Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966), was an American film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, and animator. He was the son of parents Flora and Elias Disney, and had three brothers and one sister.
Walt Disney started life as a farmer's kid, his father Elias Disney had moved to United States after his parents failed at farming in Canada. As a child Elias moved with his family all around the United States, as his father chased various business ventures. Elias would end up moving to Chicago in the late 1800s soon after his marriage to Flora Call. Walt was born in 1901. In 1906, it has been suggest that fearing the growing rate of crime in Chicago, the family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. Disney later said that these were the best years of his life. Since he and his younger sister, Ruth, were not of suitable age to help at the farm, they spent most of their days playing. They would swim in the pond, play with the farm animals, and lounge around under the trees.
While in Marceline, Disney developed his love of drawing. One of their neighbours, a retired doctor named "Doc" Sherwood, paid him to draw pictures of Sherwood's horse, Rupert. He also developed his love of trains in Marceline. He would put his ear to the tracks in anticipation of the coming train. He would also look for his uncle, engineer Mike Martin, running the train.
In 1909, Elias Disney suddenly came down with typhoid fever and was unable to work the farm, even with his older sons helping him. He reluctantly sold the farm and lived in a rented house until 1910, when they moved to Kansas City. Young Disney was incredibly devastated to leave his rustic paradise. He and his brother Roy even cried when the farm animals were sold at a farm auction.
When the family got to Kansas City, Missouri, Elias Disney purchased a newspaper route for the Kansas City Star. He had his two remaining sons help with the route, waking up at 3:00 in the morning every day (Herbert and Raymond had since left). Disney later recalled that they would deliver the paper in the heat of summer and during the dead of winter.
According to the Kansas City Public School District records, Disney began attending the Benton Grammar School in 1910, and graduated on June 8, 1911, being held back a year so that Ruth could go with him. Disney later enrolled in classes at the Chicago Art Institute. Academically, Walt was not the best student. Because of his early-morning paper runs, he had trouble concentrating and fell asleep in class often. He was also prone to daydreaming and doodling during class.
At 15, Disney took a summer job as a news butcher on the Santa Fe Railroad line. He sold soda pop, candy, and newspapers to passengers of the railroad. He was more fascinated with the train than selling his items. He would return and find that most of his items had been taken. His brother Roy loaned him the money to pay back his bosses and told him to call it quits.
During his high school years, Disney was the cartoonist for the school newspaper, The Village Voice. His cartoons were very patriotic and political, focusing on World War I. He dropped out of high school at 16 so he could join the Army, eager to follow in the footsteps of his brother Roy, who had joined the Navy. The Army didn't take him, however, as he was too young to enlist.
World War I
One of Disney's schoolmates told him that the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps was looking for 17-year-olds. With his mother's permission, he forged his birth certificate to state that he was born in 1900 instead of 1901, making him seventeen.
Despite his best efforts, Disney never saw combat. By the time he finished training and headed for Europe, Germany had signed an armistice and the war was over. He spent the rest of his term in France as an ambulance driver, shuttling around important officers. He pick to pass the time, eventually drawing all over his ambulance. It was also in France that he began smoking, a habit he would keep for all his life.
By 1919, Disney had had enough of France and became "very lonely". He put in a request to be discharged and was sent back to the U.S. With that experience under his belt, he now knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Animation & Laugh-O-Gram Films
When Disney returned to America, he told his father he wanted to be an artist. When his father refused to support him, he went out on his own.
He moved back to Kansas City to begin his artistic career. His brother Roy worked at a bank in the area and got a job for him through a friend at the Pesemen-Rubin Art Studio. At Pesmen-Rubin, Disney made ads for newspapers, magazines, and movie theatres. It was also there that he met a shy cartoonist named Ubbe Iwwerks. The two respected each other's work so much, they became fast friends and decided to start their own art business.
Disney and Iwwerks (who now shortened his name to Ub Iwerks) formed a company called "Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists" in January 1920 (It was originally called Disney-Iwerks, but the two thought they would be confused with a shop that made eyeglasses). Unfortunately, few clients would hire the new guys on the scene. Iwerks left temporarily to earn money at Kansas City Film Ad. Disney followed suit after the business venture went nowhere and collapsed.
