Holding Their Banner High

Uncle Walt's corporate heirs build on his dreams in the dark

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Michael Eisner says he was raised in Manhattan, but he must have meant on Mars. What earthling could claim that he never saw a Disney movie until his mid-20s?

From 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered, until, say, the mid-'60s, Walt's entertainment edifice was a unique institution -- a cathedral of popular culture whose saints were mice and ducks, virgin princesses and lurking sprites, little boys made of wood and little girls lost in wonderland. Virtually every child attended this secular church, took fear and comfort from its doctrines, and finally outgrew it. The achievement of the Walt Disney Co. under Eisner has been to recapture the audience's childhood and extend it into adolescence and beyond. Today customers keep coming back to the movies and theme parks long after they have outgrown short pants.

For most American children of the past half-century, a Disney cartoon feature was the sacred destination of their first trip to the movies. Disney taught kids what a film could be -- how it could blend sight and sound into enthralling art, how it could salve your soul and scare you to tears. Alone in the dark, awed by images bigger and bolder than any dream, children shuddered through a skein of traumas that Walt had devised for them: the outrage of kidnaping (Pinocchio), the ridicule of deformity (Dumbo), the death of a mother (Bambi). Long before the '80s scourge of slasher movies, Disney's were the true horror films, offering primal nightmares and blessed release. And the young were their eager victims. When Snow White premiered at Radio City Music Hall, the management reportedly had to reupholster the seats because they were so often wet by frightened tots.

Walt Disney was of course more than America's story-spinning uncle; he was the canniest businessman in Hollywood. His credo might have been the Jesuits': Give me a child before he's seven, and he will be mine for life. Once this shaman-showman had seized kids' minds, he could raid their piggy banks. And on that mountain of pennies he could build an empire. His cartoons and feature films sired comic books, toys, hit songs (Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?, When You Wish upon a Star, Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah) and the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse watch. While other moguls ground out 40 or 50 pictures a year, then consigned them to rot in the vaults, Disney made a few superior films that could be recycled for a new audience of children every seven years. A half-century ago, he had anticipated the principle of ancillary markets -- the spin-off of theatrical releases into sound-track LPs, sequels, pay-cable airings and TV series -- that drives the movie industry today.

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