Episode 1 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago, the youngest of four sons of Elias Disney, a stern, short tempered Canadian American of Irish descent, and his wife Flora, a kind and lively mother who cultivated young Walt’s creativity by reading him stories and playing games with him.
After Elias’ brother Robert purchased a farm in town in 1906, the Disney family moved to Marceline, Missouri. It was in Marceline that, officially, Walt became a professional artist in 1908, when at seven years old, he was hired to draw the horse of the retired neighborhood doctor.
The next time you visit Disneyland, spend a little extra time on Main Street USA, and imagine for a minute that you get to live there full time. You’ll then be living Walt’s life when he was 9 years old, albeit a fairly idealized version of it. When designing Disneyland in the early 50s, Walt drew heavily on his memories of Marceline as he remembered it looking in 1910.
As a lifelong animal lover, Walt loved his childhood years on the farm in Marceline. But Elias was never much of a farmer. Profits were always thin, and they struggled to make ends meet. In 1911, when Walt was ten years old, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, and in a very real sense, this move symbolized Walt’s transition out of the carefree world of childhood. Elias purchased distribution routes for two Kansas City newspapers, and like many children in the early 20th century, before child labor laws became commonplace, Walt was given a workload that would exhaust many adults today. Up at 4:30 every morning, Walt and his brother Roy spent several hours delivering newspapers, often trudging through several feet of snow in the process. Like most newspapers of the time, they had an evening edition, too, so they had to repeat the whole route again in the afternoon. This meant Walt was always exhausted in class; he’d usually fall asleep, and his grades suffered accordingly. But as it would throughout his life, his creative drive took over. He took a correspondence course in drawing, and Saturday classes at the Kansas City Animation Institute.
Then, when he was 16 years old, Walt lied about his age to get a post as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I, enlisting in September of 1918. He would arrive in Europe two months later, after the November Armistice had ended the war. The sides of his Ford Model T ambulance were completely covered in drawings.
In 1919, Walt left the ambulance corps, and returned to Chicago with $500 in his pocket. Elias had become a part-owner of a jelly factory in town after his Kansas City newspapers went out of business. He offered Walt a good paying job on the floor, and for any other eager 18 year old returning from the western front, this would have been a great job opportunity. But it wasn’t going to be enough for Walt. He instead packed his bags and returned to Kansas City, where he moved into a house with two of his older brothers. He found work as an illustrator with a local commercial art studio. Before long, he was making enough money to spend every evening at the local movie house, where he would lose himself in the new and exciting world of the movies. Soon, he was spending his nights and weekends creating animated shorts, which he sold to local movie theaters. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, in fact, his revenue didn’t even cover his costs. But he was getting his name out there. He would later proclaim, “My first bit of fame came there. I got to be a little celebrity”
In 1922, when he was 20 years old, he quit his day job to begin producing animated shorts full time, and founded “Laugh-o-Gram Studio”, recruiting his friend and colleague Ub Iwerks, who would work with Disney for the next four decades. The company landed a deal from a local distributor, who hired them to produce six fairy tale shorts. The Laugh-o-Gram studio poured itself into this lucrative new project, but when they delivered the final product, the distributor stiffed them on their fee. With no money in the bank and no way to make payroll, Walt had no choice but to lay off all his animators.
He was determined to save the company from going under. He had a bold, innovative new idea. He would combine live action and animation by creating a 12 minute short based on Lewis Carrol’s character Alice. This was a true “Hail Mary” attempt to save his company. He slept at the office. He worked early in the morning and late into the night. He lived off of canned food. By the time he completed the film, “Alice in Cartoon Land” in the summer of 1923, it was too late. The studio went bankrupt. Laugh-o-Grams, Inc, under the creative direction of 21 year old Walter Elias Disney, was dead.
Walt became convinced there were no more opportunities for him the Midwest, so he packed a cheap cardboard suitcase with two shirts and his art supplies, and treated himself to a first class ticket on the Santa Fe Limited, bound for Los Angeles, where his older brother Roy was recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.
