Five Interesting Facts About Walt Disney That You Probably Didn't Know
To many, his work is the epitome of wholesome entertainment. To others it represents everything that is wrong with the entertainment industry. But there is no question that Walt Disney changed the way many of us spend our free time. Visionary, innovative, and avuncular, he became the master of the animated cartoon, and had 22 Oscars to prove it -- more than any other individual. Because of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, he is also considered the father of the modern theme park. We know about Snow White and Cinderella's castle and that little mouse named Mickey. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Walt Disney that you might not know.
1. His Own Childhood Wasn't All That Happy
Though he dearly loved children and entertained them by the millions through his animated cartoons, films, and parks, Walt Disney's own childhood wasn't all that happy. His father Elias was a strict disciplinarian who believed that sparing the rod meant spoiling the child. Walt and his older brother Roy were beaten so often it was no wonder that Walt sometimes fantasized that Elias might not be his real father.
More than one critic has noted that Disney's chosen profession may have been his way of compensating for that childhood trauma. Themes of abandonment and failed parental figures appear repeatedly in his films (Snow White and Cinderella to name but two) and the Main Street U.S.A. section of Disneyland might be viewed as a form of repetition compulsion -- Disney's attempt to create a better small-town experience than the one he actually had growing up in Missouri.
2. He Served as an Ambulance Driver in World War I -- After Lying About His Age
When the U.S. entered World War I (known then, of course, as the Great War) Roy Disney was quick to enlist. Walt wanted to join, too, but at sixteen he was too young. To get around this problem, he engaged in one of his first attempts at make-believe. He lied about his age.
The recruiter at the Red Cross was skeptical and asked to see Walt's birth certificate. Walt attempted to get it -- and was shocked to discover that Cook County had no record that he was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, as he'd been led to believe. Undeterred, he came up with a different plan. He forged his parents' signatures on the Red Cross form and put his date of birth as December 5, 1900. His application was accepted.
Although the war was drawing to a close by the time Disney got involved (he was waylaid briefly with a bout of the flu which was rampant in 1918), he did get some basic training in Connecticut and eventually got shipped over to Europe, where he chauffered military personnel around Germany and France and got to drive a few ambulances. He also started smoking for the first time -- a habit which he never broke.
3. He Was an FBI Informant
Hollywood always was a pretty liberal place, never more so than from the 1930s to the 1950s when many people in the movie industry, if they weren't actual card-carrying members of the American Communist Party, at least had Communist or socialist leanings as was fashionable for liberals of the day. Some of the film unions also had ties to the Communist Party and had been infiltrated by elements of organized crime.
Such circumstances were anathema to the conservative, Fundamentalist Disney, who beginning about 1940 worked as an informant for the FBI. As head of his own movie studio, he would go to fundraisers or other Hollywood social gatherings and report to a Special Agent in Charge as to what people he thought were engaged in subversive activities -- reports that are documented in declassified FBI files. Disney was also instrumental in bringing the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to Hollywood to investigate corrupt union practices and he himself later went to Washington to testify before the Committee. Disney was most likely an invaluable FBI asset up until the end of his life. After his death on December 15, 1966, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally sent a telegram to Disney's widow Lillian expressing his condolences.
4. That Fabled Disney Signature Isn't His
Aside from John Hancock's, the signature that graces Walt Disney's theme parks and films is probably one of the most recognized signatures in the world. Except it really isn't Disney's. It's what the company describes as a "stylized version" -- in other words, yet another example of Disney make-believe. On legal documents, Disney's signature doesn't have nearly the same flourish, and there's some question as to whether Disney was ever able to produce the famed signature on his own. He also couldn't draw Mickey Mouse. He had drawn up the initial plans, but the character itself was ultimately the creation of one of Disney's animators, Dutchman Ub Iwerks.
5. Disneyland's Opening Day Was a Disaster
Though billed as "The Happiest Place on Earth," Disneyland when it opened on July 17, 1955, was anything but. The park simply wasn't ready, but it had to open because Disney had arranged to have the opening televised.
Tomorrowland wasn't finished. Many of the water fountains weren't working. Rides broke down. People got stranded on Tom Sawyer's Island. The 100-degree Southern California heat made the asphalt so soft that people's feet were sticking to the pavement. And to make matters worse, in addition to the 15,000 invited guests, there were another 18,000 gate crashers and Walt got caught swearing on live TV.
Fortunately, Walt had enough friends in the press to smooth over the fiasco and talk the place up, and his staff made the necessary repairs to iron out the kinks. But on opening day the park was indeed a Mickey Mouse operation -- though not quite the kind that Walt had intended.