Bay Area tours Disney’s past

Museum stirs emotional connections

In California’s version of the Civil War, Bay Area tech dweebs and cultural snobs look down on their Southern neighbors, seeing Hollywood as a bastion of shallowness made more irritating by the eternal sunshine bathing all those spotless minds.

Yet in a quiet way, a major aspect of Hollywood history has been planted in the city immortalized in song by Tony Bennett, not Randy Newman.

Historically quite private, Diane Disney Miller — daughter of Walt Disney — has lived an idyllic-sounding existence, owning a Napa Valley winery with her husband Ron, the former Disney CEO who was pushed out to make room for Michael Eisner.

More recently, however, she has devoted her energies to the Walt Disney Family Museum, a San Francisco-based edifice designed, as she put it, to remind people that “Disney” — a term more iconic than almost any other in denoting a specific kind of entertainment — represents more than Mickey Mouse plush toys.

“My dad had become like a brand name. I wanted to remind people that he was a man,” Miller said during a rare swing through Los Angeles, citing two purposes she hopes to serve with the 18-month-old museum: “I wanted people to know my dad, but I also hoped people would come out inspired.”

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the museum’s location, with its proximity to Pixar — the Disney unit based just across the Bay Bridge in Emeryville, which comes closest to keeping alive the idealized version of the Disney brand — as well as Lucasfilm and DreamWorks.

Pixar brass, Miller said, have become “evangelists” for the Disney ethos and in her view exemplify what her father stood for more than any other facet of the now-sprawling company he founded. In their movies, she sees evidence of her father’s oft-stated principle “I don’t make films for children. I make films that families can see together.”

Pixar has also embraced the museum, dispatching entire departments to familiarize staffers with Disney history. Similarly, Lucasfilm sends participants in its internship program on tours as part of the curriculum.

Like much of Pixar’s creative elite, Pete Docter, the director of “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.,” cites an early fascination with Disney movies and Disneyland as professional inspiration, and he’s participated in brainstorming exhibit ideas.

Pixar has also held off-site meetings at the museum. “During break times we’d run through the museum and look at all the stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of geeky but fun.”

As for the museum’s role as part of a growing creative nexus in the Bay Area, Docter said, “Most of the time we look from afar down at you guys in L.A. and think, Oh, look at the cool events, and we don’t get to see it. This gives us a touch of that.”

Miller concedes her original incentive for launching the museum stemmed in part from a desire to “dispel some terrible rumors” about her father, some of them contained in an unflattering biography.

While the Disney company is unaffiliated with the museum, Miller said it has been generally cooperative. (Full disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)

Still, in assembling artifacts and displays, she’s actually purchased collectibles that once belonged to her dad or the studio, including storyboards, conceptual art and, recently, one of Walt’s early drawings. “Nobody saved them,” she said.

Although raised in the midst of the entertainment industry, Miller maintains she wasn’t really part of it growing up. Walt Disney was viewed as “a little guy with an animation studio,” she recalled, though she did count studio mogul Darryl Zanuck’s daughter, Susan, among her schoolmates and friends.

Miller never became directly involved in the family business, but through her commitment to the museum, she’s heard countless testimonials from people like those at Pixar, who harbor indelible memories of childhood trips to Disneyland and first glimpses of “Dumbo” or “Fantasia.”

“I’m more aware than I’ve ever been in my life of the impact Disney has in the world,” Miller said.

That awareness regarding the Disney legacy may be rooted in Hollywood but, clearly, a substantial piece of its heart, as well as its history, has been left you know where.

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