This much we know: Walt Disney visited Nazi Germany in 1935. But did the pioneering animator actually meet with Hitler in Munich, and did he secretly admire the dictator? And was Hitler the one who came up with the concept of Disneyland?
These and other equally bizarre questions get a theatrical workover in “Disney & Deutschland,” a play by San Francisco playwright John Powers. The Wunderland Theatre Company presents a new production of the play starting Jan. 31 at the Garage in San Francisco.
Admirers of Walt Disney have always discounted rumors of a Disney-Hitler tête-à-tête. They also deny Disney was a Nazi sympathizer or that he attended German Bund meetings in the 1930s.
Powers dismisses the Disney apologists with a bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.
The playwright says four of six Disney biographers “openly admit his anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in Hollywood.
As for that purported meeting in Munich, no photos exist of Disney and der Fuhrer together, and no contemporary accounts confirm it.
But that didn’t stop Powers from writing a speculative fantasy for the stage. It began as a student writing project when Powers majored in theater at San Francisco State University in the early 1990s. Dramatis personae includes Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
“I portray Disney as someone attracted to fantasy and fascism much in the way Hitler is,” Powers says. “I don’t think they are unrelated.”
As for the Magic Kingdom connection, Powers has his main characters discussing Germania, a scheme cooked up by Hitler and his personal architect, Albert Speer. It was to be an idealized German city extolling so-called Aryan values.
There is no evidence Disney ever saw a scale model of Germania on his visit. But it is a fact that Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland closely resembles Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, right down to the last spinning wheel.
The playwright’s passion for his subject might have something to do with his mother’s Jewish roots, but not much. She converted to Catholicism before Powers was born. “The Jewish aspect of my life is miniscule,” he said.
However, he has researched Disney extensively and says he found more evidence of anti-Semitism. The animator was notoriously penurious with his employees. He took a militantly anti-union stance and, according to Powers, Disney equated unions with Jews.
“He hated the Jews because they were so powerful in Hollywood,” he says. “In 1938, when the Disney inkers did ‘Snow White,’ he gave them minimum wage. They had a strike. He insisted the unions were Jew-oriented. Unions and Jews were identical to Disney, just as they were to Hitler.”
Blogger Michael Barrier (www.michaelbarrier.com) counters the argument by asserting that blacks and Jews were employed at the Disney studio. Another Disney defender, Are Myklebust, scoffs at the notion of a Munich meeting, writing: “Disney was already a well-known and respected filmmaker in Europe in 1935, so a meeting with Hitler, if it occurred, would have been a great news event. Such a meeting would also have been of great propaganda value for the Nazis, since Disney films were so popular in Europe.”
Counters Power, “The disciples of Disney put down any biography that does not revere him. Seven of the nine I’ve seen do not revere him.”
Meanwhile, the playwright smiles when considering how Disney would have felt knowing that Michael Eisner, the Disney Company’s wildly successful former president, was Jewish.
Disney’s alleged Hitler-loving and Jew-hating aside, did Powers nevertheless grow up a fan of Mickey and Goofy? Turns out he preferred Daffy to Donald.
Says Powers: “I tended to like the more facetious Max Fleischer and Chuck Jones.”
“Disney & Deutschland” plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 31-Feb. 24 at the Garage, 975 Howard St., S.F. Tickets: $10-$20. Information: www.brownpapertickets.com.