelong goal.
When his daughters Sharon and Diane were young, Walt had read to them from the “Mary Poppins” anthology books about a magical English nanny. They would ask him if he could bring her to life on the big screen. He promised he’d do it. And he never made a promise to his girls that he didn’t intend to keep.
Starting in the 1940s, he had pursued the film rights, but author PL Travers had always turned him down. As highlighted in the film “Saving Mr. Banks” Travers disliked his brand of storytelling, and was certain that he wouldn’t do justice to her beloved character, who was capable of being a harsh disciplinarian when she needed to be.
She eventually, and reluctantly relented in 1961, mostly due to the financial security that a Disney partnership would offer.
Mary Poppins would be Walt’s masterpiece, with all the hallmarks of a Disney feature. Bert, the happy Cockney chimney sweep, broke the fourth wall and ushered us through a cheerful London circa 1910.
It was filled with bright colors, singing, dancing, and of course, animation. But it was also filled with heart. George, the stern patriarch of the Banks clan, was a no-nonsense banker who’s puzzled and irritated by his whimsical, creative children. It was a powerful statement about the importance of music, magic, and imagination in an increasingly cynical world. It was Walt’s chance to finally secure the recognition from Hollywood that had eluded him since his days on Hyperion Avenue. Mary Poppins premiered in August 1964 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The film would also feature what would become Walt’s favorite song in the Disney catalogue…”Feed The Birds.”
The movie was everything Walt hoped it would be, and more. Critics called it his “crowning achievement”. Legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn told Walt, “You have made a great many pictures that have touched the hearts of the world. But you’ve never made one so completely the fulfillment of everything a great motion picture should be.”
It would be nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Walt’s first and only Best Picture nomination. Beyond the critical acclaim, Mary Poppins proved to be a goldmine for Walt, netting $28 million, his most financially successful picture ever. He was now flush with cash, and he had some very big plans for what to do with it.
But Mary Poppins premiered into a very different America than had Snow White, Pinocchio, and even Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty. The baby boomer generation, who had been his best customers when Disneyland opened a decade earlier, had grown up much too fast. They were marching in the streets to protest racial inequality and their country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They smoked pot, had sex freely, and their movies and music were raw, real, and not exactly G-Rated. Suddenly, the gap between Main Street USA and everyday American life felt like it was a thousand miles wide.
Critics were divided on what role Walt was playing in this new world. Some of them still thought he was a creative genius, creating a happy diversion from theses troubled times. Others said he was out of touch. That his art had no edge or substance, and that he had become completely irrelevant. Walt knew about the criticism, but he didn’t pay any attention. He knew what he was all about, and he had plans on the horizon that would change the whole world.
In his opening day Disneyland dedication speech, Walt told us that he had created a world where we could savor “the challenge and promise of the future”. The 1960s were going to be challenging, and many people feared that there was very little in the way of promise. Most people his age worried about over the world they were leaving their grandchildren. But not Walt. He had set his sights on creating a “great big beautiful tomorrow”.
That phrase came from his longtime songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman. It was the title of the theme song for the Carousel of Progress, one of four attractions that he would take to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was a big, bold, musical number featuring a rotating theater that would take audiences through more than a century of technological innovation.
Also featured at the fair was “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln”, which used a sophisticated audio animatronic version of Walt’s favorite president to tell the story of how Walt’s he bravely held together the bonds of the country during the Civil War. Another piece that he debuted at the fair was “It’s a Small World”, a boat ride that would take guests through all 7 continents as groups of children sang a song of unity in their native tongue.
This attraction was tailor-made for the theme of the World’s Fair, “Peace Through Understanding: Man on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe”. During the course of its 2 year run, the World’s Fair hosted an estimated 51 million people, and Walt’s pavilions were some of the most visited. If the cynics were wondering whether Disney was still relevant in the 1960s, they had their answer.
But as big as the World’s Fair was, Walt had set his sights on something even bigger. He had taken his massive profits from Mary Poppins and he began forming dummy corporations to buy up massive plots of land in central Florida. The media took notice; some even theorized that the companies were a smokescreen for NASA. When Walt went public with the announcement about his Florida project, the company owned 27,000 acres, 170 times the size of Disneyland, bigger in fact, than the island of Manhattan.
In November of 1965, in a press conference with Florida Governor William Burns, he remained cagey with the details of what he had dubbed “Project Future”.
Only a handful of company insiders knew the details of what he was planning: The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or Epcot. Just as the name implies, Walt intended to create his very own city. His plan called for a high density urban center in the middle of the city surrounded by hotels and business offices. Beyond that, a huge greenbelt for recreation and entertainment. And beyond that, a low-density residential area with houses and schools. Gluing it all together would be the most extensive and efficient public transportation system ever devised.
Every major company in the United States would have a research and development lab at Epcot. Ford would be next door to General Electric, who would be next door to Boeing, and so on. This would allow companies to work together for maximum efficiency and progress. Walt was doing what he did best: creating his own world. This time, on a grander scale than ever before. It would be community of tomorrow that would be a prototype for the whole country. Maybe even the whole world.
In the summer of 1966, in the midst of this larger-than-life project, Walt treated himself to something that had always lifted his spirits, but that he rarely allowed himself to have. A vacation. He borrowed a friend’s yacht, and spent two weeks cruising the coast of Canada and Alaska with Lillian, Sharon, Diane, and all his grandchildren. His bedroom was right next to Diane’s, and she was alarmed to hear him coughing all through the night. Walt gave no indication that anything was wrong. He had fun on his little cruise with his big, happy family. He exclaimed, “We have to do this more often!”
A few months later, on October 27, 1966, Walt spent all day on a soundstage at the Burbank studio hosting a television special about the Florida project in general, and EPCOT in particular. In it, he debuted his grand vision to the world.
But behind the scenes, it was a different story. The strenuous effort of the shoot ran Walt down so badly that he needed oxygen between takes to keep from collapsing.
Walt was in bad shape. His neck, back, and hips ached terribly, and he was even beginning to have trouble walking. “My nerves are shot to hell” he told his nurse and companion Hazel George “and the pain is driving me nuts”. He finally gave in and scheduled spinal surgery at St. Joseph’s hospital, across the street from the Burbank studio. In early November 1966, he checked in for a pre-operative check-up. But the doctors found something on the X-ray that was much more troubling than an injured neck; a large mass on one of his lungs.
The diagnosis was bad. Cancer. The prognosis was worse. Walt had anticipated that he would have years to bring his Florida project and EPCOT vision to life. Maybe even decades. As it turned out, Walt Disney would be gone in just six weeks.
Join us next week as we look at the end of Walt’s life, and his still growing impact on the world we live in, even today.