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Neal Gabler, Inside Walt Disney

For his new book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, entertainment expert Neal Gabler was given complete access to the Disney archives. His biography begins when Disney was just a glimmer of an idea, and ends at the entrance to the Walt Disney mausoleum.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on October 30, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 30, 2006: Interview with Neal Gabler; Commentary on Floyd Dixon; Review of the television series "Cracker."


DATE October 30, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author Neal Gabler discusses his new book, a biography
of Walt Disney

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)

Unidentified Actress: Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the wicked queen in Walt Disney's 1937 classic "Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated film. My guest Neal
Gabler has written a new book about Disney and how he reshaped our popular
culture and the American consciousness. Disney reinvented animation with
characters like Mickey Mouse and with Disneyland reconceptualized the
amusement park as theme park. He recognized the importance of television at
its start with the Mickey Mouse Club and helped bring color to TV through his
program, "The Wonderful World of Color." While many of his movies offered a
nostalgic view of history, Disney also looked to the future with Tomorrowland
and Epcot. My guest Neal Gabler is also the author of the books, "Winchell:
Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" and "An Empire of Their Own: How
the Jews Invented Hollywood."

I told Gabler that I was surprised to read in his new book that despite
Disney's many successes, several of his early animated classics originally
lost money.

Mr. NEAL GABLER: Yes, that, you know, was surprising to me too. I just
assumed when I embarked on this project that, you know, all of these films
were enormously successful, and the money was just pouring in, and in point of
fact, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was enormously successful. You know,
it brought so much money to the studio he was actually able to build a new
studio in Burbank, California, where Walt Disney Productions is still
headquartered. But after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," film after film
after film lost money, and rather than bring enormous amounts of money into
the studio, they pour enormous amounts of money out of the studio.
"Pinocchio" was a disaster. "Fantasia," an even bigger disaster. "Bambi" was
a disaster. The only one of that run of films that we regard now as the
classic Disney animations that made any money was "Dumbo," and that made money
because it was done very cheaply. It was much less expensive than the other
animations. It was animated--it was produced for roughly $600,000 and that
was done intentionally because the studio desperately needed an inexpensive
film that they could get some kind of profitable return on, and "Dumbo"
happened to do that. But then, from "Bambi" to "Cinderella," there were no
feature animations made because the studio simply could not afford to do them.
And there was an awfully long period of time where the studio said, you know,
`We can't make feature animations. We're just going to have to end that whole
idea of making feature animations,' because there's no way, given how
labor-intensive these films are, that one could finally make a profit on them.

GROSS: But I guess once the baby boom generation was born and started going
to the movie, those old movies started to make a profit.

Mr. GABLER: Yes, well, Walt always thought--it's funny, Terry--he always
said, you know, `I don't care if these movies make a profit now,' and he
really meant that. He didn't care. Walt had a very kind of cavalier attitude
towards money. He said, `But these films will eventually make a lot of money.
You'll see. We'll rerelease them'--that was always an intention of his, to
rerelease the films. You know, it worked out that he rereleased them every
seven years, but--and then they also, you know, exploited the television
potential of those films when he had the Disneyland series. But he always
thought, in the long run, they'll make money. And that was a characteristic
of Walt. Walt never thought short-term. He was always thinking long-term.
It was always about looking to the horizon and not at, you know, what was
directly in front of you.

GROSS: Walt Disney in the '50s, you know, Uncle Walt, as a lot of people grew
up knowing him, had a very conservative image. As you describe it in the
book, he was the...

Mr. GABLER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...personification of traditional values and square aesthetics.
Did--yet earlier in the book, you say, when he came to Hollywood, he loved
dress-up and make-believe. He was boisterous, outgoing, self-aggrandizing,
histrionic. So was the conservative image just part of his--like another
costume for him or was he really that conservative deep down?

Mr. GABLER: In some ways, it was a costume. I mean, the early Walt Disney,
I think, as you very accurately portray it, was flamboyant. I mean, he was an
innovator, he was a subversive. The early Mickey Mouse cartoons were clearly
patterned after Charlie Chaplin's comedies, and little Mickey Mouse was a kind
of a scamp. I mean, he was, you know, a subversive. He was a guy who was
always poking, and prodding and pulling, and you know, defying authority. And
Walt was kind of that way too, at least artistically speaking, and it was one
of the ways that he gained an enormous cachet in the 1930s. I mean,
intellectuals loved Walt Disney because they saw him as this naive, artless
artist. This guy who, wasn't, you know, wasn't all full of pretension. He
was completely unpretentious. There was a really plebeian quality to Walk
Disney. Now as a time went on and he became more successful, in some ways he
became a victim of his success. He became kind of the image of America to
much of the world, and Walt began to take that seriously. He understood that
he was being imprisoned by that image. Walt never fooled himself that he was
really Walt Disney, and in point of fact, that is the Walt Disney that you
describe. The avuncular Walt Disney. And he actually had said, `You know,
I'm not Walt Disney. You know, Walt Disney is a thing.'

