Polo had a deep impact on Walter Elias Disney, (1901-1966), an American motion picture and television producer and showman. Disney’s life at the Hollywood film studio and home started to effect his health and was advised to pick a sport by his doctor. Having first tried boxing, wrestling and golf, to no avail, Walt, with a love of horses, joined a local riding club and began horse riding.
It was a perfect solution for Walt as at the time in the 1930s, polo was an extremely popular sport, especially among the Hollywood elite and Walt always wanted to be a part of them. He was fond of polo and began his training of the sport in summer 1932 and was beginning to make a modest venture into Hollywood society, through polo.
Walt was so ardent about the sport that he constructed a polo cage at the studio for practice during lunch where he used to hit the ball in the goal. He had a horse dummy placed in his backyard to get practice, and his team started having matches with other novice teams at the Riverside Drive stadium. By April 1933 Walt joined the prestigious Riviera Country Club, home to famous actors such as Darryl Zanuck, Leslie Howard, and Spencer Tracy.
Leslie Howard with Walt Disney
In 1936 a short film by the name of Mickey’s Polo Team was released, involving a polo match played by some of Disney’s most loved characters and some of Hollywood’s most successful stars.
While playing polo on the fields of Southern California in the late 1930s, Walt Disney met Mel Shaw, talented visual development artist, designer, and storymen and hired him into his Studios in 1937 as an artist, and also asked him to join Disney’s polo team, the Donald Ducks, on which he became a star player.
Donald Ducks polo team
At The Walt Disney Studios, Shaw contributed to a number of films, including Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), and was a pioneering artist in the industry with conceptual artwork from some of the most influential films of the twentieth century.
He left the Studio in 1941, but returned 33 years later to help influence the look and story for such modern day Disney favorites as "The Rescuers", "The Fox and the Hound", "The Great Mouse Detective", "Beauty and the Beast", "The Lion King" and more.
Mel Shaw painting "The Centaurs" in the tack room of the Encino Ranch
Though Shaw forged his career in art and animation, he never lost his deep passion for horses.
"Polo Battle", oil on board
Away from his design firm, Shaw created an ambitious series of paintings and later bronze sculptures inspired by California’s history.
Californian history "Cabrillo on California Coast"
His personal life-long love of horses frequently inspired him to paint, sculpt, and draw his most beloved subjects, eventually establishing him as one of the most accomplished equestrian artists of his time.
"Polo Field Meeting", oil on board
"Polo Game", oil on board
"The Courtyard Shade", oil on board
Walt Disney Family Museum Archives
Mel Shaw Studios
Leslie Howard Archives