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04/09/2010

Walt Disney

Four years ago, I did a series on Walt Disney and I glanced back through it with the recent death of actor Fess Parker. Seeing as I’m going on a long overseas trip shortly, it’s a good time to re-run it, with a few slight changes, such as with some dates.

In the book “1,000 Years, 1,000 People,” the authors rank Walt Disney #494.

“Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appeal to children of all ages. He mixed sound and animation to introduce the world’s most famous mouse in the 1928 cartoon phenomenon ‘Steamboat Willie.’ Next, he mastered color with his premier full-length cartoon, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Disney immortalized on film such childhood classics as ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ He then turned his Midas touch to live-action films. Perhaps most spectacular was Disney’s transformation of the ideal family vacation from a week at the beach into total immersion in his fantasy worlds. When Disneyland opened in California in 1955 to a never-ending stream of oh-so-happy patrons, Walt planned a bigger and better theme park in Orlando, Florida. After he died, rumors spread that he had his body frozen until medicine advanced enough to thaw him out. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we think that’s a Goofy idea.”

For those of us of a certain age, can you believe it’s been almost 45 years since Walt Disney died in 1966? Sometimes it seems like yesterday, but then I remember the other programs that were on when I was watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on television, now incredibly dated shows like “Lost in Space,” “Time Tunnel” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and so, yes, it does seem like 45 years. Then again, the beauty of Walt Disney is that his work was timeless.

I admit to knowing little of Walt Disney’s life until picking up Harold Evans’ book “They Made America,” which focuses on the great innovators of the past two centuries. He has an extensive segment on Disney from which the following is largely based. The other sources listed have more to do with part II of this tale.

Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901, the fourth of five children produced by his father, Elias, and mother, Flora. Walt was preceded by Herbert (1888), Raymond (1890) and Roy O. (1893), but Herbert and Raymond would run away when Walt was growing up so they have zero to do with the story. Roy O., on the other hand, ends up being the financial mastermind. The last sibling was Walt’s sister, Ruth (1903).

Elias Disney (1859-1941) participated in the building of the Union Pacific rail line through Colorado. The bulk of his life, though, he wandered between Florida and the Midwest, holding jobs from mail carrier to schoolteacher to cabinetmaker, and all manner of other things in between. As for Walt’s mother, Flora, Roy E., son of Roy O. and a source of much of the material for Walt’s biographers, remembers Flora as a “dream grandmother, very warm with a great sense of fun.”

Elias, though, was stern and humorless and took to beating Walt with his belt. While not unusual for the time, Walt didn’t take it real well.

At the same time Elias did have his kids’ best interests at heart and he was always looking to better their lives, so he moved the family from Chicago to a 40-acre farm in the community of Marceline, Missouri.

The older boys were stuck with the hard chores as Walt was too young for much of the work, so as Roy E. told a writer once, “Because Walt didn’t have to work with animals the way the older boys did, he became friends with the animals instead.”

Walt was intrigued by animal behavior, whether it was a bird or squirrel, and all their characteristics would later find their way into his animated movies.

But as noted earlier the two oldest boys ran away and Elias moved the remainder of the family to Kansas City where he distributed the Kansas City Star.

Walt, now in grammar school, spent his free time doodling, sketching flowers and trees. Later, the restless Elias moved the family back to Chicago where Walt attended night classes at the Illinois Institute of Art. It’s now 1917-18; Walt tried to enter the Army a year earlier than allowed by falsifying his birthday but he didn’t get to Europe until after the armistice because he suffered from influenza. He ended up driving Red Cross trucks and chauffeuring officers in Paris.

Walt was becoming an adult and he deserves major kudos for winning $300 (a huge sum for the times) at an all-night poker game.

Now back in the States, in 1919 Walt returned to Kansas City to look for a job at the Star as an artist. When he was turned down for that he applied for every job imaginable at the paper, but he came up empty.

So he walked into Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio and was hired to prepare advertisements. Walt only lasted six weeks here but in that time he made a critical connection, Ubbe (“Ub”) Iwerks (1901-1971), who taught Walt the tricks of the trade. Ub was amused that Walt kept playing around with his name – Walter, W.E., Walt, Walter Elias – and finally Ub convinced him he should call himself Walt Disney. As Harold Evans observes, even then “Walt was into branding.”

After being released from Pesmen-Rubin following the Christmas rush, Walt got a job as a mail carrier. But when Iwerks was fired a few weeks later, the two decided to form Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists in January 1920. They picked up a few contracts but they were bankrupt a few months later and both ended up at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.

Disney and Iwerks hung out at the public library and pored over the latest in animation. At the Kansas City Film Ad Company the work was crude but the two smoothed it out.

Harold Evans:

“The method was to cut human and animal figures out of paper, film them in one position, move them slightly and film them again to create the illusion of movement. This required the concentration of the two of them, one to crank the camera and the other to move the drawings. To make this easier, Ub rigged up a telegraph-key switch to activate the camera so that one of them could do everything while just sitting at the animation table. It was a classic Iwerks solution.”

Disney wasn’t half the artist that Iwerks was, but Walt was the storyteller. Outside of their formal job the two then began to work on one-minute animated jokes called Laugh-O-grams.

