Happy Birthday to Walt Disney, born on this day 114 years ago. I've written little on here about him or his films, but he remains, for all his flaws, one of my heroes.
This is an undated article by Ray Bradbury (another of my heroes) that was finally published in the 2006 collection, Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars. I think it's one of the best, most infectious things ever written about Walt Disney, animation, and for that matter, theme parks. I couldn't find it on the internet anywhere, so I figured copyright be damned, I'm going to just post it here.
I have imagined but failed so far to sell the Smithsonian on allowing me to fabricate and shock to life a series of garages with shut doors. Open the first set of doors and you find Henry Ford shunted under his first car, busy at repairs. Shut the doors. Move on to the next garage, open wide. Two bicycle repairmen within add wings to their bike and sail it over Kitty Hawk. Other doors open to discover Theodor von Karman and his Caltech students inventing the Jet Propulsion Lab to take us to Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, and beyond. Yet another door opening, and a young chap named Wozniak is blueprinting and wiring an Apple as big as the world.
Now, quickly, back to Garage Number Three, which we have not as yet opened. Open it.
Inside, a man with a mustache, drawing a mouse.
A mouse that one day would stand astride the world.
Born in a garage in Glendale, California, in 1922.
The man is Walt Disney.
Shall I tell you how I first met him and what happened then?
Yes. But first encounters first. Sometime in 1928 in a dark theater in Waukegan, Illinois, I saw the Disney Studio’s wondrous sound film Steamboat Willie. That was super, but what happened soon after rooted me, walking backward in the dark.
It was a five-minute lighting bolt that knocked the soul out of my eight-year-old body and vacuumed it back in, bright, clean, refurbished, hyperventilated, new. I loitered all day in the Genesee Theatre just to see that incredible five minutes of drawn terror and delight reinvent itself on the vast screen. Those skeleton acrobats, catapulting their bones about a graveyard and bounding out of tombs and shoving their skulls at a special boy in the front row center, caused him to sit through two performances of some dumb Adolphe Menjou let’s kiss again and cause a run on disgusted boys bolting back and forth to the men’s room and drinking more pop to make more pee. In the middle of this racetrack routine, having seen the skeletons perambulate in syncopation for the third time, my father appeared and dragged me babbling home to a cool reception and a cool dinner.
I joined the Mickey Mouse Club not long after, and every Saturday for four or five years saw ever Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony ever made, at least twice each matinee. I had been there when Disney added sound and music to his cartoons. I was there when he painted the cels and added color.
I was there opening day in Los Angeles to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, eight times in the first two weeks, paying twice, the remainder sneak-ins.
I was the nineteen-year-old newsboy selling the Herald every afternoon for a year in 1940 raising a fist and shouting at God, “If you let a car kill me here in traffic before Fantasia opens, you’re in big trouble!” I lived in terror of being struck dead before I had seen the greatest film in world history. My judgment was right. It was. Give or take some room for Citizen Kane.
It’s been the long way ‘round to my meeting Disney. Thanks for waiting. Here he comes.
At Christmas in 1964, I was wandering through I. Magnin’s vast Beverly Hills store when I saw a man advancing up the aisles with his chin tucked over an armload of gifts.
My God, I thought, my hero!
The Mouse Maker of skeletons and ducks and dragons himself.
I dashed up to him and cried, “Mr. Disney?”
“Yes?” he said.
“My name is Ray Bradbury.”
“I know your books,” said Walt.
“Thank God,” I said.
“Why?” said Walt.
“Because someday soon,” I said, “I want to take you to lunch.”
There was a long pause while Disney took a breath, smiled, and replied, “Tomorrow?”
Tomorrow. My God, when was the last time you heard someone say that? It’s usually next week, next month, next year. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. But . . .
And tomorrow it was, seated at a card table in his studio office, devouring soup and salad and babbling. His was quiet, mine was loud. I lived the hour, tasting nothing, my homegrown skeleton rattling with joy every time Walt asked a question or served an answer.
We talked a dozen things in one hour. I had been warned by Walt’s secretary that I must leave promptly at one, as his was a busy schedule. So we ran up and down lists of loves and hates. Above all, we hated people who put up world’s fairs one year and ripped them down twenty months later. Why not leave one up forever to recharge batteries young and old, spin people through what I called Schweitzer’s centrifuge, which meant Do something wonderful, someone may imitate it. World’s fairs, with museums, were the concrete realizations of impossible dreams. Their purpose to so stun you with the past that you spun in circles in the present and charged off to revamp the Future. I had already contributed to such an overflow of ideas and rambunctious creative behavior by writing a four-hundred-year history of the United States, seventeen minutes in length, with narrator and full symphonic orchestra for the United States Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair earlier that year. Walt had seen, heard, and liked my prose poetry declaimed by John McIntire, hence this rattling good lunch. Promptly at one I leaped to my feet, seized his hand, and said good-bye. “Hold on,” said Walt.
