Friday, April 29, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Five - Favorite Action Film

Robin (Richard Todd) takes aim.
It would have been easy to choose a Pirates movie as best action film in my 30-day Disney movie project. For that matter, The Rocketeer wouldn't have been a bad choice either. But, I was feeling nostalgic, so I reached back a bit further to a time when "action film" still meant high adventure without any explosions or Bruce Willis.

I chose 1952's The Story of Robin Hood.

To help rebuild its economy after World War II, England froze the assets of foreign companies that did business there (Disney among them) to obligate them to spend their money within the nation. Unhindered by the inconvenience, Walt Disney seized the opportunity to produce a number of well-crafted, live-action films in England. The Story of Robin Hood, with its spirited action sequences and sumptuous outdoor locales, is among the best of that bunch. It's certainly miles ahead of the cartoon remake Disney churned out in 1973.

It's the familiar legend of the charming rogue Robin Hood (Richard Todd), who, with his band of merry men, steals from the rich, gives to the poor, and torments the corrupt Prince John (Hubert Gregg) and his henchman, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Finch). Robin and his men are loyal to King Richard (Patrick Barr), who is off fighting the Crusades and is unaware of the excesses of his brother John, who is unfairly taxing his subjects to line his own pockets.

Robin Hood has the requisite amount of archery, swordplay and derring-do, and director Ken Annakin keeps the action lively and fun. Todd is less flamboyant as Robin than Errol Flynn was in the better known Hollywood classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, but he's also more rugged, presenting himself as a better suited outdoorsman. As Robin's love interest, Maid Marian (Joan Rice) is both sweet and feisty and there is great chemistry between the two.

For movie adventure, The Story of Robin Hood is an overlooked gem from the Disney Studios.

Coming up next, Walt Disney never did horror movies, or did he?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Four - Favorite Drama

Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk
and Old Yeller
I'll get straight to the point. If Old Yeller doesn't make you tear up, you have no soul.

Sure, it's the movie that became the template for every boy and his dog story to come out of Hollywood over the last 50 years--it's a cliche. But, it's also one of Disney's most emotionally direct and honest live action films with a terrific performance by its young star Tommy Kirk.

Old Yeller begins with Texas rancher Jim Coates (Fess Parker) joining a cattle drive for three months to earn money for his family. He leaves behind his wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and his two sons Travis (Kirk) and Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Being the oldest, Travis becomes the man of the house and takes to his new role with the brashness and arrogance of a young'un that's more than a boy, but not quire a man. When a stray yellow dog wanders onto the homestead, Travis's first inclination is to run the mangy critter off.  After all, the mutt steals food, upsets the livestock and generally busts up the property. Katie urges Travis to be patient, though. Old Yeller could turn out to be a good dog for young Arliss, and Travis could train him to be helpful around the ranch.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Yeller shows his mettle, becomes a skilled ranch dog and protects both boys from the dangers of the wilderness. Travis and the dog inevitably bond and we get sucked right into the emotion of their relationship. So, when tragedy strikes <sniff> and Travis has to man-up to do what's right <sniffle>, there isn't a dry eye in the house.

You're getting a little misty-eyed right now, aren't you?

This is part four of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Tomorrow, the story Disney got horribly wrong, they first got very right...and it's my favorite Disney action film.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Three - Favorite Comedy

When I first started thinking about my favorite Disney comedy, only one movie popped into my head, even though I hadn't seen it in years.

The Love Bug.

A quick visit to Amazon ($1.99 video on demand--sweet!) reminded me exactly why I liked the movie so much. This 1968 fantasy about a Volkswagen Beetle with a personality of its own is funny, sweet and absolutely charming.

Down on his luck race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) can't win a race to save his life. Through a strange series of events, he acquires an old VW from crafty auto dealer--and racing rival--Peter Thorndyke (delightfully evil David Tomlinson). Soon, Douglas discovers there's more to this little Bug than just pistons and bolts as the car starts accelerating and steering of its own accord. Douglas dismisses the car's antics as nothing that can't be fixed with a few tools, and commences to get it in racing shape with the help of his best friend Tennessee (goofy, muffin-faced Buddy Hackett). Then, suddenly, Douglas starts winning. But, is it because of his skills as a driver....or does this magical Beetle (which Tennessee has named Herbie) have his own ticket to ride?

