Disney fans may wonder what it was like on set when Walt Disney filmed his Disneyland and Wonderful World of Color television show introductions. Disney was initially a reluctant host but the ABC Television Network insisted that Walt introduce each show segment. It would appear the network was intent on making Walt Disney a television personality and in turn making the show more marketable. The Old Maestro eventually agreed to go on camera, but it was not an assignment he particularly relished. In spite of his already hectic schedule, Disney would now be spending valuable hours on a film stage because his participation was required. Eager to get through this chore, Walt usually arrived on stage somewhat grumpy. However, once into the filming, the boss loosened up and began to enjoy himself. For a guy who was hardly eager to appear on camera, Disney did a pretty good job as a TV host.

Viewers at home in their living rooms probably thought the cameras had casually wandered into Disney’s office and Walt simply began to chat about up coming projects. Of course, these casual moments with the Old Maestro were carefully scripted and Disney’s office was simply a set designed to give viewers the impression they were in the Animation Building on the studio lot. In truth, the sets were usually designed and constructed on stages 1 or 2 depending which sound stage was available for filming that week. After the familiar introduction, and now your host, Walt Disney. Walt would glance up and begin his chat with the audience. Of course, the “audience” was simply the crew on stage along with a young animation artist who should not have been there in the first place. Walt would glance at the script, but ultimately relied on the prompter out of the camera’s view. On occasion, Disney would stumble over a line or mispronounce a name or two. If the script gave Walt too much trouble, a scriptwriter was on hand to quickly make revisions. Walt would chuckle and say, “Who wrote this stuff?” The crew would guffaw loudly as the poor screenwriter became the butt of the joke. We’re all used to today’s amazing technology and cameras small enough to fit in your pocket. However, back in the fifties, cameras such as the Mitchell BNC was almost the size of a small refrigerator. In the photograph below you’ll see how large these beasts could be. You’ll probably notice something else in the picture that will make you aware of the date. Look at the crew and you’ll see a bunch of old guys because women and minorities had yet to breach the film unions or get a job in the motion picture business. It would be decades before such changes would be implemented and opportunities would become available for all. However, this was the nineteen fifties and a world a good deal different from today.

After an hour or two, the assistant director would finally announce, “That’s a wrap,” and Walt Disney, still in make up would head out the door. He still had a busy day ahead and was eager to get back to his office. Sometimes I headed back to the Animation Building as well. I was careful to maintain a fair distance from the boss less he turn toward me and say, “Why aren’t you at your desk, kid? What the hell am I paying you for?” Luckily, that encounter never happened so I continued to be a bad boy and pay my unofficial visits to the sound stage whenever Walt Disney was filming his TV introductions. And that, boys and girls, is why I’m able to tell you this story.

Walt Disney and the crew. Back in the fifties, it was pretty much a man's world on stage. Things would eventually change but not for decades.

Walt Disney and the crew. Back in the fifties, it was pretty much a man's world on stage. Things would eventually change but not for decades.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman

 

    Much to my surprise, a tall gentleman suddenly poked his head into my office and inquired if he might have a word with me. It took me a moment to recover as I looked up from my computer. The charming gentleman with the English accent was none other than one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams. He could barely fit in the office chair and his long legs were noticeably extended as he got down to business. Mr. Adams had learned from animator, Nancy Beiman that I had a home in nearby Santa Barbara and the clever humorist was keen on moving there while he continued work on his screenplay. Santa Barbara was just far enough and close enough to the Walt Disney studio to suit his needs. Besides, the beautiful city by the sea was a well known pacific paradise and many well heeled show business celebrities had chosen it as one of their homes. We talked about Montecito, a delightful little community just south of Santa Barbara that is graced with rolling hills and majestic seaside views. This area has attracted famous names such as Oprah Winfrey and Christopher Lloyd who can sometimes be seen shopping in Montecito's stylish shops.

