In this week’s episode of Magic Time, top Disney historian Jim Korkis sits down with Gray Houser to debunk myths about Walt and Disneyland.
Buy Jim’s latest book “The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companion: Stories of How the World Began” on Amazon here.
Gray Houser: Hello, and welcome to Monorail News Weekly. This week, we have Jim Korkis on the show, author of a number of Disney history books, but most recently, The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companions, stories of how the world began. It’s over 200 pages, and it’s chock full of the history of Walt Disney, all the way from when they decided, hey, Florida might be a good place to build a park, all the way up to the opening in 1971. Check it out. We’re so excited to have Jim Korkis here. Jim, how are you today?
Jim Korkis: Hey. Just great. I just got off the Monorail, and I made sure to keep my hands and arms inside at all time, and as I disembarked here, I made sure to watch my head, and watch my step, and watch my language, if I didn’t do that. I’m here, and I’m happy to be back, and happy to talk about Disney history, and thank you so much for promoting my latest book. I’m very excited about that, because Walt Disney World is going to soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it’s gone through an awful lot of changes in five decades. I wanted to make sure that while there were people who were still alive, and new what was going on, that we document, and we put in one location the information of what it took to literally build a whole new world in Florida, and transform swamps, and flat land, and alligators, and Palmetto bugs, and all that into one of the top vacation destinations in the entire world, for the last couple of decades.
Gray Houser: Sounds absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to read it. It’s on my list now.
Jim Korkis: Okay. That’s good, and because there’s so many Disney books coming out these days, that it’s important to remind people, hey, you might want to take a look at this one as well.
Gray Houser: Exactly. Exactly, and Jim, the reason I asked to have you back was that I stumbled across a piece of academic writing that looked a little funny to me, and I sent it over to you, and I’m like, Jim, what do you think about this? You’re like, we should totally do a podcast on this, so here we are.
Jim Korkis: Right. Absolutely, and the thing is, is that Disney, and the topic of Disney, has become a legitimate topic for thesises in college. Once upon a time, and I was a schoolteacher. I taught every age group from elementary school up through college, and I remember in college, often times some of my teaching peers would go, oh, Disney. All of that Mickey Mouse stuff. All of that sugary… There’s nothing there. Now people are taking a look at that, and taking a look at Disney, and going, there’s things we can learn there about urban planning. There’s things we can learn there about marketing. There’s things we can learn about synergy. There’s things we can learn about leadership, and so it becomes very common now for many college students to write a thesis on some aspect of Disney. Unfortunately, a lot of these college students don’t have a background in Disney, and so they can’t really determine what is a legitimate source, and what is maybe a questionable source.
Jim Korkis: Because there are plenty of questionable sources that are out there, and in fact, we’ve talked about this, that there are books like Walt Disney, The Dark Prince of Hollywood, and Richard Schickles, the Disney version, and all of that. Both of those books make very broad assumptions, and with very little factual foundation. Even though much of the information in those books have been debunked over, and over, and over again…
Gray Houser: They’re still being [crosstalk 00:05:02].
Jim Korkis: Often times, somebody who’s doing research will find the book, but not find the debunking, the article that says, “Well, wait a minute. That’s not true.” It’s very much like we’re having a measles epidemic now because there was a lot of false information out there about vaccination. We know that that information was false, but so many people believed it that they didn’t vaccinate their children. Now, a measles that was supposed to be eradicated in the year 2000 has now come back as an epidemic worldwide, simply because people believe in false information, and didn’t go through, and find the information that debunked what they had read. The same thing happens with Walt Disney, and I make no apology for the fact that I really like, and I respect Walt Disney, but I never consider myself an apologist. I will not apologize for some of the things that were flaws that Walt had.
Jim Korkis: Walt could be very stubborn. Walt could have a fiery temper. He cold hold a grudge. He smoked. He drank. He even used very common swear words that he had picked up overseas, and when he was over there in France working with the military, and so those were common words, things like hell, and damn. Walt never used those in front of kids. He never used those in front of women, but sometimes those would still come out, and it’s important for us to realize that Walt was a human being. I think a lot of times we forget that. We think of him as, just like another Disney character, like Mickey Mouse, or Tigger, or Captain Jack Sparrow, or whatever. We don’t think of him as a human being, that he was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather. He did the best he could with what he had. He only had one year of high school education. He never graduated high school, so everything he accomplished was based on his own reading, asking other people questions about things.
Jim Korkis: This is pretty amazing, and often times, too, we have a tendency to judge people by the standards of…
Gray Houser: Today.
Jim Korkis: … Today. For instance, Walt smoked constantly, but everybody at that time smoked constantly. My father smoked constantly, and he had a heart attack, and as soon as they put in, did bypass surgery, he quit smoking cold, but again, he grew up in an era where this was common practice. It was common practice that I’ve come home from work. I’m going to have a drink or two to relax. In fact, I remember growing up that there was something called the food pyramid, that you should eat plenty of red meat every day, and drink plenty of milk. Now, nutritionists and all look at that in horror. No, yes, you can eat red meat, but you shouldn’t be eating tons of it every single day.
Gray Houser: This is an aside, but we talked… Now we have the plate, right, the food plate, and I was looking at some things, doing some research, talking to policy people, and they were telling me that there… When we developed the new plate under the Obama Administration, that there actually wasn’t a single nutritionist determining what should go on that plate. It was all different lobbyists.
Jim Korkis: That’s right. We want to sell more corn. We want… Lobbyists go all the way back to, even when the Popeye cartoons first came out, the carrot lobby actually went to the Fleischer brothers and said, “If you will change it so that Popeye eats carrots rather than spinach, we will give you X amount of money.”
