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Walt Disney - founding member of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Biographical Sketch of Walt Disney

Creator of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphony Cartoons

Released by R.K.O., c.1937


Walt Disney's valiant and Lilliputian Mickey Mouse is much more real to children, not only in America, but in every country in which his films are distributed, then Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Unlike those symbolical childhood characters even sophisticated grown-ups believe solemnly in Mickey and his devoted sweetheart, Minnie. The Disney Silly Symphonies, those lovely colored bits of fantasy and whimsy, are America's finest contribution to the world's folklore. Legend has been made to walk and talk.

But of the young man Walt Disney who created them, little has ever been known or written - due mostly to his innate modesty, and to the fact that his work, the accomplishment of a dream, still interests him far more than the fame which has come to him because of it. It is time Walt Disney were made to walk and talk. Perhaps this story may bring you closer to him.

He was born in the city of Chicago, Illinois, on December 5th, 1901. He probably looked a little like Mickey Mouse at the time, since most new babies do. He real name is Walt Disney; his father was Elias Disney, an Irish-Canadian, and his mother, Flora Call Disney, is of German-American descent. He has three brothers and one sister.

Elias Disney was a contractor and builder in Chicago for twenty years; later the Disneys moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri, where Walt attended a little country school and probably carried his lunch in a red lard pail. Later he went to the Benton Grammar School in Kansas City. He remembers being on the track team but he was too busy to be especially active in athletics. At the age of nine, he tackled his first business venture which was not unlike the financial debut of many young Americans. He had a paper route.

It was not always comfortable work,. He had to get up at 3:30 every morning, and deliver papers till 6:00. Then he hurried home for breakfast and went off to school. Every evening after school he made the same route.

"No," he recalls with a boyish smile, "that's not quite right. I missed a total of one month during those six years, on account of illness. I was pretty proud of my record, though."

It was always pitch dark when he started out on winter mornings, and often bitter cold. Sometimes he plowed his way through several feet of freshly fallen snow, breaking his own path in those early hours. Occasionally, when he reached the warm hall of an apartment house, he would lie down for a short snooze - waking to find it was daylight. Then he'd have to run the rest of the way so that he could deliver all his papers and not be late for school.

Business interfered a great deal with his pleasure at this time; still he managed to be a member of the "gang," build a few caves, join a couple of secret societies, the aims and aspirations of which are still a secret even to its members, and take part in a few shows.

He was always interested in the stage, and Charlie Chaplin was his idol. On amateur nights in neighborhood theatres he often did impersonations of the great silent comedian, for which he sometimes won prizes of as much as two dollars! He was not alone in his stage ambitions; his chum, a boy named Walt Pfeiffer, and he got up a vaudeville skit. Pfeiffer pere coached them, and the boy's sister played the piano for their songs. Their billing read "The Two Walts." and they won prizes in several local theatres.

Later on, in Chicago, finding another dramatic aspirant, Walt Tried to go into vaudeville with a "Dutch comedian" act. The act got, as he calls it, the hook - and his stage career ended. But he never entirely got over his early passion for disguises and sleight-of-hand tricks, and even now will attempt the latter occasionally unless watched carefully.

But the thing he always liked to do best, as far back as he can remember, was drawing. He doesn't know why; nobody else in the Disney family is at all artistically inclined. The other boys are all business men, including his brother Roy who handles all of the studio's business affairs. His were not the type of parents who doted on "showing off" their children's talents. He got no particular inspiration from them or from his brother or sister, but could always count on sympathetic interest and encouragement. His favorite aunt supplied him with pencils and drawing tablets, he recalls; and a very dear old neighbor, a retired doctor, often "bought" his drawings with little presents.

"I remember one time especially," he says, laughing. "I guess I was about seven. The doctor had a very fine stallion which he asked me to sketch. He held the animal while I worked with my home-made easel and materials. The result was pretty terrible - but both the doctor and his wife praised the drawing highly, to my great delight."

At high school, McKinley High School in Chicago, Walt divided his attention between drawing and photography, doing illustration for the school paper and taking his first motion pictures with a camera and projector he had bought. Motion photography was to interest him more and more; it is his long interest in both mediums which has led to their happy combination in his pictures. Not content with school all day, he also went to night school at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied cartoon under Leroy Gossitt, a member of the old Chicago Herald staff.