After two years' experience at Film Ad, Disney felt he had enough experience to start another business venture. In 1922, he started Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc., which produced short cartoons based on popular fairy tales and children's stories with a modern/contemorary spin. (See Laugh-O-Gram Studios) Among his employees were Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carmen Maxwell, and Friz Freleng. The shorts were popular in the local Kansas City area, but their costs exceeded their returns.
After creating one last short, the live-action/animation Alice 's Wonderland, the studio declared bankruptcy in July 1923. Disney then decided that he needed to go to the blossoming center of the entertainment industry: Hollywood, California. Disney sold his movie camera, earning enough money for a one-way train ticket to California. He left his friends and former staff behind, but took the unfinished reel of Alice 's Wonderland with him.
When Disney arrived in Los Angeles, he had $40 in his pocket and an unfinished cartoon in his suitcase. Interestingly, he first wanted to break away from animation, thinking he could not compete with the studios in New York City. Disney said that his first ambition was to be a film director. He went to every studio in town looking for directing work; they all promptly turned him down.
Because of the lack of success in live-action film, Disney turned back to animation. His first Hollywood cartoon studio was a garage at his uncle Robert's house. Disney sent an unfinished print to New York distributor Margaret Winkler, who promptly wrote him back. She wanted a distribution deal with Disney for more live-action/animated shorts based upon Alice 's Wonderland.
Disney looked up his brother Roy, who was recovering from tuberculosis in a Los Angeles veteran's hospital. Disney pleaded with his brother to help him with his fledgeling studio, saying that he could not keep his finances straight without him. Roy agreed and left the hospital with his brother. He never went back and never had a recurrence of tuberculosis. Virginia Davis, the live-action star of Alice 's Wonderland, and her family were relocated at Disney's request from Kansas City to Hollywood, as were Iwerks and his family. This was the beginning of the Disney Brothers' Studio.
In 1925, Disney hired a young woman named Lillian Bounds to ink and paint celuloid. He was immediately taken with her. She then pulled double duty as secretary a few months later. Disney then began to take her out on dates, their first being the Broadway show, No, No, Nanette. He would also take her out on drives in the hills of Los Angeles. On one drive, he asked her if he should buy a new car or a ring for her finger. They were married on July 15, 1925. She later jokingly commented that he was disappointed that she did not tell him to buy the car. They honeymooned at Mount Rainier.
The "Alice Comedies", as the new series was called, were reasonably successful, and featured both Dawn O'Day and Margie Gay as Alice after Virginia Davis' parents pulled her out of the series because of a pay cut. Lois Hardwick also briefly assumed the role. By the time the series ended in 1927, the focus was more on the animated characters, in particular a cat named Julius who recalled Felix the Cat, rather than the live-action Alice.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
By 1927, Charles B. Mintz had married Margaret Winkler and assumed control of her business, and ordered a new all-animated series to be put into production for distribution through Universal Pictures. The new series, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", was an almost instant success, and the Oswald character, first drawn and created by Iwerks, became a popular property. The Disney studio expanded, and Walt hired back Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng from Kansas City.
In February of 1928, Disney went to New York to negotiate a higher fee per short from Mintz, but was shocked when Mintz announced that not only did he want to reduce the fee he paid Disney per short, but that he had most of his main animators, including Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng (notably excepting Iwerks) under contract and would start his own studio if Disney did not accept the reduced production budgets. Universal, not Disney, owned the Oswald trademark, and could make the films without Disney.
Disney declined Mintz's offer and lost most of his animation staff. The defectors became the nucleus of the Winkler Studio, run by Mintz and his brother-in-law George Winkler. When that studio went under after Universal assigned production of the Oswald shorts to an in-house division run by Walter Lantz, Mintz focused his attentions on the studio making the "Krazy Kat" shorts, which later became Screen Gems, and Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng marketed an Oswald-like character named Bosko to Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros., and began work on the first entries in the Looney Tunes series.
As it turned out, it took Disney's company 78 years to get back the rights to the Oswald character. In a move that sent sports broadcaster Al Michaels to NBC Sports for their Sunday night NFL coverage, The Walt Disney Company reacquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal in 2006.
