An American Original: Walt Disney by Bob Thomas

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways
  1. Didn’t want to be devious unless constructive in some fashion
  2. Disney put his name on everything so that people knew that when they saw ‘Walt Disney’ on a picture, they would know that meant good, family entertainment
  3. Walt was his own best publicist
  4. Very little retrospection, his visionary eye was always set on the future
  5. Mickey and Walt were inextricable – Walt’s personality was completely reflected in Mickey’s
  6. Fair man but little patience for anything bad or weak
  7. “I want Disneyland to be a place where parents can bring their children – or come by themselves and have a good time”
  8. He seemed to consider his time limited, and his impatience to get things done sometimes made him hard to work for. Little patience for those whose thinking was earthbound. When he dropped an idea, he didn’t expect you to pick it up where he left it, you were supposed to move a couple of steps beyond
  9. Disney possessed a remarkable skill for drawing the best from those who worked with him and had an uncanny capacity for reaching the human heart
  10. Had a natural progression, moving the audience from spectators to participants
  11. Ancestors were from France and last name was Isigny
  12. Father Elias had many misadventures in business and was a stern man
  13. Older brothers Herb and Ray left family due to Elias’ tyrannical nature and soon after Roy left too
  14. Customer service instilled during his time as a newspaper boy – father forced him to place the newspaper on people’s porches, even in the middle of freezing winter
  15. Only paid attention to what interested him – animation, magic, trains
  16. He stepped on a nail and this injury gave him time to think of the future and it was then he determined he wanted to go into cartooning
  17. Walt welcomed criticism from a young age
  18. Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt and Walt left for Hollywood to get out of cartooning and into directing
    1. Felt he was too late to cartooning now and couldn’t catch up to those in New York but soon his deal with Winkler on Alice got him back into it
  19. Had rare powers of persuasion – shown when he convinced Ub to move to Hollywood to join him in the Disney Bros. Studio
  20. “It wasn’t enough to be an original and creative artist, Disney learned; survival in the film business required a jungle toughness
  21. Grew his mustache as a bet and left it because it made him look older
  22. Almost messianic in the leadership of his staff
    1. Got incredible devotion and long hours but encouraged periods of refresh (played baseball during lunch)
  23. Strong, attractive central character is essential and a good storyline is always needed but too much plot can destroy laughter
  24. Loss of Oswald to Mintz solidified view of never working for anyone
  25. Realized quickly the importance of sound and action being in sync and eventually also added color. Those who got in first lead to big advantage if you can work for quality, rather than quantity and quick money
  26. Walt did not believe in holding grudges
  27. Silly Symphonies began to allow Walt to expand creative outlet
  28. Was swindled by Pat Powers of Cinephone of $100,000+
  29. Two years after the creation of Mickey Mouse, the Mickey Mouse Club had more than 1 million members and was known in every civilized country
    1. Licensing revenues were enormous – Ingersoll sold 2.5 million watches in two years
  30. Walt had developed one of the most valuable traits of a leader – the ability to recognize talent and forcing them to reach their potential
  31. Long-term and second order thinking – “Maybe United Artists won’t give us any more dough [to produce color pictures], but the pictures will create so much excitement that we’ll get longer playdates and bigger rentals. That’ll bring the money back eventually.”
  32. Feed during difficult times – “Depression my greatest ally in assembling top flight talent”
  33. Created systematic training courses for young animators in order to develop:
    1. Good draftsmanship
    2. Knowledge of caricature, of action as well as features
    3. Knowledge and appreciation of acting
    4. Ability to think up gags and put over gags
    5. Knowledge of story construction and audience values
    6. Knowledge and understanding of all the mechanical and detailed routine involved in his work, in order that he may be able to apply his other abilities without becoming tied in a knot by lack of technique along these lines
  34. Always challenged himself – “As he discovered each new, unexplored medium, his interested dwindled in the one that he had previously conquered.”
  35. New office predecessor to Disneyland – Walt involved and thoughtful of every detail
  36. Issued stock due to debt
  37. On Unions – “It’s the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I don’t care what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that.”
    1. Strike had taken away some of Disney’s idealism – creatives at the studio would never again have the same, intimate relationship with Walt
  38. Disney production was pretty much put on hold during WWII and they produced many educational and propaganda films for the government
  39. Walt was a times gruff, not given to intimacy and self-revelation. Rarely issued direct praise for work that had been done well and seemed to expect excellence and did not express gratitude when he received it. Commendation usually came in the form of a bonus check or a remark to a third person, with the realization that the praise would be handed on. He commanded attention – he wouldn’t let go o four eyes, people couldn’t stand up to him if they weren’t pretty confident
  40. Disney soon became synonymous with quality entertainment for the entire family. “Look – Disney is a thing, an image in the public mind. Disney is something they think of as a kind of entertainment, a kind of family thing, and it’s all wrapped up in the name Disney…You see, I’m not Disney anymore. I used to be Disney, but now Disney is something we’ve built up in the public mind over the years  It stands for something, and you don’t have to explain what it is to the public. They know they’re gonna get a certain quality, a certain kind of entertainment. And that’s what Disney is.”