Disney dished out a lot of benign, cookie cutter comedies in the 1960s and '70s, but none that could match the fun of The Love Bug. It's not a laugh-out-loud comedy, although there are a number of decent chuckles during the racing sequences, especially those tied to Herbie's extreme dislike of Thorndyke. Mostly, it's a movie that makes you smile, whether at the absurdity of a car that thinks it's human, or at the sweet romance that blossoms between Douglas and Thorndyke's plucky assistant Carole (Michele Lee). The movie makes you feel good--and it reminded me I need to stop waiting so long between viewings.

Dean Jones and Herbie

This is part three of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. In tomorrow's installment, "the best doggone dog in the west" stars in my favorite Disney drama.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Two - Least Favorite Movie

In 1952, Disney produced a rousing live action movie based on the legend of Robin Hood. You would think 22 years later, it would've informed them on how to make an entertaining animated version.

It didn't.

Hampered by a limited budget at a studio spiraling down in the years following the death of its founder, 1973's Robin Hoodmarked the low point in Disney animation.

Robin Hood and Little John, walking through the forest
On paper, it sounded pretty fun. An animated take on the residents of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest with animals playing the characters. Five of the surviving "Nine Old Men" would contribute their talents (producer/director Woolie Reitherman and directing animators Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery). Well known Hollywood character actors would do the voices (Phil Harris, Peter Ustinov, Terry Thomas, Andy Devine and Pat Buttram, among others). Popular singer/songwriter Roger Miller would contribute a few songs (and provide the voice of the narrator, Alan-a-Dale). What could go wrong?


Robin Hood went so far out of its way to be family-friendly, it jettisoned most of the swashbuckling derring-do that made earlier film versions of the story so exciting. Robin Hood (Brian Bedford) and his hefty sidekick Little John (Harris, still channeling Baloo from The Jungle Book) spend a lot of time just walking, talking and playing tricks on the buffoonish (you can't really call him evil) Prince John (Ustinov). They do get in some scrapes, most notably at an archery contest set up by the prince to capture Robin, but the ensuing chase is so broadly slapstick with runaway tents and crashing elephants, there's little fear that our heroes are in any real danger. Even in the climactic scene where Robin finally confronts the lazy (you can't really call him menacing) Sheriff of Nottingham (Buttram), Robin's final plan of action is not to fight, but to run away. Oh, the sacrifices you must make to keep a G-rating.

Robin Hood's worst transgression, though, is how it blatantly recycled animation from earlier Disney films, as this often-viewed YouTube video illustrates:

Disney would redeem itself somewhat in 1977 with the release of The Rescuers, but more than a dozen years would pass after Robin Hood before the animation studio would truly begin to rise from the ashes and be a creative force again.

This is part two of my 30-day Disney movie challenge. Tomorrow, we rev up the engine for my favorite Disney comedy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day One - Favorite Movie

The pleasure of doing an exercise like this is I get to write about Disney films that are my personal favorites--the ones I enjoy (or don't enjoy) the most. It's not about dissecting which Disney films were the most groundbreaking, influential or technically accomplished. I may touch on some of those ideas as we progress, through this thirty-day experiment, but that's not my main objective. I'm just here to keep score and have some fun.

That said, my favorite Disney film is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Sacrilege, you say? Out of all the classic Disney films--Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia--I had to choose a special-effects laden slice of Jerry Bruckheimer bombast produced nearly 40 years after Walt's death?

Yeah, pretty much.

Like I said, I chose my favorite film, not necessarily the best one.

The first Pirates has become my go-to film. It's the one I put on when I feel like watching a movie, but can't decide what to see. When I'm channel surfing and I spot it on cable (which seems like every other week--thanks USA Network), I'm obliged to sit and watch it. It's fun. It's exciting. It's quotable:

"Hallo, poppet."

"I invoke the right of parlay."

"You can keep doing that forever. The dog is never going to move."

"A short drop and a sudden stop."

"You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of."

"This is the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow."

"Easy on the goods, darling."

"You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You're in one."

