What Would Walt Disney Do?

(or “WWWDD?”)

I think I was about seven years old when I learned that “Walt Disney” was the name of an actual person.  Prior to that point, I assumed that it was just a meaningless, made up brandname, like “Kodak.”  I bring that up because it seems to me that a lot of people, even–and perhaps especially–those who work for the company itself, sometimes forget that there was a real person behind the name, a man behind the mouse.

What follows is excerpted from a letter that I wrote to Disney CEO Bob Iger on August 14, 2017, in which I attempted to support Steve’s position with quotations by Walt Disney himself.  You can read the entire letter here.

The Muppets Studio’s official statement regarding Mr. Whitmire’s dismissal is vague to say the least, alleging that Mr. Whitmire engaged in “unacceptable business conduct” but not giving any specifics. With all due respect, I find this to be more than a little ironic; I have been researching the recent history of the Walt Disney Company, from approximately 1984 onwards, and I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you that much of Disney’s “business conduct” during that time has been questionable at best, and the reputation–the integrity–of the company during that time has taken more than one hit. This is not intended to be a reflection on you, by the way, but more of a criticism of the previous management.

Since the Muppets Studio’s statement is so vague, I have no choice to but to go by Mr. Whitmire’s version of events. He alleges that he was dismissed in part because he was too outspoken in giving criticisms and feedback on the recent failed Muppet series on ABC. Given Mr. Whitmire’s unique perspective on the Muppets, perhaps if his concerns had been acknowledged and his ideas implemented, the series would NOT have failed. If indeed these were some of the grounds on which Mr. Whitmire was dismissed, then I can’t help but see it as something akin to killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Quite apart from being “unacceptable,” I see the way that Mr. Whitmire has conducted himself as being consistent with the values with which Walt Disney started his company. Walt himself once said, “Leadership means that a group, large or small, is willing to entrust authority to a person who has shown judgment, wisdom, personal appeal, and proven competence.” Mr. Whitmire checks all those boxes, particularly–after 38 years with the Muppets and 26 years performing Kermit the Frog–the one about “proven competence.”

Mr. Whitmire has fought for one consistent performer for each Muppet character, with the goal of creating and maintaining a consistent and believable personality for each Muppet. Walt Disney was concerned about the establishment of a consistent personality for his animated characters as well, saying that, “Our most important aim is to develop definite personalities in our cartoon characters” because “until a character becomes a personality, it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the characters, its actions will seem unreal.” Even though the Muppets are not cartoons but three-dimensional characters that exist alongside us, the same principle applies. If multiple puppeteers perform the same Muppet character, the personality will not be consistent, and therefore the audience will not be able to identify with the character because it will not know which version of the character is the “real” version.

Mr. Whitmire has said, with regard to the failed Muppet TV series of 2015-2016: “We were getting a lot of script material and a lot of story ideas that were far enough out of character that it made it difficult for us to portray them well. So I started sending notes, as we’ve always done, and I think they felt that I had been disrespectiful, but I don’t think so. I think what I was was honest.”

Walt Disney himself valued that kind of honesty and free exchange of ideas, not only as it relates to the success of a TV show, or even to the success of an entertainment company, but to the success of society as a whole, saying: “Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards–the things we live by and teach our children–are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings” (my emphasis).  

Let’s take a moment to look at that quotation again and really think about it: “Our heritage and ideals…our code and standards…the things we live by and teach our children…are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.”  

At the risk of getting uncomfortably political again, there are implications here that go far beyond one man and his career, beyond one entertainment franchise, and even beyond the success or failure of one multimedia company.

I posted my “Who Said It?” quiz yesterday on one of the fan forums.  It was successful in illustrating my point that Frank Oz’s perspective on the integrity of the Muppets is so close to Steve’s as to be nearly indistinguishable when taken out of context, but it doesn’t seem to have been successful in touching anyone’s heart or changing anyone’s mind.  In fact, someone responded with the rationalization that Frank has “more right” to be critical of the direction the Muppets are taking than Steve does because Frank worked more closely with Jim Henson than Steve did.

Let us leave aside for the moment how grossly disrespectful such a rationalization is to Steve and how unfairly dismissive it is of Steve’s contributions to the Muppets.  Let us look instead at the bigger picture.

It is troubling to me when we start thinking of the freedom of expression as something that one earns, something that can be conferred by status or taken away as a punishment.  Steve–and Frank, and I, and some of you–are citizens of a country that, the last time I checked, is still free, which means that Steve has the right to say whatever the hell he wants, whenever the hell he wants, about whatever the hell he wants.

The First Amendment is an all-or-nothing deal.  We cannot apply it only when it is convenient for us, or disregard it when faced with opinions that we do not like.  It has to apply equally to all of us, or it doesn’t apply to any of us.

Walt Disney may not have always practiced what he preached in this regard, but he had the right idea.

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