Saturday 15 December 2012


I am recalling an event that happened forty-six years ago today...

I am getting ready for school and, suddenly, there is my father calling up the stairs: 'Brian... Walt Disney has died!'

Downstairs I heard the murmuring drone of radio voices as my father – busy brewing early-morning tea – listens, as he does every morning, to the BBC Radio news programme, Today.

I ought, perhaps, to have dashed downstairs to catch the reports, absorb the details, gather up the tributes. After all, Walt Disney was my hero. A strange idol for a teenage lad, maybe – but that is what he was.

I collected every book, magazine and trivial snippet that I could find about Disney and his studio. I was forever copying pictures of Disney characters in my sketch-books – in fact my youthful ambition was to be a Disney artist, to animate those fabulous beings that appeared in his films. I longed to be a part of that mystical process that created characters out of pencil, ink and paint and then imbue them with a power to move people to laughter or tears. I was, I admit, obsessed by the man and his movies.

Later that morning, on my way to school, I would buy the daily newspapers and – in a corner of the playground at morning break – pore over the obituaries; but, at the moment of first hearing the news, I had only one response: I sat on the edge of my bed and wept.

For the first time in my young life I experienced that bizarre phenomenon: a feeling of overwhelming grief at the death of someone whom I did not really know. Not only had I never met Walt Disney, I had – rather surprisingly – never even written him a fan-letter. Yet, I felt – as many others have felt on hearing of the death of some public figure, president or pop-star – that I had lost a friend, been bereaved of someone who held a unique place in my affections. The loss felt achingly huge; a void had yawned open in my life that I doubted could ever be filled...

In the four-and-a-half decades since that day, I have continued to study – and occasionally write about – Disney's life and work. I have also had the privilege of meeting many of those who knew, worked with, loved and (sometimes) loathed the man. Such encounters have brought me very close to feeling that I understand at least something of the unique personality and character that was Walter Elias Disney.

But I have never been – never shall be – as close to him as I was on that morning when my father called upstairs to tell me the news that Walt Disney had died...

That memory triggers another from six or seven years later...

My early fascination with Disney movies had been suddenly intensified when I borrowed R D Feild's book, The Art of Walt Disney from my local library. Here was someone who, unlike my Mum, didn't think of 'cartoons' as kid's stuff you ought to have grown out of by the time your voice breaks.

I wanted a copy of The Art of Walt Disney more than anything else in the world and began scouring the second-hand bookshops, which is how I stumbled on Fred Zentner. He later became The Cinema Bookshop in London’s Great Russell Street, but when I first met him he was selling film books, stills, posters and other gems – including a copy of the much-lusted-after Art of Walt Disney – from the basement of the Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, just round the corner from the British Museum. Once found, I began, bit by bit, buying up Fred's stock of Disneyana.

Then came the day when he placed into my hands a copy of The Story of Walt Disney by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, as told to Pete Martin. It was a first edition American hardback, published by Henry Holt & Co (New York) in 1956. It still had its original dustwrapper with a portrait of Walt by studio artist, Al Dempster...

And what's more, it was ––– SIGNED!

There, on the half-title page, in green biro, with that distinctive bold handwriting was the inscription...

It was his very signature – including the little circle over the 'i' in 'Disney' that I emulated in my own signature. This man – whom I had never met but who exercised an obsessive fascination over me – had held this book, opened it and inscribed his name inside.

'How much is it?' I whisper, holding my breath.

'Forty pounds,' he replies.

All those years ago, yet I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.

It was an awful lot of money!

I wanted it! No, I craved it! But, FORTY POUNDS...

Forty pounds for a book? My mother would go bananas! Besides, I couldn't afford it. I didn't have forty pounds. I didn't know when I ever would have forty pounds. But, right there and then, I desired that book with a passion that, call me eccentric if you will, I have scarcely felt about anything since.

But, how was it possible? FORTY POUNDS! It was way beyond my meager means. Then Fred Zentner showed himself to be a man who understood the full anguish of desire, because he made me an offer. If I paid him ten pounds a month for the next four months, he would keep the book for me until I had paid the full forty.

So, month on month, I made my pilgrimage to the Atlantis Bookshop, looked at the swirling green signature and paid another ten pounds.

