Monday, October 8, 2012

The Early Days of Walt Disney Home Video

I had officially started collecting videocassette releases of Disney films in the summer of 2005, and I was mostly interested in getting the Classics titles along with releases from the 1980s. This is when I started to find out more about the early days of Disney's home entertainment division and how the history of it turned out to be something worth looking into.

Walt Disney Home Video was formed in 1980 by James P. Jimirro (the man who also came up with the idea of having a Disney channel), who served as the first president of the division. Walt Disney Productions had released a few titles on MCA DiscoVision prior to that in 1978 and 1979, and also struck a deal with Fotomat to get into the home video business. This went through in 1980 with live action titles like Pete's Dragon, The Black Hole, The Love Bug, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Released alongside those titles were some of the cartoon compilations that Disney released on DiscoVision like On Vacation with Mickey Mouse and Friends.

If you grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you may remember seeing Disney videocassettes from this era. I remember my local rental stores had them too, and one of my neighbors had a pre-1987 VHS of Treasure Island. I saw them once in a blue moon, and most of the live action films sported this packaging. I had actually never watched one though when I was young.

When I started collecting, the first video I wanted to add to the collection was the pre-1989 Classics edition of Dumbo. You know, that one with the pink spine and the different artwork.

Then I came across this on eBay while searching for that said video release...

I had no idea that Dumbo was actually released with that kind of packaging, but I was still interested in getting the Classics edition, believing that it was THE first home video release of the title. A site accidentally stated that Dumbo hit home video in 1980, I assumed that the Classics edition was THE one.

A site that detailed logos that appeared at the end of television shows and in front of films, videocassettes and other media also helped. Most 90s kids have seen this logo somewhere, it was as common as ever...

I assumed it was probably the earliest logo in 2005, knowing that the Classics logo (featuring Sorcerer Mickey) dated back to 1988 thanks to a few viewings of the Cinderella VHS from 1988, though seeing the 1984 Classics logo on the Alice in Wonderland VHS made me wonder. This site actually stated that a logo existed before this one, and it dated back to 1978!

(uploaded by fellow Disney VHS collector Gabrielkat)

This is what you would see at the start of the Walt Disney Home Video releases prior to 1986. This logo, with its blaring fanfare and primitive graphics, was actually a modified version of this...

This intro appeared on almost, if not all
new releases in 1978...

As soon as I gathered most of this information, I had to find some videos that contained this and came in the packaging that featured Mickey and the Walt Disney Home Video logo on the box. I believe it was around January 2006, I visited a video rental store that was going out of business. By this time, the local mom-and-pop video rental places were closing up shop, while chains like Blockbuster thrived and On Demand got more and more relevant. It’s almost to the point now where physical media may cease to be... (shudders) I found two titles that fit the bill. They were Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Both releases were from 1986, and in cardboard slipcover cases instead of clamshells. They bore the same packaging artwork, though. This was for Disney’s “Wonderland Sale” promotion, which they kicked off on May 28, 1986. This was also the first time I saw what the original Walt Disney Home Video looked like, since I didn’t discover YouTube until a month later or so. I know, odd right?

Then I really wanted to get my hands on an older release, which us collectors nickname the “Neon Mickey” tapes since the outlines of the spinning Mickey in the WDHV logo have a neon-like appearance. Others have called it “Laser Mickey”. The first clamshell Neon Mickey title I got was Alice in Wonderland, which must’ve been around February or so. I just remember that it took a long time to arrive. This was the sales only version released in November 1982, since it was available for rental only as far back as October 1981.

Rental only editions of Disney videocassettes came in plastic blue cases that lacked artwork, just a label with text. In the mid-1980s, Disney took back most of them and only sent the ones that were still playable to stores for sale only. They would receive the “sale only” packaging, which of course had artwork. Now in the 1990s, this was not the case. Your local rental place would have the cover and a case behind it that the video in question came in. Other studios did it too, but the “rental only” versions with the artwork-less cases are not easy to come across.

At the end of the Alice in Wonderland VHS, I saw this...

Talk about strange marketing... The titles they are hyping up here are probably not well known to casual Disney fans today: The Devil and Max Devlin, Condorman, The Watcher in the Woods... This was at the time Disney was trying very hard to push their contemporary image, as they were moving into the PG territory. When Tron, Tex and Something Wicked This Way Comes hit home video the year after (1983), they were promoted as the “new Disney”. Disney even tried to pass them off as “adult” films, whereas everything else for kids. Yeah, Disney marketing was harmful to animation (their own, mostly) long before Michael Eisner ever came on the scene. In the early 1980s, non-animation fans tended to view animation is “kids only” stuff, a mindset that continues to this day. Also, without any animated features to release, they focus on live action classics. They don’t get this kind of marketing boost nowadays, so it’s cool to see titles like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues and The Absent-Minded Professor get some sort of promotion.

Why no animated features except for Dumbo, Alice and a few of the package features? Walt Disney himself never wanted his films to be shown on the small screen, he wanted them to make money through theatrical re-releases, especially since theatrical re-releases saved Pinocchio and Bambi. It would bring in revenue for the studio, and keep the titles fresh for generations to come. When home video came about in the mid 1970s, Disney most likely saw it as something that was yet to bloom.

Dumbo and Alice were available first because Walt had actually shown them on television. Dumbo was a very short film and Walt most likely showed the film on the Disneyland series because it had already turned a profit in both releases prior to 1955. Walt himself disliked Alice in Wonderland, and the film was a critical and box office failure, so Walt showed an hour-long version on Disneyland instead. Alice in Wonderland was never theatrically re-released in Walt’s lifetime, it got a theatrical re-release in 1974 when Disney realized that it caught on with the young adult crowd that made Yellow Submarine and the Fantasia re-issue successful.

Consumers would have to wait until the mid-1980s to get the classics. By 1984, home video was becoming the new thing and Disney executives soon realized how lucrative that business could be, especially if they treated the titles like they were being theatrically re-released. Ever wonder why the Disney Vault strategy is a reality?


  1. I love these releases. Everytime I find one, I get ecstatic. Great article dude.

  2. What a coincidence; I also began collecting Disney VHS tapes in 2005 as well! First ones I bought were the 1989 versions of "Dumbo" and "Bambi."
    I also remember Disney's early home video titles including a number of obscure and forgotten-today releases. It wasn't until Michael Eisner came on board when things began to change for the better.
    (Though I think Bob Iger is actually very similar to Ron Miller right now, given how the company now (mostly the non-home video stuff) is similar to how the Disney company was in the early 1980s...)

  3. Hi, I was the actual artist who designed and drew in pencil the original Mickey Mouse logo. This was while I was animator back in 79/80. My friend was working for the then new Home Video division was was rebranded from the Walt Disney Educational Media group. They rented Disney classics in 16milimeter film reels to schools. The idea was to transfer these reels to the then new VHS and BetaMax tape system and offer to the public. I was given little direction other than they wanted Mickey on the cover.

    1. Hello Mr. James, apologies for the belated reply, but I never knew all of this! Thanks for sharing the origin of the Sorcerer Mickey design and then some. Disney's home entertainment history is a big interest of mine, so it's really cool to learn all of this and actually talk to people who were part of it at the time. I was wondering, did you have any involvement with other department of Walt Disney Home Video? Did you have any involvement in the creation of the intro logos used on the videocassettes?

      - Kyle

  4. what are the value of these movies? I own the black diamond the classics what are their values im thinking of getting rid of?

  5. Does anyone have any blue clam disney for rental only tapes?? If so i will buy them two one four nine eight five seven nine eight seven chris is my name