By David Kligman
SAN FRANCISCO — Walt Disney is one of the world’s most iconic symbols, a name that instantly brings joy to children and adults around the world. So it’s hard to believe there was a time when the man behind the name was an unknown struggling cartoonist.
His story is told at The Walt Disney Family Museum, a dizzying collection that spans Disney’s Midwest farm childhood to his groundbreaking animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and visionary concept of Disneyland to his death in 1966.
On Wednesday (Dec. 5), museum admission is free of charge thanks to a sponsorship by PG&E on the 111th anniversary of Disney’s birth. Hours are extended that day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Special events will include live sketching demonstrations, a self-guided scavenger hunt and screenings of a Dick Van Dyke-narrated documentary profiling Disney.
Ezra Garrett, PG&E’s vice president of community relations, said the free day is an opportunity for the utility to provide greater access to museums to underserved communities.
“We are fortunate to have such diverse artistic, enlightening and informative centers in the Bay Area — like the Walt Disney Family Museum — and we want to ensure they can be enjoyed by the full community,” Garrett said.
The 40,000-square-foot museum opened in 2009 in a historic brick building in San Francisco’s Presidio. Many visitors ask why the nonprofit museum is located in Northern California and not in Southern California, the home of Disneyland.
Why San Francisco?
The answer, said registrar and curatorial assistant Anel Muller, is that Disneyland and the museum are entirely different experiences. The museum’s founders — Disney’s daughter and grandson — also felt it should be closer to the animation epicenter of Northern California, which includes Pixar and Lucas Studios.
Of course, any location would be ideal, Muller said.
“Everybody knows Walt Disney, so I think you could put it anywhere in the world,” Muller said. “But being here because of all the animation that surrounds us—it just made sense.”
The museum is filled with treasures: Disney’s record 26 Academy awards, a key to the city of San Francisco from Mayor George Christopher in 1958 and the Congressional Medal of Honor he received two months before his death. There’s even an oil painting of Davy Crockett’s cabin in winter, a piece of artwork that hung over the fireplace in Walt and Lillian Disney’s living room.
There are the earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse, original paint chips from the Ink & Paint department and many televised interviews with Disney himself explaining his craft.
The museum also gives a comprehensive insight into Walt Disney the man. One wing is devoted solely to what he described as the “toughest period in my whole life”—labor unrest at the Disney studio that forced the animation giant to shut down for several weeks in 1941.
In addition, in an adjacent building there’s a special temporary exhibit on the 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” As the history goes, there was great concern audiences wouldn’t have the patience for an animated feature and that it would be a flop. Of course, it went on to become a classic and one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Walt Disney the man
And there are personal items like Disney’s hairbrush, lawn bowling kit and a handwritten list for his cook—recently discovered sandwiched in a magazine—detailing his favorite foods. Turns out he was a fan of 1950s Americana cuisine: Hormel chili with beans, Jello with pieces of fruit and Spam and eggs with biscuits and honey.
“I wanted people to know him,” Diane Disney Miller, co-founder of the museum and Disney’s oldest daughter, told Currents. “I’ve been in enough museums to know that those little personal things really tell you about someone.”
Miller, 78, said she never intended the museum to become as big as it has. But talking to fans has made her realize it was worth the effort.
“Now when I’m in the museum, people come up to me if they know that it’s me and they say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for doing this,’” said Miller, who lives in Napa County. “That just makes me know it was the right thing to do.”
As for the free day, Miller said she’s thrilled. And she hopes it gets more people to visit and learn about the man who elevated animation to an art form while becoming a pillar of American culture.
“I said, ‘For my dad’s birthday, I’d like to make it a free day,’” she said. “And PG&E is making that possible, and I’m so grateful. I think it’s a wonderful gift.”
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com