Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Diane Disney Miller 1933 - 2013

I received the horribly, sad, news, today that Walt Disney's surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, passed away on November 19 at the family home in Napa Valley. Reports indicate the cause of death were complications due to a fall she had suffered in September.

This is devastating news on so many fronts.

I got to know Diane and her husband Ron Miller through my involvement in The Walt Disney Family Museum, which was built on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco. My friend Jeff Kurtti was one of three creative consultants working with the family on the Museum (the other two being Paula Lowery and the late Bruce Gordon). In 2007, Diane and the others were wondering how to approach the Museum gallery that dealt with the war years. Because of my knowledge of the topic and my related collection, Jeff recommended me to Diane.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Diane inviting me down to San Francisco to see what they were up to and see if I wanted to participate. Needless to say, I accepted on both counts.

I will never forget that first visit with Diane and Ron, (and their son Walter), in the family condo overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. After a glass of Silverado wine, which came from the family vineyard in Napa, the trio took me for dinner at a great little restaurant around the corner from the condo. We proceeded to spend a wonderful evening together talking about the Family Museum, and Diane's father and some of the people he worked with and whom she had come to know.

The following day I received a tour of  a small museum in an old wooden warehouse on Gorgas Avenue - the old building housed the family's collection of artifacts and mementos. The items on display were amazing. Walt Disney's Academy awards and other personal awards, the Lilly Belle train that Walt had ridden around his Holmby Hills backyard, posters, letters, and much, much more. These items would become the foundation for the new Museum, under construction at the time.

This first meeting led to a loan of 48 items from my collection for inclusion in Gallery 6 of the Museum.

That first trip also led to a wonderful friendship. Over the course of the next six years, Diane and I exchanged literally hundreds of emails and many phone calls. I sent her information related to her father and his studio covering the years 1925-1945. She always graciously responded by saying she appreciated the work I was doing for her and the Museum.

I also located items for her I thought the Museum should have in its collection and on occasion she  took my advice and purchased what I had recommended. The last item I brokered a sale for was the Mickey Mouse coat of arms that had been painted on her father's Hyperion Studio office door circa 1933. This artifact had been owned by the son of the man who had purchased one-half of the Hyperion complex, after Walt and Roy had moved their operation to Burbank in 1940.

Diane and Ron were extremely gracious to my family and I. On two separate occasions Diane arranged for comp admissions to the two Disney theme parks in California and several other perks, including a private tour of her father's apartment above the Main Street Firehall in Disneyland.

I was fortunate to have been invited by Diane to the Museum on four separate occasions. My last trip was in March of this year for a presentation I gave on the history of 2719 Hyperion Avenue - the location of her father's studio on the eastern edge of Hollywood in Los Feliz. On the second day of that trip, Ron and Diane took me out for lunch. I always enjoyed my private time with them. She always had fascinating stories to tell about her father or someone he had known or she had come to know because of him. Ron, too, always had an interesting story to tell about his father-in-law or the company he had overseen in the early to mid-1980s. Sometimes I would throw out the name of one of her father's associates and Diane would relate anything she could recall of that person. It's funny because on every trip she would ask me when I was going to bring down my wife and children for her and Ron to meet. She once remarked that she looked forward to watching our children grow up. Sadly, the rest of my family never had the opportunity to meet her, although the kids did send her home-made cards, which she said she loved receiving.

So many memories have come flooding back to me since I learned of her death this evening. I was not the only Disney researcher who had a friendship with her. I was not a confidante or a close family friend. I was just someone who had an appreciation for her father's accomplishments and who had information to share with her. And because of that, she took an interest in me. She didn't have to. But she did. And for that I will always be forever grateful.

Diane Disney Miller was gracious, humble, intelligent, and witty. I will miss all of those things about her and much, much, more.

I once read that when someone you know passes, you should not be sad that they have gone. You should be happy that they had lived. I can tell you I am happy that she lived and that I had a chance to meet her. But right now I also feel horribly sad.

Thank you, Diane, for everything you did for me and the legions of Disney fans who admire your father's accomplishments.

My condolences to Ron and the rest of the Disney-Miller family.

