Frequent readers of this site know of my fondness (well, let’s call it what it is – extreme fanaticism) for the genius of Walt Disney and the amazing empire that bears his name. Recently, I’ve been researching the early history of animation at Disney through various sources, mostly first-person accounts of the animators of that time.
I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Anaheim, CA at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure last week. In a unique dining experience while talking with Cast Members, I was reminded again of the vision Walt Disney exercised to bring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to life.
Tucked inside the entrance gates to Disney’s California Adventure is an iconic reproduction of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. One of the most important theaters in the Golden Age of Movies during the Twenties and Thirties, it represents the premier of a tremendous achievement by Walt Disney – the first full length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Though we now view Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as an animation classic, in the mid-1930’s the idea of a full-length “cartoon” was unheard of. Walt Disney took one of the biggest risks of his career, putting almost all of his resources – both business and personal – into the film. Called “Disney’s Folly” by most of Hollywood (and more than a few inside Disney Studios itself), the film opened to critical and financial success, paving the way for Disney to continue expanding his creative genius.
With critics becoming more vocal, Walt Disney knew he would have to inspire his team of artists and writers as never before.
The rest is history…
Ken Anderson, Art Director for Snow White, remembered it this way:
Walt approached a group of employees late one afternoon, gave each of them fifty cents, told them to grab dinner across the street and then return to the soundstage that evening. None had any idea of what Walt had in mind.
When they arrived and took their seats on wooden tiers at the back of the room, Walt was standing at the front lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space.
Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the character; mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualize exactly what they would be seeing on the screen.
He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs.
Anderson said the performance took over three hours. One animator later claimed, “that one performance lasted us three years. Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it on that night.”
– Neal Gabler, “Walt Disney-The Triumph of the American Imagination”
But there’s more to the story…
Along about the same time, Disney demonstrated his vision in another way. The new medium of television, though in its infancy, was growing.
According to Keith Gluck, writing for The Walt Disney Family Museum,
Before Walt Disney even understood the new medium of television, he still had the foresight to invest in it. Walt had learned from dealing with shady characters in the past to pay close attention to contracts. When his distribution deal with United Artists was coming to a close, he chose not to renew. UA was insisting on the television rights to all Disney cartoons. “I don’t know what television is, and I’m not going to sign away anything I don’t know about,” Walt said. He ended up signing with RKO Pictures in late 1935.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937, distributed by RKO Pictures. It was a smashing success, and was later given an honorary Academy Award for its groundbreaking achievements. It was no typical Oscar, either – the award instead was one statuette with seven miniature statuettes!
There’s one more piece to this vision puzzle…
Over a decade later, Walt’s interest in television began to develop. In 1948 he spent a week in New York with the specific purpose of watching and learning more about television. By the time he returned to the Studio, he was convinced it was just the forum to help promote his work. He even told Studio Nurse Hazel George, “Television is the coming thing.” While other movie studios were trying to think of ways to thwart the coming of television, Walt was gearing up to embrace it.
– Keith Gluck, The Walt Disney Family Museum
By being the first studio producer to become involved with the fledgling medium of television, Disney was able to leverage that partnership into a financing arrangement that allowed him to bring another dream to reality – Disneyland.
Walt had a grander vision of what his shows could do on ABC, and how they could be used to promote Disneyland. Despite pressure from the other studios, Walt and Roy Disney signed a contact with Leonard Goldenson of ABC, in which the network put up $500,000 in cash, guarantee $4.5 million in loans, and receive one-third ownership in Disneyland (which it later sold back to Disney).
– J. Jeff Kober, Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz
With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Walt’s vision and imagination took on a reality that people could see, hear, and feel – an experience that changed entertainment forever.
Walt Disney’s Vision Lesson for Leaders Today
Walt Disney’s unique vision, personalized in the telling of Snow White, demonstrated in the far-reaching aspects of a contract, and brought to life at Disneyland, can be a model for church leaders today.
When God wants change, He affects the heart of the leader first.
To help people see the invisible, the leader must first understand how to unlock the imagination. How does the leader influence the imagination? Through metaphors, blended with the art of storytelling and question asking.
If the leader has any hope of painting a memorable picture of the future, it will be with the vivid and compelling language of metaphor – living language – that penetrates the soul as much as it illumines the mind.
– Will Mancini, Church Unique