The event I am recalling happened fifty-one years ago today...
I am getting ready for school and, suddenly, my father is 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 day, to the BBC’s morning
I ought, perhaps, to have dashed downstairs to listen to 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 sketchbooks – 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 ink and paint and then
imbued them with a power to move people to laughter or tears; I was 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 know. Not
only had I never met Walt Disney, I had – rather surprisingly – never even
written him a fan letter. Yet, I had been bereaved of someone who held a truly unique
place in my affections and the loss felt achingly huge.
During the fifty years since that day, I have continued to
study and, occasionally, write about the life and work of Walt Disney and, in
the process, had the privilege of meeting many of those who knew, loved and (occasionally)
loathed the man.
Now, once again, I am working on a book about Disney and am
realising that I am passing on a torch to those who will come after who will
not have the familiarity of having lived when Disney was still known throughout
the world as a flesh-and-blood person as opposed to just a corporate name
represented by a copyrighted signature.
That knowledge, as much as anything else, is what fires my enthusiasm, because,
whilst my experiences and encounters have brought me very close to feeling that
I understand much about the personality and character of Walter Elias Disney, I
have never been – and never will 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.
A version of this post was first published in 2016.