Here are two image of Diane I snapped on my second visit to the Museum, which was still under construction at the time. If I recall correctly, the first image was taken on the Museum's second floor - the big display case with all the Mickey Mouse memorabilia would be on the right side and when you walk through the brick opening you'd be in the gallery where the Silly Symphony cartoons are showcased and where the Ink and Paint samples are on display. The second image was taken in the basement - we were going down there to look at the theater that was under construction.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Walt Disney - the first Academy Awards

November 1932 was the hottest on record in Los Angeles. A cold snap would follow in December, but that month, those living in the Los Angeles area endured daily temperatures in the mid-80s.

On Friday, November 18, 1932, Walter Elias Disney and his wife Lillian traveled from their home on Lyric Avenue, down to the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. The four mile journey would normally take about 15 minutes, but on this day, the traffic would be much heavier.

Four years to the day of the release of the first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, Walt and Lillian were on there way to the 5th annual Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' banquet, being held in the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel.

The Ambassador Hotel as shown on an early postcard.
In addition to hosting several Academy Award ceremonies, the Hollywood landmark was also home to the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The hotel was demolished recently to make way for a public school.

In front of hundreds of film notables, including movie stars, directors, studio executives and state and city politicians, Walt Disney would collect the first two of his many Academy Awards. One newspaper article stated, "It was a glittering ceremonial, attended by more than 900 of the great and lesser-great of the film world."

The Fiesta Room circa 1940s.

According to another newspaper report, "The event drew thousands of spectators who blocked traffic for more than a block in front of the hotel. The crowds parted as sleek limousines drew up and discharged the feminine stars, many of them with great puffed sleeves, high neckline and fur-trimmed gowns, and accompanied by the immaculately groomed escorts."

November 18, 1932 - four Hollywood luminaries pose for a photo at the 5th Academy Awards banquet. L-R: Stan Laurel, Walt Disney, Hal Roach and Oliver Hardy.

Walt Disney socialized that evening with several of his Hollywood friends. As testimony to Disney's acceptance in Hollywood social circles, one year later he would attend a party given by fellow producer Hal Roach. Held in a sound stage at the Roach Studio, the gathering of Hollywood's who's who celebrated Roach's 20 years as a filmmaker. Besides Walt Disney, those in attendance included Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, John Weissm
uller, Jean Harlow, Darryl Zanuck, Jesse Lasky, Louis B. Mayer, Will Rogers and Sid Grauman.

The ceremony in the Fiesta Room was hosted by Conrad Nagel, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization he and 35 other like-minded industry insiders founded in May 1927.

At some point in the banquet, a short color cartoon produced at the Disney Studio was played for those in attendance. Parade of the Award Nominees featured caricatures of those nominated in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories.

Several internet sites indicate artist Joe Grant was hired specifically to work on this short, however no production records for this film exist at the Disney Archives to confirm this. Some historians suggest Grant's first work at the Studio was on the film Mickey's Gala Premiere.

Parade of the Award Nominees is notable for the fact the film marks Mickey's first on screen appearance in color, preceding the color Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert by several years.
As Mickey Mouse led the procession the actors and actresses walked down a carpet dressed as the characters they portrayed.

Wallace Beery, (with child actor Jackie Cooper in tow holding on to Beery's coattails), was nominated for his portrayal of an alcoholic boxer trying to get his life back in order on account of his son in The Champ.

Fredric March was nominated for his dual screen appearances as Dr. Jekyll,
and Mr. Hyde.
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were nominated for their screen performances in The Guardsman. Convinced his wife (Fontanne), was cheating, Lunt impersonated a Russian guard in order to seduce her. He succeeded but she claimed she knew it was him all along.
Helen Hayes was nominated for her role as a wrongly imprisoned woman who turns to prostitution in order to support her illegitimate son in The Sin of Madelon Claudet.

And Marie Dressler was nominated for her portrayal of a devoted housekeeper
in Emma, who marries her employer only to have his three children turn on her when he dies..
The Best Actress statuette was awarded to Helen Hayes and for the first time in the Academy's history, a tie was declared for Best Actor - Beery received one less vote than March, but under the rules in effect at that time, a nominee had to poll at least two votes more than his nearest competitor to win. A tie was declared and the two actors were awarded statuettes. Both men had recently adopted little girls and in his acceptance speech March reportedly delivered one of the funniest lines of the evening, when he said, "Under the circumstances, it seems a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year."

