INSIDE THE WHIMSY WORKS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jimmy Johnson may not be a name that comes immediately to mind when one things of the Walt Disney Company, but was an integral part of the fledgling company from the time he was hired as an assistant publicist in 1938 until his retirement in 1975. Johnson chronicles this period and his work in establishing the Disney Music Company in his memoirs, Inside the Whimsy Works, written around the time of his retirement, but not published by his family until now.
The book covers the several years Johnson worked for Disney in a variety of positions, ranging from mailboy to the head of Disney’s musical department. This allows him to give an holistic look at the Disney Company, creating a memoir in which the company itself is the focus rather than its famous leader or his older brother, Roy, with whom Johnson worked more closely. The company, therefore, comes across as an actual entity with workers of all levels, rather than a management company that makes decisions and causes things to magically get done. Even when Johnson moves into management, he demonstrates how hands on he is, such as his descriptions of making sure the music store in Disneyland was properly stocked.
Johnson’s writes in a chatty and friendly style that invites the reader in, but he has a tendency to jump around a little, which means that the timeline of his tenure at Disney is not always entirely clear, made a little more convoluted by the fact that some individuals keep popping up as Johnson moved around the company. Johnson also has an humility concerning his role at Disney, so even as he describes major innovations he brought about for the company and the way it did business, he makes it sound as if he was just a bit player.
For the most part, Johnson refrains from saying anything negative about anyone, so it is sometimes difficult to read between the lines to get a full understanding of some of his business relationships, but his descriptions of Oliver Bradshaw Johnston, with whom he worked in Accounting and Character Merchandising, demonstrates that there were turf issues and close-mindedness. If Johnson is to be believed, Johnston was out to build his own fiefdom within Disney and had delusions of his own competence. Given Johnson’s take on Johnston, the latter’s lengthy career with the company doesn’t entirely make sense given how quickly Fred Raphael was let loose when the Disney brothers felt he was looking out for himself rather than the company.
Johnson also spends a good deal of time discussing the original Mouseketeers, specifically Annette Funnicello and his role in helping build her career by spotlighting her and working out record deals for her. Johnson does spend part of the book wondering about the vicissitudes of luck that make one person a star while overlooking other, more talented people, and uses Funicello as an example, pointing out other Mouseketeers, such as Darlene Gillespie of “Cubby” O’Brien, who he felt were more talented than Funicello, but who didn’t connect with the audience in the same way.
The Disney Music department may not have the recognition the films or the parks do, but, as Johnson describes, it has been an integral part of Disney from its founding. Johnson was instrumental in its creation and his memoir gives incredible insight into its formation and functioning. Written in 1975, the work obviously can't cover the way the division currently works, but with the rise of Annette Funicello, Disney's teen star-making ability is clearly demonstrated and the document serves an excellent historical purpose, while being an enjoyable and entertaining book to read.
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