Writer Neal Gabler sat down with Box Office Mojo at the Walt Disney Studios to discuss his new biography of the entertainment giant's namesake and founder, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Bursting with enthusiasm for the book, Gabler also visited the studio's archives where he was warmly greeted for a question and answer session with the staff, with whom he had worked for seven years. Afterwards, Gabler, whose other books include An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality and Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, headed to the studio store for a book signing, where a long line of eagerly awaiting Disney employees had already formed.
Box Office Mojo: What is the theme of Walt Disney's career?
Neal Gabler: There are several. If you had to enumerate them, number one is the power of wish fulfillment. That sounds something like a cliché, but it was anything but a cliché for Walt Disney. Walt was someone who believed in his own imagination very much, he had tremendous self-confidence about the power of that imagination, and he was able, somehow, miraculously, to do what very few people are able to do—to impose that imagination on the world and to make the world conform to it, at least pieces of the world. The animations are products of Walt's wish fulfillment. The theme parks are products of Walt's wish fulfillment. EPCOT [Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow], had it been designed and executed the way that Walt wanted it designed and executed—as this fully operational city of the future—was a product of Walt's wish fulfillment. So, the rule of wish fulfillment is one of the central themes of his life. In the process of executing that wish fulfillment, there is a theme of control. Walt is someone who was very obsessive, very much a perfectionist. He believed in perfectibility, which is an American theme as well as a Disney theme, and he believed that you could control things—indeed, that you had to control things. Walt never delegated, unless he wanted to. That's not a contradiction; there are things that Walt cared about deeply and he would never delegate when there were things about which he cared deeply. There were things that he didn't care that deeply about, in part because he didn't ever think they could be perfect and, when Walt came to the conclusion that something wasn't going to be perfect, as he did about the animations, frankly, he said: "let somebody else do that." Walt only wanted to be personally invested in things that could be perfect—things over which he would then exercise control. Those are kind of the three [ideas]: wish fulfillment, perfectibility, control—and, obviously, they all link in Walt's life.