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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.