April 25, 2013
April 6, 2013
Where Walt Was: February 28, 1957
April 25, 2013:
|From "Land Beneath the Ground!" in Uncle Scrooge No. 13 (1956).|
Ralph Wright was a story man for the Disney cartoons for many years. Milt Gray interviewed him for me, as part of the research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and I sent Ralph the transcript in September 1982. When he returned the edited transcript a few weeks later, it was with a letter in which he recalled an incident involving Carl Barks. Here is what he wrote, with my minimal editing:
There is something that I have never heard about Carl Barks that stayed with me all these years. He sort of took me under his wing when I arrived at the "annex." Carl had a hearing aid which he could "turn off" when he wanted to concentrate.
I was born in Grants Pass, Oregon. (Dad had a gold mine which he sold—for five bucks.) Carl came from a town due east of Grants Pass: Klamath Falls [actually, Merrill, which is near Klamath Falls]. One day we got to talking about Oregon and we got around to the lava beds (a national park) just south of Klamath Falls across the border in California. Carl nearly lost his life there when he was a kid (don't know what age). I had been there and went down under the desert (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) into an ice cave. Its floor was wall to wall ice and it moved— you could set a lantern on the ice until it left a ring, mark it, and come back a week later, and the ring would have moved six inches or so. A river of ice—it flowed downhill and the roof of the cave was just a foot or so from the ice in some spots. Carl and another kid crawled down one of these narrow openings, explored for a while, then tried to crawl back up the ice, a pretty steep climb. But the heat of their bodies melted the ice and they almost didn't [get] out. So Carl's career almost ended right there.
You should go see it some day. It's called Lava Beds National Monument. There are mountains of "glass" obsidian there, and it's where the last Indian war (Modoc) was fought. [Actually, the Modoc war was fought in 1872-73, before later engagements like the massacre at Little Bighorn.] It was a natural fort and the Indians nearly won. They even had their own deep freeze (ice caves). It was called Captain Jack's stronghold (he was the Modoc Indian chief). ... Old Scrooge would never have been invented if Carl had of slid a few feet farther.
Grants Pass, as any Barks fan knows, is where Carl and Garé Barks lived in their last years.
You can read about Lava Beds National Monument, and its caves and the Modoc Indians, at this National Park Service website. With rare exceptions like "In Old California," Barks's stories resist any autobiographical interpretation, but reading Ralph Wright's letter, it was hard for me not to think about Barks stories set underground, like "Christmas for Shacktown" (Donald Duck Four Color No. 367, 1951) and "Land Beneath the Ground!" (Uncle Scrooge No. 13, 1956). I wish I'd asked Carl about that connection, but I seem not to have done so. There was a lot of turmoil in my life in the fall of 1982, so I can't be surprised that I dropped that particular ball, but even so...
From Thad Komorowski: What a nice surprise to see a great biographical tidbit about my favorite cartoonist on your site this morning. I was actually just browsing through "Christmas for Shacktown" (as I often do), marveling at the detailed depiction of the underground cavern. I hope you realize, though, that you've now opened up the floodgates for the academics to read deep, autobiographical meaning into any scene or sequence in a Barks story that features not just an underground cavern, but anything resembling one. Oh well. As always, I'm looking forward to what you have to say about Barks and friends in Funnybooks. I'm skeptical, though, that any figure therein will become an increasingly miserable bastard with each page as Al Capp did in A Life to the Contrary.
MB replies: Your skepticism is justified, I'm happy to say.
From Bill Peckmann: I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the tale of CarI's spelunking adventure. New information about him is always a rare treat. Really makes you wonder about those formative childhood years of both Barks and Disney, just how much stuff from those early years played in their later years. Thanks for posting it!
Also in your neat post was the mention of the Modoc Indian war. That was the second time I saw that war mentioned in the last couple of weeks. The other time was on PBS TV's History's Detectives. (The best part of the show was when they revisited that historical site.) All good things come in three's, so I'll mention the war a third time. A chapter is given to it in the 2003 biography of Eadweard Muybridge, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit. (It's a book I might have thumped before, this gives me a chance to thump it again.) The book is a great read, and now that there is kind of a CB connection, it only makes it that much better.
Also a nice perk of the Muybridge book, and of the other five-star bio I'm presently reading, of western painter Maynard Dixon, by Donald J. Hagerty, is the depth of American history that comes with both books. That was a time in our country when both Barks and Disney were growing up, so by reading these books, one can visualize some of the stuff that was going on around both young men.
[Posted May 8, 2013]
April 6, 2013:
I recently acquired the photo above, which shows Walt Disney being interviewed by a Dominican Republic journalist on February 28, 1957. [A September 4, 2017, update: I've added a second photo taken during the same interview, showing another Dominican journalist. According to a label on the back of the second photo and an online identification, the men's names are Manuel Pouerié Cordero and Arturo Industrioso.] It was taken at the Dominican capital, Ciudad Trujillo, a city named for the bloody dictator whose thirty-year rule would end in an assasination four years later. The capital's original name, Santo Domingo, has since been restored.
