His is a story of ‘rags to riches’, Walt Disney started off with a notebook and a pencil and went on to own a multi-billion dollar empire. Here’s the life story of the ‘Father of the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck’.
Did you Know?
Walt Disney built a miniature railroad in the backyard of his California residence and named it ‘Carolwood Pacific’. It was half-a-mile long route, and Disney would ride through it in his steam locomotive with family and friends.
Everyone knows and admires Walt Disney for what he popularly was, a maker of motion pictures and a world-renowned animator. ‘Uncle Walt’, as he was nicknamed, was the man, who actually made the world believe that their dreams can come true. He has continued to inspire, influence and enchant generations of people, even after his death. However, Walt Disney was much more than he was assumed to be. Besides being an animator, a filmmaker and an actor, he was also a great philanthropist and a social worker.
Birth and Childhood
Walt’s fondness for drawing and sketching developed in Marceline itself. He possessed vivid imagination and his drawings were very beautiful. The Disney family had, as their neighbor, a retired doctor, who gave a further boost to the young boy’s talent. He used to pay Walt money for drawing pictures of his horse. Marceline was also the city where young Walt developed his keen interest in trains, owing to the fact that the city had developed because of the Santa Fe Railway that ran through it. This was probably the first time that he saw real trains, and got instantly attracted to the idea.
After staying in Marceline for a short span of four years, and spending a very hard time at the farm, the Disney family shifted to Kansas City in 1911, where Walt made friends with Walter Pfeiffer, whose family was related to theater and related fields. It was through the Pfeiffer family that Walt Disney got introduced to the world of drama, motion pictures and stardom. It was not very surprising that the boy started spending a lot of time with his friend’s family, which was slowly and steadily beginning to have an influence on Walt. As it is, Walt was never a very good student in school and he was caught and punished many a time for either scribbling absentmindedly in his notebook or daydreaming.
In Kansas City, Walt Disney also joined the Kansas City Art Institute, which held drawing and sketching classes for children on every Saturday. This extra training further enhanced and encouraged his talent in drawing and gave wings to his imaginative capabilities.
Adolescence and Youth
When Walt returned home in 1919, the best and the easiest option for him to start his career was to work with his father in the jelly factory. But, this was not what Walt wanted and so, he opted against it. He instead decided to choose the field he was good in, and the one which he enjoyed the most. So, he moved back to Kansas City to find opportunities in the field of arts. There, he became a commercial artist in a newspaper drawing cartoons and political caricatures. While on this job, he experimented with animations and also managed to sell a few of them. But, as the market for his art on a small scale was not much, he eventually ended up bankrupt.
His brother Roy Disney, who worked in a local bank in Kansas City, got him a temporary job through the influence of one of his colleagues. This was as a commercial advert designer at Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. Here, he met Ubbe Iwerks, a cartoonist with whom Walt Disney decided to start his own firm after the completion of the period of his placement. This firm was inaugurated in 1920 and was named as Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. However, the firm did not manage to gain much business and was shut down soon after. Disney, who had already left the firm even while it was still running (owing to its poor prospects), was then joined by Iwerks soon after the closure. Both of them were now working with the Kansas City Film Ad Company producing cutout animated advertisements.
The animation business tended to draw Disney towards it and he finally decided that he wanted to become an animator. He borrowed a camera from his company’s owner and began to experiment a lot with different techniques of animation, alongside reading about the same as well. He finally opened his own animation business and cracked a deal with a local theater to screen his animated cartoons films which he named as Laugh-O-Grams. Slowly and steadily, these cartoons gained ground in Kansas City and became so popular that Disney, apart from hiring more animators for the job, also bought his own studio and named it Laugh-O-Grams as well. Though the studio began on a very good note with wide demand throughout the city, Disney soon realized that he could not afford to pay the high salaries of his employees from his earnings, which were still mediocre and so the venture had to be closed down.