GROSS: Well, you know, in talking about what Walt Disney's personality really
was like, you describe him as very obsessive, driven and often unhappy.

Mr. GABLER: Yes.

GROSS: He had two breakdowns. What were they about?

Mr. GABLER: Well, the first breakdown, which he himself described in a
series of interview which he gave to his daughter and which were later put
into a book called "The Story of Walt Disney," happened in the early 1930s
when he was making the Mickey Mouse cartoons. And he found himself
unaccountably crying all the time, unable to sleep, desperately unhappy, deep,
deep depression. And he attributed it finally to the fact that the Mickey
Mouse animations were never as good on screen as they were when he imagined
them in his head, and he just couldn't tolerate that.

Now the second breakdown happened in the postwar period when, again, having
made these great, you know, feature animations, he came to the conclusion that
he could never make animations that were anywhere near as good as the golden
age of animation, the films that he made during that golden age--"Snow White,"
"Pinocchio," "Dumbo," whatever--that simply financially that wasn't viable
anymore, and the form that this sort of breakdown took was that he retreated,
and he became obsessed, not with the studio, not with animations, but with
model trains. He built model trains, he would actually go to the machine shop
of the studio and build these trains. He laid track around his house and
would put on an engineer's cap and ride the trains. He was just absolutely
completely 24/7 absorbed by model trains.

GROSS: Well, you did use the word obsessive.

Mr. GABLER: That he was.

GROSS: Why did Disney develop an animation studio? Had he been an animator
himself before creating his own studio?

Mr. GABLER: No, he was an artist, commercial artist. And interestingly, he
formed the studio when he was very, very young. You know Walt Disney died
when he was only 65 years old, and most of his accomplishments happened when
he was a very young man. So he was living in Kansas City, working at a studio
that made animated advertisements to be shown before motion pictures. And
this was in the early 1920s, and he became so absorbed, as always, with making
these--he was drawing these animations that he decided he wanted to draw
longer ones, and that ultimately expanded into his quitting his job and
forming at the age of 20, 20 years old, his own animation studio in Kansas
City. And he signed on young men who also had an interest in animation, and
what he offered was they would learn how to do this together. So, that was
his very first animation studio. Now that animation studio didn't last very
long. He signed a very poor contract. The company with which he signed the
contract ultimately went bankrupt and his own company, which was called
Laugh-O-Gram Films, also went bankrupt. And so that ultimately was the spur
for him going to Hollywood.

GROSS: You know, in talking about his, like Disney's sense of wanting
perfection in the world yet being unable to achieve it, I'm reminded, of
course, of Disneyland, and one of the ways you described Disney in your book
is as being, along with Norman Rockwell, the leading avatar of small-town,
flag-waving American. And you know, he invented the theme park, he invented
Disneyland, and Disneyland is this combination of fantasy in the rides and
this kind of like idealized small-town America in its streets. Did that
vision, of like Disneyland, connect to anything in his childhood? Did he
actually have an idealized hometown like that?

Mr. GABLER: Yes, he did. I mean, he came by that Disneyland vision,
particularly the main street, that it's the entrance to Disneyland and to Walt
Disney World as well. He came by that very honestly because he was very
young. He was born in Chicago, but his parents moved when he was a very young
boy to a small farm community called Marceline in Missouri. And Walt Disney
throughout his entire life, though he only lived there for five years,
throughout his entire life he always regarded Marceline, Missouri, as kind of
the touchstone. That was the ideal of his life. That was where he had his
best times. That was the place he later said that had more to do with shaping
him than any other community. And you know, I don't want to be Freudian about
this or too overly psychological about it, but I think one could certainly
make the case that throughout his Walt Disney was always trying to find some
way back to the security, the beauty, the enjoyment that he had in Marceline,

GROSS: God, I hear you talking about this and I'm thinking, `Rosebud.'

Mr. GABLER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: I'm thinking...(unintelligible)...pain.

Mr. GABLER: Marceline is the Rosebud of Walt Disney's life.

GROSS: You have a lot of interesting information about the creation of
Disneyland in your book, and you say that, you know, Disney saw it as kind of
like a series of cute movie sites and some of it was built on like a
three-quarters scale...

Mr. GABLER: Yes.

GROSS: everything was three quarters of the size that it would have
been in real life. Why did he do that?