Gray Houser: That’s hilarious.
Jim Korkis: It’s like, wait a minute, but again, and again, how can you blame some of these companies if it’s their job to promote their product? Again, the point that we’re making here is that things change. Things that were once acceptable are no longer considered acceptable. I grew up in a time where I saw adults talk to servers in a restaurant and say, “Hey, sweetie, come on over here. Hey, honey,” or make some comment about their physical appearance. My gosh, you do that today, you… They’re going to take you out and tar and feather you. Again, it wasn’t that these were bad people. This was the behavior that everyone was doing. What, for me, makes Walt extraordinary as a human being-
Gray Houser: It’s important that that doesn’t make the behavior okay, or all right.
Jim Korkis: It doesn’t make the behavior okay, but it makes it understandable of what that is.
Gray Houser: Right. Exactly.
Jim Korkis: What makes Walt Disney such a outstanding person is so many times, there are factual instances where he goes beyond that. In the case of women, he often gets slammed by, well, he didn’t really like women, and he didn’t give them job opportunities. Yes, he did.
Gray Houser: They always pull out the… It’s probably famous by now, the letter from like the 30s, that some little girl, wrote, and it’s like, Mr. Disney, I want to be an animator. It’s like three paragraphs on why you can’t be an animator, and of course-
Jim Korkis: Right. You start off in ink and paint. What you don’t understand is that was a standard letter, and that was a standard letter at every single animation studio, because especially during the Great Depression, the breadwinner for a family was usually the man, and if a woman was getting a job, it was usually because she was looking for a husband, or she was just doing that part-time. The first priority, she’d go to the man, because he is supporting the entire family. Whether that was a good assumption or not is questionable, but that was there, but that very same year, that that letter was sent out, was the same year that Walt hired the first female animator. [crosstalk 00:12:55] He didn’t get the credit. She even gets the credit on the film Bambi, and so you… Other animation studios are not hiring women. Walt is hiring women, and in fact, Walt is on the record. There’s a speech he gave in the 30s, and he said, “If women are as good an artist as a man, they should be given that chance.”
Jim Korkis: There’s a memo that is out there, and there’s a copy in the Disney archives, and it was to the entire staff, that he said, “Walt is just very upset that people are using language and making comments in front of the ink and paint girls,” and it had always been Walt’s philosophy that he wanted an environment where women could come and work without feeling harassed and uncomfortable. This is in the 1930s, and this is in writing. This isn’t just, well, Walt was a nice guy. Walt would hire people like Alice Davis. He would hire people like Mary Blair, and put them in positions of authority. This wasn’t happening other places.
Gray Houser: Anywhere else, and that gets left out of the story, right, because it’s more sensational to show that letter, and go-
Jim Korkis: Right, and again, what it is is the Disney company is getting hundreds of letters every week, so it’s just a simple thing to send out, a standard letter. I used to work at teaching Disney animation at the Disney Institute, and people would bring in their portfolios, and sometimes these young girls… Young boys as well, too, but these young girls would bring in their portfolios, and their parents had told them, “Oh, my gosh, you’re the greatest artist in the world,” and you take a look, and you go, they don’t have the basic understanding of anatomy. They don’t have the basic understanding that you can’t just keep drawing the character facing one way. You have to be able to draw the character from different angles, things like that, and you could see it immediately in a portfolio. For an official portfolio for the Disney company, that’s why they were limiting it to 20 to 30 drawings maximum, because literally you can tell within the first 10, but people were bringing in these portfolios with hundreds of drawings of everything, and expecting you to look at every single one.
Jim Korkis: It’s like, I already know that you need to go back and do some training, and all this, and so when you’re getting hundreds of things a week, then you have that standard letter that says, “Look, why don’t you come in and start in ink and paint,” and once they were in ink and paint, then it was easy to tell, did this person have a skill, did this person have a background, and you can move them up. It’s just like male animators had to start as in betweeners, which is one of the lowest positions in animation. You’re not just drawing between the animation of the lead animator, or even the assistant animator. You’re filling in the two or three drawings behind the lowest on the rung there. Because you’d make the least number of mistakes, but the people who were doing that, those who were skillful got moved up very, very quickly. Again, you have to look at… Again, if you’re a college student, you’re not going to know any of this stuff.
Jim Korkis: You’re not going to know anything about the process of animation. You’re not going to know what was animation like in the 1930s, or the 1940s? Not just at the Disney studio, but throughout the entire industry. What was the standard practice there? Here’s Walt opening a door to women in animation, and he’s getting no credit for it whatsoever. Not only did he offer women opportunity in animation, he offered them positions in story, and people go, well, that doesn’t… As far as Walt was concerned, story was the top position at the studio. Some of you have seen the Disney studio building at Burbank, the animation building. Walt’s office was on the top floor. The other offices on the top floor were for the story men. The animators were on the lower floors. That’s how important Walt felt that the story people were, so to move women into a position of, you’re going to work in story, that is Walt basically saying, “Hey, look, you know, this is important work. This is, and I think, you know, you’re capable of doing this.”
Jim Korkis: Walt did that with every woman at the studio. The studio nurse was Hazel George, and she was a great studio nurse. She got along with everybody there. She was the one who, if Walt’s old polo injury was acting up, she was the one who, at the end of the day, would come and put hot treatments on his back, and things like that, to loosen him up. He saw that, as she had a background in writing, and all of that, so he encouraged her to go into that. In fact, so Hazel George ended up writing the lyrics for over 90 songs for Disney. Again, in those days, people did not think that women should be involved in that, so she had to write it under a pseudonym, Gil George, G-I-L, Gil George, but she wrote 90 songs for Disney movies, the Mickey Mouse Club, things like that, and it was all because Walt encouraged her, and said, “Yes, go do this, and you know, you’re not just stuck being a nurse. You can do this.”