In May 1922, Walt left his buddy Iwerks to set up Laugh-O-gram Films, backed by $15,000 from Kansas City professionals. He hired a dozen young people to work on a series of animated stories that included ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’

Walt signed a distribution deal with a New York company called Pictorial Clubs and Laugh-O-gram films was to be paid $1,800 for each of the first half-dozen cartoons. Iwerks came back at this time and they put together a slew of Laugh-O-grams for Pictorial.

But Pictorial had paid only a $100 deposit and never came through with the $11,000 they owed Walt and Ub so both Laugh-O-gram and Pictorial went bankrupt by the middle of 1923.

Walt Disney was so broke he slept in his office and showered at Union Station. “It was probably the blackest time of my life,” he later told an interviewer. No kidding.

But then a local dentist signed Walt for $500 to produce a little film on dental hygience, ‘Tommy Tucker’s Tooth,’ which was enough to allow Walt to work on his next big idea, ‘Alice’s Wonderland.’

So around now you might be thinking, hey, where’s brother Roy? Wasn’t he supposed to be part of the story?

Roy was back in California, flat on his back in a sanatorium, a victim of tuberculosis acquired while in World War I. Roy told Walt to file for bankruptcy, again, and move to Hollywood.  Walt was down to his last $40, but as Roy would later say, “Tomorrow was always going to be the answer to all his problems.”

The Hollywood of 1923 was one of Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Tom Mix, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, and the likes of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg; the latter two going on to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

But as hard as Walt tried to find a job, any job, he came up empty and was forced to go back to cartooning. It’s here that Harold Evans makes an important point.

“The idea that it was his life’s dedication from day one is moonshine. Had he been given any job in Hollywood, he would have cheerfully abandoned animation in light of the intense competition from New York’s cartoon factories.”

Walt set up shop in his father’s brother’s garage and he set to sketching out some one-minute gags. Then, out of nowhere, a woman by the name of Margaret Winkler offered $1,500 for six ‘Alice Comedies’ for national distribution. Upon hearing this, Roy, ignoring his doctor’s orders, got out of bed and invested $285 he had saved and rounded up another $2,500 from a mortgage on his parents’ home and $500 from the uncle who was letting Walt use his garage.

Walt and Roy then rented a storefront in Hollywood and stenciled a sign in the window: DISNEY BROTHERS STUDIO.

Walt was newly married and when he returned from his honeymoon, Roy suggested the name be changed to Walt Disney Studios. That was Roy. The two recognized each other’s strengths and weaknesses and in the case of Walt, he knew his animation just wasn’t that great.

So he sought out old friend Ubbe Iwerks and got Ub to leave Kansas City and head to Hollywood. Walt wrote him “Go West, young man .Hooray for Hollywood!”

Iwerks was amazing. It’s said he could finish as many as 700 rough drawings a day, filled in by others.

But while the Alice Comedies were a success, Walt Disney Studios still wasn’t turning a profit. And then Walt learned a powerful lesson.

Margaret Winkler had handed over her business to a new husband, Charlie Mintz, whom Evans describes as “a natural predator.”

It’s kind of complicated but the bottom line is Mintz asked Walt and Ub to come up with a new cartoon series. The two created a rabbit (at the suggestion of Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Pictures), and Mintz then called it Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Laemmle agreed to pay a $2,000 advance for the first film, but then Laemmle wasn’t excited by the initial effort.

So Walt and Iwerks came up with a sleeker “Ozzie” and the second effort, ‘Trolley Troubles,’ got rave reviews.

But then the two got a big surprise when their contract with Mintz came up for renewal. He had secretly stolen Walt’s entire staff of animators to join a proposed Charles Mintz Studios, and all but Iwerks and two apprentices agreed to join him. To make matters worse, Mintz demanded to be a partner of Disney brothers. Heck, he owned all his animators. Then Mintz pointed out that Walt didn’t own the copyright to Oswald, he did. [Poor Walt hadn’t read the fine print.]

Harold Evans:

“Mintz had Walt in a vise. Walking away from the deal would leave the Disney company with no characters, no contracts, no cash flowing in and virtually no animators. When Walt phoned Roy to confirm the wounding defections [ed. Walt was in New York with Mintz], Roy urged him to make the best settlement he could. Walt went back to Mintz’s office with a different purpose in mind. ‘Here. You can have the little bastard!’ he reportedly told Mintz, ‘He’s all yours and good luck to you.’ His rejection of Mintz was the turning point in the history of the Walt Disney Studios. ‘Never again will I work for anyone else,’ Walt told his wife, Lillian. Taking the gamble of starting all over again was reckless, but cleaving to his independence became central to all of Disney’s subsequent successes.”

Walt needed a new character, but cartoonists had “emptied the menagerie.” “About the only thing they hadn’t featured,” wrote Walt, “was the mouse.”

Ah yes, the mouse, and so on the long train ride back to California with Lillian, he sketched out a little mouse that had once been bold enough to cross his desk in his old Kansas City studio.

“He seemed to have a personality of his own,” recalled Walt. He then dressed him up in red velvet pants and called him Mortimer Mouse for all of five minutes until Lillian said it sounded stuffy. “Why not Mickey Mouse?”

Ub Iwerks recalls the genesis of Mickey a little differently, later saying Hugh Harman had sketched out a mouse around photographs of Walt, but who is right really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; though Harold Evans weighs in that Walt’s story makes more sense and, regardless, the partnership was about Ub’s drawings and Walt’s ideas anyway.

