Portrait of a man wearing a gray suit and standing in front of the U.S. and California flags, with his arms crossed and smiling.

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Uncovering Disney Magic

Don Peri ’72 delves into Disney history in a new book, including a spotlight on a former Aggie.

Hollywood film directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are household names, but what about those at the helm of classic Disney animated movies like Snow White and Cinderella?

A new book aims to spotlight some of those lesser-known names. Directing at Disney (Disney Editions, 2024) was co-written by Don Peri ’72 and Pete Docter, chief creative officer at Pixar. It comes out in September.

“These are people that almost nobody knows about,” said Peri, who is retired from the state of California and is a historian of all things Disney. “We thought this was a gap in the history of animation.”

This will be Peri’s fourth book on Disney, and over the years he has interviewed 134 people who worked for the venerated company. With Pete Docter, 44 interviews inform the new book. For Peri, this journey started with a chance meeting with another Aggie in 1974.

An Aggie connection

In 1973, the book The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch was published, chronicling Disney’s artistic achievements and history. An alum named Ben Sharpsteen was mentioned prominently. Peri got in touch.

“My sister and I went over, and what I thought would be an hour was all day that we spent with him and his wife,” Peri recalled. “He brought out an Oscar that Walt Disney had given him, and he brought out a program from Snow White signed by everybody in the studio when it came out. He kept telling story after story.”

After that first meeting, Sharpsteen wrote a letter and hired Peri, a graduate student in English at the time, to write his memoirs. Though they were never published, that work has been included in Peri’s other books, including Working with Walt (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) and Working with Disney (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Earlier in his life, Sharpsteen attended the University Farm, studying agriculture. His interest in drawing went back to his high school days in Alameda.

“He never had any art lessons,” his son, Tom, recalled in a 2004 email to UC Davis Magazine. “He loved cartooning and contributed much to the Davis [yearbook].”

He worked as a ranch hand briefly, before joining the U.S. Marine Corps during WWI. After that, he moved to New York to work for animation studios there.

Walt Disney presents Ben Sharpsteen with a Mousecar Award, given to honor employees for their service. (Photo: Courtesy of Don Peri)

Don Peri first met Ben Sharpsteen at his home in Calistoga in 1974. (Photo: Courtesy of Don Peri)

“[Back then] cartoons were just fillers on the program,” Peri said. “They were with a newsreel before a movie. Walt Disney [heard about Sharpsteen] and contacted him. [That’s when] he went to work with Walt Disney.”

During his 30 years at the studio, he worked on more than 30 films. He held various directorial positions on such movies as Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and many others.

“It was the highlight of his life, working there,” Peri said.

In 1966, Walt Disney wrote a letter to then-Chancellor Emil Mrak in response to Sharpsteen’s nomination for an honorary degree from UC Davis. (He received that honorary degree in 1967.)

“I want to say he was one of our valuable men,” Disney wrote. “He played a very important part. … I’m very pleased the University of California at Davis is considering him for this honor. If anybody is worthy of an Honorary Degree certainly Ben Sharpsteen is.”

When Peri met him, he was already retired and living in Calistoga. He opened doors to other former Disney employees from that time period, which has led to years of studying those years at Disney studios. A chapter in the new book is about Sharpsteen.

The new book

Peri met Docter, who has directed Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out and Soul, in 2008, when Peri was writing Working with Walt. Peri had landed what was perhaps the last interview given by Wilfred Jackson, a longtime Disney animator who directed Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

Docter was interested.

Pete Docter (Courtesy of Pixar blog)

Peri provided the long version of the interview and received an invitation to Pixar. The two became friends. In 2013, they gave a talk at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco about Disney directors.

“Somebody said, ‘You two should do a book about this,” Peri said. “We did our first interview in November 2013, and the book went to be printed in October 2023. So it’s a 10-year book.”

Peri and Docter split up writing by chapter. They set out to tell the real story of those early days at Disney — one in which the staff was in awe of Disney himself and also how stressful of an environment it could be.

“We’ve tried to straddle the line between talking about how Walt was a difficult boss to these people and also about how much they admired him and the great things that he did,” Peri said. “I told [Docter] I wanted to put in big letters ‘We love Walt Disney’ at the beginning, because I don’t want it to look like [we don’t]. But he would know that he was a taskmaster.”

Before the book comes out, the authors plan to give talks at D23: The Ultimate Disney Fan Event, a biennial event featuring keynotes, sneak peeks at upcoming films and celebrity appearances. An exhibit is also planned for the museum in San Francisco.

“We may also do a talk on current directors, because our book is just all white guys,” Peri said. “We talk about that in the beginning of the book that there is more diversity now, but there wasn’t then.”

Peri will also lead a UC Davis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, field trip to the museum in San Francisco in November.

Peri, who was a first-generation college student when he arrived at UC Davis, ultimately double majored in English and political science. He attended graduate school for a bit, before working for the state. Now retired, the Disney journey continues, thanks to a meeting with a fellow Aggie.

“It’s been a 50-year odyssey that I didn’t expect,” Peri said.