Jim Korkis: One of his nieces, Phyllis Sorrell, was in charge in the 1950s of the Disney commercial division, the ones that were making commercials for the TV using Disney characters. The head of that entire department was a woman, and so you take a look at things like that, and you go, holy… Again, for those who want to look these things up, I said that first female animator to receive a screen credit at Disney, that was Retta Scott, R-E-T-T-A, and she joined the story department in 1938.
Gray Houser: We talk about getting a credit, right? Now, everyone gets a credit in the movie, but back then, it was only high ranking people got credits.
Jim Korkis: Yeah. Yeah. Go take a look at the early Disney films. In fact, I take a look at Dumbo, because again, before going out to see the Tim Burton version, and there’s maybe… When it comes to animators, you’ve got maybe a dozen names. Not much more than that, and you had to produce X amount of footage in order to get any of that credit at all, and so she churned out an awful lot in order to be able to receive a credit. It wasn’t just like, well, this would be a nice thing to give a woman a credit on that. There’s dozens of names of women who were assistant animators, like Eleanor Folberg. Retta Davidson. Jane Shaddick. All of these women there, and again, none of these are mentioned in the books that are out there, so you’re going to… Although there was a book that came out last year, excellent book that I recommend, On Ink and Paint: Women at the Disney Studios in the Forties. Wonderfully researched, and one of the reasons to pick that up, too, is to take a look at all of these people who started in ink and paint, and then they moved their way up through the organization there.
Jim Korkis: For that to happen. Walt depended upon his female secretaries. He surrounded himself with all the… You also have to realize, too, that ink and paint was not considered a demeaning position. In fact, it was considered an extreme position that men did not have the patience or the motor skill to actually do it. In fact, if you go back and take a look, there were maybe a handful of men who were in ink and paint, and most would just not do it, because it was just so exacting. It was an art form in its own way, and in fact, I talked to the head of the ink and paint department in the, who was head of it in the 50s. I talked to her in 1990, and she said, “No, we didn’t consider it demeaning at all, and nobody else considered it demeaning. They saw that it was just, you know, extremely hard work, and Walt came down many times to compliment us, and congratulate us, and thank us, and we felt we were doing an important part of the process of animation there.”
Gray Houser: Right, and you know Jim, we were reading this, and it was talking a lot about the parks, right, and how the parks are inherently racist. It even talks about the location of Disneyland being specifically chosen so that African Americans couldn’t visit.
Jim Korkis: Right. I can debunk that very, very easily. When Disneyland opened July ’55, and one of the things they did to promote the park… There was a documentary, a people and places documentary called Disneyland USA. It runs about 45 minutes or so, and so it was then run in theaters throughout the world, and all of that. It was released early in ’56, but it was filmed in 1955, and the whole point of that was, there was nothing like Disneyland in the entire world, so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to show people what a Disneyland is. That was the whole point of the train going around the park, was so that you would board the train, and you would look out, and that you would see what is out there, so you would know where you wanted to go, and what you wanted to do. When Disneyland opened, there was only one train station. It was right there on Main Street, but if you look at that documentary, released 1956, but it was filmed in ’55, take a look at some of the segments, and especially take a look at the Autopia segment, and you will see two young black girls who are laughing and smiling.
Jim Korkis: They are each in their own Autopia car, driving along. Nobody is giving them a second look, and there are other instances in that, so you’ve got physical proof that this existed. It wasn’t just a case of, oh, well, on opening day, Sammy Davis, Jr. came into the park, and he rode on Autopia, and he went on these different… No. For Walt, it was open to everybody. In fact, you’ll see that black people who came to visit the park were just as dressed up as everybody else, often wearing hats, or gloves, and high heels, whatever, for that to happen. In fact, Walt hired black cast members, and one of the things that they say is really demeaning is, well, they had Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House. Again, Aunt Jemima, in those days, that was… Again, we’re not making a decision of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that, hey, this exists. Aunt Jemima was quite common, and in fact, the company hired actresses to portray Aunt Jemima, and go around the country to live events, to pancake races, things like that.
Jim Korkis: Aunt Jemima was on the maple syrup bottle, and all that, and so in Disneyland, you had an actress by the name if Aileen Lewis, who was playing Aunt Jemima, and Sully Sullivan, who worked there in ’55 as a Jungle Cruise skipper, said, “Oh, yeah, we all loved Aileen.” He said, “And often times in the morning, Walt would go specifically to the pancake house to get pancakes for breakfast,” because they would open and hour before the park opened, so that cast members could eat there breakfast if they wanted there, and Walt would go there. Aileen would come and sit with him, and Walt would talk to her about the park. What is she observing? What would she change? It’s like, wow. Okay. What is this? I keep reading things, too, of oh, no. If there were black people, they kept them all backstage. Nope. That was not the case.
Jim Korkis: In fact, Sully Sullivan said that working on the Jungle Cruise were some black cast members. Again, somebody’s going to say, “Well, that’s racist,” but it’s like, my gosh. You’re working out there, and you’re interacting with these people. Not a lot of black people went to Disneyland, and it was because of an economic reason, okay? When we hear, “Oh, yes, it’s a dollar admission to get into Disneyland,” and then you bought individual tickets for the attractions and all that, that can add up pretty quickly. If you don’t have-
Gray Houser: The New York Times, they wrote an article for opening day, and they said that it would be easy for a family of four to spend $100 in a day, and…
Jim Korkis: Right, which is-
Gray Houser: … I popped that in the inflation calculator, and that’s $1,000 in today’s money.
