It’s been over a month now since we lost Charlie Ridgway. And for those of us who were lucky enough to know and/or work with this Disney Legend, this is a wound that will take a while to heal.
“And why exactly is that?,” you say. Well, I could go on & on about my own dealings with Charlie over the past three-plus decades. What a genuine pleasure he was to work with because Mr. Ridgway was that rarer-than-rare thing: A PR guy who actually liked working with reporters.
But if I did that, I’d then wind up hogging the spotlight at a time when the focus should really be on Charlie. So here. Rather than having me talk about the handful of times that he & I collaborated on a Disney-related story, I’m going to let the people who were lucky enough to work with Charlie on a day-to-day basis share their memories of this man.
First up is John Dreyer, the former head of Corporate Communications for The Walt Disney Company.
It was Charlie who helped John get his start at the Mouse House back in 1976 by hiring him to work as a publicist for The Walt Disney World Resort. And …
… we’ve been friends ever since.
I think everyone who ever met Charlie has been friends from that moment on.
For those of us who worked for Charlie, he was our Peter Pan. He led us on fantastical adventures.
Charlie had an infectious enthusiasm for life and a boundless curiosity about everything. And he was passionate about all things Disney.
He loved big ideas. For Donald Duck’s 50th birthday, he concocted the idea of hatching 50 ducklings and imprinting them on the costumed Donald so that they would follow him in the park. They rode on a float with Donald in the daily parade wearing Disney name tags and birthday hats.
Charlie loved directing publicity shoots and is well known for unintentionally photo-bombing his own shoots. For the opening of Disneyland Paris, he organized a shoot of all the Disney characters on Main Street with the castle behind them. There was a flock of media photographers. The shot we all love appeared on the cover of a major European magazine with all of the Disney characters including Charlie.
Those of us who worked for Charlie in the days of typewriters remember fondly Charlie's editing process. Charlie would call you into his office or come to your desk and sit at your typewriter. With you over his shoulder, he and you would do the rewrite. Charlie would cross out sections you had written and he had written and you had written together. He would move graphs around by cutting them out and then stapling the sections together. At least one release that was two pages in its final form was six feet long in its finished draft.
As I said earlier, Charlie made friends for life. When Charlie started sending me on trips to South America that he had previously taken, virtually every journalist I called on first asked me, "Where's Charlie? Is he ok?" And when I said he was fine, they told me to tell him they sent their regards.
Charlie struck up a friendship with many notable journalists, among them Walter Cronkite. And when Walter had his sailboat on the Florida east coast, he would invite Charlie to come over and spend time on it.
Pam Brandon – who’s now a highly regarded public relations consultant – also has extremely fond memories of the man who helped launch her career:
When I was a 20-something tourism reporter for Orlando Magazine in the 1980s, I was always a little afraid of big, bold Charlie Ridgway. I wanted to be sure I had my facts straight and told a solid story when reporting anything Disney.
Imagine my trepidation when he called me one day out of the blue and offered me a job on the Disney “Press & Publicity” team that operated out of a tiny office above City Hall in the Magic Kingdom. Charlie and Bob Mervine drove to Winter Park to interview me, and over soft drinks, made me an offer on the spot.
At the time, I wondered just what a publicist did; I was a journalist by trade and had no training in PR. But that was Charlie’s secret weapon in the 1970s and 1980s – he never hired a PR person, he hired journalists, both print and broadcast, who had newsroom experience – that was a prerequisite. He assembled a team of the best of the best, and always told us to never pitch a weak story idea, and never to expect coverage – if we got a positive story, that was wonderful; if not, we had nurtured an important relationship.
I’ve never forgotten that, perhaps his greatest lesson: to treat the media with integrity. And that has served me well. A small group of us from those days celebrated Christmas every year with a lunch with Charlie, and over the years I’ve realized just how much “big, bold Charlie” cared about every one of us. We will miss his fierce love of all things Disney.
And given all those years that Ridgway worked (I’m quoting now from the subtitle of Charlie’s 2007 memoir, “Spinning Disney’s World”) as a Magic Kingdom Press Agent … Well, is it really all that surprising to learn that some of that Disney magic seemed to have rubbed off on Ridgway. Witness Rick Sylvain (who’s now a retired director of Walt Disney World PR)’s tale of that time when Charlie popped up in the most unlikely spot.
Rick recalled that – 10 years ago – he and two colleagues, Bob Jenkins and Rich Grant …
… were tooling around England following a travel writer's convention in Manchester. I had talked the boys into driving to Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel (I'm a L&H buff).
Anyhow, all was going well until it came time, in a little country village, to fuel up our rental van. Rich merrily poured unleaded petrol into the tank. Not 200 yards from the station the van coughed, sputtered and limped to a dead halt. Villagers clued us in, pointing to the little sticker on the gas cap. "Diesel Only" it read. Our hearts sank, thinking we had just ruined an expensive vehicle and the thousands we would be out.
Mechanics came and 90 minutes later we were in the cab of a truck towing our very lifeless van to a Chrysler dealership in a town an hour's drive away. While technicians drained the tank dry of the wrong fuel, I went around to the front of the dealership to a convenience store.
There stood, to my utter amazement, Charlie Ridgway. He was also touring around after the same convention and had stopped at this store in this town on this day at this hour at this minute - for a candy bar. What were the odds?
Flabbergasted, I had my mates come round to the front of the dealership; I had a surprise for them. Jaws dropped, smiles widened and Rich snapped the photo. I loved Charlie's expression in this photo.
Guess our Disney ditto is right - it is a small world, after all.
Epilogue of sorts: our day of sightseeing was pretty much spent at an English car dealership, at a service bay. We never got to Ulverston. Another fine mess!
Charlie, meantime, drove merrily on his way.
And that – in a nutshell – is one of the main reasons that I’ve put off posting this tribute to Mr. Ridgway for so long now. If I actually type the words – that, on December 24, 2016, Charlie Ridgway passed away at his home in Longwood, FL at the ripe old age of 93 – Well, that then means Charlie is no longer out there “ … merrily on his way.” Which means that I’m never again going to bump into him at some Disneyana event. Which is where Charlie would invariably share some heretofore untold tale about what REALLY happened behind-the-scenes at the grand opening of some theme park ride, show or attraction.
So for strictly selfish reasons, I’m now going to take a page out of the Ridgway playbook and do a quick rewrite. In my new stapled-together version of this story (which has the Disney-style happy ending that I know Charlie would have approved of), he’s now on his way to go sailing again with Walter Cronkite.
I just hope that there’s room on that sloop for the 50 white ducks that Ridgway’s bringing along.