Book Review: Building a Company – Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire
Sometimes, it is out of ignorance, that we discover new things.
On September 13th, 2013, I attended a book signing of Dave Bossert’s book, Remembering Roy E Disney – Memories and Photos of a Storied Life. Dave was in attendance, as well as Roy E Disney’s son, Roy Pat Disney.
When it came time for a Q&A with those of us assembled, I asked a few questions, but there was one that I had in particular.
“As much as I’m eager to read what you’ve said about Roy E Disney,” I began, “Has there been any talk about a book about Roy O-”
“There is a book written about my Grandfather,” Roy P quickly responded. “It was written by Bob Thomas.”
Needless to say, I felt like I had gotten egg on my face. After that signing, I made it my mission that following my reading of Mr Bossert’s book on Roy E Disney, I would then read Bob Thomas’ Building a Company – Roy O Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire.
A member of the Associated Press and writer of many things entertainment related, Bob Thomas is no stranger to writing about members of the Disney family, or even The Walt Disney Company. His book Walt Disney: An American Original, is one of the more famous books on Walt (and one I read over 3 times during Elementary school).
Prior to Original, Thomas had written The Art of Animation, one of the few books published in the 50’s and 60’s, that told the world what Disney animation involved. This book would inspire the likes of John Lasseter to seek out a career in animation, and for me, the book served almost the same purpose when it was re-released in the early 1990’s.
Though Walt’s name became synonymous with his company over the years, in the beginning it was originally known as The Disney Brothers Studio. Roy would soon drop out of the company’s title, but his work in the shadows of his younger brother, would often belie just how much he truly did for the company.
His study and work in finance is what he was most known for, and the book gives numerous examples of how he would try to find ways to keep the company afloat, even in the face of Walt’s push for quality (which often resulted in costlier productions).
Much of the book is made up of recollections of people who had worked with Roy O Disney, as well as members of his family. Excerpts from letters that Roy sent to various family members are also included, and provide a nice touch in regards to how he would tell his parents how things were going, or discuss a trip he and his wife Edna took.
In Roy’s role as a big brother (he still called Walt “kid” throughout his life), he ended up almost becoming an unofficial ‘conscience’ to Walt. Whereas Walt was the dreamer, Roy could be considered the realist. In a story relating how Walt was looking for sound equipment to record the soundtrack for Steamboat Willie, Thomas relates how Walt made a deal with a man named Pat Powers. While Walt figured he now had his sound equipment, Roy was incensed that his brother had signed a contract without reading what it entailed (the results of which would lead to Powers causing the defection of the studio’s top animator, Ub Iwerks, a few years later).
Needless to say, Thomas’ book gives many examples of how Roy would keep trying to steer the company to some form of profit, as they faced bankruptcy several times, and several people tried to take advantage of them. While Walt’s cartoons and animated films were often the talk of Tinseltown, they could only provide so much funding. In fact, it would be almost 4 decades later (the company was founded in 1923) before they would reach a point where Roy could even breathe easier.
The book also doesn’t sugarcoat some things. Quotes are taken where people recall profanity used by the brothers (though even the use of such words would surprise some, as they usually were not one to expound such talk). Even talk of family squabbles and arguments is brought to light, including a time in the early 60’s, where Walt and Roy stopped talking to each other for several years.
Chapter 24 has an eye-opening section, telling of the planning of a 1964 annual report on the company. There was talk about referencing several of the company’s film producers, to show that their recent successes could help sustain the company if anything happened to Walt. However, Walt claimed he didn’t want this. In a paragraph summarizing Walt’s comments, I was rather surprised that this bit got published:
“I’ve worked my whole life to create the image of what ‘Walt Disney’ is. It’s not me. I smoke, and I drink, and all the things we don’t want the public to think about. My whole life has been devoted to building up this organization that is represented by the name ‘Walt Disney.'”
That can certainly be said about how Walt has been portrayed over the years. Many people these days probably never knew that Walt was quite an avid smoker.
You may notice that I keep referencing Walt several times, even though the book is about Roy. But, the way that Thomas structures his writing, it soon becomes impossible to talk about one without the other.
The Disney family is summarized as well, from some information about their beginnings, to that of Walt and Roy’s great-grandparents, and their own: Elias and Flora Disney. Even around 360 pages, the book manages to feel knowledgeable about the family, even referencing the sibling’s older brothers Herbert and Raymond, and their younger sister, Ruth.
Family is even mentioned as a factor within the company, regarding its employees. One interesting fact was that the company encouraged husbands and wives to actual travel together on business trips, as it was felt that this would strengthen these relationships, both within the family, and the company’s image as a family entity.
The book also shows in some instances, how Roy often exercised caution when going about some business plans. Walt eagerly wanted to build his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (aka EPCOT). It was already a risky business venture to build Disneyland in 1955, but imagine sinking even more money into the untested idea of a new urban community. Roy then proposed a solution to Walt: build Walt Disney World first, and with the East-coast park generating profits, EPCOT would function as a “phase 2” for the park development.
The last three chapters of Thomas’ book are some of the most eye-opening: Roy continuing on his brother’s vision, without his brother. Roy didn’t have the creative chops like Walt did, but he put any thoughts of retirement on the back-burner after Walt’s death, intending to finish the Florida project that his brother had started.
There was even talk that after the passing of Walt, the Florida property should simply be called Disney World. This is outlined in one paragraph on page 316:
“When someone referred to Disney World in a meeting, Roy stopped him. His eyes narrowed behind his glasses, and he said firmly: “I’m only going to say this one more time. I want it called Walt Disney World. Not Disney World, not Disneyland, not anything else. Walt Disney World.””
From 1966-1971, much of Roy’s time and efforts went into this project. Some would sadly say that the hard work took its toll on him, as Roy O Disney passed away 2 1/2 months after Walt Disney World opened to the public.
Bob Thomas’ book is a definitely a hidden treasure of Disney history. While numerous books have been published about Walt Disney, Thomas’ book sheds some light on a relationship that had its ups and downs, but in the end, proves how strong the love of an older brother could be for his own kin.
Reading through Bob’s book, and hearing of how Roy had impacted the company and his brother, I had thought that it sounded eerily similar to the story of a wooden puppet and his insect companion. On page 266 of the book, Roy’s granddaughter Abby seemed to be of the same mind as me:
“I watch Pinocchio over and over again with my kids, and being an English major, maybe I read too much in it. But I see Pinocchio as the perfect parable of Walt and Roy. Jiminy Cricket speaks exactly as I remember Grandpa speaking; he always had this Mid-western, middle-America way of speaking-‘Gee whillikers’ and all that. Jiminy is always letting Pinocchio go off into his creative impulses and then pulling him back at the last minute and getting him on the right course again, then letting him run wild again and pulling him back. “
Abby did wonder if the animators were at all influenced by the brothers. Out of curiosity, Thomas asked Jiminy Cricket’s lead animator Ward Kimball, if Roy served any inspiration at all for the cricket.
The answer was no.