  41. Lillian was no ‘yes-wife’ – she stood up to Walt and would honestly share her opinion on films and other topics Walt asked her about
  42. Considered self religious but no church and respected every religion
  43. Had no Disney items in his own home
  44. “We can lick ’em with product”
  45. Was a tough boss but in times of crisis was especially gentle
  46. Assigned all top talent to Cinderella when success was paramount
  47. Struggle with Alice led to Walt to never mess with a tamper-proof classic again
  48. Race against time – a fortune teller told Walt at a young age that he would die by the age of 35. He was not superstitious but this prediction had a profound effect on him and continued to brood about it long after it had been proven false – instilled a sense of urgency in him
  49. Understood the value of publicity and always made himself available
  50. How Walt thought of himself in some regards – “The last of the benevolent monarchs”
  51. 2 dislikes at work – being interrupted while interpreting a scene and someone arguing a point he had already rejected
  52. Studied amusement parks, fairs, zoos, etc. the world over in order to get inspired for Disneyland. His metric for gaging the success of the park was whether people felt entertained or cheated
  53. TV allowed public to get to know original plots and characters rather than this simply happening through theater productions
  54. With Disneyland, quickly gained deep fluency in architecture and engineering. Was always extremely adept at mastering new things quickly
  55. Faith in people – “We can run Disneyland as well as anyone. All you need are people who are eager, energetic, friendly and willing to learn. They’ll make mistakes, but we can learn from their mistakes.”
  56. From the beginning, he insisted on utter cleanliness at Disneyland. “Remembering the tawdry carnivals he had visited with his daughters, he told the staff that if you keep a place clean, people will respect it; if you let it get dirty, they’ll make it worse. He didn’t want peanut shells strewn on the sidewalks; only shelled nuts were sold. No gum could be purchased inside the park. Young men strolled through the crowds, retrieving trash as soon at it was discarded
  57. On music – “I just want you to remember one thing: if the people can’t go away whistling it, don’t play it.”
  58. Desire for utmost control – studio was almost self-sufficient from the beginning
  59. Opening day of Disneyland was a debacle but, as always, Walt never dwelled on disappointment
  60. TV vision – “we’re not going to talk down to the kids. Let’s aim for 12 year olds. The younger ones will watch because they’ll want to see what their older brothers and sisters are looking at. And if the show is good enough, the teenagers will be interested, and adults too.”
    1. Mouseketeers were normal kids, not Hollywood personalities – produced an audience response that TV had never seen before. With this incredible response and fan devotion, Mickey’s status as a folk hero was guaranteed for another generation
  61. On money – “I’ve always been bored making money. I’ve wanted to do things, I wanted to build things. Get something going. people look at me in different ways. Some of them say, “the guy has no regard for money.” That is not true. I have had regard for money. But I’m not like some people who worship money as something you’ve got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere. I’ve only thought of money in one way, and that is to do something with it, you see? i don’t think there is a thing that I own that I will ever get the benefit of, except through doing things with it.”
  62. On art – “I was a corny kind of guy, so I went for corn…Be commercial. What is art, anyway? It’s what people like. So give them what they like. There’s nothing wrong with being commercial.”
  63. Walt and Ray fought – Walt often cause but also first to apologize
    1. Most empires have a yin/yang leadership situation
  64. Always succeeded with quality and uniqueness, not in following trends
  65. Bought out ABC in 1960 so that they owned Disneyland outright
    1. Moved TV to NBC because they could pursue color with them and Walt determined that was the future
  66. Guests, not customers – we’re selling happiness
    1. If they ever stop caring, it’ll cost 10x to get the guests back
  67. Cartoons designed to be timeless – re-releases were essentially pure profit
  68. Walt did not like to be oversold on anything
  69. Always put self in the position of the public – “At Disneyland, queues were doubled back, so that those in line would have a sense of advancing toward their goal and would see a constantly changing human vista
  70. On time and urgency – “Time is getting on, and I still have things left to do. I don’t want to go back and cover the same ground.”
  71. “I have a theory that if it’s good enough, the public will pay you back for it.”
  72. On Chouinard – students must learn a variety of skills, be multi-disciplinary and have a place where cross-pollinization is possible. “Imagination is an intuitive thing; I think it’s something you’re born with. But it has to be developed.”
  73. Disney World started out with the vision of being the utopian city of tomorrow – EPCOT, “an experimental monarchy”
    1. “When I see things I don’t like, I ask myself, why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?”
  74. Roy, who is typically the profit-focused financier – “Wait a minute, let’s give them a better deal. They’ve been good to us, and we may have to go back to the well again. Besides, the offering will be oversubscribed  His staff felt that they had lost their negotiating power, but Roy’s strategy proved correct. He had made friends, as well as lenders, of the Eastern banks.” – Understood the power of thinking ahead, of reciprocation and of placing the cue ball for future shots and not just the first shot
What I got out of it
  1. Fascinating biography which had a lot of detail about Walt’s childhood and his personality – quirks and strengths alike. Vision was extraordinary and we can learn a lot from how he thought, dealt with people, issues and decision making