Mr. GABLER: Well, he did it for a number of reasons. But one of the most
interesting reasons to me is Walt Disney really abhorred the notion of
monumentalism. And he actually, you know, talked about, you know, Nazi
monuments that were always oversized and that, you know, he thought, you know,
kind of dwarfed people, and what he wanted to do was empower people. So he
thought, you know, if you make a theme park that is actually a smaller scale,
not only will people feel that it's kind of a toy, and there's something
fanciful about it because it's smaller, but they will also feel empowered, and
Disneyland has an awful lot to do, as does all of Walt Disney's work as a
matter of fact, with this notion of empowerment.

GROSS: My guest is Neal Gabler. His new book is called "Walt Disney: The
Triumph of the American Imagination."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neal Gabler, and his new book
is a biography of Walt Disney.

One of Disney's greatest legacies is, of course, Mickey Mouse, and you know,
he helps to create Mickey Mouse very early in his career, and, of course,
Mickey Mouse still survives today and, you know, there's the Mickey Mouse
Club. There's marketing around the world of Mickey Mouse things. So let's
just begin with the creation of Mickey Mouse, like who are the brains behind

Mr. GABLER: Well, there were really two brains behind Mickey Mouse. Mickey
Mouse happened because Walt Disney created another character called Oswald the
Rabbit and had that character taken away from him by Universal Pictures who
was the distributor of his animations, and he had a showdown with his
distributor in New York, lost that showdown and was on a train ride back to
California and realized he had nothing. The character had been taken away
from him. Not only the character had been taken away from him, but the
distributor had also hired away most of his animators behind his back. So now
Walt Disney was in the position of having to start from scratch, and on that
train ride, as the story goes, you know, he said he came up with the idea of a
mouse as a character, and actually even wrote a brief scenario and brought
that back to Los Angeles with him. That's one story.

Ub Iwerks, who was Walt Disney's chief animator at that time and a longtime
collaborator with Walt, going all the way back to Kansas City, told a
different story. He was a man of few words, but in one interview he said,
`That's really not the way it happened. What happened was that Walt got back
from New York. We sat around and tried to determine what kind of character
might work on screen. Cats had already been done. Obviously, they'd had a
rabbit prior to this period, so they hit upon doing a mouse, which was
patterned after mice that had been drawn by an artist by the name of Clifford
Meek, who wrote for a humor magazines or drew pictures for humor magazines.
And after batting that around, they came up with that mouse. Now you ask who
was really responsible. I think the interesting thing about the early Mickey
Mouse is that Mickey Mouse is really bipolar. On the one hand, Walt Disney
always saw Mickey Mouse as being a kind of Charlie Chaplin figure, as I said
earlier, and Ub Iwerks saw him as a kind of Douglas Fairbanks figure. So
almost from his inception, Mickey Mouse was kind of oscillating between these
two sides: the heroic Douglas Fairbanks side and the impish Charlie Chaplin
side. And in fact, I don't think he was ever able to resolve those two, very
disparate halves of himself. And it was one of the elements, among many,
which contributed to his demise, because though you say, you know, `Well,
Mickey Mouse still exists,' and he does still exist, he exists now essentially
as a corporate logo...

GROSS: Mm-hmmm.

Mr. GABLER: an image...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: ...but he does not exist as a character.

GROSS: You know, as you say in your book, through Disney, you can see the
interplay of art and commerce in America, and you can certainly see that
through Mickey Mouse, because as you say, Mickey Mouse became like, a logo,
for the Disney company and has been marketed in every way imaginable and
synergized, you know, the Mickey Mouse Club on TV, Mickey Mouse and the theme
parks. So who was behind that? You describe someone named Herman "Kay"

Mr. GABLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...being the merchandising genius of...

Mr. GABLER: He was the merchandising genius. I mean, the very first Mickey
Mouse product was a paper tablet with Mickey Mouse's picture on it. And Walt,
I think, got paid $300 for that when he was in a New York hotel and somebody
came up to him and said, `Hey, you know, I'd like to put Mickey Mouse's image
on this tablet, and I'll give you a little bit of money for it.' But Walt had
already been looking at the enormous merchandizing that surrounded Felix the
cat, who was the pre-eminent animation before Mickey Mouse. And he wanted to
get a part of that swag himself. And the way he got it was by calling a man
named Herman "Kay" Kamen, who had a business that essentially conducted
department store promotions. Kamen immediately came to Los Angeles--he was
based in Kansas City, Walt's old hometown, and said, `I can make you a lot of
money with Mickey Mouse,' and that's exactly what he did, and that association
lasted 17 yeas until Kay Kamen died in a plane accident and he made enormous
amounts of money operating on somewhat the same principle that Walt Disney
did, that is, finding partners, merchandising partners who are very high
quality, very upscale who wouldn't compromise the quality of the Mickey Mouse
product, which is exactly how Walt saw his own animations, doing upscale
animations that he would never compromise in quality, and, you know, they
reaped, tremendous, tremendous, profits, at times much more from the
merchandise than they were getting from the films themselves, that is the
Mickey Mouse shorts themselves.