The photo was probably [A September 4, 2017, update: Make that "definitely"] taken aboard the cruise ship called the S.S. Alcoa Cavalier. Walt, his wife, Lilly, and their friends the Welton Beckets (he was a celebrity architect, famous enough to be the subject of a profile in the Saturday Evening Post) were near the beginning of a Caribbean cruise aboard the Cavalier that would last more than two weeks. Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney Archives, shared with me their itinerary. On Thursday, February 21, the Disneys and the Beckets flew to New Orleans, where they stayed at the Pontchartrain Hotel. On Saturday, February 23, they embarked on the Alcoa Cavalier, arriving in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, February 27. Their stay in Ciudad Trujillo was short. On Friday, March 1, they arrived at La Guaira, Venezuela, where they left the ship and a driver took them to Caracas for an overnight stay at the Tamanaco Hotel. The next day, the driver returned them to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, to reboard the ship. After a stop at Guanta, Venezuela, on Sunday, March 3, they arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Monday, March 4.
Trinidad was the prinicpal destination, as Welton Becket explained in a 1968 interview with Richard Hubler for his never-to-be-published Disney biography:
We went to the Mardi Gras down there on an Alcoa boat—it was a three-week trip. He was supposed to have a rest, and I was, too. We tried to avoid talking business but constantly, at dinner or lunch, he drifted off into his future plans and I guess I did, too. But in Trinidad he immediately wanted to join the natives out in the street so we found ourselves in a big march down to the town—and he really enjoyed it. He enjoyed mainly how happy these people were with their drums. We all bought steel drums and we had a ball. …
I think what he enjoyed most was just walking around the streets and mixing with the people. They didn’t know him and they didn’t crowd around him like the other cities. It was hard for him to get around. But there they didn’t even recognize him because they don’t have television.
From Trinidad the Alcoa Cavalier sailed to Kingston, Jamaica, arriving there on Friday, March 8, and finally disembarking at Mobile, Alabama, on Monday, March 11. The Disney party drove from Mobile back to New Orleans, staying at the Pontchartrain before returning to Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13.
Years later, Becket traveled again with Walt to the Caribbean:
We took his plane, and went to most of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, etc. It was an interesting thing there on that trip, there again, personal research he was doing. He had read a book, he was then working up the pirates of New Orleans [sic], and he had heard that there was an island down in the Caribbean—almost opposite Cuba—on which pirates actually lived, hidden from any ships that came by. So, we found it. It’s a volcano. It has a winding valley that goes down to a dock and there are probably twenty houses—it’s an English-owned island.
On Walt's trips with Becket, the architect said, “he was not relaxing (except when we played dominoes—he plays dominoes quite well—that got his mind off things), but he was always constantly planning—new ideas and new things ahead—and every time he saw something he was trying to relate it to the present Disneyland or something. I was with him when he got the idea of the Tiki Room. He bought a bird cage—where was this? I guess it was Puerto Rico at an antique shop (because Lilly was always going into antique shops). But this was part of his organized mind, he was then just thinking about this. Many of his things in the apartment [at Disneyland, presumably] he’d pick up on these various tours. Lilly, she was a great collector."
Fittingly enough, the S.S. Alcoa Cavalier was an odd and interesting and ultimately even rather sinister ship. It is described on this web page that Becky Cline called to my attention. Some excerpts:
The SS Alcoa Cavalier was built for the Alcoa Steamship Company by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon. Launched in March of 1947, she was originally intended to be a “Victory Ship” for the transport of war material. Instead, the vessel wound up serving as a cruise liner, making runs out of New Orleans to various Caribbean ports. The Cavalier was in service until 1963; she was ultimately scrapped in New Orleans five years later.
Asbestos insulation was used extensively throughout the construction of seagoing vessels prior to 1980. The reason was because of fire danger, which is perhaps the most catastrophic event that can occur at sea. This was driven home in a most graphic way in September 1934, when the cruise liner S.S. Morro Castle caught fire at sea off the coast of New Jersey, killing nearly 140 passengers and crewmen. ...
Congress ... passed regulations requiring the use of asbestos insulation aboard seagoing vessels, particularly in the fire room, around boilers and in the engine room. Although the legislature's intentions were good, the fact is that asbestos product manufacturers were well aware of the health hazards of their wares. Medical researchers had long suspected the toxicity of asbestos; their suspicions were confirmed by the mid-1930s. ...
Eventually, the government did issue “advisories” to shipyard workers in 1943, recommending that respirators and ventilation be used at job sites. By then however, the asbestos producers had done their jobs well; such warnings were not taken seriously, which is why mesothelioma navy cases are most common.
That page is from the website of a law firm that represents plaintiffs in asbestos suits (and would obviously like to represent more), so caution is in order. Still: could Walt's exposure to asbestos in 1957 have contributed to his death from lung cancer almost ten years later? His chain smoking was undoubtedly a much more important cause, but maybe that two and a half weeks on the SS. Alcoa Cavalier didn't help.
Just for the record: those four dots in the upper left-hand corner are from damage to the photo.