Richard Rothrock is an award-winning writer and teacher with an undying love for film, television, literature, the Indianapolis 500 and all things Disney. The author of “Sunday Nights With Walt,” he has been a great story consultant to several of my projects. Richard is a proud graduate of George Washington High School in Charleston, West Virginia and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Film from Oakland University and a Master of Arts from Bowling Green State University. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and book anthologies.
I recently interviewed Richard about his book, Sunday Nights With Walt and couldn’t get over how much he looks like Roger Ebert. In the book, Rothrock writes, “Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Sunday nights at my house were different from the other nights of the week. It was the only night when my mother made pizza. It was the only night of the week when we could drink soda. It was the only night of the week we could have candy for dessert. It was the only night of the week when we were allowed to eat dinner in front of the television. And the only shows we ever watched were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. (Mom sent us to bed as soon as Bonanza started).
Richard’s comprehensive history of that show, in its many forms, will take you back to long-ago Sunday nights spent together with family… and Disney. He combines meticulous backstories and episode synopses with insight into how Walt’s TV show shaped American culture and how it shaped his own childhood and adolescence, gently exposing him to the wide, wonderful world outside his rural town – a world not just of Disney, but of nature, technology, history, foreign cultures, and even romance.
Questions and Answers with Richard Rothrock:
Is Walt Disney a personal hero of yours? Why are he and his work so
inspirational to you?
He is a hero of mine for many reasons. He was a guy with a vision. Like me, he knew
what he wanted to do at a young age and no one could talk him out of it. He wanted
to advance animation from a funny sideshow to an art form. He understood his
limitations as an artist but then hired people who complemented his talents and
abilities. Together, they did conquered animation and push it to the heights we
know today. Without him, there would be no Pixar or DreamWorks or anything.
Everything he did was built on what had come before. He tackled live action film
and was an early innovator in television. He pioneered new processes in film F/X.
He then used his knowledge of animation and moviemaking to revolutionized the
amusement park and give us Disneyland, the first modern theme park. He pioneered
the world of robotics and gave us audio-animatronics. And he was just turning his
talents and accomplishments, building on what he’d done before to help our cities
and society when he died. And all of it was designed to uplift and entertain a
worldwide audience. To build a better world and, to quote Walt, gives us “a great big
beautiful tomorrow.” And I think we need that more than ever now.
What was it like to go back and watch all the show’s episodes 50 years later?
By and large, it was fun. There were some episodes that didn’t hold up as well as I
remembered but the really great ones were just as good as before. And, being an
adult now, I picked up some new angles and incidents in them that I had missed as a
kid the first time around. The best part about this book was watching the episodes
Were there some episodes that you could not find and wish you could have?
Yes, although I found almost all of them. I really wanted to see some past favorites
like Run, Light Buck, Run (1966) about an injured antelope adopted by a prospector.
Also Michael O’Hara the 4th (1972) about a teenaged girl who wants to be a police
officer like her dad but women “didn’t do that” back then. I wanted to see A Salute
to Alaska (1967) because it had the final introduction Walt recorded before his
death. But the biggest episodes I wanted to watch again and could not find were the
Gallegher episodes about a teenaged reporter in the 1890s. They were hugely
popular in the 1960s but have never been released on VHS or DVD. I had to rely on
my memories and whatever commentary I could find in books and on the web to
write about it.
Which episode from The Wonderful World of Disney did you enjoy the most as
That’s easy. There were two episodes that stood out the most to the young me. The
first was Secrets of the Pirates Inn (1969) a mystery story about three friends down
on the bayou who helped an old sailor find buried treasure at the inn he just
inherited. I loved the twists and the turns in the story and how the clues led to
hidden passages and secret staircases inside the inn. And the ending had twists I
did not expect.
The other episode was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964). It starred Patrick
McGoohan as an 18th century English vicar who led a double life as a bandit named
the Scarecrow. It was a Robin Hood kind of story because the Scarecrow used the
profits from his smuggling ring to help the poor area residents pay their taxes. I
loved the chases and the daring do. There are great scenes and great performances
throughout, and the title song that opened and closed each episode was my favorite
song on the Disney show. Those were the two episodes I looked forward to the
What episode did you take the most inspiration from?
