Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Walt Disney was an American entrepreneur, animator, voice actor, and film producer who almost singlehandedly revolutionized the animation industry, creating a number of indelible characters and films that remain iconic to this day, while the Disney brand, with it's creator's mission statement of providing imaginative, feel-good entertainment for the entire family, is still going strong after nearly a century. Not only is Walt Disney an icon of the entertainment business, he is an all-around American icon. Born Walter Elias Disney in Chicago, IL, Disney was the fourth son born to Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney. He had three older brothers; Herbert, Raymond, and Roy. In 1903, the youngest child, Ruth, was born. When Disney was four, his family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri. It was here that Disney developed his interest in drawing, starting when he was paid to draw the horse of the local doctor. He would practice by copying the front-page cartoons from his fathers' copies of Appeal to Reason magazine, and soon became proficient in watercolors and crayons. The Disney family moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1911. While attending Benton Grammar School, Disney met fellow student Walter Pfeiffer, who became his best friend, and introduced young Walt to vaudeville and motion pictures. Around this time, Disney also began to show his entrepreneurial spirit: he and his brother Roy each purchased a newspaper route from the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times. For more than six years, the brothers would wake up at 4:30am every morning to deliver the Times before school, and then repeat the route that evening for the Star. Because of this, Disney often fell asleep during class, and his grades suffered. During this time, Disney also attended Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute, and took a correspondence course in cartooning. In 1917, the Disney family moved back to Chicago, after Elias bought stock in a local jelly company. Disney attended high school at McKinley High, where he was the cartoonist for the school paper, and often drew patriotic scenes about the first World War. He also continued his drawing education with night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Disney wanted to enlist in the Army and fight the Germans, but he was too young. After forging the date on his birth certificate, Disney was able to join the Red Cross, where he worked as an ambulance driver (he was in the same company as future McDonalds founder Ray Kroc). However, when he was finally shipped off to France, he arrived after the armistice. While in France, some of his cartoons were published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Upon returning to Kansas City in October of 1919, Disney got a job as a commercial illustrator at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. It was there that he became friends with fellow artist Ub Iwerks, who would become Disney's most important early collaborator. Disney and Iwerks were both laid off from Pesmen-Rubin in January 1920, at which point they briefly tried to start their own business, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. When that didn't pan out, they both found employment at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where both men first became interested in cel animation. After parting ways with the Ad Company, Disney and a fellow artist, Fred Harman, began producing a series of short cartoons for the local Newman Theater, modernized takes on fairy tales which they dubbed "Laugh-O-Grams." In May of 1921, Disney, along with Iwerks, Rudolf Ising, and Fred Harman and brother Hugh, founded Laugh-O-Gram Studios. Unfortunately, they were not able to churn out content fast enough to keep the company financially solvent, and shortly after finishing work on "Alice's Wonderland" (1923), a 12-and-a-half minute short based on Lewis Carroll's classic, the company filed for bankruptcy. Disney then decided to move to Los Angeles, partially in order to be closer to his brother Roy, who was on the west coast convalescing from tuberculosis. The brothers founded the Walt Disney Company in late 1923, and signed a contract with film distributor Margaret J. Winkler to release "Alice's Wonderland" as well as six more shorts, with an option for two further series of six episodes each. Disney convinced Iwerks to come to Hollywood in July of 1924. The next year, Disney married Lillian Bond, an ink artist he had hired shortly after the New Year. Lillian proved to be a grounding presence in Disney's life, and the couple would go on to have a daughter, Diane, and adopt another child, Sharon. In 1927, Winkler handed over distribution of Disney's Alice series to her husband, Charles Mintz, who often butted heads with Disney. After the Alice series ended in July of 1927, Disney and Iwerks created a series of shorts based around their newest character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to be distributed by Mintz via Universal Pictures. Despite the success of this new series, the deal fell apart when Mintz pulled a series of power moves, first reducing Disney's producer fee, then buying up the intellectual property rites to Oswald, then stealing away a number of Disney's best artists. When Mintz threatened to start his own studio and produce the Oswald series himself, Disney called his bluff, but lost most of his animation staff, except for Iwerks. The pair soon began developing a successor to Oswald, with Iwerks suggesting a mouse. Disney came up with the name Mortimer Mouse, but his wife found the name to be pompous, and suggested that they go with Mickey instead. Iwerks drew Mickey, while Disney provided his voice. With the release of "The Jazz Singer" (1927) and the advent of talkies, Disney and Iwerks utilized sync sound to produce the first Mickey Mouse short, "Steamboat Willie" (1928). Distributed by former Universal Pictures executive Pat Powers, founder of the "Powers Cinephone" system, the short was an instant success. With the help of composer and arranger Carl Stalling, Disney developed the Silly Symphony