10 Things You Didn't Know About... Walt Disney
With an astonishing 22 Academy Awards (and another 4 'honorary' ones), Walt Disney has won more Oscars than anyone else in history. Animator, filmmaker, voice actor and business magnate, Disney isn't just a historical figure, he's a brand. From humble beginnings working a paper round for his father, Disney built one of the biggest media empires of all time, now worth an estimate $142bn according to Forbes.
You may have seen a whole lot of his films, but did you know he drove an ambulance with the guy who owned McDonald's? Here are 10 things you may not know about Walter Elias Disney...
Contrary to popular belief, Walt did not have himself cryogenically frozen
One of the most enduring stories about Walt Disney is that he had himself cryogenically frozen after his death, with one of the most popular versions of the tale even specifying that his frozen body is hidden in a storage unit underneath Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but none of this is true. His daughter has been saying this for years, stating in 1972 that "There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen.” In addition, his official death certificate states that he was cremated. So where did the rumour come from?
The earliest records of the story date back to an article published in French magazine Ici in 1969 and although nobody really knows for sure where the story originated, the most credible theory is that it was started as a prank by some of Disney's employees shortly after his demise. Given his reputation as a pioneer in various fields, it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine he might apply the same futuristic ambitions to his own death, so the rumour stuck.
His last words were not “Kurt Russell”
Another of the popular rumours about Walt's death is that his last words were “Kurt Russell”, a story given further credence by the actor himself, who has been on record confirming the story on more than one occasion. It's an attractive story, reminiscent of the whole Charles Foster Kane “Rosebud” thing, but the truth is a little more complicated and, we're sad to say, a little less exciting.
It's a fact that Walt Disney's offices, along with the apartment he used that sits above the firehouse on Disneyland's Main Street, have been preserved almost exactly as he left them when he died, including the papers that were scattered across his desk. One of these was a typewritten page entitled “TV Projects In Production: Ready for Production or Possible for Escalation and Story”, at the bottom of which Walt had written some notes in red pencil, which read: Ron Miller-- 2 Way Down Cellar 2. Kirt Russell 3. CIA—Mobley.
Russell was shown this note featuring his misspelled name by Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law and a producer at Disney's studios. Having been signed up to a 10 year contract with the studio shortly before Walt's death, it's likely that Disney has Russell in mind for a role in a live-action film in the works named Way Down Cellar, hence the note, but there's no proof that this was the last thing he ever wrote and, in fact, it's not even the last thing written on the page.
He was one of the main pioneers behind stereo and surround sound
When most people think of Walt Disney they think of him as an animator and a filmmaker first and foremost, but Disney was also a technological pioneer in many ways and back in the days when cinema sound was reproduced through a single speaker, Disney employed a team of engineers to develop a way to better record and reproduce the sound for Fantasia. Along with stereophonic sound and early versions of surround sound, he was also responsible for a number of other innovations in recording technology, including multitrack recording and also the pan and gain controls still found on every sound mixer.
He was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross
Walt actually dropped out of high school aged 16 with the intention of joining the army, but was rejected due to being underage. Instead, he joined the Red Cross, where Walt worked as an ambulance driver for a year while stationed in Paris. During this time he became friends with another ambulance driver named Ray Kroc, who went on to become the main man behind the huge success of the McDonald's restaurant chain.
His original family name is French in origin and was originally spelled d'Isigny
Although Walt's parents were of Irish and English/German descent, the name Disney is actually an anglicised spelling of the original family name d'Isgney, which can be traced back to the French town of Isigny-Sur-Mer and in particular a man named Robert d'Isigny, who was an associate of William the Conqueror during the 11th century.
He made anti-Nazi propaganda films during WWII
Meryl Streep recently became the latest in a long string of people to accuse Walt Disney of anti-semitism and it's true that he was a founding member of a lobby group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, but while the group certainly did include members that expressed anti-semitic views, the organisation was established in 1944 with an anti-communist and anti-fascist agenda as its primary concern. It's also true that Disney invited German filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to visit his studios in 1938 to help promote her film Olympia, which didn't do much to help his image.
However, like most stories about Disney, the truth is a little more nuanced and while it's difficult to argue against the assertion that some of his films contain elements that could easily be considered racist (Rudyard Kipling was so disgusted by Disney's version of The Jungle Book he refused to let his children watch it), Disney also produced a number of anti-Nazi cartoons during the second world war, including the one below from 1943 bearing the charming and very un-Disney title Education for Death.
He almost got The Beatles to voice the vultures in The Jungle Book
When The Jungle Book was in production during the mid-1960s, the Liverpool four-piece were at the height of their stratospheric fame and Disney wanted them to provide voice acting duties for the group of vultures feature in the film. The band's manager Brian Epstein was keen on the idea, but John Lennon was having none of it, saying that Disney should “get Elvis Presley to do it instead.” Instead, the vultures appearance is meant to echo that of the band.
The name 'Mickey Mouse' was his wife's idea
Walt's most famous cartoon was originally called Mortimer until his wife Lillian said the name sounded “too pompous”, so he was renamed Mickey instead. Weirdly, actor Mickey Rooney has also claimed in the past that the name was the result of a conversation he had with Walt as a young boy, and that the mouse was in fact named after him.
His train set is bigger than yours
OK, it's 2015 and you probably don't have a train set, but if you did it would almost certainly be less impressive than Walt's, who built a miniature railway in his back garden. It was called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad and had over 2,000 feet of track. It also had tunnels, but these were an idea enforced by Disney's wife, who refused to allow him to run the train tracks through her flower beds.
He built a secret members club in Disneyland and it's the only place on site that serves alcohol
As any adult who has been to Disneyland will know, it isn't quite so magical if you fancy a beer. Despite the fact that the park has a license to sell alcohol, if you're a regular member of the public you won't be able to by any on site. That is, of course, unless you're a member of Club 33. Located next to the Blue Pearl restaurant, Club 33 is a secret venue hidden within Disneyland that has only 487 members at any one time (with a waiting list that is years long). It features a fully functioning bar and is the only place you can buy an alcoholic drink anywhere in the theme park.