Bob Welbaum: Second Annual NFFC Florida Convention
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Bob Welbaum and friends at the 2nd Annual NFFC Florida Convention
Second Annual NFFC Florida Convention
The NFFC’s Second Annual Florida Convention, held September 27-30 at Walt Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort, certainly had a varied lineup of speakers. These included some familiar faces, like Disney Archivist Dave Smith, retired publicist Charlie Ridgway, Imagineering legend Marty Sklar, and actress/puppeteer/artist Terri Hardin.
But this time I’m going to talk about some people we don’t see quite as often, as well as some new personalities.
It was a real pleasure seeing Virginia Davis again. We’re fond of saying it all started with a mouse; actually, it all started with a little girl! You see, Walt made a series of 56 silent cartoons between 1924 and 1927 with a live girl acting within an animated Cartoonland. The series was called Alice Comedies, and four-year-old Virginia Davis was the first of four child actresses to portray Alice, appearing in 13 of the films.
Jim Korkis acted as a combination of Virginia’s escort and interviewer. Virginia’s relationship with Walt Disney began in Kansas City, when she appeared in a bread ad. It was only a still picture, but it caught Walt’s eye. Walt had made the first Alice Comedy, an experimental film called Alice’s Wonderland, then his company went bankrupt. Walt returned to the idea of the Alice Comedy series when he got to Hollywood. His distributor approved the series… with the stipulation that he use the same little girl as Alice.
Walt contacted Alice’s mother and they worked out a deal. Coincidentally, Virginia had been suffering from pneumonia, and her doctor thought the change would have some health benefits. Plus her father was a traveling salesman so he could work anywhere. Virginia and her mother traveled to California by train; a little-known fact is that her father’s car was driven to the West Coast by Ub Iwerks. Later Walt would borrow the Davis family car to court his future wife Lillian.
Virginia remembers Walt as being a gentle person who loved children. He never yelled at children. Since these were silent films, she would act in pantomime with Walt giving direction “Look behind you. It’s an animal. Look scared!” Everything was done in one take; there was no money to buy enough film for multiple tries. Roy ran the camera, which was at first a borrowed, hand-cranked model. One interesting point about this series: since animation was expensive, the earlier films has more live action. As Walt became more successful, he added artists and the later films featured more animation.
The audience was privileged to screen two of the Alice Comedies. The first was Alice’s Day at Sea, which was so rare Virginia had never seen it before. Fortunately, Jim had a copy with Dutch titles in his personal collection. The beginning of this film was shot at Walt’s Uncle Robert’s house, and although the film starred Virginia, the best supporting actress was Uncle Robert’s dog Peggy. Peggy knew many tricks, and Walt did his best to use as many as he could. Incidentally, all the animation in this film was done by Walt himself.
The second was Alice’s Wild West Show. This later film shows the progress the studio was making, especially regarding Walt’s development as a storyteller. It also showcased Virginia’s tomboy side, as she got the beat up and chase off the bully in the end. And Virginia was a tomboy; she told how on Sundays she would stuff her curls under a hat and play touch football with the boys. Her father would cooperate with the charade, calling her “Bobby” when it was time to go home.
A personal note: I was taping at a Disneyana Convention while Virginia was speaking when an older gentleman inquired about obtaining a copy of my tape. It was Virginia’s husband and I was happy to oblige. That’s how I learned Virginia was active as a real estate agent in Boise, Idaho. Sadly, I learned from her granddaughters later in the convention that her husband is no longer living and she is no longer working. But even though more years have passed, it was still fun to see that independent tomboy spirit emerge during her presentation.
One highlight of any NFFC Convention is the Luncheon With A Legend, which honors people who have made significant contributions to the Disney legacy. This convention recognized Bob Matheison and William Sullivan as the latest recipients of the NFFC’s Disney Legend Award.
Born January 30, 1934 in Portland, Oregon, Bob Matheison is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a Bachelor’s Degree in Telecommunications. In 1960, Bob received a call from an old college friend, who offered him a job at Disneyland as a Sound Coordinator. Bob then became manager of Guest Relations and later helped produce live radio and television broadcasts from Disneyland. By 1965, Walt tapped Bob to manage operation of “It’s a Small World” and supervise the technical assistance staff for Disney’s other New York World’s Fair attractions. He returned to California in 1966 to head the research and development team for Walt Disney World. He also helped develop Walt Disney World’s executive training program. In 1969, Bob was named Director of Operations at Disneyland and a year later assumed to same title in Florida. He was promoted to Vice President of Operations in 1972, then Vice President of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot in 1984. Three years later, Bob became Executive Vice President of Parks, Walt Disney World. Bob retired in February, 1994 after 34 years of service.
William Sullivan, better known as Bill or Sully, watched Disneyland’s opening ceremonies as a 19-year-old. The following Saturday, he applied for a Disneyland job, starting as a ticket-taker at the Jungle Cruise. Bill quickly worked his way up to ride operator, then Operations Supervisor at Disneyland. He was subsequently sent to Squaw Valley as a member of the operations team that assisted with the 1960 Winter Olympics, where Disney was responsible for Pageantry. He then served as Assistant Manager for the Disney-designed attractions at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Other career highlights included participating in the operations management of a number of Disney film premieres. Bill moved to Florida in 1971 for the opening of Walt Disney World, serving as Director of PICO (Project Installation and Coordination Office) -- coordinating operational design input and installation of owner-furnished equipment at Epcot, as Director of Epcot Center Operations, then Vice President of the Magic Kingdom. Bill retired in 1993 with 38 years of service.
These two clearly enjoyed both working for Disney and working with each other. They regaled the audience with stories about coworkers, their experiences, and themselves. Bob especially delighted in telling stories about Bill. For example, Bob’s first contact with Bill was when Bob was a Sound Coordinator, As he was walking through the jungle area making his checks, he hears this booming voice over the PA system:
“ THIS IS AN E-TICKET, E-TICKET, IT’S SHOWTIME, E-TICKET HERE, E-TICKET, THAT’S ‘E’, RIP OUT YOUR E-TICKETS, THAT’S ‘E’ AS IN EURIPIDES.”
“I immediately realized there was much to do there.”
The program was moderated by the NFFC’s Legends Coordinator Alan Halcrow. Alan first asked what it was like to work with Walt. One story Bob related was Walt’s visiting the New York World’s Fair to see the Disney-designed exhibits. At the Ford Pavilion, Walt specifically requested to go outside and enter the very long queue just like an ordinary visitor. The Ford hostess escorting them just couldn’t seem to comprehend that a VIP would want to wait in line and kept trying to steer them inside to the front, much to Walt’s irritation. Bob finally had to tell her that yes, Walt really wanted to go outside.