Exhibit Review: D23 Presents – Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives
October 16, 2013, marked two major milestones in regards to Walt Disney, and the company he founded.
One of those events, was the 90th anniversary of the founding of The Walt Disney Company (formerly The Disney Brothers Studio).
The second event, was the official opening of the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives, at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Originally, this exhibit had just been intended for an exclusive showing at the Ronald Reagan Library in 2012. However, some of the MSI staff were impressed by the presentation, and requested that the archive be brought to the Midwest.
It may seem hard for the average person to believe, but Walt Disney was born in Chicago. As well, the Museum of Science and Industry is housed within a structure built for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, of which Walt’s Father (Elias Disney) had a hand in some of the Exposition’s construction work.
The house Walt was born in still resides on the northwest side of Chicago, and he took classes at The Art Institute of Chicago in his late teens.
Regarding exhibition theming, the Archives exhibit at the Museum is meant as less of a tribute to The Walt Disney Company, and moreso a testament to Walt Disney, and what he achieved over the course of his life.
Over 300 artifacts are housed within the exhibit, many of them things that we have often seen as pictures, or within a flickering television screen. It is the ability to see these items up close that is one of the highlights of the exhibit.
One that is still mind-boggling to me, was this original telegram Walt sent Roy from St Louis, telling him “Everything is OK.” I had seen reprints of this important piece of Disneyana in Bob Thomas’ Art of Animation book, and at The Walt Disney Family Museum, but this was almost on the same level as seeing an original Monet (yes, I’m that much of a nut to compare a telegram to a Monet).
The telegram was sent during a turning point for Walt: it belied the news to his brother Roy, that he had lost control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures, and on the train ride back to California, Walt would develop his next big character: Mickey Mouse.
There is even a small case showing numerous pieces of merchandise related to Oswald, and one showing several of Mickey’s early items. Mickey’s first merchandising image was on a writing tablet (aka a small paper pad), and the exhibit has one in amazing condition. As someone who had read about this item, I was impressed to see it in the collection.
Naturally, the sections dealing with the animation process were the most interesting to me. There are such highlights as an original animator’s work desk, original jars of paint from the now-defunct ink-and-paint department, and sculptural models (aka maquettes) that helped the animators see their characters in 3 dimensions.
Just as magical, though a little less hand-drawn, were the original storybooks that ‘opened’ the films Snow White, Cinderella, & Sleeping Beauty (seen above). There’s some beautiful detail that you might not recall, or never even considered. For example, you wouldn’t realize it from the opening scene of Sleeping Beauty, but that book prop is huge!
However, the centerpiece of the exhibit (and it is at the center!), is a ‘partial’ recreation of Walt’s office. Word was the entire room was sealed up upon Walt’s death (reason: unknown), and was not reopened until 4 years later, when Dave Smith was hired as the company’s first archivest. He was one of the first to enter the office, and catalogued everything that was in the room. The entire layout of Walt’s desk and the mementos on it, are exactly as it was found back in 1970. Word was, photographs were taken of everything as it was, and filled a binder several inches thick!
Much of the information contained within the area was eye-opening to some. One woman who I spoke with, had never heard about animator Ub Iwerks (who was one of Walt’s friends from his Kansas City days, and the main animator on the early Mickey Mouse shorts). She was quick to point out how informative the exhibit was, though it was I who convinced her that Walt Disney’s body was not frozen (seriously, she believed that rumor!).
Speaking of eye-opening, I was intrigued by the following jars of paint (above). It wasn’t so much the color labels, but the notations on the “Art Gallery” tags. The left jar is labelled “her lower body,” and the right jar has “Devil-Eyes” written in. I’m wondering if these color jars are for Sleeping Beauty, as the blue could have been used for the lower portion of Aurora’s blue dress. So…could that mean the “Devil-Eyes” jar could have been used for…Maleficent?
During our tour, we were accompanied by Becky Cline and Nicholas Vega (both are pictured to the left). Becky is the director of The Walt Disney Archives, and Nicholas is the manager of collections and exhibits for the Archives.
Becky was also quick to mention that while there are animation items like concept art and animation cels within the exhibit, those are provided by the company’s Animation Research Library, and not the Archives. The Archive is responsible for collecting items like film props, costumes, merchandise, and even personal effects of Walt’s.
Given that Becky and Nicholas had seen their fair share of archival material over the years, I had to know: was there something missing from the archives that they would love to have?