After having lost the rights to Oswald, Disney had to develop a new "star". Most Disney biographies state that Disney came up with a mouse character on his trip back from New York. It is debated whether it was he, or Iwerks who actually designed the mouse (which basically looked like Oswald, but with round instead of long ears). The first films were animated by Iwerks, his name was prominently featured on the title cards. The mouse was originally named "Mortimer", but later christened "Mickey Mouse" by Lillian Disney.
Mickey's first animated short produced was Plane Crazy, which was, like all of Disney's previous works, a silent film. After failing to find distributor interest in Plane Crazy or its follow-up, The Gallopin' Gaucho, Disney created a Mickey cartoon with sound called Steamboat Willie. A businessman named Pat Powers provided Disney with both distribution and Cinephone, a sound-synchronization process. Steamboat Willie became a success, and Plane Crazy, The Galloping Gaucho, and all future Mickey cartoons were released with soundtracks. Disney himself provided the vocal effects for the earliest cartoons and performed as the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1947. Disney believed Mickey would make it far into television.
Joining the Mickey Mouse series in 1929 were a series of musical shorts called Silly Symphonies. The first of these was entitled The Skeleton Dance and was entirely drawn and animated by Iwerks, who was also responsible for drawing the majority of cartoons released by Disney in the years 1928 and 1929. Although both series were successful, the Disney studio was not seeing its rightful share of profits from Pat Powers, and in 1930, Disney signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures.
Iwerks was growing tired of the temperamental Disney, especially as he was doing the majority of the work, and so was lured by Powers into opening his own studio with an exclusive contract. Disney desperately searched for someone who could replace Iwerks as he was not able to draw as well, or especially as quickly, himself - Iwerks was reported to have drawn up to 700 drawings a day for the first Mickey shorts.
Meanwhile, Iwerks launched his successful Flip the Frog series with the first sound cartoon in color, which was entitled "Fiddlesticks." Iwerks also created two other series of cartoons, namely, the Willie Whopper and the Comicolor cartoon series. Iwerks closed his studio in 1936, the Ub Iwerks Studio, to work on various projects dealing with animation technology. Iwerks would return to Disney in 1940 and, in the studio's research and development department, he pioneered a number of film processes and specialized animation technologies.
Disney was able to eventually find a number of people to replace the work that had previously been done solely by Iwerks. By 1932, Mickey Mouse had become quite a popular cartoon character. The Van Beuren cartoon studio attempted to cash in on this success by creating a process, making them the first commercial films presented in this new process. Iwerks had previously released the first color sound cartoon in 1930, which was a Flip the Frog cartoon entitled "Fiddlesticks" and which had been filmed in two strip Technicolor. The first color Symphony was Flowers and Trees, which won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons in 1932. The same year, Disney received a special Academy Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, whose series was moved into color in 1935 and soon launched spinoff series for supporting characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto.
The family grows
As Mickey's co-creator and producer, Disney was almost as famous as his mouse cartoon character, but remained a largely private individual. His greatest hope was to be a father to many children. The Disneys' first attempts at pregnancy ended up in miscarriage, however. This, coupled with the pressures at the studio, led to Disney having "a hell of a breakdown", as he called it. His doctors said that he had to get away for a while. So, he and his wife went on a Caribbean cruise, and then traveled to Washington, D.C.
When Lilly Disney became pregnant again, Disney told his sister in a letter that he did not care what gender it was, just as long as they were not disappointed again. Lilly finally gave birth to a daughter, Diane Marie Disney, on December 18, 1933. Disney was excited to finally have a child.
A few years later, he told his wife he wanted more children. But, when the next pregnancy ended in another miscarriage, her doctors felt that she should not try to have any more children. Still wanting a child, the Disneys adopted a second daughter, Sharon Mae Disney, who was born December 21, 1936.
