Editor Note: This article is republished in honor of Grandparents Day, September 7, 2014. It was originally written after a 2011 event at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
Family togetherness and memories of shared experiences to last a lifetime … those are at the heart of Walt Disney’s many creations — from cartoon characters and heart-warming movies that have entertained generations to Disneyland, which has delighted guests between the ages of 2 and 102 since opening in 1955.
Family meant a great deal to Disney, both personally and professionally. His daughter, Diane Disney Miller, told me that despite her father’s success, she and her sister, Sharon, lived a fairly typical family life. The girls had two loving, caring and protective parents. Her dad, she said, was a hugger who enjoyed family dinners at home, weekly outings with his girls, even time regularly spent driving his daughters to school on his way to the studio.
Walt was happy with his little family, even though Diane learned many years later from her aunt that he had wanted more children but that doctors had advised her mother, Lillian, not to attempt another pregnancy after a series of miscarriages.
It would have “only been me,” Diane said, if her parents hadn’t gone out and adopted her sister, Sharon. Walt and Lillian would later become “very loving” grandparents. And, making Walt a grandfather was the “best thing I ever did for him,” Diane said.
Diane and her husband, Ron Miller, parented seven children; six were born before Walt’s death on Dec. 15, 1966. Five of them — Chris, Joanna, Tammy, Jennifer and Walter Miller — shared memories of their maternal grandfather in a special program on Sept. 17, 2011, at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Ron Jr., born in 1963, was too young when his grandfather died to participate with his siblings and Patrick Miller wasn’t born until 1967.
The program, arguably the best talk in the museum’s nearly five-year history, provided an intimate look at Walt’s family life from his adored grandchildren. Now adults, they had a unique relationship to one of the most creative and influential men of the 20th century. They said both their parents and grandparents did everything they could to give them a fairly typical family life.
The following offers highlights of the program. It’s been plussed and sprinkled throughout with material obtained during an exclusive interview after the event.
Jeff Kurtti, a Disney historian, author and member of the team that helped plan the museum’s galleries, served as the program’s moderator. With an assist by researcher Paula Sigman-Lowery, Kurtti quoted Walt’s own words as he introduced each participant in order from birth.
In a letter to his Aunt Jessie dated Dec. 9, 1954, Walt wrote about the upcoming arrival of his first grandchild Chris Miller: “We are planning to spend Christmas up near San Francisco … where Diane is now living. Her husband is in the service — he’s stationed at Fort Ord, which is near Carmel. So, we’ll all be together up there … and I’m going to be a grandfather, which I guess will make you a great-great aunt. We’re all very happy and excited about this coming event.”
As an adult, Walt also wrote several annual birthday letters to his sister, Ruth, born on Dec. 6, 1903. Walt was born on Dec. 5, 1901. In his December 1956 letter to Ruth, Walt talked about the arrival of his first granddaughter, Joanna: “Now that Ron is out of the service, he and Diane are settling down and are building themselves a home here in the valley. While they are waiting for it to be completed, they are spending most of their time at the house with us. And, although it gets a bit hectic at times, granddaddy and grandma are having the time of their lives with little Chris and Joanna. Joanna is as cute a little pixie as ever drew a breath and Chris is still as wonderful as ever.”
In December 1957, following a two-month trip abroad, Walt wrote to Ruth: “Lilly just about had a fit having to be away from the grandchildren so long and I guess I’ll have to admit to being homesick for them, too. We were as happy as two grandparents could be with just Chris and Joanna, but then Tammy came along and found her little niche in our hearts, too.”
In December 1960, Walt shared his excitement about his third granddaughter, Jennifer, as well as his desire for another grandson. He wrote: “Diane had another little girl last May 8. … She’s a little doll. No cuter than the others, but at this age she’s a darn sight quieter. I was a little disappointed — kind of wanted another grandson — but Diane says ‘I’m not to give up. There’ always next time.’ ”
In December 1961, Walt wrote to Ruth: “I don’t know if you had heard about the BIG news … the birth on Tuesday, Nov. 14th, of Walter Elias Disney Miller. Diane finally decided to name one of her sons for me, and I’m thrilled to have a male heir bearing my name. With the first boy, Diane pulled a name out of the blue. She didn’t seem to like tagging a son of hers with my name. She had a particular aversion to the ‘Elias’ part of it. But, when this one came, she changed her mind and gave him the full treatment. She certainly made me very happy.”
The letters were a touching way of beginning the program. They also illustrated a side of Walt often overshadowed in biographies and the historical record by his numerous professional accomplishments.
This “family story” — with photos, film clips and several personal artifacts showing Walt as a son, a brother, a husband, a father and finally a grandfather — provides key bits of information to those studying his life and remarkable accomplishments. When you listen to Walt’s own voice and then hear Diane, her children and the people who worked with him, you get a sense that Walt was, as Kurtti said, “the man he purported to be.”
“Over time, we saw grandpa in the public or on television, he didn’t seem any different than when he was in his own living room or watching us play in the yard,” Chris said, kicking off the discussion.
