Monday, November 30, 2009

Walt Disney and the Benton Grammar School

On September 12, 1904, the residents of Kansas City, Missouri, celebrated the opening of the Benton Grammar School. Named in honor of Senator Thomas Benton, the school as originally built had just 12 rooms and a kindergarten.
Benton Grammar School.

Walt Disney attended Benton between September 1911 and June 1917.
While at Benton, a young Walt Disney impersonated President Abraham Lincoln, going so far as to don a cape and stovepipe hat. Disney so impressed the principal with his recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he was taken into each of the school’s classrooms, where he repeated his performance for the enjoyment of other students.

Front cover of The Bentonian, a soft-cover yearbook-type booklet published by the school's administrators.

About six months ago I acquired a soft-cover yearbook publication titled, "The Bentonian." The booklet contains a letter written by Walt Disney, in response to request from his former principal for a post graduation update. In the letter, dated February 18, 1931, Walt Disney wrote:

"Dear Mr. Cottingham: I was very pleased to receive your kind letter of February 6. I have often thought of you and my former teachers at Benton and have always had a feeling that I should enjoy a little visit with you on one of my trips to New York. Quite a few of my classmates have dropped in to see me, from time to time, and I have enjoyed discussing with them our school days together.

When I was in school, Benton had a record of winning the K.C.A.C. meet six years in succession. I have often wondered what sort of record the school has held since that time.
I was graduated from Benton in June of 1917 and spent my last year under Miss Beck. I have often wondered about Miss Beck, and if she is still teaching in Kansas City. I would like you to extend to her my kindest regards.

My high school career was very short. After I was graduated I worked during the summer as a News Butch on the railroad, and the following fall moved to Chicago. I spent my Freshman year there. Following that I joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and went to France. I was in France one year. I met an old classmate from Benton while in France. I can’t seem to remember his name, but he was one of two brothers, who were on the track team in school. He told me that Walter Clayton was in a hospital in Toul, France, but by the time I arrived in Toul, Walter had been transferred. I returned from France in the fall of 1919.

I went to Kansas City, and started to work for the Grey Advertising Company as an Apprentice Artist. I left that company to work for the Film Service Company of Kansas City, and it was there that I learned the work in which I am still engaged.

While I was working with the Film Service Company I made a short weekly film for Frank Newman, and this led to the establishing of a Studio of my own. I made cartoon versions of fairy tales, but this venture was not successful.
I moved to California in 1923 and started in business with my brother Roy. Since that time we have built our business up to what it is today, and at the present time we have a Studio employing about seventy-five persons, both artists and technicians.

Our products are shown all over the world and are meeting with great success. We have our own sound apparatus and produce the entire picture in our own Studio. In add
ition to the Mickey Mouse cartoons, we produce a series known as Silly Symphony cartoons. Several years ago I produced a series of educational films on "Child Care of the Teeth," for Doctor McCrum, who conducts a dental clinic at the Linwood School. I thank you for your interest, and extend to you my best personal regards. It was good to know that I have not been forgotten by my Alma Mater. Kindly extend my kindest regards to all my friends and former teachers at Benton, and be assured that I am looking forward to the time when I can visit Benton again.

My best personal regards to you,

Walt Disney."
The back cover of The Bentonian features a great Mickey Mouse illustration.

Almost 11 years to the day he wrote that letter, Walt Disney and his wife Lillia
n made a stopover in Kansas City. The Disney’s were on their way back to California, after attending the Washington, D.C. premiere of The New Spirit, an income tax film produced at the Studio for the Treasury Department. Disney had been invited back to Kansas City by his former teacher, Miss Daisy Beck. While there Disney renewed old friendships and visited childhood haunts.

A special mural unveiling ceremony was held in Disney’s honor in the Benton gymnasium. An article in the Port Arthur News, published the year prior to Disney’s visit reported: "Miss Corrine Mitchell, working on a Works Progress Administration art project and using drawings from Disney’s studio, is making the murals in two 4 by 10 panels. In them, Pluto, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Donald Duck and others will be depicted."

Disney treated the estimated 800 students, teachers and parents in attendance to a showing of two cartoons, including The New Spirit. Disney voice talent Clarence Nash, and a Works Progress Administration orchestra provided additional entertainment. The February 20, 1942 Emporia Daily Gazette reported, "...present at the reunion was 'the voice of Donald Duck,' Clarence Nash. He had a dummy of 'Donald' and the dummy was presented with a birthday cake in honor of 'Donald's' eighth year of success."

Following Nash’s skit, Disney was awarded the school’s silver Loving Cup, which Benton’s relay team had won in 1917. Disney had participated on the team at the behest of teacher Daisy Beck.