And those are just the lines I can remember without referring to IMDB.

With all the marketing overkill that became the original Pirates trilogy and continues unceasingly towards May 20th's On Stranger Tides, it's easy to lose sight of how good The Curse of the Black Pearl was. This was a movie that defied the odds. In 2003, the pirate genre had long since fallen out of favor in Hollywood and--come on--the movie was based on a theme park attraction. There wasn't a whole lot of hope riding on Captain Jack and his crew.

And yet...the movie was well scripted by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (even if the story did meander a bit in the third act) and had dazzling special effects that served the story without overwhelming it (At World's End anybody?). It had swashbuckling action, a budding screen romance between two attractive young stars (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), and mostly, it had Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a fearless comedic performance full of tics, staggers and sways that would've ruined a lesser actor. Such an indelible character was ole' Jack, that last year Entertainment Weekly ranked him #13 on their list of the "100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years."

Oh yeah, POTC 1 also raked in $305 million at the box office and earned Johnny his first Oscar nomination. I'd call that icing on the cake.

If it wasn't so late, I'd be popping Black Pearl in the Blu-ray player just about now.

"And really bad eggs. Drink up me 'earties, yo ho!"

Tomorrow: What happens when Disney gets a classic adventure story horribly wrong. My least favorite Disney film.

The 30-Day Movie Challenge, Disney Style

I have no idea where those personal life experience questions/topics start on Facebook (does anyone, really?). You know what I'm talking about. Those questions that ask you to name 20 things your friends don't know about you, or to highlight the classic books you've read out of a list of 100. You post them on your Notes page and then tag all your friends because you know they'll be amazed with your keen insight and cultured education. I tend to avoid these questions like the plague, myself. Time wasters, all of them.

OK, maybe I did do "My 25 Favorite Movie Quotes" last December, but that was it.


I think.

One topic that's been trending on Facebook lately is the 30-Day Movie Challenge (along with its cousins the 30-Day Music Challenge and the 30-Day Photo Challenge). The object is to come up with a single movie each day for 30 days that relates to a particular theme. For example:

Day 1: Favorite film
Day 2: Least favorite film
Day 3: Favorite comedy
Day 4: Favorite drama
Day 5: Favorite action
Day 6: Favorite horror
Day 7: Favorite animated feature
Day 8: Favorite thriller
Day 9: Favorite musical
Day 10: Favorite foreign film
Day 11: Favorite kid's movie
Day 12: Favorite love story
Day 13: Favorite chick flick
Day 14: Favorite documentary
Day 15: Favorite play adaptation
Day 16: Favorite book adaptation
Day 17: Least favorite book adaptation
Day 18: Film that is your guilty pleasure
Day 19: Film that made you cry the hardest
Day 20: Movie with your favorite actress
Day 21: Movie with your favorite actor
Day 22: Movie you wish you could live in
Day 23: Movie that inspires you
Day 24: Movie with your favorite soundtrack
Day 25: Movie with the most beautiful scenery
Day 26: Movie you're most embarrassed to say you like
Day 27: Movie with your favorite villain
Day 28: Movie with your favorite hero
Day 29: First movie you ever remember watching
Day 30: Last movie you watched

As a movie buff, this one sounded kind of fun, especially when I thought, "What if I made every movie on the list a Disney movie?"

Naaaa. Disney never made horror movies.

But, wait. Quite a few Disney films had horror themes and elements. Hmmmm.

Yeah, but Disney didn't make foreign films.

Well, they kinda did. Disney produced a crop of live-action films in England after World War II. That counts.

OK, I'm in.

Since it's my list, I get to use my rules. All the movies on the list can't just be owned by Disney, they have to have a Disney label. So Touchstone, Miramax and Hollywood Pictures releases are excluded. But, I really like Pixar films, so they count (hey, my rules). Also, on Day 15, I'm reversing the tables and naming a Broadway show based on a Disney movie.

I'm also going to try to list 30 different movies. No repeats.

That should cover it. I'll draw on 74 years of Disney animated and live-action feature films and post my favorite one tonight. This is going to be fun.

