In 1963, a writer named Roland Gammon contacted a number of famous people asking how prayer had affected their lives. Their responses were compiled into a book entitled Faith is a Star. Among those contributors was Walt Disney, who wrote about his approach to life and the business of making films. Walt held deep religious convictions, although he rarely attended church in his adult life. His father Elias was a church deacon and had named his fourth son after the minister of St. Paul Congregational Church in Chicago, Walter Parr. Waltís brother Herbert had a daughter named Dorothy and she married a minister, Glenn Puder. It was at Waltís request that the Reverend Puder delivered the invocation at Disneylandís grand opening on July 17, 1955. Alongside the Reverend Puder were representatives of the major American faiths at the time: Catholic, Jewish and Protestant.
Itís interesting to note that the reflective words written by Walt for Faith is a Star came at an interesting time, as he and his brother Roy had recently patched up their differences in a financial dispute involving WED Enterprises. Seeking to place fewer burdens on the studioís finances, Walt established a separate organization called WED (for "Walter Elias Disney") in 1953 to create and build attractions for Disneyland and then sell to Walt Disney Productions at cost plus overhead. WED would also operate the railroad (and later the monorail) and receive a 10 percent cut of all merchandising. Roy reluctantly agreed to the WED concept. To avoid any potential controversy with shareholders, he sought approval for Waltís WED contract only from the Board of Directors. But as Walt Disney Productions expanded throughout the 1950s, so too did Royís fears that a shareholder or group of shareholders might sue the company over the separate contract. In the early 1960s Roy attempted to speak with Walt on the matter, resulting in a heated feud that lasted for months. Eventually, the deep trust and love between the brothers won out and an agreement was reached where the studio would buy WED and give Walt a 10-year extension on ownership of the trains and monorails, as well as continued royalties. Waltís company became Retlaw. WED Enterprises would change its name to Walt Disney Imagineering in the 1980s. An in-depth chronicle of Walt and Royís feud can be found in Chapter 24 of Bob Thomasí excellent book, Building a Company: Roy O.Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (Hyperion, 1998).
Over the years excerpts from Waltís contribution to Faith is a Star has been reprinted in some books and in brief quotation form. In fact Roy was so moved by what his brother had written, that he had the studio print shop make copies to give to visitors on the occasional basis. In its excerpted format which was previously seen here, it was titled "Prayer in My Life." Now we are pleased to bring you Waltís essay in its entirety with the original name, "Deeds Rather Than Words." Although written 40 years ago, these words are especially relevant in our challenging times.
Deeds Rather Than Words
By Walt Disney
In these days of world tensions, when the faith of men is being tested as never before, I am personally thankful that my parents taught me at a very early age to have a strong personal belief and reliance in the power of prayer for Divine inspiration. My people were members of the Congregational Church in our home town of Marceline, Missouri. It was there where I was first taught the efficacy of religion ... how it helps us immeasurably to meet the trial and stress of life and keeps us attuned to the Divine inspiration. Later in DeMolay, I learned to believe in the basic principle of the right of man to exercise his faith and thoughts as he chooses. In DeMolay, we believe in a supreme being, in the fellowship of man, and the sanctity of the home. DeMolay stands for all that is good for the family and for our country.
Every person has his own ideas of the act of praying for Godís guidance, tolerance, and mercy to fulfill his duties and responsibilities. My own concept of prayer is not as a plea for special favors nor as a quick palliation for wrongs knowingly committed. A prayer, it seems to me, implies a promise as well as a request; at the highest level, prayer not only is a supplication for strength and guidance, but also becomes an affirmation of life and thus a reverent praise of God.
Deeds rather than words express my concept of the part religion should play in everyday life. I have watched constantly that in our movie work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld, whether it deals with fable or with stories of living action. This religious concern for the form and content of our films goes back 40 years to the rugged financial period in Kansas City when I was struggling to establish a film company and produce animated fairy tales. Many times during those difficult years, even as we turned out Alice in Cartoonland and later in Hollywood the first Mickey Mouse, we were under pressure to sell out or debase the subject matter or go "commercial" in one way or another. But we stuck it out -- my brother Roy and other loyal associates -- until the success of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies finally put us in the black. Similarly, when war came to the United States in 1941, we turned from profitable popular movie-making to military production for Uncle Sam. Ninety-four per cent of the Disney facilities in Hollywood became engaged in special government work, while the remainder was devoted to the creation of morale building comedy, short subjects.
Both my study of Scripture and my career in entertaining children have taught me to cherish them. But I donít believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. I didnít treat my own youngsters like fragile flowers, and I think no parent should.
Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures attempt to do.
The American child is a highly intelligent human being -- characteristically sensitive, humorous, open-minded, eager to learn, and has a strong sense of excitement, energy, and healthy curiosity about the world in which he lives. Lucky indeed is the grown-up who manages to carry these same characteristics into adult life. It usually makes for a happy and successful individual. In our full-length cartoon features, as well as in our live action productions, we have tried to convey in story and song those virtues that make both children and adults attractive. I have long felt that the way to keep children out of trouble is to keep them interested in things. Lecturing to children is no answer to delinquency. Preaching wonít keep youngsters out of trouble, but keeping their minds occupied will.
Thus, whatever success I have had in bringing clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages, I attribute in great part to my Congregational upbringing and my lifelong habit of prayer. To me, today, at age sixty-one, all prayer, by the humble or highly placed, has one thing in common: supplication for strength and inspiration to carry on the best human impulses which should bind us together for a better world. Without such inspiration, we would rapidly deteriorate and finally perish. But in our troubled time, the right of men to think and worship as their conscience dictates is being sorely pressed. We can retain these privileges only by being constantly on guard and fighting off any encroachment on these precepts. To retreat from any of the principles handed down by our forefathers, who shed their blood for the ideals we still embrace, would be a complete victory for those who would destroy liberty and justice for the individual.
- Essay by Bill Griffiths
Special Thanks to Disney historian Jim Korkis for the additional information in this updated essay.
E-mail your comments about this story to Bill@startedbyamouse.com discuss this article in the StartedByAMouse.com Disney Discussion Forums or use the Talkback feature below.