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A true story about Walt Disney.

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Bobby Driscoll

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I am including a little essay I wrote about the sequence of events leading up to Bobby's being fired by Disney.

1) Bobby developes acne when he is 12. It is even noticeable in production stills and 35mm frames from Treasure Island, which was made in 1950, just before Bobby turned 13.

2) Premiere of Peter Pan/February 5, 1953

3) Bobby Driscoll turns 16 on March 3, 1953

4) Hedda Hopper's column announces that a child star at the children's studio needs to start looking for work because their contract has been terminated. I have been told this was sometime in late March or early April 1953.

5) Bobby goes to Disney Burbank and it turns into a disaster. Bobby goes home in tears. He was never the same after that.

6) Sometime in the summer of 1953 Bobby is arrested for marijuana possession.

Tommy Kirk's wonderful interview in Scarlet Street has the sequence reversed. Bobby got fired and then turned to drugs and not the other way around.

 

My essay includes both the facts and how finding out all of this affected me.

 

The best way of teaching someone to believe in themselves, is by believing in them. (John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States)

 

How many people remember exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing on a certain date, at a certain time, 35 years ago. On Thursday, December 15, 1966 at 2:00 PM, I was on the playground at East Valley Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia. I was a 10-year-old boy playing dodge ball, talking to my friend Joe Bird. Mrs. Williams, our teacher, suddenly called our whole class together, and said that something terrible had happened: Walt Disney had died that morning.

Kids today will never understand how much Walt Disney meant to us then. The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC was every kid?s favorite TV show. Every Sunday we took a journey into our imagination, and we enjoyed it. We fought pirates in ?Treasure Island? and ?Peter Pan;? we shared two of the most wonderful parents ever, Brian Keith and Maureen O?Hara, in ?The Parent Trap?; we shared the best dog any kid ever had in ?Old Yeller?, and we went exploring the frontier with Davy Crockett. It was ?The Wonder Years,? and they belonged to us.

But most of all, we journeyed to England and met Walt

Disney?s ?Mary Poppins.? If ever there was a practically perfect movie, ?Mary Poppins? was it. We loved Julie Andrews, because she was the ideal woman, with all apologies to Mom. Not old enough to have discovered women own age, every boy I knew fell in love with her. I include myself in that group. Our taste in women may have changed as we grew older, but ?Mary Poppins? would always be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to us, definitely. And we owed it all to our ?Uncle Walt.?

Just about every kid in my class broke down and cried when we heard what had happened, and that includes the boys too. I would have never admitted it then, but I am willing to confess it now. I cried too. But you have to understand, boys of our generation never cried. You may think that you recall one of us crying, but those tears were probably the result of some debris that had gotten into his eyes. But the normal rules didn?t apply to Walt Disney. It was the exactly the same as the assassination of President Kennedy, everyone was granted an exemption.

Walt Disney was one of my heroes when I was a kid. He isn?t anymore. I remember hearing the story about Bobby Driscoll?s firing twenty-five years ago. An executive at Disney had quit or gotten fired and he was mad as hell. He went on one of the talk shows to spill the beans about ?Uncle Walt.? He said Walt Disney and the Disney Company were the beneficiaries of one of the best publicity campaigns in the history of American advertising. He had one point, about which he was emphatic: Disney was a business, and Walt Disney was a businessman. He was never a Saint. That was all public relations. What people didn?t understand, he was just as bad as everyone else, but he was a lot better at covering it up.

In his dealings with employees, business associates and competitors, Walt Disney only cared about one thing, making money, and you?d better not stand in his way. Whenever an employee wanted a raise, Disney was always quick to tell them that they were lucky they had jobs, and they should be grateful. Unless he needed you, you would take what he offered, or he would show you the door. Loyalty meant nothing to him. Disney was his company and it was his money, and nobody was going to make him share it. The story that this former Disney executive told was incredible. I was skeptical and, as I recall, so was the host.

He must have sensed the skepticism, because he then told a story about Bobby Driscoll to prove his point. Walt Disney did treat children well. If you were one of his kids, and a star, he made a point of saying hello to you and calling you by name; because you were a part of the Disney family. After ?Song of the South? hit #1at the box office in 1946, Walt Disney told the press that he loved eight-year-old Bobby Driscoll like he was his own son. He told Bobby that too, and Bobby believed him. For the next eight years, Walt Disney couldn?t say enough nice things about Bobby Driscoll. Bobby must have considered himself the luckiest kid alive, he had a father at home, and one at the studio, and they both loved him.

