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Presidio as Disney land

June 28, 2009|Diane Haithman

Back in 2007, Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt, told The Times that a new Walt Disney Family Museum -- dedicated to telling the story of the man, not the entertainment conglomerate -- was being planned for San Francisco's Presidio, a former U.S. military facility that has been turned into a national park.

The idea was for the museum to renovate and occupy three historical buildings, including a former Army barracks.

The news was casually dropped into a larger conversation about plans to build a new contemporary art museum at the Presidio, funded by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap.

Plans for the art museum have not yet gotten the green light. But the Disney museum is a go, and a lot has happened since 2007 -- construction is nearing completion, an Oct. 1 opening date has been set, a rudimentary museum website is up, and even the East Coast press is taking notice.

Last week, museum representatives, longtime Disney collaborators and associates, and Disney's grandson, Walter Elias Disney Miller, gathered in Los Angeles to talk about the project during a luncheon at one of the late Walt Disney's favorite restaurants, the Tam O'Shanter Inn on Los Feliz Boulevard, which opened in 1922. It was just down the pike from Disney's Hyperion Studios in Silver Lake. Drawings by Disney animators still decorate the walls.

Telling tales out of school over cocktails was Richard Sherman, 81, of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, who contributed songs to Disney films, including "Mary Poppins," "The Parent Trap" and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."

"This was the joint he used to come to," said Sherman of the dark, meat-and-potatoes Tam O'Shanter. "Walt didn't like fancy stuff. . . . He was a very complex man, but his tastes were very simple." He proceeded to point out one of Walt's favorite treats: two brands of canned chili, mixed together. "Yep, chili and beans," Sherman recalled. "When he'd go out dining, he'd be very polite, he'd pick at the food -- and then he'd go away and have some dinner."

The museum's founding executive director, Richard Benefield -- formerly deputy director of the Harvard Art Museums -- provided details of the new venue, including 10 chronological theme galleries, many interactive features and a 5 1/2 -foot "video globe" on which will be projected highlights of Disney's life.

There will also be a movie theater, the interior of which was inspired by a concept drawing of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. The first movie to be shown will be, not surprisingly, "Fantasia."

Many parts of the exhibition will be narrated by the voice of Walt, caught on tape by his daughter Diane.

Benefield said that Diane -- by then the young wife of Ron Miller, who was a tight end for the Los Angeles Rams -- recorded 19 hours of Walt's reminiscences for a biography of her father. All of that material is available to the museum.

Benefield added that the location of the museum puts it in the hub of the animation world, with Pixar, DreamWorks and LucasFilm all in the Bay Area. The museum plans to offer animation classes.

Would Walt Disney have approved of the state-of-the-art technology being used to tell his story in the new museum? His longtime associates think so.

Said Disney archivist Dave Smith: "He would have been fascinated -- he loved technology."

Marty Sklar, a longtime Disney executive, said Walt would have been "aghast" at the idea of anyone devoting a museum to his past but agreed that Disney would have been excited by the futuristic elements of the museum, whose interior and exhibition design is by New York City's Rockwell Group (the project architect is Page & Turnbull of San Francisco).

"He was not interested in what he did yesterday," Sklar said. "It was so exciting, working with someone who believed that what you did yesterday was never going to be good enough."

Museum tickets go on sale Aug. 1 at


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