Walt Disney Family Museum
(This article appeared in Image magazine, a print publication, on July 2007. Photos courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum.)
Walter Elias Disney arrived in Hollywood in 1923, so the story goes, with $40 in his pocket, wearing a coat and trousers that didn’t match. (They were supposed to in those days.) He’d given up on being a cartoonist and decided to become a film director—hard to fathom since Disney’s cartoon techniques are the bedrock of modern animation—but the rest, they say, is history.
Far from Hollywood, in restored army buildings of San Francisco’s Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum tells the story of Disney’s life, his family, his business and the evolution of his work in animation.
But San Francisco seems an odd place for a Disney museum. Or maybe not.
With Pixar in Emeryville, Dreamworks Animation in Redwood City, and Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic division also at the Presidio, the Bay Area is becoming a center for animation. Diane Disney Miller, who lives in Napa, bought Presidio land many years ago. When she decided to create a museum to tell her father’s story, this seemed the perfect place for the pioneer of animation.
Step inside the inconspicuous, brick building and in vivid, bubbly, grand Disney fashion, 10 galleries offer a chronological history. Beginning with early drawings and cutout figures, the galleries move to more and more sophisticated animation where the eye is dazzled by color and cartoon characters, Bambi, Dumbo, and Cinderella and ears are delighted by songs, When You Wish Upon a Star, while Disney himself explains how it’s all done. A wall of windows at the rear of the museum offers a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The story begins with Disney’s Irish roots, his Chicago birth in 1901, his boyhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, the family’s move to Kansas City, MO, where Disney discovered movies and snuck out nights to perform vaudeville. Back to Chicago where Disney sketched pictures for his high school newspaper and the local barbershop (for free haircuts) and attended the Art Institute of Chicago at night. He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. A dream his father could not understand.
At 16, Disney, who dropped out of high school to fight in WWI, drove for the American Ambulance Corps in France.
After the war, he pursued his dream. Working for a commercial art studio and an animation company, he learned cartoon animation and film tricks, like making items disappear and milk flow back into a pitcher. At 19, he created a short-lived company with cartoonist friend Ub Iwerks. And at age 21, with $15,000 backing, he incorporated Laugh-O-Gram Films Inc. to sell his cartoon shorts.
When Laugh-O-Grams went bankrupt, Disney ditched his cartoonist career to be a film director. He climbed on the California Limited train for Hollywood to join his brother, Roy, also unemployed.
In their Uncle Robert’s garage (no kidding), Disney and Roy established the Disney Brothers Studio.
Although, success would follow, creative and financial risk would always be a part the journey.
Alice Comedies integrated a live girl with cartoon characters. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series was Disney’s step into cartoon-only productions.
Then Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie catapulted Disney to national fame. Mickey was the first ever cartoon character to have a bonafied personality. In fact, “personality” would become a hallmark of Disney characters. Steamboat was also the first cartoon with sound synchronized to cartoon action. (Cells of Steamboat Willy span an entire wall in Gallery 2.)
Then came The Three Little Pigs in Technicolor and the studio’s first original song, The Big Bad Wolf. The song was a national hit.
In 1937, willing to risk it all, Disney committed the studio to the full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, plunging the studio deep into debt. Six months after the movie’s release, millions flowed to the studios, and we still enjoy the original production. Snow White won an honorary Academy Award (a regular-size Oscar and seven little ones).
In fact, for all his risk taking and financial struggles, Disney has won more Oscars and more Oscar nominations than anyone, ever. Most of them stand in the museum’s awards lobby, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and major awards from around the world.
Disney would risk it all again to create Disneyland, even cashing in his life insurance policy to help pay the bill. Once again millions rolled in. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t afford a matching coat and trousers.
Of course, there’s so much more. The museum covers the whole story, including a controversial 1940s strike and Disney testifying before HUAC. It’s impossible to absorb it all in one visit and perhaps too slow going for youngsters (no rides here).
Disney died at age 66 just seven weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. The outpouring of love and appreciation from around the world is on the walls of the final hallway.
The Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery Street, The Presidio of San Francisco, 415 345 6800, www.disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum
General admission tickets may be purchased online or at the door.