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"What's New" Archives: December 2012


December 8, 2012:

Two Big Months in Disney History


December 5, 2012:

Walt's 111th


December 8, 2012:

Two Big Months in Disney History

We're just a few days past the 111th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth, and Garry Apgar, editor of the forthcoming Mickey Mouse Reader, a collection of rare historical articles to be published next year by University Press of Mississippi, has noticed how many important Disney-related events have taken place in the last two months of the year. Kinda spooky—well, no, not really, but certainly appropriate, considering that many of us associate "Disney" with Christmas and the warmth and goodwill that we want to feel at this time of year. Garry has contributed an essay, "November and December in Disney History," to this site, and you can read it by clicking on this link.

December 5, 2012:

Walt Disney and Sam Letrone

That's a hen Walt Disney is stroking, a hen held by its owner, the celebrity chef Sam Letrone, in this 1961 photo taken at Pontchartrain, France. Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller is just to the right of Letrone, looking rather dubious about the doves on his sleeve. That's probably Ron's wife (and Walt's daughter) Diane at the far right, with her back to the camera, and it's definitely the Millers' daughter Tamara who is reaching across the table to pet a dove.

Walt's 111th

[If you're really into Disney history, or maybe French cuisine, or maybe just chickens, after reading this post you'll want to scroll down to the updates I posted on December 8 and December 9, 2012.]

Walt Disney was born 111 years ago today. That's not a birthday party photo above, but it's a photo that says something about why so many people still remember Walt, and why they smile at that memory. The photo is dated September 2, 1961; my print came with a "snipe" in French on the back, headed "Who is the star?" This is my translation:

On the way to Paris, Walt Disney went to pay a visit to his old acquaintance and friend Sam, the celebrated restaurateur-troubadour of Pontchartrain, well known not only for the finesse of his cooking but also for the art of training hens and roosters that he presents "as a bonus" to his customers. In this compatible group, to whom must one award the Palm of the "Grande Vedette" [i.e., give star billing]? Is it to the restaurateur-troubadour, the father of Mickey, or the "hen who lays on command"?

Sam Letrone was a celebrity chef of his day, fifty years and more ago; he opened his restaurant in Pontchartrain in 1944. If he were active today, he would undoubtedly be appearing on the Food Network. Here is how his performances with his chickens were described in a photo feature in Life for March 3, 1958:

Guests who ask for an omelet at the restaurant Chez Sam, which is half an hour west of Paris in Pontchartrain, can really crow over the freshness of their eggs. The chef, Sam Letrone, simply calls for his hen Césarine and she delivers the desired egg direct to Sam's frying pan. Dutiful Césarine is just one of the well-trained plumed performers at Sam's hilarious hen parties. Others balance serenely atop a tall column of glassware and serenely puff filter-tip cigarets. ...

[Sam] describes [his training] as partly mesmerism and partly conditioning the chickens' reflexes to react to certain sounds.

Letrone CookbookHe still served chicken at his restaurant, Sam told Life, but only chickens that were "not related to the performers."

I doubt that Sam was ever a candidate for a Michelin star. [Wrong! See below.] He was, however, the nominal author in 1954 of an as-told-to memoir, La Bohème en Toque Blanche (The Bohemian in the Chef's Hat), whose cover drawing depicts him in the company of his trained chickens. It's still readily available from internet dealers in used books, as is what appears to be a later children's book, Le Petit Monde de Maître Sam (The Little World of Master Sam). The snipe refers to him as a "troubadour," and I believe he recorded one or more albums as a singer, but I haven't been able to locate references.

Sam was still in action almost twenty years after he and Walt crossed paths. You can watch him and his chickens in a 1980 YouTube video at this link; embedding is disabled for some reason. His restaurant was by then in Yvelines, a village about five miles southwest of Pontchartrain (which is part of a larger town, or administrative unit, called Jouars-Pontchartrain, if you're looking for it on a map).