Jim Korkis: Yeah, which is why Walt introduced the concept of the ticket book, so right up front, you would know exactly how much you were spending. If you wanted to spend beyond that, that’s up to you, but you knew that a ticket book cost X amount, and that included your admission, and that included tickets for several different attractions, so that you could spend an entire day just for that amount. Yeah, the world went, oh, my gosh. This is expensive, and there were some people who, and there were some white families who just could not afford that, to get in. What was unusual in ’55, of Disneyland being open to everybody, of all races, of all sexes, of all whatever, religions, whatever, is that there were other venues where that didn’t happen. I was doing studying of the 1939 World’s Fair, because I wanted to see, what were some of the things at the ’39 World’s Fair that influenced the creation of Disneyland? I found that the 1939 World’s Fair, that was segregated, but there were certain days that were designated as negro day.
Jim Korkis: On those days, black people could come and visit the World’s Fair. One of the reasons they designated that, too, is that those people who didn’t want to go at the same time that black people were going to be there, they could avoid that day, but at Disneyland, there was no… Again, going back to that Disneyland USA documentary, you take a look, and there are people from, of all races, of all nationalities, and they’re out there, and they’re posing, and they’re smiling, and they’re having fun. It always reminded me of the story of, Walt took Reverend Billy Graham on the Jungle Cruise, and Billy Graham got off the Jungle Cruise, and he turned to Walt, and he said, “Walt, you’ve really created a wonderful fantasy here,” and Walt says, “What are you talking about?” He says, “The fantasy is outside the berm.” He said, “This is reality. You have everybody here, and they’re happy, and they’re smiling, and they’re getting along, and they’re behaving.”
Jim Korkis: He said, “If this is reality,” he said, “The fantasy’s outside.”
Gray Houser: The Jungle Cruise was the attraction that this particular academic work spent a lot of time focusing on, particularly the native scene, right, and that some of the jokes the skipper makes.
Jim Korkis: Again, and not apologizing, common practice. Often times, I have to say, “Hey, you know, Walt did it less than anybody else. The fact that he did it at all, okay. I’ll grant you that, but he did it much less than…” Because I often get criticisms about the early Disney cartoons. Oh, well, they had these black face cannibals, and they have these Jewish characters that are doing that Kosack dance, and all of that, and I go, yeah, but compare this to the ones that are being produced by the Fleischer studios, or compare this to the ones being produced by Warner Brothers, and all of this. Walt’s, they’re usually there for a couple of seconds, and then moves on, and you have to realize that when you’re doing cartooning, when you’re doing animation, you’re dealing with instant stereotypes that you pull up. You see that even in political cartoons today, and so you grab for an instant thing that’s going to get, trigger a response from an audience where they go, oh, oh, that’s what that is, and then you can go on from that.
Jim Korkis: You don’t dwell on that. You don’t spend the entire cartoon on that. People complained, well, in the original Three Little Pigs, the big bad wolf is this Jewish brush peddler. At that period of time, there were Jewish door-to-door salesman that were coming, and one of the reasons Walt did that is, okay, well, this is a… If somebody is disguising themselves to knock on the door, they’re going to disguise themselves as one of those peddlers, and of course, he’s going to want to make himself Jewish so the pigs feel safe, because no one Jewish is going to eat pork. Right? That was what the thinking was, but again, just years after that was done, Walt himself paid, and this was done very quietly. Walt didn’t publicize this. He didn’t take out anything in the newspaper. He paid for this out of his own pocket. I checked. This was not from the Disney studio. This was out of Walt’s own pocket, and I talked to the guy who did it, Jack Hannah.
Jim Korkis: Jack Hannah and his crew brought in… They were working on the Donald Duck cartoons. They were brought in, and they reanimated that entire segment so that the wolf is now a fuller brush salesman, to eliminate all of that. In Fantasia, you’ve got that unfortunate little character in the Rite of Spring, with the centaurs and the centaurettes. You have a little character called Sunflower, who is polishing their… She’s a centaurette as well, but she’s black, and she’s polishing their hooves, and doing their hair, and all of that, and she’s got this… She’s supposed to be a young character, so she’s got the hairstyle that was typical in movies of that time, of young girls. It looks like Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nobody talks about the fact that in 1960, Walt went through and had the character removed from Fantasia. When it was run on the Wonderful World of Color, and they ran that segment, you don’t see Sunflower.
Jim Korkis: Again, it’s, Walt was a human being, and he grew, and he grew in awareness. It’s like, yeah, when you’re a young kid in your twenties and whatever, you make these gags, and now, thanks to Twitter and the Internet, those will follow you for the rest of your life. Often times you do that, and then as you get older, you go, wait a minute. That’s not right. Wait a minute. That’s hurtful. Let’s not do that. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what I want…
Gray Houser: I think. Right. That’s not what I believe.
Jim Korkis: Yeah, and we talked about Walt hiring the first female animators there, and encouraging them to get out of ink and paint, and get into in-betweening, and get into assistant animating, and all that. Walt hired the first black animator, Floyd Norman. Good friend of mine, and in fact, not only did he hire Floyd Norman, he hired another black animator by the name of Frank Braxton, who gained training at the Disney Studio, and then left and went to Warner Brothers. I asked Floyd, and I’ve asked him many, many times, I said, “Well, did you see any evidence of even just casual racism,” which I would refer to as the fact of, well, everybody at the time is saying this, or doing this, or whatever, and Floyd says, “I didn’t even see any of that.” He said, “You know, there was a black janitor at the studio, Claude Wilson, and Walt just absolutely loved him, and actually hired Claude to be a bartender for his party.” Oh, and we’re getting musical background to this story?
