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February 1

February 1, 1956 – A Day in the Life of Donald Duck Premieres on Disneyland.

“You know something Donald? You’re a big international favorite.”

On February 1, 1956, Disneyland audiences spent A Day in the Life of Donald Duck. As Walt Disney explains in the introduction, there have been so many fan letters to Donald, that he thought the audience might want to spend a day with Donald at the studio. Directed by Jack Hannah, with story by Albert Bertino and Dave Detiege, we see how Donald begins his day, as well as his interactions with Jimmie Dodd, Roy Williams, the Mouseketeers, and the most important person in Donald’s life: his voice, Clarence Nash.

“Donald, like any other average cartoon character, lives a simple, unassuming life in a quiet residential section of Beverly Hills,” Disney tells the audience, showing pictures of the neighborhood. “He resides in a modest little cartoon house. He drives to work in a modest little cartoon car. And if he seems a bit reckless, you must remember that Mr. Duck drives with a cartoon license.” As we see Donald pull into a spot marked “No Parking,” he is immediately confronted by a police officer. Donald, however, folds the car into a tiny packet, tucks it under his hat, and walks to his office.

Donald's "modest" house in Beverly Hills

When he arrives at his office, the intercom sounds, and his secretary greets him respectfully as Mr. Duck. Donald responds with, “Just call me Donald, toots. What’s first on my schedule, tootsie?” in keeping with Donald’s personality as a bit of a wolf. She responds that he has fan mail, which he opens eagerly. The letters, however, are not pleasing in Donald’s opinion. One letter openly says, “Dear Donald, I can’t understand a word you say.” This is the last straw in Donald’s opinion, and he demands to speak with his voice, Clarence Nash. Nash comes in with a cheery attitude, which doesn’t change Donald’s mood in the slightest, no matter what Nash does to cheer him up. They end up arguing, with Nash reverting to his Donald Duck voice, even as he pulls out a coonskin cap and starts signing the Davy Crockett theme song. Donald tells him he’s a horrible singer. Nash leaves, with the two still taunting each other, and Donald vows that he’s got to get himself a new voice.

Donald and his voice, Clarence Nash, as Nash shows him a new trick

The next guest to enter is Jimmie Dodd (host of the Mickey Mouse Club), who has written a new song about Donald, inspired by fan art from children all over the world. “They’re so great, they had to have a song written about them,” Jimmie explains, and begins the song, which Donald immediately loves. There are versions of the song sung in different languages with accompanying pictures, including Spanish, French, Italian, and German. The images and tunes are stereotypical for the fifties, but somewhat sweet and fun all the same.

Donald then leaves for an 11 o’clock appointment at the Story Room, and when the storymen hear Donald coming down the hall, they begin to panic, as they fear his temper more than anything. They try to make Donald comfortable, and when they try to show him storyboards for a short entitled Peaceful Day, Donald asks for more birds and butterflies. The storymen overeagerly agree to his requests, to the point that Donald gets annoyed, and demands that there be a short with just him in it. This gets them to thinking, and the audience is then shown the brainstorm: the short, Drip Dippy Donald (originally released March 5, 1948).

The bewildered story team, trying to acquiesce to Donald's requests

Back in his office, Donald receives a call from Walt, who asks him to show the Mousketeers around the studio, as Mickey has remembered that they had never seen it before. Donald eagerly agrees, and runs to meet the Mouseketeers, who surprise Donald by making him an honorary Mouseketeer and giving him his own set of Mickey Mouse ears. As they run around the studio, the kids slip into the Sound Effects Department, closing the door just as Donald is about to get inside, leaving him on the outside as the kids see how sound effects were added to the Donald Duck short, Fire Chief (originally released December 13, 1940). One example they show is when a building is set on fire, the special effects team uses sparklers and crumpled plastic to create the sound of the burning ceiling.

When the short ends, the door opens, and Donald is ready to step inside, until an effects man empties a bucket of water over him, which causes half of Donald’s paint to run. This necessitates a trip to the Ink & Paint Studio, where the painter quickly re-paints Donald and hangs him up to dry, an experience Donald finds quite humiliating. The painter explains that twenty gallons of paint are usually used for a Donald Duck picture, which surprises the kids and causes Donald to remark that he is “very expensive.” She also explains that in one picture, they used just one pint of paint for Donald; the audience is then shown the short The Vanishing Private (originally released September 25, 1942).

