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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Interview with Walt Disney Incarnate David Skipper - Part I

By Ron Baxley




When actor David Skipper performs as Walt Disney in one man shows, he seemingly becomes him. See David Skipper become Walt Disney incarnate in a three part series of interviews by Disney Avenue contributing writer Ron Baxley, Jr. in which David not only discusses Walt and his own life but will actually transform into him before your very eyes. Join us today for Part I of an interview with Walt Disney incarnate David Skipper...









Colorado actor David Skipper, a native Floridian who visited Walt Disney World for most of his life, has toured the country for 30 years in one man shows portraying many creative people, including J.M Barrie, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, L. Frank Baum, and, of course, of most interest to Disney Avenue and its fans, Walter “Walt” Elias Disney. The late Walt Disney (or Uncle Walt as he has been known for many years) has been a life-long interest for Mr. Skipper.




(Source: David Skipper) David is shown acting as Walt Disney in a literacy campaign.




David Skipper is, what is termed, a Chautauqua scholar and actor. He has been bringing literature and history to life around the country for decades. Through his performances, he creates a living history, a moment in time in the lives and works of people like Walt Disney, Edgar Allan Poe, L. Frank Baum, and others. He tells people he is afflicted with Multiple Literary Personality Disorder (MLPD) because he has so many literati inhabiting his brain. David is in character as these historical figures would have before an audience. The best part is interacting with the audience, according to David, because they get to ask him questions, and he responds to them as Walt Disney would have.

According to Mr. Skipper’s research, Chautauqua was an education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day. According to Skipper, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.” It continues today as scholars perform as historical figures bringing the past to life.

Mr. Skipper graduated with a B.A. and M.A. degree in Communication Arts from the University of West Florida, in Pensacola. He had received an A.A. degree in Visual Arts and Art History, but his focus in undergraduate school was Communication Arts, particularly print and electronic news media. He continued his studies in communications in graduate school but also minored in theatre.

For the first in a series of three interviews, stroll down with formally trained actor Mr. Skipper and contributing writer Ron Baxley, Jr. not only down Disney Avenue but Main Street U.S.A. and maybe even the downtown street of Disney’s birthplace of Marceline, Missouri as David discusses his role as Walt Disney (the Walt Disney quotes are from Mr. Skipper as well from various sources… NOTE: Some of Mr. Skipper’s opinions about aspects of the Disney Corporation and its theme-parks are not ones that are all shared by contributing writer Ron Baxley, Jr. nor Disney Avenue itself)…




(Source: David Skipper) David portrays Walt Disney in many venues.




EVOKING THE SPIRIT OF WALT DISNEY IN THE PRESENT…
 

1) How many years have you portrayed Walt Disney in your one man show and how many states and/or towns have you performed this show in? What was your favorite place to do your Walt Disney one-man show and why?

I have studied Walt Disney and his studio most of my young and adult life, some 40 years, but I only recently came up with doing a one-man show as Walt Disney about six years ago. I have performed about a dozen shows at pop culture conventions, schools, libraries, community colleges, and exclusive venues. So far, my Disney show, “Imagineering with Walt Disney” has been performed only in Colorado. My two biggest and most memorable shows have been at Denver Comic Con in June of 2016 and The Fort Collins Community College. Fort Collins is where Imagineer Harper Goff (the designer of the submarine Nautilus, Main Street USA and the Jungle Cruise to name a few) was born.

Even though Walt insisted that Main Street was based on Marceline, Missouri there are turn-of-the-century buildings still standing in Fort Collins today that made an impression on Goff and are very similar to buildings on Main Street.

The audiences are wonderful. They love the nostalgia and the hope of what could have been. In fact, my 90-minute show in Fort Collins went on for over two hours, and they had to kick us out of the theatre space. No one wanted to leave. I find the most rewarding aspect of my performance is my interaction with the audience, answering their questions as Walt Disney would. The other reason my show has remained in Colorado is that Disney had additional connections to Colorado.

Another animator Xavier Attencio was from Walsenburg. Walt bought the famous huge piece of petrified wood, which now resides in Disneyland, from a vendor in Pikes Peak National Forest.




(Photo by: Ron Baxley, Jr.) Piece of petrified wood that David Skipper discusses in Disneyland's Frontierland

(Photo by: Ron Baxley, Jr.) Plaque that goes with piece of petrified wood that Skipper discusses in Disneyland's Frontierland



The amusing story of the acquisition of this monstrosity features prominently in my show. Denver was also selected for another Disney investment, the Celebrity Sports Center. (For more information about the Celebrity Sports Center, see: http://buckfifty.org/2009/02/04/celebrity/). A report from January 2017 suggests that The Company may rebuild the complex.