series. The first installment, "The Skeleton Dance" (1929) was drawn and animated entirely by Iwerks. Disney then hired a number of local artists, who would eventually become known to animation aficionados as the Nine Old Men. In the wake of the runaway success of both Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Disney felt that he was being denied the rightful share of profits from Powers. When Disney asked him for an increase in payment for his work, Powers balked, and to twist the knife deeper, hired Iwerks to work for him. Soon after, Stalling resigned, believing that the Walt Disney Company didn't stand a chance without Iwerks. All of the stress of this period lead to Disney suffering a nervous breakdown in October of 1931, shortly thereafter he and Lillian took an extended holiday in Cuba and Panama to recover. Before long, Disney came back stronger than ever, signing a distribution contract with Columbia Pictures, and releasing the very first Technicolor animated short, "Flowers and Trees" (1932). The short would win Disney his first Academy Award the following year, plus an honorary Award "for the creation of Mickey Mouse." To this day, Disney holds the record for most Academy Award nominations and Academy Award wins for a single person: he won 22 Oscars, and was nominated a staggering 59 times. However, despite this success, Disney was becoming bored with short films, and soon set his sights on making his first full-length cartoon, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937). Despite industry predictions that the film would bankrupt the company, it was an instant classic, beloved by critics and audiences alike upon its release in December of 1937. Thus began what would become known as the Golden Age of Animation. The studio next began work on two new features, "Pinocchio" (1940) and "Fantasia" (1940). Though they are considered classics today, neither film was very successful when they first opened, largely due to a dropoff in revenues from Europe since World War II began in 1939. The double box office bombs left the country deeply in debt by the end of February 1941. Luckily, the studio's next feature, "Dumbo" (1941), was a critical and box office success. Shortly after "Dumbo" hit theaters, America entered World War II. Disney, an avowed patriot, formed the Walt Disney Training Films Unit in order to make instructional films for the military, promotional films starring Donald Duck designed to sell war bonds, and a number of propaganda shorts, including the Oscar winning "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1943). These films helped keep the Disney Company afloat financially during the early 1940s - they had lost $200,000 on "Bambi" (1942), and soon racked up a debt of $4 million with the Bank of America. After the war ended, Disney more or less phased out the production of shorts entirely, deciding that features were more lucrative in the long run. In 1950, Disney released "Cinderella" (1950), the studio's first animated feature in eight years. The film was a smash hit, as were their first forays into live action features, "Treasure Island" (1950) and "The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men" (1952), both of which Disney were closely involved in. From here on in, Disney would devote less and less attention to his studio's animated films, largely entrusting such projects as "Alice in Wonderland" (1951) and "Peter Pan" (1953) to the Nine Old Men. In 1954, Disney broke ground on what would become his first major theme park, Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. The park opened in July of 1955, and despite early minor setbacks, Disneyland attracted 3.6 million guests in its opening year. The opening day of Disneyland had been broadcast on ABC, and this lead to Disney becoming interested in television production. First up was "Walt Disney's Disneyland" (ABC, 1955-), an anthology of cartoons, live-action features, and other ephemera from Disney's library. Newsweek called the series "an American institution," and the positive ratings convinced ABC to green light "The Mickey Mouse Club" (ABC, 1955-1996), Disney's first daily TV program. Disney was now increasingly focusing his efforts on projects that took him away from the studio. He created a short film, "America the Beautiful" (1959), as part of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where he also acted as consultant. He also served as chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics, designing the opening, closing, and medal ceremonies. Meanwhile, the Disney Company continued churning out highly successful animated films, often with little input from Disney himself, including "Lady and the Tramp" (1955), "Sleeping Beauty" (1959), "101 Dalmatians" (1961), and "The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Towards the end of his life, Disney wanted to create further theme park attractions to match the success of Disneyland. He briefly considered building a ski resort in Mineral King, a glacial valley in the Sierra Nevadas. However, he soon decided on Orlando, Florida as the location for his next attraction, and in late 1965, he announced plans to begin developing "Disney World." This bigger and more elaborate counterpart to Disneyland would include "the Magic Kingdom," as well as Disney's pet project, the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow," commonly known as EPCOT. Disney spent much of the second half of 1966 looking for businesses to sponsor EPCOT, while also increasing his involvement in the studio's latest films, the animated adventure tale "The Jungle Book" (1967), the live-action comedic musical "The Happiest Millionaire" (1967), and the animated short "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day" (1968), which would earn Disney his final Oscar, albeit posthumously. In November of 1966, Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer, the byproduct of a life spent chain smoking cigarettes. On November 30th, Disney was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. He would never leave. Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, of circulatory collapse caused by lung cancer. It was ten days after his 65th birthday.