GROSS: One of Disney's geniuses was getting into television when television
was still really young and getting a real foothold there. So he did well with
programs that helped with the merchandising of his products that helped sell
his movies, and they just helped in every way.

Mr. GABLER: Yes.

GROSS: How did he--why did he have faith in television at a time when I think
a lot of people didn't?

Mr. GABLER: Well, Walt, for all the small-town 19th century qualities that
he had and all those 19th century values that he seemed to purvey, he was
also, oddly enough and seemingly contradictorily, a very visionary figure, who
loved technology, promoted space on his Disneyland television series, you
know, obviously loved trains and engineering and all of those things, but what
happened with Disneyland was that--I mean, Walt had long had an interest in
television and actually at one point had pondered buying television stations
in the postwar period. But when he came to build Disneyland, or wanted to
build Disneyland, he had one major problem, a problem that had dogged him
essentially all of his life, surprisingly. He had no money. Walt Disney
needed money and all the time he had planned the park, he really hadn't given
a great deal of thought to how he was going to finance the park, and it was an
enormous venture, you know, even in those days, and required enormous amounts
of capital, some $17 million. And the plan that he hit upon to finance the
theme park was he was going to sign a deal, which he ultimately did, with ABC,
which was the third of the major networks and which desperately needed
programming. And as part of that deal, he agreed to do a television series
which ABC believed would be enormously successful--they were right, it was a
ratings champion--but ABC also agreed to put a fairly large stake in the theme
park and to underwrite loans to the theme park. So Walt Disney exchanged the
television series for financing for the theme park. And in point of fact, you
know, each individual episode of the show lost enormous amounts of money just
as the feature animations did with the exception of "Snow White," but he
understood that the television show was a great promotional vehicle, both for
the theme park and the featured animations. It was like getting an hour
commercial for both, you know, every week.

GROSS: You tell a lot of interesting stories about the creation of the Mickey
Mouse Club. You say that Walt Disney wanted kids on that show who looked like
real kids. He didn't want professional actors. He wanted the kids to be cast
from schoolyards. Did it actually work out that way?

Mr. GABLER: That's right. It did. Actually, he sent, you know, Bill Walsh,
who was the producer of the show, to schoolyards and he said, `This is what
you've got to do. I don't want all these professional kids, you know, these
kids who can all tap dance and bright smiles and Shirley Temple hair. I don't
want that. Go to a schoolyard and watch the kids who kind of everybody
gravitates around. You'll see who has charisma. We can teach them all of
these talent skills,' but essentially, you can't teach charisma. And that is
how they went and recruited a lot of the kids. These kids were not all
professionals with professional smiles and professional talents. They taught
them those things.

GROSS: Neal Gabler is the author of the new book, "Walt Disney: The Triumph
of American Imagination."

He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is

(Soundbite of music)

MOUSEKETEERS: (Singing) "We're the Mousketeers. We want to say hello and
give three cheers for all of you who see us every day. You're okay. So
welcome to our Mousketeer Club, and by the way, while you're here, you're all
the guests of the merry Mouseketeers. We'd like to introduce ourselves to
you. So proudly put on your Mouseket-ears. It's time to meet the

Unidentified Man: Roll call!

(End of soundbite)


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Neal Gabler, author of
the new book, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination." In
addition to having written several earlier books about movies and American
popular culture, Gabler is a regular panelist on the Fox News program, "Fox
News Watch." It features two liberals and two conservatives commenting on the
media. Gabler is one of the liberals.

Walt Disney is such a key figure in American popular culture. One of the
chapters of his life that you explore in the TV was his testimony before Hugh
at the House on American Activities Committee during the anti-communist
hunting era. Why did he testify before Hugh at a time when some people
declined to testify or to name names? Why did he testify and what did he have
to say?

Mr. GABLER: You know, I'd said that he was nonideological, and I think
that's absolutely true. But in 1941 the studio, the Burbank studio that he
had built on the proceeds of "Snow White" and which he tried to make into a
workers' paradise, a utopia, that studio was struck by the Screen Cartoonists
Guild. It was a very bitter strike, even more bitter because Walt had a very
paternalistic attitude and thought, you know, `Here I created this paradise on
earth, and I'd worked with all of these people for years, and we had this
wonderful camaraderie, and now they've destroyed everything.' The strike
lasted from May until September when it was finally settled, not on terms
favorable to Walt. In fact, the National Labor Reconciliation Board
essentially forced Walt to settle. But Walt always felt--and this was really
his kind of political baptism--Walt had always felt that the strike had been
instigated by communists who were out to get Walt Disney, in part because he
was a representative of American culture. And that animus never left him.

