Monday, January 10, 2011

The Walt Disney Family Museum

On the Monday after Christmas, I ended up joining my family and friends at the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is located in the Presidio in San Francisco. I have to admit that not only had I never heard of the museum before, which opened in October, 2009, but left to my own devices, I would not have been particularly driven to go there. My thoughts about Disney in recent years have mostly been about Disneyland and other later enterprises, and though I researched a fair amount of fascinating tidbits for a trivia book I co-wrote about Southern California a few years ago, some of the darker aspects of a Disney envisioned society have lingered.

But oddly, this museum, which is funded by the family foundation and not by the huge media entity, the Walt Disney Company, took me back to a more elementary relationship to the man. Although there were cartoons enough to entertain the younger cohort of our group for awhile, the museum actually speaks more to people of my generation. There is also something about the way that it is designed that quickly separated me from all my companions and so it was that in a somewhat disembodied state I traveled through largely alone.

When I was a kid, our first television was a black and white set in an era when television was still new and impressive enough that the set rated its own substantial wooden cabinet. Pretty much every Sunday night, we watched "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color". Although the theme song, which begins "The world is a carousel of color" echoes in my head to this day, it would be quite a few years before we actually had it transmitted to us in anything but black and white, though the discordance didn't really strike us very much at the time. For some reason, the one that remains imprinted on memory is "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates", which was surely a strange choice for a girl who was not to even see snow for several years to come.

But what the museum really succeeds in bringing back is the persona of the man himself. The television hour always began with Walt, dressed impeccably in a suit that would scream Mad Men to the present era, introducing us reassuringly not just to the hour that was to follow, but to the future. His own interest in his next project, whatever it might be, was so winning that no one could doubt that whatever future he was envisioning had to be as American as apple pie.

We had an odd relationship to Disneyland itself, though. We actually lived for several years in the neighboring community of Buena Park, which was close enough that on summer nights, we would peer out of the upstairs window and watch the nightly fireworks, which were just visible over the distant trees. We also had a family friend who was an illustrator at the Disney studios, and my childhood friend Lisa gained considerable cachet in being able to borrow a film version of Cinderella and show it on the home projector at her birthday party.

Despite all this, though, we did not visit Disneyland. Even then, it was a pricey experience in relation to actual wages, and we were a single income family of that era, and had to content ourselves with the then free Knott's Berry Farm, which actually was pleasure enough. Still, when we were about to move north, my parents must have decided we should see the place before we left, so one day my mother actually took us out of school on a weekday and she and my sisters and I went to Disneyland together. It remains vividly impressed on my mind to this day, and none of my teenage cynicism or adult wariness of the Disney vision can diminish it.

In roaming through the museum, though, it is Walt himself who remains predominant. Coincidentally, my father shared his name, though it is actually my mother's family that the Disneys remind me of. Perhaps it's because my dad's clan were never Californians, but the Bruntons and the Stanleys did all make the trek west and shared in the Disney optimism about the United States, and California in particular. It is in some ways, I think, a Republican vision, if Republican can be equated anymore with individual enterprisingness and small scale entrepeneurship. Disney suffered a few failures that might have quelled lesser spirits, but he was always looking to the next thing.

The similarity, though, goes beyond politics. There are a lot of family films of the early twenties and thirties displayed in the museum, and they chronicle an era that we in a more jaded time might forget. What I saw a lot of as I watched these old clips was simple family affection. It seemed at times that they could hardly keep their hands off each other, though in a post-Freudian era this might be suspect. Really, though, I think they were just so happy to be together, couldn't get enough of each other, really, and in an age of disillusionment, I am happy to think that this is somewhere in my roots as well.


  1. You brought back memories from my own childhood, including that yearning to see Disneyland.

  2. Seana

    And of course the cyrogenically frozen Walt is the centrepiece, right? Or so the rumours would have us believe.

  3. Seana, you're post makes me long for a much simpler time and place. It's a shame Disney Land, (I'm assuming as I've never been there), doesn't bring that feeling back.

  4. Kathleen, yes, it was big on the nostalgia factor, which makes me wonder what the kids in the group got out of it. One thing which even I appreciated was that it conveyed a lot of information even if you didn't want to stand and read all the text, which frankly I wasn't much in the mood for.

  5. Adrian, the cryogenic head and for that matter, the cryogenic body frozen under Pirates of the Caribbean came up a lot in the lore when I was searching for trivia nuggets, and sadly the best evidence is that it isn't true, which I'm sure you already know. It's a pretty great urban legend, though, and he does seem like just the type to experiment with something like that if it had been feasible.

    They probably should at least have had one of those animated robots of him like he made of Lincoln, but they didn't.

  6. Glenna, yes, though America was never really the place that the museum invokes, I think there was an era in Southern California that spanned the time that my grandparents and their families came out or grew up and went through my mother's childhood where California really was the Golden State, at least for some.

    One of the stories that came up at the time of my mom's memorial was that her father started at a bank as the janitor and ended as the bank manager. It was a time when such things were really possible--well, if you were white and didn't speak with a heavy accent. But it certainly wasn't class privilege that got him where he ended up, which was as a lawyer with a downtown L.A. office.

  7. I used to watch the Walt Disney television shows under their various names. I was always disappointed when the evening's presentation was not a cartoon.

    In honor of Walt, you could subtitle your blog Seana's Wonderful World of Ignorance for this post only.

    Adrian has Walt Disney mixed up with Ted Williams. One created Mickey Mouse. The other was the last man to hit .400.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  8. The second is also a homeless man with a radio announcer's voice who has "gone viral".

    Unfortunately, I have a feeling that this Ted Williams is not going to end in the Hall of Fame, given that he was detained by the LAPD a few hours ago.

  9. Yeah, but his head probably won't end up as part of someone's Swanson's frozen dinner, either.

  10. Yes, I hope his is a far better fate than that. Swanson's. Now that takes me back...

  11. I'm suddenly wondering about all of those turkey and dressing Swanson dinners I was fed as a kid.

  12. I'd advise you not to think about it for too awfully long, Glenna.

  13. I worked for 30 years in the Ulster-Folk Museum - an open air park with traditional houses moved in, landscaped and furnished in period (c.1900. It is a very Scandinavian/European type of Museum, with the emphasis on the way of life of ordinary people. We were all very precious about its academic authenticity and integrity - the worst possible insult was to compare it to Disneyland. But we had a very enlightened Director who said "what's wrong with that - Disneyland is a brilliant museum of American popular culture".
    Years later I visited it, and he was right and I loved it. (of course being with kids helps too!)
    Nice post Seana.