His first real job was when in 1917, at the age of fifteen, school was over, he became what is known as a "news butcher." With peanuts, candy, magazines, apples, he supplied the strange wants of people riding on trains between Kansas City and Chicago. Any boy of his age would have loved such a job. He liked traveling; he liked hanging nonchalantly on the steps of the train as it pulled into stations -- and he loved wearing a uniform.

Sometimes he would go up and ride on the coal car with the engineers, buying that privilege with a cigar or a plug of tobacco. It was a job with a special sort of thrill.

"But it didn't last long," h regrets. "It wasn't a very profitable venture. You see, I was only fifteen - and I ate up all my profits!"

During the summer of 1918, when there was a shortage of man power in Chicago on account of the War, Walt Disney decided to apply for a postoffice job. He was only sixteen, and looked it - and of course he was turned down. Here his talent for character disguise stood him in good stead, for he went straight home, changed his clothes; wearing a hat instead of a cap, he put on old make-up and promptly applied again for the job - and to the same man. Since his first application had not gotten as far as his name, and the man did not recognize him with ten years added, he got the job. He worked for several months as a down-town letter carrier in the daytime and a route collector at night.

That fall the War had set in in good earnest, and it was the fashion for young men to enlist. Turned down by both the Army and Navy and Canadian enlistment offices on account of his age, Walt felt as though he were too young for anything. He was finally successful in joining the Red Cross as a chauffeur. After a short period of training he was sent overseas, where he spent a year driving an ambulance and chauffeuring Red Cross officials. On one occasion he drove General Pershing's son Jack then eleven years old, around Neufchateau, France, when the boy visited his famous father.

Walt had the distinction of driving one of the most unusual ambulances in France -- for with all the excitement of war, he had not forgotten entirely about drawing. His vehicle of mercy was covered from stem to stern with works of art, and not stock camouflage, but original Disney sketches.

Although his education was not completed and he was only eighteen years old when the War suddenly stopped, Walt could not bear the thought of going back to school. He wanted to do something practical, something constructive. He took stock of his two ambitions: should he be an actor or an artist? It would be easier, he decided, to get a job as an artist; so an artist he would be.

His first art job was with an advertising company in Kansas City which did work for farm journals, and where he was required to draw such inspiring things as egg-laying mash, salt blocks for cattle, and farm equipment. Since he was merely an apprentice, the two other artists in the company kept him turning out rough sketches, which they finished themselves, often changing them entirely. He forgot to ask in advance what his salary would be, in typical artist fashion. For a week he sketched happy farmers and contented cows, and at the end of it they informed him that he would receive fifty dollars a month. He would have thought five dollars a month very generous.

He came on the job in the fall; when the Christmas rush was over, they fired him. He got a job with the post office again and delivered Christmas cards until New Year's. Then, appropriately to the season, he made a resolution; he would go into business for himself, as a commercial artist. Optimistically he figured that two months' experience warranted this momentous decision.

His first free lance jobs were designing letterheads and theatre ads; and an enterprising publisher of a small newspaper gave him "free" desk space - in return for a great many advertising drawings. It was there that he met a man with the unbelievable name of Ubbe Iwerks, another young apprentice artist out of a job. He and Iwwerks [sic] formed a partnership then and there. Disney was the contact man and artist, while Iwwerks did the lettering and took care of the office detail. The first month the two of them made $125.00, and any free lance artist will agree that that wasn't bad - especially if there thought to collect any of it!

However, in spite of their success, they still watched the want ads, and when a slide company in Kansas City advertised for a cartoonist, Walt answered the ad and got the job - at $35 a week, which almost floored him.

"I knew I wasn't worth it," he says, "but I decided to try it. I turned the commercial art business over to Iwwerks, and it was at the slide company that I got my start in the animated cartoon game. Two months later my partner was working there with me. We made animated advertising films, and my boss let me take home an old camera that was lying around. I rigged up a studio in a garage and started experimenting in my spare time.

At the slide company we used the old cut-out method of animation, joining arms and legs together with pins and moving them under the camera. I found a new method of animation in a book from the library, tried it out and convinced my boss it was a better system, so he installed it."

One of the Newman Theatres in Kansas City where the Newman Laugh-O-grams - the first Walt Disney films ever - were shown.

Walt's home experiments led to his making a short reel of local Kansas City incidents, which he sold immediately to the owner of three large local theatres. He arranged to furnish one subject a week, animated cartoons of local happenings. It is interesting to note that he was able to make and sell this film for a price of thirty cents per foot. The cost of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons today is well over $25 per foot!

