WALT DISNEY– The Man and His Creations, Come Alive at the Walt Disney Family Museum – WITH SENTINEL FINE ARTS WRITER JUDITH KAHN

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BY JUDITH KAHN
Sentinel Fine Arts Writer
Judith Kahn © 2009
Photo by Zoe Christopher

Walt Disney and his innovative creations come alive when visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum. The Museum is located in the three historic buildings at 104 Montgomery Street within the Presidio of San Francisco. As one walks through the seven chronologically arranged galleries in the museum, one learns both about the life of Walt Disney and how he pioneered the animation industry, bringing it to a state of art that was unheard of in his day. Little was known about animation when Walt Disney started in 1921. In the 1920s most artists produced extremely simple films that relied on the novelty of movie drawings. Some were based on popular newspaper features and comic strips.

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The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse, 1928.
Photo, Walt Disney Family Foundation

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Dumbo with Mother, from the storyboard, 1941.
Photo, Walt Disney Family Foundation

One enters the world of Walt Disney by taking an elevator entitled “the Santa Fe”, the name of the train that Disney took from Kansas City to California in 1921. The interior of the elevator gives you the feeling that you are riding in a coach car looking out at the Kansas country side as you head west to California. As you stroll through the galleries you learn how Disney created his beloved characters like the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Mickey Mouse, Bambi, and Pinocchio. You will see clips of his early films like the Comedies of Alice from his popular film, Silly Symphony.

The museum frames the story of Walt Disney’s life and the creations of his beloved characters by incorporating a wide range of materials and technologies from historic documents: artifacts, interactive displays, to listening stations. Some of the artifacts displayed are: the studio’s original multi-planed camera cranes, the underwater camera used for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the Lilly Belle train, which was modeled after the Carolwood Pacific Railroad’s Old Engine known as Engine No.173. The train is a 1/8 scale model of a real steam engine train. It has 11 box cars, a yellow caboose and ran on steam and burnt coal. Folks who came to visit Walt Disney at his home would enjoy riding it around his home grounds. In addition, there is the ambulance that he drove in France during World War II and the optical printer that was used to create magical effects in Mary Poppins. Often in the different exhibits, you will hear Walt Disney himself or his colleagues talking about how he created some of his outstanding films such as Fantasia, his beloved characters or the award-winning live-action documentary, Seal Island.

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Walt Disney and the Lilly Belle.
Photo, Walt Disney Family Foundation

Each gallery shows pivotal moments of Disney’s life and work from the time of his birth in 1901 until his death in 1966. For example, the time he came to California with his brother Roy in 1923 with $40 in his pocket and rose to international fame with the creation of Micky Mouse, and his movie masterpieces Fantasia, Seven Dwarfs, and Snow White, and his first successful film, Alice Comedies.

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Walt Disney, early 1930s.
Photo, The Walt Disney Company

Walt Disney is known for his visionary powers and commitment to excellence. It was this commitment that empowered him to make his visions become a reality. His innovations were many. He created the first films that successfully synchronized sound and animation. He created the first movie soundtrack to be released as a consumer recording. He produced one of the first nature documentaries and was one of the first to receive an Academy Award for a documentary film. He created an innovative tram system with no on-board motor in Disneyland called the “People Mover”. He created the first theme park of its kind – Disneyland . He embraced TV as a platform to test and promote his ideas while securing the financing needed to complete what was to become the world’s first theme park of its kind.

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Pinocchio Character Model, c. 1940.
Photo, Walt Disney Family Foundation

He recognized the power of art and sparked the imagination of his staff and others. He was not a man to slow down after achieving success. “He would push himself and his company to the breaking point as he pursued the highest level of excellence in everything he did” said animator Marc Davis. After the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney said “we can not let down, we must keep building” and build he did.