Gray Houser: Yes, can we take a quick commercial break, and then come right back to that?
Jim Korkis: Sure, and then we’ll get back to black animators at the Disney Studio.
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Jim Korkis: We were talking about Floyd Norman, who is usually considered the first black animator hired at the Disney studio. He was hired by Disney himself, and when was he hired? We’re talking 1958. Okay, so actually it wasn’t ’58, because he was hired as an in-betweener in ’56, and then by ’58, he moved up and became a full animator, so 1956, try and imagine what’s going on in the world at that time, and here’s Walt, hiring a black animator at the Disney studio. Floyd said that he developed a friendship with Claude Wilson, who was the janitor, one of the janitors at the studio, and he was black, and Walt loved him, and had Claude come out to his house in Homby Hills, and serve as the bartender for some of Walt’s fancy parties. Floyd said, “You know, Claude never said a word about Walt being racist, and especially being a janitor,” you’re pretty much invisible when you’re going in, and cleaning out the rooms, and all that. People don’t pay any attention to you, so you overhear things, and all that.
Jim Korkis: He said he never heard Walt make a racist remark, and he never heard anybody else ever accuse him of being a racist, and Floyd said, “You know, Walt and I weren’t best buddies, because there was a 30 year age gap there.” He said, and I said, “Well, did he treat you differently?” He said, “No, he treated us all exactly the same, as if we didn’t know anything at all.” None of us knew anything, and he said, “Walt was great,” he said, “But one of the reasons this reputation get around, and especially also about the antisemitism, is Walt wasn’t antisemitic, but there were people at the studio who were.” Even though Walt did not promote that, there were people who were, and they would do things, and he said there were people at the Disney studio who were not comfortable having a black person there, and he said, “I was up for a job in layout, and I didn’t get it because the head of layout didn’t want to have a black person in that department.”
Jim Korkis: He said, “But it turned out wonderfully well, because then Walt promoted me to story man. Jumped me from animation up to being a story man, which again, we have talked about is one of the highest statuses that you can have at the Disney studio.”
Gray Houser: At Walt Disney. Right. Right.
Jim Korkis: Floyd is working on Jungle Book, is his first story that he’s working on over there. There were people at the Disney studio who had, who were Chinese. Tirus Wong, there’s that whole documentary out on Tirus Wong, who’s a concept artist on Bambi. Cy Young was another Chinese artist there. I remember talking to one Japanese artist who worked at the studio during World War II, and she told me, “You know, Walt came in, and asked how I was doing, and I said, ‘Oh, no. If anybody asks me, I tell them I’m part Chinese, and part Korean, and just a little part Japanese,’ and Walt told me, ‘You don’t need to do that. It’s none of their business. You just tell them you’re an American. That’s all they need to know.'” She said, “But he was just so concerned about any Japanese Americans that were working at the studio, that they would be discriminated against.”
Jim Korkis: Because there were Hispanic people who were working at the Disney studio, and I also remember Floyd telling me, he said, “You know, Walt didn’t care what your color was, or what your religion was, or what your sex was, or whatever. All he cared was could you do the job. That’s all he cared about. Could you do the job?” If you could do the job, that was it. I won’t out him, although he wouldn’t mind if I did. One of the top imagineers, one of the top imagineers, and he’s still around today. That’s why I’m not going to out him. He’s still around today. He worked with Walt, did many legendary things. He was homosexual. It didn’t make a difference to Walt. If it didn’t affect the studio, if it didn’t affect the job, he didn’t care. With Tommy Kirk-
Gray Houser: Is this common knowledge? I’ve never heard this before.
Jim Korkis: It is in my circle of friends, but I don’t think it’s common knowledge period, so that’s why I’m not going to do it if I don’t have his permission. If Tommy Kirk got let go because he was homosexual, but he got let go because he got in an incident in a public pool in Burbank with an underaged boy. That was going to be a reflection on the Disney studio, so even though Walt knew that he was homosexual, it didn’t make a difference until now, it’s going to affect the studio. Now it’s going to affect your work. The Disney lawyers stepped in to handle the situation, and Tommy Kirk, who I thought was an outstanding young actor, and I loved him in some of those early Disney films, he was let go, but often times that held up to, well, Walt didn’t like homosexuals. No, he didn’t like the Disney studio being put in a bad light, or that affecting that.
Jim Korkis: James Baskett, I just absolutely love in Song of the South as Uncle Remus, and in fact, so did Walt to the point that as much as Walt hated sequels, he was thinking of doing sequels with James Baskett. Not using the rest of the cast, just James Baskett there, and in fact, Walt personally, personally advocated for Baskett to get an Academy Award for his work as Uncle Remus, and he did. Baskett got, was given an honorary Oscar in 1948 for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, given to him by Ingrid Bergman, by the way. He’s the first black male actor to receive an Academy Award, and then unfortunately, about a year and a half, two years later he died from diabetes, and his widow, Margaret, said, “You know, Walt has been a friend indeed, and we have certainly been in need,” so Walt was still supporting him, and helping him even after he was no longer working for the Disney company.
Jim Korkis: Walt stopped in New York, picked up a new record by singer Burke Williams, because he knew that Baskett liked that, so picked that up for him. The whole thing about Song of the South, let’s… Again, people just go off the deep end on that, and they don’t understand the facts.
Gray Houser: This came up [crosstalk 00:49:36].
