‘Treasures’ brings artifacts to Walt Disney’s birthplace

By Mike Thomas Chicago Sun-Times

October 9, 2013 9:18PM

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Updated: October 10, 2013 5:02PM

When asked if “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives,” which opens Oct.16 at the Museum of Science and Industry and marks the Walt Disney Company’s 90th anniversary, will include any of Disney’s more controversial creations (such as, for instance “Uncle Remus” from “Song of the South” or the war-painted Native Americans who sing about “what makes the red man red” in “Peter Pan”), Nicholas Vega, manager of collections and exhibits for the Walt Disney Archives, talks instead about the exhibit’s recreation of a Disney animation office from the 1940s and “technology and innovation” associated with Disney’s “multi-plane” camera.

“We have an early animator’s office from the 1940s and we have that vignette recreated,” Vega says. We’re telling the story of what sort of stories were produced in this type of setting. So those are the stories we’re showing.”

A publicist also on the line chimes in: “Just to interject, the exhibit is a celebration. ... It’s not about controversy or things like that. It’s a celebration.”

In light of that, what you will see — among almost 300 artifacts that were handpicked (largely by MSI) from Burbank warehouses containing countless thousands — are props from animated and live-action Disney films (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Princess Diaries,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasia,” etc.), the original script for Walt Disney’s 1928 cartoon short “Steamboat Willie” (featuring the debut of Mickey Mouse), a partial recreation of Uncle Walt’s personal office and a section devoted to the 50th anniversary re-release of the 1963 movie musical “Mary Poppins.”

There’ll also be stations where visitors can learn how to draw Disney characters and record film sound effects. There’s even a portion that focuses on Walt Disney’s Chicago roots: He was born on the city’s northwest side, attended McKinley High School and took courses at what is now the School of the Art Institute.

“The Disney family and Disney company have strong ties to the Midwest and specifically Chicago,” says Vega. “So we felt this was an opportunity that we definitely couldn’t pass up.”

However, says MSI exhibit design director David Woody, “Chicago wasn’t necessarily important, by [Disney’s] own admission, to his development as an artist and a storyteller.” Nonetheless, it “certainly played into his life and he visited here on several occasions.”

In addition to film artifacts, insight abounds into Walt Disney the man, the businessman and imaginative genius, much of it straight from his own mouth.

“The storyline is really about Walt himself,” Woody adds. “And it was important for us to give people the opportunity, especially younger generations, to connect. Walt Disney was a real person. He wasn’t just this bigger-than-life entity that we think of as this big commercial powerhouse. There’s certainly that side of the Disney company, but we weren’t interested in that. Everyone knows that part. We wanted to talk about he part that connects to our own mission and our vision, which is to give people an understanding that this was a real human being.”

Above all, Vega says, he and the other exhibit planners hope “Treasures” connects emotionally with those who view it. He’s confident it will.

“At Disney, for the most part that emotional connection has already been created prior to the guests even walking into the space. So when guests come in to the Treasures exhibit and they see the carpetbag, for instance, from ‘Mary Poppins,’ that’s going to trigger something emotionally. Or when they see some of the model miniatures we have from the theme parks, people are going to remember riding those rides and having that connection. So that’s definitely something that we feed on when we’re telling that story and we’re very much aware of that.”

mthomas@suntimes.com.

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