Walt Disney read about Sam in that issue of Life (they were almost certainly not "old acquaintances and friends"), and he didn't forget him. More than three years later, on August 17, 1961, he and his wife, Lillian, his daughter, Diane, and her husband, Ron Miller, and three of the Millers' four children sailed from New York on the United States—Walt's first trip to Europe by ship since September 1957. There was a reason he had switched back to a ship from jet travel: he was filming part of one of his live-action features, Bon Voyage, on the United States. The movie's stars, Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman, and other members of the cast were also on board.

In France, the Disneys, Millers, and MacMurrays traveled to Paris by car, stopping at Pontchartrain to dine at Chez Sam. According to Diane Disney Miller, "Ron recalls that dad had read about this in Life ... and made the reservation to go there, giving the instructions to the driver." When the Disneys and Millers arrived at Chez Sam, "we found that Fred and June MacMurray and their 6-year-old twin daughters were there, too, so we shared a large table. An absolutely wonderful memory!!!"

Diane Miller also says: "As Ron recalls, dad, who fancied himself an amateur magician, sensed a sleight of hand movement that was the secret to the hen's trick. I really wasn't aware of all this, probably because I was preoccupied with our children. He must have told Fred about it too. I really didn't know this, and I think it is so ... what shall I say ... really cute.. what's a better word? So Walt."

A couple of things about this episode strike me as being very "Walt." There's his obvious pleasure in caressing the hen with him in the photo, for instance; I have seen Walt with animals in many still pictures and on film, and he invariably seems to be enjoying their company. And then there's the fact that he tucked away his memory of that Life article for several years, until he could make use of it.

Of course, the story would be better if Walt had put Sam and his chickens to work in one of his films or TV shows, and as far as I know, he never did. Or did he? In Chez Sam we have a restaurant whose principal attraction was its trained birds. Does that remind you of a Disneyland attraction that opened a couple of years later, with "Audio-Animatronic" performing birds instead of real ones? I'm speaking of the Enchanted Tiki Room, of course. It's not a restaurant, to be sure—but as is well documented, it was originally planned to be one.

I know that the Enchanted Tiki Room opened in June 1963, but I have no idea when planning for that attraction began or if Walt's memories of Sam's performing poultry played any part in that planning. But I'd certainly like to think so.

[A December 8, 2012, update: Just after I posted this piece, I received from amazon.com a copy of It's Kind of a Cute Story, the autobiographical volume by the great Disneyland designer Rolly Crump. (To read about the book, and about how Crump and his co-author Jeff Heimbuch deliberately avoided using any Disney-copyrighted illustrations, see Heimbuch's comment on my second post about the continuing controversy over Amid Amidi's Ward Kimball biography.) The Crump book has a chapter on the Enchanted Tiki Room, but, alas, my hasty reading reveals no hint that Sam Letrone and his chickens may have played an inspirational role.

[Garry Apgar has persuaded me that I erred in identifying Yvelines as a "village," when it's really the department, a sort of French state, in which Pontchartrain is located. When Yahoo Maps took me to "Yvelines," it was almost certainly taking me to the center of that department, rather than to a specific locality of that name. Sam had probably moved his restaurant by the time that video was made—YouTube dates it to January 12, 1980—but most likely to another location in Pontchartrain or nearby. As Garry says: "Though the decor inside the restaurant is different in the video, the narrator says Sam's place is located 'on a national highway [probably the N12] about thirty kilometers from Paris.' That's still a fit—geographically—for Pontchartrain. Maybe he'd done a rehab on the place at some point after Walt's visit. (The sign also reads: 'Auberge Chez Sam,' which may indicate a change in name.)"

[A lingering question is what kind of "sleight of hand" Walt might have seen when Sam's hen was laying on command. As Garry says, "The hen laid the egg about six inches or so above Sam's sauce pan [in the video]. Hard to see how sleight of hand was involved there! And he gets the birds to do simply amazing things. I never before had such respect for a chicken." Possibly the hen required more encouragement when Walt saw it.]

