Walt Disney Understood The Power Of The Letter

September 29, 2012 — 1 Comment
Walt Disney 1922 In David Kirkpatrick's blog, Travels in Transmedia

Walt Disney in his early years — around 1928

Walt Disney wrote a letter to me in 1965.

I was 13 years old.  My hands were shaking as I took the letter from my mom.  I had heard that Mr. Disney had been sick. He no longer was appearing on the “Wonderful World of Disney”. I made him a movie on super 8 film with a note to cheer up and to “feel better real soon”.

In response, Walt Disney’s letter  was more elaborate. In his own handwriting, he thanked me for the movie and admitted  that, indeed,  it had made him laugh. He complimented my film-making ability and thought the use of the jungle gym was a “unique and charming” backdrop. He wrote that I should continue to make movies and dream because the world needed dreamers. He thought “us guys” from the Midwest “needed to stick together”. He was from Missouri; I was living in Ohio. His current post stamp was marked “Burbank”.

He must have written it from his hospital bed ; most of the letters from that period were type-written.

He died several months later of cancer.

I will never forget the encouragement I received from him.

I can only hope that the silly comedy I had sent him truly did make him laugh. His exuberant support of me  led  in 1971 to a full scholarship at his new college, Cal Arts.

In 1988, I sat at Walt Disney’s old drafting table as President of Production for Walt Disney Pictures.

We never met except through our little exchange of two letters.

“Write a letter,” I tell my students. “And you will stand out.”

In this world of email, texting, and Linked-In , a good letter is one way for you or your message to be noticed.

Pauline Kael in David Kirkpatrick's blog, Travels in Transmedia

The beginning of a sentimental education from critic, Pauline Kael


No one writes letters anymore.

I was sitting in an office of a high-ranking studio executive in New York City recently. The young executive  told  me that the phone never rang and  he never gets letters. “I was so excited to get a letter from you!” he confessed. The letter was perched on his desk as if the Holy Grail.  He actually picked it up and read some of it because he thought it was so funny (outside of Walt he is the only other person on earth who ever thought I was funny).

We had a great meeting.  Most importantly, it was wonderful to see him.

In a moment of sadness, he told me how isolated he felt. He told me his entire day was spent on dealing with emails. He seldom had meetings anymore or even talked on the phone. Yet, we was a decision maker over an entire company.

“What is the one piece of advice you can give a young guy starting out?”

The beginning of my sentimental education with the brilliant critic

I asked Tony Bill , the producer of The Sting, hot off his Oscar . It must have been 1975 or so when I got out of Cal Arts.

“Learn to write a great letter. A great letter can open any door to you in the world,” he said.

Tony Bill was right.

I had no credentials, I had no family connections; but I learned how to write a good if not great letter.

Letter-writing got me a job with Jack Clayton,  the director of The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother’s House  as an assistant to him on the movie, The Great Gatsby.

It produced a meeting  and education with Pauline Kael, the legendary movie critic who was so intuitively brilliant and incisive; and it opened and shut the door fairly quickly on two of my favorite post-war writers, J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee ; but at least, the notoriously reclusive writers who  were impressed enough with the content that I received a response.

Harper Lee in David Kirkpatrick's blog, Travels in Transmedia

The “shut down” from Harper Lee…but even the reclusive author was kind enough to respond

There is just something about the written word on paper that has a different cast and element …. it has gravitas. Its shows care and respect. It can break through the glass wall that separates us. It is dramatic.

Yes, dramatic…particularly today when few write them or receive them.

Michael Eisner, the former Chairman of Walt Disney said,

“The pendulum is always swinging. Everything old becomes new again.”

Letter writing is now new! It is not old school!

Never ever write to the company!  Write to a person!

Make it personal. It is revolutionary and unique in a culture that doesn’t support it.

Ignore the easy preferences in today’s instant world…

Be unique.

Spend some time and compose a work of art to your recipient.

If it is done with  deference, intelligence and includes something deeply  personal (that will touch the recipients heart); a door to a world and most importantly, a new person, will open.

I was reading some  of the blogs regarding dear Nora Ephron over these last few weeks.  Lest we forget she was the writer and director of You’ve Got Mail, which was based on the romantic classic, The Shop Around The Corner , which was the story of how two people fell in love through the letters they wrote one another. They fell in love and only later met.  So many young women wrote to Ms Ephron. To their surprise, Nora wrote back. In most cases, these letters from a busy journalist, screenwriter and director seemed to have transformed the lives of the recipients.

She wrote letters that they will never forget.

Walt Disney knew the power of them.

You should too.

Emails suck; write letters and touch a heart and , in so doing, be touched.

Be “new” again. Write a letter.



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One response to Walt Disney Understood The Power Of The Letter

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