Walt Disney insisted that his drawings not only move but that they move as full personalities with individual characteristics that affected the way they moved. They had real feelings which in turn made them seem more real to the audience. Walt Disney paid for his animators to attend figure drawing classes at The Chouinard Art Institute. Later he opened a school on the studio lot and eventually he founded Cal Arts. “It was under his leadership that the principals of animation and communication were established” explained cartoon director Chuck Jones He noted that almost all the tools were created at Disney’s. His animators found a new cinematic expression they called “sincere animation” – a magical communication between moving drawings and audiences. The animators made us believe fantastic things because the creations did fantastic things: Bambi ice skating, two dogs having a romantic dinner. His characters participated in activities that people did – ice skating, hippos and an alligator in a sexy pas de deux. John Canemaker pointed out that Walt once said that the most important aim of any of the fine arts “is to get a purely emotional response from the beholder”. Surely his cartoons did. It was this belief that caused the public to become so attached to his characters.

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Fawn Bambi, concept art, 1942.
Photo, Walt Disney Family foundation

Disney grew up drawing. When he was a young child on the farm his father’s sister, called Little Maggie, would bring him huge tablets and pencils and he would entertain his sister Ruth with drawings when she was sick. He recalls in one of his sound clips in the exhibit that he would go once a week to the barbershop and draw “caricatures of all the critters that hung out there”. He did a cartoon every week in exchange for a free hair cut. When working for the Kansas Star, he took every chance he could to visit the art department. The paper had a great art department and was known for its comic strips – in particular the editorial cartoons with stock characters that represented current public figures and topical situations. He was raised on the socialist newspaper Appeal To Reason. When living in Girad, Kansas he would practice drawing the characters on the front page cartoon. He took pride in the fact that he could draw the fat capitalist and the labour guy with his little paper hat perfectly. He said he kept on practicing until he got them down pat – which he did! While attending McKinley High School as freshman, he worked on the school’s newspaper The Voice. There he created a comic strip called the Tiny Tribune. He would draw cartoons of events that occurred around the school and particular gags that the students played on each other.

Marc Davis, an animator, recalls,”We saw every ballet, every film. If a film was good we would see it five times, anything that might produce growth that might be stimulating – the cutting of scenes, the staging of scenes. Everybody was studying constantly. Every day was an excitement; whatever we were doing had never been done before.”

Through talks, lectures, classes and screenings, the Walt Disney Family Museum plans to continue to explore Disney’s impact on animation and his push to perfect new technologies. Talks and lectures feature scholars of animation and the life and work of Walt Disney. Concerts will showcase performances by some of the Bay Area’s best musicians. On Oct. 30 and 31 The Skelton Dance and other bone chilling cartoons will be shown.

To learn more about this museum visit their website at WaltDisney.org or call the museum directly at 415-345-6800. The Disney Museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed every Tuesday and on January 1st, July 4th, Thanksgiving Day and December 25th.

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Mickey Mouse commanding the brooms. Thomas Codrick, 1940.
Photo, Walt Disney Family Foundation

See Related: MUSEUMS WITH SENTINEL FINE ARTS WRITER JUDITH KAHN

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For pleasurable dining experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area,
order this guidebook by Judith Kahn:
PATIO ESCAPES – San Francisco & Bay Area Guide to Alfresco Dining



Judith Kahn is an author, radio producer, walking tour guide and teacher who has been featured in Who’s Who in California. She has written numerous articles about the San Francisco Bay Area, its restaurants, events, culture, and history.

Ms Kahn has also written two books: The first, Indulge Yourself, is a guide to San Francisco’s many coffeehouses, originally released in 1982 and later expanded for a second edition. And the recently released Patio Escapes. Judith created a historic walking tour of cafes called “Café Walks,” this grew into a second career. Judith then developed five different walking tours; a hike through North Beach and Russian Hill, a daytime excursion to the Haight-Ashbury district, walks through The Richmond, Seacliff and Pacific Heights neighborhoods as well as the Marina District. Her background as a history teacher, her dedication to walking and her love of the area make her the perfect tour guide.

Following the success of the walking tours she wrote and produced the weekly radio show “San Francisco Underfoot” sponsored by KALW. The show covered unique San Francisco happenings and the backstage stories of community events. Ms. Kahn has written articles for San Francisco Focus, Travel Age West, World Airways Inflight Magazine and Inside San Francisco. She is currently working as a features-reporter for the Richmond Review, Sunset Beacon, and is the fine arts writer for the San Francisco Sentinel. Ms. Kahn works and writes in San Francisco.

Email Judith Kahn at: Fayekahn@aol.com

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