Who gets to determine how we remember Walt Disney? As the 100th anniversary of his birth approaches Dec. 5, many will try -- all for their own special reasons.
Walt's childhood home of Marceline, Mo., will be first up, with "Walt Disney's Hometown 100th Birthday Celebration" next month. Marceline is where Walt lived from ages four to nine. Event organizers, who hope to lure as many as 40,000 people for pie-eating contests and barn raisings, pray the party will drop a few dollars on their remote, rural town, which they say is the inspiration for all the Main Street U.S.A.'s in Disney theme parks.
Then there's Walt Disney World's "100 Years of Magic." The current corporate brass may love making money off of the man's name, but they often have had trouble cozying up to the man himself -- until they needed a hook to revive sagging park attendance. The coming 15-month celebration is not so much a token of affection but an invitation aimed at all the nostalgic baby boomers who grew up watching "The Wonderful World of Color."
To gear up, Disney's marketing staff has created a new video: "Four Parks." One World. Through careful selection of quotes pulled from archived interviews, the filmmakers make it appear as if Walt himself is the narrator. That would be pretty interesting, except the cut-and-paste quotes play fast and loose with the truth. For example, they make it sound like Walt is endorsing Disney/MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom -- two parks that he had nothing to do with.
Want a more sentimental view? Disney's ABC will broadcast a two-hour film, "Walt: The Man Behind the Myth," in November. Supported by the Disney family, the film was put together by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, in an effort to redeem her dad's reputation.
Indeed, in recent years that reputation has taken a beating. First came Marc Eliot's 1993 book, "Walt Disney: Dark Prince of Hollywood," which painted him as a possible FBI informant as well as an alleged adulterer. Not to mention Eliot's more outrageous theories that Walt may not have been born in December 1901 or even been Elias and Flora Disney's real son.
Other books have cast a similarly negative light on Walt's legacy. Bob Thomas' 1999 title, "Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire," revealed that it was often Roy's business acumen -- not Walt's vaunted creativity -- that actually kept their company afloat in tough times.
Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy's "The Hand Behind the Mouse: An Intimate Biography of Ub Iwerks" further whittled away at the Disney mystique, revealing that it was Ub --- rather than Walt -- who had created Mickey Mouse. Add to this the recent revelation from Rick Foglesong's "Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando," that Walt really didn't want people to live in Epcot, which meant all that stuff that Disney fed the Florida Legislature in the mid-1960s so he could have a free hand in creating his own government was a lie.
That's why Miller and her film-making team have their work cut out for them. They hope their mixture of home movies and in-depth interviews, family photos and newsreel footage will help remind people that Walt was an actual living person. Strange as it may sound, Disney's marketing surveys show that a growing number of Americans actually believe there never was a Walt Disney, and think his name is just an ad-agency creation, like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima.
But you don't have to settle for others' interpretations of the man. In "The Quotable Walt Disney," Dave Smith, head archivist of the Disney company for 30 years, has collected excerpts from speeches and interviews. Yet what's most intriguing about this new book -- particularly because it is officially sanctioned -- is that those quotes don't always reflect well on current management.
Smith lets the reader decide if he is commenting on the Disney's new California Adventure park when he quotes Walt as saying: "I don't want the public to see the world while they're in `Disneyland`. I want them to feel that they're in another world." (The new park offers clear views of outside intrusions.) And, "There will be none of the Ã?pitches' and game wheels ... designed to milk the visitor's pocketbook." (The new park has a wide selection of games-of-chance.)
Most telling is Smith's decision to include Walt's words: "Disneyland is a work of love. We didn't go into Disney- land just with the idea of making money ... Besides, you don't work for a dollar; you work to create and have fun."
Here is Disney himself saying that there is more to life than making money. Yet the big corporate party in his honor clearly is just being held to generate additional revenue. Hell of a birthday present for old Walt, don't you think?