Robin Allan paints a vivid picture of Marceline, Missouri, Walt Disney's home town. Walt truly harkened back to his days in this rural American town, which continues to strengthen its bonds with this honored native son.
A specially commissioned postcard commemorating the Centennial Celebration. Art by Dave Brooks.
What has a small Mid-Western town, population 2558, in the rolling hills of Missouri and some three hours drive east of Kansas City to do with Walt Disney? Well, quite a lot actually, because this was the place where the four year old Disney spent the happiest years of his childhood, the place where his itinerant family settled in 1906 to farm forty five acres of land just north of the town. This was the place where the boy Disney could run free and experience the security of life close to the land. He was part not only of farm life and could work with and observe the animals on the farm, but could also explore the life of the little town itself. And, too, there was the railway -- the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad ran right through the town, and the town itself grew up because of the railroad, having been founded only eighteen years beforehand in 1888. The Disney family had to move on in 1911 but those five years, a vital period in any child's upbringing, meant a great deal to Walt Disney.
Years later, after Disney's first success, he sent his parents to Marceline for a holiday in 1933 and he wrote to the town in 1938 on the occasion of its golden jubilee, commenting in a characteristically authentic tone -- this is not the phraseology of a ghost writer -- that Marceline had made an indelible impression on him as a youngster. The letter bears quoting at some length:
"More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since -- or are likely to in the future. Things, I mean, like experiencing my first country life, seeing my first circus parade, attending my first school, seeing my first motion picture!... One of my fondest childhood memories is of Doc Sherwood. He used to encourage me in my drawing, and give me little presents for my efforts...My brother Roy reminds me of another flyer I took in the line of art at that time. I painted one side of our house with black pitch. The outcome must have been slightly frightening, to say the least, and I wasn't thanked for my efforts by the family...Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us, coming as we did from a city the size of Chicago. I'm glad I'm a small town boy and I'm glad Marceline was my town. Thanks a lot for letting me write my impressions, and say hello to all the folks..." (1)
Many of Disney's interests can be traced back to Marceline; the farmyard and rural ambience of the early shorts (Mickey was never an urban mouse) and the love of trains. Trains still roar their way frequently through the town, past the little station, or depot as it is known. (Alas, Amtrak's passenger service no longer makes a scheduled stop.) The boy Disney would run down the lane from the farm to listen to the trains roar over the bridge. The lane is still there, unsurfaced, and the bridge is there, and many of the places associated with him are still there in Marceline. Many people remember him as a genial visitor in the late 1950s.
1. Walt Disney, "The Marceline I Knew," The Marceline News, 2 September, 1938.
The ambience of small town America and the rural communities that surrounded little towns like Marceline formed a visual equivalent to many of Disney's films, from the early shorts to Mary Poppins (1964); its Kansas Avenue, the high street of the town, formed the basis of Disney's "Main Street USA" in Disneyland. To honor the link, Marceline changed the name Kansas Avenue to Main Street USA at a special ceremony in 1998.
Disney himself returned to Marceline in 1956 -- by train of course - to dedicate Disney Park and to open the Walt Disney swimming pool. He came back again in 1960 to open the new Walt Disney School, dismissing his staff and telling his host Rush Johnson, the Mayor of Marceline, that he didn't need any retainers. "This is my home," he said. After his death the entire family returned to Marceline in 1968 to dedicate a commemorative stamp issued from the Marceline post office.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Marceline is proud of its boyhood son, and Disney was relaxed and happy on his visits; he was thinking in his last years about a small theme park to be called the Walt Disney Boyhood Farm, but was too ill to elaborate his plans and had to cancel later projected visits (2). Disney was a charismatic personality, grouchy and difficult with staff, defensive when threatened; he never forgot his early struggles and the way he had been betrayed by colleagues and associates on a number of occasions. Away from work he was another man; film and photographs taken at Marceline, and oral histories from those who remember him, portray a man at ease with himself and the world.
