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The Walt Disney Story

Updated on July 18, 2012

Walter Elias "Walt" Disney is perhaps best known as the creator of the cartoon character Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, a theme park in southern California that opened in 1955. But he was much more than that. He was a brilliant visionary, American motion-picture/television producer and famous cartoon film pioneer. Disney won 22 Academy Awards during his lifetime.

He was born December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, one of five children. His parents were Elias Disney, an Irish-Canadian and Flora Call, a German-American. Walt began drawing, painting and selling pictures to neighbors and family friends at an early age in Marceline, Missouri where he spent most of his childhood. In 1911, his family moved to Kansas City. There his uncle, train engineer Mike Martin, introduced him to the world of trains. Walt immediately fell in love with them and he later acquired a summer job with the railroad, selling snacks and newspapers to train travelers.

Disney attended McKinley High School in Chicago, where he took drawing and photography classes. Many of his cartoons appeared in the school newspaper and at the same time he took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute. At 16, he dropped out of school to join the army but was rejected since he was too young. Instead, he signed on with the Red Cross and spent a year in France driving an ambulance.

In 1919, he returned to Kansas City to work as a newspaper artist. However, his brother Roy helped get him a job with Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio, where he met noted cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks. Not long afterwards, Disney took a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made commercials based on cutout animation.

It was around this time Disney became interested in animation and began experimenting with a camera. He decided to open his own cartoon animation business. Fred Harman, a coworker at the ad company, became his first employee.

Walt and Harman contracted with a local theater to show their cartoons called Laugh-O-Grams. They were an instant success and Disney was able to acquire his own studio he also later named Laugh-O-Gram. A number of employees were hired, including Harman's brother Hugh and the aforementioned Ubbe Iwerks. They did a series of seven-minute fairy tales called Alice in Cartoonland. However, by the early 1920s, the studio was floundering in debt and Disney had to declare bankruptcy.

Walt and his brother, Roy, moved on to Hollywood in search of greener pastures. Iwerks soon followed and the three opened the Disney Brothers' Studio. Continuing with their Alice cartoon series they penned a deal with New York distributor, Margaret Winkler, a relationship destined to sour. Hundreds of "Alice Comedies" were produced between 1923 and 1927, before their popularity faded.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, arrived on the scene about this time and the shorts were contracted at $1,500 each. Artist Lillian Bound joined the company in 1925. She and Disney married following a brief, whirlwind courtship.

In 1928, Walt discovered Winkler and her husband, Charles Mintz, had stolen the rights to Oswald. All of Disney’s animators, except for Iwerks, went along for the ride. But the Disney brothers, their wives and Iwerks persevered and produced three cartoons featuring a new character called Mickey Mouse. However, the first two silent animated shorts Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho both flopped because they couldn’t find anyone to adequately distribute them.

With the advent of sound, Disney produced the third short with sound and music called Steamboat Willie that became the first cartoon to use the new technology. With Walt as the voice of Mickey, the cartoon became a smash hit. Incidentally, the Mickey Mouse character was almost named Mortimer, except Lillian suggested Mickey rolled off the tongue a little easier.

But Walt wasn’t satisfied. In 1929, he created the Silly Symphonies, a successful cartoon series that didn't feature any one specific character. One of these, Flowers and Trees, produced in 1932 was the first featured in color. It won an Oscar. The Three Little Pigs, produced in 1933 was another huge success. Silly Symphonies continued running until 1939. By this time Mickey had a host of friends including Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto to name a few.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a full length animated feature film debuted in 1937. Hollywood critics had dubbed it "Disney's Folly,” but the public loved it and it won rave reviews. Walt continued producing cartoon shorts but also began focusing on more feature length animation films. Some of these were:

· Fantasia (1940)

· Pinocchio (1940)

· Dumbo (1941)

· Bambi (1942)

All but Fantasia were a success. But, not even a studio animators' strike in 1941 could stop the determined Disney team. In the mid 40s, Walt veered off track for a while producing a group of shorts strung together to make feature length films, but by 1950 decided to stick with animated features telling one story. Some examples were:

· Cinderella (1950)

· Alice in Wonderland (1951)

· Peter Pan (1953)

· Lady and the Tramp (1955)

· Sleeping Beauty (1959)

· 101 Dalmatians (1961)

In the interim Disney had also been working with live action films producing such classics asTreasure Island in 1950. In all, Disney Studios produced over 100 features.

Walt was also one of the first to hazard television with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1954. The series was designed to promote his theme park. Children adored his Zorro and Davy Crockett series as well as The Mickey Mouse Club.

In 1964, Walt made a film that mixed live-action with animation. It was the musical fantasy Mary Poppins, considered to be one of his best works. There seemed to be no end to Walt’s momentum. He was already formulating plans for another theme park in Florida. Unfortunately, he would never see those plans bear fruit. In 1966, he contracted lung cancer and died on December 15th at age 65.

Following his death several rumors cropped up. One being his body had been frozen using cryogenics and the other he was secretly buried somewhere at Disneyland. However, both are untrue as Disney was cremated and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His dream of another theme park was continued by his brother, Roy. Walt Disney World premiered in 1971.


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    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Oh, yes, I grew up with a lot of the Disney Greats, and also saw most of those made before my time. Walt was so creative, a child in the body of an adult.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you Pam. I always value your comments.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      Walt Disney was a wonderful man and I enjoyed reading about his life. You did a great job of covering all the high points. Very interesting hub.