Then one day in 1952 while ?Peter Pan? was still in production, the Disney Board of Directors was discussing future film projects, and Bobby?s name came up. Walt Disney was emphatic, he didn?t want Bobby appearing in juvenile roles any longer, because his voice had changed and he had a severe case of acne. Walt said that Bobby looked more like a kid that you would expect to see bagging groceries at the A&P, than someone, who should be starring in movies. Through no fault of his own, Bobby Driscoll was out of a job. The boss had fired him. The Board of Directors decided that the information would be kept confidential until ?Peter Pan? was released and its publicity campaign was over. They didn?t want a sympathetic story or a critical press inquiry costing them money at the box office. The only person, who was directly affected by the firing and didn?t know about it, was fifteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll. The secret would be kept for almost a year.

There were rumors after ?Peter Pan? was released on February 5, 1953, and eventually Bobby heard one of them. He went to the studio and asked to see an executive with whom he had been friendly, but was told that the man was too busy to see him. Bobby asked the executive?s secretary to call and see if he could speak with Mr. Disney. As the secretary hung up the phone, she told Bobby that Mr. Disney was too busy to see him, too. Just then she excused herself, and stepped out for a moment. When she came back, she told Bobby that The Disney Company no longer needed his services and he could leave.

That was when 16-year-old Bobby Driscoll lost it. ?Peter Pan? was #1 at the box office; it would go on to be the second highest grossing movie of the decade; and every review gave Bobby a great deal of the credit. And then they fired him? Bobby didn?t understand; he couldn't understand. That is when he broke down and, yes, he did cry. Bobby wasn't a star at that point, he was just a kid in trouble. He desperately needed to speak to someone, anyone, so they could explain it to him.

In the span of less than five minutes, one boy?s life and world collapsed. Bobby fell apart, and he desperately needed someone to notice, and to care. He needed someone to tell him that he still counted; he needed someone to tell him that it hadn?t all been about money; or maybe he just needed a hug from his ?Uncle Walt.? He didn?t get any of those things; instead, the secretary called security and had Bobby escorted off the property.

Some of the executives would later say how much his firing bothered them, because they all liked Bobby. They all thought that he was a terrific kid and that he had grown into an intelligent, hardworking, sensitive young man. These executives knew that Bobby was going to get hurt and they felt bad about it, but Walt was the boss. What he said was the law at Disney.

They were right, Bobby did get hurt, but it was even worse than anything anyone could have anticipated. It was as bad as it could get. And this wasn't just about being fired, Bobby felt betrayed by someone he thought loved him. Someone, who had actually said those very words to him, but obviously never meant it. That is how unemployment goes from being a statistic, into the realm of Shakespearean Tragedy.

There are a lot of people who worked at Disney in 1953, who would always feel responsible for what happened to Bobby, not only on that one day, but for the rest of his all too short life, because it shouldn't have happened. There is no excuse for it. That is the sin and that is where the fault lies. Every bad thing that followed grew from this one seed and it would end up costing Bobby his life. It wouldn't happen right away; there would be years of misery, unhappiness and loneliness first

Someone should have taken Bobby aside and talked to him. Any decent person would have done that much. Looking back, all the decent people must have taken the day off that day in 1953. Someone should have helped him assess where he was and where he was headed. They knew that his career as a child star was over, and his greatest successes were probably behind him; but they chose to keep this information a secret. They could have given him some career counseling. Maybe helped steer him into a new career in directing or producing. Bobby was a very bright kid. He had an IQ of over 140. He could learn anything if anyone had taken the time to teach him. That is what you do when you're dealing with a kid who needs direction. They could have helped him plan for his future, because they already seen the same thing happen before.

They had had over a year to figure this all out, but chose to do nothing. Bobby was the only one, who was going to pay for their mistake. And it was their mistake, because they had a moral obligation, even if they didn't have a legal obligation. They had made millions of dollars from "Song of the South," "So Dear To My Heart," "Treasure Island," and "Peter Pan," but that was an end unto itself. Except to Bobby, who had always given them everything that they had ever asked from him. In return, they had destroyed his heart, and raped his soul. Between not doing what should have been done, and doing something, which they should have never been done, they had a lot about which to feel guilty. But at least it bothered their consciences; at least, they had them.

If Walt Disney were still alive and I ran into him, I would not shake his hand. I don?t know what I might do. I don?t know what I might say. Several ideas have occurred to me, but out of respect for the people who still love him, I will leave it at that. When I found out that the story about Bobby Driscoll was true, from someone, who personally saw how badly Bobby had been hurt by all of this, all my love for the man disappeared. I didn't believe it when I heard this story 25 years ago, now I do. I have begun to suspect that all the other stories about him may be true too. And to tell you the truth, I would have rather not known any of this. I wish I still had my childhood hero. I would be a happier person for it.

