With the recent passing of Dave Smith, the Walt Disney Company’s longtime archivist—a position he created for himself back in 1970—a flood of memories came to mind. Dave was unfailingly kind and generous to me and hundreds of other writers and researchers over the years. His book Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia is one of my most-consulted reference volumes. But the first thing I thought about was an unforgettable article he wrote in 1981 for The Manuscript Society about Walt’s famous signature. I’m grateful to The Society (www.manuscript.com) for permission to reprint it here, and to Dave’s successor, Rebecca Cline, for making it possible to do so. All illustrations appear courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives. I have excised Dave’s introductory recap of Walt Disney’s career, which our readers already know.
The Most Recognizable Signature in the World
By David R. Smith
There are probably many Americans who are familiar with John Hancock’s elaborate signature and paraph which he affixed to the Declaration of Independence. And the signatures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas A. Edison are familiar to some people. But it is neither a statesman nor an inventor whose signature is the most recognizable of all. It is Walter Elias Disney…
It did not take long after the introduction of Mickey Mouse in 1928 for Walt Disney to rise to fame. The Mickey Mouse cartoons were extremely popular, and soon Mickey Mouse was known in the four comers of the world. To help promote the cartoon character, and to maintain a public awareness of him, story books, comic books, comic strips, and magazines were published. The first Mickey Mouse book and comic strip appeared in the United States in 1930; the first comic magazine in Italy in 1932. While Walt Disney did not actually draw Mickey himself, King Features Syndicate, which distributed the comic strip, and the book publishers felt that one name should be promoted in conjunction with the character, and that name was Walt Disney. Soon, a Walt Disney signature logo, based by artists on Walt Disney’s actual signature, was being widely used. Comic buyers not only in the U.S., but in Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and Asia were able to recognize the Disney publications by the distinctive signature logo.
As Walt Disney became prominent, he naturally became the target of autograph seekers. The Disney signature usually turns up today on three different types of material:
1. On photographs—Walt Disney kept a stock of 8×10 black and white matte finish portraits in his office, and he would often sign one of these when requested by a visitor. He favored shots featuring him posing at his desk with dogs, cats, tigers, or other animals; these stills usually came from the lead-ins which Walt Disney regularly filmed for his television series. Most often, the photographs were inscribed to the requester.
2. On books—Walt Disney was always willing to autograph one of the Disney books, and these turn up quite frequently. Probably the most popular books for this purpose were Robert Feild’s The Art of Walt Disney(1942) and Deems Taylor’s Fantasia (1940). In 1957, Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, wrote a biography of her father entitled The Story of Walt Disney. For a while after the opening of Disneyland, copies of this book, autographed by both Diane and her father, were offered for sale by mail order for $4.30. Bob Thomas’ The Art of Animation is also often found with Walt Disney’s signature.
3. On artwork—Occasionally in response to requests Walt Disney would send a piece of original Disney artwork, which he would autograph on the mat. In early years (the 1930’s or 1940’s) this might consist of comic strip art or a painted celluloid (“cel”) actually used in one of the Disney films. In later years, a dye transfer print of a famous scene from one of the films would usually be substituted.
Naturally, there are other forms in which Walt Disney’s signature appears on the market. These include letters (a few ALS’s have surfaced from the 1920’s and early 1930’s, but most are TLS’s), checks (after about 1935 his secretary signed most of Disney’s checks with her own name), stock certificates, and even napkins, envelopes, theater programs, menus, and scraps of paper handed to Disney by the lucky autograph seeker who might happen upon him in public.