“We try to set up a good administrating organization.  I try to have good people in each spot. Then I expect those people to do the job.”

- Walt Disney


EXPERIENCING WALT DISNEY’S FUTURE VISION YET IN THE PAST…

2) You grew up in Florida. Did Florida’s connection to Walt Disney through Walt Disney World, though he never saw its completion, affect your decision to portray him in your one-man show? If so, how?


There has always been a Disney connection to Florida. Walt Disney’s father and mother, Elias and Flora Call Disney, lived in Kissimmee before Walt was born. Elias was a post-man. In fact, Elias and Flora were married there.

In the late 60’s, I remember reading about Walt Disney building the Magic Kingdom and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in Central Florida. “The Orlando Sentinel” broke the story that Walt was buying huge acres of Florida swamp through blind companies. Secrecy was essential, so the whole enterprise was orchestrated like a cold war spy caper. If the public at large knew Disney was buying up land, the price per acreage would skyrocket. It was a smart business move. Walt felt that he never had enough room to expand Disneyland, so he wanted to ensure Project X (the Florida Project) would have that room to expand.

I grew up watching Uncle Walt on TV every week, and it was like the loss of a dear relative when he unexpectedly passed away in December of 1966. I was inspired by his enthusiasm and futurism. Certainly, I was delighted in the notion of a Magic Kingdom (which was renamed Walt Disney World by his brother Roy) in Florida, where I lived, but anticipated EPCOT more eagerly. A city of the future, that was something you could really wrap your imagination around.


“Well, I didn’t know what I was doing [when the first episode of the Disneyland series aired] and I still don’t. All I know is, after about three weeks the thought suddenly struck me that I was in this thing and couldn’t back out.”

- Walt Disney


3) You have stated before this interview that you visited Disney World many years while you lived in Florida. What was your favorite part of Disney World and why?

I am old school Disney. I enjoyed the attractions that Walt and his Imagineers created and sadly many have become extinct. One of my favorites was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It’s sad to think of those wonderful Nautilus ships rotting away in some Florida boneyard. I wish I had one. 

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was another favorite. At least it still exists in Disneyland. The Enchanted Tiki Room, the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion have all been favorites and, thankfully, they are still popular. 

Another attraction which was great fun was Eastern Airlines’ “If You Had Wings,” which was similar in concept to Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland. It is now a Buzz Lightyear ride, still using the original Omnimover track.

I remember a few years after Walt Disney World opened, the first ride I hit was Space Mountain. I had no idea it was a real rollercoaster. I told myself, ‘what could be terrifying in Walt Disney World.’ I sat in the front seat and thought I would have a heart attack. I vowed NEVER to ride it again.  However, some 40 years later, I rode Space Mountain in Disneyland, this time with my eyes open and it was exhilarating.

I had been to Walt Disney World many times, but my first and only trip to Disneyland was in 2015. For me it was exciting to walk where Walt had walked and stood. I stood and stared out to Tom Sawyer Island like he would for at least 30 minutes wondering what it was like for him. It gave me goosebumps. I felt Walt’s presence.




(Source: David Skipper) David portrays Walt Disney during the “Disneyland days” and is shown with the riverboat near Tom Sawyer Island in the background.




“I put in things I wanted to do as a kid [on Tom Sawyer’s Island] and couldn’t.  Including getting in somewhere without a ticket.”

- Walt Disney


EXPERIENCING A LIFE LIKE WALT DISNEY’S IN THE FAR PAST…

4) What size town did you grow up in, and was it the same or larger than Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri? Did that have any effect on your portrayal of Disney or your desire to portray him? What was your childhood/youth like in Florida and was it similar or different from Walt Disney’s childhood/youth?

I grew up in Pensacola, FL, a small town, but bigger than Marceline. MO. I had many adventures growing up and while not the farm and train exploits of Walt, mine were quite memorable too. WARNING! Do not attempt to try this today! After watching the Man in Space series Disney telecast, the neighborhood kids got together, and we instituted our own astronaut training program. We found a huge wooden spool they roll telephone cable in. The center was hollow and just big enough for a kid and several pillows. We would roll this huge spool out onto a nearby street with a steep incline and a STOP sign at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, it was residential and not a busy street. A lookout would be posted at the STOP sign as well as a three-kid recovery team. The trainee climbed into the spool and was protected with pillows. The launch team of two kids would propel you down the hill and like a rocket you almost attained 0Gs. I told Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts about our adventure and he said I “would have qualified for the Gemini Program on that stunt alone.” Then, there was the time our community of rascals created a Roman Circus Maximus, but that is another story.

