Legacy Content

Bob Welbaum: Disneyana Fan Club Presents Awards to the Disney Family
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From left: Joanna Miller, Ron Miller, Diane Disney Miller (Photo by Carole Mumford)

“He was a great grandpa,” Joanna continued. “He liked to always talk about what he was doing. He’d tell you about the movies and we got to go play on the sets at the Studio.” Joanna and Diane then compared childhood memories of what it was like to visit the Studio, which segued into how Walt would help look after the grandchildren when Ron and Diane traveled. They would do homework in his office, and got to see the dailies. This led to reminiscing about which movies were in production at that time.

Walter then asked Joanna if she remembered the parade. Joanna smiled and said “That was one of my first memories of my life, being petrified.” Walter then explained how Joanna and her siblings were in a car in a Disneyland parade with Walt. They were so young Walter told about “the terror in their eyes.”  Except for one of them. Joanna recalled how “My sister Tam was beaming, like she thought everyone was there to meet her.”  Joanna guessed she was between three and five at the time. “I was so frightened, because I’ve always been a pretty shy little kid. But the fact that Grandpa asked us to, it was just sort of like you didn’t say no, and he just wanted us to be there with him. ‘I just want you guys to come with me.’” Diane said that for years Walt would pick kids out to appear with him “and now he had his own grandchildren. He was proud of that.”

“He wanted to show them off,” Ron interjected.

Then Diane remembered the next year he took Joanna in a parade, and when he saw Ron and Diane in the crowd, he demonstratively pointed to Joanna beside him.

How often did the grandkids get to go to Disneyland with Walt? Joanna tried to remember. They did get to spend the night in the apartment over the fire station on Main Street, USA “a handful of times,” and they would stay a couple times a year in the Disneyland Hotel. Then Joanna laughingly said to her father “I heard that sometimes you’d get upset because Grannie and Grandpa would take us away too much.”

To this Ron quickly replied, “I was only pretending.”

This led to a brief discussion of other places their grandparents would take them, like San Diego’s Vacation Village. Photos from these outings are included in the Museum. “They said to use everything we had,” Diane explained.

In passing, Joanna mentioned Walt and Lillian had a housekeeper that would cook for them. Walter picked up on that. “But the housekeeper was more than a housekeeper. She was part of the family.” Her name was Thelma, and grandson Christopher couldn’t pronounce Thelma. He called her Fou-Fou, so from then on she was known as Fou-Fou. The family has great memories of her. Diane remembered how she loved sports, and the back-and-forth she used to have with Walt over the family menu.

One of the more interesting items in the Museum’s collection  reflects this repartee. Diane recalled how “My mother wasn’t much of a creative meal-planner.” The dinner menu was heavy with lamb chops and to Walt it was becoming tiresome. “He liked stews, and he liked soup, and he liked chili and beans and things like that. And so he came down one morning, and I remember him coming into the kitchen, ‘Thelma!’ and he had three sheets like a memo pad. ‘These are things that I like to eat.’ And at the top ‘Things Walt Disney Likes To Eat.’”

Later as the Museum was being planned, the Retlaw controller was going through the maid’s room. He picked up an old Life magazine that had been there for perhaps thirty years, and this list of Walt’s favorite foods fell out. It’s now on display.

Then Ron added “Joanna said it earlier, Thelma was a member of the family. He [Walt] treated her as a member of the family, and when she died, she died a very, very wealthy woman. Walt had given her the maximum amount of stock every year, and she never cashed in on the stock or anything.” Half of it went to her son and the other half was used to start a foundation. (Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation)

During his career, Ron had on occasion directed Walt, correct? “That’s true,” he confessed as Diane laughed. “Walt would get very tired after being under the hot lights.”  Then he could get impatient. Ron recalled one time when the scene called for Walt to start at his desk and walk over to a bookcase, pick out a book and walk back to the desk. In trying to shorten Walt’s time on the set and get him back to his office, Ron thought it best to start Walt at the bookcase. But Walt came onto the set and went right to the desk.

“I knew then that I was in trouble,” Ron recalled. “I said, ‘Walt, I took that out and I’m going to open up with you right here.’ And he said ‘Ron! Do you think I sit up there with a writer and go over this and map out the strategy and everything else, and you just flush it down the toilet? I want to start here. There are reasons I want to start here!’ Well, I moved that real fast.”

One of Walt’s traits that has repeatedly surfaced in Allan’s interviews with others in the Disney organization is an uncanny ability to identify hidden talent in people. Did Ron feel that was true in his case? Ron’s first comment was “He thought I was a better football player than I was.” But Diane enthusiastically agreed. “ I see this so much, too.” She used Disney artist Claude Coats as an example of someone with hidden talent that Walt was able to identify.

Then Walter threw a curve. “He had the foresight that Dad was not going to be a good actor. Tell that story.”

“No!” was Ron’s quick reply to much laughter. But he did anyway. Actor Clint Walker had quit the Warner Brothers’ TV series “Cheyenne,” and Ron, being the handsome football-hero type, was asked to try out for the part. A script reading (despite some problems with hand gestures) led to a request for a screen test.

Ron said he really didn’t intend to go beyond that point anyway, but it didn’t matter. He got a call from Walt. “Ron, I’ve heard something that’s very disturbing.”

“I said, ‘What’s that?’”

“That you want to be an actor.” Ron started to explain, but Walt said, “Look, I have plans for you. I want you to be a producer and you have a great future here with the company.” Ron quickly forgot about acting.

The next question was perhaps the most poignant. “What would you say is the biggest misconception about Walt?”

Diane didn’t hesitate. “Oh! There’s one that keeps raising its ugly head: anti-Semitism. The kids, my grandchildren hear it. A little girl or someone who [unintelligible]  ‘My mom says your grandfather was an anti-Semite.’”

Then she mentioned a second persistent misconception. “The frozen thing’s silly. But it’s gotten beyond the point of being silly, it’s ugly.”

Walter said “The ones that are painful and mean, but the frozen one has almost gotten to the point where it’s comical.”

“I think there are some people who still believe it,” Diane persisted.

Walter added a bit more perspective. “The first time I kinda realized who Grandpa was was when I was in second grade and a friend of mine … he said ‘Is it true that your grandpa’s Walt Disney?’ I went ‘Yea.’ And I think the next question was ‘Do you get into Disneyland free?’ I said ‘Yea.’ Then he said, ‘Is he frozen?’ and I just thought, I couldn’t grasp that, being so young and hearing that the first time. I’ve heard it ever since. But I think there’s almost a positive about it. He was just an innovator…”

“I don’t think it’s positive,” Diane interjected.

“…that maybe he could come back,” Walter finished.

Joanna agreed. “I took it that people didn’t want him to be gone. People really loved the idea that maybe, and because he was a forward thinker,… there was the hope that he wasn’t really gone.”