One thing that all Disney fans and history buffs agree on is that Walt Disney was one of the industries greatest innovators and storytellers. His amazing ability to garner the best from those who worked for him is legendary. Walt also had an amazing work ethic, most likely gleaned from his stoic father’ hard-scrabbled life and Midwestern values that Elias instilled in him and his brothers, Roy, Herbert, and Raymond. Walt worked tirelessly, and even after achieving major success, he still spent countless hours at his studio, overseeing almost everything. In fact, many will also agree, Walt was a micro-manager, and over the years, the stress began to show its toll.
Even the great Walt Disney could only stand so much pressure, both at the studio and home. With so many demands of running and growing his studio, schedules, going over the dailies from the Mickey cartoons, future projects etc., and trauma from home also added to the mix…His wife Lillian experienced two miscarriages; this was the straw that broke Walt’s back. After Lillian’s miscarriage, Walt insisted he was fine, but he revealed that in 1931 he had a “hell of a breakdown. I went to pieces.” He even admitted that he got to a point where he’d talk on the phone and start to cry. It was then that Walt’s doctor advised him to take up a hobby and exercise to help to relieve the enormous stress, sort of a “safety valve”. Walt and Lillian went on a first vacation together. Returning home, Walt tried different venues of exercise…boxing, wrestling, and golf. But instead of calming and releasing tension, Walt just became more frustrated and agitated.
Since Walt always loved animals, horses, in particular, he joined a local riding club and tried horseback riding, with much success and pleasure. It was a perfect solution, for at the time in the 1930’s, polo was an extremely popular sport, especially among the Hollywood elite. Polo is a very physical sport. It is considered one of the oldest team sports in history. The first polo matches were played in Persia over 2500 years ago. It is so physically intense, it was used as a training tool for many of the world’s King’ cavalry units. Along with horse racing, it became known as the “Game of Kings”
Many of Hollywood’s elitist in the entertainment industry embraced this sport and used it as we use Facebook as a social network in the community. By the ‘30’s, there were more than 25 polo fields in the Los Angeles area. Some of the fields Walt played on were the Riviera Polo Field (Now the Paul Revere High School sits on the property) and the Uplifters Polo Field (Now a street). The iconic Beverly Hills Polo Lounge was used as a magnet for the Hollywood crowd of the time to hold court. It remains as it was a social gathering place even today. Next to the Riviera Field were several other polo fields and many of the celebrities kept their polo ponies and stables there .
Because of the social networking success of Polo, Walt Disney met and became great friends with “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son”, Will Rodgers. Rodgers was the considered the political satirist at the time, motion picture star, both silent and “talkies”, worked in vaudeville, was a cowboy, social commentator, newspaper columnist and humorist. He was idolized by America and the highest paid actor at the time. But most important, Will Rodgers was a huge advocate of the sport of Polo. He was introduced to the game in 1915, and during the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers promoted the sport among the elite in Hollywood, from Hal Roach to Darryl Zanuck, and Walt Disney.
Will Rodgers was also considered by Walt as starring in a concept he had been developing even before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He had developed several possibilities including Alice in Wonderland featuring a live-action Mary Pickford as Alice intermingling with animated characters, aping the early Alice comedies concept. That idea never came to fruition; Walt considered using the same concept but with Will Rogers as Rip Van Winkle interacting with animated characters. Walt even sent animators Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick, and Art Babbitt to sketch Rodgers in action at his ranch in Santa Monica. Walt even developed a Mickey Mouse short called “Mickey’s Polo Team”.
This short was a nod to Polo. It had no real storyline. It was a polo game between Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the Big Bad Wolf, and a team of Hollywood stars, Harpo Marx, Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy. Even in the spectators were a gaggle of stars of that era, Shirley temple, Clark Gable and Edna May Oliver along with the Three Little Pigs, Clarabelle Cow and Max Hare. It was to have a caricature of Rogers in caricature in the short, but, tragically, Rogers died in a plane accident in August 1935. Walt removed Rodgers caricature from the cartoon, and of course any plans for a feature film were finished.
