Friday, 4 June 2010

SIGNED 'WALT'

"How much is it?" I asked, and held my breath.

"Forty pounds," he replied.

It's almost forty years ago now, but I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.

It was an awful lot of money.

I was just twenty years old and had not long been seriously bitten by the Disney-bug.

My fascination with Disney movies had been suddenly intensified when I borrowed R D Feild's book, The Art of Walt Disney from my local library. Here was someone who, unlike my Mum, didn't think of 'cartoons' as the kind of kid's stuff you ought to have grown out of by the time your voice breaks.

I wanted a copy of The Art of Walt Disney more than anything else in the world and began scouring the second-hand bookshops, which is how I stumbled on Fred Zentner. He later became The Cinema Bookshop in London’s Great Russell Street, but then he sold film books, stills, posters and other gems - including a copy of The Art of Walt Disney - from the basement of The Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, just round the corner from the British Museum. Once found, I began, bit by bit, buying up Fred's stock of Disneyana.

Then came the day when he placed into my hands a copy of The Story of Walt Disney as told by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, to Pete Martin.

Disney Biography (US edition)

It was a first edition American hardback, published by Henry Holt & Co (New York) 1956.

It still had its original dust-wrapper with a design by Disney studio artist Al Dempster and, what's more, it was ----- SIGNED!

On the half-title page, in green biro, with that distinctive bold handwriting was the inscription: 'Best Wishes Walt Disney'...

Disney Biography (US edition), autographed by Walt Disney

It was his very signature - including the little circle over the 'i' in 'Disney' that I emulated in my own signature. This man - whom I had never met but who exercised an obsessive fascination over me - had held this book, opened it and inscribed his name inside.

I wanted it!

No, I craved it!

But, FORTY POUNDS...

Forty pounds for a book? My mother would go bananas! Besides, I couldn't afford it. I didn't have forty pounds. I didn't know when I ever would have forty pounds. But, right there and then, I desired that book with a passion that, call me eccentric if you will, I have scarcely felt about anything since.

But, FORTY POUNDS...

It was way beyond my meager means. Then Fred Zentner showed himself to be a man who understood the full anguish of desire, because he made me an offer. If I paid him ten pounds a month for the next four months, he would keep the book for me until I had paid the full forty. Month by month, I made my pilgrimage to The Atlantis Bookshop, looked at the swirling green signature and paid another ten pounds. Then, one day, it was finally mine!

Fast-forward thirteen years to 1982 I am standing in the Archive at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California, talking to Archivist, Dave Smith. I am there researching a television documentary about EPCOT and I mention, in conversation, that the prize of my Disney collection is an autographed copy of The Story of Walt Disney.

Dave Smith laughs and asks a question that almost brings the universe crashing down around my ears.

“Are you sure it's actually signed by Walt Disney?”

“Of course! It says so, in green ballpoint: ‘Best Wishes Walt Disney’!”

“That may be,” he replies, “but many people at the Studio - some of them distinguished animators - signed books and pictures on Disney's behalf.”

I look stunned. But, Dave goes on: “The Disney signatures by these other artists are more like the famous logo signature that appears on Disney movies and merchandise. Walt's personal signature, however, is quite distinctive. Would you like to see a GENUINE Disney signature?'

Nothing could be simpler: within seconds I could know whether or not I owned the real thing. Or, I could leave things as they were. Except, of course, that now I couldn't. Dave Smith had sowed the seed of doubt...

I hesitate for no more than a second. “OK, yes, let's see a GENUINE Disney autograph…”

Dave in fact showed me a whole series of genuine Walt Disney signatures in an article he had written in 1981 for Manuscripts, the journal of The Manuscript Society.

One of them looked like this...

Walt Disney Autograph

Relief! Joy! The signature was just like mine!

You can read the full Dave Smith Manuscript article at the end of this post.

When, a few years later, I got to know Diane Disney Miller, I asked her about the book and she told me that her father used to sign copies for sale in the bookshop at Disneyland, which was very probably where my copy had originally been purchased.

She also explained that whilst The Story of Walt Disney carried her name as author (and, indeed, included several of her own reminiscences) it had been Walt himself who had collaborated directly with Pete Martin on the book. However, her father had decided that it would be better for his life-story to be presented as if told by his daughter partly because he felt that to tell it himself might appear arrogant, and partly because he wanted the recently married Diane to earn some money.

1998, decade and a half on, I found myself in San Francisco working with Diane on a BBC radio series about her father.

Dianne Disney Miller & Brian Sibley

On this occasion, I had carried the treasured volume with me and I asked her to add her signature to the book’s title page.

Diane was modestly reluctant - since, as she had already told me, she didn’t consider herself in any sense the book’s ‘author’. However, she eventually relented and graciously inscribed the book: “For Brian Sibley - a very good friend - Respectfully, Diane Disney Miller”...

Disney Biography (US edition), autographed by Disney Disney Miller

A few more years down the road, 2001, I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth in which I appeared as an interviewee.

By this time, I had acquired a British edition of what was now called Walt Disney - An Intimate Biography published by Odhams Press (London) in 1958...

