The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Forty-odd years ago, Uncle Walt Imagineered a new kind of escapism. And now there's no way out of paradise.

CP: That's a scary scene...

KAM: Yeah, it is. It seems to be sort of the end of western civilization. And so it's clear that constructive values of building up rather than tearing down are important to Walt. And he seems to me to express in that Pleasure Island sequence his view that amusement parks didn't do that--that they didn't add anything to the sum of human pleasure, and culture. And that's maybe the difference in what he wanted to do with his park. As for how Main Street specifically does this, I mean it's clear he values order over disorder, for example. It is clear to me that Walt was nostalgic--that's not a word I use [as] a dirty word. I think it's a very positive one. I think he saw his memories of his childhood as incorporating something wondrous, something slower, something where it was clear who loved who, and what obligations people owed one another, that as adults we sometimes all wished we had.

CP: Was he taken as weird for having that kind of preference? A lot of adult men who live a kind of emotional life centered around the things that excited them as children are taken for perverts.

KAM: About 80 percent of the men I knew as a child had hobbies that were not unlike Walt's. One of the things that happened in postwar America is that people who had been regimented a long time--whether that was by the deprivations of the Depression or service in World War II, or coming back and then going into a kind of corporate lifestyle--lead a very rich, imaginative life in their free time. Most of the men I knew were model railroaders, and spent infinite hours with both their boys and their girls, sitting next to railroad tracks watching steam trains. And when the steam era passed, they often built them in their backyards or their basements, a lot like Walt did. I don't think one in 10 men today could probably change the washer in the sink.

CP: There weren't any undercurrents that there might be something untoward about a man whose imaginative life was rooted in childhood?

KAM: No. I don't believe there was. I mean Walt Disney was a man like other men: He surely had a temper, and he was snoopy, and he drank a little, and all those other things that dads did in the '50s. But basically, I don't see him as much different from my own father.

CP: How did Disney work with his designers and artists: guys like Herb Ryman, John Hench, and Bill Martin? He would spiel for hours.

KAM: He would talk and they would interpret. That's how art directors usually work in movies. Often times, directors and producers aren't the most articulate folks in the world, nor do they have finished scripts when they start. So that talking process is always important. Plus Walt always did that anyway with his animation. They tell the story of Sleeping Beauty: He called a special meeting at the studio one night after work, and got up and acted out all the parts. And this was the first anyone had ever heard of doing a feature in animation.

CP: Did he give his design team a lot of credit--and how did they end up getting paid?

KAM: I don't think anybody ever starved working for Disney. I spent a fair amount of time interviewing people who were employees of Disney in the '50s and they all seem to have a very comfortable old age. You have to remember too that he moved into feature animation in the Depression. And the architecture schools around the country--to say nothing of the art schools--were cranking out students at a phenomenal clip, and they had nowhere to go. Huge numbers of graduates from California architecture schools went into the studios because they could become set designers, and things like that. The movie industry was one of the few still percolating along in California at any rate at all in the '30s.

CP: Walt had encountered serious labor troubles with the animators strike in the '40s...

KAM: 1941.

CP: ...and then also had trouble with the building contractors at Disneyland. Is union busting an easy charge to make?

KAM: [interrupts] I frankly don't know anything about it. I'm writing about architecture, and how you build architecture and esthetics. And as far as I know, there's not an Imagineer who ever had a labor trouble with Walt Disney.

CP: One of the things I'm trying to get at with these questions about labor is whether the kind of anxiety that an experience like Disneyland was supposed to soothe was brought about by the same work conditions that seem to appear in the Disney economy.

KAM: I think that's way too broad. The anxieties that were meant to be soothed by Disneyland were anxieties about driving cars down long, featureless streets. They were anxieties that you didn't even know you had, about feeling overpowered by buildings that were much taller than you were. I'm talking on a visceral, esthetic, body level. I'm not talking on some kind of mega-political level. The anxieties had to do with how you feel about walking down the street in the city.

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