book review: A Disney Book You Don’t Know About…And Others You Should

I’ve run out of shelf space for books relating to the life, career, and films of Walt Disney, but it seems there are always more coming along—and a surprising number of them have worthwhile new material to share. But the one even I didn’t know about was published some months ago by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. When you visit the Museum—which you absolutely should—you’ll find that photographs are not allowed inside the exhibit rooms. That’s why there’s a handsome book called Picturing The Walt Disney Family Museum with photography by Jim Smith, text by Richard Benefield, and an introduction by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. It’s the next best thing to actually walking through the galleries that trace—

—Walt’s remarkable life and work. There’s so much to take in that it’s almost overwhelming, so having a book that enables one to linger over a precious artifact (say, some Three Little Pigs wind-up toys, or Walt’s personal copy of Mary Poppins inscribed by P.L. Travers) and step back, figuratively speaking, and admire the ingenious design of the galleries themselves is a welcome idea. As far as I know the only place to purchase this book is the Museum’s online store. You’ll find a few other items for sale, including replicas of the first Mickey and Minnie dolls ever marketed and a guide to the Museum galleries written by J.B. Kaufman and Diane Disney Miller.

Just off the press is a book I was able to see in its nascent form some time ago when Timothy S. Susanin, an attorney with a keen interest in Disney, sent me some of his voluminous research about Walt Disney’s life in Kansas City. His keen interest and eye for detail has spurred him to dig deeper than anyone else ever has. For instance, records show that after returning from France, where he drove a Red Cross ambulance in the months following World War One, Walt’s first job was working for Gray Advertising Company. No one has written anything about the firm that hired the teenaged artist—until now. In the same vein, we know that Disney’s earliest films were screened at the Newman Theater—but I never knew that Walt helped to illustrate the program book given away at that picture palace. (You can see one of them in the book’s selection of rare photos and illustrations.) Timothy’s closeup look at these formative years impressed Walt’s daughter so much that she agreed to write a foreword to his new book, Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years 1919-1928 (University Press of Mississippi). What’s more, he’s received a hearty endorsement from Dave Smith, the Disney studio’s longtime archivist. And if it’s good enough for Dave, it’s certainly good enough for me.

Herb Ryman, who famously drew up the first plans for Disneyland, told animation enthusiast Don Peri, “…each person you interview will have a little part of the puzzle, the jigsaw puzzle, that goes into the portrait of Walt Disney.” Peri published his first collection of conversations with Disney artists three years ago under the title Working with Walt. Now he’s back with a followup volume, Working With Disney: Interviews With Animators, Producers, And Artists (University Press of Mississippi). He casts a wide net here, ranging from legendary animators to a pair of Mouseketeers and a charter Disneyland employee. (For the record, the other interviewees are Xavier Atencio, Sharon Baird, Joyce Belanger, Bobby Burgess, John Catone, Marc Davis, Gilles “Frenchy” de Trémaudan, Lou Debney, Van France, Dave Hand, Ollie Johnston, Bill Justice, Walter Lantz, Lance Nolley, and Frank Thomas.) They all have stories to tell, although some are more loquacious and informative than others. Oddly enough, I found the most compelling reading to be the chapters featuring three animators who were interviewed more than almost any others about their time at Disney: Johnston, Thomas, and Davis, who were part of that legendary group known as the Nine Old Men.

Davis talks about the creative energy at the studio in the late 1930s, and Walt’s stewardship of the team back then: “Every day, somebody did something that hadn’t been done before. This was the excitement. This was the thing that excited Walt, and he began to see things materialize. And he was always asking for more. Once you learned how to do something very well, you were never asked to do that again. You were asked to do something else. This was a tremendous challenge that only a man like him would ask for. This was a man who visually, I guess you could say, to the public had to be the most conservative man in the world, but he was anything but conservative. He was a gambler, but he also believed in himself and he believed in what he wanted to do.”

Naturally, there are other fine books where you can read about the Nine Old Men, but it’s interesting to have their comments alongside others who worked with Walt in a variety of other functions over the years. Best of all, Peri knows the right questions to ask—and the right followup questions, too.

Finally, I was pleased to learn that Jack Lindquist’s book In Service to the Mouse, which I first wrote about last year, has gone back to press. This is a valuable memoir by a man who “accidentally” became the first President of Disneyland. Written in collaboration with Melinda J. Combs, the book is a joint project of Chapman University Press and Neverland Media. If you’re a Disneyland fanatic—and there are many such people—consider this a must-read.

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April 2024