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Walt in Honolulu, 1934

Where Walt Was: Honolulu, August 1934

By Michael Barrier

[Click here to go a March 2, 2008, update to this piece.]

I published this photo of Walt Disney last October 15 [2007], and I asked for help then in identifying the date and place it was taken. Almost immediately, I heard from two visitors to the site, David Lesjak and Patrick Jenkins, who identified the military officer at Walt's right as a member of the U.S. Army's Hawaiian department. I published their comments on October 16, with a followup on October 21. The lingering question was, what event was it that would have had Walt present in the company of a high-ranking army officer?

Now I think I know, after spending a little time with microfilm of the Honolulu Advertiser, a morning newspaper, for August 1934.

I already knew, from Los Angeles Times articles of August 10 and 11, 1934, that Walt and Lillian Disney sailed for Hawaii (with a stop in San Francisco) on the 10th, on the Matson liner Lurline. It was their first visit to the islands. The Lurline arrived in Honolulu the morning of Thursday, August 16.

Walt's arrival in the islands was big news, rating a headline at the top of the Advertiser's August 17 front page, accompanied by photos of both Walt and Lilly. "He had no sooner set foot ashore," the newspaper said, "than he was besieged with invitations to go here, go there; to meet this one and do that for someone else." Walt insisted at first that he wasn't interested. "I don't want to do anything except to lie on the beach in the sun and wiggle my toes in the sand," he told the Advertiser.

Hawaii sketchBut, as the newspaper reported in that same issue, in a second front-page story, Walt quickly changed his mind. He and Lilly were scheduled to spend only one night in Honolulu before sailing to Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, on Friday night. Instead, Walt decided to stay in Honolulu until the following Tuesday, so that he could attend a charity event on Saturday, August 18: the opening game of the army's baseball championship series between teams from Fort Shafter and Wheeler Field, an event that was to include not just the game but aerial acrobatics by army pilots. The Disneys would not leave for Hilo until the following Tuesday.

It was to publicize the game that Walt made the drawing of Mickey Mouse at the right. As the Advertiser reported:

Someone suggested that Disney make a sketch of Mickey in connection with the game. The only drawback as far as the cartoonist was concerned was the finding of drawing material.

The problem was overcome when Brig.-Gen. Robert S. Abernethy sent his car to the Royal Hawaiian hotel for Disney, drawing materials having been located in the cabinet of Mr. Sgt. Charles Ross, master gunner at the Hawaiian Separate Coast Artillery Brigade Headquarters, Ft. de Russy.

As John Patton suggested last October, that is probably General Abernethy at Walt's right. I think it most likely that the photo was taken that Saturday afternoon, at the army championship game, although I haven't yet found anything confirming Walt's attendance.

Either because of the change in his schedule or as another reason for it, Walt agreed to appear in person at Honolulu's Princess theater at 10 a.m. Saturday, before the ball game, for the regular meeting of one of the many "Mickey Mouse Clubs" that were then popular with children across the United States. The program was also to include cartoons, a Buck Jones serial episode, and a performance of some kind by "pretty little Vera Ferne," also known as "Miss Acrobat."

The crowd of children and parents that turned out to see Walt was so huge that it spilled over to a second theater, the Liberty. Walt appeared at both. The Advertiser reported the next day:

He asked the quiet thrilled audience who hung on to his every word, "Would you like Mickey to come to Honolulu on a surf board?" Did that audience yell? Did they take off the roof? You may well imagine the applause. Disney said, "I am pleased and happy to be here. I am glad to see this enthusiasm for 'Mickey.' When I go back I will make a 'Mickey' on a surf board as I have been on and off one since coming here, and I know just how he feels."

It was of course Goofy who struggled with a surfboard a few years later in Hawaiian Holiday, but here perhaps was the genesis of that episode, and of the cartoon itself, in Walt and Lilly's first visit to the islands.

I found no more articles about Walt's visit, but if the Disneys followed the schedule published upon their arrival in Honolulu, they sailed for Hilo on Tuesday, August 21, returned to Honolulu on August 23, and began their return voyage aboard the Matson liner Malolo on Saturday, August 25. The California passenger and crew lists from 1893-1957, at the National Archives and online at ancestry.com, show them returning to Los Angeles aboard the Malolo on September 1.

I'll be checking more microfilm later this year, and I hope to flesh out this account of Walt's visit to Hawaii and perhaps establish with certainty that the photo was taken at the baseball game. This is, by the way, an example of the limitations of having "complete access to the Walt Disney Archives." The Disney Archives has no record of this trip.

More on Walt in Hawaii

Diane Disney Miller, Walt and Lillian Disney's daughter, wrote after reading this piece about her parents' August 1934 visit to Honolulu:

It answers some questions we've had about some film footage in our family film archive. My parents are in Hawaii, and are with a lot of very fashionably dressed people at what I thought must be a polo game, but it would be the baseball game you mention. There are a significant number of military people...even, as I recall, a parade of sorts. Must be the air show. I am amazed the way you pursue things. I really enjoy the article, because I believe dad just wanted to sit on the beach...for a while, anyway. Thank God they brought some nice clothes along...but we used to travel that way, on the Lurline, at the Royal Hawaiian.

...And Still More

Since posting this piece, I've had the opportunity to review microfilm of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, an afternoon paper, from August 1934. The Disneys' arrival in Hawaii on August 16 was big news in the Star-Bulletin as well as the Advertiser, rating a front-page photo of Walt and Lilly and a front-page story in that day's paper.

The Star-Bulletin (which didn't publish on Sunday) ran another front-page photo of the Disneys on Monday, August 20, showing them at the army baseball game on August 18, with a female spectator seated between them. The Advertiser didn't report Walt's presence at the ball game, so I was particularly pleased to find this confirmation in the Star-Bulletin that he did attend.

As noted in my original version, the Disneys were supposed to sail for Hilo on Tuesday, August 21, and return to Honolulu on Thursday, August 23, but they evidently canceled that side trip (which would have been pointlessly brief) and stayed on Oahu. The Star-Bulletin reported on August 23 that Walt, in the company of a Texas congressman, had gone that day to Fort Shafter "to witness a thorough demonstration of modern antiaircraft equipment." General Abernethy was also present, and assuming that is him with Walt in the photo above, the photo may have been taken during the antiaircraft demonstration, and not at the baseball game. But it was certainly taken during the 1934 visit to Hawaii.

The Star-Bulletin did not take special note of the Disneys' departure on Saturday, August 25, on the Malolo, but that was no surprise: to judge from the coverage in the Honolulu newspapers that month, arrivals rather than departures were the big news in Honolulu.

[Posted January 24, 2008; revised March 2, 2008]