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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2001 /21 Kislev, 5762

Michael Ledeen

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Consumer Reports

Remembering my family friend, Walt Disney -- YESTERDAY marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Walt Disney, a great American with whom I had a special bond. My late father designed the air-conditioning system at the Disney Studios in Burbank in the late 1930s and early 40s, and I was born out there a few months before Pearl Harbor, just as the air-conditioning job was finished. We moved east shortly afterwards, and then returned for a year when I was seven, and I later went to Pomona College while Disneyland was being built. According to family legend, my mother was the model for Snow White, and we have a picture of her that does indeed look just like the movie character (although my mother could not carry a tune, and never sang "Some Day My Prince Will Come," maybe because hers already had).

All through my childhood we were an adjunct of the Disney universe. We got wonderful Christmas cards, with sneak previews of forthcoming movies. My bedroom was stocked with Disney creatures, from Mickey and Donald to Pooh and Eeyore. When we went back to southern California, we visited Walt and Roy, and I got to see Walt's "secret room," which you got to by pushing a button under his desk and then a wall panel opened and revealed a playroom full of all kinds of toys and gadgets. And his house was really a playhouse; there was a model train that ran from the kitchen out to the backyard, and on a good day the train would come puffing out with hamburgers and cokes. Such fun.

Then in college I had pretty much free run of Disneyland, and got to go on all the rides even before the park was entirely open. So I'm a Disney friend and a Disney fan, although the days of those privileges are long gone. But not my appreciation of Walt's genius. (Nor my refusal to believe the "scoops" according to which he was a vicious anti-Semite. He was certainly good to my Jewish family.) He was a great American with our passion for happiness (a truly revolutionary idea), and an insistence that any dream could be fulfilled if you just worked hard enough.

Most of all, he and Roy — who really ran the place — insisted on high quality. When they made Fantasia, they hired Leopold Stokowski to conduct his orchestra. And there were other cartoons, rarely seen nowadays, built around fine music (Make Mine Music, for example). Indeed, in a typical Disney cartoon, the soundtrack came first, and then the artists drew the celluloids so they fit, not the other way around.

My father used to tell the story of the day when one of the early television entrepreneurs came to the Disneys with a merger proposal. It looked like big money, and, as more modern financial wizards would say, a perfect fit: The TV network had the medium, and Disney had the product. Walt turned it down, because he instantly saw that television, with its voracious appetite for material to fill up its tiny screen for 24 hours a day, would corrupt the quality of his product. He believed that a great movie was always produced according to its own internal deadlines, not those of a broadcaster, and if he accepted the television deal, his movies would get worse.

I think that story, more than any other I know, shows us the source of Disney's consistently high quality, and holds a lesson for us all. No one, not even the greatest genius, can hope to produce masterpieces on demand. Even the best columnists run out of things to say from time to time, and we would all be better off if they were permitted to be quiet on those occasions. This insight, or something akin to it, underlies the good intentions that created academic tenure, and I suspect that the great sponsors of the arts, from the Medicis to the Rothschilds, understand it well, which is why they kept artists afloat during the bad years.

But it's rare indeed to find someone who sticks by this principle when offered enormous rewards to join the trend and cash in. Walt Disney stayed out and stayed great. Would that his successors had done as well.

JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Tocqueville on American Character . Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Ledeen