But Walt couldn’t find a distributor for the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘The Gallopin,’’ while he had to keep raising money for a third, ‘Steamboat Willie.’

Part II

We pick up our story with ‘Steamboat Willie,’ the first sound cartoon. Initially, it was a silent short based on the comedy of Buster Keaton. But Walt Disney was sitting in the theatre watching Al Jolson singing in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ the first real feature length ‘talkie,’ and he had an idea.

Film executives were divided over sound then, if you can believe it, and as Walt wrote brother Roy, “None of them are positive how it is all going to turn out, but I have come to this definite conclusion: Sound effects and talking pictures are more than a mere novelty. They are here to stay and in time will develop into a wonderful thing.”

Harold Evans writes of critic Richard Schickel who, in Evans’s words argued that “Walt’s distinction was to see sound as not just an addition to the movies but also a force that would fundamentally transform them. ‘He was the first moviemaker to resolve the aesthetically disruptive fight between sight and sound through the simple method of fusion, making them absolutely ‘co-expressible,’ with neither one dominant nor carrying more than a fair share of the film’s weight.’”

But in the case of ‘Steamboat Willie,’ when Walt and Ub Iwerks showed it before the animators’ wives and girlfriends for a dry run, the viewers were far from impressed. Walt’s wife Lillian said “it sounded terrible.” And according to Mildred Iwerks in her book ‘The Hand Behind the Mouse,’ she was gossiping with the other wives afterwards in the hall when Walt ran out and exclaimed, “You’re here talking about babies and we’re in there making history.”

Back in New York, though, where Walt was trying to get movers and shakers in the film and recording business interested, there were no takers. Walt needed a sound expert and finally he found Pat Powers, the founder of Cinephone. Powers put together an orchestra, which proceeded to botch the first recording (they couldn’t keep up with the action), and Walt had to sell his car to get a second session.

Then Disney had to find a distributor. Only one, Harry Reichenbach of the Colony Theater in New York, allowed Walt to do a public screening.

On November 18, 1928, the public told Walt Disney that he was on the right track. They loved ‘Steamboat Willie’ and Mickey Mouse was on his way to stardom.

So why did everyone love Mickey? Michael Eisner told Harold Evans that the revelation for him came in listening to an audiotape of an unedited ‘Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show.’

“Normally Walt did Mickey’s voice in a studio and did it over and over until he got it right. But this particular show was live and it became startlingly obvious that Walt and Mickey were one and the same. He kept falling back into Walt when he was trying to be Mickey and back to Mickey when he was Walt, just as I later discovered that Kermit the Frog was part of Jim Henson and Charlie Brown was Charles Schultz. These great characters are not created by committee, nor are they fiction. They are real and alive and the alter egos of their creators.”

Evans writes Mickey was a sunnier character than Walt. I would add that in the case of Charlie Brown, he definitely reflected the disposition of Schultz.

Walt also believed in the family values he promoted at Disney.

“All right, I’m corny,” he said, “but I think there’s just about a hundred and forty million people in this country that are just as corny as I am.”

Oh, he enjoyed cussing and a stiff drink now and then, but he was really just a regular guy who hated to see people get screwed, as he had been in his search for a career.

He also had this dark side, shaped by his early years no doubt. He brooded a lot and was described as somber. It was said you could put your arm around brother Roy, but not Walt.

Harold Evans notes, though, that the way to his heart was to talk about trains. He built a half-mile railway in the yard of his home “and delighted in putting on this engineer’s cap to take visitors for a ride.”

Meanwhile, Pat Powers was going around Walt’s back to steal Ub Iwerks. Iwerks’s loyalty to Walt was tested in the making of ‘The Skeleton Dance’ and Iwerks bolted for Powers’s studio.

But get this. When Iwerks left Disney he cashed out his 20 percent interest for $2,920. By the time Iwerks went bankrupt after six years and returned to Walt, the original stake would have been worth over $1 million. If Iwerks’s heirs had inherited his original 20 percent, it would be worth around $5 billion today.

During the Depression, however, Walt Disney Company was struggling. Roy Disney ran the financial end and he had to meet a payroll of 187, including gag men, animators, inkers and musicians. In 1931, Walt Disney had snapped under the pressure and under doctor’s orders was told to take his wife on a long cruise to Panama to get away from it all.

Then in 1934, Walt came up with the idea for ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ the first full-length feature. But Disney told Roy he needed an initial $500,000. Yikes.

Disney had a friend, though, Joe Rosenberg, a loan officer at the Giannini family’s Bank of America [a story for another day] and Rosenberg gave Disney a $1 million line of credit for the project.

Walt ended up being way over budget, with the final cost around $1.5 million, but on Dec. 21, 1937, ‘Snow White’ opened to rave reviews and drew sellout crowds at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. In its first year the picture grossed $8.5 million, at a time when the cost of a children’s ticket was just ten cents. So, rounding off, since some theatres these days are beginning to charge as much as $10, that would be $850 million in today’s dollars.

Walt Disney was feted all over and earned a special Academy Award in 1939, while Roy Disney was so comfortable about the future of the studio he built a new one on 50 acres adjacent to Griffith Park in Burbank. Walt in turn kept coming up with great ideas. Roy E. Disney recalls hearing about the story of a wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy.

