‘Basil of Baker Street’ and the Streisand Effect

There’s a whole series of Basil books. Only one made it to film.

Last week I attended a presentation by Ron Clements and John Musker, the Disney producers responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Moana, among others. One of those others was The Great Mouse Detective, originally titled “Basil of Baker Street,” after the children’s book upon which it was based. I had the opportunity to talk to John Musker briefly on the way out the door, and asked him about an article I’d read in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section many years ago. He laughed and told me the back-story behind one of my favorite Hollywood pranks.

John Musker and Ron Clements.

In case you haven’t heard about it, here’s a tale of the time Disney ran into “the Streisand Effect.” (For the uninitiated, “The Streisand Effect” refers to the phenomenon in which an attempt to censor or suppress information (a photo, news story, or report of an event) results in much greater awareness of the situation; it was coined after Barbra Streisand’s ill-fated attempt to remove an aerial photograph of her home from a website; before her lawsuit, only six people had accessed the photo, two of whom were her attorneys; after the publicity caused by her lawsuit, the photo was viewed over 420,000 times in the next month.) The Streisand Effect is generally thought of as an internet-based phenomenon, but today’s story shows that it goes back a bit further than that. The events took place in 1984, when the World Wide Web didn’t yet exist and very few people outside of the military or academia had email; even Disney still routed typed memos by hand via office workers.

Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the new bosses.

Basil of Baker Street was already in production when Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg were hired away from Paramount to take over management at Disney; at the time, Katzenberg in particular was excited about Basil because it was tangentially connected to a movie in production at Paramount that he was certain was going to be the biggest film of the year, and some of that audience enthusiasm would no doubt fall on Disney’s movie. The film in question was Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes, which was Paramount’s big Christmas release for 1985. Disney’s film, about a mouse who lives in Sherlock Holmes’ flat and emulates his career, was scheduled for Summer of 1986, giving them six months to milk the Holmes connection.

“The biggest movie of 1986!”

Sadly, Young Sherlock did not meet expectations. In fact, it flopped hard. After opening weekend, Katzenberg announced that they had to change the title of their cartoon. “Remove all reference to Sherlock Holmes! The audience HATES Holmes! It’s a holocaust out there!” (Musker told me he literally said that.)  In short order, Basil became The Great Mouse Detective. (Is he a great mouse who’s a detective, a mouse who’s a great detective, a great detective who finds mice, or a detective who finds great mice? Title is unclear.) The animators were less than thrilled. When animators are displeased, they make jokes. (Floyd Norman’s cartoons about the goings-on at Disney and other studios are legendary.) One staffer in particular, A story artist named Ed Gombert, created a fake memo purportedly from Peter Schneider (then President of Walt Disney Feature Animation):

Fake Disney memo, 1986.
The infamous memo.

When Musker saw the memo, he thought it was hilarious, especially in light of the conversation he’d had with Katzenberg about the title. He quickly popped copies off to Eisner and Katzenberg via the inter-office mail system (nobody was using email yet). He sent them anonymously, and failed to notice the line saying that the memo was from Schneider.

Upon receiving it, Katzenberg immediately carried the memo down the hall and asked Schneider “what the hell is this?” Shneider had no idea what he was talking about, and he was livid when he saw it. Heads would roll, there would be blood in the scuppers by sunset. They called an all-hands staff meeting. All the animators assembled in the auditorium, where they were subjected to a tirade. Schneider and Katzenberg demanded answers, ordering the perpetrator to confess or face dire reprisals.

Amazingly, the entire staff pulled together. In a display of solidarity unseen since Spartacus, nobody ratted out Gombert. Nobody knew nuthin.’ Another crew member realized that the only way to get the brass to back off would be to embarrass them even more. He sent the memo to a friend who worked at the LA Times. The story ran. Schneider and Katzenberg shifted their focus to “who leaked it to the press,” but they didn’t get any answers on that front either. Eventually they decided to wait for it to just blow over. Surely the story wouldn’t stay in the public mind for long, right? Sure. It’ll go away soon, don’t sweat it.

(Artist’s simulation)

Oops. Sadly, it was not going to blow over very quickly. It seems somebody on the writing staff of Jeopardy saw the Times article, and a few weeks later, the memo provided all the questions for an entire category on the show. Alex Trebek explained the “kerfuffle” at Disney, and a whole new audience got to enjoy Katzenberg and Schneider’s embarrassment. If they had just ignored it in the first place, nobody would ever have known about it except a handful of amused Disney employees.

7 Comments

  1. Hal

    Hilarious. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple of jerks. As for Katzenberg’s “holocaust” comment, for anyone to say that but *especially* someone Jewish is absolutely grotesque and shows a fatally pathetic lack of perspective. It’s only a movie mot the murder of millions… What a *****! Very Hollywood (or “Very” a particular type of Hollywoodian denizen.)
    Man, that joke memo seems prescient in some ways.
    My favorites include “A Boy, A Bear, and a Big Black Cat” and most unlikely of all “Aristocats”… Bwahahaha!
    Holy Moly, the “Great Mouse Detective” poster sucks most fiercely – “All New! All Fun!”?! Oh God! Inventive…

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, funny list. I like the unchanged ‘Aristocats’ as well (even though something like “Felines of a Higher Social Class” would have been funny, too). And I can’t figure out which one is supposed to be “The Evil Bonehead.”

    1. M-Wolverine

      Since they’re basically in order, wouldn’t that be the one released right before Mouse Detective, The Black Cauldron? Think it refers to the bad guy the Horned King. Not the smartest of them, but I guess the point is that they’re supposed to be dumb.

      (I did like the “Aristocats” being just that)

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Yeah, probably is Black Cauldron. Thing is, I’ve never seen the movie, just read the books (for the first time only last year), so I didn’t make the connection with the Horned King.
        “The Evil Bonehead” sounds so funny, though. I wish there had been a movie with that title – featuring a villain who’s not too bright…

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Sad thing about all of this; Young Sherlock Holmes is actually a really good movie (few weak spots; but, nothing major) and The Great Mouse Detective was the best thing to come out of Disney in a loooooonnnnggg time and I still prefer it to the stuff that followed, like the Little Mermaid and beauty and the Beast. It has a heck of a lot better writing and more rounded characters; not to mention, an awesomely evil Vincent Price.

    Animators are not a group to try to run roughshod over. Chuck Jones described some of the WB antics, back when Leon Schlesinger and Eddie Selzer ran the production company. They had an animator with a desk near the door, who set off a warning system, whenever Schlesinger came to the building and everyone would stop working and pretend to be asleep, reading the paper, shooting craps or some such. Schlesinger never could understand how the work got done. One worker ran a canteen out of a desk, with a hotplate to boil hot dogs and cokes. The upstairs people would send money down in a bucket and he sent food back up. Schlesinger saw the bucket with money and the guy said it was for his son’s bar mitzvah. The man was single, no kids, and a Gentile. Selzer would give out dictates about not doing certain things, like no camels in the cartoons; they weren’t funny. Everyone knew he was usually wrong, so they deliberately created cartoons to feature whatever he wanted banned and they always turned out to be hits. He also said the building had numerous signs in Pepe Le Pew French.

    Jones also describes a prank at Disney, during his brief time there. The Disneys had a stable nearby and one of the animators caught a bunch of horseflies that buzzed around there and taped tissue paper to them, with “VOTE FOR ROOSEVELT” written on them. They then released them near either Disney’s office of living quarters. Walt supposedly went so ape he sent Roy Disney out to catch the flies.

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