Roy was, and would remain for the rest of his life, the pragmatic antithesis to Walt’s insatiable dreamer. He was frustrated by the throngs of wide-eyed boys from the Midwest seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, and even more frustrated that his little brother was one of them. Roy had found steady work selling vacuum cleaners, and he hoped Walt would follow suit. After months in California, Walt didn’t have any luck finding work in show business, and one would assume that peddling Hoovers door-to-door was starting to look pretty appealing. That all changed with Margaret Winkler
In an era where women had only had the right to vote for 3 years, Margaret Winkler was a pioneer; the only woman in the animation business. She got in touch with Walt from New York. WInkler had recently lost a huge intellectual property when Pat Sullivan, the man behind the most popular cartoon character of the time, Felix the Cat, went into business for himself. She was intrigued by Walt’s Alice shorts, and she wanted to see the finished product. Walt shipped the reel to her, and she was impressed enough to cable back with a lucrative offer. She was willing to pay $1500 per episode, which adjusted for inflation is more than $21,000 in 2017. Winkler’s support gave birth to the Disney Brothers Animation Studio. Roy and Walt set up shop in the back of a real estate office as a two man operation, but Walt quickly realized that he would need creative help. He convinced Ub Iwerks to relocate from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Ub knew that animation was where they were bound to make their mark, so he immediately began shifting the focus from Alice to the cartoon characters. Their distributor couldn’t get enough. The money began pouring in.
The brothers bought houses on adjoining lots in the upscale Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and in the spring of 1925, Roy married his longtime sweetheart Edna. Walt, wanting to look extra dapper, grew a moustache that would be one of his trademarks for the rest of his life. The date on his arm was Lillian Bounds, an illustrator he had begun working with while he was still in Kansas City. They would marry on July 13 in her native Idaho.
Just as he had done when he was a 20 year old dreamer in Kansas City, Walt returned to the theaters to get more inspiration. 3 years earlier, he had made his choice to go into business with Roy in Los Angeles, but the big animation scene was in New York City. Felix the Cat, who had slipped through Margaret Sullivan’s fingers four years prior, was still the gold standard when it came to cartoon creatures. Producer Charles Mintz, who had married Sullivan in 1924 and took over her studio, was unhappy with the high production costs of the “Alice” shorts. He wanted a character who could hold his own against Felix.
Ub Iwerks told Walt that there were too many cats in the world of animation. They needed to go a different route. Dozens of sketches later, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born. Iwerks intuition paid off big time when Charles Mintz and Universal Studios offered Walt a contract for 26 Oswald shorts. He hired a team of animators, including a lot of his old Kansas City crew, to unleash Oswald on the world. They worked at a feverish pace, sometimes without pay, to keep up with the demands of the contract.
Oswald was a hit, but the animation team at Disney studios was fed up. They were doing all the hard work, and Walt was getting all the glory and most of the money. Charles Mintz saw a golden opportunity to poach some of the industry’s best animators for Universal. With the exception of Iwerks and a few other loyalists, the whole team abandoned Walt.
Oswald was officially the property of Universal, and Disney wouldn’t get him back for 80 years. Walt wasn’t deterred. It was time to go back to the drawing board…literally. Ub took his template for Oswald and tried to turn it into something entirely different. He mused, “pear shaped body. Ball on top. A couple of thin legs. You gave it long ears, it was a rabbit. Short ears, it was a cat. Give it an elongated nose, and it was a mouse.”
He needed a name. Walt knew that alliteration is always your friend when it comes to effective branding. He suggested Mortimer Mouse. Mercifully, his wife Lillian told him that was a terrible idea. She suggested Mickey.
On the Disneyland TV show in late 1954, Walt reminded us of the importance of this moment in the company’s history, proclaiming “I just hope we never lose sight of one thing, that it was all started by a mouse.”
Join us on next week’s episode to learn how Mickey helped Walt to redefine entertainment and animation as we know it.