The Average Workday At Disney Was A Lot Different Seventy Years Ago

No matter how many books one reads about classic Disney animation, it’s difficult to imagine the day-to-day life of artists during the studio’s Golden Age. Obviously, we know the artists worked on films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia and Bambi. And by most accounts, they had a pretty good time doing it. But what was the work environment like on any given day?

While I was writing my upcoming biography of Disney animator and director Ward Kimball (pictured up top), I was granted access to the personal journals that Ward kept during the 1940s. His writings provided a unique and unprecedented look into the day-to-day life at the Disney studio through the eyes of one of the studio’s most creative and gifted artists.

The journal entry reprinted below is from exactly seventy years ago today–August 7, 1942. There was a World War raging at the time and the studio’s regular output had been interrupted by the urgent demand for military training films and other war-themed shorts, like Education for Death, which Kimball was animating at the time. Here is Ward’s record of that warm August day in Burbank, California:

Friday, August 7, 1942
At the studio a kid — Kenny Walker– brought in 2 quarts of whiskey to celebrate his joining the Navy. We said, “Let’s wait til this afternoon.” “No,” says Fred [Moore], “now!” I mixed a big one with Coke at 11am. Got nice and glowy for our noon hour jam session. Tom [Oreb] really beat it out.

I hit every note made for the trombone–My! My! We knocked the pants off of “Jingle Bells,” etc. At 1:00 the boys were really hitting it up–no work–at 2:00 we played records with everyone in the unit beating on something! I blew my trombone–[Jack] Whitaker his bass! People came from the far corners of the studio to hear us. What a din.

The 2 qts were gone–I counted 6 empties in the hallway. Bill Berg–separated from his wife 6 mo. was going out on his 1st date tonight–”Going to get some” he said–but, alas! He had too much–passed out cold–the nurse had to give him shots–then carried him to his car. Wow! Just like old times–wine, song, no women.

The moral of the story: if you run an animation studio, always have a nurse on staff.


  • http://www.scottshawsoddballcomics.com Scott Shaw!

    Wow. I did boards, designs and layouts for “Kenny” Walker on a number of animated commercials in the 1980s. Whenever I’d turn in a job, he’s insist that I join him for a drink there in his business office, “Funnybone Films”. Since I don’t enjoy drinking, I always turned him down, which seemed to both surprise and disappoint him. I guess the cartooning lifestyle was never the same after Disney’s.

    • Mac

      Now you have to drive 30 miles to stand around and smoke pot with the same people. Party on.

      • http://zeteos.blogspot.com/ mick

        pot and video games. both wonderful inventions, both sorely misused to create empty evenings of maximum boredom

  • http://animationanomaly.com Charles Kenny

    I read in one of the books (‘Walt Before Mickey’ I think it was) a quote by Ward that explained how a “beer guy” would come around to the studio “every afternoon at 4″.

  • Jenny Lerew

    That is some great drawing(pastel? charcoal?)Ward did on the back of the door!

    The guys did know how to have a good time…I’m sure they also knew-most of them, anyway-how far they could push it. A far cry from the days spent under the gimlet eye of such as George Drake in the in-between dept. I wonder who the administrative “boss”/production cop was for animators of Ward’s status in 1942? Believe it, even these artists were reviewed and evaluated mercilessly, apart from the shenanigans.

    • http://www.amidamidi.com Amid

      Door drawing courtesy of Ward’s good friend Jesse Marsh.

      • Jenny Lerew

        Thanks Amid!

      • http://www.scottshawsoddballcomics.com Scott Shaw!

        Jesse Marsh was a tremendous comic book artist; his best-known work was for Dell’s TARZAN, where he displayed his skill at drawing animals. (Sergio Aragonés, a big fan of Marsh, describes him as the cartoonist who drew “the Tarzan with the squinty eyes.” I can see Marsh’s comic book style most evident in the girl’s face, which looks like he spent the most time at in this wonderful drawing.

      • http://www.scottshawsoddballcomics.com Scott Shaw!

        For more Jesse Marsh goodness, please check out Dark Horse’s TARZAN: THE JESSE MARSH YEARS archives; they’ve already published ten thick volumes of this terrific series.

