(Image at the top of the page: Art Linkletter with actress Shirley Buchanan in a promotional photo for the People Are Funny radio show, 1957.)
My writing partner, Pat Williams, and I were honored that one of the legends of TV history, Art Linkletter, agreed to write the foreword for our 2004 book, How to Be Like Walt. Here is an excerpt from Art’s foreword, in which he recalls his long friendship with Walt Disney — and the day he should have heeded Walt’s advice:
“When I first met Walt Disney, he was setting up folding chairs in an empty auditorium. The year was 1940, and I was a young broadcaster, working at a local radio station in San Francisco. Walt had come to introduce his new motion picture, Fantasia. I arrived early for the press conference, and found the place empty except for one fellow who was busily arranging chairs.
“I said, ‘When is Walt Disney supposed to arrive?’
“He grinned and said, ‘I’m Walt Disney.’
“I said, ‘You are? Why are you arranging chairs?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I like to have things just-so.’
“That was quite an introduction, because it gave me a glimpse of the kind of person Walt was. He wasn’t a Hollywood big shot, impressed with his own importance. He was just a friendly, humble guy from the Midwest who happened to be in the movie business. We sat down and talked, and it was as if we had known each other for years.
“The next time I encountered Walt was in 1951. My wife Lois and I were on a ship, bound for a European holiday. We were delighted to find Walt and his wife Lillian also aboard. Walt and I had a wonderful time, talking about show business and mutual friends. I had always enjoyed his films, from the Mickey Mouse shorts to Snow White and Fantasia, and it was fascinating to hear him explain how those films were made.
“We became close personal friends, and our families socialized and traveled the world together. We even lived a few blocks from each other in Holmby Hills, near Los Angeles. I enjoyed going to Walt’s home and watching him fire up his backyard steam train. He had a barn behind the house where he built his train and many other projects.
“Walt was much more than a dreamer and a filmmaker. He was an artist, a woodworker, and a mechanic—a very creative man. He once showed me an amazing mechanism he had built with help from a studio engineer. It was an animated dancing man on top of an oaken barrel. Walt demonstrated it for me, then he opened up the barrel and showed me the intricate machinery that made it work. He loved to create things with his hands. . . .
“One day in 1954, Walt called me and said, ‘Art, let me take you for a ride down to Orange County and I’ll show you where I’m going to build Disneyland. It’s a secret, so don’t tell anybody.’
“Well, I loved to hear Walt talk about his big plans, so we drove down with some researchers from the Stanford Research Institute. Along the way, we passed several little hamlets and villages I’d never heard of. They’re all big cities now, but back then there was nothing but dirt roads and little farm towns. We finally got to a place where some bulldozers had cleared out an orange grove. It looked like a big field of dirt clods.
“‘Well,’ Walt said, ‘this is it.’ He looked around and he could see it all in his imagination: the Disneyland Railroad, Main Street, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland. I looked around and saw nothing but a cow pasture. I thought, My poor deluded friend! He’s going to put a bunch of merry-go-rounds and roller-coasters out here, forty-five minutes from L.A. He’ll go broke! But out of respect for our friendship, I didn’t say what I was thinking.
“‘Art,’ he said, ‘there’s a fortune to be made here. If you buy up all the property around Disneyland, in a year or two it’ll be worth twenty times what you paid for it.’
“Well, I was too smart to get caught up in Walt’s enthusiasm! I didn’t buy any real estate around Disneyland—and by being so ‘smart,’ I passed up a chance to make millions!
“A year later, in 1955, Walt came to my house and asked if I would emcee the televised grand opening of Disneyland. I was honored to accept, and I chose two friends to assist me. One was Robert Cummings, a witty and personable leading man who had just appeared with Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. The other was a charming actor named Ronald Reagan (I understand he later went into government work). So Bob Cummings, Ronnie Reagan, and I helped open the gates of the Magic Kingdom.
“Disneyland became a phenomenal success, the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Foreword by Art Linkletter from How to Be Like Walt
by Pat Williams with Jim Denney, copyright 2004.
Jim Denney is a writer with more than a 150 books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers (Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia), the highly regarded 2004 biography of Walt Disney, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (written with Pat Williams, co-founder of the Orlando Magic), and Lead Like Walt: Discover Walt Disney’s Magical Approach to Building Successful Organizations (written with Pat Williams).