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Monday, May 6, 2024

it’s a small world Part Two: Joanie Dearest

Before we move forward to tell the story of the happiest cruise that ever sailed, we must go back to the year of Disneyland’s birth- 1955- to learn about the relationship between a Hollywood legend and a soft drink company chairman.

They were quite an odd couple; Joan Crawford was known to millions around the world through her many MGM motion pictures. Alfred Steele was less known, though the company he ran- PepsiCo- made one of the biggest selling colas in the world. Despite their differences, those who knew them felt they were madly in love with each other. That’s why it was shocking and heartbreaking when he passed away just four years later.

Most widows would have been satisfied with the dividends she might receive from her shares- or possibly might have sold them all- but Joan Crawford was not like most widows. She insisted on taking a seat on the Pepsi board so that she could directly influence company policy. While her husband’s hand picked successor installed her on the Pepsi board, her very presence started a rift within the company with two warring factions; those who were loyal to Joan and those who felt she had no business sitting on the board. This remained an issue into the 1960’s.

The split on the board would greatly affect the company’s operations and even had an impact on the company’s charitable pursuits. Pepsi had very publicly announced that it would sponsor a World’s Fair attraction and donate all of its proceeds to UNICEF. The company’s publicity arm felt this would generate a ton of positive press for the company. While the board fully supported the project, it strongly disagreed with what to do. Of course, the board was split along the usual lines- those who supported Joan and those who did not. Meanwhile, the World’s Fair’s opening drew closer with no solid plans for what Pepsi would actually build there.

So what does this have to do with it’s a small world? Well, at some point the company’s public relations team held a special board meeting where they explained that not having something at the World’s Fair would be a colossal PR nightmare, especially since the proceeds were supposed to go to needy children. This finally made the board see the seriousness of the situation and they reluctantly agreed to let Joan Crawford take the reins to jumpstart the project. Why would Joan be a good choice to take on the project? As it turned out, one of her Hollywood friends was Walt Disney. The board felt that if anyone could move mountains to get something designed and quickly built it would be him. But as you might know if you read part one, Walt Disney and his imagineers had their hands full. Would he take on such a large project on short notice?