Professor’s life influenced by Disney

by Andrew Tellijohn

When Karal Ann Marling was a child, her mother entered one of her drawings in a coloring contest. Her reward for winning the competition was a trip to meet Walt Disney.
“He said, ‘Someday maybe you’ll come work for me at the studio'” Marling said.
Marling, a University professor of art history and American studies, continued her interest in Disney creations and has made them a part of her professional career. Currently, she’s working on an exhibition detailing the architecture of Disney theme parks for the Montreal-based Canadian Center for Architecture.
“It always seemed to me as American cities were falling apart in the ’60s and ’70s, architectural design seemed to be losing the way,” she said. “Disney presented an architecture of civility and beauty.”
“I’ve been fascinated with how delighted it made people feel.”
Marling, who has taught at the University for 19 years, takes her interest in Disney into the classroom when she teaches her annual class, The Art of Walt Disney.
She said people have mixed feelings about the art and characters Walt Disney created.
When a friend had a baby, Marling planned on giving the newborn a Bambi toy. But the idea fell flat when the mother told her, “My baby will never have anything like that.”
“Most people think things that happen with Disney are at least pleasant or benign,” Marling said. “But there are a lot of academics out there that think the works of Disney are trashy and demeaning of culture.”
“There’s a sour attitude in academia,” she said. “If something gives people pleasure, (academics feel) there must be something wrong with it.”
Disney creations such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse aren’t Marling’s only fascination, however.
“Anything involving visuals, I’m interested in,” she said.
Of the more than 10 books she’s written, none of them is about the same topic. Subject matter ranges from the Minnesota State Fair to the American fascination with Elvis Presley to the history of American casseroles.
The State Fair caught her attention when she moved here from Vassar College in New York, she said.
“It’s bigger than other state fairs, and it’s made it into the 20th century,” Marling said.
She cooked up the casserole book while researching the history of these dishes.
“I did a job because someone asked me to do it and found I was really interested in it,” Marling said.
Her fascination for, and enthusiasm with, the visual arts draws a loyal following of students to her classes.
“The course description looked interesting,” said Mary-Lydia Andersen, a junior theater major who is taking her second Marling-taught course. “But it was when I realized she was teaching that I decided to take the class. She always adds things to the lecture that make me remember it.”
Marling is currently beginning research for a book about the history of Christmas in America.
But someday, if the circumstances are right, she said she might still take the job offer Walt Disney once offered her.
“I think about it whenever the Board of Regents acts weird,” she said with a laugh.