Ticket to Hollywood
Walt Disney did not give up on his dream of becoming an animator after the bankruptcy of his studio. On the contrary, he headed west, to the city of Hollywood in California, where his brother Roy was then stationed. The two brothers, then pooled up whatever money they had, to create the ‘first ever Disney Brothers Studio’. Under this venture, they started to produce a number of innovative and experimental short animated movies, the subject of which was a little girl called Alice. The series was named as Alice Comedies, and it became so popular that the Disney brothers grabbed a contract to make a total of 54 Alice films in all. These films were an exciting package of action and animation. The popularity of these films transformed Alice Comedies into Alice in Wonderland and fetched high profits for the Disney Brothers Studio.
Following Alice’s success, the office of the Disney brothers began to be flooded with more and more new contracts. The business was fast expanding and there was a need to employ more new people, including animators and other office staff. Walt also summoned Ubbe Iwerks to join him in California, along with his family, which Iwerks did for old friend’s sake. The workload had increased and thus had increased opportunities to create newer and better animated characters. In between all this, Walt married Lillian Marie Bounds (nicknamed as Lilly), who was also his first employee, in 1925.
In 1927, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was created by Iwerks and the character gained instant popularity. Everything was going well, when one fine day, one of his major distributors Charles Mintz, told Walt that he wanted to reduce the fees he paid to the Disneys for Oswald, and that if Disney does not agree to this, he would open a new studio along with all the Disney’s animators (except Iwerks), who had agreed to sign a contract. Disney was dumbstruck on hearing this and on realizing that his employees were not only disloyal to him, but he had also lost all the rights of Oswald. After this incidence, he had to lose a major section of his animation staff, which left him all alone one more time.
The Creation of an Icon
The first animated short called Plane Crazy, with Mickey Mouse as the central character was made but the Disney brothers could not manage to find a distributor for it. So, it could not be released at that time. While Disney was trying hard to find distributors, a new technical innovation shook the entire film world. Sound was introduced in 1927, in the movies, which were, till that point, only silent motion pictures. The very idea of characters talking to each other in the movie, fascinated Walt and he decided to introduce sound in all his animated features too, from then on. In 1928, Disney produced and released a new Mickey Mouse movie called Steamboat Willie and this technically became the character’s debut movie. ‘Steamboat Willie’ was a grand success and Mickey Mouse became a sensation in the animation world. Following this, ‘Plane Crazy‘ was also released with a soundtrack, and it was also equally successful.
Mickey Mouse had suddenly become the kids’ favorite and the talk of the town. He was the first ever animated character, in the history of the animation industry, to appear on a large number of kids’ merchandise. A lot of Mickey Mouse clubs were opened, which got fabulous response from the kids, who joined them in large numbers. Mickey Mouse had succeeded in enchanting and inspiring an entire generation. Items featuring him would be commonly seen in shops and with kids. The Disneys earned a hefty royalty through the sale of these merchandise as well. More Mickey Mouse cartoons were released and needless to say, all of them stole the show.
The Journey Ahead
Walt Disney further brought many revolutionary changes in his cartoons, he introduced ‘Technicolor’ in animation, added various effects, used multiple camera techniques and so on. He produced Silly Symphonies as his first Technicolor cartoon series, which consisted of 75 episodes in all. He won an Academy Award (the first of the total 32 Academy Awards which he won in his life) for the Flowers and Trees, one of the ‘Silly Symphonies‘ produced in 1932. Another Silly Symphony film Three Little Pigs, won an Oscar in 1934. This gave way to the production and phenomenal sale of the ‘Silly Symphonies‘ merchandise and goodies, this time, all licensed by the Disney Brothers.
In spite of the Great Depression, which was one of the most troubled economic phases in the history of mankind, Walt Disney continued to hire new animators, as he began production of his new animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was a huge success and fetched hefty profits for the firm. He further produced some other big budget animated movies such as ‘Fantasia‘, ‘Pinocchio‘, ‘Dumbo‘ etc. which came to be known as Disney Classics and are considered as the greatest works ever done in the history of animation.
Walt had brought with him, tons of footage that he had shot while in South America. He decided to use that for making his first non-animated movie, which would have Latin American characters. Thus was added, a new dimension to the business of the Disney Brothers. Around 1940, Disney brother’s company had grown to such an extent that the number of employees in the company reached four-figures. They also constructed their own Burbank Studio in 1940.
