Friday, June 24, 2016

Marty Sklar Remembers Working with Walt

By Keith Mahne

Marty Sklar started his career at Disneyland, one month before it opened, working as the editor of The Disneyland News, a mock newspaper that was handed out to visitors as they entered the Park. Marty went on to head up Imagineering as its vice chairman and principal creative executive and has always stood as a dedicated torchbearer of Walt Disney’s philosophy. In today's new article, read quotes from Marty as he recalls working directly with Walt Disney and learn how special Walt was to him personally...

A young Marty Sklar, seated center with glasses, poses for a "team photo" with other members of the Disneyland opening team in 1955.

The year was 1955, and a young Disneyland publicist named Marty Sklar was on his way to a photo shoot, and on his way to learning one of the biggest lessons of his career. "I was with a photographer named Fritz. He wanted to take a shortcut, so we took a dirt road that ran near the Rivers of America. We passed a man in a floppy hat and parked the car, which was visible to the Mark Twain as it passed by." And visible to the man in the floppy hat. "Within three seconds, Walt was right there poking his finger in Fritz's chest! He snapped at us, 'What are you doing with that car here in 1860?'"

"That day we had intruded on the show, destroying its context for anyone who could see the car. We had taken people out of the magic environment and suddenly thrown them back into reality. It was one of the greatest lessons I ever received from Walt about maintaining the integrity of the stories we tell at our Parks."

That "Walt battle scar" represented a lesson learned, and it also became a badge for future success. Marty Sklar first became an Imagineering officer in 1974 when appointed vice president, concepts and planning, a role in which he guided creative development of Epcot Center at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. In 1979, he was named vice president of creative development, followed by executive vice president in 1982. He served as president and vice chairman from 1987 to 1996. As vice chairman, Marty provided leadership for the Imagineering creative staff, delivering breakthrough entertainment concepts for Disney parks and resorts including Disneyland Paris, the Tokyo Disney Resort, and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Marty Sklar went from Disneyland newsmanger to Walt's speechwriter to President of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Marty first met Walt Disney two weeks before Disneyland opened, shortly after he was hired by former Disney CEO Card Walker as the editor of The Disneyland News. "Walt was very anxious to spread the word about Disneyland. He wanted to do a special-edition, 1890s-style newspaper to sell at the Park. I had two weeks to come up with a concept and present it to Walt. I was 21 years old, had never worked professionally, and was scared as hell. Fortunately, Walt liked what I had done, I guess that's why I lasted all those years!"

Marty Sklar on the Walt Disney World site - 1967

Sklar produced two issues of the 10-cent paper before returning to UCLA to finish his senior year. But the Park continued to use The Disneyland News to lure guests to Disneyland. In fact, it was so successful that when Marty came back to Disneyland in 1956 to produce publicity and marketing materials, Walt quickly "borrowed" him to create brochures to interest potential Park sponsors. One thing lead to another, and Sklar found himself spending more and more time at WED (as WDI was then called), working with Walt on projects for the 1964-65 New York World Fair, as well as writing many of Walt's personal materials to be used in publications, television and special films.

Marty discovered how interested Walt was in his work during a film project communicating Walt's visionary concepts for Epcot. "I had just finished the script. I ran into General Joe Potter (Walt Disney World's first executive employee) and gave him a copy. When I got to the meeting with Walt, of course, Joe had already gone into Walt's office and told him how much he liked the script. Walt was furious! He demanded, 'Don't I deserve to get the script before anyone else?'"

John DeCuir Jr., John Hench and Marty Sklar developing the design concepts for Epcot Center. You can read the complete backstory of this photo in the article I did along with Marty by clicking HERE.

One of the most defining moments for Sklar was when Walt passed away. "Walt's death actually hit me harder than when my own father died. In thinking it all out, I finally realized why. I never had to think like my father. But in writing for Walt Disney, I learned to think like him, or at least use words that he used. What really brought that home to me was when Roy O. Disney asked me to write a speech for him a couple of months after Walt died. I had such a difficult time transitioning from Walt's personality to Roy's. Roy was a wonderful man, but very different from Walt stylistically."

Marty in his home office with a Donal Duck statue created by the Imagineers

Marty characterizes Walt's style as "...very direct and simple. I learned early on that he could bring meaning to words that didn't initially seem to carry much meaning. For example, I learned to use the word 'things' quite often. Walt would say something like, 'We're going to do this fire scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean, and the whole town is going to burn, and then we're going to do some really exciting things...' On the one hand, he told you about the most exciting 'thing' you could think of, but he was also saying, 'That was only the beginning!'"

Walt Disney with a Pirates of the Caribbean auto-animatronic head - 1966

Marty learned that the reason Walt was such a good communicator had much to do with his respect for people. "Walt strongly believed that if you do something the best you can, the public will appreciate it. I've learned that not only from Walt, but from people like John Hench who learned it from Walt. I remember John arguing with Walt about using real leather and wood in the Disneyland stagecoaches. John thought people would cut it up, carve their initials in it. Walt replied, 'If they do, you're a poor communicator.' In other words, people will respect what you do because you have done it so well."

Walt Disney stands next to a stagecoach created for Disneyland  - July 27, 1954

"After Walt died, a lot of people couldn't get started again, their whole focus was, 'What would Walt have said; what would Walt have done?' If I haven't learned enough from him to understand his attitudes, guidelines and principles, then shame on me!"

Marty Sklar visits the brand new Shanghai Disney Resort on June 14, 2016.

What Marty learned is reflected in his favorite metaphor: "the blank piece of paper." "There are two ways to look at it. It can be the most frightening thing in the world, because no one has put anything on it, and yet, it's the greatest opportunity in the world for the same reason. You can make the first mark and begin the creative process. That was the wonderful thing about Walt Disney, he encouraged our imaginations to fly and create whole new worlds. So, that was how I finally defined my own career leading WDI: to convince Imagineers to continue to fly as high as we can!"

For more wonderful stories and quotes by this living legend, be sure to listen to my two interviews with Marty Sklar for the Disney Avenue Podcast by clicking HERE. Also, be sure to grab a copy of Marty's wonderful book that is packed with amazing stories from his career with Disney in the Amazon link below...


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.

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