Jim Korkis: This is not taking place during slavery. This is taking place during the period after the Civil War called reconstruction, and you’d know that if you had half a brain, because in the movie, Uncle Remus starts to pack up and go, and he goes, I’m not going to put up with any more of this. If he had been a slave, he couldn’t have done that, because he was the property of the plantation. He could do it during Reconstruction because he was a free man, and all of those black singers in there. That’s the whole Johnson choir. That’s a very famous Harlem choir, and if anyone knew Hall Johnson, there was nobody more an advocate for civil rights than Hall Johnson, so he never would have allowed any of that if he felt any of that was demeaning, but he also felt that some of that authentic mmusic from that time period needed to be preserved.
Gray Houser: Right. This came up-
Jim Korkis: Needed to be preserved and needed to be shared, but-
Gray Houser: This came up in the paper, because they were talking about Splash Mountain.
Jim Korkis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gray Houser: Just continue. I just wanted to point that out.
Jim Korkis: Splash Mountain, where women will lift up their shirts to reveal their breasts?
Gray Houser: They were talking about, well, yes it is a thing, but they were talking about Splash Mountain, and about how-
Jim Korkis: You’re talking about Splash Mountain itself, which is basically, based on a film that several generations have just not seen.
Gray Houser: Right. Right. Exactly.
Jim Korkis: It was Michael Eisner who said, “We’re not gonna include Uncle Remus anywhere in that attraction.” That’s why you have Briar Frog, who is Uncle Remus’s good animal friend, best animal friend in the movie in there. They changed a bunch of things, so in the book, in the movie, you have the tar baby. The tar baby, again, we talk about things changing. Tar baby then became a derogatory term for a young black child, and in the story books, they then changed it. Briar Rabbit gets caught in white glue, and in the attraction, he gets caught in honey, because it’s the same basic concept, to his own vanity, and stupidity, and whatever, he gets caught. Again, different things have to change. I said I was watching Dumbo. It always irritates me when they go, oh, well, the crows. Those are, and I’m going, the crows are the only ones besides Timothy the mouse who believed in Dumbo. They’re the only ones who helped Dumbo, for crying out loud, and they’re having such fun.
Jim Korkis: In the 1940s, there were people who sang and danced like that. Let me get my grump old man cane, wave it in the air.
Gray Houser: Can we talk about-
Jim Korkis: Again, let’s get on to other things. You want to talk about Small World. What do you want to talk about with Small World?
Gray Houser: We talk about Small World, and then close out with Donald Duck as an agent of capitalism?
Jim Korkis: Right. Right, how to read Donald Duck. Right. Okay.
Gray Houser: Yes.
Jim Korkis: Okay. Why don’t you start off with Small World there?
Gray Houser: Okay, so they made claims that the Small World attraction is racist because the children, when you see the African scene, are singing in their native language, and then at the end of the ride, they’re singing in English, dressed in white clothing. Obviously supposedly suggesting that Western civilization is superior in some way.
Jim Korkis: No. What it is is, every child is dressed in white clothing at the end, because the emphasis you’re making is we’re all in this together, and we’re all the same. Despite how we talk, despite how we look, whatever, and every single child figure in the attraction is exactly the same. The only difference is the color of the skin. You’ll notice that the eyes are not different. The eye color may be different, but the eye shape is not different. The nose is not different. Whatever, because the point was all of our similarities are greater than our differences. They sing in their own language, in their section, because they’re in their section of the world. That’s true of every other child character. When they’re all together, they are joining their voices together as one.
Gray Houser: If you get [crosstalk 00:55:12].
Jim Korkis: The white is not representing white civilization taking over. The white is to symbolize purity, brightness, cleanness, and also the white is to remove all color. You now can no longer identify that character by the color of their clothes. Everybody is the same.
Gray Houser: Right. I know this-
Jim Korkis: Again, that was Walt’s point, too, is that… He was part of General Eisenhower’s program, People to People, which was basically, we got enough diplomats in the world who are going all over this that if just plain people went, and talked with other people, you would see that you would have much more in common than you would differences. You all worry about paying your bills. You all worry about your family. You all worry about your health.
Gray Houser: Right. [crosstalk 00:56:23]
Jim Korkis: The differences are terrific, and the differences are important, but we need to remember that the core is…
Gray Houser: We’re all the same.
Jim Korkis: … We’re all together in this, so there’s no point. I am surprised that in the thesis, they didn’t point out that when a Small World opened at the World’s Fair in ’64, ’65, and then it was later at Disneyland, ’67, all of that, the one country that was missing, it’s in there now, it’s in the Small World attraction now.
Gray Houser: Is the United States.
Jim Korkis: But it wasn’t there when, and there was a real reason for that, and again, as a Disney historian, I have to dig through, and I have to figure out what’s going on in the world at the time, and so why is that? The one country that was missing? China, because it was not recognized by the United States.
Gray Houser: Huh. I was going to say the United States wouldn’t be in there, but I guess it is.
Jim Korkis: Nope. Yeah. A cowboy and Indian is in there. No. China was missing, because it was not recognized by the United States. When Richard Nixon recognized China as a sovereign nation there, it was added into the attraction.
Gray Houser: Huh. That’s really interesting, and-
Jim Korkis: Yeah. That’s one of the exciting things I have about studying Disney history, is I have all of those Homer Simpson moments, where I slap my forehead, and I go, “Doh.”
Gray Houser: I noticed that when you go ride It’s a Small World in France, or in the other countries where it’s located, the final song… The final scene, they’re singing in the language of the host country.
Jim Korkis: Yes. Yes.
Gray Houser: They’re singing in French, or in Japanese, or whatever language the host country speaks.
Jim Korkis: Absolutely, because they’re the host, and since they’re the host, you defer to that.
