Walt Disney’s surrealistic friend

SAN FRANCISCO — It turns out the man behind Mickey Mouse liked quirky cats.

Besides his love of wholesome entertainment, Walt Disney also had an appreciation for the eccentric that led to a short-lived partnership and decades-long friendship with surrealistic artist Salvador Dali.

Although their styles and personalities were dramatically different, Disney and Dali shared a fascination with the fantastic. They brought their vivid imaginations together shortly after World War II to work on an animated feature called “Destino,” which wasn’t completed until long after their deaths.

Even after they abandoned “Destino,” the two artists remained in touch and even traveled to each other’s homes, swapping fishing stories and periodically discussing plans to make a movie based on “Don Quixote.” That dream was never realized. Disney died in 1966. Dali, who was three years younger, died in 1989.

The improbable bond between the mastermind of Disneyland and the Spanish painter of reality-bending images will be explored in an exhibit running from July 10 through Jan. 3 at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. It will then shift to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The exhibit will feature “Destino” storyboards, letters exchanged between the two men, photographs, voice recordings and rarely seen artwork, including a drawing of Don Quixote that Dali did for Disney in 1957 inside a book, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

“This will show an angle of Walt that people don’t normally think of — he wasn’t just all about family-friendly stuff,” says filmmaker Ted Nicolaou, the exhibit’s curator. “He wasn’t dark, but he dealt in dreams and fantastical images. He was a man ready to experiment in any way possible.”

Dali, a pioneer in Europe’s surrealistic movement, thought Disney might be a kindred spirit when he saw some of Disney’s early animation in the “Silly Symphony” series that ran from 1929 through 1939. Nicolaou said a “Silly Symphony” skit featuring dancing skeletons particularly appealed to Dali, whose paintings of melting clocks, apparitions, monsters and other creatures often border on the hallucinogenic.

When he first came to California in 1937, Dali sought out another artist whom he considered to be a master in surrealism — the comedian Harpo Marx. He also saw surrealistic undertones in the work of Disney and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.

Disney had become intrigued with Dali, too. After reading the artist’s autobiography, he sent his copy to Dali in 1944 seeking an autograph. He also suggested that Dali work on a piece of animation to be packaged into a film along the lines of Disney’s 1940 musical, “Fantasia.”

The partnership didn’t come to fruition until late 1945, shortly after Disney and Dali met for the first time at a Hollywood dinner party hosted by movie studio mogul Jack Warner. By that time, Dali had already completed some work on a dream sequence in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Spellbound.”

Given the a wide range of choices in Disney’s vast music library, Dali decided to set his animation to a Spanish ballad called “Destino” because the title resonated with his interest in destiny. Disney assigned one of his most trusted animators, John Hench, to assist Dali on “Destino.”

While working with Hench to produce more than 200 storyboards and sketches for “Destino,” Dali struggled to come up with a plot that made sense to Disney. The two men’s differences began to crystallize in a 1946 interview when they were asked about their visions for “Destino.” Dali described it as “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time” while Disney saw it as “a simple love story — boy meets girl.”

Their differences widened when Dali began to insert sketches of baseball players into “Destino.” Exasperated that about $70,000 had already had been spent on a project that didn’t seem to be progressing, Disney decided to scrap it.

“It got a little too wild for Walt, so he quietly pulled the plug,” Nicolaou says. “I think Dali was embarrassed and hurt by it.”

The professional split apparently didn’t damage Dali’s friendship with Disney. During the 1950s, Dali visited Disney’s home, where he rode Disney’s model train, “the Lilly Belle.” Later Disney and his wife, traveled to see Dali and his wife, Gala, at their home in Port Lligat, Spain.

“Destino” was finally finished in 2003 after Walt’s nephew, Roy, hired French director Dominique Monfery to complete what Dali left behind with the help of computers. Hench, then in his 90s, also helped animators figure out where Dali was initially headed with the story.

The adaptation includes Dali-sque images of plants with eyeballs, ants morphing into beret-wearing men on bicycles and a ballerina removing her head to throw at a baseball player wielding a bat.

“Destino” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for best animated short film. Although it didn’t win, Nicolaou says the piece deserves recognition for “incrementally expanding our vision of who Walt Disney was.”

More in Life

Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion
This French onion frittata is delicious and not too filling.
A light meal to fuel fun family outings

This French onion frittata is delicious and not too filling

Christ Lutheran Church Pastor Meredith Harber displays necklaces featuring the cross in this undated photo. (Photo by Meredith Harber/courtesy)
Minister’s Message: Interwoven together for good

I hope that we can find that we have more in common than we realize

Virgil Dahler photo courtesy of the KPC historical photo archive
This aerial view from about 1950 shows Jack Keeler’s home on his homestead east of Soldotna. The stream to the left is Soldotna Creek, and the bridge across the stream probably allowed early access to the Mackey Lakes area. The road to the right edge of the photo leads to the Sterling Highway.
Keeler Clan of the Kenai — Part 6

“Most of those homesteaders won’t last”

A sign points to the Kenai Art Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Sunday, May 9, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Art Center accepting submissions for ‘Medieval Forest’

The deadline to submit art is Saturday at 5 p.m.

People identifying as Democrats and people identifying as Republicans sit face to face during a workshop put on by Braver Angels in this screenshot from “Braver Angels: Reuniting America.” (Screenshot courtesy Braver Angels)
KPC lecture series to feature film and discussion about connecting across political divide

“Braver Angels: Reuniting America” is a nonpartisan documentary about a workshop held in the aftermath of the 2016 election of Donald Trump

Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion
This basil avocado dressing is creamy, sweet, tangy, and herbaceous — great for use on bitter greens like kale and arugula.
Memories of basil and bowling with Dad

This dressing is creamy, sweet, tangy, and herbaceous

Photo courtesy of Al Hershberger
Don and Verona pose inside their first Soldotna grocery store in 1952, the year they opened for business.
Keeler Clan of the Kenai — Part 5

By 1952, the Wilsons constructed a simple, rectangular, wood-frame building and started the town’s first grocery

File
Minister’s Message: Finding freedom to restrain ourselves

We are free to speak at a higher level of intelligence

Dancers rehearse a hula routine at Diamond Dance Project near Soldotna on Thursday. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Moving into magic

Diamond Dance Project all-studio concert puts original spin on familiar stories

Most Read