Parade of the Award Nominees was, by all accounts, a hit that evening. One new
spaper reported the film garnered a "huge laugh."

Walt Disney knew prior to arriving at the banquet that he was going to receive two awards. Up until 1941 winners were informed beforehand
, in order to allow members of the press attending the function time to meet their filing deadlines.

It's not known at this time if Disney gave an acceptance speech. The assembled crowd though agreed with the Academy's decision to award Disney the honorary statuette. One newspaper reported, "Judging by the applause, the greatest enthusiasm was for Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, and for Helen Hayes."

A press photograph taken at the banquet shows an obviously happy Walt Disney standing beside his obviously proud wife. In the photo Lillian holds the statuette, an Honorary Special Award given to her husband for the creation of Mickey Mouse, while Walt holds the C
ertificate of Honorable Mention, awarded to him for Flowers and Trees.

The photo appeared in several newspapers and magazines in the days following the banquet. The accompanying caption in one newspaper read:

"Mickey Mouse, the hero of the comic strip...and of the animated cartoons in the movies, has won for Walt Disney, his creator, the coveted distinction of a special award by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Disney is shown in the picture above, snapped at the annual banquet...where the award was made, together with Mrs. Disney, who is holding the inscribed...statuette symbolizing the award.

At the same time Mr. Disney was honored with one of the Academy's annual awards, this one for his color shorts. This is the first time that two awards in the same year have come to one man."

The ceremony marked just the third time the Academy had bestowed an honorary award and the first time an award had been given in the newly created Cartoon Short Subject category.

Walt shows off his two awards while on the grounds of the Hyperion Studio.

The Certificate of Honorable Mention stated:
"Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Walt Disney Productions Ltd.
has been judged worthy of the Academy's
for the Cartoon Short Subject

"Flowers and Trees"

This judgment being rendered with reference to
Motion Pictures, First, Regularly Exhibited in
the Los Angeles district during the
year ending July 31, 1932."

Flowers and Trees was in production as a black and white short when the decision was made to scrap all of the completed footage. After witnessing Technicolor's newly developed three color process, Disney stated, "When I saw those three rich, true colors on one film, I wanted to shout."

Ever the visionary Disney was able to convince Technicolor to grant him an exclusive multi-year contract for the right to use their new process. As soon as Studio technicians developed new adhesive color paints, production on the short resumed.

At the urging of a mutual friend, Disney showed some of the completed short, totaling no more than one minute, to Sid Grauman, owner of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Grauman was so impressed, he requested Disney finish the film as soon as possible so he could show it at his next major film premiere. Disney rushed the short through production in order to have the short finished in time to be shown at Grauman's world premiere of Strange Interlude, a feature starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

The critical reviews praised Disney's venture into color: "Given its premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater..the reception was such that the next ten [Silly Symphony films] will be on rainbow diversion. [The] critics rave over Flowers and Trees has been nationwide wherever it has been shown...the reviewers as well as the industry hailing it as a revolutionary step in the progress of cinematic development." In England Flowers and Trees "broke all short subject records by running for seven solid weeks in various West End theaters."

Taken at the same time as the previous photo, Walt Disney is pictured with his two awards and a Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse doll.

At the banquet's conclusion, many of the attendees filed over to the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove nightclub. While it's not known if Walt and Lillian joined in on the festivities, there can be no doubt the couple enjoyed their drive home that evening.

Walt Disney received many congratulatory telegrams and letters following the banquet. Perhaps the most touching came from former business partner Ub Iwerks, who had left the Disney Studios in February 1930. According to Iwerks' biography, "Ub's [telegram] was reportedly one of the few [Walt] truly cherished."

The two awards bestowed upon Walt Disney that night signaled the beginning of Disney's dominance of the cartoon genre. There would be many more awards to follow in the years to come.

My thanks to Jeff Pepper at for providing me with the screen shots from Parade of the Award Nominees. Check out his site - he does great work. Thanks Jeff!