It was on December 15th 1966 that one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century passed away. As I sit here in front of my keyboard, I can’t think of any other person that has a bigger influence on my life than Walt Disney. It is hard to describe, in these days of HD television what it was like, after sitting in front of the grainy screen of a rented black and white television set, to sit and watch a Walt Disney Technicolor film, animated or live-action, at your local cinema. It was always an experience in entertainment of the very highest quality.
Not only did his films inspire me to study art but also to read the classic novels behind his motion pictures and research their history. His legacy lives on and entertains countless billions around the globe every day.
The last two films Walt Disney was actively involved in were The Happiest Millionaire and The Jungle Book, both released in 1967. On November 30, 1966, Disney collapsed at his home in Palm Springs, but was revived by paramedics, and was taken back to the hospital, where he died on December 15, 1966 at 9:30 a.m., ten days after his 65th birthday. Walt had previously been diagnosed with lung cancer after many years of smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Walt’s cough always warned employees that he was near! Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital Burbank discovered a huge cancerous tumor on his left lung. But after extensive surgery he was given the grave news that he might only have six weeks to live.
Disney songwriter Robert B Sherman recalls the last time he saw Walt Disney:
“He was up in the third floor of the animation building after a run-through of The Happiest Millionaire. He usually held court in the hallway afterward for the people involved with the picture. And he started talking to them, telling them what he liked and what they should change, and then, when they were through, he turned to us and with a big smile, he said, 'Keep up the good work, boys.' And he walked to his office. It was the last we ever saw of him.”
Below is a transcript from a letter to all the employees of the Disney Studios from Walt’s younger brother Roy on that sad day on December 15th 1966:
“The death of Walt Disney is a loss to all the people of the world. In everything he did, Walt had an intuitive way of reaching out and touching the hearts and minds of young and old alike. His entertainment was an international language. For more than forty years people have looked to Walt Disney for the finest quality in family entertainment.
There is no way to replace Walt Disney. He was an extraordinary man. Perhaps there will never be another like him. I know that we who worked at his side for all these years will always cherish the years and the minutes we spent in helping Walt Disney entertain the people of the world. The world will always be a better place because Walt Disney was its master showman.
As President and Chairman of the Board of Walt Disney Productions, I want to assure the public, our stockholders and each of our more than four thousand employees that we will continue to operate Walt Disney’s company in the way that he had established and guided it. Walt Disney spent his entire life and almost every waking hour in the creative planning of motion pictures, Disneyland, television shows and all the other diversified activities that have carried his name through the years. Around him Walt Disney gathered the kind of creative people who understood his way of communicating with the public through entertainment. Walt’s ways were always unique and he built a unique organization. A team of creative people that he was justifiably proud of.
I think Walt would have wanted me to repeat his words to describe the organisation he built over the years. Last October when he accepted the ‘Showman of the World’ award in New York, Walt said,” The Disney organisation now has more than four thousand employees. Many have been with us for over thirty years. They take great pride in the organisation they helped to build. Only through the talent, labour and dedication of this staff could any Disney project get off the ground. We all think alike in the ultimate pattern.”
Much of Walt Disney’s energies had been directed to preparing for this day. It was Walt’s wish that when the time came he would have built an organisation with the creative talents to carry on as he had established and directed it through the years. Today this organisation has been built and we will carry out this wish.
Walt Disney’s preparation for the future has a solid, creative foundation. All of the plans for the future that Walt had begun- new motion pictures, the expansion of Disneyland, television production and our Florida and Mineral King Projects-will continue to move ahead. That is the way Walt wanted it to be.”
Walt Disney’s funeral was held at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA at 5:00 PM on December 16. No announcements of his funeral were made after it had taken place and only close relatives were in attendance. Walt didn’t like funerals and rarely attended one. During his life, he made it clear that he wished not to have a funeral. His daughter Diane once quoted her father as saying:
"When I’m dead I don’t want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive."