How I Organized the Writing of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success | Part 8: Overcoming Event Isolation in Historical Writing

[Other posts in this series can be found here.]

When biographies of Walt Disney are written by isolating each major event along the chronology, the reader doesn’t get the feel for the totality and multi-dimensionality of pressures and responsibilities that rested on the shoulders of Walt and Roy as leaders of the business.

The events that Walt lived through as presented in most Disney history books didn’t occur in isolation each from the others.

Walt’s life didn’t progress as a series of singular disconnected events; it progressed as a series of overlapping opportunities to be created, developed, and managed, and challenges to be considered, addressed, and overcome, etc., with each influencing the others.

One can abstract away each from the other for the purposes of study, but at the same time, one must never lose sight of the integrated whole. Each thing that Walt did, each of his experiences, had an influence on how he thought about what came next and on the choices he made.

To understand Walt Disney’s business decisions as distinct from his artistic decisions, one has to appreciate the pressure he was under to simultaneously create, lead, organize and provide oversight for all key entrepreneurial and production aspects on the creative side of the business (Roy handled the administrative side), while juggling myriad projects and challenges simultaneously and coping with the increasingly complex dynamic possibilities and risks.

Understanding the workload Walt was juggling is important to understanding Walt Disney and the dynamics at the studio between he and his staff. Robert Sherman, who wrote songs for Disney with his brother Richard, was perceptive enough to notice this, and writes in his memoir Moose:

At one point, maybe a year after we began working at the studio, one producer put in a request for our songwriting talents. It was a heavy project. But when [Walt] asked us, we felt that we were in over our heads with the four other films. We complained trepidantly. Walt chuckled and took a bite out of an apple. 
“Listen fellas, you’re not really working hard until you’re juggling seven or eight balls in the air. It’s good for you. Keeps you fresh. You want to keep fresh, don’t you?” 
At that time Walt had probably twenty-eight balls in the air. 

The challenge of coping with the weight of complexity management is common to every person at different levels based on their particular personal attributes and responsibilities, but it is not sufficiently presented and appreciated by other Walt Disney biographers, in my estimation. Things are presented as just happening as they happened, without a clear sense that Walt actively directed the work and that lurking behind so many major decisions was excitement about figuring out how to do something new and unique and challenging that customers would appreciate and pay for. At his core, Walt Disney was a showman constantly seeking to prove to himself and others that there were ways to do things that others had given up on or wouldn’t dare attempt due to their belief that it wasn’t worth the effort or that it was impossible.

I have observed that two common characteristics of many of the biographies of Walt Disney are what I’m going to call “event isolation” and “time compression.” When biographies are written by isolating each major event, the reader doesn’t get the feel for the pressures and responsibilities that rested on Walt and Roy as leaders of the business.

What I’m calling event isolation is taking one event and telling the complete story about that event as if it all happens at once and in isolation from everything else going on at the same time.

For example, an author can isolate all of the stories and facts about the creation of Pinocchioas the follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and talk about the story development and the music, and the assignment of scenes to artists and the great drawings they did, and how expensive the movie was to make and the time it took to complete, the film reviews and Walt’s disappointment with the box office results, etc. Each event of interest that occurs is told separately, and Walt’s biography becomes a series of stories around events, for example, the creation of Mickey Mouse, the making of Snow White and other movies, the winning of Academy Awards, The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, the opening of Disneyland in 1955, participating in the 1964 New York World’s Fair, etc. The fact is that none of these things (or however many) happened in isolation.

After the creation of Mickey Mouse in 1928, Walt and his studio were never working on one thing at a time in linear fashion. Projects were occurring concurrently, and problems on each had to be managed and overcome concurrently and dynamically, with decisions about one affecting decisions about another. If I invest money here, I can’t invest over there. If I assign resources here, I can’t assign them over there. If I do this now, I have to wait to do that later. Over time the size and risk of the projects grew in scope and the complexity of managing the totality of the studio’s operations were always increasing. Managing it all seems like an impossible task, and that problem and task of management is completely pushed aside and abstracted away in the process of event isolation.

What I had to do in telling the story the way I wanted to tell it was to unravel much of the story telling and retell it as it happened chronologically: while A was occurring, so were B and C, and Walt had to take all of it into consideration and weigh the trade-offs of when and how to do each thing that the studio was doing to achieve the best results and not lose his best and most valued employees or wind up bankrupting the Studio. Much of this reorganization happened in the second rewrite (3rd draft), moving things that appeared to happen later chronologically because they were tied to a later event, but actually occurred much earlier.

But this doesn’t capture the immense overlap of all these projects. Walt and his team began working on the strategy of how to outsource their services to design and build World’s Fair attractions for major corporations when he first learned of the fair in October 1959. The creation of four attractions for the Fair consumed a considerable amount of Walt’s time and resources until the Fair opened in 1964. A primary driver of Walt’s decision was to create new attractions for Disneyland and to attract major corporate sponsors to pay for them. The work he did for the World’s Fair was also important and influential to his thinking about EPCOT and translating what he learned in building Disneyland to developing an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in Florida, which occurred simultaneously.

