I’ve always liked to collect things. I’m not talking about hoarding. I’m talking about interest and passion for a subject or type of item. There are many kinds of collectors. Some people collect memories and stories that they use to gather people around them. Some collect people, friends to make their lives socially active. Others are drawn to a subject or person that they want to feel closer to.
Over the years I’ve collected, baseball cards, comic books, books on magic, magic ephemera and oh, yes, trivia. I seem to collect trivia like the underside of a bed collects dust bunnies. It has, however, helped me at the Disney Trivia contests I go to. Many sports collectors stick with a team or players that they admire or root for. As a teen I collected antique magic books. when I was an amateur magician.I was very drawn to the master showmanship of Harry Houdini and wanted to know more about him. My interest in magic waned after college, as my attention was focused on my career, then my marriage and then my kids. As our kids got a bit older, trips to Disney World increased in frequency and I wanted to know more about the man who had created great movies and could envision and realize a place people could go to escape into a world of fantasy.
Walt’s drive, passion and success was inspiring. I’d always been a fan of Disney movies. The first movie I ever saw was The Sword in the Stone. In my collection I have some small
Jungle Book toys that connect me with my childhood. And since my mother was a Disneyana collector when I was young, I can look at certain things, like a Snow White radio or a Mickey Mouse sled and I am taken back to the house I grew up in. But it it’s Walt who I wanted to know more about. And, since I’m not able to meet him, the closest I am able to get are things with which he was connected.
Given the number of projects in which Walt was involved, it always amazes me that he even had time for anything but work and family. But he did. And his “collection”, his passion, was for trains and railroads. It seems he may have developed a connection when he was a boy and his family lived in Marcelinne Misourri, which I have learned was a town created by the Aticheson, Topeka & the Santa Fe Railroad, which went from Chicago to Kansas City. When he was older, he not only visited railyards, but built a small gauge railroad on his property that he called the Carolwood-Pacific. Walt himself, with help from his staff and other rail enthusiasts like animator Ward Kimball, built engines that they would ride on track laid out on a soundstage. Later Walt would lay out a larger small gauge railroad he called the Carolwood-Pacific, and take friends on rides. Hispassion for railroads can be seen in the railroads that circle every Disney park in the world (except for the new Shanghai park). The Disney railroad was one of the premier attractions when Disneyland opened. Walt’s influence and interest in railroads is can still be felt in the railroads that are part of every Disney theme park.
Since I was not alive for, for the premiers of the early Disney animated films, or the opening of Disneyland, I like being able to touch things that, not only, Walt might have had on his desk or passed at the Studio, but also things that the animators, Imagineers and other creative people around Walt would have created or touched. The trouble is, Walt was an early adopter of merchandising for his films. As a result, there are thousands of early Disney related items to collect
Some Disneyana collectors focus on a character, movie or type of collectible, like animation cels. I’m not sure I’ve hit on a single theme, so my collection is eclectic. But, primarily I’m drawn to things that would have been produced during Walt’s lifetime.
Some collectors buy things as an investment. While some of the items in my collection are valuable, their value to me is not in what I could get for it if I sell it. I can’t speak for all collectors, but when I buy, or find, a Disney item, it’s as if I found buried treasure. I remember as a teen, prowling old bookstores for out of print magic books. Finding one on a dusty shelf would make my heart race.
I find auctions are very exciting. I go through the catalog of items to be auctioned like a kid in a candy store. Then there’s the anticipation as the item I am interested in gets closer to being put on the block. Then there’s the competition, bidding against other buyers and the excitement as the bids go up and I make quick “command” decisions about how much more to bid or whether I should let the item go. I still remember the first auction I went to in New York City. I think I was about 13. It was a large catalog of magic items. I got my numbered paddle and sat in the room and watched as the items were auctioned off. I was surprised at how fast things went. It wasn’t as if the auctioneer was giving people a lot of time to think about their bids. Finally, after a couple of hours, the item I wanted to bid on, I think it was a Harry Houdini poster, came up. The auctioneer started the bidding. And then, bing, bang, in about 10 seconds the bids were well beyond what my meager budget could afford. And then it was over. I was disappointed, but the experience was fun.
I have some favorites in my collection, that I can’t help but look at when I go past them. I chuckle to myself when I look at the Dopey ventriloquist dummy. Who thought it was a good idea to make a dummy out of a character who doesn’t speak? If I were a kid in the late 1930s what would I have thought Dopey sounded like? There are some autographed pictures which would have been signed by Walt himself, including a check to Bell and Howell from 1935. Since Bell and Howell manufactured parts for the multi-plane camera that was used to film Snow White, that means that Walt signed that check in the midst of one of his greatest triumphs and most highly creative periods of his life. I can imagine him sitting at his desk with piles of papers, drawings, paintings, model sheets and a pile of checks to sign. Maybe it was late at night, after a grueling day of storyboarding, difficult decisions about plot and character and direction. Perhaps there was a scene or moment that an animator was having difficulty translating Walt’s ideas onto paper.
The Disney’s were always on the brink of financial ruin in those early years. “Walt’s Folly”, as everyone in the industry was calling it, was a hard project for them to get financing. Walt and Roy ended up using even their homes and cars as collateral to keep the project going. Then maybe he’d get up, make himself a drink and walk around the animator’s room. He’d look at the work on the tables. I’ve read that he would go through the garbage cans, sometimes pulling things out and leaving notes for the animators on a drawing that he felt had more promise than they did.And I have some early toys, including a tin, windup Ferdinand the Bull from 1938. The book was one of my favorites when I was a boy.
The collection lets me, just for a moment, live in a world where Walt Disney is still alive and I was around him. I know it’s easy to sugarcoat a time before we lived. Walt was apparently not always they easiest man to work for. And, we do tend to glorify past times, ignoring the hardships that were part of that era. But, what a thrill it must have been to interact with that creative, blazing comet that streaked through the studio and left, in his wake, ideas and inspiration that built an entertainment empire. Thoughts like that have helped me through many of my toughest days. So keep collecting. Don’t let anyone call it junk or laugh at the dozens of Disney snow globes or trading pins that give you so much joy to prowl second hand stores, browse ebay or buy at the parks, then display, look at and enjoy. Buying and keeping things related to Disney helps keep the magic alive even when you’re not at a movie or in one of the theme parks.