Donald and the Painter, with Donald pointing out how humiliating this is for him

After the short, we see the kids with Jimmie Dodd again, singing the new Donald Duck song he wrote. As Donald tries to sing the last line of quacks, he is cut off by Roy Williams, the other host of the Mickey Mouse Club. The kids are excited to see him, and he tells them that he’s practicing drawing the characters. To prove that anyone can draw, Roy asks one of the Mouseketeers to make a scribble on the easel. From her scribble, Roy is able to draw an ostrich. Donald, jealous of the stolen attention, challenges Roy and scribbles on the easel. Roy accepts, and ends up turning Donald’s scribble into a humorous image of Donald Duck. As Donald throws a tantrum and jumps up and down on the teasing picture, the kids flee the room and head into the projection room. “And now, in Donald’s honor – he really is a good scout,” Roy welcomes the kids, “I’d like to dedicate this picture to all you Mouseketeers.” Donald is touched by the tribute, and the audience is then shown the short, Good Scouts (originally released July 8, 1938).

This episode is a must-see for fans of Donald Duck. There are many wonderful gags, and the interaction of Donald with Clarence Nash is enough of a reason to watch. It’s a perfect example of all the temperaments of Donald, with the added bonus of it being set in the real, rather than the cartoon, world.

January 29

January 29, 1915 – Birth of Disney Legend and Storyman Bill Peet

“As Bill Peet himself once said, ‘There were 40 people who were assigned to these jobs in the golden age of Disney animation. Now they were all being performed by one man…me, Bill Peet.’” – Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination.

Bill Peet was born on January 29, 1915, in Grandview, Indiana. He showed promise as an artist at an early age, never imagining he could make a living out of bringing fanciful stories to life. “My favorite room in the house was the attic,” Peet wrote in his autobiography, “where I enjoyed filling fat five-cent tablets with a hodgepodge of drawings. Drawing became my number one hobby as soon as I could manipulate a crayon or pencil well enough to put my favorite things on paper…I must have drawn fairly well or I couldn’t have enjoyed it so much.” His drawing hobby, however, got him in trouble at school—he recalled that his margins were so full of drawings, he obviously didn’t pay a lot of attention to his teachers. During high school, he won a scholarship to the Herron Art Institute, now part of Indiana University.

In 1937, Peet moved out West to find work. Jobs were scarce as this was the middle of the Great Depression, but he heard that Disney was looking for artists, so he tried his luck. Peet was hired to be an in-betweener artist, which meant he assisted with the final drawings of characters for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Being an in-betweener meant one was at the bottom rung of the animating ladder, and Peet was very frustrated. He was driven, and he knew that his place was in the story department. He was given his chance about a year later, and the chances he got were highly regarded. One of his scenes was in Dumbo, where the baby elephant is bathed by his mother, and it is regarded as one the best early examples of Peet’s work. From that time, he was one of Disney’s main storymen. As animator Will Finn put it, “[Peet’s] fingerprints are all over the Disney classics as a storyman, from pretty much Pinocchio on.”

Peet working on a scene in the film Dumbo

Whenever there was a story problem in the feature films, Walt Disney would bring it to Peet to fix. Peet’s ability to handle the story department helped free Disney’s interests when he began to diversify between the new medium of television, the parks, and the live action films. While Peet worked on story for films, starting on Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty, his best work was on the film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, where he was the sole developer of the story. Compared to the newer films, like Beauty and the Beast, where there were fifteen people working on the story and storyboards, Peet did all the work by himself. Disney Historian Brian Sibley noted that “Peet was a master storyteller, and he structured [One Hundred and One Dalmatians] to make it a story that is so focused, so controlled…that you follow the story with an effortlessness…so much so, in fact, that Dodie Smith wrote to Bill Peet and said that he had, in fact, improved on her book. Which is quite a complement when you think about it.”

There was always a contentious relationship between Disney and Peet. Peet brought in the 1938 novel The Sword in the Stone to Disney’s attention, and Disney asked Peet to write the screenplay. After Peet complied, Disney approved the film for production. The film, however, did not do very well, which caused Disney to become more critical of Peet’s methods. When Peet began to work on The Jungle Book, which he also had proposed to Disney, he read and reread the book, coming up with the story sketches. The version of the film Peet came up with, however, was not the kind of film Disney wanted to see. The two men, both highly imaginative and stubborn, could not reach an agreement on the film, and after twenty-seven years together, Peet left the studio and never returned.