Joanna recalled her and her siblings kissing grandpa’s image when they saw him host his weekly TV show, but she became a bit perplexed when some of her friends told her they did the same thing. She’d tell them, “He’s not your grandpa.”
“I’m trying to remember if we ever kissed him on the television when he was sitting in the living room,” Chris added, in one of the afternoon’s many lighthearted exchanges.
To us, Jennifer said, “he was always grandpa. When we walked into the door, we were excited to see him and he was just mobbed.”
Kurtti asked if the five, as children, realized how famous their grandfather was.
“We’d have situations at Disneyland where we were thrust into the parades. … we recognized that something was different about him,” Tammy said, adding that “another clue” came when Walt would take them to school and “people would run out and look at us.”
“We’re all pretty shy and I think some of our first experiences being in parades and the like at age 2, 3 and 4 … that was probably the most traumatic stuff we did with grandpa,” Joanna said, “but we did it for him.”
And, Grandpa “thought we’d have jolly good fun,” Chris added.
Walter called his grandpa “a little bashful, but gregarious. He wasn’t shy like we were. You hear about him when he was a kid. He was an adventurous Tom Sawyer who befriended adults. We were all terrified of adults when we were little.”
“But I think a lot of that (shyness) was because we were protected,” Tammy said. “We were also a little insecure about the fact that our grandfather was Walt Disney. We didn’t want people using or trying to manipulate us. Of course,” she added, “he was born in a different day and age, too. Could there be a Walt Disney today? Could that personality exist today with all the paparazzi and technology?”
“I think there were a lot of assumptions,” Chris said, talking about his grandfather’s fame. As children, it was … “hard to figure out what were dangerous assumptions” when you could “engage the inquisitor,” or know “what someone was trying to get out of you” — even if that was simply free tickets to Disneyland.
“We … lived a very simple, traditional family life. So when people would confront us with ‘your grandpa is Walt Disney,’ it seemed like an odd affront to us,” even though, Chris continued, “we knew grandpa was world-renowned.”
“We were very lucky though,” Jennifer added. “Our parents and grandparents did a beautiful job of protecting us. We really had such a normal life. They all made sure of it.”
Walter talked about the three questions he and his siblings heard most frequently from peers at school: “Is your grandpa THE Walt Disney?”; “Do you get into Disneyland free?”; and, “Is your grandpa frozen?”
“I think the worst was having people ask if he had been frozen shortly after he died,” Joanna said. “We were still getting over losing him.” She then asked her younger brother to repeat his reply to the cryogenics query. Walter would simply parrot the question back at the inquiring peer and ask: “Is your grandpa frozen?” It’s a strategy he remembers using as far back as first- or second-grade.
Kurtti then asked “where is grandpa when you’re having a memory about him?”
“I’m just thinking of the living room at their house,” Joanna said. “He and granny sitting in their chairs, enjoying the evening together, before or after dinner.”
The grandkids spent most of their time with their grandparents at Walt and Lillian’s two main residences, the “large but humble” Holmby Hills home and the Disneys’ weekend retreat in Palm Springs. Both houses had huge yards and a lot of windows where Walt could keep a watchful eye on his grandkids if he wasn’t sitting outside as they played.
“You have to understand,” Tammy said, “there were moments when grandpa was working and we’d be building forts with lawn furniture around him and he loved it.”
“And I remember little Ronnie sitting in his lap landing airplanes on grandpa’s head as he was reading,” Joanna said.
“I think as children we didn’t realize how much work he brought home,” Chris said.
“He tolerated all of our chaos and he always seemed to appreciate it,” Tammy said. “We felt so loved — cherished by him as a group. He wasn’t somebody who picked out favorites. He … adored all of us and that’s a wonderful feeling to be able to have.”
Walter admitted that outside of the last year of his grandfather’s life, he has “very few memories” of time spent with him. Most of his memories are sensory — tastes, smells, even some sounds. He does remember sitting with his grandparents in the living room “taking ice cubes out of (grandpa or granny’s) Scotch Mist. I still remember that flavor, it was so unique,” Walter said, adding that even today he’s “not a Scotch drinker.”
Kurtti recalled the early days of designing the museum galleries with Walter when boxes of Walt’s personal items arrived. Walter responded to a shaving kit when he opened it and, Kurtti said, “I’ll never forget you saying, ‘Oh my God, it smells like grandpa.’ ”
That prompted Walter’s siblings to recall their own sense memories.
“The orange slices in the Scotch,” Joanna said. “You really wanted one and (granny and grandpa would) put in lots of slices when we were there.”
Tammy said she associates the smell of a grease pencil with her grandfather because he used them to mark up the dozens of scripts he frequently brought home to review.
Jennifer said the smell of petunias brings back “happy memories” of Palm Springs, when grandpa would be in his office with the windows open “listening to us, enjoying us and watching us” as the kids would ride around and around on a path in the back yard. “He was always present when we were there,” she said.
In addition to the time spent with grandpa and granny at the Disneys’ two homes, the children’s play areas extended on occasion to the Walt Disney Studio and the Golden Oak Ranch, which featured several sets and was used as a film and television shooting location.
