Creative . . . aesthetic . . . imaginative - these adjectives - and many more barely begin to scratch the surface when describing the intellect and character of one of the world’s most loved individuals - Walter Elias Disney. Disney’s genius has not only allowed generations of children to see some of their best loved fairy tales come to life on the big screen; but he has also enriched their knowledge of history and nature with his True Life Adventures. He taught the younger ones to spell – M-I-C-K-E-Y . . . M-O-U-S-E and prepared pre-teen girls for what the future held. Walt Disney had a way of pulling ideas from the imagination and making them come to life in a way no one else before him seemed able to do.
Disney’s own true life adventure began in Chicago, Illinois on December 5, 1901. He was the fourth son born to Elias Disney, a combination peripatetic carpenter, building contractor and farmer, and his wife Flora Call, a public school teacher. Shortly after Walt was born, the family moved to Marceline, Missouri. (Rumor has it this small Midwestern town gave Walt the inspiration for Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.)
In his early years, his love of art was evident. As a child, Walt used his talents to add a jingle to his pockets by selling the drawings he did to neighbors and friends.
Elias moved his family back to Chicago in 1917 and Walt enrolled in McKinley High School. During his time there, Walt became both a photographer and artist for the school newspaper, while studying cartooning on the side. He originally hoped to become a cartoonist for a newspaper; however, World War I interrupted his efforts.
Desiring to serve his country, Walt attempted to enlist in the military; unfortunately, Uncle Sam wanted enlistees who were older than 16. Not to be dissuaded in his efforts, Walt joined the Red Cross and drove an ambulance in both Germany and France. His was no ordinary ambulance, however; Walt’s was decorated with a variety of cartoon characters he created.
Walt settled in Kansas City in 1919 and began work as an inker and draftsman for a commercial art studio. Here he met Ub Iwerks, a young artist whose talents would provide a tremendous helping hand to Disney’s early success.
In 1922, Disney and Iwerks opened their first animation studio where they began to turn out a variety of one and two-minute length animated films and Laugh-O-grams. Some of the films were used as advertisements at the local movie theaters. A pilot film incorporating both animation and action named Alice in Cartoonland was presented to a New York film distributor who later cheated the young artists out of the funds he originally promised, forcing them into bankruptcy in 1923.
Disney may have been down, but he was not out. He moved to California to pursue a career in cinematography and later had a surprising success with his first Alice film. This success led Walt to join forces with his brother Roy and open a new shop in Hollywood.
Roy now became the business manager in the partnership and Walt persuaded Ub to join them in Hollywood and help with the cartoons. Continuing with the Alice series, Walt and Ub added new characters such as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to the cast. This time when films were released for distribution, they went with a signed contract and a fee of $1,500.
Disney’s best loved icon was born in 1927. Prior to taking the plunge into ‘talkies’, Walt and Ub created a new character; housing a mischievous, lively and cheerful personality in the form of a mouse. They named their beloved character ‘Mickey’.
Mickey’s debut was scheduled to take place in two different ‘shorts’; Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy. Hot on the heels of Mickey’s debute, The Jazz Singer woke Walt and Ub to the need of giving voice to Mickey’s personality. A third Mickey cartoon was released in 1928 entitled Steamboat Willie, and was an instant hit. (Until 1947, Disney himself was the voice of Mickey Mouse.)
Classical music became an addition to Disney’s work in 1929 with a new series entitled Silly Symphonies. These movies required a more complicated form of drawing and technical effort to ensure the syncopation worked; and with it came higher costs. Disney had only to look at the popularity of Mickey Mouse and now his girlfriend Minnie to know he was on the right track, so he pressed on. Additional animal characters joined the cast, beginning with ducks (Donald & Daisy) and dogs (Goofy & Pluto).
In 1933, three pigs and a wolf were enlisted to entertain Depression-era audiences. The wise pig whose forethought had him build his abode of brick gave inspiration to the viewers who witnessed the wolf’s inability to blow the structure down. This helped them enlist a degree of fortitude while facing the economic disaster. The theme song, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? became a method with which to taunt an frustrating adversary.
