The lord of the Mouse House died from lung cancer in 1966, but that hasn't stopped the stories (both good and bad) of what it was like to work for him and his older brother, Roy. In his new book, Dream It! Do It!, former chief ghostwriter for Disney himself and eventual head of the company's Imagineering theme park division, Marty Sklar spills his own details.
Hand-picked to work for Disney while he was still a UCLA undergrad, Sklar's half-century tenure included writing the official company statement on Walt's death under the loose instructions of "Walt's dead. Write the statement"; witnessing the horror that was Disneyland's opening day (crowds, hot weather and a workers' strike that allowed the bathrooms to be finished nearly in time, but not the water fountains); developing the 1964 New York World's Fair; devising the plans for turning Florida swampland into Disney World while still keeping the project out of the press; and "riding the Michael Eisner roller coaster" during the bigwig's reign as the chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company.
Not bad for someone whose career ambitions were to become a sports journalist until he got a fateful phone call at the Zeta Beta Tau house because a former UCLA Alumni Association executive secretary had passed his information onto Card Walker, then the head of marketing and publicity for the Walt Disney Company. (Sklar's favorite Disneyland rides are Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World.)
In his book, Sklar also tries to debunk some of the legends about his late boss, particularly the anti-semitism rumors. While there was no doubt Disney was a firm boss who could get frustrated if you didn't deliver on his vision, Sklar -- who is Jewish -- never felt any prejudice against him because of his religion. He writes that Disney's response upon learning he was out of the office for one of the Yom Kippur holiday was to say "that's where he should be."
"I think this happens for a lot of people who are in the limelight," Sklar says in a phone interview, adding that rumors will inevitably get started when "people leave companies because they're disgruntled about something and say something about individuals."
Still, Sklar says, Disney was different from other executives.
"We never thought about Walt Disney as a millionaire," he says. "We only thought about him as a creative person who was only interested in pushing us to go beyond what we did the last time because that's what he wanted to accomplish."
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