Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Walt's First Polo Game? by Garry Apgar

It's been awhile in getting this up, but, I am happy to present this guest post by author and Disney historian Garry Apgar in follow up to my December 23, 2014 post about Walt's polo team:

Regarding the photograph posted last month on TagToonz of “Charlie Farrell’s Cats” and Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” polo team (the four men in white on the right), shot— presumably — before the match won by the Cats by a score of 8-4 … Ace Disney animator Norman Ferguson, who penciled the much-admired flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto (1934), must indeed have been the person who inscribed the back of the picture.

Compare (below) the “Mickey Mouse” lineup noted by Ferguson on the reverse of the photo with the team’s roster for another match published in the May 21, 1933 issue of the Los Angeles Times. 

In both instances, the teams competed against each other at the Riviera Country Club in Santa Monica. Two screen actors, Leslie Howard (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Gone With the Wind) and Charles Farrell, participated in the Cats’ trouncing of the Mickey Mouses, although unfortunately Norm Ferguson did not say when what he called in the inscription “our first big game” took place. In the Cats’ lineup for the May 21, 1933 match, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, were two different actors, Spencer Tracy and cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown. Disney’s lineup was the same each time: Ferguson and fellow animator Dick Lundy, polo professional Gil Procter, and Walt himself.

Charles Farrell, incidentally, was later elected mayor of Palm Springs, California, but is best remembered as Gale Storm’s father on the 1950s TV sitcom My Little Margie. Farrell’s teammate, Reginald “Snowy” Baker, was an Olympic-class athlete from Sydney, Australia, who excelled in swimming, rugby, and boxing as well as polo. Baker moved to California in the 1920s where he became equestrian director of the Riviera C. C., won parts big and small in a handful of films, including the Spencer Tracy vehicle of 1937, Big City, and coached actors like Errol Flynn and the young Elizabeth Taylor in horseback riding, fencing, and swimming.

All fascinating stuff in its own right. But, from a purely Disney standpoint, two questions arise: When was the 8-4 loss recorded by Ferguson played? And more importantly, was the Mickey Mouse team’s “first big game,” Walt’s first “official” polo match?  

Neither of these questions can be satisfactorily resolved yet. But we know this much:

In his 1976 biography Walt Disney, An American Original, Bob Thomas, a veteran Hollywood reporter who interviewed his subject many times over the years, said that by the end of 1932 “Walt was beginning to make a modest venture into Hollywood society, through polo.” He enlisted animators Jack Cutting, Ferguson, Lundy and Les Clark, the studio’s attorney Gunther Lessing, and Bill Cottrell, a former cameraman and member of the story department. “The eight poloists, Thomas said, “began practice sessions at a riding academy in the San Fernando Valley.”

A lighthearted squib in the July 1932 issue of New Movie Magazine, kindly provided by Disney historian David Lesjak, indicates that Walt had gotten “into” polo months before the end of the year:

HOSPITAL NOTE: Walt Disney, the man who makes Mickey Mouse, has taken up polo. Horace Horse-Collar is not mentioned in the dispatch.

A start date of summer 1932 for Walt’s nascent interest in polo was confirmed (after a fashion) by the journalist and Hollywood publicist Harry Mines in the August 25, 1935 issue of the Riviera Chukker (also posted in December on TagToonz), who said that “exactly three years ago Mr. Disney climbed on his first horse and with a tense doubtful expression on his face started off over a trail.”

These three sources, together, suggest that circa July 1932 Walt was beginning to get the hang of the rudiments of polo (basic things like, ahem, riding a horse), and that by around November he and the men he’d recruited were scrimmaging with other players.

Then, as Neal Gabler wrote in his Disney biography, “by the spring of 1933 ... Walt was ready to play matches at the ... Riviera Country Club.” The source given by Gabler as the basis for this statement was an article in the Los Angeles Herald & Express from April 14, 1933. Michael Barrier tells me that the Herald & Express story “is consistent with” the following item printed by the Los Angeles Times, also on April 14, 1933, a Friday:

   As a prelude to the polo game featuring the University of Arizona and a Riviera team on Sunday, an all-movie battle was scheduled yesterday. This will be between the Mickey Mouses and Perkins’s Kats. Both games will be played on the Riviera field.

    The Mickey Mouses will have Ray [Roy] Disney, Walt Disney, Johnny Mack Brown, former Alabama football star, and Will Rogers in the lineup. The Kats will line up with Leslie Howard, Charley Farrell, Spencer Tracy and Arthur Perkins from No. 1 to back, respectively.

    The Disneys have been playing polo about six months and are the latest movie colony players to show their mallet wares in public. Lewis Brown, former Arizona college player, is “alternate” for the Mickey Mouses, and may replace any of the players upon signs of approaching collapse.

David Lesjak says he knows of no earlier newspaper account of Walt playing polo. Interestingly, the next-t-last sentence here about the Disney brothers playing the game for “about six months” corroborates Bob Thomas’s comment that by the end of 1932 “Walt was beginning to make a modest venture into Hollywood society, through polo.”

We don’t know who won this “all-movie battle” between the “Mickey Mouses” and the Cats (assuming it ultimately took place), or what the score was. However, the squads on both sides — unless the rosters were changed between Friday and game day — were clearly not the ones who participated in the two matches mentioned at the top of this post.

Reading between the lines of the Los Angeles Times report, the contest slated for Sunday, April 16, 1933, may well have marked Walt Disney’s formal debut in a scheduled polo match — we know of no other publicly announced event that predates it. But, because of the discrepancy in lineups, it cannot, in all likelihood, be the “first big game” for Walt and his mates, whatever Norm Ferguson meant by those momentous words.

Note: I am grateful to Michael Barrier and David Lesjak for their generosity in providing vital information on this topic, including transcriptions and pdfs of articles, and to Jim Korkis for reviewing a draft version of this text.