Then, one day, it was mine.

Fast-forward thirteen years. I am standing in the Archive at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California, talking to Archivist, Dave Smith. I am there researching a television documentary about EPCOT Center and I mention, in conversation, that the prize of my Disney collection was an autographed copy of The Story of Walt Disney

Dave Smith laughs and asks a question that almost brings the universe crashing down around my ears.

'Are you sure it's actually signed by Walt Disney?'

'Of course! It says so, in green biro: ‘Best Wishes Walt Disney’!'

'That may be,' he replies, 'but many people at the Studio – some of them distinguished animators – signed books and pictures on Disney's behalf.'

I look stunned. But, Dave goes on: 'The Disney signatures by these other artists are more like the famous logo signature that appears on Disney movies and merchandise. Walt's personal signature, however, is quite distinctive. Would you like to see a GENUINE Disney signature?'

Nothing could be simpler: within seconds I could know whether or not I owned the real thing. Or, I could leave things as they were. Except, of course, that now I couldn't. Dave Smith had sowed a terrible seed of doubt...

I hesitate for no more than a second: 'Yes, let's see a GENUINE Disney autograph…'

Then, relief and joy! 'It is just like mine!'

When, a few years later, I got to know Diane Disney Miller, I asked her about the book and she told me that her father used to sign copies for sale in the bookshop at Disneyland, which was very probably where my copy had originally been purchased.

She also explained that whilst The Story of Walt Disney carried her name as author (and, indeed, included many of her own reminiscences) it had been Walt himself who had collaborated directly with Hollywood biographer Pete Martin on the book. However, her father had decided that it would be better if his life-story were presented as if told by his daughter, partly because he felt that to tell it himself might appear arrogant, and partly because he wanted the recently married Diane to earn some money.

A decade passed and I found myself in San Francisco working with Diane in co-presenting a radio series for the BBC about her father. On this occasion, I had carried the treasured volume with me and I asked her to add her signature to the book’s title page.

Diane was modestly reluctant – since, as she had already told me, she didn’t consider herself in any sense the book’s ‘author’. However, eventually, she graciously relented and inscribed the book...

A few more years down the road, I had acquired a British edition of The Story of Walt Disney published by Odhams Press (London) in 1958...

I decided to take it with me when I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth in which I appeared (albeit briefly) as an interviewee. At the party afterwards, chatting with Diane and her husband Ron, I produced this volume and asked whether the book’s Non-Author would oblige with another inscription!

Appreciating the joke, she unhesitatingly agreed. Beneath the printed sub-title – ‘An intimate biography by his daughter, DIANE DISNEY MILLER, as told to Pete Martin’ – she wrote: 'Actually, Brian - we know better, don’t we? Warmest, warmest regards, Diane.'

Nowadays, the autograph business is big business: copies of the recent reprint of The Story of Walt Disney with Diane's signature sell for several hundred dollars and someone, in a recent American auction, paid over three thousand dollars for a copy of the original edition signed (also in green biro!) by Walt.

So, all in all, I think that original - and seemingly astronomical - forty pounds of mine was money incredibly well spent!

It is not, however, for any financial value that I treasure these volumes, but for the even more valuable memories and associations that they hold…

Post Script:

Here's a link to a good article on the evolution of the Disney autograph, which includes the one in my signed copy of The Story of Walt Disney, depicted in the above post...


Andy Latham said...

It is a curious feeling when someone we don't know - but feel like we do - dies. It feels like it shouldn't be such a strong feeling. The most recent example I can think of is Neil Armstrong. He's the kind of guy - a childhood hero - that I thought would just last forever. So sad to see these role models go; it leaves you with a sense that you are a little more alone in the world than you were yesterday.

Beth Stilborn said...

What a lovely tribute to Mr. Disney, Brian. How much a part of my childhood Disney was! Movies, of course, but especially the Mickey Mouse Club on television, and the Sunday night ritual of his program at six o'clock. (Ironically, all the years that "The Wonderful World of Color" was on television, I watched it in black and white!)

Today is also the anniversary of the death, in 2010, of someone I grieve in this manner, Blake Edwards. Andy's words are so true.