Want to play along? I'd love to hear what makes your Disney movie list. Please post your comments below or reach out to me on Facebook or Twitter.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nature's Innocence: A Look at Disney's True-Life Adventures

Sometimes, if I close my eyes I can still hear those familiar mechanical sounds. The hums, whirs and clicks of celluloid driven by a motor through sprockets and spindles, the friction of film rubbing against metal reels. In a darkened classroom I sat, watching lighted images of nature projected on a white screen. Sometimes they were of industrious beavers building dams, other times of barking fur seals frolicking on rocks. The voice of the films' narrator--straightforward and slightly amused--is as indelible in my head now as the noise of the projector. Suddenly, I'm 11-years-old again.

This is my memory of Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures.

In 1943, Walt said of his films, "It is not visionary or presumptuous for us to anticipate the use of our own medium in the curriculum of every schoolroom in the world." To say these words were prophetic, particularly in the U.S., is a gross understatement. If you were a kid in the 1960s or '70s, there's a pretty good chance more than one Disney picture in 16mm was shown in your classroom, either to educate or to entertain, usually both. It was in elementary school that I first saw the Disney chestnuts Johnny Tremain and So Dear to My Heart, not to mention countless installments of the I'm No Fool cartoon series starring Jiminy Cricket.

But, it was the True-Life Adventures that stuck with me the most over the years. Full of both grandeur and intimacy, fact and fun, they presented an accessible and palatable look at nature. For a child of the suburbs, they made the great outdoors kinda cool.

As early as 1944, Walt Disney had been approached by the likes of Encyclopedia Britannica and the New York Zoological Society to produce educational films of some sort. Walt was intrigued by the idea, but balked at taking an academic approach to the subject matter. "We can't be boring," he would often say. "We've got to be entertaining." Following World War II, Ben Sharpsteen, one of Disney's key directors and production supervisors, approached Walt about doing a film on veterans homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness. Sharpsteen got Walt's OK, and the studio contacted Alfred and Elma Milotte, husband-and-wife film makers in Alaska, to shoot raw footage of area industry, nature and culture. As thousands of feet of film came back to the studio, Walt realized that there wasn't much entertainment value in mining, logging and building railroads, so he urged the Milottes to continue filming more animals and native Eskimos. It was Alfred Milotte who eventually suggested to Walt that they go to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, the home of thousands of fur seals. There, the couple shot for a year, capturing the migrations, mating habits and savage power struggles within this community of sea mammals. The footage was compelling and Walt was hooked. He tossed out the notion of using the Eskimo footage and focused solely on the seals. By the end of 1948, Seal Island, the first of Disney's True-Life Adventures, was ready for theatrical release--but, not without resistance.

Disney's distributor at the time, RKO, wanted nothing to do with a 28-minute nature documentary. To them, the film had no commercial appeal--audiences would be bored. Undeterred, Walt trusted his instincts and circumvented his detractors, arranging for Seal Island to be shown at the Crown Theater in Pasadena during the last week of December. The response by audiences and critics was enthusiastic. Here was a nature film that was dramatic, informative and, most of all, entertaining. Less than three months later, it would win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Two-Reel). Disney had a hit.

Seal Island established a formula that Disney would utilize in 12 more films (six shorts and six features) over the next 12 years. Each True-Life Adventure would begin with a golden spinning globe shot against a multi-colored background. The title credits would run, followed by an animated opening sequence of a paintbrush painting the area of the world we were about to visit. It could be America's heartland for The Vanishing Prairie or the dark continent of Africa (literally painted black) for The African Lion. Splashes and dots of detail would be added by the brush, creating lakes, streams and mountains on the continental landscape before dissolving into the real-life nature footage. The whole proceeding would be narrated by the friendly voice of Winston Hibler, who along with director James Algar, would write most of the True-Life Adventure scripts.

As a whole, the True-Life Adventure series was well received by critics, although Disney did draw fire from nature purists for taking a cutesy approach to some material and for setting up scenes on soundstages for dramatic effect. This was most apparent in the cutaway view of prairie dog tunnels seen in The Vanishing Prairie...

...and in the brutally fascinating fight-to-the-death battle between a wasp and a tarantula in The Living Desert.