The grandchildren remembered using Chris’ or Joanna’s Autopia cars and riding bicycles to explore The Walt Disney Studio and its backlot. They talked of visiting their grandpa’s office and admiring his vast miniature collection. (Chris’ Autopia car as well as a representative sampling of Walt’s miniatures are on display at the museum.)
Walter remembers one trip to the Golden Oak Ranch and seeing “the greatest, most incredible treehouse” and then returning later and being “devastated” to find that it had been removed. Jennifer remembers visiting Zorro’s horse, Tornado, which was enjoying retirement from showbiz in the verdant pastures of the ranch.
Still as special as those two places were, they paled in comparison to their time spent with grandpa and granny at Disneyland, the world’s largest and greatest playground for all ages at least until 1971, when Walt Disney World opened.
“Going to Disneyland with them was obviously something totally different from what anyone else gets to experience,” Joanna said, talking about how Walt would prepare before taking the children out into the park by stuffing some pre-signed autographs into his pocket.
“He was intent on getting us to enjoy the place. That’s why he made it.” Joanna also recalled watching him “casually talk” to the cast members and noticed “a warmth that he had with everybody. I don’t know a lot of people who are able to do that.”
Chris finally piped in with a sensory memory — one shared by his siblings. “Talking about the Disneyland experience, we had the great fortune of spending some nights at the apartment there (above the Main Street Fire Station.) We had this auditory sensation of The Jungle Cruise and the cannibals. We were safe in the apartment, but there were cannibals nearby.”
“I’m very nostalgic about the apartment,” Tammy said. “It was a personal favorite for us … the way we interacted with the jungle people,” prompting several of her siblings to begin a headhunters’ chant. “We had some fun back there.”
Kurtti asked whether the Miller kids if their grandpa, who some employees remember as temperamental at times, ever got angry with them.
“He didn’t get mad,” Chris said, “he’d get impatient.”
“We’re close in age and we’d have our little sibling arguments,” Joanna said, adding that their grandmother had reminded them that grandpa was “a very busy man and he doesn’t want to hear you squabble.” There was one time in Palm Springs when grandpa said “something about not wanting to hear it … that’s all it took. We still argued at home, but not at granny and grandpa’s … we respected that.”
“It’s pretty amazing that in all the time we spent with them, there’s only the one time any of us can remember,” Tammy said.
Kurtti asked about Christmas with the Disneys as he introduced a 1958 letter from Walt to Ruth when Walt wrote about “the little chuckle” that Joanna and Tammy gave him and Lillian when they “asked for (toy) guns and holsters” for Christmas. “Lilly thought she hadn’t heard right … these old-fashioned grandparents thought the girls would want dolls, but guns it is.”
“Christmases were amazing,” Tammy said. Joanna said that the grandkids would get boxes with “gifts from all the characters, Jiminy Cricket, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald … lots of Disney products. “I always felt sort of spoiled by that but, later on, I learned that grandpa gave to more people than I knew and that pleased me.”
Chris then talked about the Disney employee Christmas parties where everyone who brought a child left “with boxes of stuff,” the same Disney products the grandkids would get from Disney’s cartoon stars.
Toward the end of the program Kurtti asked about their final family vacation with Walt, taken five months before his death and before he knew he had lung cancer. “That was sort of a finale for the family in a lot of ways … one of the first pure vacations we had,” Chris said, talking about a two-week houseboat trip along the British Columbia coast. Walt and Lillian were joined by 11 immediate family members — their two daughters and their husbands, six of the Millers’ kids and granddaughter Victoria Brown, Sharon’s first-born.
“It was family on an adventure,” Chris continued, “there wasn’t a movie company nearby that grandpa was monitoring and my dad wasn’t working.”
Walter said some of his most vivid memories of grandpa are from the Vancouver cruise. One memory in particular stands out. Chris and Walter were in one of the rowboats when “Chris sees a bald eagle on a cliff … He’s rowing away from the boat when all of the sudden we hear this megaphone: ‘Chris, that’s far enough,’ ” Walter recounted. “I don’t think grandpa was mad, he just wanted to play with the megaphone … and during the cruise he loved to wear the captain’s hat.”
The grandkids remember stopping on small islands and walking through the forests with Walt. They saw totem poles and found eagle feathers on the ground. Walt stood on the deck and watched the grandkids swim and play in the water. During the trip Walt and Lillian celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary, not knowing it would be their last, and Tammy celebrated her ninth birthday.
“Thinking back on it, it was just phenomenally fortunate that we had that with him when we did,” Chris said.
The discussion lead to a beautiful multimedia presentation compiled by the family foundation’s film archivist Scott Zone, featuring several photos (some on display in the museum galleries); a clip featuring Walter’s film debut with Wally Boag as quite literally the bouncing baby boy in “Son of Flubber”; and some highlights from the Millers’ personal family films showing Walt enjoying his grandchildren at home, at Disneyland, and on that memorable Vancouver vacation.
It was the perfect coda to a very special afternoon and left many people wiping away tears.