  • http://zeteos.blogspot.com/ mick

    I’ve worked in places where the staffers actually complained when a good time broke out… it disturbed their ipods or prevented them squeezing in 10 minutes of world of feckin warcraft or some bloody nonsense like that.

    The past is a foreign land, they do things differently there

  • http://whataboutthad.com Thad

    Kimball must have had some restraint. If I had an innocent naked girl emblazoned on my office door, I’d never get any work done.

    • d. harry

      You’d also be fired for sexual harrassment!

      • http://zeteos.blogspot.com/ mick

        Why?

      • http://www.caricaturesbydave.com Dave Stephens

        Try to find the accommodation for “free speech” in the definition of sexual harassment. You will find it to be missing.

  • jordan reichek

    right on!

  • dbenson

    In one of the Disney books I think I recall an incident where one of the artists was in agony on the floor. The nurse was summoned. While kneeling by the victim and checking vital signs, she was informed he just ingested several milkshakes on a bet. Unamused, she got up and yelled at them all and stalked out — but not before kicking the patient.

    Being the studio nurse at Disney was evidently a bit like being the mother of teenagers.

    • James

      A lot of young blood was in Disney at that time, so it makes sense that there was a lot of horseplay and wild parties between serious work sessions. Not to mention it WAS essentially in Hollywood, where pleasure-seeking was the norm.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    I wonder if this was just those top guys; those favoured by Walt, or if everyone was partying. I doubt some poor inbetweener trying to make quota could party.

    As well as a Boys-Will-Be-Boys permissiveness of that era, I suppose the uncertainty of the war with freedom in the balance lent to a why-the-hell-not-we-could-die-tomorrow attitude.

  • Billy Batz

    I’ve heard stories of Marc Davis, and Milt Khal having 2 martini lunches at Barones Itallian in Burbank( since torn down,now kookooroo), they would hand off their work to their assistants and leave at 4. That’s how the greats did it, it was no big deal for them, just work.

    • http://www.synchrolux.com Kevin

      Marc and Milt weren’t ones to dump work on their assistants (they were too exacting for that), but they also didn’t bother with the 12 hour work days that many of us take for granted now. Their routine, according to Alice Davis, was to spend the first half of the day animating productively, then knock off to one of their local favorites for lunch (the Tam O’Shanter and the Smokehouse were also in the rotation), then come back to the office and spend the second half of the day planning what they’d do the next day. Four hours of animating, a relaxing lunch away from the studio, then four hours of planning.

      They’d go home at 5, unwind with another drink, have dinner with their wives, and then spend a few hours on their own personal art. At least that was Marc’s routine, and I think Milt’s was similar. Doing this they had incredibly long careers, and produced footage at a rate few could imagine matching today. All while never putting up with constant crunches and late nights and 7-day work weeks.

      Oh, and a little-known fact is that in those days martini’s were smaller. A two-martini lunch wouldn’t get to as drunk as it does today. Not that they didn’t drink, far from it, but they weren’t getting buzzed at work.

      • William

        That’s really glorious stuff right there. I’m going to have to draw up a proposal for my office. Heh!

  • http://pickledperfection.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    I dunno. Seems like every other employee has a bottle of whiskey on their desk at the studio I work at and there is a beer fridge that gets cracked open Friday afternoons and at bi-weekly company meetings. We still work hard though and don’t tolerate sexual (or any) harassment. We are being shipped off to spend a weekend at Lake Tahoe (all expenses paid) as employee appreciation soon… We save passing out and acting like teenage idiots for after work hours.

    • Beth

      I want to work where you work! So, where is that exactly?

  • Kartoonz Kritik

    Whenever hearing stories of old Disney and comparing them today, I always remember Ward’s famous quote:

    “Walt’s dead. You missed it.”

  • wever

    A nurse on staff these days?? I hope healthcare becomes afforable!

  • http://animationinventory.blogspot.com/ teodor

    Is CalArts guilty for different workdays?

  • http://www.animationresouces.org Stephen Worth

    Ken Walker was the guy who directed the General Mills monster cereal spots… Boo Berry Frankenberry and Count Chocula. He gave me a beautiful cel and background setup with all three and signed it for me. Still proudly hangs in my kitchen.

  • http://www.animationresouces.org Stephen Worth

    I brought him in on Cool World. He animated the 120 foot scene of Holly where she spreads her legs at the end. It was a good enough scene, someone stole it. Had to go to ink and paint off of backup xeroxes.