Disney didn't shy away from the seemingly random cruelty of nature. When it was captured in the wild, as in this scene from The African Lion, it was the True-Life Adventures at their most dramatic:

This merger of serious and whimsical, of sound stage and natural splendor, are what ultimately made the True-Life Adventures so watchable. They consistently met Walt's objective to be entertaining first. That they could also be educational and awe-inspiring was a bonus. Liberties were certainly taken in the editing room, but the end results were appreciated by audiences worldwide and definitely made a lasting impression on a certain kid as he sat transfixed in that darkened classroom.

Disney's True-Life Adventures won eight Academy Awards and set the standard for all future nature documentaries. Even today, with Disney resurrecting the genre in its Disneynature series of films, you can see the influence of its 1950s-era predecessors.

African Cats, a look at the private lives of lions and cheetahs in the Masai Mara region of Kenya, is Disneynature's fourth film and the third released in theaters. Like the previous Disneynature films, it emphasizes the epic grandeur of nature--maybe even more so than the True-Life Adventures--in widescreen, high-definition. There is a bigness that defines all the Disneynature films, which is both their blessing and their curse. The films are amazing to look at, make no mistake, but, for all the spectacle Earth, Oceans and African Cats bring to the screen, they lack the intimacy and accessibility that was the hallmark of the True-Life Adventures. Even their narrators shriek of aloof importance: James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Samuel L. Jackson. Compare them to the amiable nerdiness of Winston Hibler. I think I prefer my nature docs with a bit more geekery.

Each Disneynature theatrical release has come out on Earth Day, which lends an automatic gravitas to each film. It's a sad reminder of our modern age of climate change and human sprawl. The True-Life Adventures didn't have those storm clouds hanging over them (The Vanishing Prairie being the rare example of a True-Life film that alluded to man's encroachment on the wild). They were documentaries from a more innocent time. Today, we can no longer just celebrate our natural world on film, we're tasked with saving it too...or losing it forever. In that respect, the Disneynature films may be filling a more important role than the True-Life Adventures. What's sad is they're not allowed to just be entertaining anymore.

So, see African Cats this week (Disney is donating a portion of the proceeds to the African Wildlife Foundation). I'll be revisiting my True-Life Adventures DVDs (released in 2006 and packaged appropriately in film cans) and enjoying nature for its own sake. I'll turn the lights down and relish the view on my big screen TV, trying to conjure up nostalgic memories of my youth. Beaver Valley and Nature's Half Acre should do the trick.

I sure will miss the clatter of that film projector, though.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Marceline Photo Gallery

Last week, I reminisced about my 2010 trip to Walt Disney's hometown of Marceline, Missouri. Here are some additional photos from that trip (click on each image for a larger pic):

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum is housed inside an old
Santa Fe train station, originally built in 1913.

The grandfather clock on the left once kept the official time
for the railroad.

The initials "W.D." are carved in an old school desk.
Who do you think might have put them there?

Train memorabilia is found throughout the museum,
including items from the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase,
which had it's Midwest premiere in Marceline in 1956. 

A segment of track from Walt's beloved
Carolwood Pacific model railroad.

A tribute to Walt's parents, Elias and Flora, includes the Mickey
and Minnie dolls Walt and his brother Roy gave to them on their
50th wedding anniversary.

Zurcher's Store in downtown Marceline is said to have
inspired Walt to build Coca-Cola Corner on Main Street, USA
at Disneyland.

A look behind the store suggests why. And no, not the
"Furniture & Undertaking" part.

North Kansas Avenue in Marceline,
renamed by the town as "Main Street, USA."

The dedication plaque for the Midget Autopia, which
Walt Disney donated to Marceline in 1966.

The Midget Autopia track today.

The Midget Autopia track at Disneyland in 1965
(more Disneyland 1965 footage is at

Walt Disney Elementary School

Walt Disney attended the dedication of the school
on October 16, 1960.

Disney artist Bob Moore's paintings and murals can be
found throughout the school. Note the cigar-chomping
Jose Carioca on the left. Think that would fly if the school
was built today?

A more modern Mickey Mouse floor medallion was added to
the entryway of the school in 2001.

The multi-purpose room is like a gallery of Bob Moore's work.

