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ESSAYS 

November and December in Disney History 

The two most momentous months in the life of Walt Disney and his immediate family. 

By Garry Apgar 

Early MickeyOn November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse made his triumphal debut as “Steamboat Willie” in New York City at the Colony Theatre on Broadway at West 53rd Street, ten blocks north of Times Square. Six years later, on November 29, 1934, a giant Mickey balloon built by the Goodyear Blimp Company marched up Broadway for the first time in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—passing by the Colony en route. When Fantasia was released in New York, November 13, 1940, it would play at the very same venue, by then renamed the Broadway Theatre. 

In a strictly personal sense, the month of December looms even larger in Disney history. Walt was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901. Two of his three brothers, Herbert and Raymond, and younger sister Ruth, were born in December. Only Roy O. Disney, among the five Disney siblings, broke the pattern (he was born June 24, 1893). 

In one of a series of annual birthday letters to his beloved sister Ruth, dated December 6, 1958 (posted by Jim Korkis earlier this year on MousePlanet), Walt remarked:

It seems to me that you and I have become another year older with unusual swiftness—it couldn’t have been a year since I sent birthday wishes to you—but the calendar says so and here I am again. 

Six years later, in 1964, Walt wrote: 

December has rolled around again and somebody is sure to remember it is also birthday time. I plan to do all I can to ignore December 5 [Walt’s birthday] and will not mention December 6 [Ruth’s] except to offer the enclosed [a check] to help make it as nice a day as possible. 

Birthday wishes, by then, also were coming due to Walt and Lillian Disney’s two daughters, Diane Disney Miller and Sharon Disney Brown, born on December 18, 1933 and December 31, 1936, respectively. 

Alas, December was not limited to tidings of joy. Walt died in 1966 in that month, on the 15th, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, a stone's throw from the Disney studio. His faithful brother and longtime partner in building the Disney entertainment empire, Roy, died December 20, 1971 (at St. Joseph’s), and Lillian passed away on December 16, 1997 (at her home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles). Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, likewise died on the 16th, in 2009. 

Walt, Roy, Lillian, Sharon, Roy’s wife Edna, and Walt and Roy’s parents, Elias and Flora Disney, all are interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

November and December were important not just in purely personal terms, they were linked as well to Walt’s first full-length biography: The Story of Walt Disney, by Pete Martin (1901-1980), the veteran writer and associate editor at the Saturday Evening Post. When it was published, The Story of Walt Disney was credited to Diane Disney Miller, “as told to Pete Martin.” However, in a prefatory note to a 2005 Disney Editions reprint of the text, Diane unequivocally stated that it had been “wholly written by Mr. Martin, based on hours of taped interviews with my dad, Walt Disney.” 

Major portions of the Martin-Miller bio first appeared in print in serialized form as “My Dad, Walt Disney” in the Saturday Evening Post, starting with the November 17, 1956 edition, and running weekly through all four issues in December, with an eighth and final installment on January 5, 1957. 

Walt and Diane with Pete Martin

A background piece titled “How They Evolved the Story of Walt Disney,” in the November 17th issue (posted online by Hans Perk in 2008), described a meeting at the Disney estate in Holmby Hills involving Walt, Diane, and Pete Martin (above). Walt was quoted telling Martin, “I’ve been written up a great many times, but this is the first time the warm, intimate, true story has come through.” 

Disney covers

The first issue in the series featured a cover design (above, left) by the Swedish-born painter-illustrator Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970). The original painting (above, center) is now in the collections of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. 

Tenggren had been hired by Walt in 1936 as an inspirational sketch artist to work on Snow White. His concept drawings for Pinocchio were key to shaping the widely admired Old-World look of that Disney animated classic. According to Gunnar Andreassen, Tenggren departed the studio January 14, 1939 (before the release of Pinocchio). In his chapter on Tenggren in Before the Animation Begins, John Canemaker speculates that Tenggren “may have been disgruntled over his low salary.” There had also been what Canemaker calls a “mini-scandal involving the artist and an underage female” at the studio, so it is unlikely Walt had anything to with getting the Post to give Tenggren this plum, well-paid assignment. In fact, according to a second background piece in the same November 17 issue of the Post, titled “Inside Information on the Disney Cover,” it was the magazine’s art editor, wholly on his own, who made that decision: 

One day, when he was supposed to be eating his lunch, Art Editor Ken Stuart sketched a design for this week’s Walt Disney cover on his napkin. When it came time to select a painter, he remembered that Gustaf Tenggren, world-famous illustrator of children’s books, especially of the fairy-tale genre, had some years ago worked with Disney on phases of the exquisite Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia films.

