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Disney and the Museum of Science and Industry: There From the Beginning

Archives BannerIn my opinion, Disney can be perspective-transforming, awe-inspiring, and joy-inducing.  When something Disney pops up unexpectedly, subtly or even overtly, in my everyday life, I often find that is when real magic and motivating wonder begin.  I choose to believe that those moments are meant to be shared.  Doing so often leads to lighthearted exchanges of ideas and feelings between friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, and can open minds to new ways of thinking.  I was recently the benefactor a Disney “pop-up” that came my way via two sentences in a book, a web search, a place and a lecture on another book; all of which culminated in a not-so-chance encounter with a remarkable Imagineer.  It is one I am eager to share with you.

Not long ago, I finished reading the nonfiction, true crime book entitled Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.  In it, he masterfully conveys the spellbinding account of a brilliant architect, Daniel H. Burnham as well as Dr. H. H. Holmes, a prolific serial killer.  Larson expertly employs historically accurate information about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago to flesh out the gruesome details of a madman’s murderous rampage as well as the Fair’s direct impact and indirect ripple effect on future World’s Fairs, the city of Chicago, etcetera.  He gives his readers a factual description so riveting and abundant in detail that putting the book down, even if only for a moment, is almost inconceivable.

I must confess that I was astounded by how little I actually knew about the time period and the city itself prior to reading the book.  I have been to Chicago many times without ever knowing that a significant remnant of the World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE)—more commonly called The 1893 Chicago World’s fair—still exists there.  Furthermore, I was unaware that Jackson Park once was the site of the Fair’s grounds and the numerous neoclassical style buildings clad in white stucco that once made up the Honor Court of the “The White City”.  Among the buildings, the mammoth Palace of Fine Arts, which Larson relays, is the only remaining structure from the WCE and is now known to house the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

At this juncture, it is important for me to note that—prior to having read the book—I had long been interested in visiting the MSI.  After learning the fascinating history of the Palace of Fine Arts, my curiosity had grown exponentially.  That being the case, I decided to do a quick internet search of the MSI official website where I learned that the Museum was playing host through May 4, 2014 to the visiting exhibit Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives presented by D23 (The Official Disney Fan Club).  What an unexpected, happy coincidence.

As interesting as was the connection between Larson’s book, the Disney Archives, and Chicago’s MSI, an even more astounding and intriguing correlation between the three can be found deep within Larson’s nail-biting thriller.   There within the chapter entitled “The Gauntlet Dropped”—which begins with a discussion regarding the difficult winter and the need for additional workers—was the following attention-grabbing tidbit:

In all, the workforce in the park numbered four thousand.  The ranks included a carpenter and  furniture-maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake.  His son Walt would take note.  

 I was astonished to learn that Elias had contributed to the construction of The White City of the WCE.  All the more amazing is the fact that mere decades later his son, Walt Elias Disney, would introduce the world to some remarkable creations of his own at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair.

Without question, I was feeling even more drawn to the Windy City’s Museum of Science and Industry.   I mention windy because weather, especially Lake Michigan’s cruel, relentless effect on it, has often been a deterrent to my traveling to the city from October through March.  That is until I discovered that legendary Disney Imagineer, Martin A. “Marty” Sklar, would be visiting MSI, on Sunday, February 16, 2014, to give a presentation on his first book, Dream It! Do it!:  My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.  His lecture was to be followed by a Q&A period and a book signing.   At that point, all doubt that I would make a trip to MSI, winter or not, was gone.  I considered it an “all the stars aligning” moment.  After all, when reading two specific sentences in a book (Devil in the White City by Erik Larson) prompts a web search (www.msichicago.org) on a museum (Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) that just so happens to be hosting a visiting exhibit (Treasures of the Walt Disney Archive) that centers on the life of a man (Walt Disney) mentioned in the two phrases and expounded upon in another book (Dream It! Do it!) by retired Imagineer Marty Sklar, who is a speaking for one day only in that very museum, that’s a Disney “pop-up” leading to a not-so-chance encounter.  It’s magic demanding action.  So act my husband and I did.

We went to Chicago on a wintry day just weeks ago.  As he and I approached Jackson Park and MSI, it was plain to see that Disney magic was front and center.  Five enormous banners depicting Mickey Mouse’s world famous ears were prominently displayed between the Museum’s neoclassic-inspired pillars.  Just inside the Museum there were more banners publicizing the extensive world-class exhibit.  Due to the volume of displayed materials, space constraints, and number of visitors, museum officials wisely utilized time-entry tickets to control access to the actual exhibit.  My husband and I waited only a very brief time to enter the winding exhibit area.  In my opinion, this method of crowd control successfully enhanced my overall experience by increasing visibility, freedom of movement, etcetera.  It enabled me to more readily see and appreciate the written history, artifacts, marquees, concept pieces, props, costumes, and more.  That said, with so many, many things to read and observe I would like to have had more time within the bounds of our timeslot.  Nevertheless, my husband and I found the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives truly to be a treasure trove worth far more than our travel time, stay, and the add-on price of admission.   Indeed, there seemed to be an infinite number of meticulously ordered, chronological displays on Walt Disney the man and The Walt Disney Company.  The collection was filled with legendary  Disney items such as the singing Automaton Bird that inspired Walt to create Audio Animatronics, the #000001 Disneyland Admission Ticket purchased by Roy O. Disney on Disneyland®’s opening day, and the original Animation Script for Steamboat Willie drawn by Ub Iwerks and typed by Walt Disney.