It was while he was first fumbling around in the realm of animated cartoon ideas with no special direction that Walt Disney met Mickey Mouse, then utterly unknown, and even unnamed. Walt had always liked mice. He caught them in wastebaskets around the studio, and kept them in a cage where he could watch their antics.

One of them, bolder than the rest, used to crawl all over his drawing board, and seemed to have a distinct personality of his own. At first Walt called him Mortimer Mouse; but Mortimer seemed much too formal, and as they became better friends, he often addressed his cute little pal as Mickey Mouse. The name seemed to fit him to a T. But the young artist had no idea that the name Mickey Mouse might some day be more famous than his own!

Walt Disney was impatient. He wanted to carry his experiments in animation much farther than he was able to alone, and while he was employed daytimes. He could not afford to give up his job; but he enlarged his garage studio, and invited several prospective young cartoonists to spend their evenings helping him with a new idea - the animation of fairy tales. Their recompense was a share of his knowledge on the subject - and the promise of a job if the venture were successful.

For six months he spent his evenings and spare time working with his "staff" on a short subject called "Little Red Riding Hood." When it was completed to his fair satisfaction, he left his job with the slide company and formed his own company, a $15,000 Missouri corporation, to produce modernized fairy tales. Seven of these films were made altogether, and sold to a distributing firm in New York. But the New York outfit went broke shortly after the deal was made, and the corporation want into bankruptcy. Success had again proved to be a mirage.

Walt decided he had gone as far as he could in Kansas City. He was not discouraged; he still knew his ideas were good - but he lacked opportunity to carry them out. He knew then that he must some way get to Hollywood. But he was flat broke, and far in debt; he had had no salary for months, had just scraped along. What to do?

First he made a song film for a theatre organist, which paid enough to buy him an ancient motion picture camera. For two weeks he scouted around Kansas City taking moving pictures of babies, selling them to proud parents. Finally he had enough money for a ticket to California, and even found a purchaser for his camera. He landed in Hollywood in August, 1923 - a little over ten years ago, mind you! - with a suit of clothes two years old, a sweater, some drawing materials, and $0. Behind him in Kansas City were debts which it took him several years to clean up.

He also had with him a print of the last fairy tale subject he had made; the stockholders of the defunct corporation had granted him this favor. For three months he tramped around Hollywood, trying to interest someone in it; they all said the same thing: they couldn't use the idea, but their New York office might consider it. Since it was out of the question for him to take the print to New York, Walt sent it East with a prayer, prepared to wait for years, or for all he knew, forever.

Rare photo of Roy Disney's marriage to Edna Francis on April 11, 1925. Notice the Disney Bros. logo on the truck, before the cartoon studio became Walt Disney Productions. The unidentified man is believed to be a member of the Disney family.

Things looked pretty black. His only comfort was that his brother Roy was also in California with an immense amount of sympathy and encouragement for what Walt was trying to do - and with $250. They formed a partnership. It was a tough proposition to get financial backing: nobody in Hollywood had over heard of these Disney boys. An Uncle Herbert, with whom they lived for a short time, lent them $500; they breathed easier and let out their belts.

Then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, came an order from an independent distributor in New York for a series of pictures like the sample reel Walt had sent East. Feverishly they rented the back end of a real estate office; bought an old camera, rigged up stands and tables out of old dry goods boxes. Walt taught Roy how to use the camera, and he himself started drawing night and day. With the aid of two girls they hired for $15 a week apiece, they made the first "Alice" cartoon. Busy as they were, there must have been time for romance, for one of those two girls, Lillian Bounds, later became Mrs. Walt Disney!

The two boys rented a cheap room and ate their meals in a cafeteria, in order to make their small capital last as long as possible. One would get a meat order, the other vegetables; then they would split them at the table. Sometimes they ate at home; Roy would leave early, while Walt still bent over his drawing-board (they made six "Alice" subjects before they hired another artist) and fry a steak, or ham and eggs.

"We cooked, ate, and slept in that one room, and had to walk about a mile before we reached the bathroom," Walt remembers. "And yet when I think back, we had a grand time in those days."

Finally they decided Walt could no longer do all the drawings, so he sent for the boy with whom he had started in the commercial art business, Ubbe Iwwerks, in Kansas City. Ubbe had become a fair animator; but they soon needed still more help, so Walt summoned more of the boys from back home. "Alice" was discontinued about this time; Walt's next creation for the New York distributor was "Oswald [sic] the Rabbit." Oswald was quite successful; but Walt was beginning to strain at the leash. He was not satisfied; there were things he wanted to do to improve the cartoons, and they took money. He decided to go to New York for a conference with the chief; and Lillian Bounds, who was now his wife, went with him.