Roy E. was nine at the time, home sick in bed, when Uncle Walt stopped by on a Saturday evening to say hello.

“He obviously decided to see how ‘Pinocchio’ played with me, and for the next 40 minutes he acted out the whole story. It was completely mesmerizing. When I finally went to see the finished movie, I was actually disappointed. It was nowhere near as good as it was in Walt’s telling.’

Walt was even more manic about ‘Fantasia,’ the classical music project where he employed conductor Leopold Stokowski. Both ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Pinocchio’ were completed in 1940 for in excess of $2 million, and especially in the case of ‘Fantasia’ the initial box office was tepid. [By the way, the audio oscillator Disney used for ‘Fantasia’ was the first product made by Bill Hewlett and David Packard in their Palo Alto garage.]

Under pressure from the bankers, Roy convinced Walt that the best way to raise funds would be to make an initial public offering of stock. In April 1940 Disney raised $3.5 million in this manner. But by 1945, the initial disappointment in the release of ‘Bambi,’ coupled with a strike by the Cartoonists’ Guild and then the war, hiked his debt to the Bank of America to several $million.

Disney cut staff by a third, even as Walt planned his next three projects: ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ and ‘Cinderella.’ For the time being he settled on ‘Cinderella’ and then he began working on live action and nature documentaries, including a 69-minute one featuring poisonous scorpions and snakes titled ‘The Living Desert,’ which earned ten times its production costs.

Next up, “an amusement park.” Walt needed $10 million.

From Harold Evans:

“Disgusted by the experiences of taking his daughters to fairs where the rides were tawdry, the employees hostile, and the grounds dirty, he envisaged something utterly different, but Roy was aghast at the idea of adding to their debt.”

Walt ended up using his own money for a feasibility study as he dreamt of a miniature town, “a showplace of nostalgia and romance.” There would be a Main Street, a Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Adventureland; all telling different stories. And it was to be called Disneyland.

But Roy and Walt couldn’t find a bank that would lend them what was now clearly going to be more than $10 million, so they began going to the television networks. All three had been badgering Disney for a series, but Walt had insisted on controlling rights.

So the pitch was, whoever would invest in Disneyland got to be the preferred network for the series. David Sarnoff at NBC and William Paley at CBS eventually backed off, but Leonard Goldenson of ABC was supremely interested. ABC needed programming and agreed to invest $500,000 in Disneyland as well as guarantee a loan of $4.5 million. In return ABC picked up a 35 percent stake in the amusement park and all of the profits from the concessions for ten years. For his part Walt agreed to provide a weekly one-hour Sunday night Disney show. The initial budget for the series was $5 million and Disney received one minute of commercial air time.

On October 27, 1954, Walt Disney (who had been convinced to host the program) opened the first show with a preview of Disneyland. The rest is history. Early on, 50 million tuned in for a documentary about the filming of his ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ one-half of all television households.

Then Walt ran three hour-long features on Davy Crockett, thus rescuing the career of Fess Parker at the same time. One of Disney’s studio producers, George Bruns, composed ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and it spent 13 weeks at #1.

Disneyland opened in July 1955, coinciding with a special hosted by Ronald Reagan. It was 160 acres, transformed from an orange grove, but the first few days were nearly a disaster. Traffic jammed the Santa Ana Freeway, food ran out, a gas leak shut down Fantasyland, and the day’s heat caused women’s high heels to sink into the freshly laid asphalt on Main Street. [“The
Century”]

Yet in the first seven weeks, one million visitors went through the turnstile. Four million the first year. Walt Disney Productions grew in five years from a gross income of $6 million to $27 million.

Disneyland was a monument to optimism during America’s most optimistic times. And when it came to branding, there were none better than Walt Disney. Whether it was the television show, feature films or Disneyland, merchandise was being sold.

Like Davy Crockett’s coonskin caps, guns, record, and lunch boxes. Historian William Manchester once told the story of a retailer who had an oversupply of pup tents, so he stenciled “Davy Crockett” on them and sold the stock out in two days. And those coonskin caps? 10 million were sold in a few weeks.

Disney quickly realized a fact of life. As he told a young employee, Marty Sklar, “I’m not Walt Disney anymore. I do a lot of things the public doesn’t want to know about. I smoke and drink and lose my temper. But Walt Disney is a thing, an image in the public mind. Disney is something they think of as a kind of entertainment, a family thing, and it’s all wrapped up in the name Disney.” [Harold Evans]

One project after another followed, including the critically-acclaimed ‘Mary Poppins,’ which earned a tidy $44 million its first year. Picture Walt, backstage at ‘Camelot’ in New York, trying to convince Julie Andrews that her first film role should be as a flying nanny, accompanied by animated characters.

Alas, Walt Disney died in 1966, a victim of his life-long vice, smoking.

Brother Roy fulfilled his dreams, though, such as the opening of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 1, 1971. Roy himself died just three months later. Sadly, the Walt Disney Company almost collapsed over the succeeding years, only to be resurrected in 1984 by Michael Eisner and his inseparable partner, the late Frank Wells.