Now he wasn't entirely--that was not entirely paranoid. There were communists
deeply involved in the union, and it may have actually been the case that the
union was out to get Walt Disney. But, in any case, in the postwar period,
when Walt was called to testify, he happily did so, really on the basis that,
you know, he was getting back at the people who had destroyed everything he
had built. So he was angry, and when he testified, though he wasn't quite as
virulent in his denunciations as some of those who testified, nevertheless, I
mean, he did tell the committee that he believed that communists had
instigated the strike and tried to destroy his studio and that Herbert
Sorrell, who was the head of the union, you know, had said that--the head of
the umbrella to which the union belonged, the umbrella group--said that he was
going to turn the Disney Studio into a dust bowl. That was part of Disney's
testimony that day.

GROSS: Did he name names beyond the head of the union?

Mr. GABLER: No, he did not, no, because ultimately he had no basis for
accusing anybody of anything since, you know, the person who he hated most was
Art Babbitt, who was a longtime animator--actually had animated the mushrooms
in "Fantasia," and Art Babbitt had taken on the--to head the union at the
Disney studio, but as much as Walt Disney hated Art Babbitt, no one could have
really made the accusation that Art Babbitt was a communist, and he wasn't.

So he really didn't name names except in misspeaking. And he misspoke by
accusing the League of Women Voters of being a communist front that had
attacked him during the strike. And it was very hard for him to pull back
from that. He kept on insisting afterwards that the League of Women Voters
had somehow conspired to destroy the studio when it turned out it was another
organization called the League of Women Shoppers. And Walt finally was
forced, finally was forced to say, `No, it wasn't the League of Women Voters.
It was the League of Women Shoppers and I apologize.'

GROSS: Neal, can you tell us something wonderful and surprising that you find
in the Disney archive while doing research for the book?

Mr. GABLER: You know what? There's no smoking gun in this book in the sense
that, you know, I'm--you're going to find, `Oh, Walt Disney was gay.' I didn't
know that. Or you know--that's not going to happen and I know I'll probably
disappoint some readers because I like to think that the entire life is a
revelation. You know, I think, you know, that his relationship with his
family is somewhat interesting because, you know, Walt, being a perfectionist
and being someone who was obsessed with his studio, spent a lot more time at
his studio then he ever spent with his family. And he had a very testy
relationship with his wife. I mean, one of the surprises...(audio
difficulties)...the individual who seemed to believe least in Walt Disney's
visions, the individual who told him, `Nobody will see dwarfs. Dwarfs are
ugly. They'll be put off by dwarfs.' The person who told him, `Why in the
world do you want to build Disneyland? What in the world are you thinking?
Who's going to go to a theme park?' That individual was his wife. And as Walt
said to one individual, one employee who came to him asking for more money
because he said his wife told him they needed more money, Walt said, `Your
wife? Do you know where I'd be if I listened to my wife?' He was right, by
the way.

GROSS: One more question. You used to be a film critic...

Mr. GABLER: Yes, I was.

GROSS: ...and I'm sure you went back and watched all of the Disney movies...

Mr. GABLER: Yes, I did.

GROSS: ...and probably a lot of the TV shows, too. What did you see that you
had never noticed before? Is there one cartoon or one show or movie that you
saw very differently now than you did when you saw it when you were younger,
or when you saw it when, you know, when you were a young man, before you were
researching Disney in-depth like this?

Mr. GABLER: Well, I'll tell you, you know, I was somewhat surprised in
watching "Pollyanna" again. "Pollyanna" has a very kind of caustic streak in
it about small-town values, small-town hypocrisy. It promotes progressive
values. It takes on religion. And that's somewhat surprising when one thinks
of Walt Disney.

And another thing that, you know, didn't surprise me but that I felt more
strongly on what must have been my 10th viewing of the film, was what an
amazing achievement "Pinocchio" is. You know, I don't make value judgments in
the book about the quality of the films, but, you know, you watch "Pinocchio,"
which is a film of such great sophistication, a film that is so dark in so
many ways, betraying the image of Walt Disney as being the master of
lightness, that is a film that just, you know, continues to astonish me and
astonished me again, you know, watching it as I was researching the book.

GROSS: Yeah, and you say that Disney suggested the idea of Jiminy Cricket as
Pinocchio's conscience because that "Pinocchio" was maybe too dark.

