Christopher P. Lehman
September 29, 2018 posted by Christopher Lehman

Disney, ABC… and Segregation

In 1953 the Paramount theatre chain merged with ABC Radio. The ABC Television Network was created from the merger, and the theatre chain was renamed American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc. In 1954 Walt Disney agreed to produce the television series Disneyland for ABC in exchange for ABC-Paramount financing the building of the theme park Disneyland. In the meantime, whenever Disney released a new film, he often arranged for an ABC-Paramount theatre to premiere it.

ABC-Paramount was one of several theatre chains to have franchises in the South. In some of those franchises, African Americans sat in the balcony and barely saw the movie on screen. In other ones, they were not allowed inside at all. Therefore, Disney’s theme park was financed by a business that actively segregated against African Americans. Moreover, every show that appeared on ABC-TV from 1954 to 1964 aired on a network that profited from Jim Crow. That includes Woody Woodpecker, The Bugs Bunny Show, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Rocky and His Friends, among others.

But back to Disney, he premiered some of his cartoons at “whites only” venues while contracted with ABC-Paramount. By then he distributed his own films through his company Buena Vista; so he had the final say in which films went in which theatres. Sleeping Beauty made its debut in 1959 at the Tower in Dallas, Texas. In 1960 the cartoon short Goliath II opened at Sarasota’s Florida Theatre.

In the following year, 101 Dalmatians premiered at St. Petersburg’s Florida Theatre. By this time African American animator Floyd Norman was employed at Disney, and he worked on Beauty and Dalmatians. But he would been barred from seeing his own work on screen at the premieres because of his skin color. Then again, back in 1946, James Baskett could not see himself as “Uncle Remus” at Atlanta’s premiere of Disney’s Song of the South for the very same reason.

By 1961 Disney and ABC had parted ways, and ABC and the Paramount chain severed their ties in the late 1970s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened all American theatres to all people. Still, through Jim Crow and the ABC-Paramount merger, Disney entered the last decade of his long, storied entertainment career.

20 Comments

  • I wonder what Floyd Norman has to say about this…..

    • Probably some of the same things that Lehman has said. Facts are facts! Truth is truth!

  • And I thought you were going to do a review of the entire “Jasper” series… ?

    • Chris will return in two weeks to start a five part survey of the Jasper George Pal Puppetoons.

  • This happened during my childhood…

  • Walt Disney in particular is often used as a punching bag when it comes to racism. Walt was a businessman and if he wanted to do business with theaters, he had to do it on their terms. ABC-Paramount may have had segregation policies but so did every other theater chain at the time. Doesn’t make it right but if Walt wanted his films shown that was the game.

    Just want to share what entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. said in 1988 about early Disneyland: “Frank Sinatra and I went to a preview of Disneyland. We had a ball. Disneyland has never gotten any credit for integration. Walt never made an issue out of it. He just did it. He has blacks and Asians and Italians and everyone and it’s no big deal. It shouldn’t be an issue and it’s not.”

    In fact, in videos of Disneyland beginning in 1956 with DISNEYLAND U.S.A., there are images of children of all races enjoying the attractions together including two young female black children enjoying themselves in separate cars on the Autopia. . By 1968 black cast members were not just performers or worked backstage, but were in on stage roles defined at the time as “people contact positions”. Akinola James Owosekun, a Nigerian exchange student attending Cal State Fullerton, was working as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise which was considered a highly prestigious role at the park that few ever got a chance to do.

    Walt died before the whole Civil Rights movement peaked in the late 1960s/early 1970s and we can certainly speculate about how he might have responded but Floyd Norman who saw him in action in the 1950s and 1960s when he really had become a conservative, grumpy old man constantly tells me that Walt embraced everybody if they could do the job regardless of race, creed, color, sex or any other factors.

    • I focus on Disney’s activities, because his deal with a tv network and his ownership of his own distribution company set him apart from other animation producers. Also, Disney had his choice of ABC theatres all over the country for his premieres, but he often deliberately chose southern “whites only” venues. That says something to me.

      Still, Disney was hardly an outlier. As today’s posting says, the cartoons on ABC’s tv network connected a Jim Crow corporation to Jay Ward, Walter Lantz, and Hanna-Barbera. And in an earlier post, I noted Hanna-Barbera’s use of Jim Crow for live-action shows starring Yogi and Huck.

      As for Davis’s comments on Disneyland, Disney indeed did not have a “whites only” policy at his park, but he did not make it easy for “non-whites” to attend. He placed it in the remote California city of Anaheim, which was home to about 300 Klansmen just thirty years earlier and far away from sizable minority communities. Thus, the “blacks and Asians and Italians” who made it there and could afford admission were few and far between back then. And the sole regular African American figure at Disneyland was the fictional slave Aunt Jemima, played by Alyene Lewis for the park’s “Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen” restaurant.

    • Disneyland was located in Anaheim because of central location and proximity to a freeway. From the start an express bus from Los Angeles served the park (today the Metro 460) making it accessible even to monority communities. And admission wasn’t horribly excessive then unlike the present day.

    • Surely Walt Disney had enough leverage to tell ABC-Paramount Theaters, if he wanted to, that they should hold the world premieres of his films in theaters in the North, Midwest, or West, in order to avoid the segregation issue. The films would still have been shown later at the Southern theaters where segregation was practiced, but that’s not the same as having the world premieres there.

    • In Bob Thomas’ book on Walt, he mentioned the Orange County location for Disneyland was chosen because the orange grove area were suppose to be safe from earthquakes. I also assume it’s because there was more (easier to) buy up farmland. But seek and ye shall find.

  • Dealing with TV stations in the south was a problem not just for ABC in the 1950s — NBC gave Nat King Cole his own show, but couldn’t clear sponsors because they were afraid of the backlash from that network’s southern affiliates.

    • You’re right, and five months before Cole’s debut on NBC, the network was criticized by Rep. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina for airing an animated commercial that he called “contemptible propaganda.” The cartoon shows black cows giving white milk, an integrated train, and fruit, which has no skin color affecting taste. The commercial gave the suggestion to viewers that color–perhaps even skin color–had no importance or, at least, should not matter to people. Rivers caused such a stir that NBC promised to alert South Carolina’s affiliate stations before integrationist programming was to go on the air. I wish I knew who animated the commercial and for which company/ad agency.

    • I remember reading about one protest from a sotuhern NET/PBS station showing “Sesame Street” back in the day also.

  • Cowardice in the face of an ugly status quo usually seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Disney and many others did make a conscious choice to placate racists with perceived economic muscle.

    Were any industry figures putting principles over profits in those days, or did that happen only when there was a clear national movement?

    • I haven’t come across any Hollywood figure refusing to act in, direct, or produce a film until movie theatres desegregated. Some southern cities voluntarily desegregated their theatres between 1961 and 1963 (before the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964), but national cinema chains did not desegregate en masse before 1964. Only individual franchises did.

  • ABC Television had begun in 1948, but was very underfunded compared to NBC and CBS until the Paramount Thesters merger.

    • You’re right. Thanks for catching that.

  • Walt was on NBC in the 1960s

  • “By 1961 Disney and ABC had parted ways…”

    Ironic, given that the Disney Company would buy ABC many years later.

    • Reminding me of the great moment on “The Naked Truth” when Tea Leoni visited a cryogenics lab. She looked up at one large case and said, “Hey, guess what? Your company just bought ABC.”

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