Probably one that few people remember called Smoke (1970). It starred Ron
Howard in one of his last juvenile roles as a teenaged boy named Chris. He is still
trying to get over the death of his much loved father a few years back. What makes
it all worse is that his mother has remarried to a really nice guy and everyone
accepts this new stepfather but Chris. Because accepting him will mean Chris has
gotten over the loss of his father and he doesn’t want to. The episode taught me all
about the destructive power of grief and how it can make a mess of our lives if we
are not careful. I have used that lesson multiple times in my life.
How have you applied the show’s inspirations in real life?
In many ways. It taught me how to deal with bullies in school. It helped me learn
how to deal with loss and growing up. Romance. Divorce. Dealing with adults. The
show turned into a guide for when I was down and when I had doubts. I pretty
much learned all the basics of adulthood from the show and have built on that
knowledge ever since.
How did The Wonderful World of Disney affect other members of your family?
I don’t really know because we never really talked about it. I suspect Mom liked the
show because it was good, safe family entertainment so she wouldn’t have to worry
about we kids being exposed to something inappropriate. I know my sisters loved
The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as much as I did. Being older, they were big fans of
The Mickey Mouse Club which I missed. My sister Pam loved Babes In Toyland
(1961) though I never knew why she loved it so much. She loved that movie so
much as a child that she literally wore out our copy of the soundtrack album by
playing it over and over. Now as to whether they took those lessons forward into
adulthood, I don’t know.
The Wonderful World of Disney was appointment TV for a generation. Do you
think there is anything like that for kids today?
Not in the same way. I do believe there are children and teens out there who obsess
about one show just as much as we did. What is different today is how they
consume that show. No show is ladled out anymore on a week-to-week basis. It is
binged watched non-stop online, even the children’s networks employ binge
watching. I know that Disney Channel airs marathons of Phineas & Ferb almost
every morning. Nickelodeon does hours and hours of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Cartoon Network does the same with Teen Titans. So today’s children are able to
watch their favorites all day every day in a way we could not back then. I don’t
know if that makes it “appointment TV” but it is there for the watching.
Would a show like World of Disney survive today?
I don’t think so. It was a show that tried to appeal to a wide audience. And it tried
to introduce that audience to a wide spectrum of life experiences and nature and
world cultures. Today’s shows don’t try for a wide audience. They aim for niche
audiences only interested in one thing and those niche audiences don’t seem
interested in much of anything outside of that niche.
Was there a time when you wanted to work for Disney?
Surprisingly, no. I couldn’t draw so I knew I had no chance working in animation.
And in the 1970s it seemed like the glory days of the studio had passed. I did dream
about working at one of the parks at one time but that was a long time ago.
Would you have lived in EPCOT had Walt Disney actually built it?
Yes, definitely. I loved the look of the city from the downtown to the residential
neighborhoods. I loved the idea of riding a People Mover or a Monorail wherever I
went. And the homes had the same style as the houses in The Incredibles (2004) so I
think they looked super cool. That 1960s notion of futuristic design still looks
pretty good to me.
What are you hoping your audience takes away from this project?
For the people who watched The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night, I
hope it brings back cherished memories and helps them reclaim and relive a special
time in their childhoods. For those who were not alive back then, I hope it helps
them better understand the importance of Walt Disney to both the entertainment
industry and how he helped shape the values of the Baby Boomer generation. And
how what he tried to instill in we children of the 1960s is still just as relevant today.
What is the enduring appeal of Disney?
There is definitely a nostalgia factor of looking back at a simpler time. However, I
think Disney’s enduring appeal is the belief in human goodness. That when things
are bad we can come together. And that there is hope for the future if we are willing
to work for it. That we again appreciate the value of science to make good progress
in our lives. We can still have “a great big beautiful tomorrow” if we want it to be.
Visit Richard’s website https://www.richardrothrock.com/