Stuart had to search around some to locate Tenggren, as fairy-tale illustrations have been a little out of the Post’s line. Presently pinpointing the illustrator and his charming wife living in a 115-year-old house on an island off the Maine coast (there’s a bridge), he sent the painter his design, but not on the napkin. Three weeks later, in came the painting; Tenggren had had a grand time doing it.

The Saturday Evening Post series was promoted in an ad published in the Boston Globe, on November 13, 1956 (above, right). 

Disney book covers

The biography itself (above, left) did not come out until almost a year later. An ad by the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, placed in the Chicago Tribune (above, center left), on December 1, 1957, probably coincided with the book’s release.

A British edition (above, center right), re-titled for the U. K. market Walt Disney: An intimate biography by his daughter, was published in London by Odhams Press Limited, presumably in the fall of 1958 (it was reviewed in the October 25, 1958 edition of the trade magazine, Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record of British and Foreign Literature). An American paperback edition by Dell was published in February 1959 (above, far right), with a new subtitle: The Story of Walt Disney: A fabulous rags-to-riches saga

The cover art for all American editions of the Martin-Miller biography, it should be pointed out, was provided by, not Gustaf Tenggren, but a long-time Disney employee very much in Walt’s good graces, Al Dempster (1911-2011). Dempster had begun his career at the studio doing background art for Fantasia, and was a “serious” artist on the side. Walt owned a half dozen works by Dempster, which hung on the walls of his house. In September 1970, Dempster, along with concept artist Mary Blair, and another studio employee, Blaine Gibson, who later modeled the bronze monument of Walt and Mickey now sited at the end of Main Street in all the Disney parks, displayed some of their work in an exhibition entitled “Three Dimensions,” a charity show for the benefit of the California Institute of the Arts, which had been founded in the mid-1960s by Walt. 

The cover design for the English edition of the Martin-Miller bio, incidentally, used as its central image a photograph of Walt by George Hurrell (1904-1992), one of the great Hollywood studio photographers. Hurrell is now best known for his glamorous portraits of stars like Ramon Navarro, Clark Gable and, most notably, Norma Shearer. 

Hurrell photo, front and backBull photo of Walt

Hurrell started taking photos of Walt around 1940 (above, left and center), following in the wake of the even more renowned MGM stills photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979), remembered today, especially, for the countless shots he took of Greta Garbo. Bull had been Walt’s de facto “house photographer” throughout the 1930s. The photo used for the April 5, 1930, issue of the English publication, Pictorial Weekly (above, right), may well date from Bull’s first photo session with Walt, circa late 1929-early 1930. 

It was probably through his relationship with Walt that Hurrell met his second wife, Phyllis Bounds, who was Lillian Disney’s niece (George and Phyllis were married from 1943 to 1950). Whereas Bull must have shot dozens of different poses of Disney (including a number of family portraits), Hurrell probably shot hundreds over the course of the next 15 or 20 years, more than another other single photographer.

A former staff artist on the Roanoke Times in Virginia, and free-lance cartoonist, Garry Apgar is an art historian (Yale, 1988) who's taught at the University of Delaware, Brown, Princeton, the Université de Lyon, and Southern Connecticut State University. His monograph, L'art singulier de Jean Huber: Voir Voltaire (Paris, Adam Biro), was published in 1995. He also wrote the principal essay, “Signs of the Times: Print News Imagery in the Visual Arts,” for The Newspaper in Art (New Media Ventures, 1996). The University Press of Mississippi will publish an anthology he has edited, A Mickey Mouse Reader, in 2013.

[Posted December 8, 2012]

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