Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Disney: Not Just Mickey

It's amazing how much of my life was influenced by Disney. I grew up with the gorgeous cartoons and believed all the stories that he told . . . but I want to see if I can remember enough details to make sense of it all.
The first Disney feature I remember is actually The Mickey Mouse Club. I must have started watching before I started school, because I remember tidbits of the show and where I was sitting. I was in the parlor of our apartment on Broadway, and I think I was three when we moved. I don't remember much, but it's enough for me to know that's when "it" started. By the time we moved to Woodlawn Street (where I had the tire swing in the backyard and met my best friend, Therese), I knew enough about the MM Club to be able to name all the Mouseketeers. Annette was my favorite, and I am sure I wasn't alone. In fact, when I met a girl named Annette in grammar school, I was sure she had to be related to Annette Funicello from the Mouseketeers. She even looked like her, except that her dark hair bounced in sausage curls rather than the short coif Funicello had. I could sing the song (couldn't everybody?) and felt a certain nostalgia everytime they signed off with it because it meant the show was over for the day.
When we moved to Road B, I got my first taste of the nighttime Disney show, Walt Disney Presents, and I was hooked for life.
One of my fondest memories is being awakened by my mother after we had already gone to sleep. She would usher us downstairs, and we'd be treated to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. It aired on Sunday night, so this was a BIG treat for me. My mother believe in early to bed/early to rise, and we kids were always the first ones in the neighborhood to be ushered in, bathed and pajama'd and sent to bed (there were times during the summer that the sun was still high in the sky! I was always jealous of the kids who got to play outside until it got dark). For Ma to wake us up and allow us to watch television made me almost reverent. I remember sitting on the couch, my bathrobe wrapped tightly around my feet (Ma always kept the house ten degrees cooler than it should have been), engrossed in the show and afraid that if I moved or did so much as breathe loudly, this special gift would be taken away and I'd be sent back up to bed.
Donald Duck and Ludwig von Duck were early favorites of mine, but once the show started airing the color cartoons that I loved (like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella ((Boy, did I want a fairy godmother to turn me into a princess!)) and Snow White), I wanted to make sure I took advantage of every Sunday. I made sure that by Sunday afternoon, I was on my best behavior, and sometimes I got myself so keyed up that I couldn't fall asleep. Of course, those were always the times that my parents decided we needed our rest. Determined to get my "fix," I crawled out of bed and sneaked to the top of the stairs, sitting quietly in the dark, trying to imagine what was on the television by the dialogue and noises that floated up the hallway. 
Sometimes I got caught, and if I did, I got a spanking and was put back into my bunkbed, crying. But as soon as my tears dried, I was back by the edge of the stairs, hoping that they'd realize how much we wanted to see the show and reconsider letting us watch.
I was so naiive back then that I thought the cheerful, moustached Walt Disney was related to another Walt -- Mr. Cronkite. After all, they both had moustaches, they kind of looked alike and they both worked in television. They must be brothers, right?
One Christmas, I received an album of Christmas music, and I must have driven my mother nuts playing it over and over again. I memorized all the words to "Someday My Prince will Come" and "When You Wish Upon a Star." One night in early winter, I was crossing the yard to see my new friend Patti, who was visiting her cousin in the apartment diagonally across from us, and it was so quiet and clear that the stars seemed close enough that I could reach out, grab a handful and put them in my pocket. It was one of the only times I remember the projects as being peaceful. I saw a few lights in windows, but all the doors were closed because it was a bit chilly, and I was the only one outside. I felt all alone and free, and hopeless romantic that I was even then, I started dancing around, arms flung, singing "When You Wish Upon a Star." It was probably good that all the doors and windows were closed, because I can't sing, but at that moment, for that split second in my childhood, I was that fairy princess who trilled like a lark in those Disney movies. It was probably one of the most happy times in my childhood, yet it only lasted less than a minute.
And even now, when Fantasia is on TV, I will watch it to see Magical Mickey and that dancing broom, the whales who fly out of the water, the way the spirits swirl to the sound of Night on Bald Mountain. It was another introduction to classical music, and probably the only one most children have, and who better to lead the orchestra than Mickey himself. It's funny, because when I got older and realized that film was created in the 1940s, I was amazed. Disney was a genius.
Disney affected me so much that I ended up in Disney World for my honeymoon. Even then, grown and much wiser, I felt like I'd walked into a fairytale when entering Cinderella's castle. And to see the incredibly ornate and electronic world Disney had created made me appreciate the man much more than I had during those early years when the Mouseketeers and Davy Crockett were the emblems of Disney's forays into television.
I think there are very few true geniuses in the past couple of decades -- in fact, I can probably count them all on one hand -- and probably each of the moviemakers I would add to that list can honestly say that Disney taught them some valuable lessons about imagination and the power of a good story. To this day, I would prefer going to the movies with a child and seeing animated brooms and flying whales than to see a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for waking us up.

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