As origin stories go, the one about the creation of the Walt Disney Family Museum here at the Presidio is both surprising and not.
Seems that these days, those of a certain tender age – oh, callow youth – believe jolly ol’ Uncle Walt to be a fictional character, something created out of whole cloth by Disney marketing Machiavellis to keep selling the brand. Maybe kids thought he was a minor member of an animated boy band, playing Lance Bass to Goofy’s Justin Timberlake. Or perhaps he was the forgotten eighth dwarf – Wealthy.
“The man has gotten lost,” daughter Diane Disney Miller said upon the museum’s opening in 2009.
So consider this sprawling 19,000-square-foot, $110 million conversion of erstwhile Army barracks with a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge a history lesson for the little ones as well as a Technicolor-infused nostalgia trip for those who remember when Sunday nights meant scooching up too close to the screen with a bowl of popcorn to see the NBC peacock dissolve into the Magic Kingdom alight with fireworks for “The Wonderful World of Disney.” And given the depictions of Disney in recent critical biographies – control freak, conservative Communist hunter, anti-intellectual and king of conformity – the museum could be viewed as a corrective, a nose-thumbing retort from the Disney family.
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But that may be assigning too much motive to the place. When even minor cultural touchstones garner galleries – cases in point: the Pez Museum in Burlingame and the now-closed (sadly) Burt Reynolds Museum in Florida – why not a museum dedicated to the visionary behind Mickey Mouse, scores of groundbreaking animated movies, development of the mega-theme-park concept, purveyor of corny TV shows and, to this day, the world’s single most identifiable marketing brand?
There can be a thin line between serious historical scholarship and vanity project, but the Walt Disney Family Museum skirts it nicely. It avoids being one lengthy advertisement for itself by linking Disney’s career trajectory to the nascent development of animation as a legitimate art form, and it devotes considerable gallery space to the nuts-and-bolts of the marriage of drawing and motion pictures. Inevitably, though, attention veers from Walt the artist to Walt the savvy entrepreneur to Walt the beloved icon.
The only real misstep comes before you set foot in the galleries. Lining the lobby walls are trophy cases with so much bling – shiny golden statuettes, burnished plaques, bronzed busts and finely embossed certificates – that they almost are stacked like Russian nesting dolls. We get it: The guy was a big deal. It is interesting to ogle all the Oscar and Emmy awards, but do we really need to see the award he got from the National Want-Ad Week in 1920?
At times, the legend of Walt Disney is such that he comes off as one of his audio-animatronic creations, you know, like that famous figure of Abe Lincoln whose mouth moves and head swivels but seems a little too wooden to be totally lifelike.
The attempt to humanize him here works, mostly. In fact, sometimes the museum goes a little over-the-top in its folksiness. Do we really need to see the black buttons saved from his mother Flora’s 1887 wedding dress, encased in lucite as if they were the family jewels, or his original baptism certificate from Dec. 15, 1901, 10 days after his birth in Chicago, or the 1910 deed of sale on the family farm? But those indulgences, plus some adorable baby pictures of Walt and sepia-toned remembrances of farm life, are what sets the Disney story in motion. And, just like his movies, cartoons and theme-park rides, Disney is all about story, crafting a believable narrative to transport the audience.
More effective than that early minutiae are glimpses of Walt’s formative years, his cartooning juvenilia. We learn that Disney wasn’t the greatest student, according to his teacher, Daisy Beck, but “had an inventive and curious mind” (foreshadowing, perhaps, that scamp Mickey Mouse), that he once dressed as Abe Lincoln and recited the Gettysburg Address in class (foreshadowing for the Lincoln exhibit at Disneyland), that he drew cartoons for his high school newspaper. After we learn of his World War I stint as an ambulance driver, we get glimpses of his first foray into one-reel cartoons – including a re-working of “Alice in Wonderland” – at his Laugh-O-Gram studios, which went bankrupt in 1923.
These ground-floor galleries depict Disney as nothing less than a striving, not-quite-starving artist whose pluck and ambition set him, Horace Greeley-like, on a path to – where else? – Hollywood.
In an inspired touch, the elevator leading from the first to second floor is designed like a Santa Fe railroad car (Walt was just wild about trains). When you press the button and the doors close, Disney’s distinctive voice fills the interior space: “It was a big day, the day I got on that California Limited. I was just free and happy, you know. But I had failed. I think it’s important to have a good, hard failure when you’re young.”
Enough of the humble brag. Once the door opens, the second floor details one brilliant success after another. Much space is devoted to the creation of the iconic Mickey Mouse, which the museum will have you believe was something of a happy accident, another example of Disney strengthened by “adversity” – in this case, it was losing a copyright battle with a colleague over one of his earliest cartoon creations, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Crestfallen Walt was on a train mulling his options when he started doodling a mouse on a sketchbook … and the rest is, well, you know.
These early drawings, on display, are fascinating and a testament to the virtues of rigorous artistic revision. Mickey has a long, ratty tail, a pointy snout, no gloves on his scaly hands. Walt originally wanted to name the creature Mortimer. One of the museum’s most breathtaking exhibits is a wall dedicated to “Steamboat Willie,” the animated feature that made Mickey a star. The 348 drawings of said mouse pinned to the wall show how painstaking is the animation process; they amount to about a minute of footage.
To the right of that is the Mickey Memorabilia display, which shows vintage clocks, watches, action figures. The accompanying commentary doesn’t mention it, but that display may be one of the most important in the museum, for it shows how Disney learned to market his creations. From there, it’s one unstoppable marketing locomotive.
In the end, what’s most memorable are not the tributes to Disneyland (complete scale model), Disney World, TV shows like the “Mickey Mouse Club” and scores of feature films. No, the pleasure comes from the small details – the paint jar on a shelf labeled the exact yellow for Donald Duck, the design detailing the four stages of Sneezy’s allergic eruptions in “Snow White,” the sheer massiveness of the multiplane camera that produced “Snow White.”
Those are the lasting images you have of Disney, the creative master more than the marketing juggernaut.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
WALT DISNEY FAMILY MUSEUM
104 Montgomery St., the Presidio, San Francisco
Hours: Daily (except Tuesdays) 10 a.m.– 6 p.m.
Cost: $20 general; $15 senior and student; $12 youth; free, under 6.
Infomation: www.waltdisney.org ; (415) 345-6800
For a video overview of the Walt Disney Family Museum, go to www.sacbee.com/travel