Christopher Harris is a 54-year-old Hollywood PR guy who likes to share a story about a boy named Alva Lee Phillips and a man named Walt Disney.
The time is the mid-1950s. The setting is the McKinley School for Boys, a private boarding school then on Riverside Drive in Van Nuys.
Alva Lee Phillips, a teen-ager, was a new resident. His father had remarried and apparently wanted Alva out of the way; he dropped Alva off at the school without explaining that this was to be his new home. But life at the school, Alva was pleased to discover, may have been better than life at home. He became friends with a lad named Mike Howard, whose mother happened to be the live-in housekeeper at the Disney estate “over the hill.” Michael would visit his mother on weekends. One weekend Mike had permission to invite Alva along.
When the day came, a little Nash Metropolitan was waiting at the curb. The driver greeted Michael and introduced himself to Alva.
“I’m Walt Disney,” he said.
Alva was stunned. He had assumed the man was a member of the Disney staff, not the man himself. Alva could only think of one thing to say.
Walt Disney laughed. “No. I’m Walt Disney.”
Alva Lee Phillips would return several times to the Disney estate. To Alva, Mr. Disney was a kind, generous and friendly man who served as a surrogate uncle, offering sage advice. Mr. Disney encouraged him to overcome his hatred for his father. Mr. Disney also suggested that Alva join the Navy--to learn about the world and learn about himself. Alva did just that.
Chris Harris knows the story well because he is, or was, Alva Lee Phillips.
“I changed my name out of spite toward my father,” Harris explains. “I overcame the hatred, but the resentment lingered.”
His regard for Walt Disney, however, never changed. And that is why Chris Harris got involved last month when he heard that little Walt Disney Elementary School in Burbank might change its name.
Perhaps you know the story. The principal and the PTA at Disney Elementary, just a few blocks from the headquarters of the Walt Disney Co., had asked Burbank school officials for permission to change the school’s name. They were convinced that the Disney name, and the affluence and success it implies, was hurting the school’s efforts to secure grants and establish ties with local businesses. The problem, they said, was that everybody assumed the school had a special relationship with the Disney studios--that maybe it was a school for child actors on the Disney property. In fact, Disney Elementary serves a low-income neighborhood and has no special relationship with the Disney Co.
Since then, the Burbank school board has made it clear that Disney Elementary won’t change its name. Although the school has secured community partnerships with small Burbank companies--receiving a $500 donation from the Howard Lowery Gallery and gratis labor from Beauty-Kiss Carpets--Principal Linda Reksten says such efforts are “just a start” toward meeting the school’s needs.
The man who used to be Alva Lee Phillips got involved because he was appalled by the possibility that Disney Elementary would change its name. Chris Harris feared that school officials might have been influenced by a recent biography that trashed Disney, portraying him as an arrogant, hard-drinking anti-Semite who served as an FBI snitch. This was not, to be sure, the man Alva knew.
So after Chris Harris visited the school and saw that the library indeed needed new paint, carpeting and books, and after he spoke with school officials, he contacted a business associate named Tom Zotos, president of Zanart Publishing. Several years ago Zanart had produced a poster based on an old publicity photo that depicted a young Walt Disney standing in a doorway, with a shadow of Mickey Mouse in the foreground. That poster sold more than 20,000 copies.
Harris and Zotos had an idea. They found a handsome old photo of Disney sitting in his office, wearing a fedora and looking out toward the water tower. “He has this look on his face, as if he’s thinking ‘I have achieved my dream,’ ” Harris says.
Why not use this portrait to produce a new poster? Why not allow a school that honors the memory of Walt Disney to sell the poster to raise money?
Howard Lowery, the proprietor of the Howard Lowery Gallery in Burbank, thinks it would sell. Lowery should know; he specializes in animation art, including “Disneyana.” If you doubt that there’s money in such stuff, consider that a watercolor of Mickey Mouse by Floyd Gottfredson recently sold at auction for $42,000.
Collectors and other Disney admirers would be interested in such a poster, Lowery says. But the problem, as Lowery explains it, is that Zanart is no longer licensed to produce Disney posters. Now the Disney Co. produces its art posters in-house, through Disney Art Editions Inc. And since the Disney co. controls the name and image of its founder, the final say would rest with the company.
Arthur N. Pierce, the superintendent of Burbank Unified School District, says the poster proposal is “on hold.” He is deliberating whether to ask the Disney Co. for permission, saying that he needs to understand Harris’ proposal better.
The idea seems simple enough to me. Perhaps Pierce’s reluctance stems from the fact that this massive corporation, smarting from losses at its theme park in France, simply wouldn’t want to be troubled with a little elementary school down the street. Perhaps there is the fear of creating a public relations problem for a company that, after all, has “adopted” Burbank’s continuation high school. Perhaps he suspects that the Disney Co., ever concerned about its image and its bottom line, simply wouldn’t want to be in a position to say “no.”
Then again, Pierce won’t find out unless he asks.
The man who used to be Alva Lee Phillips, at least, thinks it would be OK with Mr. Disney.
Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may write Harris at The Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth , Calif. 91311.