Scholar, Contributor to PBS’ Upcoming Documentary Suggests Walt Disney Had Significant Role in Shaping American Ideals
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By Sheena Rice
COLUMBIA, Mo. – One of the more recognizable brands in America, and around the world, is Disney. The creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, Walt Disney created an empire devoted to art that would eventually become a giant corporation complete with theme parks and merchandise. On September 14-15, PBS will air the premier of “Walt Disney” as part of their “American Experience” documentary series. Steven Watts, a professor of history in the College of Arts & Science at the University of Missouri, contributed to the documentary as an advisor and commentator. In his analysis, he says that Disney played a significant role in shaping America and many of its key cultural values.
Watts, a renowned author who has written critically acclaimed biographies of Hugh Hefner, Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie, is the author of “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.” His work on Walt Disney led to an appearance on a CBS-Time Magazine documentary, “Makers of the Twentieth Century.”
“Walt Disney was interested in more than just entertainment; he wanted to create art that celebrated ordinary Americans and the values of ordinary people,” Watts said. “He valued hard work and the ‘small town’ way of life, and he captured that in his creations.”
Watts was inspired to write a book about Disney and his relationship to American culture and values when he and his wife visited Disney World. Through the five-year project he interviewed animators, including Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two animators who were part of “Disney’s Nine Old Men” who added their talents to some of the first animated Disney films. He also interviewed colleagues who worked with Disney at his Burbank Studios, spent weeks in the Disney Archives and even interviewed the late actor Fess Parker, whose memorable appearances included Davey Crockett in Disney’s Sunday night program, “The Wonderful World of Color.”
As an MU professor, Watts also was interested in Disney’s time growing up and working in Missouri. Disney was born in Chicago, but moved to Marceline, Mo., when he was four and considered the small town to be his home, even after moving to Kansas City where he would run his father’s Kansas City Star paper route every morning before school. It was in Missouri that Disney discovered a love of drawing and art, and that, combined with his strong work ethic, led to his animation career and eventual company.
“Growing up, Disney’s father was never successful, so Walt valued hard work and often came across as domineering in his treatment of others, even as he built a studio hailed as a dream factory,” Watts said. “Selling papers in Kansas City he learned to get back up after getting knocked down and to kept striving for his goals. Through his art, the creation of Walt Disney Studios, and the eventual Walt Disney Company, Disney shaped our view of America. Several generations of children, starting in the 1930s, have grown up in a ‘Disney World.’”
Watts specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the United States. His expertise on Henry Ford led to a key role as advisor and commentator on PBS’s “American Experience: Henry Ford” and on the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America.” “Walt Disney” premiers on PBS Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 14 and 15, at 9 p.m, Eastern, 8 p.m. Central.