1937-1941: The Golden Age of Animation
Although his studio produced the two most successful cartoon series in the industry, the returns were still dissatisfying to Disney, and he began plans for a full-length feature in 1934. When the rest of the film industry learned of Disney's plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow White, they dubbed the project "Disney's Folly" and were certain that the project would destroy the Disney studio. Both Lillian and Roy tried to talk Disney out of the project, but he continued plans for the feature. He employed Chouinard Art Institute professor Don Graham to start a training operation for the studio staff, and used the Silly Symphonies as a platform for experiments in realistic human animation, distinctive character animation, special effects, and the use of specialized processes and apparatus such as the multiplane camera.
All of this development and training was used to elevate the quality of the studio so that it would be able to give the feature the quality Disney desired. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as the feature was named, was in full production from 1935 until mid-1937, when the studio ran out of money. To acquire the funding to complete Snow White, Disney had to show a rough cut of the motion picture to loan officers at the Bank of America, who gave the studio the money to finish the picture. The finished film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21, 1937; at the conclusion of the film the audience gave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a standing ovation. The first animated feature in English and Technicolor, Snow White was released in February 1938 under a new distribution deal with RKO Radio Pictures. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and earned over $8 million (today $98 million) in its original theatrical release, all the more amazing because children were only charged a dime to see it. The success of Snow White allowed Disney to build a new campus for the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, which opened for business on December 24, 1939. The feature animation staff, having just completed Pinocchio, continued work on Fantasia and Bambi, while the shorts staff continued work on the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto cartoon series, ending the Silly Symphonies at this time.
Pinocchio and Fantasia followed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into movie theatres in 1940, but both were financial disappointments. The inexpensive Dumbo was planned as an income generator, but during production of the new film, most of the animation staff went on strike, permanently straining the relationship between Disney and his artists.
Shortly after Dumbo was released in October 1941 and became a successful moneymaker, the United States entered World War II. The U.S. Army contracted for most of the Disney studio's facilities and had the staff create training and instructional films for the military, as well as home-front morale such as Der Fuehrer's Face and the feature film Victory Through Air Power in 1943. The military films did not generate income, however, and Bambi underperformed when it was released in April 1942. Disney successfully re-issued Snow White in 1944, establishing the 7-year re-release tradition for Disney features.
Inexpensive package films, containing collections of cartoon shorts, were created and issued to theaters during this period as well. The most notable and successful of these were Saludos Amigos (1942), its sequel The Three Caballeros (1945), Song of the South (the first Disney feature to feature dramatic actors), (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The latter had only two sections: the first based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and the second based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
By the late 1940s, the studio had recovered enough to continue production on the full-length features Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, which had been shelved during the war years and began work on Cinderella. The studio also began a series of live-action nature films, entitled True-Life Adventures, in 1948 with On Seal Island.
Testimony before Congress
After the 1941 strike of Disney Studio employees, Walt Disney deeply distrusted organized labour. In 1947, during the early years of the Cold War, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators. Disney implicated the Screen Actors Guild as a Communist front, and charged that the 1941 strike was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that from 1941 until his death, he spied for the FBI on union activity in Hollywood, and illegally intimidated union activists. Since Jews were prominent in the labor movement, some employees felt that Disney's actions were motivated by anti-semitism.
1955-1966: Theme Parks and beyond
During 1949, when Disney and his family moved to a new home on a large piece of property in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles, California, with the help of his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, owners of their own backyard railroad, Disney developed the blueprints and immediately set to work creating his own miniature Live steam railroad in his backyard. The name of the railroad, Carolwood Pacific Railroad, originated from the address of his home that was located on Carolwood Drive. The railroad's half-mile long layout included a 46-foot-long trestle, loops, overpasses, gradients, an elevated dirt berm, and a 90-foot tunnel underneath Mrs. Disney's flowerbed. He named the miniature working steam locomotive built by Roger E. Broggie of the Disney Studios Lilly Belle in his wife's honor. He had his attorney draw up right-of-way papers giving the railroad a permanent, legal easement through the garden areas, which his wife dutifully signed; however, there is no evidence the documents were ever recorded as a restriction on the property's title.
