On December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Walter Elias Disney was born. At the time of Walt's birth, there were already three children in the family--Herbert, Raymond, and Roy. Two years later, a daughter, Ruth was born. In 1906, Elias Disney decided to pull up his roots and once again and moved his family to a Marceline, Missouri, to a small farm. Small farms were not the easiest way to earn a living and the older boys worked very hard alongside their father. But a few years later, Herbert and Raymond, both in their teens, returned to Chicago, leaving Walt and Roy to help out with the chores. It was on this farm that Walt began to draw. Some of his first works of art were sold to neighbors.
In the fall of 1909, Walt started at the brand-new Park School in Marceline, but was not there long. Elias, contracted typhoid fever and almost died. His recovery was very slow, and he knew he would not be able to keep the farm afloat. The farm was sold and he moved his family to Kansas City in the summer of 1911 and bought a newspaper route. So, Walt and Roy found themselves getting up at 3:30 in the morning to meet the trucks of the Kansas City Star. The days and hours could be harsh, especially during the winter. Walt would often fall asleep during class, but he did surprise his teachers on a few occasions, once memorizing the Gettysburg Address (dressed as Lincoln) and reciting it to every class in school. Walt and a buddy from school, Walt Pheiffer--who also shared a budding interest in the performing arts--worked up little skits to act out at amateur-theater nights. The hard work on the paper route continued, but in a rare gesture of indulgence, Elias allowed Walt to enroll for Saturday morning classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. So, at the age of 14, Walt Disney received a bit of formal art training.
In 1917 Elias Disney began investing money in a jelly firm in Chicago, the O'Zell Company. Soon afterwards, he decided to sell the paper route and the family again moved back to Chicago. Walt chose to stay behind with Roy for the summer. Roy thought it would be educational for Walt to become a news butcher on the Santa Fe Railroad, selling newspapers, candy, fruit, and soft drinks. Walt enjoyed this and was able to see some of the countryside as well. That fall, he joined the family in Chicago and enrolled at McKinley High School. He contributed many drawings to the school newspaper and acquired further art instruction from a newspaper cartoonist named Leroy Gossett. During World War II on June 22, 1917, Roy Disney enlisted in the Navy. Walt had dreams of enlisting too, but was only 16 at the time, so he attended Chicago Institute of Art, trying to focus on his work. Upon discovering that you only had to be 17 to become a Red Cross ambulance driver, he lied about his age, joined up, and began training. His hopes were almost dashed when he came down with influenza in a epidemic that killed several million people. Walt recovered, but the war had ended. Since the Ambulance Corps still needed 50 drivers, Walt was lucky and was picked. He was now on his way to France and soon found himself dubbed his unit's unofficial artist, making a few extra francs with another buddy, painting banged up helmets and fake medals on jackets to make them look like 'realistic' souvenirs.
Walt returned to the United States in 1919, determined to become an artist. He headed to Kansas City and found work in a local studio, making friends with Ubbe "Ub" Iwerks. Unfortunately, business became slow and Walt and Ub were laid off. They both decided to venture out and start a commercial-art business, calling it Iwerks-Disney. The company was not prospering, and when Walt was offered a $40-a-week job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company (previously the Kansas City Slide Company) making animated commercials, he took it. A few months later, Ub Iwerks joined him. Shortly after this, Walt began making his own cartoons, renting the garage in his father's house as a studio. He worked hard on his animations, creating them with his own twist and successfully selling his idea to the Newman Theater, but the cartoons were sold too low and Walt made little money. With his family having moved to Portland in 1921, and Roy coming down with tuberculosis and leaving for a hospital in Arizona, Walt found himself all alone. He threw himself into making cartoons, raising some $15,000 from investors, which he used to incorporate his own little company, Laugh-O-Grams. Six months into working on a fairy tale series for a client with only a $100.00 down-payment, his client filed bankruptcy and Walt never saw another penny. There was little money coming in and Walt was becoming more desperate. Then he got $500.00 for a dental hygiene film, sinking all the money into a cartoon he called "Alice's Wonderland". But before the film was finished, Walt had to declare bankruptcy himself. He bought a train ticket and headed to California.
It was here in California that he decided to set up a tiny studio in his Uncle Robert's garage. After writing to Margaret J. Winkler, a film producer, Winkler bought several of the Alice cartoons for $1,500 apiece and Walt was on his way to fame. Knowing that running the financial side of a business was not for him, he called Roy, asking him to come to California to become his partner...and the Disney Brother's Studio was formed. Soon Walt and Roy were on their way to making the Disney name famous. Ub Iwerks joined their team as well. It was during this time that Walt fell in love with a young lady named Lillian Bounds, an employee. They started dating, but Walt still refused to meet her parents until he could present himself in a new suit. He shouldn't have worried because he fit right in with Lillian's family. On July 13, 1925, Walt married Lillian Bounds.