Probably given the atmosphere (and the eventual golden anniversary next year), both of them cited items from Mary Poppins.
Becky mentioned that while they had several of Mary’s items, the Archives did not have one of the original parrot-head/umbrella props. As for Nicholas, his dream prop was related to Dick Van Dyke’s character of Bert. Strange as it may seem, not a single piece of Van Dyke’s original wardrobe from the film could be located!
Becky also noted that one of the reasons for this, was that the Archives was not officially started until 1970, when Dave Smith was hired. As such, much of the main material from older live-action films like Treasure Island, Old Yeller, and The Parent Trap are gone. However, some items pop up from time to time, like Mary Poppins’ original carpetbag, which was obtained by the Archives a few years ago.
Of course, since the resurgence of the company in the 1980’s, a lot of the current items are preserved. Unlike the large swath of material at the Reagan exhibit, MSI is displaying just a few choice pieces from the films made after Walt’s passing, including several wardrobe pieces from the last 2 decades. While we do have the wardrobes of Captain Jack Sparrow and Enchanted’s Giselle, there is also the original wardrobe of the Rocketeer (complete with jetpack!), and Hocus Pocus‘ Winifred (pictured on the right, complete with book!). And, for you young’uns out there, a Wildcats basketball outfit from High School Musical.
To me, this is where the exhibit ‘peters out.’ The items from Disney beyond Walt’s time feel a little hodge-podge, spread out in a way that doesn’t feel as proper as the Archives’ story on Walt Disney, the man.
There is a large chunk of wall space included to tell about the iPad app Disney Animated, but it just feels like you could have included some concept/production art from animation done over the last 40 years in that space. While digital technology can be exciting, nothing beats some eye-opening originals.
Unlike the Reagan presentation, a learning experience has been folded into the exhibit, with some small activities for children. The end of the exhibit also features an Animation Academy, where you can learn to draw Mickey Mouse.
While it is a fun activity for children, I feel that the Animation Academy at the end, could have been moved to another area outside the exhibit. The space that it occupies, could have been used as a larger display/staging area for the post-Walt period. Maybe even include video testimonials of those who work within the company today, and tell how what they learned from Walt, has pushed them to keep moving forward, as well as honor his legacy.
Speaking of Walt, what I was most pleased to see, was the exhibit showing people that before his successes in animation, Walt was just as ordinary as any of us. One example is the image below, in which Walt (center) is having a scene filmed with his friend and fellow animator Ub Iwerks (left), on the roof of the building where their Kansas City studio was housed.
The ability to show people pictures of Walt as a child and a young man, is a great way to make younger viewers think, “hey, maybe one day I can do something like that!”
As of now, the Archives exhibit is only scheduled to run through May 4, 2014. While this is the first showing of this material outside the state of California, no other venues have been scheduled (so far).
The Museum of Science and Industry has played host to a number of exhibits regarding entertainment-related properties or creators, such as Harry Potter, Jim Henson, & Charles M Schulz, to name a few. What they have put together with Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives, is definitely a home run, and is an attraction that I believe will be a big draw not just for tourists, but local Chicagoans as well (I’m already eager to round up some close friends, and take them through it!). Because of this, I have tried to keep myself from revealing as much about the display pieces as I can. During my time inside the exhibit, I took over 200 images!
It should also be noted that several items may be changed out soon due to their age. According to Becky and Nicholas, Walt’s original telegram to Roy is only set to be on display for a month, before a reproduction will take its place. Even some original posters from the early 1920’s Alice Comedies (a series of live-action/animated shorts done in the mid-20’s), will be swapped out with other posters from the series.
I usually like to close some of my posts with a few choice words. These quotes from CBS Evening News anchor Eric Sevareid (made on the evening after Walt’s death was announced), provide a thoughtful moment (and can be found in the exhibit):
“He was not just an American original, but an original. Period…”
“He probably did more to heal – or at least soothe – troubled human spirits than all the psychiatrists in the world. There can’t be many adults in the allegedly civilized parts of the globe who did not inhabit Disney’s mind and imagination for at least for a few hours and feel better for the visitation.”
“What Disney seemed to know was that while there is very little grown-up in every child, there is a lot of child in every grown-up. To a child, this weary world is brand-new, gift-wrapped. Disney tried to keep it that way for adults.”
*Special Thanks goes to D23 and The Museum of Science and Industry, for including me in their early event viewing for internet bloggers. It was definitely an exciting day, and a memorable experience.*