When biographies are written by isolating each major event, the reader doesn’t get a feel for the pressures and responsibilities that rested on Walt and Roy as leaders of the business.

The second thing of note that I tried to remain aware of is the technique or problem of time compression.

When telling a story, many authors ignore chronology and the time that passes with regards to the event they are describing. It’s not uncommon for authors to describe events that transcend months or even years as if they happened in only a few days or perhaps weeks. They may also link events that aren’t connected or present them out of order, perhaps due to laziness on the part of the writer, which then leaves the reader with a false narrative or impression of what actually occurred, which may lead the reader to draw the wrong conclusions or learn the wrong lessons.

As a single example, it is common to read that after Herb Ryman completed his map of Disneyland, Roy flew to New York in September 1953 to concluded a deal with ABC, and soon after that the Disneyland TV show was on the air, followed by the Disneyland grand opening and the park’s immediate success. It can appear as if these events just happened inevitably and in sequence, like the falling of dominoes.

In fact, while NBC expressed an interest in concluding a television deal, Roy was unable to conclude a deal in New York and flew back home without funding to buy property to purchase land and build Disneyland. Always the optimist, Walt had decided not to wait for outside funding and was already buying options on property to build Disneyland in August 1953, long before the deal was even offered to ABC in 1954 after the Disney’s had been strung along for months by NBC. A deal with ABC to secure a Disney TV contract in exchange for an ownership investment in the park was finally concluded in March 1954 along with loan guarantees of up to $4.5 million towards the building of Disneyland.

In a recent book about Disney that includes a 160-page biography of Walt Disney, the authors indicate that ABC made a deal to help Walt fund Disneyland because ABC needed Disney’s content to draw audiences and stay in business. The ABC/Disney deal was signed in March 1954. Then they go backwards chronologically to tell the story about Herb Ryman preparing a map to help sell the concept, which occurred long before the ABC/Disney television deal. They then write that “[W]ith map in hand, Roy met with the bankers in New York and quickly closed the deal for the remaining financing to get Disneyland built.” 

In fact, closing the deal was complicated and didn’t occur until six months after Roy’s initial trip.

With this as background we can now see how time compression distorts these same events as presented in this extended quote from Bob Thomas’ excellent biography, Walt Disney: An American Original:

Roy Disney flew to New York with his small burden, a six-page explanation of his brother’s vision, together with a diagrammatic map of Disneyland and a fold-out aerial conception drawn by Herb Ryman under Walt’s direction. Roy began discussions with the three television networks and with potential sponsors for an hour-long weekly television show. Roy stipulated that whoever wanted the television show would have to invest in Disneyland. …

Both the National Broadcasting Company and the American Broadcasting Company had long sought a television series from Disney. NBC, with the huge resources of its parent company, Radio Corporation of America, seemed the best prospect, and Roy had lengthy talks with the firm’s founder, General David Sarnoff. Each time Sarnoff expressed his enthusiasm for a Disney series, as well as the park. But each time he handed over the negotiations to underlings, and Roy could get no commitment. After a long, frustrating meeting with RCA executives, Roy went back to his hotel and telephoned Leonard Goldenson, president of ABC. …

Goldenson and Roy Disney agreed that Disney would supply a one-hour television series to ABC in return for a $500,000 investment in the Disneyland park. ABC would become a 35-percent owner of Disneyland and would guarantee loans up to $4,500,000. (248-9)  

In this telling by Thomas, it appears that Roy flew to New York and while on that trip and before returning home to California, came to a deal with ABC’s Goldenson within a matter of days as opposed to months of negotiations. This is time compression.

The time compressed form of this and other stories aren’t necessarily incorrect in essence, even when they are riddled with mistakes and may not be correct factually. In addition to factual errors, poor communication via fragmenting and shuffling the chronology makes the story harder to understand and puts an unnecessary burden on the reader to reassemble the story in its proper order and tease out the implications. It shifts the burden of construction and understanding to the reader when that obligation should fall to the author. 

Many biographies of Walt Disney are like this. They aren’t necessarily correct, but there is enough to be generally correct. And sometimes that’s enough, depending on the context and the amount of space the author intends to consume in telling the story. 

It is also the case that some authors may decide that a good story is better than a correct story. In some instances, sources are questionable or non-existent, thereby spreading a false or dubious narrative. Some authors even invent (fictionalize?) parts of the story that are missing under the mistaken belief that it will make the story more compelling, when what it does, in my opinion, is raise questions about the trustworthiness of the narrative in the eyes of the discerning reader.

It was important to me that The Business of Walt Disney be factually correct, although I knew it would not be and could not be a complete accounting of Walt’s business experiences. The correct story is also the good story. I wanted enough chronology and detail to tell the full story as available to me through my research. I wanted my sources to be documented, respected, and held in high regard as experts in their own right. 

In telling the story of Walt Disney the businessman, the judgement as to what is correct and how much is enough was always my own. Writing is always a matter of deciding what to include and what to leave out. The author must bear the responsibility and be accountable for his or her choices. But what you put in, if you claim to be writing non-fiction, must be the facts and a coherent and logical narrative. And when you are interpreting events or providing opinion, it must be clear to the reader that that is what you are doing.

© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. 

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler.

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