A Response to PBS’ “American Experience Walt Disney” by the Center for Early Childhood Creativity And Innovation at the Walt Disney Birthplace

With much anticipation, we watched the four-hour “American Experience Walt Disney” documentary on PBS this past Monday and Tuesday night. We were eager to enjoy new interviews with people who […]

September 17, 2015 // WDB // No Comments // Posted in Features, News

With much anticipation, we watched the four-hour “American Experience Walt Disney” documentary on PBS this past Monday and Tuesday night. We were eager to enjoy new interviews with people who worked with Walt, and see clips of some of his first hand-drawn animations. We were also hopeful that the documentary would delve deeper into some of Walt’s early Chicago childhood. (To this day, we still meet people – including Disney fans quite familiar with other details of his biography – who mistakenly believe that Walt’s birthplace is in Missouri.)

While the documentary is very well produced and filled with new material, it was an interesting choice that Walt’s first four years in Chicago were given only a passing mention. A life as rich and as complex as Walt Disney’s would need far more than four hours to examine comprehensively; it is not completely surprising that the filmmakers chose to pick up Walt’s story after the family moved from Chicago.

That said, the circumstances that brought his parents, Elias and Flora Disney, to The Windy City – the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair – would echo at important points later in Walt’s life: Elias and Walt’s visit to the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, and Disney Company’s significant participation in the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Did the seeds for Disneyland first get planted by Elias, as he told his children about his experiences building the World’s Columbian Exposition? It is a question we have considered as part of our own research over the past two years.

We did take note of two particular details: 27 minutes in, as voice-over narration describes his childhood in Marceline, the filmmakers inserted a photo of Walt and Ruth standing on the front porch of their birthplace home, in Chicago. The “1249” street address that is clearly visible in the full version of the photo is cropped out of the image, which muddies the historical authenticity of the photograph. Also, the film refers to a “jelly factory” owned in part by Elias Disney. In fact, the “O-Zell” company (identified by name on the PBS website) did make jams and jellies, but its primary mission was to produce and sell sodas, or “soft” drinks, as a healthy alternative to “hard” liquor. Elias, a fervently religious man and an enthusiastic supporter of the Temperance Movement, invested in The O-Zell Company for this very reason.

As much as we appreciated certain aspects of “American Experience Walt Disney,” it’s clear that a definitive study of Walt’s most formative years is still to be undertaken. With all that our generation has learned about the critical impact of early childhood development, shedding more light on this important first chapter of Walt’s life is a key component to understanding a very talented man.