Walt Disney biography (UK edition)

At the post-screening party, chatting with Diane and her husband Ron, I produced this volume and asked whether the book’s Non-Author would oblige with another inscription!

Appreciating the joke, she unhesitatingly agreed...

Beneath the printed sub-title - ‘An intimate biography by his daughter, DIANE DISNEY MILLER, as told to Pete Martin’ - she wrote: “Actually, Brian - we know better, don’t we? Warmest, warmest regards, Diane.”

Walt Disney biography (UK edition), autographed Diane Disney Miller

Nowadays, the autograph business is big business: copies of the recent reprint of The Story of Walt Disney with Diane's signature sell for several hundred dollars and someone, in a recent American auction, paid over three thousand dollars for a copy of the original edition signed (also in green ballpoint!) by Walt.

So, all in all, I think that original - and seemingly astronomical - forty pounds of mine was money incredibly well spent!

It is not, however, for any financial value that I treasure these volumes, but for the even more valuable memories and associations that they hold…

***

Here is the article, 'The Most Recognizable Signature in the World' by David R Smith in the Manuscript Society journal, Manuscripts, Vol XXXIII No. 2, Spring 1981

Dave Smith Disney Sig001

Dave Smith Disney Sig002

Dave Smith Disney Sig003

Dave Smith Disney Sig004

Dave Smith Disney Sig005

Dave Smith Disney Sig006

Dave Smith Disney Sig007

Dave Smith Disney Sig008

Dave Smith Disney Sig009

Dave Smith Disney Sig010

Dave Smith Disney Sig011


16 comments:

Matt said...

THAT is a fantastic story. I can remember the days of my early collecting as well when something just NEEDED to be with me, and I too was able to find sellers who understood and made those then-pricey items reachable.

Brian Sibley said...

Happy memories, eh, Matt?!

Incidentally, I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in London yesterday chatting with Robert Neuman who, as you know, shares your and my passion for Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

Davelandweb said...

Excellent post; I am so glad it turned out to be a genuine Walt signature. Your heart must have sunk when Dave Smith told you it might not have been!

Chuck Munson said...

Wonderful post, Brian! I think most of us can relate to that seemingly unattainable Disney prize. In my case it was comic book sellers who witnessed a long-drawn-out a-g-o-n-i-z-i-n-g decision-making process as to which would be acquired and which left behind. More than a few worked out some deals which at least reached the upper end of my meager budget.

Thank you also for posting Dave's article on Walt's signature. I have been aware that various artists had penned "official" signatures, but it certainly helps understanding which ones were scribed by whom!

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, DAVELANDWEB! Yes, it was, I admit, a potentially devastating moment. But, fortunately, I turned fairly swiftly from Eeyore into Tigger! :)

George Taylor said...

Great story, Brian!

I am glad you were bitten by the bug early in life.

Brian Sibley said...

It started even earlier, GEORGE when I was three or four and was taken to a movie house where they were showing a re-run of Brave Little Tailor: when the Giant 'ate' Mickey, all the other kids roared with laughter --- I screamed the place down and had to be taken out!

Brian Sibley said...

It's nice to know, CHUCK, that some of met sellers who understood the conflict between big desires and empty pockets!

Regarding Dave's article: some of us, of course, would be pretty pleased to own a Floyd Gottfredson Disney autograph!

Andy J. Latham said...

What a wonderful keepsake. You were one lucky kid!

If I ever get my hands on something with the great man's scribble on it, I'll be sure to check back here for confirmation!

Incidentally, does the bookshop still exist? Being a keen seeker of out of print animation books, I've often wondered if a bookshop could survive or even do well if it concentrated on rarities. I'd love to have a look in that shop if it's still around.

Brian Sibley said...

Will happily verify for you! Sadly, The Cinema Bookshop vanished some years ago. There are, of course, specialist movie bookshops, but few sell the Olde Tyme rarities of the kind that I was able to snap up as a young collector.

Andy J. Latham said...

Ahh that's a shame. We don't get any shops like that "up north". Not that I'm aware of anyway.

Spokker said...

I never really understood the appeal of autographs. If I were to meet a famous person, I would much rather ask them questions and pick their brain than ask for their John Hancock. For the celebrity, of course, the autograph is preferable, which takes all of a few seconds.

Brian Sibley said...

ANDY - But there are a lot of such sources now on-line. You gotta Google! But I don't think they are as cooperative as those dealers some of us knew as kids.

SPOKKER - Fair enough point. I've been very fortunate - and privileged - to spend quality time (and, indeed, to work with) many of the people I admire, so - apart from the case of Walt - many of my signed treasures are mementos of time spent asking questions and picking brains.

A Snow White Sanctum said...

Brian, what a terrific story!

And what a gem you have there...yes because it has Walt's very real signature but also...because of the fond memories and wonderful friendships it has helped you further.

Keep up the great posts.

Michael Sporn said...

A great post and a great read. Thanks for the article by Dave Smith, I hadn't seen it before.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Michael! :)