I spent six of the last seven days in California helping an old friend (and his ingenious wife) celebrate his 60th birthday. We had quite a time.
We started in Palo Alto, where I discovered, to my dismay, that I was unlikely to find an apartment for next year as near the Hoover Institution as I had hoped. Mostly, however, we were in the Napa Valley and San Francisco — tasting wine at the Chateau Montelena, at Alpha Omega, and V. Sattui; watching grain being ground at the Bale Grist Mill; visiting Muir Woods; and eating altogether too much at the Culinary Institute of America’s Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, at Allegria and at Al-Mansur Morrocan Restaurant. I fear that, had I grown up among the Lotus-Eaters in the Stoner Republic, I would never have written a word. The weather was wonderful — some fifty degrees warmer than the highs in Michigan — and the amenities were irresistible.
On Monday, it was chilly and rain was clearly on its way. So we opted for museums. I was eager to revisit the De Young collection in Golden Gate Park, but we never got past the first choice of one of my companions, and for that I am grateful. He wanted to see the new Walt Disney Museum in the Presidio (once the finest military base in North America). I did not sneer at his choice. But I expected to be bored, and I was in for a surprise.
I have no idea when the museum opened. I can only say that it provides ample food for thought. We first visited the special exhibit on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was amazing. I knew something about the way in which cartoons were produced in the days before computer animation. But I had an inadequate appreciation of the sheer labor involved and of the skill in drawing required. I was also lacking in my assessment of the importance of Walt Disney himself. As the exhibit made clear, he drove every aspect of the creative process, and the man was himself a genius.
The main museum charts the course of Disney’s life. He was born in 1901. He altered his birth certificate to enable him to get to France at the age of 16 as an ambulance driver operating near the front, and he returned after the war to take up work as a newspaper cartoonist. By his mid-to-late twenties, he had established himself as the creator of Mickey Mouse; and from that moment until his death from lung cancer in 1966, he spun out one spectacularly successful creative project after another.
Apart from the propaganda work Disney did during World War II, everything that he produced had one thing in common. It was family entertainment. He was less interested in pitching his cartoons and his films to children than to the child in every adult, and he understood that child better than anyone alive.
If Walt Disney were around today, I am confident that he would be appalled at what his company his become. But there is something else that would, I think, bother him even more. The demographic that he sought to serve was hegemonic in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and it has not disappeared. But it no longer dictates public taste. In our world, at least as far as entertainment is concerned, the family — to which Disney always looked — has been shunted to the margins, and things are apt over the next few decades to get much, much worse. Walt Disney would have hated that, and he would have been right to do so. A world without children is a grim place.
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