Walt Disney

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: More than any other person, Disney was an innovator in the entertainment industry, a chance-taker responsible for what he termed “imagineering,” leading the way in children’s amusements.

Early Life

Walter Elias Disney was born December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother, née Flora Call, was German-American; his father, Elias Disney, was Irish-Canadian. Both parents had farming backgrounds. Walt Disney was the youngest of four sons by eight years but was older than his only sister, Ruth.

With little doubt, the strongest influence on Walt during his childhood was his father. The older Disney was a religious Fundamentalist and stern taskmaster who was always ready to beat his children with his belt. That practice finally led to a showdown in Walt’s teen years, when he physically prevented his father from beating him, marking a turning point in their relationship. The Disney children were denied a typical childhood environment, their father refusing to provide toys, games, and sporting equipment. Added to this were the frequent job changes of the frustrated Elias Disney, who sought success in such areas as farming, railway shops, carpentry and contracting work, newspaper distributing, and factory owning. The disruption of moves from Chicago to Marceline, Missouri, to Kansas City, Missouri, and back to Chicago in the space of eleven years principally accounted for Walt’s never getting past the ninth grade.

Walt’s favorite childhood memories were of Marceline, where he lived from the age of four to eight. The Disneys worked a forty-eight-acre farm, a life Walt loved. It also provided him with his first acquaintance with a variety of animals, contact which his closest brother, Roy, stressed was the start of a sensitive, lifelong consideration. Marceline was also a railroad hub, and Disney was ever after captivated by trains.

Following the collapse of the farm, the Disneys rode in a boxcar to Kansas City, where Elias bought a newspaper delivery route. Seven days a week, Walt delivered early morning newspapers over a sprawling route, sometimes falling asleep in warm buildings and then waking in panic to find himself behind schedule. Nightmares of that panic affected him for the rest of his life. Tardiness at school regularly resulted, and post-school hours were occupied by afternoon paper deliveries. Paid nothing for this, Walt worked in a candy store at noontime to earn spending money.

In his teen years, Walt participated in vaudeville amateur nights, doing a prizewinning Charles Chaplin act, and took some beginning art lessons. When Elias sold his business to move back to Chicago to take over a jelly factory, the fifteen-year-old Walt stayed in Kansas City. He tutored the new owner of the newspaper distributorship and became a vendor on the Santa Fe Railroad through the summer.

Rejoining his parents in Chicago, he became a school newspaper cartoonist, pursued photography, worked at the jelly factory, took odd jobs, and joined an art class at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. When he finished the ninth grade, he worked for the post office through the summer and decided to enlist in the military. The United States had recently entered World War I. Disney, anxious to serve and to wear a uniform to impress the girls, was rejected by every recruiter; he was too young. With his mother’s cooperation, Disney obtained forged documents which enabled him to be accepted as a driver in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. The war ended just before Disney went overseas, but his experiences in France made an indelible mark on him. Though not yet eighteen when he returned to Chicago, he knew that he could not return to school. Disney had reached his full height (five feet ten inches) and weighed a solid 165 pounds. He was ready to strike out on his own.

Life’s Work

Moving to Kansas City, Disney went through an assortment of jobs as a commercial artist and cartoonist, his work leading to an enthusiastic interest in filmed cartoons. He also met, and even tried a business partnership with, Ub Iwerks, a young man his own age who was a more gifted artist than Disney. Thus started a long and interesting, often troubling, relationship between the consummate artist Iwerks and the consummate organizer and visionary Disney.

During this period, Disney combined a live performer with cartoon figures in Alice’s Wonderland (1923), which led to a popular Alice in Cartoonland (1923-1926) series after Disney had moved to Hollywood, California. Over three years, Disney produced fifty-six Alice in Cartoonland comedies.

Disney returned to a straight cartoon format with the Oswald the Rabbit (1927) series, producing twenty-six cartoons in the series in less than two years before losing the rights to Oswald in a New York contract dispute with Charlie Mintz and Universal Pictures. Oswald was tremendously popular, and Disney knew that he had to have a dynamic, new character.

Disney had by then married Lillian Bounds (July 13, 1925), an original employee in the first Disney Brothers Studio. She had accompanied Disney to New York and now faced with him the important trip back to California. Referring to a series of Ub Iwerks sketches and reminiscing with Lilly about past experiences, Disney settled on a cartoon mouse as his next star. Disney first called his character Mortimer, but Lilly thought that pompous and suggested Mickey. Soon after, Disney—with Iwerks getting prominent credit as the major cartoonist—finished two Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy (1928), based on the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, and Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928), with Mickey emulating Douglas Fairbanks. Prior to their release, however, Disney saw the first feature talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), and realized that the future of films was in sound. He immediately worked on a third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, incorporating sound and thus revolutionizing the film cartoon industry. Its premiere on November 18, 1928, stands as a hallowed date in Disney annals. After its success, sound was added to the first pair of Mickey Mouse cartoons, and they were released.

Within three years, Mickey Mouse had captured audiences throughout the United States, and by 1936 it was said in all seriousness that the famous mouse was the most widely recognized figure in the world. Disney himself was acclaimed as one of the two top geniuses in filmmaking; Chaplin was the other. Sales of Mickey Mouse watches and windup handcars literally saved the Ingersoll Watch Company and the Lionel Corporation from bankruptcy during the Depression. Figures such as songwriter Cole Porter, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and King George VI of England were dedicated Mickey Mouse fans, while famed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein pronounced Mickey Mouse to be America’s most original cultural contribution.

Most intriguing of all was the symbolic tying together of Mickey Mouse and his creator. Mickey’s voice, on all sound tracks until 1946, was Disney’s own. During that period, Mickey, along with the other featured characters (Donald Duck and Pluto are prime examples), had progressed from a Depression barnyard to comfortable middle-class suburbia. Mickey Mouse had ventured into dozens of occupations, from airplane...

(The entire section is 3028 words.)