   I really didn't need to ask Mr. Adams what brought him to the Disney studio. If he was working on a screenplay, I knew it had to be a project he had been trying to get off the ground for some years. A motion picture adaptation of his own, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." As we continue to talk, I couldn't help think to myself how fortunate it is to work in a studio where almost anyone can come walking in your door. For years I had been an admirer of Douglas Adams and his work. Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined I would be sitting with him and having a conversation about books, movies, and the computer we both had a special fondness for - the Apple Macintosh. Suddenly, the gentleman glanced at his watch and lifted his tall frame out of the chair. "I'm off," he said. "I've another meeting with film executives on the Disney Studio lot. As we said our goodbyes, I thought about the importance of the meeting Mr. Adams was about to attend. I was well aware that Douglas Adams had been trying to bring "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" to the big screen for a long, long time. Those unfamiliar with Adams' work, should know that it all began with a radio program on the BBC back in 1978. Because of the program's popularity, it became a book the very next year and later, a television series. Douglas Adams had been negotiating with Disney for years. If his popular series were to become a motion picture he wanted it done right. Of course, getting concessions from "The Mouse" was not always an easy task. Not even for a writer as well known and respected as Mr. Adams. Yet, it appeared the film was finally on track and fans of the popular novel waited with baited breath.

   A few months passed before I was to see Douglas Adams again. It was January and I joined the tech faithful at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco for another celebration of Apple technology. Among the invited guests was none other than Douglas Adams who would be appearing for the launch of a new computer game based on his books. Mac gamers eagerly awaited their first look at "Starship Titanic" as well as seeing one of their favorite authors in person. I had not seen Douglas Adams for several months so I thought I would stop by his booth and say hello. Was I in for a surprise. When Douglas Adams appeared in the exposition hall he was suddenly surrounded by a legion of fans hoping for a handshake or an autograph. As the crowd pushed me aside, I realized I couldn't get anywhere near the famous author. I had to be content with a free copy of the software and as I made my way out of the crowd I thought back to our conversation at Disney a few months earlier. These eager fans of Douglas Adams would be content for a few moments with their favorite author. I was lucky enough to talk with Mr. Adams a good deal longer than that.

   Things couldn't have been going better for Douglas Adams that year. His novel was finally headed for the big screen and his new computer game had successfully launched. There were new projects waiting to  be started and he and his family finally moved into their new home in Montecito near Santa Barbara California. When a television crew arrived in town to do a special on the famous author it was fun to watch Douglas Adams wander the streets of my home town chatting with the interviewer as the cameras followed him from the shady shops of State Street to the seashore on Cabrillio Boulevard. As always, he was funny, charming, and though he was a long way from the U.K., he seemed quite comfortable in his new California home. Of all the funny stories he told, I enjoyed the one about a field trip when he was still in school. At the conclusion of the excursion, the Headmaster instructed all the children to meet "under Adams." Apparently the very tall Brit made an excellent sign post and meeting place. Stories like these kept us laughing throughout the interview. The laughter for all of us ended a few days later when Douglas Adams suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. 

He was forty nine.

    I'm pleased that "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was finally completed even though the film opened to mixed reviews. I'm sorry that Douglas Adams didn't get to enjoy his home in Montecito a good deal more. I'm grateful for his writing, his humor, and for the marvelous chat we had that afternoon at the Walt Disney studio. It's difficult to sum up Douglas Adams, but I think actor, Stephen Fry does it best. He was a huge man: when he was in a house it rattled and you always knew he was there. He did the same to the Earth. It doesn't rattle anymore now that he's gone.

While working at the Walt Disney Studio I was lucky enough to enjoy a morning chat with author, Douglas Adams.

While working at the Walt Disney Studio I was lucky enough to enjoy a morning chat with author, Douglas Adams.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman

There was a flurry of activity in the animation building that Thursday afternoon back in the early sixties. This was the Walt Disney studio and final  preparations were being made as last minute sketches were hastily pinned to story boards, and secretaries readied their notepads and sharpened their pencils. The meeting that was about to take place was no ordinary one. Many saw the future of their craft hinging on how well this presentation might be received. Disney's best and brightest had labored on this project for months, and this afternoon's meeting would determine whether or not their work had been in vain. The team that gathered in the large story room in 2F were Disney's elite. Top story men, background artists, designers, and animators filled the room. They joked amongst themselves and made an effort to appear casual and relaxed. Still, there was no mistaking the tension felt in the room.