Sources:

“The Oxford Companion to United States History,” edited by Paul S. Boyer
“They Made America,” Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland and David Lefer
“1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium,” Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, Brent Bowers
“The Century,” Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

Brian Trumbore

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Wall Street History

04/09/2010

Walt Disney

Four years ago, I did a series on Walt Disney and I glanced back through it with the recent death of actor Fess Parker. Seeing as I’m going on a long overseas trip shortly, it’s a good time to re-run it, with a few slight changes, such as with some dates.

In the book “1,000 Years, 1,000 People,” the authors rank Walt Disney #494.

“Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appeal to children of all ages. He mixed sound and animation to introduce the world’s most famous mouse in the 1928 cartoon phenomenon ‘Steamboat Willie.’ Next, he mastered color with his premier full-length cartoon, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Disney immortalized on film such childhood classics as ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ He then turned his Midas touch to live-action films. Perhaps most spectacular was Disney’s transformation of the ideal family vacation from a week at the beach into total immersion in his fantasy worlds. When Disneyland opened in California in 1955 to a never-ending stream of oh-so-happy patrons, Walt planned a bigger and better theme park in Orlando, Florida. After he died, rumors spread that he had his body frozen until medicine advanced enough to thaw him out. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we think that’s a Goofy idea.”

For those of us of a certain age, can you believe it’s been almost 45 years since Walt Disney died in 1966? Sometimes it seems like yesterday, but then I remember the other programs that were on when I was watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on television, now incredibly dated shows like “Lost in Space,” “Time Tunnel” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and so, yes, it does seem like 45 years. Then again, the beauty of Walt Disney is that his work was timeless.

I admit to knowing little of Walt Disney’s life until picking up Harold Evans’ book “They Made America,” which focuses on the great innovators of the past two centuries. He has an extensive segment on Disney from which the following is largely based. The other sources listed have more to do with part II of this tale.

Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901, the fourth of five children produced by his father, Elias, and mother, Flora. Walt was preceded by Herbert (1888), Raymond (1890) and Roy O. (1893), but Herbert and Raymond would run away when Walt was growing up so they have zero to do with the story. Roy O., on the other hand, ends up being the financial mastermind. The last sibling was Walt’s sister, Ruth (1903).

Elias Disney (1859-1941) participated in the building of the Union Pacific rail line through Colorado. The bulk of his life, though, he wandered between Florida and the Midwest, holding jobs from mail carrier to schoolteacher to cabinetmaker, and all manner of other things in between. As for Walt’s mother, Flora, Roy E., son of Roy O. and a source of much of the material for Walt’s biographers, remembers Flora as a “dream grandmother, very warm with a great sense of fun.”

Elias, though, was stern and humorless and took to beating Walt with his belt. While not unusual for the time, Walt didn’t take it real well.

At the same time Elias did have his kids’ best interests at heart and he was always looking to better their lives, so he moved the family from Chicago to a 40-acre farm in the community of Marceline, Missouri.

The older boys were stuck with the hard chores as Walt was too young for much of the work, so as Roy E. told a writer once, “Because Walt didn’t have to work with animals the way the older boys did, he became friends with the animals instead.”

Walt was intrigued by animal behavior, whether it was a bird or squirrel, and all their characteristics would later find their way into his animated movies.

But as noted earlier the two oldest boys ran away and Elias moved the remainder of the family to Kansas City where he distributed the Kansas City Star.

Walt, now in grammar school, spent his free time doodling, sketching flowers and trees. Later, the restless Elias moved the family back to Chicago where Walt attended night classes at the Illinois Institute of Art. It’s now 1917-18; Walt tried to enter the Army a year earlier than allowed by falsifying his birthday but he didn’t get to Europe until after the armistice because he suffered from influenza. He ended up driving Red Cross trucks and chauffeuring officers in Paris.

Walt was becoming an adult and he deserves major kudos for winning $300 (a huge sum for the times) at an all-night poker game.

Now back in the States, in 1919 Walt returned to Kansas City to look for a job at the Star as an artist. When he was turned down for that he applied for every job imaginable at the paper, but he came up empty.

So he walked into Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio and was hired to prepare advertisements. Walt only lasted six weeks here but in that time he made a critical connection, Ubbe (“Ub”) Iwerks (1901-1971), who taught Walt the tricks of the trade. Ub was amused that Walt kept playing around with his name – Walter, W.E., Walt, Walter Elias – and finally Ub convinced him he should call himself Walt Disney. As Harold Evans observes, even then “Walt was into branding.”

After being released from Pesmen-Rubin following the Christmas rush, Walt got a job as a mail carrier. But when Iwerks was fired a few weeks later, the two decided to form Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists in January 1920. They picked up a few contracts but they were bankrupt a few months later and both ended up at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.

Disney and Iwerks hung out at the public library and pored over the latest in animation. At the Kansas City Film Ad Company the work was crude but the two smoothed it out.

Harold Evans:

“The method was to cut human and animal figures out of paper, film them in one position, move them slightly and film them again to create the illusion of movement. This required the concentration of the two of them, one to crank the camera and the other to move the drawings. To make this easier, Ub rigged up a telegraph-key switch to activate the camera so that one of them could do everything while just sitting at the animation table. It was a classic Iwerks solution.”

Disney wasn’t half the artist that Iwerks was, but Walt was the storyteller. Outside of their formal job the two then began to work on one-minute animated jokes called Laugh-O-grams.

