“He was frozen.” With that terse but intriguing sentence, Neal Gabler opens his biography of Walt Disney. It seems a strange choice of words with which to begin a massive study of the founder of one of the world’s most powerful multimedia entertainment corporations, a man whose name is a household word around the globe. However, the sentence makes poignant sense by immediately calling attention to the myths surrounding Disney and by hinting at Disney’s association with futuristic technologythe idea that Disney had such faith in science that he arranged to have his cancer-riddled body cryogenically preserved to await the time when science could revive him and cure his disease. Gabler also inserts a nice touch by comparing Disney’s alleged frozen state to Snow White’s and Sleeping Beauty’s “hibernating.” One can almost hear the strains of “When You Wish upon a Star” and visualize Tinkerbell flying over Disney’s cryogenic capsule, sprinkling it with “Disney dust,” and seeing Disney come back to life. That opening sentence is a nifty little metaphor of the life and death of a man who did so much to condition modern Americans to prefer fantasy to reality.
However, Gabler immediately adds that Disney was not frozen. In fact, he was burned. His first sentence, Gabler explains, merely repeats a rumor that arose shortly after Disney died on December 15, 1966. After Disney was cremated, his ashes were interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Gabler might have added that Forest Lawn is an appropriate resting place for a man famous for substituting fantasy for reality, as it inspired Whispering Glades, the cemetery in The Loved One (1948), English novelist Evelyn Waugh’s savage satire of artificiality in Hollywood.
Gabler’s publication of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination coincides with the fortieth anniversary of Disney’s death. By the time Disney died, he was a giant in the entertainment industry; in the four decades that have since passed, his fame has only grown. Disney was a man of extraordinary vision and was, late in life, obsessed with plans for an ambitious expansion of his entertainment empire, but even he would be amazed by his company’s subsequent growth. In 2006, the Walt Disney Companywhich had begun as a tiny animation studio in 1923had estimated revenues of more than thirty-four billion dollars. One wonders what Disney might have thought had he known what the future held for the company he and his brother created. Until 1955, the company’s only business had been film production. That year became a major turning point with the company’s opening of the world’s first theme park, Disneyland, in Southern California. Around that same time, the company was also pioneering in another field: a collaboration with the film industry’s new nemesis, television. It was producing two popular television programs, Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
As Gabler’s book clearly shows, Disney’s cross-fertilizing experiments in films, television, and amusement parks revolutionized the entertainment industries. During the early 1950’s, the film industry had looked at the fledgling television industry with competitive fear and loathing, but Disney demonstrated that films and television could benefit each other by using his weekly Disneyland program to promote his company’s film productsboth new and old. He also used this television show to promote his new theme parkan idea then considered too radical to succeed. Disney would live only another eleven years after his theme park opened, but by then he had set spinning the wheels that would eventually lead his company to unimaginable heights. By the twenty-first century, the Walt Disney Company owned the ABC network outright, along with all its affiliated cable channels; five giant theme parks in the United States, France, Japan, and Hong Kong; and a host of other resorts and entertainment production companies. The company’s film units continue to crank out highly profitable movies, and the company even moved into the production of successful Broadway musicals. Meanwhile, the symbiotic relationships among all the company’s diverse components that promote the sale of old Disney films in constantly changing video formats, compact discs of Disney music, Disney books, Disney toys, Disney clothes, and myriad other Disney products serve to keep the name “Disney” before the public eye.
It is difficult to overstate the commercial impact of Disney’s legacy, but that particular legacy is not the subject of Gabler’s book. Just as money held little interest for Disney himself, the financial dimensions of his career are not Gabler’s primary concern in his book. As Gabler states in his introduction, Disney’s “influence . . . can only be measured by how thoroughly he reshaped the culture and the American consciousness.” Unlike Disney’s commercial legacy, that is a subject that cannot be assessed in cold, hard dollars and cents. Superficially, at least, Disney’s impact on American culture seems almost immeasurable. Can there be many Americans over the age of ten who are not familiar with the name “Disney” and who do not...
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