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Charlie Disney's obituary

1998 photo of Charlie Disney, founder of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, a landlord group that has been fighting City Hall over crime, housing and inspections issues. His Faithful chocolate lab “Alex” is by his side. photo by Duane Braley, Star Tribune

This photo was taken on the front porch of Charlie's home on the corner of 26th and Grand Avenue South in Minneapolis.

 

obituary in Star Tribune, April 23, 2014 p. B6 (metro section)

A sports fanatic who knew how to work the phones and rally people behind a cause, Charlie Disney owned and operated the largest for-profit table-tennis club in the United States.
Later in life he turned his organizing skills to the rights of rental property owners, leading a fight against what he and others perceived as a hostile city inspections department.

“He had the unique knack of leading,” said Don Larson, who co-founded the table tennis club with him. “He just had a way of networking people that I’ve never seen.”
Disney died last week at his winter home in Rio Verde, Ariz. He was 72.

Born Dec. 3, 1941, he grew up in Edina. His father, a teacher, died when Charlie was 9. His mother worked as a school secretary. Charlie worked part-time jobs in high school, mowing lawns and busing tables at the Convention Grill.

“ He was a very outgoing person, a very extroverted person,” said Susie Kanemitsu, his younger sister, who lives in Minneapolis. “I thought of him as my best friend when I was little.”

After studying at Dunwoody College and a brief stint at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Disney moved to Minneapolis and took a job as a stockbroker for Dain, Kalman & Quail.

He grew up playing table tennis in his family’s basement and in 1969 established Magoo’s Table Tennis Club on Nicollet Avenue. Later it became Disney’s Table Tennis Center on Lake Street. The club was in operation in some form until the mid-1990s. Disney coached table tennis players and led efforts to organize tournaments, leagues and a huge junior program. He was also a 10-time Minnesota state table tennis champion.

He was a delegate with the U.S. team at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971, when Chinese and American players brushed shoulders. Events moved quickly, and a few days later a handful of U.S. table-tennis players became the first American delegation to visit Beijing since 1949.

Disney was not among them. He said later he didn’t go with the players to China because he thought he needed to quickly return to his job in Minnesota. The “Ping-Pong diplomacy” that Disney witnessed helped open the door for Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China less than a year later.

In the mid-1980s, Disney began to buy rental properties, mostly in the Phillips and Whittier neighborhoods of south Minneapolis. He was angered by what he considered “inspections harassment” from the city, and in 1994 he helped start the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. The group launched a campaign arguing that city officials were trying to scapegoat property owners for the city’s crime problems.
Disney hosted a cable television show, and the group started a free newspaper. They conducted “Minneapolis crack tours” where they would pose as suburbanites looking for drugs, then renege on the deal. Disney would put a judge, City Council member or member of Congress in the back seat to witness the whole thing, even as police cruised by.

“ The implication was obvious,” said Bill McGaughey, a friend and colleague of Disney’s. “Minneapolis was out of control, and the police weren’t doing anything.”

Disney tried to run for mayor in 2001 but withdrew from the race when he suffered two heart attacks. He eventually received a heart transplant and started spending his winters in Rio Verde. He lived in Roseville during the summer.

Disney was married and divorced twice. He is survived by his sister.

 

Earlier version, written by Bill McGaughey

Charlie Disney was a stockbroker at Dain, Kalman Quail who later owned and operated the largest table-tennis club in the United States and, after that, organized and led Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, a landlord group that fought Minneapolis city government over its housing-inspections practices in the 1990s and 2000s.

Born on December 3, 1941, Charlie Disney grew up in Edina. He studied highway design at Dunwoody Institute and worked for a time at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. After several years as a stockbroker, Disney founded Magoo’s Table Tennis club on Nicollet Avenue and then Disney’s Table Tennis Club on Lake Street. This club organized tournaments, promoted leagues, and coached table-tennis players. It was the largest organization of its kind in the country. Disney was himself a ten-time state table-tennis champion.

Charlie Disney was present at the historic tournament in Nagano, Japan, in 1971 when the Chinese government extended an invitation to the U.S. team to tour China. This opening shot of “ping pong diplomacy” led to President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the opening of China to western influences. Although he himself did not visit China, Disney was the one who relayed the Chinese invitation from the playing floor to top U.S. Table-Tennis Association officials. He was himself president of that organization in the mid 1970s.

Disney started buying rental properties in south Minneapolis in 1985 and 1986 but soon ran into trouble with city inspectors. Six months before he purchased the property, the Minneapolis police raided a house at Grand Avenue and 26th Street, where Disney himself later lived, in search of drugs. City inspectors wanted to enter the house to look for code violations, but he refused permission.

After years of dealing with city inspectors, Charlie Disney employed his considerable organizing skills to finding other Minneapolis landlords who were interested in suing the city for inspections abuse. Although the lawsuit failed, this effort grew into the establishment of Minneapolis Property Owners (later, Rights) Action Committee in 1994. This group picketed, testified at public meetings, and conducted a “crack tour” to show how easy it was to purchase crack cocaine on public streets. It also sponsored a popular cable-television show, hosted by Charlie Disney, which focused on problems relating to rental housing. Disney always said that the secret of his organizing success was the willingness to make thousands of phone calls.

A highlight of the landlords’ activism was their invasion of a Minneapolis City Council meeting in early November 1998 with picket signs after the Council had revoked a landlord’s rental license. The council found it impossible to continue its meeting but dared not arrest the protesting landlords because this was the Friday before the state elections. On another occasion, the landlords held a press conference at City Hall when the city closed down an apartment building on Park Avenue where a murder had taken place. The city held the landlord responsible. However, Disney’s group had lined up tenants in that building who loudly criticized city officials for making them homeless. The mayor was forced to visit that property on the following day to try to make amends.

Charlie Disney was a candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis in 2001 but he dropped out before the election. However, his group’s influence was felt when mayoral and city council candidates friendly to landlords were all elected and all the landlords’ opponents, except one, were defeated. By that time, the group’s leadership had passed to Eve White who owned property in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood.

In later years, Charlie Disney was married and divorced. He moved from Minneapolis to Roseville and Rio Verde, Arizona, but kept in close touch with former colleagues in the ping-pong and landlord communities. A later passion in life was the game of bridge. Charlie Disney is survived by a sister, Susie Kanemitsu, and her husband, Hideo, and their son, Daniel, who live in south Minneapolis.

  leaflet at Charlie's memorial service in June 2014

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