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Live Active Cultures

Seth Kubersky compares the legacies of William Randoph Hearst and Walt Disney

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When I mentioned this omission, my guide coughed about "differing viewpoints," but an eavesdropping docent whispered "Good for you!" Turns out that, though supported by taxpayers, a member of the Hearst family who isn't eager to air dirty laundry curates the historical content of this site. One attendant defiantly referred me to a copy of The Chief: The Life of William Randoph Hearst , biographer David Nasaw's more balanced assessment of how Hearst pursued his Xanadu.

After that, you'd expect the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened at San Francisco's Presidio in 2009, to be just as fancy and false. But this unassuming red brick building actually houses a moving tribute to a man whose humanity has been obscured by his eponymous corporation. The 10 galleries trace Disney's life from humble birth to premature passing with interactive bells and whistles, like a Rock Band-style Steamboat Willie sound-dubbing game. But the best feature is its unflinching honesty, despite the fact that it's a project of Disney's daughter and grandson. From early bankruptcy and uncertain authorship of a certain animated Mouse, to contentious labor strikes and wartime government propaganda, no controversy goes unaddressed. Each side receives respectful airing; you can even listen to Uncle Walt's anti-communist testimony to Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

Seeing theme park holy grails (an original Disneyland Autopia car, for instance) enhanced my appreciation of Disney's genius. In contrast to Hearst's conspicuous consumption, I was more impressed by artifacts of Disney's endearing ordinariness, like handwritten notes to his housekeeper requesting Hormel chili, canned hash and lemon Jell-O, his unpretentious favorite foods. Fittingly, the museum cafe sold me a comfortingly uncomplicated ham and cheese at a reasonable price, and I picked up an out-of-print "E" Ticket magazine in the gift shop for less than it could fetch on eBay. If only the folks who run the Orlando resort that bears his name would visit and take notes.

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