The flagpole in front of Walt Disney
Elementary School originally stood at the
1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.

"This official Olympic flagpole was used at
Squaw Valley, California in the pageantry
ceremonies of the VIII Olympic Winter Games
held in February 18-28, 1960.
Walt Disney, Chairman of Pageantry"

On the Disney farm, underneath the Dreaming Tree.

Walt's barn

The farmhouse. Walt and his family lived here from 1906-11.

The Mouse Castle Lounge 08-10-2014 - Marceline Historian Kaye Malins
Memories of Marceline

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Memories of Marceline

I stood alone in the tall grass of that Missouri farm, a large pond to my right, a rebuilt barn chock-full of messages and memories to my left. Behind me in the distance was a carefully maintained farm house painted bright red with white trim. As a child, its famous former resident once marveled at how beautiful the front yard was. Nearby, a century-old cottonwood tree shattered by a lightning strike remained, tall, resolute and very much alive despite the random harshness of nature. It takes more than a bolt from the blue to destroy dreams.

This was a special place to be on that hazy Friday afternoon, because here was where it all began. As the story goes, it was this idyllic Midwestern town that, in the early years of the 20th century, inspired a young boy's creativity and sent him down a path to build a pop culture empire. His name would one day be synonymous with family entertainment, magic and mice.

Welcome to Marceline, Walt Disney's boyhood home.

The barn in Marceline
Walt's family moved to Marceline from Chicago in 1906, when he was just four years old. Though the family lived there only four more years, Walt would always claim Marceline as his hometown. "More things of importance happened to me in Marceline," he once said, "than have ever happened since, or are likely to in the future."

Walt may have spent more of his youth down the road in Kansas City, but it was Marceline that made the biggest impression. Kansas City was where an older Walt would work, starting with the paper route his father owned and ending with a bankrupt animation studio. That couldn't compare to this slice of small town America, the place a young boy caught his first fish and discovered his lifelong passion for trains. For the rest of Walt's life, Marceline would always conjure up images of green rolling hills, horse farms, gentle streams and quaint main streets.

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum
Visit Marceline today and you'll find Walt everywhere, from the elementary school and public park that bear his name to the house where he and his family lived. In an appropriate homage to the man, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is a renovated train station. During its heyday, this station was an important rail stop on Missouri's Santa Fe line. As you enter the museum, you can still see the ornate, fully-functional grandfather clock that kept the official time for the railroad. It's said that, back in the day, whenever Mr. Zurcher sold a watch at his store around the corner, he would first walk over to set the timepiece to the station clock.

Kaye Malins knows all the stories and happily shares them with visitors to Marceline. She runs the museum and, appropriately, lives in the house once occupied by Walt and his family. To spend any time with her is to hitch a nostalgic ride on the way-back machine to Walt Disney's Missouri. To spend the better part of a day with her, like I did, is to receive a true gift, especially if you're a Disney geek with an appreciation of history.

The RCA TV Walt bought
The museum collection contains over 3,000 items, including a wide range of photos and memorabilia representative of Walt's childhood through his return visits to Marceline in the 1950s and '60s. Among the treasures are the diaries and family letters of Walt's sister Ruth, who Kaye came to know before Ruth's death in 1995. "Ruth never threw anything away," said Kaye. As proof, Kaye showed me a vintage RCA television from the 1950s. She learned about the TV when she was collecting items from Ruth's son, Ted Beecher. As Kaye explained, "I'm archiving everything and here's a receipt for a television set about the time Disneyland opened (in 1955). And I go, 'Ted, what is this?' He said, 'Well, my mother didn't like crowds, so Uncle Walt sent us money to buy a new television set to watch the opening of Disneyland on. You want the TV?' It was out in his shed."

Walt's drafting table
Another great historical item is an iron drafting table from Pesman-Rubin, the Kansas City ad agency where Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks worked briefly in 1919. It was the first artist job for both men and marked the beginning of a working relationship (and sometimes strained friendship) between the two that would last decades. The drafting table was almost certainly used by both of them and is an important artifact from their early creative careers.

And then there's the desk.

