The man behind Mickey and the theme parks

By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2009

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Mortimer Mouse?

The original name for Walt Disney’s famous cartoon mouse certainly didn’t roll off a child’s tongue in the same way that Mickey did, and Lillian Disney knew it (she persuaded her husband to change it). It’s one of the quirky historical details presented at the new Walt Disney Family Museum, which aims to tell the backstory of the imaginative pioneer of American animation.

Situated in a renovated historic barracks in San Francisco’s Presidio - with glorious views of the Golden Gate Bridge - the $110 million museum has 10 permanent galleries that trace the arc of Disney’s life and work. It is financed by the nonprofit Walt Disney Family Foundation. Family members chose San Francisco because their private archive has been stored in a Presidio warehouse since 2001, and many of them still live in and around the city. It’s also an especially fitting location since the Bay Area is now home to the giants of animation that Disney’s work made possible: Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Lucasfilm.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from an institution that sprang from the desire of Disney’s children to honor the man and separate him from the company he created. But the museum somehow avoids being a staid, sanitized trip through the family photo album. At its best, the eclectic collection succeeds as a singular and revealing meeting of personal memorabilia, pop-culture artifacts, and diaries of technical innovation.

We are taken through Disney’s early life in Chicago and Kansas City, and we even get a peek at his old schoolbook doodles: a drawing of a long-beaked character in boots, circa 1917; sketches of ladies in hats. As a teenager, he hung out in a Kansas City barbershop and drew everyone in sight. In exchange for his caricatures of locals, he got free haircuts.

Some of Disney’s first hits were a mix of live action and animation - “The Alice Comedies’’ feature a live-action little girl who frolicked in a cartoon world. As the 1920s wore on, the creator became more interested in animation, resulting in more screen time for the cartoon characters and less room for Alice.

In 1928, a mouse was born, and by the early 1930s, the mouse was famous. The 1933 “Mickey’s Gala Premier’’ even pokes fun at the character’s incredible popularity. The short showcases a parade of the era’s stars - including Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, all in cartoon form - as they arrive at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for Mickey’s new movie release (it was called “Galloping Romance’’).

The studio’s preparation in the years leading up to 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’’ the first feature-length cartoon, was extraordinary: Disney paid for his animators to attend figure-drawing classes, and eventually founded CalArts. His artists created “Silly Symphonies,’’ cartoon shorts that were often set to classical works, to practice their technique. One of these starred Mickey; it eventually became the stunning magical feature called “Fantasia.’’

We forget how beautiful hand-drawn animation can be. The model sheets for “Snow White’’ - pencil sketches of Snow White’s facial expressions and moods - are simply lovely to look at. The film cost Disney $1.4 million to make, a fortune in those days; everybody predicted failure. Its original gross was $8.5 million worldwide, the equivalent of several hundred million dollars today. In 1939, Disney won a special Academy Award for “Snow White;’’ the trophy is displayed in the museum lobby (it has one large Oscar and seven small Oscars on descending pedestals).

The museum is overseen by Richard Benefield, founding executive director and formerly the deputy director of the Harvard University Art Museums. Under his stewardship, there’s something here for everyone. “I really can’t think of another museum that has this kind of a collection,’’ he told me when I visited - one that marries the personal story and the popular story, telling it through a man’s own words, as well as the words of his collaborators, all supplemented with rare photographs, drawings, and pioneer technologies.

Kids may snore through the old camera displays, instead racing to “The Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination,’’ an intricately detailed, sprawling model of the mad utopia that Disney originally had in mind (it was built by the special-effects division of Industrial Light and Magic). Adults, on the other hand, will linger by the optical printer and the multiplane camera, and by the fascinating artifacts of WWII-era Disney propaganda and training films. It’s important to note that this is no theme park, though older children will love the toy train and interactive games and displays, and younger kids will be well entertained by the movies shown in the in-house theater.

At times, the museum galleries are a bit of a mishmash (do we really need to see Disney’s lawn-bowling bag and bowlers?). But when the mix is right, an exhibit can showcase the same whiz-bang energy and pluck that Disney himself had in bringing the animation processes to life.

In the 1920s, it was a challenge to synchronize sound to a picture. Disney was a visionary; he figured out how to keep time by using a bouncing ball. In 1928, “Steamboat Willie’’ was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon released, and the first cartoon ever with synchronized sound. In the movie, Mickey the deckhand whimsically plays “Turkey in the Straw’’ with an animal menagerie, to impress Minnie; the actual soundtrack was created with a 15-piece band.

I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time by an interactive display that lets you use an assortment of drums and xylophones to create a musical soundtrack that syncs up with the on-screen action. I banged and plonked and grinned, like, well, a kid again. And if you had tried to enroll me in the Mortimer Mouse Club while I banged away, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at

If You Go

Walt Disney Family Museum

104 Montgomery St.

The Presidio of San Francisco

San Francisco, CA 94129


Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults $20; children 6-17 $12.50; under 6 free.

Film screeningsare held three times a day in the 114-seat theater, with a new feature every month. In November, “Sleeping Beauty’’ will be aired; in December, a special “Christmas With Disney’’ film will air, compiled for the museum from rarely seen home movies and footage from “Fantasia,’’ “Pluto’s Christmas Tree,’’ and holiday television specials.

An in-house cafe is managed by Wolfgang Puck Catering; the museum store carries specialty logo items created for the institution.