Though the 1930s were a hard time for most Americans, the enjoyment provided by Walt Disney’s creations offered them a brief respite from the frustrations of every day life. By fully endearing himself to his work, Walt was handsomely rewarded by those whose humdrum lives were enhanced by his efforts. In spite of the Depression, Walt’s burgeoning company began to make money.
Iwerks now headed a staff of talented young people and color became the name of the game. In 1932, Flowers and Trees joined the Silly Symphonies collection and received an Academy Award. More animals were added to the menagerie with The Grasshopper and the Ants, and The Tortoise and the Hare. Business manager Roy Disney started a new franchise in the form of watches, dolls and clothes displaying the popular Disney characters.
Not one to quit while he was ahead, Walt decided to strike while the iron was hot and move into the world of feature-length animation. By now, his staff was large enough to allow Disney to serve as chief coordinator of the projects, with final say-so on all decisions. He began in 1934 with a classic fairy tale – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The new project would require an even greater amount of coordination and organization through the studio, but by now Disney was an old hand at such efforts. The first use of human figures in a Disney film, upon release, Snow White was widely acclaimed and won an Oscar for the studio.
A wide variety of animated full-length films followed in the wake of Snow White – Pinocchio in 1940, Dumbo 1941 and Bambi in 1942 to name a few. He also produced a multisegmented film which excited young and old alike – Fantasia. One of the main characters in this film is Yen Sid, the sorcerer (‘Disney’ spelled backwards). Music from great composers, the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Paul Dukas, was incorporated throughout the film.
Growing pains in 1940 led Disney to move his studio again; this time to Burbank, California. No sooner were they settled in than a major setback arrived in 1941 in the form of a strike. During this time, a number of the top animators resigned and the excellence audiences had come to expect of Disney’s films suffered as a result. It would be a number of years before the quality seen in the previously released classics returned.
World War II soon appeared on the horizon and Disney’s study began turning out films for the federal government. They also continued with commercial films in which the use of live-action and animation was combined. Some of these hybrid releases included: Saludos Amigos in 1942, The Three Caballeros in 1945 and Song of the South in 1946.
Following World War II, Disney embarked on a new form of films. In his popular True-Life Adventures, Disney produced a number of nature-based movies – Seal Island in 1948, Beaver Valley in 1950 and The Living Desert in 1953. Disney’s original ‘bread and butter’ continued as well with Cinderella in 1950 and Peter Pan in 1953. Live-action joined the group in 1961 with The Absent-Minded Professor staring Fred MacMurray.
The advent of television offered a new outlet for Disney’s efforts. Now the studio began to produce a variety of series such as Zorro and Davy Crockett. Mickey Mouse became the leader of his own club which included a group of individuals known as the Mouseketeers, comprised mostly of teenagers.
For years, Disney harbored in the back of his mind a desire to create a family-friendly amusement park which would be clean and well-run. The parks where he previously took his daughters disappointed him greatly due to the fact they were sleazy, dirty places. He sought to create amusements for ‘children of all ages’. His park would be ‘themed,’ with a beautiful atmosphere and never ‘completed’, as long as imagination was still present in the world. Though there were those who seemed to feel Disney maintained a saccharine attitude with the things he did, they were forced to eat their words when they gazed upon the success Disney’s attitude produced.
Though Disneyland officially opened in California on Monday July 18, 1955 with 20 attractions and five ‘lands’; the preceding day proved to be a case of ‘the best laid plans of mouse and men’ with the likes of Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings, all close friends of Disney’s, on hand. One incident involved Linkletter in Fantasyland trying to switch coverage from himself to Cummings, who was on the pirate ship. Cummings, however, was not yet ready to take over and made the attempt to switch the broadcast back to Linkletter. By now Linkletter had moved over to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and lost his mike. While Linkletter looked for his mike, Cummings did a play-by-play of Linkletter’s efforts. ABC televised the event and had a number of their own challenges to deal with; such problems as guest tripping over the cables for their cameras. If that was not enough, 11,000 invitations were sent out for the Sunday event; however, 28,154 individuals arrived, the better part of which were brandishing bogus invites.
