By Sir Knight, Dr. Anton Anderssen, Lord of Hartforth
In 2018, Disney gave more than $332.8 million to nonprofit organizations helping kids, families, and communities. To those of us who use wheelchairs, we owe extreme gratitude to the Disney Company for their foresight and kindness to the disabled community. There is an old saying, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” Walt Disney was famous for his visits to children’s hospitals; his company continues the tradition through world-wide philanthropy. In the wake of a fire that caused heartrending destruction to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, The Walt Disney Company rushed to the rescue.
“Notre-Dame is a beacon of hope and beauty that has defined the heart of Paris and the soul of France for centuries, inspiring awe and reverence for its art and architecture and for its enduring place in human history,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. “The Walt Disney Company stands with our friends and neighbors in the community, offering our heartfelt support as well as a $5 million donation for the restoration of this irreplaceable masterpiece.”
The Disney Family’s largesse and kindness appears in ways unsung. In 1961, there was only one pair of white terns (also called fairy terns) in Honolulu. Now, there are some 2300 of these beautiful white creatures, named Honolulu, Hawaiʻi’s official bird on April 2, 2007. It wasn’t easy to protect them – there were countless fairy godmothers working magic, one might say. One of those fairy godmothers is Leslie Disney (yes, THAT Mrs. Disney). Her husband, Roy Edward Disney was Chairman of the Feature Animation Division, you know, those iconic films which fascinated the entire world, ever since his father Roy Sr. and Uncle Walt found world acclaim for giving us Mickey Mouse, plus a myriad of films which made us all discover the beauty in life. Through Leslie’s husband’s guidance, the Disney company produced a string of box office successes including “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Fantasia 2000.”
The Hawaii Symphony Orchestra celebrated the music of Disney’s films during its Spring season 2019, simultaneously projecting magnificent scenes from Disney’s world-class animation on a gargantuan screen. In attendance at the Sunday encore performance was none other than Mrs. Leslie Disney. The symphony’s program commenced with “Disney Classics Overture,” arranged by Bruce Healy. Four young, vivacious and talented vocalists took to the stage to lead “Songs from The Little Mermaid”, “Disney’s Beauty and The Beast,” “Medley from Disney’s Mary Poppins,” “Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame Orchestra Suite,” “Let it Go” (from Disney’s Frozen), “Disney’s Aladdin Suite”, “Moana” and “Disney’s The Lion King Suite,” among others.
How amazing it must have been for Mrs. Disney to hear this astonishing orchestra and see the thousands of people who turned out to rejoice in these two Hawaii Symphony performances. At the same time, there must have been heart-rending pain watching her husband’s exalted creations, but now as his grief-stricken widow. Considering who he was, it’s easy to imagine he was the center of her universe.
Mrs. Disney, a strikingly beautiful woman, came on stage to present lei to the four vocalists and the maestro. She walked like a princess. After the concert, she exited the stage door to share aloha with the symphony patrons waiting at the base of the stairway. Having the poise of Diana, Princess of Wales, she spoke in the kindest voice. I asked her which selection was her favorite on the program, and she confided, “It’s a Small Small World,” which actually was an encore treat not published in the official Symphony listing. She proudly told me how she worked with her husband on projects, but never once bragged about her own, exceptional accomplishments, such as being an Emmy winner of various sailing documentaries.
I didn’t know Mrs. Disney was going to attend this spectacular symphonic performance. I attended Saturday night, and was so impressed I just had to buy another set of tickets for Sunday. Jonathan Parrish, executive director of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra asked her if she would mind giving me an interview, and she graciously accepted. One thing I had to tell her was how thankful I am to her family for the way they have treated disabled people like me, who are wheelchair bound. I told her The Disneys and Jerry Lewis have done more to help us Muscular Dystrophy patients than anyone else in the world, and for that, we are eternally grateful. Some time after my interview with her, she saw me in my wheel chair in the hallway, and came up to me again, just for a friendly chat. Now that, my friends, is true Disney class.
It was Leslie’s love of sailing and her work as a producer and writer for Disney subsidiaries that led her to meet her Prince Charming, as she had worked with Roy Edward many times. He loved racing sailboats and so did she. It almost sounds like a Disney story all in itself. But who couldn’t love her? I’m gay and I found her radiant, charismatic, articulate, engaging, elegant and strikingly beautiful. It was like meeting Cinderella.
I have always loved the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Their mission to bring world-class music to the people is exemplary. Earlier this Spring, they presented a concert featuring musical scores from super hero films. My heroes don’t wear capes, they play musical instruments. I have always held deep appreciation for symphonic performances – I remember my very first. When I vacationed in Sydney over 30 years ago I booked student tickets to the Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture. There were no cannon in the performance, as that would wreck the astonishingly magnificent Sydney Opera House. Oh, it is stunning to behold. I remember walking there, following a brick road from “The Rocks” to hear my very first symphony performance. Imagine what Dorothy felt when she had her first glimpse of the Emerald City of Oz – that’s how I felt.
Meeting a Disney in real life was like meeting Glinda, the Good Witch of the north. Leslie descended the stairway with grace and serenity, just like Glinda floating within a pink bubble. Leslie was not intimidating, she was endearing. I have read about this family for many years, because we are related by blood. Roy Oliver Disney and his brother Walt Disney are descended from Edward I, King of England, and all the monarchs of England before him, through their mother, Flora Call. I, too, am descended from Edward I and his royal ancestors. Royal blood comes with a lot of stubbornness. What I admire most about Walt Disney is how he stood up to a lot of abuse, resisted the naysayers, and never let critics defeat him. In 1919, Disney was fired from one of his first animation jobs at the Kansas City Star newspaper because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After 22 Academy Awards, Disney proved he was nobody’s fool.
Watching the animation as the Hawaii Symphony performed made me realize I’ve missed so much, never having seen any of those Disney cartoons and graphics. Now, they are on my bucket list. For many years, I wrote theatrical reviews which took me to London’s West End, Broadway, and of course, Michigan, my mainland home. I have seen many Disney productions, but all have been on live stage. Yes, I have been awakened to the magic of animated films, created by people I truly admire. Like Walt Disney, I was told I have no talent. In fact, a wicked witch, referred to as Mrs. Banana by students at my high school, told me a third-grader could write better than I. But Joey Nederlander, the former Executive VP of the Nederlander Organization, one of the largest live theater owners and producers in the United States, read some things I wrote, and told me Mrs. Banana was full of elongated mushy substance. Lo and behold, in my first year writing about arts and culture, I won the first prize in journalism from the DWW, founded in 1900 as The Detroit Press Club.
It’s amazing to see these incredibly successful people, like Mr. Nederlander or Mrs. Disney, show such kind-hearted interest and concern for others. It is also a great privilege to attend any concert performed by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. The people I have met through the symphony are some of the classiest people I have ever had the privilege to meet.
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