  • http://MrFun Floyd Norman

    Walt’s long time studio nurse was Hazel George. Believe it or not she was also a song writer but she took good care of us even when we were bad.

    Work was great in the old days. Even in a crunch we never worked as hard as the kids do today. It would seem that time has been put in reverse and today’s studios are the new sweat shops. I never worked one hour of overtime on “The Jungle Book,” but we got the damn thing done.

    Animation pretty much sucks today.

    • Jonathan

      Lol, after reading about the antics that went on, I hope Hazel George kept a diary. I bet you it would be pretty fascinating…

  • Toonio

    This proves that if you let people be themselves at work they’ll do amazing things.

    Now with so many laws, bylaws and office codes you feel awkward talking to a woman at the office, not because she intimidates you, just because they’ll hear to whatever complain she has about you right before they show you the door.

    Welcome to the matriarchal world people.

    • InternetPolice

      So if I’m hearing you correctly, misogyny drives creativity and being forced to treat women like human beings is oppressive?

      If you can’t talk to a woman without being fired I’m more inclined to believe the problem lies with you.

    • http://ctrayn.tumblr.com/ ctrayn

      Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, Toonio. There are so many things wrong with your comment. I just…I can’t even. If I had a week I couldn’t list everything wrong with your thinking.

      Are you kidding me with this matriarchal world bs? I mean are you honestly serious, or are you being ironic? I hope for the sake of humanity you are being ironic. In a world where women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar by virtue of having boobs and periods, a world where every single woman politician is called emotionally unstable and judged by her attractiveness, a world where I’m told not to walk around MY home city at night or otherwise it’s my fault if I’m raped, you’re actually going to try and tell me that this is a matriarchy. That’s adorable. That’s so delightfully ignorant.

      QUICK! Name five male directors in feature animation without Googling! Now do the same with the female ones. I wonder which one was more difficult?

      No, but please, use that counter-example where men are buffoons on television and women are harpies that are never wrong. That will definitely derail my argument.

      And maybe instead of worrying about “getting caught” saying nasty things around women, you DON’T FECKING SAY NASTY THINGS AT ALL. We like to go by a little thing called the Golden Rule here in the Midwest. You treat people right. Moreover, you treat people how you want to be treated. ALL people.

      Unless of course they’re treating other people badly, in which case you stand up to them.

  • http://www.bobharper.net Bob Harper

    Moral is; STRIKE and become union and a year later drink all you want at work!!!!! Woo hoo!!!

  • Didier Ghez

    God, I can’t tell you how much I would like to read the full diaries! This is really the holy grail of Disney history. Thanks for the teaser Amid.

  • http://hand-drawn-animation.blogspot.com David Nethery

    “No matter how many books one reads about classic Disney animation, it’s difficult to imagine the day-to-day life of artists during the studio’s Golden Age.”

    Two books come to mind which do give that sense of day-to-day life at the studios: Jack Kinney’s “Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters: An Unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disney’s” and “Talking Animals and Other People” by Shamus Culhane.

    Looking forward to your Kimball book , Amid !

  • http://MrFun Floyd Norman

    Shameless book plug warning!

    For another view of daily life at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties, sixties and seventies read my book, “Animated Life” due out soon from Focal Press.

  • Tom R

    It really does seem like the older generation of animators actually had a life outside of animation.

    No wonder their work was superb, eh?

  • Pedro Nakama

    That picture of the nude woman would frighten away most of the management at Disney today!

  • Mike

    It sounds like a sexist, disorderly work environment full of a bunch of boozing wild men devoted as much to “fun” as their craft….

    Does anyone have a time machine I can borrow?

  • Frank Ziegler

    Sounds like an awesome place to work. Not the sweatshop some writers have painted it.

  • http://totald.blogspot.com/ Darlie

    A day when work was fun and there were few rules to creativity . It was a long time ago , there was no internet, people weren’t trying to be Disney because no one knew what it was. . Men ruled the world, women were second class, the depression forced a lot of talent into the studios (Walt called the depression he greatest thing to ever happen to him ) .Learning something was joy. Innocence was prized. Now everything is about “WINNING” . I think you can have fun and not be a misogynist, have a good time and not be an alcoholic. I think we have learned how.