Mr. GABLER: Yes. And the problem with Pinocchio was, how was anybody going
to like this puppet. This puppet is mean and this puppet is easily, you know,
moved to do things, that you know, a hero of a film doesn't do. And it was
Walt who finally said, `You know, we're going to take that cricket figure who
exists in the book and who Pinocchio actually stomps upon. We're going to
take that figure and we're going to turn that into the conscience so he's
constantly reminding Pinocchio of what he ought to be doing.' Well, of course,
that innovation is the innovation that makes the entire film, you know,
cohere, and by the way, I should add, that that kind of innovation that Walt
came up with was not atypical. That was actually fairly typical of what Walt
contributed to the films. When one thinks of Walt Disney today, one may think
that, `Well, he was just a kind of a name who supervised everything but the
real work was done by the animators.' And in point of fact, when you look at
those early animations, you see that Walt was involved in almost every frame
of the film. Every single frame was the product of Walt Disney's mind, of
Walt Disney's vision.

GROSS: Neal Gabler, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GABLER: Oh, thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Neal Gabler's new biography is called "Walt Disney: The Triumph of
the American Imagination." Here's the scene from "Pinocchio" in which the
puppet Pinocchio is brought to life by the Blue Fairy. Jiminy Cricket is
listening in.

(Soundbite from "Pinocchio")

PINOCCHIO: Am I a real boy?

BLUE FAIRY: No, Pinocchio. To make Geppetto's wish come true will be
entirely up to you.

PINOCCHIO: Up to me?

BLUE FAIRY: Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday you
will be a real boy.

PINOCCHIO: A real boy!

JIMINY CRICKET: That won't be easy.

BLUE FAIRY: You must learn to choose between right and wrong.

PINOCCHIO: Right and wrong? But how will I know?

JIMINY CRICKET: How will he know?

BLUE FAIRY: Your conscience will tell you.

PINOCCHIO: What are conscience?

JIMINY CRICKET: What are conscience? I'll tell you. A conscience is that
still, small voice that people won't listen to. That's just the trouble with
the world today.

PINOCCHIO: Are you my conscience?


BLUE FAIRY: Would you like to be Pinocchio's conscience?

JIMINY CRICKET: Well, I--oh. Uh-huh.

BLUE FAIRY: Very well. What is your name?

JIMINY CRICKET: Oh, Cricket's the name. Jiminy Cricket.

BLUE FAIRY: Kneel, Mr. Cricket.

JIMINY CRICKET: Huh? No tricks now.

BLUE FAIRY: I dub you Pinocchio's conscience, lord high keeper of the
knowledge of right and wrong, counselor in moments of temptation and guide
along the straight and narrow path.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward remembers rhythm and blues pioneer
Floyd Dixon. He died over the summer.

This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Rock historian Ed Ward pays tribute to rhythm and blues
singer Floyd Dixon

When Floyd Dixon died this past summer, the country lost one of the last of
the great bluesmen of the late 1940s and early '50s. Among his many
accomplishments was convincing Ray Charles that he needed to stop imitating
blues singer Charles Brown and start singing like Ray Charles. Rock historian
Ed Ward has this tribute to an almost forgotten pioneer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLOYD DIXON: (Singing) "Listen, Bob, don't be no square because Betty
told you had real fine hair. You go over to...(unintelligible)...and you have
a ball. You play white jam up all through the ball."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. ED WARD: In 1945, 17-year-old Floyd Dixon moved back to Los Angeles from
his hometown of Marshall, Texas. He'd first moved there with his family when
he was 13, but he missed his dog Jack, so he returned, lived in a tree house,
and got a job in a bowling alley where he ran into a piano player who called
himself Roadmaster. He made good money setting bowling pins and turned it
over to his grandmother, who eventually vanished with his life's savings.
When Jack the dog died, Floyd saw no alternative but to return to his parents,
but thanks to Roadmaster, he'd acquired a skill. He could play the blues.
This got him prizes at town contest at the million-dollar theater and Johnny
Otis' famous club the Barrelhouse, and soon he was rubbing shoulders with
other musicians in his neighborhood, most notably Charles Brown, a fellow
Texan and a major star of the day. He suggested that Floyd go see the Bahari
Brothers who owned Modern Records and show them what he could do. So he did.