Return To Marceline, 1994
My first visit to Marceline was in 1994 after I had been doing some research in California for my book on Walt Disney. As an Englishman my experience of the States had been of her big cities, New York, Washington, Los Angeles. All were different experiences -- the intoxication of nervous, hectic New York, the sunny sprawl of Los Angeles, constipated with traffic, the grandiose opulence of Washington were all exciting cities, but rural America was a new experience. On a hot August day the Amtrak train (at that time it still made a scheduled stop at Marceline) drew up at the little depot. I was the only passenger to get off and the train pulled away, its mournful hooter reminiscent in my mind of so many other trains featured in Hollywood films over the years. Where to go? I knew only that this was Walt's boyhood home, as the depot noticeboard proudly announced:
WALT DISNEY'S BOYHOOD HOME MARCELINE MO. WELCOMES YOU
And that is what happened to me. In the midday sunshine I walked round the back of the station and found a mechanic who was fixing a car. I asked him if I was near the center of the town and he said, smilingly, that it was one block away. So into the then Kansas Avenue I walked, and felt that I was on the set of a film, a quiet town basking sleepily in the sunshine, with Murray's department store (where Mrs. Disney bought Walt his first farm overalls and where my wife would later buy me two pairs of splendid braces -- or suspenders as they are called in the U.S.). I went first to the newspaper office, and it was like walking into a Norman Rockwell painting -- you know, the one in that series "Norman Rockwell Visits..." The kindly young editor took me to the Disney sites and introduced me to Rush Johnson, who had been Mayor on Disney's visits and who became a great friend of Walt Disney. In turn Rush introduced me to his daughter Kaye Malins who had presented Disney with a bouquet of flowers when she was six, and who now lives in the much altered Disney farmhouse. Kaye, along with her enthusiastic family and colleagues, generated the steam needed to launch the celebrations to honor the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth.
Everywhere I met with courtesy and a sturdy affection for the boyhood home of the town's famous son, and a pride in its own community -- as well as loyalty to Disney himself, for by this time the rebarbative biographies starting with Richard Schickel's were current.
After spending the night at the Lamplighter Motel (the sign displays Mickey tucked up in bed, his shorts hung up beside him, shoes on the floor and the zzz of slumber hovering over him), Kaye took me to the station and warned me that the train might be late. She gave me a bottle of water, and an apple, and supplied me with a chair so "I sat in the shade, listening to the sounds of Marceline around me -- children playing in Ripley park, cars bouncing over the level crossing, the crunch of cyclists' tires on gravel, men calling to each other across their back yards, a woman hanging out washing with the click of clothes pegs, a workman using a drill, bird calls, the wind in the leaves, peaceful until the train arrived an hour late, glittering in the sunshine and bellowing out its plaintiff siren." (3)
2. For more details about the Disney Boyhood Farm project see the author's Walt Disney and Europe (London: John Libbey, 1999) p. 245. There is also admirable comment on Disney and Marceline in Steven Watts' The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
3. Author's diary, 27 August, 1994.
The barn raising nearly complete in Marceline. All photos courtesy of Robin Allan, unless otherwise noted. Kaye Malins welcomes guests to the Disney Elementary School during the birthday celebration.
The Spirit Of Mickey 1998 And Walt Disney's Hometown 100th Birthday Celebration 2001
"The Spirit of Mickey" in 1998 was a run-up to the centenary celebrations of 2001, both charming festivals, modest in their aspirations; the latter culminated in the reopening of the depot railroad station as a museum, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Rush Johnson and his colleagues. A special Amtrak train arrived bearing not only the Governor of Missouri and his family, but Mickey and Minnie too. There were other delights on hand including tours of the Disney elementary school, a barn raising on the Disney farm not far from the cottonwood tree where local legend has it that Walt and his little sister Ruth would go and dream together and make up stories. A picture of the dreaming tree and the children standing nearby made a delightful publicity motif. Other events included music in the park, Flora Disney's Wolf Apple Pie Eating Contest, a "Walt Sketching Rupert the Horse" competition, and other events including a Main Street parade. The highlight was the opening of the depot as a museum, lovingly and tastefully restored under the direction of the architect Dennis Bradley. Distinguished guests included Walt Disney's nephew Ted Beecher, son of Ruth Disney, and his wife and family; many of the letters and documents on display came from the Ruth Disney Beecher collection.
Missouri Governor Bob Holden, wife Lori Hauser Holden and family and friends attend the opening of the of the Marceline Depot Museum. Photo courtesy of Dennis M. Bradley. The Friends of Marceline meet up with the Disney Scholars (l to r): LaVerne Stevens, Don Perri, Dennis Bradley, Robin Allan and Professor John Tibbets of the University of Kansas.