In May 1922, Walt left his buddy Iwerks to set up Laugh-O-gram Films, backed by $15,000 from Kansas City professionals. He hired a dozen young people to work on a series of animated stories that included ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’

Walt signed a distribution deal with a New York company called Pictorial Clubs and Laugh-O-gram films was to be paid $1,800 for each of the first half-dozen cartoons. Iwerks came back at this time and they put together a slew of Laugh-O-grams for Pictorial.

But Pictorial had paid only a $100 deposit and never came through with the $11,000 they owed Walt and Ub so both Laugh-O-gram and Pictorial went bankrupt by the middle of 1923.

Walt Disney was so broke he slept in his office and showered at Union Station. “It was probably the blackest time of my life,” he later told an interviewer. No kidding.

But then a local dentist signed Walt for $500 to produce a little film on dental hygience, ‘Tommy Tucker’s Tooth,’ which was enough to allow Walt to work on his next big idea, ‘Alice’s Wonderland.’

So around now you might be thinking, hey, where’s brother Roy? Wasn’t he supposed to be part of the story?

Roy was back in California, flat on his back in a sanatorium, a victim of tuberculosis acquired while in World War I. Roy told Walt to file for bankruptcy, again, and move to Hollywood.  Walt was down to his last $40, but as Roy would later say, “Tomorrow was always going to be the answer to all his problems.”

The Hollywood of 1923 was one of Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Tom Mix, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, and the likes of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg; the latter two going on to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

But as hard as Walt tried to find a job, any job, he came up empty and was forced to go back to cartooning. It’s here that Harold Evans makes an important point.

“The idea that it was his life’s dedication from day one is moonshine. Had he been given any job in Hollywood, he would have cheerfully abandoned animation in light of the intense competition from New York’s cartoon factories.”

Walt set up shop in his father’s brother’s garage and he set to sketching out some one-minute gags. Then, out of nowhere, a woman by the name of Margaret Winkler offered $1,500 for six ‘Alice Comedies’ for national distribution. Upon hearing this, Roy, ignoring his doctor’s orders, got out of bed and invested $285 he had saved and rounded up another $2,500 from a mortgage on his parents’ home and $500 from the uncle who was letting Walt use his garage.

Walt and Roy then rented a storefront in Hollywood and stenciled a sign in the window: DISNEY BROTHERS STUDIO.

Walt was newly married and when he returned from his honeymoon, Roy suggested the name be changed to Walt Disney Studios. That was Roy. The two recognized each other’s strengths and weaknesses and in the case of Walt, he knew his animation just wasn’t that great.

So he sought out old friend Ubbe Iwerks and got Ub to leave Kansas City and head to Hollywood. Walt wrote him “Go West, young man .Hooray for Hollywood!”

Iwerks was amazing. It’s said he could finish as many as 700 rough drawings a day, filled in by others.

But while the Alice Comedies were a success, Walt Disney Studios still wasn’t turning a profit. And then Walt learned a powerful lesson.

Margaret Winkler had handed over her business to a new husband, Charlie Mintz, whom Evans describes as “a natural predator.”

It’s kind of complicated but the bottom line is Mintz asked Walt and Ub to come up with a new cartoon series. The two created a rabbit (at the suggestion of Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Pictures), and Mintz then called it Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Laemmle agreed to pay a $2,000 advance for the first film, but then Laemmle wasn’t excited by the initial effort.

So Walt and Iwerks came up with a sleeker “Ozzie” and the second effort, ‘Trolley Troubles,’ got rave reviews.

But then the two got a big surprise when their contract with Mintz came up for renewal. He had secretly stolen Walt’s entire staff of animators to join a proposed Charles Mintz Studios, and all but Iwerks and two apprentices agreed to join him. To make matters worse, Mintz demanded to be a partner of Disney brothers. Heck, he owned all his animators. Then Mintz pointed out that Walt didn’t own the copyright to Oswald, he did. [Poor Walt hadn’t read the fine print.]

Harold Evans:

“Mintz had Walt in a vise. Walking away from the deal would leave the Disney company with no characters, no contracts, no cash flowing in and virtually no animators. When Walt phoned Roy to confirm the wounding defections [ed. Walt was in New York with Mintz], Roy urged him to make the best settlement he could. Walt went back to Mintz’s office with a different purpose in mind. ‘Here. You can have the little bastard!’ he reportedly told Mintz, ‘He’s all yours and good luck to you.’ His rejection of Mintz was the turning point in the history of the Walt Disney Studios. ‘Never again will I work for anyone else,’ Walt told his wife, Lillian. Taking the gamble of starting all over again was reckless, but cleaving to his independence became central to all of Disney’s subsequent successes.”

Walt needed a new character, but cartoonists had “emptied the menagerie.” “About the only thing they hadn’t featured,” wrote Walt, “was the mouse.”

Ah yes, the mouse, and so on the long train ride back to California with Lillian, he sketched out a little mouse that had once been bold enough to cross his desk in his old Kansas City studio.

“He seemed to have a personality of his own,” recalled Walt. He then dressed him up in red velvet pants and called him Mortimer Mouse for all of five minutes until Lillian said it sounded stuffy. “Why not Mickey Mouse?”

Ub Iwerks recalls the genesis of Mickey a little differently, later saying Hugh Harman had sketched out a mouse around photographs of Walt, but who is right really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; though Harold Evans weighs in that Walt’s story makes more sense and, regardless, the partnership was about Ub’s drawings and Walt’s ideas anyway.