On a business trip to Chicago in the late 1940s, Disney drew sketches of his ideas for an amusement park where he envisioned his employees spending time with their children. He got his idea for a children's theme park after visiting Children's Fairyland in Oakland, California. This plan was originally for a lot south of the Studio, just across the street. However, the city of Burbank declined building permission. The ideas developed into a concept for a larger enterprise that was to become Disneyland. Disney spent five years of his life developing Disneyland and created a new subsidiary of his company, called WED Enterprises to carry out the planning and production of the park. A small group of Disney studio employees joined the Disneyland development project as engineers and planners, and were dubbed Imagineers.
When conceiving one of his earliest plans to Herb Ryman (who created the first aerial drawing of Disneyland to present to the Bank of America for funds), Disney said, "Herbie, I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train." Entertaining his daughters and their friends in his backyard and taking them for rides on his Carolwood Pacific Railroad had inspired Disney to include a railroad in the plans for Disneyland.
Expanding into new areas
As Walt Disney Productions began work on Disneyland, it also began expanding its other entertainment operations. Treasure Island (1950) became the studio's first all-live-action feature, and was soon followed by such successes as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in CinemaScope, 1954), The Shaggy Dog (1959), and The Parent Trap (1960). The Walt Disney Studio was one of the first to take full advantage of the then-new medium of television, producing its first TV special, One Hour in Wonderland, in 1950. Disney began hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC named Disneyland after the park, where he showed clips of past Disney productions, gave tours of his studio, and familiarized the public with Disneyland as it was being constructed in Anaheim, California. In 1955, he debuted the studio's first daily television show, the popular Mickey Mouse Club, which would continue in many various incarnations into the 1990s.
As the studio expanded and diversified into other media, Disney devoted less of his attention to the animation department, entrusting most of its operations to his key animators, whom he dubbed the Nine Old Men. During Disney's life time, the animation department created the successful Lady and the Tramp (in CinemaScope, 1955) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and the financially disappointing Sleeping Beauty (in Super Technirama 70mm, 1959) and The Sword in the Stone (1963).
Early 1960s successes
By the early 1960s, the Disney empire was a major success, and Walt Disney Productions had established itself as the world's leading producer of family entertainment. After decades of trying, Disney finally procured the rights to P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny. Mary Poppins, released in 1964, was the most successful Disney film of the 1960s and featured a memorable song score by Disney favorites: The Sherman Brothers. Many hailed the live-action/animation combination feature as Disney's greatest achievement. The same year, Disney debuted a number of exhibits at the 1964 New York World's Fair, including Audio-Animatronic figures, all of which later were integrated into attractions at Disneyland and a new theme park project, to be established on the east coast, which Disney had been planning since Disneyland opened. And he also did this as well.
Walt Disney first showed interest in ski resorts with his investment in Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in the 1930s. However, his interest was brought to a new level in the 1960s when he commissioned plans for Disney's Mineral King Ski Resort. Official plans for the resort were announced just months before his death. The project was eventually canceled due to heavy protest from many environmental organizations, most notably the Sierra Club. The 1970s saw yet another set of Disney plans for a ski resort, in Independence Lake near San Francisco. Like the Mineral King plans, the Independence Lake project was scrapped for many of the same reasons. There are plans for two more new ski resorts to open in 2008.
Death of Walt Disney
However, Disney's involvement in Disney World ended in late 1966, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in his left lung, after a life-long habit of chain smoking. He was checked into the St. Joseph 's Hospital across the street from the Disney Studio lot and his health eventually deteriorated causing him to suffer a cardiac arrest. He died on December 15, 1966, ten days after his 65th birthday. He was cremated on December 17, 1966 at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Roy Disney carried out the Florida project, insisting that the name become Walt Disney World in honor of his brother. Roy O. Disney died three months after the Magic Kingdom opened for business in 1971.
It is an urban legend that Walt Disney's body was cryogenically frozen.
The Disney entertainment empire
Today, Walt Disney's animation/motion picture studios and theme park have developed into a multi-billion dollar television, motion picture, vacation destination and media corporation that carries his name. The Walt Disney Company today owns, among other assets, five vacation resorts, eleven theme parks, two water parks, thirty-nine hotels, eight motion picture studios, six record labels, eleven cable television networks, and one terrestrial television network.
The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)