(Soundbite from "Dallas Blues")

Mr. DIXON: (Singing) "Going down in Dallas. Yes, that's the place for me.
Yes, I'm going down in Dallas. Yes, that's the place for me. Cause there's
someone down in Dallas that I really, really want to see. Well, I've been
down in..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Jules Bahari liked "Dallas Blues" so much that he handed the kid a
$100 and told him to take it and go join the musicians union immediately. It
became one of 1949's most played rhythm and blues songs, as did his next
record, "Mississippi Blues." He made enough money to buy a station wagon to
take him to gigs and eventually enough to quit his day job at a sauerkraut
factory. Eddie Williams was the bassist with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers,
one of LA's top blues acts, which fell apart when its vocalist, Charles Brown,
went solo. Williams invited Floyd to join his new band, Eddie Williams & His
Brown Buddies who recorded for Supreme, a label owned by a black dentist named
Al Patrick. Although the Brown Buddies had some hits for Supreme, Patrick
declared bankruptcy and folded the label, but when Floyd went back to Modern,
they proved they weren't happy with him by refusing to advance him $200 to
bury his mother who'd just died.

In desperation he turned to the notorious Don Roby, the Houston gambler who
owned Duke Records. Roby gave him $2,000 to record eight sides for him.

(Soundbite from "Sad Journey")

Mr. DIXON: (Singing) "Hold that train, conductor. I'm coming right aboard.
Hold that train, conductor. I'm coming right aboard. Being without my baby,
here's the thing I can't afford. It'll be a real sad journey..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: But as he did so many others, Roby scared Dixon, and after "Sad
Journey" had become successful, he had second thoughts about sticking with him
and went to Aladdin Records in LA, which bought Roby out. At long last, Floyd
started to see some national success, and by the start of 1951, he was in the
rhythm and blues top 10.

(Soundbite from "Long Distance Telephone Blues")

(Soundbite of rotary telephone being dialed)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking) This is long distance.

Mr. DIXON: (Singing) "Long distance, long distance, try my baby once again.
Long distance, long distance, try my baby once again. Don't worry about the
charges. I'll pay for everything on this end."

Ms. MARIE WILSON: (Singing) "Hello, pretty daddy, please, please, come back
home. Pretty, pretty, pretty daddy..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: A duet with Marie Wilson, "Long Distance Telephone Blues" made
Floyd Dixon's career. Suddenly, songwriters were appearing with material for
him, including a couple of teenagers named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,
whose "Too Much Jelly Roll" he recorded live at the Shrine Auditorium. But he
also stuck with the tried and true and saw the top 10 for the last tine in
1952 with another telephone song, "Call Operator 210."

(Soundbite from "Call Operator 210")

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. DIXON: (Speaking) Hello.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking) Hello, Floyd.

Mr. DIXON: (Singing) "Hello, baby, why did you wait so long to call? Hello,
baby, why did you wait so long to call? Well, I've been so sick and worried
ever since you left last fall. Please, please..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Ironically, though, the song he'll probably be best remembered for
wasn't a hit in its day and was cut in 1954 for a subsidiary of Atlantic
called Cat. The royalties from its use in the "Blues Brothers" film certainly
helped ease the pain of his old age.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DIXON: (Singing) "Went for it the other night, started drinking and got
real tight. I blew each and all my friends. Felt so good I had to blow
again. I said, hey, bartender. Hey, man, look at here. Draw one, draw two,
draw three, four glasses of beer. Saw a chick sitting on the end. I said,
Baby, can't we be friends? You look as sweet as you can be. Come on down and
drink with me. I said, hey, bartender. Hey, man..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Floyd Dixon continued to record for small labels, most recently
for Alligator Records. By all accounts, he was a great storyteller and a
devoted family man. He'll be missed.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. Floyd Dixon died on July 26th.

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on the return of the British crime drama,

This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: TV critic David Bianculli reviews new episode of popular
British crime series "Cracker"
(Soundbite of music)


It's been 10 years since Robbie Coltrane portrayed his signature TV character,
crime psychologist Edward Fitzgerald in the British series, "Cracker." But
tonight Coltrane and "Cracker" return in a new BBC America telemovie, with an
approach and a plot that are very pointedly post-9/11. TV critic David
Bianculli has this review.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: If you've never seen Robbie Coltrane in "Cracker,"
you've really missed something. His character, Dr. Edward Fitzgerald, goes
by the friendly nickname of Fitz, but that's where the cuddly stuff stops.
Back in 1993, when the "Cracker" series first was imported by PBS, Fitz was
startling abrasive. For a police psychologist, he didn't care too much about
other people's feelings. He was rude to his bosses and most of his colleagues
and treated his wife the same way. About the only people who got empathy from
Fitz were his prime suspects. He understood them, and in his extended
conversations with them in the interrogation room, he broke them down

Back then, the only TV series close to "Cracker" in tone and intensity was
NBC's "Homecide: Life on the Street," which was introduced that same year.
It also had a cop, Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher who was a genius
at extracting confessions. Frank was abrasive but Fitz is even worse. He's
got a drinking problem, he smokes, he's overweight, and he acts with
undisguised arrogance, as if he were the smartest person in the room. He
almost always is.