But Walt couldn’t find a distributor for the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘The Gallopin,’’ while he had to keep raising money for a third, ‘Steamboat Willie.’

Part II

We pick up our story with ‘Steamboat Willie,’ the first sound cartoon. Initially, it was a silent short based on the comedy of Buster Keaton. But Walt Disney was sitting in the theatre watching Al Jolson singing in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ the first real feature length ‘talkie,’ and he had an idea.

Film executives were divided over sound then, if you can believe it, and as Walt wrote brother Roy, “None of them are positive how it is all going to turn out, but I have come to this definite conclusion: Sound effects and talking pictures are more than a mere novelty. They are here to stay and in time will develop into a wonderful thing.”

Harold Evans writes of critic Richard Schickel who, in Evans’s words argued that “Walt’s distinction was to see sound as not just an addition to the movies but also a force that would fundamentally transform them. ‘He was the first moviemaker to resolve the aesthetically disruptive fight between sight and sound through the simple method of fusion, making them absolutely ‘co-expressible,’ with neither one dominant nor carrying more than a fair share of the film’s weight.’”

But in the case of ‘Steamboat Willie,’ when Walt and Ub Iwerks showed it before the animators’ wives and girlfriends for a dry run, the viewers were far from impressed. Walt’s wife Lillian said “it sounded terrible.” And according to Mildred Iwerks in her book ‘The Hand Behind the Mouse,’ she was gossiping with the other wives afterwards in the hall when Walt ran out and exclaimed, “You’re here talking about babies and we’re in there making history.”

Back in New York, though, where Walt was trying to get movers and shakers in the film and recording business interested, there were no takers. Walt needed a sound expert and finally he found Pat Powers, the founder of Cinephone. Powers put together an orchestra, which proceeded to botch the first recording (they couldn’t keep up with the action), and Walt had to sell his car to get a second session.

Then Disney had to find a distributor. Only one, Harry Reichenbach of the Colony Theater in New York, allowed Walt to do a public screening.

On November 18, 1928, the public told Walt Disney that he was on the right track. They loved ‘Steamboat Willie’ and Mickey Mouse was on his way to stardom.

So why did everyone love Mickey? Michael Eisner told Harold Evans that the revelation for him came in listening to an audiotape of an unedited ‘Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show.’

“Normally Walt did Mickey’s voice in a studio and did it over and over until he got it right. But this particular show was live and it became startlingly obvious that Walt and Mickey were one and the same. He kept falling back into Walt when he was trying to be Mickey and back to Mickey when he was Walt, just as I later discovered that Kermit the Frog was part of Jim Henson and Charlie Brown was Charles Schultz. These great characters are not created by committee, nor are they fiction. They are real and alive and the alter egos of their creators.”

Evans writes Mickey was a sunnier character than Walt. I would add that in the case of Charlie Brown, he definitely reflected the disposition of Schultz.

Walt also believed in the family values he promoted at Disney.

“All right, I’m corny,” he said, “but I think there’s just about a hundred and forty million people in this country that are just as corny as I am.”

Oh, he enjoyed cussing and a stiff drink now and then, but he was really just a regular guy who hated to see people get screwed, as he had been in his search for a career.

He also had this dark side, shaped by his early years no doubt. He brooded a lot and was described as somber. It was said you could put your arm around brother Roy, but not Walt.

Harold Evans notes, though, that the way to his heart was to talk about trains. He built a half-mile railway in the yard of his home “and delighted in putting on this engineer’s cap to take visitors for a ride.”

Meanwhile, Pat Powers was going around Walt’s back to steal Ub Iwerks. Iwerks’s loyalty to Walt was tested in the making of ‘The Skeleton Dance’ and Iwerks bolted for Powers’s studio.

But get this. When Iwerks left Disney he cashed out his 20 percent interest for $2,920. By the time Iwerks went bankrupt after six years and returned to Walt, the original stake would have been worth over $1 million. If Iwerks’s heirs had inherited his original 20 percent, it would be worth around $5 billion today.

During the Depression, however, Walt Disney Company was struggling. Roy Disney ran the financial end and he had to meet a payroll of 187, including gag men, animators, inkers and musicians. In 1931, Walt Disney had snapped under the pressure and under doctor’s orders was told to take his wife on a long cruise to Panama to get away from it all.

Then in 1934, Walt came up with the idea for ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ the first full-length feature. But Disney told Roy he needed an initial $500,000. Yikes.

Disney had a friend, though, Joe Rosenberg, a loan officer at the Giannini family’s Bank of America [a story for another day] and Rosenberg gave Disney a $1 million line of credit for the project.

Walt ended up being way over budget, with the final cost around $1.5 million, but on Dec. 21, 1937, ‘Snow White’ opened to rave reviews and drew sellout crowds at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. In its first year the picture grossed $8.5 million, at a time when the cost of a children’s ticket was just ten cents. So, rounding off, since some theatres these days are beginning to charge as much as $10, that would be $850 million in today’s dollars.

Walt Disney was feted all over and earned a special Academy Award in 1939, while Roy Disney was so comfortable about the future of the studio he built a new one on 50 acres adjacent to Griffith Park in Burbank. Walt in turn kept coming up with great ideas. Roy E. Disney recalls hearing about the story of a wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy.

