My general life pattern has been to visit a place, get interested in it, and want to learn more. Then, after reading, I always wish I could go back and visit again. Finally I’m getting smart with this. I knew I would be going to Disney World, so I decided *first* to read a book about its founder. Well, actually, one of its founders. I read “Building a Company, Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire.” Why read about Roy, Walt’s older brother, instead of Walt himself? I’m not sure, but this book was on my “to read” books list at Goodreads. That probably means either that I read something favorable about it earlier. No matter, there was plenty about Walt himself in the book too.
Building a Company, Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire
I knew that Walt Disney had a brother who was the business genius behind the Disney organization, but that’s about it.
Let’s start with a little background: there were five Disney children: three boys (Roy being the youngest), then, after an 8 year gap, another boy — Walt — and a girl. It came across clearly that Walt was the free-spirited one, while Roy was the responsible older sibling who provided the consistency that helped him achieve success. One example is that, as a young man interested in cartooning and creating movies, Walt often hung around the Universal and MGM, on the pretense of looking for a job. “He had a persistency, an optimism about him, all the time.” Meanwhile, Roy was working and providing funds for Walt’s needs when he ran out (which happened often). It’s interesting to note that Roy had only a high school diploma.
Roy’s assessment of his role in the Disney company was this: “Walt always had his way around. He was the guy, he was just irresistible, and he was so X$X%*& right about it. That’s why I say, if I contributed anything, I contributed honest management for him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t smart enough if he applied himself. He was always disinterested in figures, legal work, and all that stuff. It just took time away from what he wanted to be thinking about. So he’d have been easy prey for somebody to twist him and take him.”
Roy came across as the stable, business-like ying to Walt’s artistic-mercurial yang. The brothers generally got along, although their wives commiserated over the “Disney disposition” that led them to fiery disagreements and even to a period of a few years in later life where they didn’t talk to each other.
Origins of Mickey Mouse
One interesting thing on the origin of Mickey Mouse as a character was that Disney originally worked with a character called Oswald the Rabbit. That didn’t go over too well, and he came up with a mouse, which he planned to call Mortimer. His wife Lilly said, “That doesn’t sound very good,” and she made up the name Mickey.
Walt vs. Roy
Much of this book contrasted Walt and Roy, which was interesting. Roy was generally the peacemaker of the family, the calm, steady one. Many who worked at the Disney studios remembered Roy asking about their families and praising their work, while Walt rarely did this. “Walt’s boys” were motivated by the sheer genius of the man rather than by any positive feedback he gave them.
Roy was so unassuming that some people didn’t even know he was a Disney. There’s a story where he makes a suggestion to an animator, who angrily says to him, “Who do you think you are, God?”
Roy answers, “No, I’m his brother.”
Roy was frugal in his personal life as well as in his business endeavors. Throughout his adult years, he received disability checks from the government for contracting tuberculosis while in the navy in WWI. However, he insisted that he suffered no ill effects from this and tried to return the checks (he never figured out how to do this, so he just refused to cash them).
I enjoyed reading about the Disney progression from cartoons to movies to theme parks. First of the parks was California’s Disneyland, and Walt often said there would never be another one. He often spent the night at the park and roamed it after it closed, making note of things he wanted to upgrade and “plus.” Roy was the one left with the responsibility of finding funding for all this.
In the midst of the beginning plans for Disney World, Walt became increasingly sick. He blamed an old injury he got playing polo, and had surgery. But the doctor found a spot on his lung, and told him he had 6 months to two years to live. He went right back to work, not discussing this with anyone. Two months later, he died, at age 65. His sudden death, and the family’s quiet about it, led to some strange conspiracy theories. One was that Walt had had himself frozen in hopes of coming back to life at a later time. Roy continued to run the business as best he could, and he hoped to die quickly when his time came. He did, of a stroke at 78.
An associate said of the brothers: “I’ve always felt how fortunate the two guys were, Walt and Roy, how much they needed each other. I don’t know if they knew it or ever thought about it. But I’ve often wondered what might have happened if they hadn’t been together. Walt might have ended up working for Walter Lantz, because he wasn’t a businessman. And Roy could have ended up manager of a Bank of America in Glendale.”
I should note that this book was authorized by the family, and thus there isn’t a lot negative about them. That’s fine, although I would like to hear any bits of “the other side” that might be out there. Overall, “Building a Company, Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire” is an interesting read, if the Disney story interests you.