“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” – Walt Disney
Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was born on December 5, 1901 to Elias Charles and Flora Call Disney. His great-grandfather Arundel Elias Disney had emigrated from Gowran, County Kilkenny, Ireland where he was born in 1801. Arundel Disney was a descendant of Robert d’Isigny, a Frenchman who had travelled to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The family anglicized the d’Isigny name to “Disney” and settled in the English village now known as Norton Disney, south of the city of Lincoln, in the county Lincolnshire. Elias married Flora call and they went on to have four children; Roy, Robert, Walt and Ruth.
Never very successful financially, the family moved several times whilst the children were young, supported in turn by both Walt’s uncles in turn. Moves included Illinois and Missouri, with several different stops along the way. Elias tried his hand at various ventures but none seemed to ever produce the big time results he hoped for. Eventually Walt’s older brothers ran away, desperate to make their own money after being poor for so long.
Walt dropped out of McKinley High School after only a few months, aged 16 in 1917 and tried to join the Army, but was turned down because of his age. Instead he signed on with the Red Cross and served as an ambulance driver following the armistice in France. When he returned to America, he was initially unable to find work, but eventually with a bit of intervention by his brother, was able to secure employment temporarily with a studio making adverts for Newspapers and Theatres. Walt’s interest in Art had begun at an early age living on the family farm in Marceline, where a neighbour had paid him to draw pictures of his horse. At his first school, Benton Road Grammar, he had met Walt Pfeiffer, whose family were avid theatre goers. Through them, Walt Disney had developed his own interest in moving pictures.
Walt met cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks whilst working for Pesmen-Rubin and the two later set up their own venture. Whilst moderately successful, the company was unable to profit and therefore folded due to insolvency. Walt decided to take his venture to Hollywood, where he and his brother Roy set up Disney Brothers Studios. Iwerks joined him there, as did Virginia Davis who worked in Live-Action. They developed an idea called Alice Comedies, based on Davis’ work in Alice’s Wonderland. With distribution provided by Margaret Winkler from New York, the group had four years of success until public interest in the Live Action side of the show waned, around 1926. The venture ended in 1927. Julius the Cat was a popular feature of the show.
It was during this time that Walt met employee Lillian Bounds, who was hired to print ink and celluloid. The couple married and had two daughters, Diane in 1933 following an earlier miscarriage, and Sharon whom the couple adopted after her birth in 1936. Lillian was unable to have any further children herself following complications during Diane’s Birth. Diane would later go on to be co-founder of the Walt Disney Museum, after successfully running a vineyard and winery for many years with her husband. Sharon married twice and had three children, and was a successful philanthropist, leaving a bequest in her will for $11million to California Institute of the Arts where she was a trustee for 20 years.
Charles Mintz approached Disney in 1926 to produce a new animation for Universal Pictures to distribute. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Iwerks response. It proved an instant success, followed up by merchandise sales. After two years, Disney went to New York to renegotiate terms. Mintz responded by demanding Disney took a cut in royalties, and threatened to set up his own studio to produce Oswald. As Universal owned the rights, there wasn’t much Disney could do, but he refused the ultimatum. Mintz followed through on his threat and most of Disney’s animators went over to Mintz. Iwerks, out of loyalty stayed with Disney. It would be 80 years before Disney Company would be able to purchase the right to Oswald through their subsidiary ESPN from NBC. Disney now had to find a replacement for Oswald. It was then that Walt produced some draft work he had done during his time in Kansas, based on his pet mouse. Iwerks altered the detailing somewhat to make the cartoon easier to animate, and Walt provided the voice. Mickey Mouse was born.
Disney studios was responsible for many famous animations, including Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Pinnochio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Fanstasia. Despite overwhelming movie theatre success for Snow White, other animations such as Fantasia failed to translate as successfully into profit. Dumbo was born as a cash generator, but staff went on strike during production, leading to continued strain for the future. Meanwhile the short film staff continued to work on Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy et al.
Following Dumbo, America entered the second World War and Disney halted animation production in order to produce films for the war effort, including training films, morale boosting shorts and a feature film, which didn’t make much by way of profit. As a result Disney was asked to participate, along with other animators in the “Good Neighbour” scheme in South America by the US State Department. Disney later founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist organisation for the film industry, which led Disney to testify against fellow animators whom he accused of Communist tendencies. He would later be called on by the FBI to act as a source of continuing information, a role which he continued until his death.
As an animator and entrepreneur, Disney was particularly noted as a filmmaker and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. He and his staff created numerous famous fictional characters including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Disney himself was the original voice for Mickey. During his lifetime, he won 22 Academy Awards and received four honorary Academy Awards from a total of 59 nominations, including a record of four in one year, giving him more Oscar awards and nominations than any other individual in history. Disney also won seven Emmy Awards and gave his name to the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in the US, as well as the international resorts Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disney Resort.
Disney died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966 in Burbank, California. I will leave you with one of my favourite Disney quotes.
“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” -Walt Disney