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A Magic Moment, Re-Imagined

'Walt & Roy' examines the famed cartoonist and his businessman brother at a pivotal time in Disney history.

July 26, 1998|Jennifer Napier-Pearce | Jennifer Napier-Pearce is a Times staff writer

It may be a small world after all, but it has taken 12 years for a play about the brothers Disney to find its way from Canada to Disney's backyard.

"Walt & Roy," an award-winning play that has been produced a dozen times in Canada, is opening in Los Angeles at Glaxa Studios in Silver Lake on Thursday, the first production of the play in the U.S.

Bare Stage Theatre Company actor-producer John Allore heard about the play last year from a fellow Canadian thespian and believes the time is right to bring home the story of one of entertainment's most celebrated families. "No one has seen this play here, and it deserves to be seen because it's about the industry," he said.

But don't expect a spit-polished version of the wonderful world of Disney. In its opening scene, a gun and a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam clutter the desk of the legendary cartoonist, and the plot centers on cutting, late-night confessions alternating with comical fraternal barbs between Walt and his older brother-business partner, Roy.

Playwright Michael McKinlay says he intentionally replaced the squeaky-clean persona of "Uncle Walt" with a more three-dimensional image of the man who built an entertainment empire--not to destroy Disney's fantastical facade, but to gain a realistic look at the wizardry behind the ears.

"There are so many stories about Walt," McKinlay says. "I'm not vilifying him in any way, but talking about the creative process."

Director Robert Lane agrees it took more than pixie dust to create the Magic Kingdom. "Thematically, I don't think the play is anything larger than art versus commerce, practicality versus the dream," he says. "It's about as good an illustration of that as I've seen. This is not a hatchet job. This portrays Disney as the human being that he was."

Myth and mystery naturally surround the man who crafted his own image as carefully as he did the cartoon illustrations that made him wealthy. Born in 1901, Walt Disney spent his youth on a Missouri farm until the family moved back to Chicago. At 18, he struck out for Kansas City to chase his dream of becoming a cartoonist and two years later joined older brother Roy, who was in Hollywood recuperating from tuberculosis.

Living the Hollywood rags-to-riches dream, Walt and Roy Disney started their venture with an animated short, $300 in savings and a $500 loan from an uncle, and ended up constructing a multimillion-dollar entertainment enterprise.

As the business matured, the Disney brothers continued along a well-defined division of labor, with Walt steering the company's creative side while Roy managed the financial end. These disparate interests often clashed head-on, resulting in a corporate tug-of-war and straining the brothers' relationship.

It is during one of these tenuous episodes that "Walt & Roy" unfolds. Set in 1936 in Walt Disney's office at the old studios on Hyperion Studios, it is the night before the two young executives are to meet with bankers to discuss additional financing for Walt's latest and most ambitious venture to date--a full-length cartoon called "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The studio has already enjoyed considerable success with its animated shorts of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, but fanciful Walt sees the studio's future in feature films. Practical Roy, on the other hand, views "Snow White" as a gamble that could bankrupt the company and wants to stay the financially prudent course.

Disney biographies mention a late-night meeting between the brothers before the pivotal meeting with Bank of America, but McKinlay admits to hypothesizing about the contents of their discussion and magnifying their personalities.

"Playwrights are always looking for that one moment of decision and, to me, this seemed to be it," he said. The characters "are cartoons; they're larger than life."

In a backyard garage-turned-rehearsal-hall, an electric train sits in a corner next to Mickey Mouse miniatures; pencil sketches resembling Disney's Snow White and the incognito evil queen adorn the walls. Actor John Allore walks off his character as director Robert Lane breaks into an emotional sequence between Allore and co-star Tom Babuscio.

"You should be a lot more pissed off at your brother," Lane says to Allore. "Take your time and show more irritation."

Allore nods, combs his fingers through his dark, unruly hair, and both actors resume their places as brothers on the makeshift stage. Allore plays 35-year-old Walt, a tall and slim yet somewhat disheveled presence with a Disney-like mustache and a voice resembling Alan Alda's. Babuscio plays the shorter and stockier Roy, who, at 43, represents the quintessential practical financier, complete with conservative pinstriped suit and shiny black wingtips.

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