It was 1982, and I was on my first visit to Los Angeles. Unlike other holidaymakers who were making an immediate, predictable, bee-line for Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Universal Studios and the other attractions of Tinseltown, I jumped in a yellow cab and headed off to “beautiful down-town Burbank” which as well as being the sometime home of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, is the location of the studio known in the business as the Mouse Factory.
I had made a pen-pal of the Disney archivist, David R Smith, and as soon as I’d booked my trip to California, I blagged an invitation to visit the archive. And now here I was, in a state of bleary-eyed wonderment, staring into cabinets containing such holy relics as early Mickey Mouse watches, toys and comic books when I suddenly heard an explosive outburst of spluttering and squawking.
Turning around, I found myself looking at a dapper little man, at the time almost eighty years old, whose face was contorted into a shape that any gurning champion would be proud to have pulled, in order to produce the strangulated voice that could only belong to Donald Duck!
To my astonishment, I found myself being introduced to Clarence Nash who, for nearly fifty years, had been responsible for Donald’s impenetrable vocal tirades and who, rather sweetly, was known to everyone around the studio simply as ‘Ducky’.
So, what do you say to a man who’s spent his life playing a duck (or, more accurately, a ‘drake’) in a sailor suit? Fortunately, there was no need to say anything beyond the basic civilities, because Mr Nash was as loquacious as his fine-feathered friend.
He whisked the archivist and myself off to the Disney commissary where, over lunch, he retailed his history: his early career in vaudeville; his days as a bird impressionist on an LA radio show; his experiences as ‘Whistling Clarence’, touring local schools promoting the products of a local dairy; and his audition for Walt Disney when he had recited ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in the voice of a baby goat and got re-cast as a duck in the Silly Symphony, The Wise Little Hen.
Mercifully, these anecdotes were not recounted in ‘duckese’ but in English (or, at least, American), and Nash explained that - alone among the Disney voice talents - he had personally dubbed all Donald’s foreign language soundtracks, learning the dialogue phonetically, and then delivering it in French, German, Italian, Spanish and several dozen other lingoes. Then, to the great amusement of the other diners, Nash slipped back into duck-talk and gave a vocal demonstration of his skills.
Whilst, frankly, it was impressive - and the most wonderfully eccentric beginning to any American holiday - the truth is that when Donald Duck flew off the handle in Serbo-Croat, he was as just as unintelligible as in his native tongue. But then maybe the fact that we never really understood was part of his charm.
Blind fury is not the most engaging of attributes, but Clarence Nash at least made it funny. Apart from which, seeing Donald Duck incandescent with rage can only make our own most intemperate outbursts seem positively innocent by comparison!
Here's a treasured memento of my encounter with Ducky Nash...
My love-affair with Disney began in the cinema, watching re-issues of the classic features and taking huge delight in spotting detailing - particularly in the pictorially rich Pinocchio - that, for many audience-members, would go unnoticed.
Similarly, one of the pleasures of exploring the Disney parks is the chance to discover little out-of-the-way details that are a part of the cumulative atmosphere of the place but which are invariably missed by so many visitors.
When spotted by the observant Disneyite, however, these discoveries take the form of a 'reward' for keeping one's eyes open and taking the time to stop and look up, or down or round this or that corner.
One such place to make a momentary stop is the faux-entrance to the Disneyland Casting Agency on Main Street, USA.
Pause here a moment - while the crowds rush headlong for the hub in their eagerness to get to their favourite rides before the lines lengthen out of sight - and enjoy the beautifully embellished window panel in the door that establishes the style and theme of this charming conceit...
Then peruse the NOW CASTING poster that provides any passer-by who lingers long enough with a series of Disneyesque smiles and chuckles....
You may need to view it at a larger scale in order to read the full details but, among many interesting openings on offer, are (or were in 2005) the following:
ELEPHANT TRAINER Must work with flying elephants. Trained in the magic feather technique. Send resume to: T.M. at our Florida office. [Note: T.M., Timothy Mouse, obviously]
GHOSTS AND RESTLESS SPIRITS WANTED Seeking ghosts and goblins to perform with ghoulish delight in haunted house musical. Spirited performers only. Auditions at Ghost Relations.
A Jewel of A Role 7 openings for Miner roles. Must work well with animals, princesses and whistle while you work. Short hours.
MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS sought for alpine-themes production. Auditions First Snowfall, Matterhorn Mountain Features.
Children's fantasy film needs extras to play playing cards, Singing Flowers, and a Doorknob. Singing, dancing and shrinking abilities a plus. Wonderland Featurettes, Room 10/6. Don't be late. [Note: The room number is, presumably, the office of the Mad Hatter!]
WANTED: One Airborne Pixie Aerial artists to fly in nighttime Extravaganza. See T. Kline for further info. [Note: Tiny Kline (born Helen Deutsch, 1891-1964) was Hungarian born circus performer who performed with Barnum & Bailey and at Disneyland where (from 1961-1964) she 'flew' from the Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty's Castle at the start of the evening's fireworks display.]
There are also some surprising jobs that it is surprising to find are still being advertised, among them...
Miniaturization Technician Can you operate the mighty microscope? An inner space adventure needs you. Hurry! Opportunities are shrinking! Snowflake EFX Ltd.
Ground Controller Rocket to the Moon (and back). No experience necessary. Report to Mr. Morrow, Moonliner Flight Systems.
If you were seeking proof of Walt Disney's lasting influence on popular culture you'd need look no further than his first feature-length animated film from 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Before the Disney version, there were dozens (probably hundreds) of interpretations by various artists and illustrators as well as at least five early motion picture versions - one of which (made in 1916) had made a striking impact on the youthful imagination of a young lad in Kansas City named Walter Elias Disney.
What all these pre-Disney versions had in common is that they didn't have anything much in common! None of the Snow Whites looked alike and the dwarfs were just seven little men with no names. After Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, virtually everyone knew that the story's heroine wore a yellow dress with blue-and-red puff sleeves and that the dwarfs were called Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful and so forth...
And so it's gone on for seventy years and will do so, now, for all time: check out the Snow White on your local ice-cream van and, when Christmas rolls round, the fliers for any Pantomime version near you and you'll see I'm right.
Over those seven decades, Disney's Snow White and her seven dwarfs have been recreated in many different media from topiary to glass, marble to ice and, here, in SUGAR!
Some friends gave me these items of (very unofficial) Disney merchandising at least ten years ago, but I've never had the heart to eat them. So they sit on a shelf gathering dust and must have become so fossilised by now that they'd probably break the teeth of all but the most macho mouse!
I have to confess, however, I'm not entirely sure which dwarf's which - apart from the bespectacled Doc and the beardless Dopey...
Here are one or two mementos of my various encounters and correspondences with veteran animator and one of Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, WARD KIMBALL.
First, an inscription from my Disney autograph book by Kimball (using an inky thumb-print to create his face) along with his wife, who was a former Disney painter, Betty Kimball...
Next, a couple of typically anarchic Kimball pieces: a revisionist Model Sheet for animators featuring misrepresentations of the Disney Studio's most famous character...
...and some images of Jiminy Cricket as he was never seen in Pinocchio, by the man who designed and animated the character in the 1940 film...
Finally, a raunchy cartoon which Kimball sent me in 2002, two years before his death, in which the artist depicts himself playing (rather suggestively) with a model railway - a reference to his life-long love of steam locomotives: a passion he shared with Walt Disney and which led to Kimball building the Grizzly Flats Railroad in his California backyard, using sets from Disney's 1948 film, So Dear To My Heart...
Ward Walrath Kimball (1914-2002) began his Disney career as an in-between artist on the 1934 short, The Wise Little Hen and worked on the first Disney feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs before going on to create numerous classic Disney characters including Pinocchio's diminutive conscience, Jiminy Cricket; the Crows in Dumbo; Bambi's love-interest, Faline; the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland; and Jaq and Gus, the mice in Cinderella, and their nemesis, Lucifer the Cat. He also animated the frenetic 'Three Caballeros' musical number from the Disney film of the same name.
In the mid-1950s, Kimball became a director and was responsible for the Academy Award-winning short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom as well as three ground-breaking Disney television shows about outer space. His 1969 animated short, It's Tough To Be A Bird won an Academy Award. Subsequent publicity were adapted to read: It's Tough To Be A Bird - but it's great to win an Oscar! Images uploaded from my Disney flickr Photo Album.