Preserved under glass is a student desk from Marceline's Park Elementary School, which young Walt Disney attended. Carved in two places on the surface are the letters "WD." In later years, Walt said he couldn't specifically recall carving his initials in the desk, but he did concede it sounded like something he would've done. Apparently, no one else with the initials W.D. ever came forward to admit the deed, so the story sticks. This was Walt's desk.

Was this Walt Disney's school desk? We think so.
Not far from the museum, next to the Walt Disney Municipal Swimming Pool, are the remains of the only Disneyland attraction to ever be transplanted to a non-Disney location. In 1966, to help make room for what would become It's a Small World, Walt Disney removed the Midget Autopia, a kiddy version of the classic Autopia car ride. He then donated the track and all the vehicles to Marceline. The town continued to operate the ride until the early 1970s, when maintenance and operation costs became a problem. The track still remains, as do a handful of cars that weren't already cannibalized for parts. Marceline even donated a vehicle back to Disneyland to display as a trackside statue on the current version of the Autopia in Tomorrowland. Kaye hopes to one day restore and relocate the Midget Autopia to an area adjacent to the museum.

The Midget Autopia track
Day or night, you can come and go as you please to Walt's Barn. You'll find it just a short stroll away from the house where the Disneys lived, on land currently owned by Kaye and her family. The barn has no turnstile and it costs you nothing to visit. The Malins maintain the barn and its grounds out of their own pockets and want nothing in return other than respect for the property. "It just seems like the right thing to do," says Kaye.

But, be sure to bring a Sharpie. You're expected to leave a message.

Pete Docter and Tom Wilson
left their marks inside Walt's Barn
The barn is a replica of the one Walt built at his 1950s home in Holmby Hills, California, the site of his beloved Carolwood Pacific model railroad. The Carolwood barn was itself built based on the blueprints for the barn Walt knew on the farm in Marceline. The new Marceline barn was built in 2001 to coincide with Walt Disney's 100th birthday celebration. And it was then that a curious thing happened. As Kaye explains, "There's a beam in (the barn) that was at Disneyland for people to autograph. And then the company sent it back to be installed in the barn. And people started seeing it and leaving their own autographs and messages. We thought, well, we might as well embrace it and make sure it happened right. It's just the dearest thing."

Taking my place
next to Tony Baxter
Inside the barn on every board and beam are hundreds, possibly thousands, of signatures and personal comments that have been left by visitors over the years. Some people just jot down their names and the dates they were there. Others compose tributes to Walt. A few noteworthy names have drawn pictures in honor of Marceline's annual celebration of cartoon art, Toonfest. Pixar director/animator Pete Docter sketched one-eyed Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. Cartoonist Tom Wilson drew his comic strip creation Ziggy. Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter roughed out a picture of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. On my visit, I took it as a good sign that there was an empty space next to Tony's drawing. I wrote a note to Walt, thanking him for his inspiration, and signed it. I felt in pretty good company.

The Dreaming Tree
If Walt's Barn is a place to share your thoughts and dreams with others, then the Dreaming Tree is made for quiet introspection. The old cottonwood tree is at the other end of the footpath leading to the barn and was a favorite spot for Walt and Ruth to play and while away the hours as kids. Even as an adult, Walt enjoyed spending quiet moments beneath the tree on his return visits to Marceline. The tree lost some of its grandeur from a lightning strike a few years back, but none of its symbolism. It still stands as a stalwart reminder of the innocent and compelling power of a child's imagination. If it could inspire magical ideas and tap into the nostalgic memories of Walt Disney, what could it do for you? A session or two under the Dreaming Tree might not motivate you to build your own fairy tale castles, but there's nothing wrong with just spending a lazy spring afternoon sitting on the grass below it, inspecting the bugs and watching the birds fly by.

It's been almost a year since I visited Marceline and Kaye reminded me recently that I need to come back. I think I'll take her up on the offer soon. Whether to immerse myself in Disney history or just take a break from the hectic pace of modern life, Marceline is worth the trip.

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum reopened this month following its annual winter hiatus. For museum hours and additional information, go to When you visit the museum, make sure to tell Kaye and her mom Inez that I said "Hi!"

The Mouse Castle Lounge 08-10-2014 - Marceline Historian Kaye Malins
Marceline Photo Gallery