Walt was unable to predict what would happen in the Anaheim area outside the borders of the Magic Kingdom when the park opened. Given the fact Disneyland was located in the midst of the Los Angeles area, it was not long before tourist traps, high-rise hotels and restaurants quickly surrounded the premises. Though Walt succeeded in keeping a bawdy carnival atmosphere out of his park, he could not prevent it from occurring in the surrounding area. Since the idea of removing Disneyland from Anaheim and moving it elsewhere was impractical, Walt’s fertile mind began to germinate a new idea – another park of the same venue, but build far enough away so as not to draw business from its older sibling. This one would be built in an area large enough to provide room for hundreds of ideas yet to be born.
Before breaking ground for his new park, Disney did a test-run of sorts. In 1964, Disney put his Imagineering Department to work creating four attractions for the New York World’s Fair. These attractions would be used as a test to see if Americans on the east coast would be as open to welcoming an amusement park the likes of Disneyland as were their west coast counterparts. These four attractions were It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Progressland and Primeval World. The fair was a tremendous success, with Disney’s attractions the most popular.
Though numerous technology lessons were learned from the four exhibits which served to increase the efficiency of Disneyland, of even more importance to Walt was learning the East coast would welcome a Disney park; with Walt envisioning it on a grander scale than that of California.
Prior to the World’s Fair, Walt had already begun to visualize the new park. By the end of the fair, Robert Foster, Disney’s company lawyer, used the name ‘Robert Price’ to quietly buy five 10,000 acre plots in central Florida. Box office receipts from Mary Poppins provided the funds to do so. These funds were directed to a new company Walt began named Mapo which focused on the Florida project. Several years later, Mapo would merge with the Imagineering Department.
On May 4, 1965, rumors of an ‘East Coast Disneyland’ were spread by The Orlando Sentinel newspaper. By October of that year Disney had acquired 27,443 acres of land (43 square miles) at a cost of $5 million. On October 24th, the Orlando Sentinel was at it again with the rumors, which Florida Governor Hayden Burns lay to rest the following day by announcing Walt Disney Productions was indeed investing in large amounts of Florida real estate.
On November 15th, Walt and Roy Disney joined Governor Burns at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to announce the plans for the new Disney theme park – Walt Disney World Resort. The park would open six years later, but unfortunately its name sake would not live to see his dream become a reality.
After many years of smoking, Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer. With his cough becoming progressively worse, he entered St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank California on November 2, 1966 due to pain in his back and neck. X-rays revealed tumors in his left lung the size of walnuts. On November 6th, surgery was performed and the cancerous lung removed. He went home to spend Thanksgiving with his family and collapsed in his Palm Springs home on November 30th. Returning to St. Joseph’s Hospital, he spent his 65th birthday with his wife and daughters at his bedside. While Walt was in the hospital, Roy Disney ordered the lights of the Disney Studio to remain on at all times. Walt would periodically ask the nurses to prop him up so he could look out at his studio. Walt Elias Disney died at 9:30 a.m. on December 15th, 1966.
Disney’s funeral took place on December 16th at the Little Church of the Flowers in Glendale, California. His daughter Diane stated her father had said, “When I’m dead, I don’t want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive.” Thus, the service was handled quietly with only family and the closest of friends in attendance. Walt’s ashes were later interred in a vault at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
A visionary to say the least, Walt Disney believed in his dream. In the early 1950s, he and his wife hired Thelma Pearl Howard to be a nanny for their daughters. From the start, Walt gifted Thelma with shares of Disney stock each year on her birthday and at Christmas – with strict orders she was not to sell it. Thelma paid little attention to how many shares she owned, thinking of them as only pieces of paper; never-the-less, she did as she was told and held on to the shares. When Thelma died, she was living in a small apartment in Los Angeles, supporting herself and her mentally handicapped son with the pension she received from Disney. When the executors of her estate calculated the value of the Disney stock Thelma owned, it amounted to $10,000,000. Thelma’s will stated half of the stock was to go to her son, who was now in a group home, and the other half to be put into a charitable trust.
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"Somehow I can't believe there are any heights that can't be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C's. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably." Walt Disney
(Originally posted at the Historic American Examiner)