The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse, II: The Ben Sharpsteen Museum

You might think scholarship is boring.  Dull as dirt.  Best reserved for those in the monastery or the ivory tower.

You’d be wrong.

Scholarship is an adventure, a  treasure-hunt.  And the quest brings surprising and unexpected discoveries.   Researching the George R. Stewart biography, for example, I discovered that famous writers like Stephen King and Wallace Stegner and William Least Heat Moon, musician and composer Philip Aaberg, scientist Dr. James D. Burke of JPL, and Jimi Hendrix were influenced by Stewart’s works.

Walt Disney was also a great fan of Stewart.  He even hired Stewart to work at the studio as a consultant.  Stewart discussed ideas with various studio personnel; then submitted a report about the potential for American folklore films, and educational films.   Stewart’s recommendations went to Ben Sharpsteen, legendary Disney producer and director.

In preparing materials for donation to the George R. Stewart Collection at the University of Nevada, Reno, I happened upon a copy of Stewart’s report to Sharpsteen.  The copy came from the Walt Disney Archives (Stewart’s copy is in the George R. Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library).  That discovery inspired a wander through Wikipedia and Google to find what was available online about Ben Sharpsteen.  Sites recorded his extensive contributions to Disney, where he began as an animator, became a Director (Pinocchio, Dumbo), and eventually produced True-Life Adventure documentaries – work which earned Sharpsteen and the studio multiple Oscars.

And there, among the Google listings, was a golden Sharpsteen nugget:  he and his wife, Bernice, had founded a museum, in Calistoga, California, at the base of Mt. St. Helena.

The Ben Sharpsteen Museum preserves and interprets several chapters of California history, with emphasis on the pioneer days and Sharpsteen’s work for Disney.  Trip Advisor gives it a 4.5 rating.

The museum includes the home of Sam Brannan, who started the Gold Rush when he rushed through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle filled with gold, yelling, “Gold, boys, Gold!  From the American River!”  (Brannan was a businessman – he started the Gold Rush so he could profit from selling supplies to 49ers.)  The Brannan cottage contains exhibits and artifacts from the pioneer era in California, including some from the Donner Party, and a massive diorama of the Hot Springs Resort that Brannan founded in Calistoga.  (The resort was supposed to be named the “Saratoga of California,” they say, but Brannan’s consumption of the celebratory champagne at the resort’s dedication befuddled his tongue and he toasted “The Calistoga of Sarifonia!” and Calistoga it is.)

The Sharpsteen Museum includes a Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit.  Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, visited the area on their honeymoon; and Stevenson used local geography and history in the writing of Treasure Island.

And so we circle back to George R. Stewart, who explored the area in 1919-20  researching his Master’s Thesis on Stevenson and Treasure Island.  Stewart had been fascinated with Stevenson’s novel since he discovered it as a boy in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Stevenson’s use of maps in the book became a foundation of Stewart’s later work.

Treasure-island-map

Stevenson  once wrote “It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words….As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.”  Stewart’s ecological novels and histories, like Stevenson’s Treasure Island, would be based on maps.

Stevenson once admitted the scenery in Treasure Island was based partly on California locations.  Inspired by that comment, Stewart set out to discover what areas or history were foundational to the novel. He explored the area around Mt. St. Helena, including Calistoga (and with his passionate interest in the Westward Movement, which led to books like Ordeal By Hunger, it is certain he visited the Sam Brannan Cottage.)

Stewart’s field research in the Calistoga and Mt. St. Helens area, his interviews with pioneers who remembered the Stevensons, and his geographic explorations gave him the answer:  Flat-topped Spyglass Hill was based on flat-topped Mt. St. Helena.  The Stevensons’  honeymoon spot, an abandoned mine on St. Helena – the Old Juan Silverado Mine – gave readers the name of one of the great characters in literature, “Long John Silver.”  There is a collection of photographs in the George R. Stewart Papers related to his Stevenson research; some may be from his 1919 reseach trip.  (Stewart also met and interviewed Stevenson relatives during his 1921 bicycle trip through Europe – three elderly cousins in Edinburgh who remembered RLS as a boy; and Lord Balfour in England.  Davey Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, was based on a real RLS relative.)

Later, Stewart would write his discovery about Treasure Island into Storm – the first ecological novel and the book from which we get the practice of naming storms.  Each chapter ends with a “litany” of landforms or places.  Here is the beginning of the litany of the coastal peaks:

“This is the roll-call of those chief summits rising against the first in-sweep of the storm from the ocean.  Mt. Sanhedrin.  Mt. Kinocti that watches above the lake.  Sulphur Peak on whose slopes the geysers fume and spout.  Then flat-topped St. Helena, named for a Russian princess, transmuted in romance to Spy-Glass Hill.  …”  [emphasis added]

Disney, who produced what is perhaps the best film version of Treasure Island, would also film Stewart’s Storm for the Disney TV show.

So the circle continues:  Stewart discovers where Spyglass Hill is located, explores Calistoga along the way (and certainly the Brannan Cottage).  Later, Walt Disney hires Stewart as a consultant, and he sends his recommendations to Ben Sharpsteen – who eventually turns the Sam Brannan Cottage into a museum, interpreting some of the same history as Stewart – that of the Donner Party, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Disney.

(It’s a personal circle, too.  Our family friends, the Broughtons, had a Disney connection.  Bob Broughton was in charge of the multiplane camera, the camera department, special effects.  The multiplane camera crew included the first employees in the new Burbank studio, working on Pinocchio.  Bob worked closely with Ben Sharpsteen on the complicated 6-level shots. Eventually, Bob, like Ben Sharpsteen,  became a Disney Legend.)

Inspired, I called the Ben Sharpsteen Museum.  Two members of the Board of the Directors, Kathy Bazzoli and Pat Larsen, answered by speakerphone.  It was a pleasure to talk with them – they’re knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  Kathy followed up with an email that referenced a book for sale in their bookstore, Dutton’s “They Left Their Mark,” which mentions Stewart’s research.

If you’re a Disney fan (and who isn’t?) or a Robert Louis Stevenson fan (and who isn’t?) or a George R. Stewart fan (and there are millions of those), I encourage a visit to the Sharpsteen Museum…and to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena.  The Sharpsteen Museum is certainly at the top of my travel list.

 

 

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