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Walt Disney And The Winter Olympics

With the arrival of the 2010 Winter Olympics, it might occur to Disney fans to look back to 1960 – to the VIII Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. In their drive to make those Olympics memorable, the organizing committee looked to the greatest showman of the age – Walt Disney. Walt was named the Chairman of Pageantry for the Games, and went to work crafting plans for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Walt and his team were heavily involved in the planning of the Squaw Valley Olympics; the site for the Games was so remote that it was the first Olympics ever to lodge athletes in an Olympic Village. Disney and his friends like Art Linkletter made sure there was a constant stream of entertainment and entertainers on hand to stage nightly productions for the athletes. Disney’s artists also contributed, with John Hench designing a series of snow sculptures for the venue and even the Olympic torch itself.

Walt Disney and his team for the VIII Olympic Winter Games“Dr. Charles Hirt (second from far right) was among the team Walt assembled to create the opening ceremonies for the VIII Winter Olympics in 1960.”

But, as with these type of events, not everything went smoothly. We can see this now in Vancouver, where warm temperatures and poor snowfall have led to the postponement of several key competitions. In Squaw Valley they had the opposite problem, as we can see in this 1993 Disney News article by Scott Richter:

Dr. Charles Hirt: The Miracle at Squaw Valley

by Scott Richter

February 18, 1960, is a day that renowned choir director Dr. Charles Hirt will never forget. The opening day ceremonies of the VIII Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, were to be held that day. Nearly two years earlier, Walt Disney had accepted the post of Pageantry Committee Chairman and had named Dr. Hirt as the program’s choir director.

On the morning of the 18th, Dr. Hirt was sleeping soundly at Walt Disney’s private chalet in Squaw Valley when he was awakened by Walt and his other houseguest, Art Linkletter.

Hirt recalls that “Walt and Art told me that it had started to snow even though it had been predicted that it would not. There was a real blizzard out there.”‘

In fact, Mother Nature seemed intent on cancelling the opening day ceremonies, wasting months of meticulous preparation in the process. Between 6 a.m. and 1:45 p.m., Squaw Valley was pounded by freezing winds and buried under 10 inches of snow.

Later that day at rehearsal, Dr. Hirt says that “I stood up there (at the podium) facing what I thought was the choir – and I hoped and prayed it was, because I couldn’t see them, the snow was falling so hard. Clarence Sawhill (the band director) relayed my beat to the band because he couldn’t see the choir either.

“Walt Disney and the rest of us got together,” he continues, “and we all said ‘What in the world are we going to do if we can’t see the choir and the choir can’t see us?’ The alternative was to assemble on a skating rink where we would only be able to select a few choirs and a few bands which would fit in there.

“Walt turned to me and said, ‘What do you think we should do?’ I told him that I couldn’t stand the thought of saying to these people who had worked so hard for so many months that only some of them could be among the bands and choruses in the skating rink.”

Walt Disney's chalet at Squaw ValleyThe chalet built for Walt at Squaw Valley.

Some 3,700 high school musicians and choir members had spent many tireless hours rehearsing for the program, and had then traveled from 52 California and Nevada schools to brave the arctic-like conditions. All for the privilege of performing at the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics.

On the other hand, the eyes of the world were on Squaw Valley, and network television officials were concerned that they would have no opening ceremonies at all for their worldwide broadcast.

Hirt recalls that “the TV people said ‘We’ve got to play it safe. We can’t take a chance on this.'”

Nevertheless, Hirt remembers that “they turned to Walt and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Charles, I’ll go with whatever you say.’ I told him, ‘Walt, I can’t say to select a few and play it safe. Let’s dare to have everybody in this.’ That’s all Walt needed to hear. Over the loudspeaker we told everyone to go into formation.

“The clock ticked down to showtime,” Hirt recalls, “and at that moment, the sky parted and the sun shone. It was a miracle. My choir was in front of me. I could see them. Clarence could see his band, and he could see me. And the program went off without a hitch.

“Then, just at the very close of the final Olympic hymn, the sky covered up again and the blizzard resumed.”

Dr. Hirt says that “to be a part of that ‘Miracle of Squaw Valley’ with Walt was a very special honor,” and one of the highlights of his career.

“Walt was such a marvelous person … he was so highly respected and loved by the people who knew him. I got to know him well when I stayed with him at his (Squaw Valley) chalet.”

Although retired now, Dr. Hirt still enjoys visiting Disneyland where he created and led the Christmas Candlelight Procession Ceremony for 25 years.

“Disneyland is still Walt,” says Hirt. “His spirit is still there.”

Walt’s interest in winter sports didn’t end in 1960, though. He spent much of the next decade commissioning a series of studies and plans for ski resorts in the American west, most famously at Mineral King in California. Much later, Card Walker, who had been on Walt’s team for the 1960 games, led Disney as it created the mascot for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and assisted with the opening and closing ceremonies for those games.

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