In the Uptown Theatre (where Walt Disney had personally premiered The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956) a continuous stream of lectures was given by Disney scholars, including Michael Broggie, Don Perri, LaVerne Stevens, Steven Watts, David Williams (4) and others including myself. We felt honored to be speaking from the same platform as Walt Disney, and in the same beautiful art deco cinema.
There was so much going on that we couldn't possibly see it all -- we missed the Gandy Dancer Review, the Crop Maize, the Raising of the Barn and many other events. This was barely ten days after September 11th and crowds were not as great as the organizers had hoped -- nevertheless, Small Town America was out to enjoy itself and there was an air of quiet jollity and a sense of patriotism and appreciation. Many flags were on display.
4. Michael Broggie is the author of Walt Disney's Railroad Story (Pasadena: Pentrex, 1998); Don Peri is a Disney scholar who has interviewed many of the Disney artists; LaVerne Stevens is the author of Bread and Butter Days (Lakeland: Bread and Butter Press, 1992); Steven Watts is the author of The Magic Kingdom (see note 2 above); David Williams is the author of many articles on Disney, as well as curating exhibitions of Disney art. He presented his Fantasia exhibition to Marceline after its display there for the 100th birthday celebrations.
And Did You Once See Disney Plain?
Where does the Walt Disney Company figure in this? Well, not at all except for the loan of Mickey and Minnie from Disneyland. Since Marceline means nothing financially to the current regime, it is ignored. The importance of the town, its independence and continuing nurture of the memory of its famous son, is of no import to a corporation concerned with milking as many dollars out of the public as it can, while it can. It boasts at its parks of "100 years of magic," cashing in on the anniversary of its founder's birth, but the magic did not begin there until 27 years later with the arrival of Mickey Mouse.
This freedom from the Disney Company's embrace has, however, been of advantage to Marceline -- it has been able to proceed on its own way, to produce its own images, its own distinctive logos and merchandise. We never looked for good taste even from Walt -- well, there it is in Marceline today, alive and kicking and what a breath of fresh air this is -- to enjoy Disney and his legacy without the stultifying Company hand and brand.
Where Now Marceline?
The organizers of the 100th anniversary celebrations are determined to continue to raise the profile of their town and its connection with Walt Disney. The depot museum will need financial support and a curatorship that will understand the parameters of its association with Disney. It will take a special interest in the history of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad company. Tragically, there is no Walt Disney Foundation, no Walt Disney Library, no Walt Disney Research Center, no Walt Disney Institute, or Museum, or Art Gallery. Isn't this simply extraordinary when you think of the importance of this man and his heritage not only for the United States but also for the world? Marceline is absolutely unique in promoting the first museum in the world to contain original material pertaining to Disney and his early life. May it continue to pioneer this enterprise for which our children and our children's children will be grateful for years, perhaps for centuries to come, long after the corporations of today and "the captains and the kings depart."
There is another reason for extolling the enterprise of this little Mid-West town. It lies some 125 miles north east of Kansas City where another group of devoted men and women are working to restore the Laugh-O-Gram Studio where Disney worked as a young man before he went to Hollywood (5). Marceline also lies more or less midway between Kansas City to the west and Hannibal, to the east, with its Mark Twain associations.
What more suitable figures from the 19th and 20th century heritage of the popular culture of the United States than these two story tellers one choosing the written word and one choosing the animated image? There is already an established tourist association for Mark Twain; how enterprising it would be to see a tourist trail linked from Hannibal via Marceline to Kansas City. I am sure that this thought is not far from the minds of that nucleus of enthusiasts who, with little financial resource but with immense good will, have honored the boyhood son of Marceline. As George Mendoza wrote for Norman Rockwell's Americana ABC, "I am America. I begin with A and I end in a. I am America as long ago as I can remember and as far ahead as I can dream."
Robin Allan is a writer and art historian based in Derbyshire, England. He has written extensively on Disney and has lectured on the subject in Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States. His latest book, Walt Disney and Europe, was published by John Libbey to rave reviews.
5. The Laugh-O-Gram Studio, disgracefully neglected over the years, is at last being restored by the diligent "Thank You Walt Disney Inc.," of which Dennis Bradley, who supervised the restoration of the Marceline Depot Museum, is Building Committee Chairman. This is a building of immense importance to the American history of animation. Here the young Walt Disney made his first cartoons and worked with other young men who would later make distinguished careers of their own in Hollywood. I am grateful to Mr. Bradley for taking the trouble to show me all the extant Disney sites in Kansas City.