As part of our mission to inform and educate present and future generations about Walt Disney, we wanted to highlight some common myths about Walt Disney and provide a place where those myths can be addressed and corrected.
Contributions of Women at the Disney Studios
In 1938, a letter was written from Walt Disney Productions to a female applicant, turning down her request to enroll in the Studio Animation Training Program. The letter, to the left, states that women did not perform the position of Animator at that time.
While this type of job restriction could be found not only at The Walt Disney Studios but at every other animation studio, it is important to acknowledge that there was quite a big disparity in gender treatment during this time. At that time, most companies in America were mostly male dominated with women providing smaller support roles.
Before WWII made women the backbone of the American workforce, Walt Disney spoke to his employees on February 10 and 11, 1941, and announced that women were being included in his Studio Animation Training Program: “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man,” he declared. “The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.” This led to the studio hiring several prominent women and making an impact on the studio’s legacy.
Quite a few women played important roles at The Walt Disney Studios during Walt's time, including artist Mary Blair—whose work in the animation department at The Walt Disney Studios heavily influenced the look and feel of Disney films for almost 30 years. Blair started at the Disney Studios in the early 1940s and worked on classics such as Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), and more. She also assisted in the design of the Disneyland Resort attraction “it’s a small world” and murals down the Tomorrowland midway, and later at Disney's Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. Working with Blair on “it’s a small world” was Alice Davis—the legendary costumer who played a large role in Disney history as she designed and hand-made a significant amount of costumes seen on Audio-Animatronics® figures in a number of Disneyland attractions. Another significant artist was Hazel Sewell, who served as an art director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1937. Sewell also worked as an inker on the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon created in 1928, Plane Crazy, and was one of the artists who traveled to South America in 1941 as part of Walt's goodwill tour.
Other notable women, besides Walt's wife Lillian—who worked as an inker before they married in 1925—were his Aunt Margaret, who provided Walt with his first drawing tablet and tools, and Margaret J. Winkler, whose distribution deal with Walt's Alice Comedies allowed him to establish the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. Winkler was the only female leader in the male-dominated world of movie distribution at the time. At the helm of Winkler Pictures, she established animation as a sustainable division of the entertainment industry and played a key role in the start of what we know today as The Walt Disney Company.
Learn more about pioneering female artists at The Walt Disney Studios such as Bianca Majolie, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Retta Scott, and Mary Blair here; read more about the first female Imagineer Harriet Burns here; and learn more about Alice Davis and her iconic creative partnership with her husband here. Learn more about Margaret Winkler here.
Walt and Other Cultures
Walt employed many people of Jewish descent—including Joe Grant, Kay Kamen, Marty Sklar, Ed Solomon, Richard and Robert Sherman, and many others who held prominent roles within Walt's company. These men and women collaborated and created with Walt.
In an interview, songwriter Richard Sherman states: “Let me tell you something, a lot of people talk about Walt in negative ways. There was nothing negative about Walt Disney,” he says. “He was dedicated to doing great things. He reached for the stars all the time. He was a wonderful, wonderful boss.”
Robert Sherman also has spoken about Walt's defending the brothers during a meeting: "Walt was sensitive to people's feelings... He hated to see people mistreated or discriminated against. One time, Richard and I overheard a discussion between Walt and one of his lawyers. This attorney was a real bad guy, didn't like minorities. He said something about Richard and me, and he called us 'these Jew boys writing these songs.' Well, Walt defended us, and he fired the lawyer. Walt was unbelievably great to us."
Walt was also a frequent contributor to Jewish charities, including the Yeshiva College and the Jewish Home for the Aged. Walt Disney was made Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai B’rith—the oldest continually-operating Jewish service organization, which fights anti-Semitism all over the world—and was awarded a recognition from Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization that empowers youth in Israel and America. These awards can be seen in the Lobby of The Walt Disney Museum. Above: B'nai B'rith Heart of America Chapter, Kansas City, Missouri; Distinguished Service Citation, 1958. Left: Hadassah Recognition of Achievement, 1958.)
Disney Legend and animator Floyd Norman has been quoted saying: "It's like the old ruse that Walt didn't hire Jews, which was also ridiculous. There were plenty of Jews at Disney. Personally, I never felt any prejudice from Walt." Here’s Floyd Norman as part of his interview for the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth expanding on his experience working for Walt Disney:
Walt and WWIII
One bit of misinformation is that Walt Disney supported the Axis throughout World War II. Here are some examples of Walt’s work throughout the 1940s that show otherwise:
- His tour of South America of behalf of the United States Good Neighbor Policy.
- When the Disney studio lot in Burbank was requisitioned as an Army anti-aircraft base in 1941, Walt and his staff pledged to support the Allied war effort without hesitation, devoting over 90% of their wartime output to producing training, entertainment, and public-service films, like Victory Through Air Power (1943). These films were made at cost and were made to benefit the US war effort against the Axis powers.
- The Walt Disney Studios won an Academy Award in 1943 for the short film Der Fuehrer's Face, in which Donald Duck has a nightmare that he’s living in Nazi Germany and wakes up glad to be a citizen of the United States.
Legend of Walt Disney and Cryogenics
Despite popular myth, Walt Disney was never cryogenically frozen. The Walt Disney Family Museum features a gallery dedicated to the heartbreakingly sudden passing of Walt Disney from acute circulatory lung collapse on December 15, 1966. Two days later, Walt was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA.
Walt was a human being who made mistakes and had many ups and downs throughout his life. His daughter, Diane, emphasized this many times, stating: "What made him human is what makes you human." We invite you to visit The Walt Disney Family Museum, and send us any additional questions you may have at email@example.com.