Unfortunately, the chief was not in agreement with Walt's ideas of expansion and improvement. The cartoons were selling, people liked them -- why spend more money? And was this young spendthrift Disney necessary to their success, anyway? In short, there was a break, and the Disney outfit was out on the street for its pains. Walt, wiring Roy, who was running the Hollywood studio, that everything was all right and he was on his way home, was full of misgivings.

And well he might be - because the New York company took over most of the boys who had come on from Kansas City to work with Walt, and went on producing "Oswald" without him. On the train going back to California, Walt and his wife soberly talked things over. He had a studio, a few loyal men, including the faithful Iwwerks, and nothing to do. They had their home, and a little money saved - and no definite deal in sight. The only answer was to create a new character and make pictures himself. But what character? Cats, dogs, rabbits . . . all had been used. "About the only thing that hasn't been featured is -- I've got it!" he cried, jumping to his feet. "A mouse! My Mickey Mouse! Why didn't I think of it before?"

All the way across the continent on the train Walt Disney worked enthusiastically on the first Mickey Mouse scenario. Mrs. Walt Disney helped with suggestions and encouragement. Mickey must, of course, have a sweetheart, his girl . . . they called her Minnie Mouse. Their excitement grew with the miles; they could hardly wait to start working, to tell Roy and the others at the studio. They'd keep quiet about this new series, make it in the garage at home, just as they had in the old days. The scenery sped by unnoticed.

Walt Disney in the early 1930s. (Aberdeen collection). 

To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Back in Hollywood, the first move was a studio conference. Roy and the others were enthusiastic about the new plan. They quickly finished several "Oswald" subjects that were in work for the New York company, and then started their own enterprise with fresh vigor. It was a big chance to take, with so little money - but everyone had faith in Walt's new character. Quietly and swiftly they worked, in the garage, on their first Mickey Mouse, and when the film was ready to be run off, there was great suspense. At the preview, however, a little of the first fine enthusiasm fell off, for the picture was rather disappointing. However, Walt sent it off to New York with fervent hopes.

But nobody in the East seemed to want Mickey Mouse. Such a small creature did not create a ripple in an industry which had just been topsy-turvy by a new element - sound. Al Jolson's "Jazz Singer" had just been released, and was bidding fair to revolutionize moving pictures. The first Mickey cartoon was silent - and of coarse no producer, however, farsighted, could visualize a cartoon in synchronization.

In spite of its failure to sell, Disney went right to work on a second Mickey, also silent; but during its making he realized that synchronized cartoons were not only possible, but inevitable. Number 2 cartoon went begging, while they planned the third for sound. When this print was finished, Disney took it to New York. Half of his mission was to sell the picture, but the first half was to get it synchronized, since that had been impossible in Hollywood. This third Mickey Mouse was "Steamboat Willie," the first to be shown publicly.

But Walt, as he tramped the streets again, money getting low, almost despaired that it would ever be shown. He was worried about the studio, which was just getting by financially. He approached sound company after sound company, but either their prices were too high or they would not take the job of setting Mickey in motion. Finally he found one company which was interested and whose price was fair.

But again there was dissension. With the boys in his studio, Disney had worked out his own method of synchronization. He knew it would work, but New York musicians refused to use it. Patiently Walt saw them try their own method and admit the result was a miserable failure. Eventually they followed his advice, using the same system which is used today in the Disney Studio, which he had patented a year before. This system is used quite generally in the animated cartoon industry.

Walt Disney during the 1930s.

When "Steamboat Willie" was shown, distributors wee enthusiastic, but no deal went through. Nobody could understand why this young Disney would not sell out his idea. They tempted him with fancy prices, but he kept insisting it was his pictures he wanted to sell, not his company.

"I wanted to retain my individuality," he says, glad now that he did. "I was afraid of being hampered by studio policies. I knew that if someone else got in control, I would be restrained, held down to their ideas of low cartoon cost and value."

After staying in New York several weeks, he decided to release Mickey Mouse independently, and after making the necessary arrangements, returned to Hollywood. It was a big undertaking, to produce and distribute the pictures himself; but with the help of his brother Roy, he knew they could do it, and that it would be a much happier arrangement than selling out.

 


SOURCES:

RKO, Biographical Sketch of Walt Disney, 1937, pp. 1-8.

See Bibliography.

 

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