The Alice series became a success, and work began on a new series that would feature adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was very successful, but there was just one snag. Disney has signed a contract (one year) with Charles Mintz, who had married Margaret Winkler, taking over the business. The film was advertised-A Winkler Production by Walt Disney-which proved to be the fatal flaw...meaning Oswald's name belonged to Mintz. After trying to renegotiate the contract to provide a modest increase of income after arriving in New York, Disney soon realized that Mintz proposed a reduction of income for the Studio. This was shocking because Oswald had been so successful and Disney would not accept such a proposal and with a heavy heart, but not discouraged enough to quit, Disney decided to set out on his own with his two most important associates--his brother Roy, and Ub Iwerks (who had also become a partner in the business). Walt and Lillian (Lily) left for California on the next train.
Legend has it that the idea of Mickey Mouse was conceived on this train ride back to California, and why not believe this to be true? Mickey Mouse did bear a family resemblance to Oswald, but had much more personality, which was probably Disney's own contribution. The Disney brothers had managed to save enough money to go ahead and start work on the Mickey Mouse cartoons, even without a distributor, and work began at once. On October 23, 1927, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer and sound hit the motion picture industry, which ended the silent era in film and cartoons. So, in November of 1928, Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in Steamboat Willie , the first fully synchronized sound cartoon, and the crowd roared with laughter. Walt continued to work hard and his determination to perfect the art of animation was ongoing. Technicolor had just been introduced during the production of Silly Symphonies. In 1932, the film, Flowers and Trees won Walt one of his first Academy Awards. Many other cartoons were released as well. The Old Mill was released in 1937 and was the first short subject to utilize the the multiplance camera technique. The Disney Studio was growing, as well as the Disney family. By 1936, Walt had two daughters--Diane and Sharon. The idea of a making a feature-length film first struck Walt in 1934, and he started working on his first story--a fairy tale. By the spring of 1936, the production of Snow White was in full swing. On December 21, 1937, after a staggering $1,499,000 in production costs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted at the Carthay Theater. It was the kind of opening that Disney had always dreamed of. The reviews were sensational and Snow White became an overnight success. Disney had managed to advance the art of animation to a new level of sophistication and quality--a level that everyone had thought was way beyond reach. Other full-length animated classics followed--Pinnochio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
During World War II, Disney suspended almost all commercial activity, concentrating more on helping the war effort with training films, designing posters and Armed Forces insignia, as well as goodwill tours. Mickey Mouse played a vital role appearing on posters and insignia, urging people to buy war bonds and help out with national security. Following the war, Mickey returned to the screen starring in second feature, Fun and Fancy Free, released in 1947 and co-starring Goofy and Donald Duck. In the early 50s, Mickey Mouse was seen in less cartoons, making way for Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. Mickey Mouse had become a Disney symbol and it was not in good standing with his character to be seen losing his temper or playing tricks. Another fairy tale, Cinderella was released in 1950, recapturing the spirit of early features, followed by Peter Pan in 1953. When Disneyland opened in 1955, Mickey Mouse was given the job of chief host, welcoming millions of visitors and posing for pictures. The premiere of The Mickey Mouse Club on the opening day of Disneyland turned out to be a success and became the most successful children's show ever. During this time also saw the release of Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), which took six years to complete due to Walt being pre-occupied with Disneyland.
By the early 60s, the animation staff had been reduced to a fraction of what it was during the heydeys of Fantasia and Pinnochio. Disney relied on the group he referred to as "the nine old men', which were veteran key animators. The ranks were depleted even more when two of the men started concentrating more of designing for Disneyland and directing, and soon a new policy was born, with the intent of only having one new feature-length movie ready for release every three or four years. The next animated feature, The Sword and the Stone, released in December of 1963, was unfortunately, not one of the Studio's better efforts. The Jungle Book was the last animated film that Walt Disney ever produced. During a routine doctor's visit in the fall of 1966, a medical checkup revealed that Walt had advanced cancer of the lung. One lung was removed, but six weeks later, on December 15, Walt Disney died in his room at St. Joseph's Hospital at the age of 65. The Jungle Book had not been finished and the Disney artists were left with the painful task of completing it without him, but Walt would be thrilled with the way it was completed. Before he died, Walt had given the go-ahead for the production of The Aristocats, released in 1970. That was the last animated film that Walt Disney himself had given the signal for.
With the passing of Walt Disney, we lost a legend. A folk hero that left behind a legacy in animation and who touched the hearts and minds of both young and old. Through his hard work and masterful talent, he brought joy and happiness to us all. Even today, his name mentioned brings a light to the eyes and a big smile to the face. Millions of people visit the many Disney related theme parks each year to enjoy the wonders of Walt Disney. No...there will never be another like Walt Disney.
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