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The Dark Ages Begin: Disney's Death

     There aren't many people today who acutely remember when Walt Disney was a man as well as a legend. It's understandable; he left a vast legacy behind, and permanently changed the face of animation and filmmaking. For the entire first half of the 20th century, his studio lived or died by Walt's decisions. When he died suddenly in 1966, the Disney Company spun into three decades of dark, directionless existence, a fate which many predicted would spell the end of the Happiest Studio on Earth.

Though he made sure that children never saw him with a cigarette, Walt Disney had been a chain smoker for his entire adult life. In 1966, as he prepared for routine surgery to correct an old polo injury, doctors discovered a tumor in Disney's left lung. A biopsy showed that it was malignant, necessitating the entire lung to be removed and giving Walt a life expectancy of between two months and six years. He underwent chemotherapy in Palm Springs, California, but it wasn't enough. Walt collapsed in his home on November 30, 1966; he was revived by paramedics and rushed to the hospital. Fifteen days later, he died of acute circulatory collapse.

The Disney Company instantly felt the hit. Walt had been the backbone of the studio; fortunes had been made and lost because of his unerring commitment to his vision. Walt's brother, Roy, came out of retirement and took over as chairman and CEO. One of his first decisions was to rename the Disneyland expansion in Orlando, Florida to 'Walt Disney World' in honor of his brother. The Jungle Book, the last animated feature to be directly supervised by Walt, was finished and released in 1967.

The studio heads were undecided in what to do next; Disney had overseen much of their direction personally. Even when he was preoccupied with building his theme parks, Walt had still exercised veto power over productions, and there were precious few (if any) Disney releases that were made without his approval in some way. The background in animation coupled with creativity, which had made Disney famous, were not part of Roy's skill-set, however he was a competent businessman. Between 1966 and 1971, the studio released live-action comedies like The Love Bug and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; the animation department set to work on The Aristocats, the last Walt-approved animated feature, as well as musicals like Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Disaster struck once more, even before the studio could target a new direction. In October 1971, Roy Disney (who was then 78) oversaw the opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida; on December 20th, the day he was supposed to lead the Disney World Christmas Parade, he died of a stroke. With both brothers gone, the studio floundered; how could the Disney name survive without the men who'd built it? Somehow he had always scraped by and succeeded in the past, even with the company's vulnerabilities and commercial failures; there was always some feature that pulled him back from the edge. The Disney company underwent a period that historians have labelled The Dark Ages, because without the company's creative director alive, no one was sure how to guide the company.

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Posted on 2012-07-16, By: *

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