Gray Houser: Can we talk about-
Jim Korkis: That’s part of the Disney philosophy, and again, I could go off on all sorts of other tangents, but we’ve talked so much already. Let’s get to Donald Duck is a capitalist. Why do you think that Donald Duck is a… I know why, but I want you to talk here, too, besides me. Why do you feel that Donald Duck is this representative of capitalism?
Gray Houser: Looking at the book, right, it’s written by a Latin American communist during the socialist period in Chilean history, right? They were-
Jim Korkis: Right, and for those listeners who are figuring, what are they talking about, it’s a book that’s called How to Read Donald Duck, and it is available on Amazon. It did start more or less as an essay, and in essay in South America, and was later translated into English. The premise of the book is that the story specifically of Uncle Scrooge, although many people didn’t know, at the time, Uncle Scrooge, but Donald Duck, everybody knows Donald Duck. Even the cover has Uncle Scrooge in his costume, but with his face missing, so that you don’t copyright violation, but the whole point there is this is to indoctrinate people around the world that capitalism is good. Greed is good, and Disney is being so sneaky that they’re doing it to indoctrinate children to believe this, so that when they grow up, they can accept this, for what’s going on. Do you think that’s a pretty fair explanation of that?
Gray Houser: Yes. I think it’s all about Marxist theory, and it’s some pretty out there stuff, right? It literally could have come out of the Soviet Union.
Jim Korkis: Again, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. First off, and I knew Karl Marx. He had no agenda of doing that, and he liked the character of Uncle Scrooge, but he didn’t always like things that Scrooge would do. What he was concerned about is, is this a good story, and is this funny? That’s it, but you have college students around the world who will grab hold of something. Once upon a time, I read a thesis because one of my favorite Disney animated films is Disney’s version of Peter Pan, and I’ve written about it several times, and so this college student sent me the thesis. Their premise was in the song What Makes The Red Man Red, was referring to Wendy Darling, and her going through menstruation, and that’s why she was… That’s why she had to move out of the bedroom into her own bedroom, and had to grow up, because what made the red man red was telling us, this is what is happening to this young girl.
Jim Korkis: I’m just sitting there, and pulling my mouth up off the floor, and going, I don’t think there was one person who was involved with that film who ever thought that. I don’t even think James Barry, who wrote the original story, thought that, but everybody is looking for something, and you and I talked about this before we started recording, that nowadays, we always like to look that there’s this dark, hidden agenda. We see people that we loved, and admired, like Bill Cosby, and then we see oh, my gosh. He was capable of some horrible, horrible things. How could I have liked this guy? How can I watch those things again? Then on the other hand, you have, last year there was a documentary, and a book that came out on Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, and over the years, I’ve heard terrible things about Mr. Rogers, that he really did hate kids, and that maybe he was a little perverted, and all of this other stuff.
Jim Korkis: You look at the documentary, and you read the book, and you look at these facts, and you go, this guy was even better than he was on TV. How is that even possible? He was even nicer. He was even more broad minded than he was on TV. How could this possibly be? I think the same holds true for Walt Disney. I think Walt Disney gets an awful lot of bad press that is undeserved, and again, if you want to learn more about that, I wrote a book which is called Call Me Walt: Everything You Never Knew About Walt Disney, and again, that’s available on amazon.com. In the book, it’s not a biography, but in the book, I never mention Mickey Mouse. I never mention Disneyland. I never mention audio animatronics. I never mention Snow White, because often times, we have a tendency to define Walt Disney by his accomplishments. The first cartoon with sound, the first cartoon with color, the first animated… Whatever.
Jim Korkis: That’s not who Walt was, and so this is an entire book devoted to who was Walt Disney? There are chapters on each of his family members. There’s chapters on his hobbies, his heating habits, where he lived, the different cars he had, the different pets he had, his thoughts on religion, his thoughts on travel. When we say hobbies, I think most people immediately go, oh, well, he liked trains. He liked miniatures. All of that. His favorite hobby the last few years of life, lawn bowling. In fact, when he took the flight to go to Washington, D.C., where Lyndon Johnson was giving him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that can be given, he took his lawn bowling team to stop and do a lawn bowling tournament in a different state on the way to Washington, D.C.
Gray Houser: That’s hilarious.
Jim Korkis: There’s tons of things about Walt that we don’t know, and I hate to say this, but even his daughter didn’t know. I became good friends with his last surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller. Wonderful, magnificent woman. Huge loss that she passed away through a tragic, tragic accident, but often times when I would get together with her, and we would be talking, like most of the sons and daughters that I’ve interviewed over the years, they were familiar with their father at home, but not with their father at work. In fact, she said, “You know, he was just like any other father. He’d get up in the morning, and he’d take us to school, and then he’d go to work, and then at night, he’d come home from work, and he’d play with us, and you know, all this.” Often times I had to tell her things about what was going on at work, and then I realized, my gosh. If somebody asked me, “Who was your dad’s best friends at work,” I wouldn’t know.
Jim Korkis: Where did your dad like to go to lunch at work? I don’t know. There’s a lot of things we don’t know about Walt, and again, not a perfect person. Not an angel. Not without sin, but by golly, especially considering the time period that he was in, it would have been so easy for him not to do certain things. It would have been so easy for him not to hire a female animator, or not to hire a black animator. It would be very easy to do that. He wouldn’t have received any criticism whatsoever, but he still went ahead and did that. When you take a look at things, and people are saying this, I remember talking to Harry Title, who was a producer on the Disney TV series, and Harry Title’s the one who came up with the original idea for Aristocats, believe it or not, and Harry Title says, “The thing that really upsets me is all of these people who never met Walt, never talked to any of us who worked with Walt, and they start talking away like they’re an expert on Walt, and this is what Walt was thinking, and all that.”
Jim Korkis: The Neil Gabler book, there’s some really great information in there, but the reason why most Disney historians don’t care for Neil Gabler’s book is if he had just ledt it at the information, my gosh, that would be the pinnacle to have out there. Gabler puts in his own assumptions. He goes, well, this is what Walt must have been thinking, because he did this. Nobody knows what Walt was thinking. Even when Walt was alive, I remember Jack Hannah as saying, “You know, we’d go into Walt’s office with this idea for a cartoon, and he’d loved it in the past, and he would just tear us to shreds.” You never knew what Walt was really going to like, or what… There wasn’t a pattern there to follow. He was always five or 10 steps ahead of us. In fact, that documentary on PBS, just really upset me because they did interview Floyd Godfriedson. They did interview Bob [Gerr 01:09:48]. They did interview Ron Miller, but they cut them down to like about 20 seconds.
Gray Houser: Right, and we’re going to get this packed in.
Jim Korkis: Several minutes to these people who never even… One of them wasn’t even alive when Walt was around, and he’s talking away, this was going through Walt’s mind, and da, da, da, da, da, and it’s like, listen. I spent decades studying this man, and I would not hesitate a guess as to what Walt would think. If people come up to me all the time. What would Walt think about this being done at the parks, and what would he think about Star Wars Galaxy Edge, and I said, “I don’t have a clue.” I could maybe make a guess about what the Walt of 1956 might have thought, but I couldn’t even guarantee that that would be true, that he might have had a different perspective on the entire thing. Again, blessings on this person who wrote the thesis, and I’m sure that the instructor who reads the thesis is going to be as clueless as that person, and will just… He will, but he will take a look, and he will go oh, okay. It’s properly footnoted, and there’s a bibliography.
Jim Korkis: Basically, I don’t even care what this guy is writing about. What I want to care… What I care about is the process that he went through. Did he follow this? Did he follow that? Again, the last year, I got a call from somebody and said, “My college professor told me that yes, everybody knows that Walt Disney is antisemitic.” I said, “That’s not true at all.” I said, “Kay Kayman was Jewish. He was in charge of the entire marketing department for Disney for many years, and one of his quotes is there’s more Jews working at the Disney studio than are in Leviticus.” I was sitting next to Richard Sherman at an event, and the Sherman brothers were Jewish, and there were… The speaker was saying, “Oh, yes. Walt hated Jewish people,” and Richard Sherman leaned to me, and he said, “Nobody was more Jewish than my brother and I, and Walt [inaudible 01:12:24] us.”
Jim Korkis: Marty [Stollar 01:12:28] was Jewish, for crying out loud, so you have people who are in Jewish, who are in positions of authority, and Walt is deferring. As much as he deferred to anybody, and Walt usually didn’t defer, but Walt would… If you had the knowledge, if you had the expertise, Walt would go, okay, we’ll go with that. Even you’ve got the Brenee Briss award, and Brenee Briss is an organization that’s been around since the 1900s, and before they give out that award, they do an extensive vetting process to see if there was anything at all about that. No, and you got another Brenee Briss award from in Missouri. I talked with Diane, and Diane said, “Most of his friends were Jewish.” He said, “Jules Stein,” who later purchased Universal, but he has an eye clinic, and Walt actually paid Mary Blair to go and do a mural, a Small World mural for the lobby of that eye clinic. Walt paid for it himself, for that to happen.
Jim Korkis: She said, “My sister Sharon dated a Jewish boy for a while,” and she said, “He had no objections and my mother had no objections.” You take a look at that, and you go, these are facts, but unfortunately, a lot of people today, it’s like, I saw it on Family Guy. I saw it on Robo Chicken.
Gray Houser: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that particular Family Guy, where it’s like he comes out of the cryopod, and he’s like, “Are the Jews dead yet?”
Jim Korkis: Right. Yes. Yes. There are several segments. When Brian and Stewie jump through the different universes, they jump into a Disney universe, which is all happy and wonderful until Mort, the Jewish character in the show, shows up at the door, and then they cut away, and you see blood coming, and all of that, that all of the characters are beating up Mort, because he’s Jewish. It’s like, listen, guys. Unfortunately today, a lot of people, that’s where they’re getting their information from. They’re getting it from jokes, and from comedy, and all of that, and nobody is rolling up their sleeves, and doing the research work, because that’s hard work. I will tell you that. There are people out there who go, oh, I wish I could be a Disney historian, and I said, “I wish you were as well, too, so that I would… ” I’m writing books because they’re not out there. I want somebody else to write those books.
Jim Korkis: Often times I have to write a book because nobody else has written it. I wrote a book on the creation of Walt Disney World because nobody else has written it. People have written bits and pieces about it, but nobody’s written the whole thing. They skip over people. They skip over whole sections, and it’s like, we need to have something out there that can be used as a reference, or at least as a starting point, so that then people can go on, and make other discoveries on their own. Where’s that grumpy old man cane? I’d like to thank everybody for joining us on the Monorail here today. It’s been a bumpy ride. Go buy my books at Amazon.com or themeparkfresh.com, and…
Gray Houser: Go do it.
Jim Korkis: I hope you invite me back on again.
Gray Houser: Absolutely.
Jim Korkis: Even though I never know when to shut up.
Gray Houser: Absolutely. Guys, you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, at Monorail News, and monorailnews.com, for all of your Disney news. I’ve been Gray Houser with Jim Korkis. Thank you for listening, and remember, tomorrow is just a dream away.
Gray is a lifelong Disney fan! From Disney+ to the parks, he loves it all. His favorite Disney movie is Beauty and the Beast, and his favorite attraction is The Haunted Mansion.