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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