Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Walt Disney, the Great Educator

I have the privilege to digitize interviews of Disney Studio employees and their relationships with Walt. This effort is part of the Walt's People series of books put together by Didier Ghez. By doing this I come across the greatest information. The latest interview was one of Carl Nater. Carl was a production coordinator during the World War II days at the studios. Later on he was President of the Disney Studio 16mm division that made mostly educational films for private companies such as GE and General Motors. He gave a very specific and clear narration of his years working with Walt Disney in this interview. He worked closely with Walt when the studio was spending 90% of it's time making training and public service films for the armed forces. Mr. Nater had many stories about Walt and the beginnings of the Studio's interest in educational films.

In the interviews I transcribe and digitize, there is always a part of my brain listening to the stories I read and trying to see how they fit into the life and achievements of Walt Disney. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that gets more and more complete as you add each piece. Carl's stories were very amusing and more like memories as he was speaking into a tape recorder. This interview was given in 1972. Over all, there was this constant theme of Walt's push to educate as well as entertain. In Nater's words about Walt, "I'm convinced he would have been very, very pleased if he had gone down in history, if he had been known as one of the great educators as well as being one of the great entertainers."

Reading Carl's stories and thinking of Walt and education made me reflect on a famous Walt Disney quote, "I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained." At first look, this quote seems to say that Walt had decided that it was better to entertain than educate. But a story that Carl told says different. In the early days of World War II right after Pearl Harbor, the armed forces were desperate to get good quality training films created to help train the American fighting man making his way from civilian life to a fighting soldier or sailor. The Studio's first project was to work on the subject of aircraft identification. The Storymen working on this project were at the mercy of the military as to how to make these kind of films. After-all, Disney Studio never made a Military training film before. All through the process the Disney guys had attempted to add hints of humor to make this dry information easier to watch and learn from. The military always squashed these efforts relying on the philosophy that since this information would save the men's lives, they would pay close attention even if it was dull. At one production meeting after Walt had reviewed the work on Air Identification, he made an observation. Walt said, "I'm just convinced it will put people to sleep, maybe you could lighten this thing up a little bit by putting Donald Duck into the story". From Carl's description you would have thought the Army/Navy officers were having heart attacks and strokes. Walt deferred to them with the thinking that after all, these military men were the experts on training there own troops. Well the movie was finished and delivered and was a very boring snoozefest. As the war went on the Studio and the military got better at these kind of movies. By 1943 as the war was beginning to turn towards the favor of the allies, the BigWigs in Washington invited the filmmakers that had been working on the war effort to a big dinner banquet to thank them for their help. As the night went on, awards were given out and they had gotten to the time of the night where they showed a reel of the worst movies...as a joke. Well, Carl watched the clip from the Aircraft Identification film they had made and he agreed, it was a bomb. Then one of the two high ranking navy officers that were sitting next to him leans over to him and says, "You guys really should have added a little humor to that. Maybe have Donald Duck or one of the Disney Characters liven it up a bit." Go figure. But it does give some credence to Walt's famous quote. By adding a little humor, or a little action via Donald or Mickey the audience would be sure to watch and most of all, pay attention.

Another item I picked out of this interview was about a term I have heard and I'm sure you have heard over and over but not as much in today's world. Did you ever hear Mickey Mouse used as an adjective? A phrase like, "What kind of Mickey Mouse business is this?" or maybe something that was complicated was this, "Mickey Mouse kind of thing." Carl tells another amusing story that perhaps shows the birthplace of this phrase. In the early 1940's as the studio was working with the military, they would often have crazed officers needing to make films to train a certain skill as quickly as possible. There were times the Writers and Story people would begin working before there was even a contract. Getting that contract was tough and getting paid usually tougher. And even when they did there were issues. Carl goes on to explain how that Disney did their books a little differently and would add expenses on that had nothing to do with that particular project, but costs to keep the company working. You would see a general cost for the administrators in Anaheim and the distributors in NY and the Sales people in South America and so on. It did make sense... Well it didn't take too long before the government auditors were coming in and digging through this odd type of billing system. After a long day Carl was again explaining to the lead auditor, a fellow named Ballinger, how their system worked. After listening and trying to understand, the auditor turns to Carl and says, "That system you've got over here, that's the darndest system of Mickey Mouse bookkeeping I ever heard of in my life. That's really Mickey Mouse bookkeeping." After the meeting that story burned through the studios to big laughs. Everyone was telling that story and adding their own Mickey Mouse ideas. Carl had a pretty good feeling that it just spread to the rest of the world from there.

One last thought I took away from this interview was Walt's true love for Education. As one that had limited formal education, he realized the value of it and felt none should be left out. The problem was there was no money in educational films. In order to make a good film there were certain minimal costs before even adding effects or advertising. Educational films would never make back that initial minimal cost so they were not made as much as they should have been. Walt, due to low budgets could not make them they way he thought they should be made. Some times there are ways around the money though. Walt would try sneaking an educational movie in as a short once in a while. Carl remembers, "A good example of what I'm talking about is 'Donald in Mathmagic Land', which he made. He professed that he was making it for theatres, and he did make it, and it was running in theatres, and it bombed out in theatres. It didn't do very well in the theatres, but it became a classic film in the field of education."

Carl Nater might not be a big name in the history of the studios, but he does have stories to tell. I have not even scratched the surface here. You can read more stories from Carl in an upcoming volume of Didier Ghez's Walt's People.

Thanks to Didier for use of the interview as a source and to Thelostdisney on Youtube for the Donald Link.

Update: Some of you might know that I am working as a Technology Teacher in a K-4 school now. How is this for a coincidence, I was asked to help out with getting a VCR to work. There is a Sub teacher in today and she needs to show...this is great...she needed to show Donald in Mathmagic Land. And I just posted this last night. Holy Crap that's just a little bit of a spooky coincidence.

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