Peet with the storyboards for the last film he worked on, The Jungle Book

After leaving Disney, Peet began a successful career as a children’s book author. “When it came time for the used book sales,” Peet wrote in his autobiography, “my illustrated [schoolbooks] were best sellers. The kids loved my drawings and I suppose those books could be considered the very first ones I ever illustrated for children.” He wrote over thirty-five stories, which were translated into several languages. In 1989, he released his autobiography, which won several awards, including being named a Caldecott Honor Book. Peet was inducted into the Disney Legends at the October 16, 1996 ceremony. Bill Peet died in 2002 at the age of 87.

A young Peet working with a maquette of the main character Dumbo

Peet had an amazing ability to structure a story. While researching the sketches for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, animator Andreas Deja remarked that he “follow[ed] the sketches and you go, ‘Well, I’ll be…this is impossible. They didn’t change a thing.’ [The scenes] are exactly the way Bill Peet had envisioned it.” Coming from humble beginnings and rising through the ranks at a brisk pace, it’s interesting to see not only the talent that Peet had been born with, but how innate his instincts were when it came to story. Without Peet’s skills to carry on while Walt Disney’s interests diversified, there probably wouldn’t have been Disney animation in the ’60s, which led to the Disney Renaissance. Based on all of the influence Bill Peet had, one could argue that he helped keep the story of Disney animation alive for decades to come.

January 2

January 2, 1898 – Birth of Disney Legend Dick Huemer

Disney Legends Joe Grant and Dick Huemer

“Meet Dick Huemer. He goes to operas.”

Dick Huemer, animator in the Golden Age of Animation, was a “jack-of-all-trades” within the Disney Company, but is best known for his work with Disney Legend Joe Grant on Fantasia and Dumbo. In 1916, as a student at the Art Students League and living in the Bronx, Huemer saw a help wanted sign on a door for the Barre Studio, one of the first film studios dedicated to animation. Huemer’s response:

“I had done a lot of illustrating, in yearbooks and things like that. One day, out of curiosity, I just walked upstairs and there was this plump little guy sitting there – a very genial character with a French accent. I told him I’d seen his sign and would like to be a cartoonist. He said, ‘All right – go into the next room, they’ll put you to work.’ And that’s how I got into the business. Because in those days, who knew about animated cartoons? I don’t believe the name had even been coined yet.”

Huemer then moved on to become the animation director at the Max Fleischer Studio and the Charles Mintz Studio, before joining the Walt Disney Studio in 1933 as an animator. He contributed to twenty-five cartoons as an animator before directing two classic shorts – The Whalers and Goofy and Wilbur – and then progressed to working on feature films.

Disney assigned Huemer and Joe Grant to be the story directors on Fantasia because Huemer was an opera fan, and Grant had a lot of experience in character design. Ward Kimball recalled, “We owe it mostly to Dick Huemer for the fact that Walt Disney was weaned away from John Philip Sousa and introduced to the classics. Walt learned all about Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky through Dick Huemer’s tutelage.” Huemer and Grant also adapted the screenplay for Dumbo, and Huemer continued his work on the story for the feature films Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, and Alice in Wonderland.

Huemer left the Disney Studios in 1948 to freelance on his own comic strip called Buck O’Rue, but returned to the studio in 1951 to work in early television shows and the story department until 1955. From 1955 to his retirement in 1973, Huemer wrote the True-Life Adventures comic strip. In 1978, in recognition of his contributions to the art of animation and his continued excellence, he received an Annie Award from the International Animated Film Society. Huemer passed away on November 30, 1979, and was inducted as a Disney Legend on October 10, 2007.

Writing about Dick Huemer is a pleasure, as he is one of the idols of the Golden Age of Animation. I grew up with and still enjoy watching Fantasia — it’s a treat to see how someone who appreciated opera and classical music used his love to create a wonderful film. It was interesting to read his thoughts on the film, especially when it wasn’t a huge hit with audiences upon its release. “Actually, we blamed the public,” Huemer said in an interview, explaining the shock the Studio felt when Fantasia didn’t do well. “What the hell’s the matter with them! This is a fine thing that will never be done again. It never was. It never will. It can’t be. You can’t afford to do that…I think somehow if we were to do it today that it would be an entirely different thing pictorially.” Through his words, you can tell that it was a labor of love for Huemer, and it’s a shame he isn’t around to see the following the film has today.

The most admirable trait I find in Huemer is how much he loved what he did, and how he transferred that love so smoothly into his work. He compared those involved in the Golden Age of Animation to the artist Rubens: “Rubens had a staff of about fifteen guys who were working on his paintings and they were dedicated people. They were artists, they loved doing it, and that’s why they were there. And they knew that they were doing the right thing.” Huemer, too, is a prime example of an artist who loved what he did and knew he was doing the right thing.