And steered me out for a go-round of visits to the then-building People Mover, a new hippo for the Jungle Ride, and an improved Gettysburg-speaking robot Lincoln. When we wandered back into Walt’s office, it was after three, two hours late. His secretary skewered me with her stare. No, I pantomimed, pointing to Walt, him!
How come? Obviously he had X-rayed the skeleton dance in my face, along with Maleficent, more than a hundred Dalmations, the twilight bark, and a clutch of Fantasia dinosaurs lumbering into eternity. He could have read in a dark room by the light in my cheeks. He had to respond to that.
There followed a series of lunches with all the men who had created Snow White, Bambi, and Disneyland itself. They all knew how I had written letters to uncounted magazines defending the Magic Kingdom against the cold marble New York intellectuals whom I challenged to sail just once on the Jungle Boat, where I had traveled with Charles Laughton to watch him transmogrify into Captain Bligh on the instant. I had soared with him over Big Ben at midnight and if it was good enough for Charles Laughton, one of our greatest actors/directors, it was good enough for me.
I watched the blueprinting and laying of the foundations for the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, meanwhile planning and replanning cities and malls in my head. One lunchtime I said that Los Angeles needed a really good creative mayor like Walt. His swift response:
“Why should I be mayor, when I’m already king?”
At our almost final lunch, Walt turned to me and said, “Ray, you’ve done so much for us, what can we do for you?”
Without hesitation I said, “Open the vaults.”
Without hesitation he picked up the phone, dialed a number, and said, “Open the vaults. I’m sending Ray over. Let him take anything he wants.”
Open the vaults! My God! Hurrying, not walking, across the studio street to the archives, I recalled my first days in Los Angeles when I was fourteen, going to the L.A. museum every Sunday at noon to visit one small room where they had laid out, under glass, single animation celluloid panels with images of Skeleton Dance, Steamboat Willie, and Flowers and Trees on display. I devoured these and came back week after week, month after month, for years, loving and desiring to own just one, just one single cel! And here I was on my way to filch and carry, carry and filch, give me some of these, some of those, from the candy store.
In the vaults that lay open, I forgot how to breathe or see, the selection was so vast and historical and life-threatening. I grabbed cels from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi, Fantasia, and not only cels but drawings, sketches, watercolors. I had nothing to carry them in so had the archivist load my arms. Clutching some twenty or thirty pounds of my most dearly dreamed life, I staggered out through the studio gates, fearful of being arrested by some art police, lurched into my taxicab, and drove home, looking back, wondering what was wrong with these people that they didn’t realize I was stealing from the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Washington, D.C., National Gallery.
Years later every single cel that I clutched in my arms towered in value to ten thousand, twenty thousand, or one hundred thousand dollars apiece. One cel alone, the Dwarfs washing their hands in a tub, with fully illustrated background, would have brought two hundred thousand from such as Steven Spielberg, who destroyed the competitive market in the late seventies by throwing a walletful of thousand-dollar bills into the auction.
But then, there, on that day, in that taxi, with me running like a thief in broad daylight, no one cared. I was the rare idiot in the museum stillness, age thirteen, who had devoured, digested, and distilled animation cels directly from eyeballs to heart’s blood. I was the crazed enthusiast who spent all the money I earned, ten bucks a week, to buy tickets to Fantasia in 1940, watching my friends’ faces in the dark, and if they didn’t like the dinosaurs, ostriches, hippos, and that gesticulating Lucifer atop Bald Mountain, off with the friendship! Forever.
I was the one who, at Disneyland, four or five times a year from 1956 to 1964, bought cels for five bucks apiece from trays in Tomorrowland, where they lay neglected by nonappreciative dumbos. I already had one hundred or more cels picked up in an almost free market. Now, with incipient heart failure, I was rocketing home carrying Mona Lisa, Guernica, and The Last Supper. Hell, no, better than that. At home, where the cels still live today, I waited for an archivist’s telephone call to damn well lug back the stolen goods. It never came. I suffered a meltdown of bliss.
Lunches with Walt grew more infrequent. There were rumors of illness and impending mortality. His death, to me, was a death in the family.
Late in 1966 I got a phone call from Richard Schickel, who was writing Walt’s biography. I was supposed to have lunch with Schickel, and on that day he called with the news that Walt was gone. Did I want to cancel lunch? My God, no, I said, there’s all the more reason to see you now, so I can tell all I know about the Mouse and the Mouser. At the end of his book, Schickel quoted Walt’s remark about not being mayor, preferring to be king.
Rumors began immediately that Walt had been flash-frozen, to be opened in another year for some future life.
Nonsense, I protested. His life had been so full and rich and royal he didn’t need to be turned into a 2001 Popsicle.
The lies still persist. So much for royalty.
On the day of Walt’s funeral, CBS Radio telephoned to interview me. My wife answered and on the air, live, told CBS I wasn’t home.
Where was I?
On my way to Disneyland with my four daughters.
When I returned with the kids late at night and heard of my wife’s remarks broadcast on the CBS Network, tears burst from my eyes.
What a grand epitaph for a man who had caught, inspired, and changed my life.
Only for the good.