Walt Disney was not bothered much by autograph seekers until 1954, when he went onto television as on-camera host of a weekly show. Then people began to recognize him and he found it more difficult to go shopping, out to dinner, to the theater, or even to stroll unnoticed around Disneyland without being ac costed. My own first contact with Walt Disney came at Disneyland. 1 was visiting the park, as a teenager, with a cousin. Since I was a regular viewer of the Disney television show, 1 knew what Walt Disney looked like, and that day we were surprised to see him strolling over the Sleeping Beauty Castle’s drawbridge into Fantasyland. Naturally, my first thought was that I would like to get his autograph, but after frantically searching my pockets, I realized I did not have a pen or pencil. Rushing in to the nearest shop I could find, which happened to be a magic shop, I purchased the only writing implement available, a foot-long pencil. Running back outside I confronted Mr. Disney, only to be politely refused. Mr. Disney explained to me that it always caused problems when he started signing autographs; a crowd would form and he could never get away to do his work. I learned later that he would often ask fans to write to his office instead, and he would mail them an autograph. Until the mid-1950s Walt Disney signed most of his autographs himself. Diane Disney Miller once remarked to me that her father took great pride in his signature, and he would make a big production out of signing it. His hand would start moving the pen in circles even before it reached the paper. Disney’s secretaries had a system worked out. Every day they would place the photographs, books, or other items to be autographed on the desk in his formal office (he used a separate office for his daily work). Each would have a note attached mentioning whom the autograph was for, and whether it was an employee, a film exhibitor, a merchandise licensee, or whomever. As a ritual, just before he left the office for the day, he would sit at the desk, and with a flourish sign each of the autographs. Disney Studio staffers were upset when Richard Schickel in his biography. The Disney Version, reported that Disney “could not accurately duplicate the familiar ‘Walt Disney’ signature that appeared as a trademark on all his products,” when actually the logo was simply an artist’s copy of Disney s own signature. Schickel also noted that Disney was never able to draw Mickey Mouse, but this is also untrue as he would occasionally dash off a rough Mickey sketch for an admirer.
Walt Disney continued signing autographs until he died, but there were times when others were called upon to help out, and this is where collectors have problems. From the 1930’s on, when a special drawing was prepared to send out, it was usually signed, with Disney’s name, by the artist. The artists primarily involved with these special drawings (for a V. I. P., charity auction, special anniversary) included Hank Porter, Ted Thwaites, Floyd Gottfredson, Al Taliaferro, Dick Moores, and Manuel Gonzales. In the mid-1950’s, Bob Moore, now head of creative services in the Studios Publicity Department, was asked to sign Walt Disney’s autograph when Disney was too busy, out of town, or otherwise unavailable. It was at this time that Disney’s workload grew tremendously, as the company became involved in television, live action films, and Disneyland along with animated cartoons. Bob Moore could very accurately duplicate Disney’s signature, while the other artists, like Gottfredson, admitted that they merely tried to catch the spirit of the signature rather than attempt a copy. Walt Disney’s signature varied during his lifetime, as do most of our signatures. As he grew older, it became more flowery and less legible. There were printed versions (more closely approximating the logo) and script versions, though he tended to use the script version. In later years, he increasingly used a red grease pencil instead of pen and ink for his autographs. Accompanying this article are a number of examples of Walt Disney signatures, both authentic and those signed by amanuenses. They may help to clear up some of the mysteries of the Disney signature. Walt Disney was practically unique in having his signature become a logo for a company. Because of the proliferation of Disney products on both the domestic and international markets, the Disney signature logo has an extremely high recognition factor. In fact, it can probably be safely said that the Walt Disney signature has become the most recognizable in the world.
P.S. by Leonard Maltin
Some years ago a good friend brought Dave a copy of a children’s book supposedly inscribed to a youthful fan. Dave took one look and told him that it looked like the work of Bob Moore. My discouraged friend asked if he was certain. Dave suggested they consult Bob himself, and strolled down to his office. The artist took a glance, then insisted they take it away and he duplicated the inscription: “To Sally, best wishes from Walt Disney.” It was exactly the same.
Years afterward my wife spotted a Pinocchio cel at a flea market with Walt’s signature on the mat. We purchased it for a very reasonable price, knowing that the autograph was probably bogus. Dave verified our suspicion. At least we didn’t pay a fortune for it!