South Central Business Association luncheon that followed the Benton Grammar School ceremony. From left to right: Homer Blackwell (National Screen Service); Clarance Nash (voice of Donald Duck); Mrs. Lillian Disney; John Gage (Kansas City Mayor); Walt Disney; Edwin Barnes Sr. (SCBA President); Frank Land (founder of the Grand Council of DeMolay, of which Walt Disney was a member); Mrs. Joseph Wirthman; Keith Martin (Director of the Kansas City Art Institute - Disney attended the school); and three of Disney's Benton classmates.
Photo courtesy Kansas City Library Archives.

At the conclusion of the school ceremony, Disney and his entourage attended a luncheon in his honor, sponsored by the South Central Business Association. The luncheon was held at the Blue Bird Cafeteria, not far from Disney’s old Laugh-O-Gram studio on Troost Street, and Bert Hudson’s barbershop, where Disney’s early childhood drawings had been purchased and put on display.

1931 Christmas card, sent to Disney's grade two teacher, Ethel Fischer.
Courtesy Hake's Americana.

Despite a whack on the wrist for bringing a live mouse to school, Disney had an affinity for his Benton Grammar School teachers, including Miss Daisy Beck, whom he frequently corresponded with. The Disney’s visit to Kansas City ended with a dinner hosted by Beck at a private residence.

The Benton School was recently sold and was undergoing conversion into condominiums. It’s not known what happened to the murals.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Walt Disney Family Museum

This image was taken two years ago on one of my first visits to San Francisco. Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, stands amidst the renovations in barracks building 104 on the grounds of the Presidio, which now houses the new Walt Disney Family Museum.

I have been very fortunate to have been involved, in a very small way, with the new Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Last week I had the opportunity to attend two preview events that included entrance to the Museum as well as a reception.

The back courtyard of building 104, taken two years ago. A basement and new ground level glass infill building would soon occupy this space.

The back courtyard of building 104, with the newly installed glass infill building, as of September 24, 2009.

The view from the glass infill building, looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

I was going to write a gallery-by-gallery review, but have instead opted to just list some of my favorite artifacts, followed by a description of some of my favorite technical / audio-visual displays. There are so many neat items to see it's hard to choose, but here goes, in no particular order:

The reception area. The awards display cases are visible in the background along the walls.

1) past the reception area you'll find nine huge display cases filled with just a sampling (just under 250 by my quick count), of the many awards, plaques, certificates, medals and sculptures given to Walt Disney over the course of his lifetime.

One of nine display cases.

2) one display case features his Academy Awards including 15 Oscar statuettes, six Award(s) for Outstanding Merit, and four Distinctive Achievement Certificate(s). Included in this case are his first two Academy Awards, given in 1932: the Honorary Special Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, and the Certificate of Honorable Mention for the first color Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees. Also on display is the specially made Academy Award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which features one large and seven smaller statuettes and his Irving Thalberg award.

This photo, taken on one of my earlier visits to the original museum, shows the Academy Awards on display in the new museum.

3) the three page letter written to the mother of Virginia Davis in October 1923. Virginia was the little girl who starred in the so-called "Alice" comedies. In the letter, Walt asks Mrs. Davis to bring young Virginia to Hollywood so work could resume on the Alice Comedies.

4) there are several dozen three-dimensional maquettes on display in various galleries: Mickey, Pluto, Goofy, Dopey, Pinocchio, Gepetto, Stromboli, Vulcan, Ben Ali Gator, Hyacinth Hippo, Bacchus and Jacchus and even Casey Jr.

A Pinocchio maquette. Animators would refer to these models during production. This pose of Pinocchio, made in the Studio's Model Department, is believed to be the first three-dimensional maquette design to have been created.

5) a display case filled with Snow White related memorabilia including a Snow White book autographed by Walt Disney to his young daughter Diane...part of the inscription read, "from your daddy, Walt Disney."

6) animation art: spectacular production drawings of the Hag from Snow White and Chernabog from Fantasia were some of my favorites. There are also dozens of pieces of conceptual art: great watercolors of Mickey as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, two Old Mill watercolors by Tenggren, Kay Nielsen pastels from Ave Maria; pastels from the Nutcracker Suite; and watercolor backgrounds from Pinocchio and Snow White. What are believed to be one of the earliest Mickey Mouse drawings are also on display.

Old Mill watercolor conceptual art by Swedish artist Gustaf Tenggren.