(… How do you think you compared to the young scamps in some of Disney’s features? I am thinking specifically of the younger brother from “Old Yeller”.)

I really can't identify with Kevin Cochran as he was too rambunctious. I think because of my literary and scholarly interests in J.M. Barrie that I identify more with Peter Pan. I have always been youthful and full of energy, but somewhat of a Lost Boy, never really wanting to grow up, much like Walt Disney. My brain is still youthful and full of ideas and adventures, but my aging body has put restrictions on things that I still want to do and that is frustrating.


“Everything in Marceline was a thrill to us, coming, as we did, from a city the size of Chicago. The cows, pigs, and chickens gave me a big thrill, and perhaps that’s the reason we use so many barnyard animals in the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony pictures today—who knows? You know what the psychologists say about the importance of childhood impressions.”

- Walt Disney


DREAMING PAST DREAMS AS DISNEY DID BUT CARRYING SOME INTO THE FUTURE…

5) I noticed you discussing the Weber animation table as Walt Disney in one of your photographs. Animation can be a rather technical process to explain. Did you ever want to be an animator or did you always want to be an actor and why? What are just a couple of the thoughts you have regarding Disney’s fascination with innovations in animation?

In my show as Walt Disney, I try not to focus too much on the technical aspects of animation or the process. I always wanted to go to work for Walt Disney Productions.  I was trained as an artist and did cartoons mostly.




(Source: David Skipper) David Skipper’s latest painting of Stitch from Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch”




I applied for work with the studio several times in the mid-70s and still have my rejection letter on “The Strongest Man in the World” letterhead. This was at the time when the studio was in transition. Ron Miller is not given enough credit for keeping the studio going after Walt passed away. Miller set the stage for successes like launching Touchstone Pictures, which Michael Eisner took credit for. His last project was the Tom Hanks movie, “Splash” which was the first major Disney success in a long while. Everybody was in ‘what would Walt do?’ mode. You could never second guess Walt Disney. I was too naïve and young not to be persistent. I often think I was born at the wrong time. If I had been born during the 20’s, I would have definitely been working at the studio. I studied theatre and communications while in undergraduate and graduate school. I was always fascinated by the creativity and innovation of Walt Disney.

Since I never could seem to get a job with The Walt Disney Studios, it occurred to me after many years of putting these one-man shows together, that the only thing better than working for Walt Disney, is to become Walt Disney and share his philosophy of optimal behaviorism.

My only regret is that I had written a long letter to Diane Disney Miller, Walt's eldest daughter about what Walt had meant to me, but before I could mail it, she suddenly passed away. There are a number of biographies out there, many not too kind, but the two I recommend as the most reliable are Bob Thomas's Walt Disney and Steven Watts' The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.




(Source: David Skipper) David Skipper as Walt Disney explains the storyboarding process in front of a Weber animation table.




"The Plausible Impossible means taking something that is against the laws of nature — something impossible — and make it appear rational and acceptable — in short, plausible."

- Walt Disney



WALT’S FASCINATION WITH AUDIO-ANIMATRONICS BECOMES DAVID’S…

6) Regarding your discussion of audio-animatronics as Walt Disney as shown in one photograph, did you ever want to go into Imagineering as a career? Why/why not? What are just a couple of the thoughts you have regarding Disney’s development of and fascination with audio-animatronics?


Like Walt, I identify as an idea man, a story man. I can see how Walt enjoyed the process of bringing his dreams to life. I am a creative individual myself and could find joy in bringing original ideas and concepts to life. I would have loved to work with Imagineers like Rolly Crump, Harriet Burns, and Marc and Alice Davis. 

Audio-animatronics is a by-product of Walt Disney’s long line of animation innovations. It started with his fascination with trains and a book on animation he found in the Kansas City Public Library. His vision was to perfect the art of animation. Each step in his learning curve was a building block to the next phase, the next thing. Crude, but clever animations led to fleshing out complex character animation. The Silly Symphonies were practice runs in story development and color in preparation for what was to become known as “Disney’s Folly,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was a smash hit. He brought animation to a high art form. However, after he completed Fantasia he said he was ‘finished with caviar animation.’

His interest in model trains moved his interests away from the center of animation. The seeds for Disneyland were planted and this became his next “folly.” Another undeniable success.

