Richard Benefield’s introduction to cinema—and to the world of Disney—was not exactly positive. The first movie he ever saw was Old Yeller, and we all know how that ends. “It affected me on a very deep emotional level,” says Benefield. Now, decades later, Benefield is settling into his job as the founding executive director of the new Walt Disney Family Museum, a homage to all things Disney housed in a renovated building in the Presidio and slated to open Oct. 1.
Previously the deputy director of the Harvard Art Museums, Benefield, 55, migrated West to oversee the most extensive public collection of Disney memorabilia on the planet (it’s fainting material for eBay-ers). In 10 galleries, the WDFM features exhibits showcasing Disney’s life, creativity and innovations, including the earliest known Mickey Mouse drawings (referred to as the “Mona Lisas” of animation), an early Minnie Mouse figure and, Benefield’s favorite, a model of the “Disneyland of Walt’s imagination.” Conceived with the help of the Imagineers (Disney employees who dream up ideas and attractions for Disney Parks) and built by Kerner Optical (the special effects division of Industrial Light and Magic), it is a freakishly detailed, intricate model of the Magic Kingdom.
Why San Francisco for what seems like such a Hollywood institution? The location was chosen largely because the Bay Area is such a hotbed for animation, but also because the Disney family wanted to create a separation from the Walt Disney Company, based in Los Angeles. Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who lives in Napa and San Francisco, was heavily involved in the creation of the museum
To prepare for the job, Benefield pored over sketches, Disney home movies (many of which are on view at the museum) and archives—and re-watched all the Disney films. His favorite? “While I can recognize that Snow White was one of the most important films of the 20th century, I have to say that my favorite is Pinocchio,” he says. “It’s astonishingly beautiful to watch.” We don’t think he’s lying.