When my mother is in town for the holidays, I always try to get her out to some of San Francisco’s museums. But scrambling with last minute wine work, I neglected to order advanced tickets to any of the City’s art museums only to find all the exhibitions are booked solid through next week. That’s how we found ourselves heading out to the Presidio to The Walt Disney Family Museum. I had no idea what to expect. I knew the museum included artifacts from the Disney family and it was housed in one of the historic early Victorian barracks buildings in the old Presidio. So I expected a few rooms, maybe some family snaps of old Walt himself, perhaps a recreation of his first artist’s studio and possibly some early drawings of Mickey Mouse. Boy, was I wrong! If The Walt Disney Family Museum isn’t on the itinerary of any trip to San Francisco, it should be. And you may ask, as I did, what is a museum honoring someone who was famously small-town Midwest and made his fortune in Southern California doing in the City by the Bay? Now, I know there is no more fitting City for this museum. But more on that later.
You cross the veranda of the stately old barracks and all is as expected. There is an awards display of all Walt Disney’s television and film awards from Emmys to Cannes and Venice Bienniale awards to the special Oscar Shirley Temple presented him for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Then you enter the next room and it hits you, Walt Disney was a life-long technical and artistic innovator, so of course his museum would be filled with state of the art multi-media, interactive displays and more. Besides the business side of things, Walt Disney landed in Hollywood in 1923 just as it was taking off and quickly rose to prominence in “the scene” as a special kind of Hollywood royalty. There he is playing polo with Spencer Tracy. And driving his daughter to school along with her best friends who happen to be the kids of major studio heads. If that wasn’t enough, he also had a big hand in staging the festivities for the 1960 Lake Tahoe Olympics and built the major attractions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair — which was pretty much the last world’s fair that inspired real awe and wonder.
If you are of a certain age, Walt Disney is a significant part of your cultural roadmap. It certainly was mine. Mouseketeers? I think they were in syndication when I came of TV viewing age, but I can probably still name all of them. Davy Crockett Flint Lock Rifle? Had one. Hit my brother over the head with hit on numerous occasions. The words to The World is a Carousel of Color? Know them all. Along with It’s a Small World After All and the tropical birds’ song from The Enchanted Tiki Room. I think some of my first records were the soundtracks to Pinocchio, Snow White and Peter Pan. So it was fascinating to learn the story of the man behind the mouse.
Then, as I passed through display after display explaining all Walt’s innovations, technical inventions, breakthroughs and early mastery of multiple media, it suddenly hit me. Let me set you up here: Walt Disney was a genius at recognizing key early technology almost before it was seen as viable, adapting and inventing it to better suit his purpose and deploying it to give the people what they wanted — even before they knew they wanted it. His main business strategy that helped him consistently lead the market? Demand the best design possible, hire the most talented people possible to create it and go for broke getting it to market. WALT DISNEY WAS THE FIRST STEVEN JOBS! In fact, I’m predicting that some later biographer is going to uncover that Walt was Steven Jobs’ real inspiration. Because you just know Jobs had a coonskin cap and a pair of mouse ears.
In fact, I’m going out on a limb here and say the Walt Disney Company is the model for all those innovative, quirky, creative Silicon Valley start-ups that feature a charismatic leader and grow to sport things such as high-tech, state of the art campus workplaces, a brand-loyal almost cult-like following of customers and a business plan that keeps gambling it all to win big. Yes, long before Steven Jobs did any of these things, there was Walt. He even got forced out of his own first animation company, only to battle back with a new character, Mickey Mouse. The rest, as they say, is history.
Just a few more interesting factoids:
*The photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge were a huge early influence on Walt’s animation style. Part of the Disney animation technique was to bring in live models or shoot live footage of animals to get realistic details of movement.
*A young model, who would go on to become half of the famous Marge and Gower Champion dance team, was the original live model for Snow White.
*When the nascent Walt Disney company was making its first big gamble — Snow White which was to be the first ever full-length animated movie — the industry predicted it would fail big and dubbed it “Disney’s Folly”. The Giannini brothers of Bank of America (born and headquartered in San Francisco) and one of their VPs, on the strength of one viewing of the rough cut, gave Disney a quarter of a million dollar loan to complete it.
*During WWII, Disney kept the doors open and many of his animators out of the draft by turning the studio over completely to propaganda, training and war effort films. The museum claims that, in an era when many industrialists were making huge profits with military contracts, Disney charged the government at or near cost.
*Disney and his team invented a huge multi-plane camera (on display at the museum) that allowed for the 3-D quality of his features.
*In later years, much has been made of Walt Disney’s red baiting, his testimony to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and his membership in groups with a decidedly anti-Semitic agenda. You won’t find much about that here. But hey, the Disney family endowed the museum. Let them tell the parts of the story they want told.
And just for fun, let’s revisit the place where many of us first learned to appreciate Calypso music. And do very bad ethnic accents.