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The Ryman Centennial: Walt’s Elephants

This is a fun story that I’ve been holding on to for a while; thankfully, our recent discussion of Disney legend Herbert Ryman presents the perfect opportunity to print it. The following tale was presented in the May 14th, 1982 edition of the WED-MAPO Imaginews, an internal publication for Disney Imagineers.

Walt’s Elephants Are Missing!

By Herb Ryman As Told To Dennis Kuba

Walt Disney and his family had just moved into their new home in Holmby Hills. I naturally would visit with them, because I was working on a portrait of his daughter, Sharon. I was standing there in the living room admiring the new carpet, when Walt came over and said,

“By the way, Herbie, have you ever seen anything like this?”

It was a tiny, reddish-brown thing he had in the palm of his hand, about half the size of a pistachio nut.

I said, “No, I have not, but I think it’s some kind of bean, isn’t it?

“Yes, it is. You can’t guess what’s inside of it.”

“No, you tell me!”

“Well, there’s forty-nine elephants inside of it.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, this was a gift given to me by a very important Chinese gentleman after the opening of Snow White. He explained to me that the bean was a very appropriate gift because in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I had used the magical number seven, and that seven was my lucky number. Seven times seven, he explained, which is forty-nine, is seven times as lucky. So, he proudly presented me with this bean which has forty-nine pure, handcarved ivory elephants inside there.”

So, he opened it up, and sure enough, inside there were little tiny bits of ivory, each about the size of a grain of salt. You couldn’t see what they were, because they were too tiny. So Walt asked Sharon to bring us a magnifying glass. The Chinese gentlemen had told Walt that the elephants kept in the bean would bring him good luck all his life.

We poured out the ivory elephants and counted them with a needle, and sure enough, there were forty-nine. Then Walt put them in my hand. As I admired them with the magnifying glass, he unexpectedly nudged my elbow. The whole bunch of elephants flew up in the air, and down into the thick rug. Well, you can imagine what I thought when I looked at the rug. There was no possible way that we would retrieve all of those elephants. Immediately Walt said,

“Now, Herbie, see what you’ve done. You’ve brought me bad luck.”

And I answered, “Well I didn’t bring you bad luck. You knocked my elbow!”

Mrs. Disney, who had witnessed it all, came to my rescue and responded, “I saw you knock his arm!”

We kneeled down in a frantic search for the elephants. They were deep in the thick pile of the rug, like little grains of salt. One of the girls got tweezers and even a flashlight. And there we were all working down on the floor probing through a forest of wool. Well, we never found the forty-nine elephants, probably got about thirty of them. So, the rest of the elephants were left behind… lost in the rug.

Whether Walt’s nudging was deliberate or accidental, I never really knew. Hunt as we would, we never found any more. So as Walt said, I had brought him bad luck.

But, if you want to go back over the story, think about it. Walt didn’t have any bad luck after that. He built Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and he did so many beautiful films. Walt achieved international fame. But still, I sometimes think of the luck he might have had if I hadn’t lost those elephants!”

If I build a time machine tomorrow, the first thing I’m going to do is try and get an invite to some of these wacky Disney dinner parties. As a nice little aside, here’s the postscript at the bottom of the story:

If you ever have a chance to laugh or trade stories with Herb Ryman – do so. “Herbie” is one of those people God tucks into your day because He figures you need some inspiration. Artist & storyteller extraordinary, Herbie has been associated with Disney since 1939.

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