Walt once joked that to him polo seemed to be just “golf on a horse.” As a kid, Walt did not have time for sports or extracurricular activities…Between chores, newspaper routes and working, he was never as athletic or co-ordinated at most kids. Although deficient in these sports important traits, Walt more than made up for it in being aggressive and extremely focused participant. Actor Robert Stack during an interview stated that Walt would… “Would “run right over anybody who crossed the line.” “Walt was a good polo player—and he loved the game… And I have a couple of trophies at home with Walt’s name on them. We hadn’t won the world’s championships but we had an awful lot of fun,” recalled Stack.
As Walt became involved deep in the sport, he recruited his brother Roy, and other studio members who included…Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, Bill Cottrell, Jack Cutting and Les Clark. He had the group study a book called “As to Polo” by William Cameron Forbes, an American investment banker and diplomat. During the administration of President Howard Taft, he served as Governor-General of the Philippines from 1908 to 1913. Among his passions was the game of Polo. Walt even employed polo expert Gil Procter, utilizing lessons and lectures. Walt was so fervent about the sport; he constructed a polo cage at the studio for practice during lunch. Here the men could hit balls into a goal. He had a horse dummy placed in his backyard to get practice before going to the DuBrock riding academy. Walt and his team, dubbed “The Mickey Mouse Team” started having matches with other novice teams at the Riverside Drive stadium.
Polo is called the “Sport of Kings” for another good reason…It requires a lot of monies to play. For example, in 1934, Roy Disney bought four polo ponies, and Walt had more than a dozen horses in his stable. Players required several horses because the horses would sometimes get hurt or tired and if a player didn’t have a good horse to get him to the ball, he couldn’t hit it. On Wednesday mornings and Saturday afternoons, Walt and Roy would play and practice with the team. They joined the very prestigious Riviera Club, home to such famous actors as Darryl Zanuck, Leslie Howard and Spencer Tracy. It was at the club that Walt Disney and Spencer Tracy became close friends. Walt often invited Spencer and his wife to dinner at his home.
It was through the “Polo” social network that Walt met with one Harry Tytle, who eventually worked for Walt for 40 years as production manager, his personal representative in Europe, supervisor of the Walt Disney Presents Television show and he worked on more than 200 cartoons in numerous areas. It seems that Harry knew Harold Helvenston who worked at the Disney studios as a professor of dramatics. Having dinner with Helvenston, he was introduced to several Disney employees and through that meeting, he was hired at the Disney Studio. Harry was an excellent polo player in college; Walt was introduced to him and found that he played polo, asked him to play at the Victor McLaughlin arena. The pair bonded and Tytle found himself in Walt’s inner circle, playing at the Rivera Country Club.
Walt headed up the “Mickey Mouse Team” at the polo matches. The team was comprised of Walt Disney, Robert Presnell, James Gleason and Happy Williams. And many do not know there was also a “Donald Duck Team”, thanks to the efforts of Tytle. He was teaching polo to editors and cutters from other studios and formed the team. They played all over the southwest, even in Mexico City, and won the Match. In Tytle’s autobiography, he recalled that the team was not taken seriously because they had a picture of Donald Duck on their shirts. This was a “Clever touch suggested by Walt” wrote Harry.
Walt’s brother Roy was a decent player, but although Walt was not that physically gifted, he made up for in aggressiveness. It was this aspect of Walt’s game that began to worry Roy. Polo is in itself extremely dangerous. Roy was concerned Walt could be lost due to a crippling injury. In 1938, Roy quit the sport and sold his ponies, and wished Walt would do also. Always the competitor, Walt wanted to play with the better players. A South American team, known as the “Argentines” was at the Rivera and Walt went to practice with them. Despite warnings from Roy, Walt played with the professional team. A ball was struck by one of the players, it smashed into Walt, and knocking him from his mount…The injury was four of his cervical vertebrae were crushed. Walt went to a chiropractor instead of a doctor. Because of this, his injury haunted him for the rest of his life, causing sometimes unbearable pain and arthritis. It was because of this injury in later years, that Hazel George (1904-1996) hired as the Disney studios nurse, also acted as Walt’s personal nurse. Around five in the afternoon, she and Walt would enter a small side room off his main office and she would treat his old polo injury through massage therapy. Here, Walt would imbibe on a scotch while unloading his burdens on Hazel. It was from her suggestion that Walt took up railroading as a hobby.
So with all the accolades and accomplishments that Walt had garnered over his amazing and successful career, this small part of his life is largely forgotten by many. It may be now just a small footnote in history, but it also exemplifies how Walt Disney, no matter what he put his mind to, he gave it 100% and more.