Walt got into live action motion pictures using frozen assets held in Great Britain during World War II. Treasure Island was the first full-length Walt Disney live-action feature film. Walt said, “I wanted to show the animation boys we could make pictures without them too.”

Walt was also fascinated by mechanical toys, particularly mechanical singing birds and automatons that were popular in the 18th century. He believed you could realize animation in the Third Dimension. He used the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair as research and development for what he would coin audio-animatronics.




 (Source: David Skipper) David as Walt Disney shares the inspiration for audio-animatronics, an antique, wind-up mechanical bird

(Source: David Skipper) David Skipper as Walt Disney interacts with his audio-animatronic parrot in the style of the Tiki Tiki Room tropical birds. Skipper re-programmed the parrot for comic relief. Like early animatronics, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It still gets laughs.




Walt loved President Abraham Lincoln and began research and development on his own for an audio-animatronic Lincoln. It was years away from completion. When Robert Moses, the head of the New York World’s Fair got wind of this, he told Walt that they had to have this for the world’s fair. Within a year and a half, the Disney Imagineers had pulled it off, but not without setbacks along the way.

One story I recall is that during an early showing, the Lincoln animatronic started leaking hydraulic fluid. The fluid was red. They changed that pretty quickly.

The opening was delayed at the World’s Fair, because Lincoln refused to work. Ever the showman, Walt told the assembled guests, “The show doesn’t go on until it’s ready.’

Walt’s journey culminated with the success of Mary Poppins, which incorporated everything Walt and his studio had learned since the early Alice comedies.

“Audio-animatronics is just another dimension in animation we have been doing all our life.  It’s a dimensional thing and it’s a new door.  It’s a new toy for us and we are having a lot of fun.  We hope we can do more exciting things in the future.”

- Walt Disney




Interview with Walt Disney Incarnate David Skipper - Part II

Interview with Walt Disney Incarnate David Skipper - Part III




This concludes the first of three articles in a series about David Skipper portraying Walt Disney as an actor across the country and his scholarship/research surrounding Walt Disney. Stay tuned to Disney Avenue just as you might have stay tuned to ABC or the Disney Channel for “The Wonderful World of Disney” as we continue this fascinating interview with David.

For more information about David Skipper's performances and bookings, contact David at [email protected] or visit his FACEBOOK Page exclusively devoted to his one-man shows: https://www.facebook.com/PendarynProductions.






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S.C. native author and former 15-year educator Ron Baxley, Jr. has visited Disney World since he was three in 1978. His mother, Marleen Baxley, was originally from Jacksonville, Florida and had family there who facilitated going to Disney World. Ron has been invited as a guest author at Oz festivals and science fiction cons since 2010 and was recently awarded the honor of a lifetime membership by the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Foundation in Chittenango, New York, birthplace of L. Frank Baum, in June for his lifetime Ozian achievements. Within the past year, Ron posted a social media article with photographs entitled simply “Dad and Disney” in which he compared a lifetime of experiences in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World with his Dad including his first-time experiences in Disneyland after attending as an authorial vendor at OzCon in San Diego in 2015. From having a plush Mickey Mouse as his favorite, earliest toy to watching Disney films, Ron has been a Disney fan as long as he has been a fan of “The Wizard of Oz.” If he is not occasionally traveling to the closest Disney Store outlet in Concord, N.C., he enjoys yearly trips to the Disney Parks and collects different types of Mr. Potato Heads there and elsewhere.

Ron recently went on board with Mad Hatter Adventures Company, a travel agency that specializes in Disney destinations, as a part-time outside sales contractor selling Disney vacation packages. Contact Ron at [email protected] for more information on Disney vacation packages and visit his Mad Hatter Adventures Facebook Page here.

Ron is an Oz, fantasy, science fiction, children's, and young adult author of 25 years and part-time correspondent/reporter for the Orangeburg “Times and Democrat” in Orangeburg, S.C. He has most recently had an article on Eugene and Eulie David, former M.G.M. Wizard of Oz “Munchkin” actors and brothers who lived in his hometown of Barnwell, S.C. published in the August - October 2016 issue of the glossy national magazine “Filmfax” after it appeared in three newspapers. He placed this article and a fictionalization of it as well as stories which followed his previously published Oz books in a brand new Oz fan-fic collection, After Th’Oz, available from Amazon. A full listing of his Oz, co-written Oz/Wonderland, fantasy, and science fiction books (some of which were traditionally published from Maple Creek Press) can be found by clicking here and information on his other projects and updates can be found at his author page, here.

You can find all of Ron's articles here.


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