What Walt Disney did was wrong, but the way he did it was worse. You couldn?t defend treating an adult like that, but the fact that Bobby was still a kid made it cruel. And that is how I will always remember Walt Disney, and it makes me want to cry.

 

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Thanks for a great story bkohatl. BTW I didn't cry when Walt or JFK died. John Lennon...man oh man. Totally lost it when I heard "Imagine" played on the radio right after I heard of the assasination while watching "Monday Night Football." Howard Cosell was NOT the best voice to hear THAT news from.Coupla side notes on Disney. In Ira Levin's book "The Stepford Wives", the guy who engineered the replicants was a former employee of the Disney Company who worked in their animatronics division. His nickname in the book was "Diz" because of this. Also, I remember an interview with a Disney exec back in the 70's. The exec was extolling how all the employees of the theme parks were instructed on "tolerance" of the guests. Whether they were rude, filthy and stinking, or just plain obnoxious. The interviewer, refering to Disney's inflexible ban of long or facial hair for park employees asked "You enforce tolerance but YOU'RE not tolerant." The exec then gave a smarmy grin and said. "We pay the bills. We don't HAVE to be tolerant." Gave me my 1st insight as to the phony posturing of this cold corperate empire. Bring back "Song of the South" and "Dumbo" you hypocrits!

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All sorts of terrible things happen to children and they do not become drug addicts. There are kids out there who have lost parents or suffered from cancer etc... What happened to Bobby Driscoll was terrible but to hold Walt Disney singularly responsible for his descent into drug addiction is not entirely credulous. Where were the boys parents then? Other children never even have the chance to star in films. They do end up with acne, bagging groceries and most of them don't shoot heroin into their veins! Did Annette Funicello end up in a paupers' grave? No! What about Hayley Mills? She didn't end up like Bobby either. Bobby grew up and Bobby blew it. It is a sad story, but Bobby is the main culprit of his own demise. It is the same for most of us.

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I agree Ned. Most of us (not all) are a result of decisions we have made in our life, be they good or bad.

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Annette Funicello never got acne, thank God. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. You can't know what it is like until you have experienced it yourself.

 

I don't know if you if you've ever heard Judith Light(Law and Order SVU) talk about the trauma she experienced as a teenager with acne. I believe that she even said that she thought about suicide. Judith Light knows the pain Bobby suffered, and I know she would feel the compassion I feel for him.

Most parents, and other people who love a kid, see the warning signs and offer encouragement. Walt Disney said that he loved Bobby like he was his own son. If a kid is having a rough adolescence, especially one with a severe case of acne, he needs to hear that he is loved. But you have to show it too. I think being cruel to a kid going throught a rough adolescence is inexcusable. Especially one who had made millions of dollars for Walt Disney.

 

I'm glad that Annette never had acne or it might have been her who ended up on Hart Island. Especially if she was fired the same way. Walt Disney should have talked man to man. And helped him with his career. I think he owed him that much.

 

This isn't about Hollywood and acting, it is a human story. Like I said it isn't so much what Walt Disney did, as the way he did it. The way he fired Bobby was cruel. Nothing justifies being cruel to a kid. Nothing.

 

And by the way, I don't approve of anyone who is cruel to a child or a teenager. Especially when it isn't necessary. Bobby made a lot of money for Disney; treating him with a little understanding wouldn't have killed anybody.

 

Everyone who knew Bobby liked him, the people who knew him best loved him.

 

No, what Walt Disney did was wrong, period. I have a right to say that because I used to love him. When he betrayed Bobby, he betrayed me too. I do take this personally.

I guess some people care more about their money or their Disney stock, than the life of one kid. I care about the kid, and don't give a damn about the stock, or the money. And Ayn Rand didn't write books about how to raise a child, Dr. Spock did. Situational ethics has no place in any child's upbringing. Otherwise we could have more tragedies like Bobby Driscoll.

Just one man's opinion.

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Although I enjoyed the performances of Bobby Driscoll as stated in a prior post I don't believe that Walt Disney should be held responsible.

You state that Driscoll had a wife and 3 children which would make him old enough to know better. In fact he must have been close to 30 years old when he died. If he was fired at Disney when he was 16 he had plenty of time to make a life for himself and especially for his children.

I'm beginning to wonder if drugs got the best of Driscoll

which is very sad. It's not easy being hooked. My sister went through a severe drug habit and she also died young.

Disney gave us many wonderful films which I will always remember including those with Bobby Driscoll.

 

Mongo

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