World War II Impact
World War II had begun in Europe by 1939 and owing to this, the ways to European markets were blocked for the Disney animation movies. Due to this, the business underwent a lot of fluctuations and financial hardships. Soon enough, discontent began to arise within the Disney staff, as the demands for better working conditions, alongside some others, started cropping up. By the year 1941, grapevines began to circulate regarding the possibility of a strike, which indeed took place later that year. Walt was upset and heartbroken once again by this attitude of his staff members, and while the negotiations with the leaders of the labor union were still in process, he took up U.S. Government’s task to go to South America and promote cooperation. By the time, he returned from South America, negotiations were over and the strike was settled. His staff was back to work.
When America entered the World War II in December 1941, the American soldiers took hold of the Disney studio, as the military industries that were situated in the nearby areas had to be protected. This military occupation of the studio lasted for several months during which the Disneys produced a number of instructional and government propaganda films. The idea of producing animated public interest films gained ground as they became more and more popular with the masses. For instance, Disney produced a series of animated adverts to encourage people to pay their taxes on time. Moreover, several anti-Nazi cartoon films were also produced such as Donald Duck’s Der Fuehrer’s face, which became very popular with the public.
The war ended in 1945 and trials were being held in American courts against the Communists in Hollywood. Walt Disney got a chance to testify against some of his staff members, who had, in the past, shown disloyalty against him and his business. He would not let go this chance in any case, as now it was his turn to give it back to them. In his testimony, which he gave at Washington D.C., he “named” some of his employees, who were Communists and some more, who he thought were Communists. The testimonies that were given during these period, gave rise to a Hollywood blacklist putting a ban on many talented artists for several years.
Disney also developed a keen interest in nature after he returned from Alaska in 1948. On his return, he produced a series of documentaries known as True Life Adventures and the very first one in the series, which was about Alaskan seals, got him an Academy Award. Apart from these, he continued to produce full-length movies during this period amongst other hits, blockbusters such as Cinderella and Peter Pan.
However, the rise of Warner Bros. in the animation arena with their star cartoon Bugs Bunny posed very tough competition for Disney Brothers. In the mean time, Mickey Mouse was fast losing popularity and so, in order to counter Bugs Bunny, the next animated Disney superstar was created. This was the rise of Donald Duck. However, Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, both remained equally popular amongst kids.
The end of the war also opened up European markets for the Americans and others. But since a huge amount of his money was held up owing to regulations imposed by European governments, he decided to go to England where he could use that money and produce some feature films there. So, he produced and released number of movies from England including the most famous Treasure Island in 1950.
Finally, on July 17, 1955, Disneyland was inaugurated in a grand manner. The entire opening ceremony was broadcast on television for people to watch and know what the project was all about. Nearly five million people visited the place during its first year, making it a grand success. It also acted as a prototype for all the theme parks which subsequently came up across the United States. Disneyland, a dreamland full of attractions, displays and rides, has been attracting people from across the globe ever since.
Ten years down the line from the date of its inauguration, i.e., by the year 1965, the theme park had succeeded in attracting more than 50 million visitors. Walt Disney and his brother were now amidst the process of building a new theme park in Florida, which would also include an experimental city as its major attraction. Alongside this, feature films continued to be made in the studio and the 1964 musical Mary Poppins was such a blockbuster that it won Disney, several Academy Awards.
Fall of the Star
His Florida theme park project was renamed by his brother Roy as Walt Disney World soon after his death, and it was inaugurated in the year 1971.
Walt Disney’s thinking was not confined only to cartoons, movies and entertainment world; he was a great social worker too. He helped establish the California Institute of the Arts in 1961, for budding and creative talents to learn necessary skills in the areas of their interest. He also worked towards improving urban life in America and mitigation of the problems related to it. He had designed and directed an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) project, which was developed to encourage American corporate bodies to muster up new ideas for urban living. The project opened in 1982.
Disney, who is considered one of the most influential people of 20th century, biggest entertainer and a public hero, won more than 30 Academy Awards, about 7 Emmy Awards, and honorary degrees from various universities such as Harvard, Southern California, Yale, UCLA, etc. He was also honored with France’s Legion of Honor and Officier D’Academie, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Best Showman of the World from the National Association of Theater Owners and many more. When admiration rises in the heart, words subside. This is indeed true in the case of Walter Elias Disney.