Suddenly, the outer door of the wing burst open, and a hunched figure strode down the hallway. The loud cough signaled the arrival of the man all had been waiting for. As Walt Disney entered the room, all of us kids scattered and headed back to our drawing boards. This meeting was not for the likes of us. This was Walt Disney Studios in the sixties when grey haired old men ran the company. Unlike the animation business today, unproven youngsters like ourselves knew that our presence would not be welcome. It was rare that a new project should generated so much attention at the Walt Disney studio. Suddenly, the sixties were on us and some feared the Disney staff was growing old and stodgy. With the completion of 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, the Disney brain trust was getting bored. They needed a fresh new project. Something unique that hadn't been done before. A project that would get the old creative juices flowing again. Not surprisingly, top Disney animator, Marc Davis came to the rescue. Marc had discovered a story he knew would deliver the goods. Chanticleer and the Fox, was a popular fairy tale, as well as a Caldecott winner. The Caldecot was the prestigious book award. Marc Davis knew this was just the movie to re light the creative fires at Disney.

Marc Davis had been inspired by this animal tale. It was a fanciful story that could be traced all the way back to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. He began to produce stacks of inspired sketches of the proud rooster and fox who would be his undoing. In time, Davis was joined by conceptual artist, Ken Anderson, who brought further embellishment to the presentation. The walls of 2F wing were soon filled with some of the most inspired Disney art seen in years. Word quickly spread through the Disney studio that an amazing new movie was being developed. This was to be a film unlike anything we had seen before. Through the development process, Marc Davis continued his role as creative leader. Other artists had been added to the crew to put the final polish on the presentation. Those of us who labored "at the oars" down below, envied those chosen to work on the project. We could only hope that if we worked hard enough, one day our turn would come. In the meantime, we contented ourselves with sneaking upstairs to get a peek at the forthcoming movie that would change animation forever.

Now, that fateful day had arrived and the meeting was getting underway upstairs. Walt Disney settled back in one of the vintage KEM Webber chairs, lit up a cigarette, and said, "Well, Marc, what have you got to show me?" I think the meeting lasted about two or three hours. Whatever it was, it sure seemed a lot longer. A good deal was riding on this presentation. "What if Walt didn't like it," some wondered. "Would there even be another animated feature? Would Walt just chuck the whole idea of doing animated films, and simply focus his attention on theme parks? He certainly seemed more interested in that anyway. Though it was a quiet Thursday afternoon, tension was beginning to grow downstairs. A few artists left their drawing boards and moved out into the hallway. "Heard anything yet?" One artist would ask. "No, not a word," was the reply from another artist who surveyed the hallway for any signs of life. "Looks like they're still in the meeting." "Don't sweat it," said one of the older guys. "Didn't you see that kick butt artwork on the wall?" This one's a slam dunk. "Yeah," replied another artist. "Walt would never turn down a guy like Marc Davis. No way." From our rooms, we heard the outer door of the wing slam open, and a bunch of the old guys made their way down the hallway. We couldn't make out what they were saying, but it sure didn't sound good. The most outspoken of the group, a vociferous directing animator known for his temper tantrums, could be heard over the others. “Crap!” he grumbled. "What the hell can you expect  from a tired old man." While some complained loudly, others went back to their drawing boards with a look of resignation on their faces. My young colleagues, and myself had no need to ask what had happen. It was more than clear that Chanticleer was a movie Walt Disney would add to his list of films not worthy of being produced.

Yet, in spite of everything, this story doesn't end on a sour note. Walt Disney animation went on to begin work on a film that did make tons of money at the box office and gave animation a new lease on life. This film showed that there was indeed life in the old guys, and their inspired work on The Jungle Book proved just that. As for Marc Davis, he simply put down his animation pencil and moved over to Walt Disney Imagineering where he was the creative inspiration on dozens of theme park attractions including the wonderful, Pirates of the Caribbean.

Finally, what about the film everyone had set their hopes on? What about the movie that was going to give animation a bold new direction? Those working at the Disney studio some years later on an animated feature called, Chicken Little, might have done well had they given some thought to what the Old Maestro said that fateful Thursday afternoon many years ago. The day when a lofty new project was given a thumbs down, because, as Walt Disney himself put it, "Nobody loves a chicken."

The Thursday afternoon meeting was held here in the Animation Building back in the sixties. A day I doubt I'll ever forget.

The Thursday afternoon meeting was held here in the Animation Building back in the sixties. A day I doubt I'll ever forget.


Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman