Foundersland: The Walt Disney I Knew

By Marty Sklar, Founder, Past President, Chairman Leadership Council

Many of you are aware that The Walt Disney Company has been one of the most important supporters of Ryman Arts. In fact, The Disney Foundation (as it was then called) was the very first foundation to contribute to our program 25 years ago, recognizing the need for more opportunities in the arts for Southern California students.

It was, in fact, my role as a Ryman Arts founder to request this support from Frank Wells, then the President of The Walt Disney Company. I never considered my own Disney role at that time, as President of Walt Disney Imagineering, to be a conflict. In fact, improving the skills of young people interested in the creative arts is absolutely of continual importance to Disney and the Imagineers.

So – now you know the Ryman Arts “Disney Connection” – and part of my own Disney experience. There is one other – perhaps the most important – experience from my Disney career that I want to write about today. That is the ten years I spent writing personal material for Walt Disney.

That’s why I have been asked many times what I thought of the recent two part PBS show about Walt as part of “The American Experience” series. Because it was two nights, and four hours long, you may not have seen it all. The first half covered the early years of Walt Disney’s building his company, and creating the very first full length animated film – “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.” The first night concluded on a low point in Walt’s career – the animators’ strike against the Studio in 1941.

Since I was seven years old at the time, I will not attempt to comment on that Disney period. But if you watched Part 2 of the program, the second night, you did see me commenting on my experience that began 14 years later in June, 1955 – one month before Disneyland’s Opening Day – July 17, 1955.

It was not surprising to me that my fellow Disney Legends who appeared on the program all spoke about how inspiring – and how clear and concise – Walt Disney’s leadership was in the creation of films, TV shows, animation and of course, Disneyland in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. As animator Floyd Norman wrote afterward, “Walt Disney always got directly to the point … you always knew what was expected of you.”

The clarity of songwriter-lyricist Richard Sherman’s remarks was especially noteworthy – and very familiar to me. The praise from Walt that Richard and his brother, Robert, received – even for songs like “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” from “Mary Poppins” that won an Academy Award – was usually: “That’ll work.” And we all lived for that simple praise!

For me, the inspiration in my work with Walt Disney can be characterized by three words. The first was trust. Once Walt knew what you could do – how your talent fit into the project we were working on – you had lots of room to spread your wings – lots of opportunity to “play” on the big stage, which in those days was Disneyland and the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Just as important was Walt’s drive to create new adventures like Walt Disney World – the “wienie” (as Walt might say) we were all working toward when he passed away. This was Walt the inspiration – always making it clear that what we did yesterday would never be good enough again: he was moving on to new accomplishments, new attractions, new places. That meant that you had to grow – learn new things – raise the level of your game – learn more – do new tricks – create new fun for our guests. We all loved it!

And finally, there was Walt’s optimism, expressed in so many things, but none more illustrative than his concept for Epcot – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was his last great passion and final great conception – and my great thrill to write the script for Walt Disney’s very last appearance on film, in late October, 1966, less than two months before he died on December 15. Here it all came together: his inspiration, his optimism for the future, and his trust in me. I still treasure the seven pages of notes I have from my one-on-one meetings in Walt’s office to discuss the Epcot film. He made it so easy for me to write the script – all I had to do was go back to those notes – that “bible” – when I needed the right word or phrase.

So – did the PBS “American Experience” truly capture the Walt Disney I knew? Impossible! Not in four hours – not in four days – not even in the 60 years of Disneyland we celebrate this year. Walt was not an enigma – he was front and center on your television screen every Sunday night. The “American Experience” TV show “gave us warts and all,” Floyd Norman wrote, “but they did not give us Walt Disney.”

“Walt Disney was a simple farm boy whose scrappy determination helped him realize the American dream,” Floyd wrote. “He was an entertainer, visionary and an idealist. He loved people and was free of pretension. Walt Disney was authentic. He was everything good about the common man.”

Amen to that!