Years ago, ABC tried an Americanized version of "Cracker," starring Robert
Pastorelli who played the housepainter on "Murphy Brown." Terrible casting,
terrible show. But these days on television, there's an obvious descendant of
the "Cracker" character and sensibility: Hugh Laurie, playing an equal
opportunity offender and a brilliant surgeon on the Fox series, "House." Fitz
and House, it's easy to imagine, could almost be friends.

Jimmy McGovern, the talented TV writer who's also responsible for the current
BBC America miniseries, "The Street," seen on Tuesdays, wrote "Cracker" then.
He's reteamed with Coltrane for tonight's movie, which revisits the character
a decade later. They agreed to do one more, Coltrane has explained, because
McGovern has found something new he wanted to explore. Boy, did he ever!

The name of tonight's telemovie is "Cracker: A New Terror" but that's only
the title here in the United States. When it was shown back in the United
Kingdom, it's title was "Cracker: 9/11." And the first murder victim in the
drama is a visiting stand-up comic from America whose act made fun of the IRA
for being overshadowed by Osama bin Laden.

One of the unsettling things to absorb in this new "Cracker" is how openly
everyone talks about being anti-American in general and anti-George W. Bush
in particular, not in any preachy political sense but just as an accepted
overall attitude. Even the American mother of the victim accepts as much, but
insists that her son, a liberal comedian, was different. `My son was an
American,' she insists, angry that he was targeted for murder. `He was a New

In this telemovie, as in "Columbo," whodunit isn't part of the mystery. We
see the killer and the killing right away. The drama comes from watching the
hero identify and then trap the murderer. But this time there's just as much
weight put on the motive. The killer is himself suicidal, but murders because
he can't find the strength or the weakness to take his own life. And it's not
revealing any of the key secrets in this new "Cracker" to reveal that the
killer, years before, was a British soldier assigned to northern Ireland. His
posttraumatic stress disorder plays out in a desire to make someone pay for
the deaths of his fellow soldiers. Deaths rendered less meaningful, he fears,
after the global terrorism of 9/11. He directs his anger, his murderous rage,
at Americans, and confronting a second potential victim, a wealthy businessman
from the US, he takes the time to explain why. It's not coincidental that a
news report from Iraq is playing on television at the time, or that the
killer, while he's talking, raises the TV's volume to match his escalating
rage and to mask the sounds of his victim.

(Soundbite from "Cracker")

Unidentified TV Reporter #1: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Businessman: What do you want?

TV Reporter #1: ...were arrested...

Mr. ANTHONY FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) I want revenge for every British
soldier killed in Northern Ireland.

TV Reporter #1: try and get...

Businessman: So?

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) So...

TV Reporter #1: I am told that...

Businessman: I've never been to Northern Ireland.

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) Of course not.

TV Reporter #1: ...expected insurgents...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) You're too frightened. Too many bombs going
off, right?

TV Reporter #1: ...was connected in some way...

Businessman: Right.

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) Yeah. Bombs bought with American dollars.
Every bullet that hit every British soldier bought with American dollars.
Every bomb bought with American dollars. Every...

Unidentified TV Reporter #2: ...American allies. Is that now known...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) You're not listening.

Businessman: I am.

(Soundbite of grunt)

TV Reporter #1: The fact is I don't think Basra is Baghdad...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) You funded terrorism for years.

TV Reporter #1: Tonight, those British...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) And, hallelujah, you get what's coming to

TV Reporter #1: ...and raise awkward questions...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) Nine-eleven.

Reporter #1: ...direction of the government's policy...

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) And suddenly you don't like terrorism one
little bit.

(Soundbite of grunt)

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) I call that hypocrisy.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: The hunt for this killer is exciting, and the acting by
Anthony Flanagan as the troubled ex-soldier and especially by Coltrane as Fitz
couldn't be better. It takes a long time for Fitz to identify his prime
suspect, but when the two of them wind up in that interrogation room, it's
terrific. Fitz follows an expected line of questioning with a seemingly
unrelated one.

(Soundbite of "Cracker")

Mr. ROBBIE COLTRANE: (As Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald) What did you think of

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) What?

Mr. COLTRANE: (As Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald) What did you think of 9/11?

Mr. FLANAGAN: (As Kenny Archer) What's that got to do with this?

Mr. COLTRANE: (As Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald) But what did you think...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: As it turns out, everything. For a valuable perspective
about that tragedy that you're not likely to see anywhere on scripted TV in
the United States, make sure to watch tonight's "Cracker" on BBC America. The
title has been diluted, but the drama and the message arrive in full force.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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