[A December 9, 2012, update: As Garry Apgar has discovered, I was unjust to Sam Letrone when I wrote: "I doubt that Sam was ever a candidate for a Michelin star." The 1978 Michelin red guide, the bible for hungry and discriminating travelers throughout France, gave Sam one star (of a possible three), a distinct honor. Moreover, it gave his establishment three crossed spoons and forks, which means that not only was the food exceptional (thus the star) but it was a pretty classy place in other respects. Garry suggests:

It does, incidentally, now, in retrospect, make sense that Sam got a star, or even had one at the time the Disneys descended chez lui en masse. For two reasons: First, everyone in your photo is dressed up very smartly, even the gents in the background. People dressed up back in the day much more commonly than now, but still... Second, Walt from the get-go, almost, always liked to go first class, especially wherever publicity might be concerned. So it makes sense that he would not go to a restaurant, with his family, to be photographed, where it was little more than a carney attraction, with only mediocre grub on the menu.

[That's true, surely, but it's worth remembering that Walt's preferences in food tended to lean not toward grande cuisine but the likes of canned hash. When I interviewed Jack Cutting back in 1986, we talked about Walt's visits to Paris—Cutting lived there for three years when he worked for Disney, overseeing the dubbing of soundtracks for foreign releases of Disney films, among other things—and Jack said this:

He had been overseas during the war as an ambulance driver and felt he knew Paris. One day he was in the French office—he always said to me he never liked the French office, I don't know why—and it was lunchtime. I said, "Let's go somewhere nearby and have lunch." He said, "You'll have to excuse me, I want to go out to lunch by myself. You know, I know Paris." I went off to an Italian place—I get in a rut where I know them, and I sit and read the morning paper at that time of the day. ... Anyway, I came around through the back streets and I came through the Lido Arcade, which came out on the Champs Élysées just up the street from 52 Champs Élysées, where the office was. They had recently opened a little place in the Lido Arcade where they sold American hamburgers. I glanced in there, and here he is. Isn't that cute? I could have gone in and said, "Hi, Walt," but I wasn't going to do that, because he knows Paris. I think he just wanted to have a hamburger.

[When Phyllis and I have traveled in France, we've found that a "two-fork" rating in the Michelin Guide means that both food and ambience will probably be well above the American norm. So, that Chez Sam had what she calls a "three-fork" rating may have had some significance, perhaps more than his one star. The "three forks" meant that it was a nice place, on a par with the nice places that Walt liked at home, such as the Tam O'Shanter and the Musso and Frank Grill.

[When did Chez Sam disappear from the guide rouge? Sometime in the 1980s, probably. Garry reports that it's not listed in the 1986 guide, and it's certainly not in the only copy I still own, from 2006.]


From Garry Apgar: Loved your post on WD and that wacky French chef, Sam Letrone. I'd never heard of him, though I know I saw (30+ years ago) the movie Toute une vie, directed by Claude Lelouch, in which Letrone had a bit part. Alas, I can barely remember the film .... known in English as And Now My Love, in which the French singer Gilbert Bécaud also has a role. Bécaud wrote and introduced the song "Et maintenant," which in English become a hit as "What Now My Love." I believe that tune was the theme song of the film.

In French, you know, le trône = the throne. So I guess Sam was the king of ... his own kitchen, at least. There's some info on his recordings at this link.

[Posted December 5, 2012]

From John K. Richardson: Thank you for Walt’s birthday post, complete with heartwarming quotes from Diane.

I appreciate the thoughts on Ward Kimball, too, and the way Disney is trying—in its strange inconsistent way—to control what "gets out" about any Disney figure. And thanks for the bits on Walt Kelly and Winsor McCay.

But really, the "Chez Sam" photo and the unfolding story following it just make me feel great. They serve to remind how Walt’s works were just the outer manifestation of his richness as a person. (Gushy as that may sound.)

[Posted December 6, 2012]

From Kevin Hogan: I’m sure Mr. Gabler would be surprised to read this and discover that Walt was actually a human being. Thanks for the post.

[Posted December 7, 2012]