If you look around the Web today, you’ll see that there are lots of Disney fans who are expressing sorrow at Marty Sklar’s untimely passing.
But I wonder how many of these folks would ever admit that they were among those who – just two weeks ago today – actually booed this Disney Legend. All because Marty – at the “Disney Pirates of the Caribbean: 50 Years of Swashbuckling Adventures in Disney Parks” panel at this year’s D23 EXPO – dared to defend Imagineering’s recent decision to make some changes to that attraction’s auction scene.
“It’s just part of the process,” Sklar stated from the stage of the D23 EXPO Arena, “Walt started changing things at Disneyland from the first day it opened.”
And – believe you me – no one would know better at the not-exactly-happy start of the Happiest Place on Earth than Marty Sklar. Walt himself signed off on the idea of hiring this then-just 21-year old UCLA student to serve as the writer / editor / publisher of The Disneyland News. Which was this tabloid-style newspaper that used to be sold at this theme park back in the last 1950s.
Walt clearly liked those stories that Marty was writing for The Disneyland News. Why is why – as soon as Sklar officially finished college – Disney insisted that this talented young wordsmith decamp from Anaheim for Burbank. Where Marty initially helped craft those intros that Walt did on his weekly TV series but eventually graduated to helping Disney put into words his vision for “Project Summer.” Not to mention that Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow which Walt wanted to build on that 40-square miles of swampland the Company purchased in Central Florida back in the early 1960s.
Of course, we lost Walt back in December of 1966. And for a time, the Company genuinely hesitated when it came to the Florida Project. They weren’t sure that it was financially prudent to proceed. Especially since the man with the plan had passed.
But you know who fought tirelessly to make sure that Walt Disney World actually happened? Marty Sklar. He – along with Dick Nunis – sweet-talked, wheedled, threatened, cajoled. Whatever it took to keep Disney’s Board of Directors on board with this project. Not letting them get away with financial compromises and creative half measures (I remember Marty once telling me how the Board once tried to persuade he & Dick to settle for a Magic Kingdom that would be built right by the highway. To be specific: At the corner of I-4 & 192, approximately where the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex was ultimately built) but to follow through with exactly Walt wanted to build.
Mind you, that got a lot harder once Roy O. Disney passed away in December of 1971. The Company’s next CEO – Card Walker – was far more cautious that either Walt or Roy had been. Which is why it took years of campaigning on Marty’s part to finally persuade Card to move forward with EPCOT.
Now there are those who will tell you that – because EPCOT (the theme park) isn’t really what Walt wanted to build in Central Florida (After all, the whole point of Walt Disney Productions acquiring those thousands of acres of swampland was so that the Company could then showcase all of “ … the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry.” FYI: That line is from a speech that Marty wrote for Walt) -- EPCOT Center is a bit of a botch.
But you know what I see when I look at Disney World’s science & discovery park? A place that Marty Sklar – almost through sheer force of will – made happen. If you look closely at many of the pictures that were taken at 1401 Flower Street in the 1970s as all of those different iterations of EPCOT (It’s a city. No, wait. Now it’s an industrial showcase. Hang on. What if we built a theme park instead?) slowly made their way through WED’s development pipeline, you’ll see that Marty’s in a lot of these photographs. Usually standing at the elbow of someone in power at the Mouse House, effectively saying “ … You know we have to build this, right?”
Now some folks will tell you that Marty Sklar was the Jiminy Cricket of The Walt Disney Company. The guy who kept Walt’s spirit alive within the organization long after the Company’s founder has passed. But to my way of thinking, that really sells Sklar short. It overlooks Marty’s amazing skills when it came to inter-office politics. Sklar was a pragmatist that would do whatever he had to – glad-hand potential corporate sponsors, spend countless hours in mind-numbing meetings, tirelessly work the telephones –to make sure that the Disney theme parks stayed viable & vital, constantly growing & changing.
You see, that’s what Marty learned from that dozen or so years that he spent at Walt’s elbow. That Disneyland Park (and consequently all of the theme parks that followed it) wasn’t supposed to be suspended in amber. It was supposed to be this dynamic collection of rides, shows and attractions that always had something new for Guests to see & experience.
Which isn’t to say that Sklar won every single battle that he fought. I remember sitting down with Marty back in February of 2001. This was just a day or so before Disney California Adventure officially opened to the public. And I ask Sklar flat-out that – if he had to do it all over again – was there anything that he’d change about the Disneyland Resort’s second gate.
Without blinking an eye, the then-Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering said “We should have built a third theater for ‘Soarin’.’ That’s going to be a hugely popular attraction with Guests at this park. And the lines to ride ‘Soarin’ ‘ are going to be unnecessarily long because I wasn’t able to persuade Michael Eisner that we really needed to build a third theater.”
Now jump ahead to the Spring of last year. When – as EPCOT was rolling out “Soarin’ Around the World,” that brand-new ride film for this theme park’s clone of that still-super-popular DCA attraction – The Land Pavilion unveiled a third theater for this Future World attraction. When I mentioned this to Marty the very next time this Disney Legend and I got together, he laughed and then said “ … Well, sometimes they listen to me. Of course, this time around, it took 15 years for that message to finally sink in. But sometimes they still do listen to me.”
Speaking of listening to Sklar … On Sunday, July 16th, hundreds of Disney fans were listening in as Marty – along with Tony Baxter & John Stamos – hosted the final event at this year’s D23 EXPO. Which was a “Legends of Walt Disney Imagineering” panel. Thankfully, this time around, there were no boorish boos. Just respectful applause as Sklar & Baxter repeatedly paid tribute to so many of WDI’s unsung heroes.
Now given everything that Marty had had a hand in over the course of his 54 year-long career at the Mouse House, this Disney Legend would have been well within his rights to turn this particular panel into the Marty Sklar show. But that’s not what he did. If anything, over the course of this presentation, Sklar repeatedly stepped out of the spotlight so that he could then deliberately shine it on longtime co-workers & friends like Blaine Gibson & Harriet Burns (Marty shared an especially sweet story about these two which revealed how Blaine & Harriet – after they’d each lost their longtime spouses – wound up at the same assisted living facility. Which is how Gibson & Burns became sweethearts in their twilight years).
That (to me, anyway) says a lot about who Marty Sklar really was. Reveals much about this man’s true character. Never mind about the countless hours that this Disney Legend put into promoting & fundraising for the Ryman Arts Foundation. Which (of course) was named after Herb Ryman, another Disney Legend that Sklar worked side-by-side with for decades. And – to Marty’s way of thinking, anyway – never got the amount of attention / credit that he was due.
But that was what Sklar did. That was who Marty was. Whether it was all those intros that he wrote for Walt to read on the “Disneyland” TV show or the way he’d tirelessly work to turn some ride, show or attraction that WED had dreamed up into a reality, it was never really about him. It was always about making the other guy look better.
Which – in the end – is what made Marty look really good. At least in my book.