Had my husband and my day ended following our tour of the Archives exhibit, I would have been more than pleased with the trip; however, much more awaited.  As 1:00 p.m. approached, we joined hundreds of other Disney fans in the MSI Auditorium for retired Walt Disney Imagineer, Marty Sklar’s, Dream It! Do It! lecture.  The presentation was filled with recollections of Mr. Sklar’s hiring in 1956, his long career with WDI, which saw the opening of every major Disney Park around the world, his working “retirement” and the writing of his memoir.  Following the presentation, Mr. Kurt Haunfelner, MSI’s Vice President of Collections and Exhibits and former Disney Imagineer, took the opportunity to ask Mr. Sklar a few questions, several of which sparked interesting personal anecdotes and memories that we as an audience would not have otherwise heard.  Following Mr. Haunfelner’s questions, Mr. Sklar took several questions from audience members.  A few came from children and young adults wanting to know how they can best prepare themselves for a career in Imagineering.  Mr. Sklar graciously gave them pointers and lots of encouragement.

Mr. Sklar’s kindness did not stop there.  MartyHe began signing book after book and assured all of us that he would remain until the last one was signed.  Despite the fact that the museum was to have closed at 4:00 p.m., he signed my copy at 4:15 p.m.  Based upon my estimations, there were enough people behind me to require a minimum of another 45 minutes to an hour.  Mr. Haunfelner also graciously took time to speak with guests and answer questions as they waited in line.  Who could have guessed that we would receive a two-for-one special on Disney Imagineers that day?  Following the event, I contacted Mr. Haunfelner to ask him what it meant to him, as a former Imagineer, to have MSI host Mr. Sklar.  He responded with the following:

In many ways, whatever I’ve been able to accomplish over my 35 year career, and particularly the last 12 years as Vice President of Exhibits and Collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, stems from my years with Marty.  He taught me never to accept anything less than the best; to believe in the mission and a core set of values; to recognize and celebrate the power of story; and to empower the people around me— to see their success as my own!  

He also reiterated a quotation from the introduction he gave prior to the beginning of Mr. Sklar’s lecture:

The definition of the word mentor is: “Someone who teaches and gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person, which becomes instrumental to their growth and development!”  I am just one of many current and former Imagineers who have had the extreme good fortune to call Marty Sklar a MENTOR and a FRIEND!

It was plain to see, during the presentation and signing, exactly why Mr. Haunfelner would give Mr. Sklar such high praise.  Marty Sklar is a highly effective man who has had an incredible career throughout which he has been purposeful in his efforts to challenge, inspire and encourage those around him.  Mr. Haunfelner, himself, attributes much of what he has been able to accomplish at MSI to what he experienced and learned while working at WDI with Mr. Sklar.  As a result, it can be inferred that the people who visit MSI have indirectly benefited from Mr. Sklar’s mentoring as well, via Mr. Haunfelner.  I believe, Mr. Sklar would say the same is true of his experiences with Walt Elias Disney.

Disney can be perspective-transforming, awe-inspiring, and joy-inducing.  When something Disney pops up unexpectedly, subtly or even overtly, in your everyday life, take a moment to open yourself to the real magic and motivating wonder that often comes with it.  Choose to believe that those moments are meant to be shared because doing so might just lead to lighthearted exchanges of ideas and feelings between friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, and can open minds to new ways of thinking.

Finally, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is a landmark structure that houses fascinating, educational, interactive exhibits for the enjoyment and enlightenment of people of all ages.  As is the case with the Disney Parks around the world, guests at MSI have the great opportunity learn while being entertained.  I encourage you, readers, to consider a trip to MSI before the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit ends on May 4, 2014.  You will not be disappointed!

(Photos from the author’s personal collection.  Mr. Sklar’s image is published with his permission.)

Have you visited the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit?  Have you attended any of Marty Sklar’s lectures or presentations?  If so, please tell us about it in the comments section below.


Kendall began visiting Walt Disney World in 1991 with her family and has continued to visit the resort with her husband.  As a child, she and her family filled vacations with challenges such as “How many times can we ride Splash Mountain during SpectroMagic and the fireworks?” (Answer: 7)  Now, after marrying a converted Disney skeptic, she and her husband enjoy challenges such as “How many hours can we eat nonstop at the Food & Wine Festival?” (Answer: 4)