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Walt Disney, the man behind the mouse

New Walt Disney Family Museum animates life story of American original

September 27, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The black-and-white photo from 1906 shows a little boy and his sister, holding hands on the porch of their modest home on Chicago’s West Side.

On a nearby wall hangs more than a dozen simple cartoons the boy drew as a freshman for William McKinley High School’s magazine. The most spectacular thing about the sketches isn’t the subject matter. It’s the artist’s signature: W. Disney.

Near these humble artifacts are 29 of the 32 Academy Awards Chicago-born Walt Disney racked up during his illustrious life.

These are just a few of the items on display at the new Walt Disney Family Museum, which tells the fascinating life story of one of the world’s most influential storytellers.

Opening Thursday in San Francisco, the museum pays homage to the man who created timeless characters, elevated animation to an art form and helped shape pop culture — and countless childhoods.

“We’re giving people the opportunity to know him, to know what he was really like,” said Diane Disney Miller, 75, Walt’s daughter and co-founder of the museum. “I wanted his story to be told in his own words.”

Walt’s voice — and the voices of his family and collaborators — are heard throughout the building, broadcast from overhead speakers and some of the 200-plus video monitors showing everything from Walt’s intimate home movies to clips from his blockbuster films.

The museum’s 10 galleries are filled with the groundbreaking equipment and technology Disney used to create his movies, as well as the earliest known drawings of the world’s most famous mouse — a mouse who was going to be called Mortimer until Disney’s wife shot that down in favor of Mickey.

The museum’s first gallery focuses on Walt’s early years growing up in Chicago and Missouri. The fourth of five children, Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901, in the home his jack-of-all-trades father built at 2156 N. Tripp, in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood just west of Logan Park. (Interesting side note: The home is for sale for $199,000.)

“We had a nice neighborhood ... a lot of good Irish and Poles and Swedes around here ... but it was a rough neighborhood, too,” reads a quote in the museum from Roy, Walt’s older brother and business partner. “Up at the corner, where we got our papers, there were three saloons on four corners. It worried Mother and Dad, and they just picked up their four boys and girl and went to the farm.”

It’s clear how much Walt loved that farm in Marceline, Mo., when you listen to the audio of him boasting about the big apples they grew and how “people came from miles around to see our orchard.”

The Disneys eventually moved back to Chicago, where Walt relished his role as cartoonist for the high school magazine and took classes three nights a week at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

World War I was raging, and Walt desperately wanted to be a part of the action. He dropped out of Chicago’s now defunct McKinley High, left his girlfriend and fudged his date of birth on a Red Cross application so he could go to France and drive an ambulance, a model of which is on display at the museum.

Walt’s path from Hermosa to Hollywood had as many ups and downs as the roller coasters in his world-famous theme parks.

The museum chronicles both his successes and setbacks, including the bankruptcy in 1923 of his first cartoon company in Kansas City and the 1941 Disney Studios strike that Walt viewed as a “personal attack,” according to his daughter Diane. You can watch video of animators on the picket line and listen to Disney testify before Congress about what he believed was a communist plot to take over his artists.

Even Disney’s biggest successes sometimes had rocky starts. “Disney’s Folly” is what skeptics initially dubbed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the 1937 classic that has an entire gallery in the museum devoted to it.

“Walt sunk every penny he had into that film,” said the museum’s executive director, Richard Benefield. “A lot of the pundits didn’t think audiences would sit through a full-length animated feature. Boy, did he prove them wrong. Some people consider it the most important film of the 20th century.”

Disney was a true pioneer, not only embracing the latest technology but often improving it. His “Steamboat Willie” (1928) was the first film to successfully synchronize sound and animation — a skill museum visitors can try to master firsthand in one of the interactive exhibits. A nearby wall covered with 348 “Steamboat Willie” frame enlargements, enough for a mere 16 seconds of animation, vividly illustrates how labor-intensive the craft can be.

Disney’s innovations, of course, weren’t limited to the cinema. Walt, looking avuncular in a blue cardigan sweater, explains in a museum video how his company developed a form of advanced robotics to bring Abraham Lincoln to life in the State of Illinois Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. It’s the same technology he used to great success in his revolutionary theme park, Disneyland.

One of the inspirations for Disneyland was a scale-model locomotive train Walt helped build after attending a railroad convention in Chicago. That train — displayed in the museum — ran on a half-mile track around his Hollywood home.

You can watch a clip of Walt riding his beloved mini-train with his family, happy as can be. Other home movies show him horsing around with Diane and his adopted daughter, Sharon.

A glass case contains Walt’s favorite meal: Two cans of Hormel and Gebhardt’s chili mixed together and lemon Jell-O for dessert. Another case contains a Cartier charm bracelet with seven dwarfs Walt gave to his wife, Lillian Bounds, who started out as an “inker” in his studio.

“When you see the gifts a man buys his wife and daughters, it says a lot about him,” said Diane, whose favorite item in the museum isn’t a gift but a fiddle that belonged to Walt’s father, Elias. She said it’s one of the first items the Disney family acquired for the museum collection.

“I remember when Dad brought it home one night,” she said. “He sat at the dinner table with it. We found it in a closet in his office when he died.”

When 65-year-old Walt Disney passed away from lung cancer on Dec. 15, 1966, television stations interrupted their regular programming to report the news. This footage is in the last gallery of the museum, followed by a stirring montage of Disney’s many achievements.

“I want people to walk out feeling happy, inspired,” Diane said. “His is a story that can do that.”

Hotel accommodations for this story were provided by the Walt Disney Family Museum.