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Chairman Roy


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 1998

When Walt Disney spoke at a 1957 charity benefit, it was one of the few times he publicly paid homage to his brother Roy.

"I was fortunate," said everybody's Uncle Walt in his aw-shucks manner. "I had an older brother. And he's still with me. And I still love him. I argue with him. Sometimes I think he's the stubbornest so-and-so I ever met in my life. But I don't know what the hell I'd do without him. He's president of the company now . . . "

"I'm chairman of the board," corrected Roy O. Disney from the off-stage shadows.

It was familiar role for Roy Disney, who spent 43 years behind the curtain pulling the strings that made his famous younger brother's grandiose dreams reality. Cartoonist Walt and his creative pals provided an endless stream of ideas. But Walt probably would have been a bit player and the Walt Disney Co. would not be the entertainment Goliath that it is today had it not been for Walt's strong-willed brother.

Roy controlled the checkbook.

While Walt's carefully crafted image made him an American icon, Roy's life and influence were kept in the dark. Only in 1996 at the 25th anniversary of Walt Disney World did Disney begin to elevate the profile of its lesser known co-founder. Roy's son Roy E. Disney, the company's only direct link to the Disney family, was made vice chairman and head of Disney's animation studio. And now the company is offering a paean to Walt's older brother.

Written by Bob Thomas, a veteran Hollywood wire service reporter, Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire is published by Hyperion, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.

A light and breezy read, Building a Company is more a celebrity profile than a definitive look at how two control freaks parlayed a tiny cartoon studio into one of the most ubiquitous forces in American culture. Contrary to what the studio said at the time, we learn that Walt was a smoker who probably died of lung cancer, that Roy liked his scotch and that both of them could cuss up a mean streak despite their stern, religious upbringing.

In one of the more intriguing tales, Thomas describes a two-year standoff in which the brothers barely spoke to each other, communicating only in curt memos. The root of the dispute: a deal hidden from shareholders that treated Walt as a leased asset. The arrangement kept some critical parts of the company, notably the firm that created park attractions, as Walt's personal property and awarded him stakes in Disney films. Roy's attempts to end the self-serving arrangement in the interest of shareholders erupted in yelling matches.

But many details that would help flesh out what motivated the brothers' decisionmaking are either missing or glossed over. Thomas, for example, never mentions how a company that built its reputation paying top dollar for quality attractions could be so parsimonious paying its people -- even its film stars.

Thomas offers lots of anecdotal evidence that the brothers both lived comfortably but simply. But there is no mention of how much cash they generated building one of America's great family fortunes.

As a business book, in fact, Building a Company really offers only one lesson: When the going gets tough, call in your big brother.

For Walt it was a very good call.

In the 1930s it was Roy who dreamed up the idea of Mickey Mouse and Disney merchandise, then pioneered the bully-boy approach of using the courts to force others to sign licensing deals. Setting up Disney's own distribution arm, Roy also was one of the first to understand that TV exposure could be used to fill theaters, sell licensed merchandise and jam theme parks.

Today they call it synergy. In the 1950s it was the Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crocket and the weekly hourlong Disneyland show on ABC-TV. All were plugfests for other Disney products.

First lured to the studio to protect his younger brother from fast-buck artists, Roy ended up protecting the business from Walt's excesses. Disneyland and Disney World both were built at four times their initial estimated cost. Roy Disney pulled off the financing without taking on debt.

Walt died in 1966, just after the company bought 43 square miles in Central Florida. He had envisioned Walt Disney World as a resort and home to EPCOT Center, a vaguely defined experimental theme park where people would actually live. But Walt's planning never got much beyond saying where the main road and Magic Kingdom should go, a decision made on his deathbed.

It fell to Roy, who was planning to retire, to raise $400-million and spend the next five years building the theme park. He pulled it off with a series of convertible and common stock issues that left the company debt-free when Disney World opened in 1971. It was a stroke of genius that had repercussions: The deal opened Walt Disney Co. to an attempted hostile takeover a decade later.

Roy O. Disney never saw Disney World after opening day. He died two months later.

Mark Albright is a Times staff writer.

While Walt Disney was in the spotlight, brother Roy was behind the scenes.


By Bob Thomas

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