7) the Herman Schultheis Camera Department Process Lab notebook. This notebook is filled with photographs and notes and documents many of the special effects and film processes used in the creation of several of the golden-age classics. This notebook is a treasure trove of information, much of which was previously unknown.

The Schultheis notebook.

8) a huge display case filled with 1930s memorabilia - items related to the 1930s Mickey Mouse Club including a rare child's vest and fez, Campaign Book and pinback buttons, a merchandising rep Herman "Kay" Kamen catalog, dolls, storybooks, advertising items, bisques and more - this case is a visual treat for the eyes.

9) rare posters from the Alice comedies and the Oswald series.

10) selection of items from the strike including several issues of the trade magazine Variety.

11) three display cases filled with rare war-related items including original insignia art and home front related pieces.

12) Walt Disney's train, the Lilly Belle, and rare paper items related to his backyard railroad the Carolwood Pacific.

The Lilly Belle, as seen in the first museum.

13) a huge animated model of Disneyland, not as it was completed, but the one envisioned in Walt Disney's mind. This model is amazing and has many, many moving parts.

The detail in this model is exact and amazing!

14) Eyvind Earle conceptual art for Sleeping Beauty.

15) a display case filled with Zorro memorabilia.

16) the sculpted model bust of President Abraham Lincoln, which was used in the audio-animatronic, as well as the audio-animatronic tube frame of the President's upper torso.

17) A small gallery with display cases featuring personal objects - Walt Disney's watch, money clip, Lillian's perfume bottles, jewelry, a case of miniatures from Walt's own collection and a handwritten note from Walt detailing the types of food he enjoyed eating, complete with the remark: "Only one vegetable" with each meal. What was Walt's favorite meal you ask? Two cans of Hormel and Gebhardt's chili mixed together. Lemon Jell-O was one of his favorite desserts. Elias Disney's fiddle is also on display and there is a small vignette in the awards gallery that features pieces of furniture from Walt and Lillian's Disneyland apartment.

18) hundreds of photos and 16 mm film of Walt Disney - family pictures as well as professional images catch Walt Disney at work and play. Perhaps the most touching image was one taken by his son-in-law Ron Miller on the last family vacation - the photo shows Walt Disney sitting on a log on a beach on the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Walt has a movie camera on his lap and is tipping his hat. A very moving and poignant photo before one of the last galleries, which documents the world's reaction to news of Walt's death.

This image is found in gallery one and shows Walt with his sister Ruth.

Some really neat audio-visual related notes:

1) a decision was made early on in the project to use Walt Disney's own voice to tell his story. This was one of the best decisions made. Who better than Walt Disney to tell his own story? Clips are used from many of Disney's television appearances, as well as various radio interviews, including the over 12 hours of tape captured by Pete Martin and Walt's daughter Diane for the series of articles that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

2) There are many additional audio clips to listen to: you can hear Disney employees speak on a wide range of topics.

3) There are three neat shows to see in Gallery 1 - the three separate vignettes have Walt telling the story of a) his childhood on the farm; b) growing up in Chicago; and c) volunteering for duty as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in France. Each uses paper cut-outs in an amusing and entertainingly whimsical fashion!

4) The elevator ride to the second floor has a neat angle - it's made out to be a Santa Fe railroad car and has Walt speaking about his journey west to Hollywood.

5) The Schultheis notebook has been digitized. The original notebook is on display in a cabinet with the digitized version avalable for viewing - this was a very cool display!

6) A couple of reactrix displays (at least I think that is what they are called)...a flat horizontal screen in front of the guest displays various small images. You point and press the circle you want more info on and a detailed image appears in front of you on a vertical screen.

7) A fanciful recreation of a Moviola, where you can control the speed and forward or reverse direction of a sequence from Snow White. Very, very cool!

8) A two-storey multi-plane camera. Just an amazing piece of equipment. The camera punches up through the second floor of the Museum and gives guests an idea just how large this mechanical wonder really was.

These are just some of the wonderful things that await you on your visit. I had the opportunity to spend two very brief evenings at the Museum. I believe 4 1/2 hours is what Museum staff have calculated to be the minimum amount of time needed to see most of the exhibits. One could easily spend the whole day there.

Photography is not allowed in the Museum. The images in this post have come from photos I was allowed to take on previous visits at the old museum and other sources on the internet, including Roger Colton and his great website:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wayne Allwine - 1947-2009

This sad news just in: Wayne Allwine, the official voice of Mickey Mouse, passed away May 16, 2009, due to complications from diabetes.

Allwine was just the third person to provide Mickey with his voice, the others being Walt Disney and Disney sound effects man Jimmy Macdonald. Allwine was married to Russi Taylor, the current voice of Minnie Mouse.