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The Strange and Tragic Life of Hal Adelquist

How do you go from being the head assistant director of Snow White, the head of Disney’s personnel department, and the production supervisor of The Mickey Mouse Club to a homeless panhandler living on the streets of Manhattan? That, in a nutshell, is the strange life of Hal Adelquist, who died in 1981 at the age of 66. At the time of his death, he had moved back to Long Beach, California, and was living with his mother.

The most comprehensive biography I’ve found about him is at this Mickey Mouse Club website. The bio states that he resigned from Disney in 1956, his last major role being the production supervisor of The Mickey Mouse Club: “If there is a tangible reminder of Hal’s contribution to the Mickey Mouse Club, it is that the production made it onto the air on-time, and was such a smashing success in it’s first season. The nerve-wracking effort to bring this off in just a few months weighed more heavily on Hal than on anyone else…Hal’s nerves were badly shot by the experience, and he began to drink heavily.” According to Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney, Adelquist asked Disney a year later to hire him back, even telling Walt that “I’m not particular about the kind of work involved,” but Walt refused.

The bio also alludes to another important role he held at the studio during his twenty-three year career: he was chosen by the Disney Animation Board (better known as the Nine Old Men) to be the frontman for the studio’s animation department and represent the animators’ concerns to Disney and other management.

Fast forward twenty years, and the website Isn’t Life Terrible picks up the story with this 1977 New York Times article that talks about Adelquist’s life in the Bowery Men’s Shelter in Manhattan: “He sits back with his leg in a cast, explaining he has a lot of accidents laterly, and troubles, too, getting money. But he intends to stay only briefly in the shelter before going back up to the East Side, where he used to have an apartment.”

The article explains that he’d held various jobs on the East Coast from being an executive at the Freedomland amusement park in the Bronx to washing cars. The depth of Adelquist’s despair can be summarized when he tells the interviewer that, “I don’t like to panhandle, but sometimes you have to and I’m good at it. You should learn how, you never know.”

The reason for writing about all of this is that I found something in my files this evening while I was doing research on a book project. It’s a copy of a letter (posted below) that Hal Adelquist wrote to David Swift in 1966, halfway between the time he left Disney and ended up homeless. Swift, the former Disney assistant animator, had become a successful live-action director and screenwriter by the mid-1960s and Adelquist was apparently hoping to rekindle their Mickey connection. Ironically, as head of personnel, it had been Adelquist’s thankless task to fire Swift from Disney in 1942, though I know for a fact that it hadn’t been his decision to get rid of Swift.

There are some clues in this letter, such as his wife’s name, his return trips to LA looking for industry work, and his friendships with Hardie Gramatky and Mary Blair, but it’s still hard to fathom the sequence of events that led to the downward spiral in Adelquist’s life. From all accounts, it appears that he was a decent person and more than competent employee. Sometimes that’s not enough, because as Adelquist said, you never know.

(click for larger version of letter)
Hal Adelquist Letter

  • dbenson

    Usually these kind of stories involve performers and hubris, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Is this kind of burnout common among lower-profile working creatives?

  • I’m not a member of AA, but I do belong to another 12 step program that uses the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve read the “Big Book” of AA many times, and even though the details of the stories may be different, the end result seems to be the same. Hal was not alone in his misery. AA was founded by two drunken sots who had thrown away their prestigious careers for booze. It’s a shame, but as the people who wrote the Big Book say, alcohol and alcoholism is “cunning, baffling and powerful”.

  • Michael Rianda

    Great post! It’s really interesting that the lives of cartoon makers are often so tragic and sad. I mean part of it was the alcoholism that was rampant in that era. I do think there is a specific sort of pain reserved for highly talented and skilled artists who all of a sudden find themselves without an outlet. The history of animation is littered with this kind of stuff, I hope there are some happy stories out there too.

  • Kate

    That’s heartbreaking.

  • Jackson

    Fantastic info, Amid. I really want to know more! The stress of working for the Disney organization (and Walt) must have been particularly daunting. Makes one wonder why MORE of the Disney staff didn’t drink as much (although I bet they did!).

    Great job. Thanks.

  • jordan reichek

    neat post, amid!

  • This is a fascinating read, and as someone who has read the fantastic biography on Walt by Neal Gabler, this post fills in some facts that give a bigger picture of things.

  • optimist

    When lives go down this road and wind up at this point it’s nearly always a case of alcohol or substance abuse, not job burnout. It’s a well-trodden and familiar path. Not everyone went to AA, got cured or wanted to or were able to be.

  • I’m reminded of Ryan Larkin, and the haunting film by Chris Landreth.

    Mike C

  • Scarabim

    Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, despises the Gabler biography. Called it a “monstrous piece of libelous junk”. Michael Barrier, who’s written a Disney biography himself, and also penned an amazing, well-researched tome on the history of Hollywood animation, wrote a blog about Gabler and Diane: http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Essays/Diane_On_Gabler/Diane_On_Gabler.html

    I’m interested why Walt refused to hire Adelquist back, especially since he apparently showed remarkable patience with animator Freddy Moore, who also suffered from alcoholism, and hired back an animator arrested on a sodomy charge (Walt’s reaction: “Let’s give him another chance. Everyone makes mistakes”). Rather curious…

  • Eddie Mort

    Great post Amid

  • Roberto Severino

    Amid, what an insightful and heartbreaking post. It’s always interesting to learn more about people who worked during the Golden Age of Animation.

  • Fascinating piece, Amid. I too have wondered about the Adelquist back story. Of course, I was just a starry eyed kid back then and knew little of studio politics.

    Apparently, Adelquist really ticked off Walt. Of course, Hal wasn’t the only guy on the show that Walt wanted gone. There were others.

    And, it’s true Diane Disney Miller positively hates Gabler’s book. She told me so herself.

  • Oliver

    Three words: Remember Bobby Driscoll.

  • Wow. Legend

  • Great, well-researched post. That does sound like alcoholism, or some kind of substance-abuse issue. I doubt the politics at Disney truly drove him to that extent.

    • Aminator

      Mike, I say this in the nicest way possible, but saying that you doubt the politics at Disney drove him to that extent is like saying you doubt there is oxygen in the air. After you work in the industry for a few years, come back we’ll talk.

      • optimist

        Everyone, every single person, particularly administrative people(which Adelquist was)deals with politics in the worklplace. Disney had it as every place does. But not everyone on the receiving or giving end is driven to alcoholism(if that was Hal’s issue).

        I assure you almost every person who worked there in the 30s-40s drank. But not all that many became addicted to drink. Those that did would have in all likelihood have been liable to have succumbed to the disease wherever they were, or worked.

  • Theodore

    Aldequist apparently wasn’t valued very highly by Walt, or he would have been welcomed back. True, certain people left and were later gladly re-hired but it was a different case with every employee, as it was and is at any studio.