Roy E. was nine at the time, home sick in bed, when Uncle Walt stopped by on a Saturday evening to say hello.

“He obviously decided to see how ‘Pinocchio’ played with me, and for the next 40 minutes he acted out the whole story. It was completely mesmerizing. When I finally went to see the finished movie, I was actually disappointed. It was nowhere near as good as it was in Walt’s telling.’

Walt was even more manic about ‘Fantasia,’ the classical music project where he employed conductor Leopold Stokowski. Both ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Pinocchio’ were completed in 1940 for in excess of $2 million, and especially in the case of ‘Fantasia’ the initial box office was tepid. [By the way, the audio oscillator Disney used for ‘Fantasia’ was the first product made by Bill Hewlett and David Packard in their Palo Alto garage.]

Under pressure from the bankers, Roy convinced Walt that the best way to raise funds would be to make an initial public offering of stock. In April 1940 Disney raised $3.5 million in this manner. But by 1945, the initial disappointment in the release of ‘Bambi,’ coupled with a strike by the Cartoonists’ Guild and then the war, hiked his debt to the Bank of America to several $million.

Disney cut staff by a third, even as Walt planned his next three projects: ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ and ‘Cinderella.’ For the time being he settled on ‘Cinderella’ and then he began working on live action and nature documentaries, including a 69-minute one featuring poisonous scorpions and snakes titled ‘The Living Desert,’ which earned ten times its production costs.

Next up, “an amusement park.” Walt needed $10 million.

From Harold Evans:

“Disgusted by the experiences of taking his daughters to fairs where the rides were tawdry, the employees hostile, and the grounds dirty, he envisaged something utterly different, but Roy was aghast at the idea of adding to their debt.”

Walt ended up using his own money for a feasibility study as he dreamt of a miniature town, “a showplace of nostalgia and romance.” There would be a Main Street, a Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Adventureland; all telling different stories. And it was to be called Disneyland.

But Roy and Walt couldn’t find a bank that would lend them what was now clearly going to be more than $10 million, so they began going to the television networks. All three had been badgering Disney for a series, but Walt had insisted on controlling rights.

So the pitch was, whoever would invest in Disneyland got to be the preferred network for the series. David Sarnoff at NBC and William Paley at CBS eventually backed off, but Leonard Goldenson of ABC was supremely interested. ABC needed programming and agreed to invest $500,000 in Disneyland as well as guarantee a loan of $4.5 million. In return ABC picked up a 35 percent stake in the amusement park and all of the profits from the concessions for ten years. For his part Walt agreed to provide a weekly one-hour Sunday night Disney show. The initial budget for the series was $5 million and Disney received one minute of commercial air time.

On October 27, 1954, Walt Disney (who had been convinced to host the program) opened the first show with a preview of Disneyland. The rest is history. Early on, 50 million tuned in for a documentary about the filming of his ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ one-half of all television households.

Then Walt ran three hour-long features on Davy Crockett, thus rescuing the career of Fess Parker at the same time. One of Disney’s studio producers, George Bruns, composed ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and it spent 13 weeks at #1.

Disneyland opened in July 1955, coinciding with a special hosted by Ronald Reagan. It was 160 acres, transformed from an orange grove, but the first few days were nearly a disaster. Traffic jammed the Santa Ana Freeway, food ran out, a gas leak shut down Fantasyland, and the day’s heat caused women’s high heels to sink into the freshly laid asphalt on Main Street. [“The
Century”]

Yet in the first seven weeks, one million visitors went through the turnstile. Four million the first year. Walt Disney Productions grew in five years from a gross income of $6 million to $27 million.

Disneyland was a monument to optimism during America’s most optimistic times. And when it came to branding, there were none better than Walt Disney. Whether it was the television show, feature films or Disneyland, merchandise was being sold.

Like Davy Crockett’s coonskin caps, guns, record, and lunch boxes. Historian William Manchester once told the story of a retailer who had an oversupply of pup tents, so he stenciled “Davy Crockett” on them and sold the stock out in two days. And those coonskin caps? 10 million were sold in a few weeks.

Disney quickly realized a fact of life. As he told a young employee, Marty Sklar, “I’m not Walt Disney anymore. I do a lot of things the public doesn’t want to know about. I smoke and drink and lose my temper. But Walt Disney is a thing, an image in the public mind. Disney is something they think of as a kind of entertainment, a family thing, and it’s all wrapped up in the name Disney.” [Harold Evans]

One project after another followed, including the critically-acclaimed ‘Mary Poppins,’ which earned a tidy $44 million its first year. Picture Walt, backstage at ‘Camelot’ in New York, trying to convince Julie Andrews that her first film role should be as a flying nanny, accompanied by animated characters.

Alas, Walt Disney died in 1966, a victim of his life-long vice, smoking.

Brother Roy fulfilled his dreams, though, such as the opening of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 1, 1971. Roy himself died just three months later. Sadly, the Walt Disney Company almost collapsed over the succeeding years, only to be resurrected in 1984 by Michael Eisner and his inseparable partner, the late Frank Wells.

Sources:

“The Oxford Companion to United States History,” edited by Paul S. Boyer
“They Made America,” Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland and David Lefer
“1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium,” Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, Brent Bowers
“The Century,” Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

Brian Trumbore

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