- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

It wasnt easy to find anyone at the National Building Museums 2001 Honor Award gala who was completely objective about this years winner (probably because he happens to be nearly everyones boss, from Sam Donaldson to Donald Duck). More than 1,000 guests — many, of course, from the building, architecture and design fields — showed up Thursday night for the black-tie tribute to Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and the media conglomerate he runs.
Even the cant-miss party favors beside each plate were designed to remind guests of the honorees clout in the news and entertainment worlds: little replicas of Sleeping Beautys turreted Fantasyland castle topped by a plastic Tinkerbell.
This annual award ceremony is meant "to recognize individuals and corporations that have made singular contributions to our nations building heritage," and past recipients (Lady Bird Johnson, J. Carter Brown, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, IBM) are a diverse group. The event also serves as the museums major fund-raiser. With ticket prices starting at $600 and tables going for $3,000 to $50,000, Thursdays party brought in $1.04 million.
Guests included Mr. Donaldson and ABC anchorwoman Carole Simpson (Disney owns ABC); representatives from Major League Baseball (Disney owns the Anaheim Angels and the cable sports network ESPN); Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (Disneys studios produced "Shakespeare in Love," "The Sixth Sense," "Bambi," "Fantasia" and you-name-it), who gave an eloquent after-dinner speech; and many of the countrys leading architects (most with Disney contracts at one point or another in their careers).
Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Rep. Henry Waxman also made appearances, although the handful of senators who had planned to attend was reduced due to prolonged negotiations about the tax-cut bill.
Mr. Eisner, who called the evening "the most embarrassing night of my life," told the crowd that hes had a lifelong interest in building design. "After all," he said, "where would we be without architects? Probably outside." Under his 17-year reign, Disney has skimmed the cream from the profession, hiring the likes of Robert A.M. Stern, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, David Rockwell, Philip Johnson, M. Arthur Gensler Jr. and Aldo Rossi.
The big names were apparently undeterred by the fact that certain critics find Disneys creations the theme parks goofy castles and false-front Main Streets a bit low-brow. To the contrary, said John Allen, whose Houston-based company, Brand & Allen Architects, worked on Disneyland Paris. Mr. Eisners empire has done more for American families than anyone in the last century, he insisted, citing its wholesome atmosphere. "Disney doesnt do things as they are Disney does things as they should be."
Some architects joked that none of them are in it for the money Disney is known for pinching pennies but, as one noted, working for "Disney advances your reputation while promoting theirs."
Mr. Eisner may be getting thriftier still, since the company announced the layoffs of 4,000 employees, otherwise known as "cast members," a few weeks ago. And not everyone thinks hes a model manager. A recent biography by Kim Masters, called "The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip," is a merciless critique that describes the man of the hour as an "increasingly isolated and Nixonian executive." But dont cry for him yet. According to Forbes magazine, in fiscal 2000, Disney made a profit of $1.9 billion, and Mr. Eisner paid himself $11.5 million. (He has earned about $700 million in salary and stock options since taking over the company in 1984.)
And regardless of what some might think of the quality of the Eisner-Disney influence on American culture and society, all agree on the enormity of its impact. The museum has an exhibit running through July called "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks." It details how the company, to its credit, was an early proponent of mass transit and pedestrian-focused urban planning. From the beginning, though, Disneys most visible objective has been to create an idealized version of the world "a childs eye view of the perfect place."
Mr. Gensler, who helped create Tokyo Disneyland, said hes found it immensely satisfying to work for a unique and fanciful boss. "If you accept their style and their approach, theyll let you do really good stuff," he explained. "Its fun."

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