By Eric D. Dixon — May 17, 2017
A forgetful fish who travels across the world in search of her parents. Squabbling pets who embark on an adventure in New York. A bunny police officer who keeps the peace in a world filled with sentient creatures. Three of the top 10 highest-grossing U.S. movies in 2016 were cartoons about animals. Yet another was a live-action adaptation of a cartoon about animals. Walt Disney may have died 50 years ago, but we’re still living in the world he helped to create.
Ranked 53rd on the Fortune 500 — the highest-placed entertainment production company on that list — Disney has become one of the largest cultural juggernauts in the world, not only in film but in television, music, games, publishing, theme parks, and much more. Disney has become such an integral part of global entertainment that it can be easy to take its prevalence for granted. There was nothing certain about this outcome, though. The world might have looked very different today if it hadn’t been for one man’s visionary spark. Walt Disney saw the world not only as it was, but as it could become. He spent his life trying to build what he imagined.
The story of Walt Disney and his entertainment legacy has been told many times, from a dizzying array of perspectives. One biographer, however, captured better than anybody else the nuts and bolts, the ups and downs, and the entrepreneurial drive of Disney’s precarious path to success. In his book Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas paints a vivid portrait of a man who constantly struggled to make ends meet and muster resources for production, but always found a way to innovate, improve quality, and carve out an unprecedented place in the creative landscape. The narrative below, which draws on Thomas’s impressive and detailed source material, highlights the broad strokes of Disney’s unique entrepreneurial story.
A Hardworking Childhood
The grandson of Irish immigrants to Canada, Walt Disney was raised in the Midwest during the early 20th century, first as a toddler in Chicago, then learning the practical necessity of hard work. He spent years on a farm in Missouri, then began his adolescence in Kansas City, where he spent six grueling years working for his father in both the early mornings and evenings, delivering newspapers with his brother Roy — all without pay, apart from a small allowance. He honed his love of drawing as a grammar school student, and he convinced his skeptical father to pay for correspondence courses in art as long as Walt contributed to the family’s finances through his wide array of odd jobs for meager pay. Even in his early childhood, he displayed an imaginative streak.
“When his fourth-grade teacher, Artena Olson, instructed the class to sketch a bowl of flowers on her desk, she strolled around the room and stopped at Walt’s desk,” Thomas wrote in his Disney biography. “He had drawn human faces on the flowers with arms where the leaves were supposed to be. The teacher chastised him for not following the assignment. He continued to draw things the way he saw them.” He soon moved on to caricatures, first by copying political cartoons, then getting free haircuts by drawing barbershop patrons.
Walt had a hard life as a child, not only from struggling with school and his array of part-time jobs, but also from living with a demanding father whose impatience sometimes escalated to battery. Walt coped, in part, by developing a taste for the escapism provided by vaudeville routines and motion pictures, as well as the library, where he read the adventurous storytelling of Tom Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens, as well as the American Dream success stories written by Horatio Alger.
Anxious to join World War I combat forces before he finished high school, Walt eventually altered his birth certificate in order to join the Red Cross and spend a year in France. He returned home a changed young man, ready to abandon working odd jobs for other people and instead strike out in pursuit of his own dreams of being a cartoonist.
A Lifelong Entrepreneurial Journey
Much like the Alger heroes who inspired him, Walt soon embarked on his own lifelong entrepreneurial journey — filled with struggle and hardship, but always marked by a dogged persistence to try new things after each failure. He started out seeking employment with Kansas City newspapers, but they weren’t interested in Walt’s cartoons. His brother Roy, on a tip from a friend, connected him with the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio.
“The new employee was assigned to create rough drawings of advertisements and letterheads for farm equipment and supply companies,” Thomas wrote. “The first job was for a firm that sold egg-laying mash, and Walt sketched hens on nests, eggs overflowing nests, hens hatching dollar signs. Lou Pesmen, who taught night school at the Fine Arts Institute, had noted that most young artists resented criticism. Not Disney. One day he was working on a layout for the Carey Salt Company, drawing cows licking salt blocks. Pesmen looked over his shoulder, erased some lines, added others, and Walt welcomed the changes.”
Soon, Walt and his new young colleague Ub Iwerks decided to venture into their own business partnership, which brought them financial success in their first month — until Walt applied for a new part-time job that overwhelmed him with its generous salary and intriguing new technology. He began working for the Kansas City Film Ad company, producing animated cartoon advertisements that screened in movie theaters. He brought Iwerks on board, learned everything he could about the animation process, and improved both the technical quality and comedic chops of the firm’s advertising output. Before long, he spun off the techniques he had developed into his own Laugh-O-Gram studio, and began hiring animators.
A New Artistic Direction
Walt had found a new artistic direction, and with it he explored ambitious new creative avenues. He began a series of fairy tale cartoons and first blended animation with live action in the short film Alice’s Wonderland, but financial success proved elusive. His animators began to leave for secure salaries elsewhere, and Walt began rooming at the office to reduce his personal expenses.
“One day in December a local dentist, Thomas B. McCrum, paid a call to the Laugh-O-Gram office to inquire about a film to promote dental health,” Thomas wrote. “He was surprised to find that young Disney was the only person in the office, but they discussed the film and agreed on a fee of $500. In later years Walt liked to tell the story of how Dr. McCrum telephoned one evening and asked Walt to come to his house to complete the deal. Walt said that he couldn’t. He confessed that his only pair of shoes was at the cobbler and he didn’t have the $1.50 to redeem them. The dentist came to the office and gave him money for the shoes and an agreement for the dental-health film.”
The new funds couldn’t keep Laugh-O-Gram afloat, and Walt eventually declared bankruptcy. In 1923, he raised a small amount of cash by taking his camera door to door and photographing babies, then sold his camera, packed the few clothes he owned, bought a train ticket, and departed Kansas City for California with dreams of breaking into the movie business.
Disney Bros. Studio
Studio after studio rejected Walt’s employment inquiries, and Roy had to lend him money for room and board. Walt finally decided to write to Margaret Winkler, a New York cartoon distributor who had been interested in his Alice’s Wonderland film, and proposed that he could produce a new series of Alice shorts for them. The distributor agreed, which opened a new window of possibility.
They used funds from Roy’s Navy pension and convinced an uncle to invest $500, which allowed Walt to rent a room for production, purchase a used camera, and hire two assistants and his young Aliceactress from Kansas City. Pleased with the results of the first new short, Alice’s Day at Sea, Winkler sent Walt his first check for $1,500. That changed everything. Walt and Roy rented a small store, a garage, and a vacant lot for filming. Disney Bros. Studio was born.
The Disney brothers moved into their own lodgings and each married, Roy to his Kansas City sweetheart and Walt to Lilly, an ink artist at the studio. One film led to another, and Walt’s ambitious perfectionism pushed him to make each short better — and more expensive — than the last. He brought his old friend Ub Iwerks from Kansas City to work as lead animator, which added an even higher professional quality to the cartoons but thinned profit margins even more.
The movie business was also fraught with financial uncertainty. Winkler had turned over the distribution business to her husband, Charles Mintz, who slashed payments in half for a time. This could have sunk the fledgling studio, but Walt’s insistence on quality over profitability had begun to pay off in both popular and critical reception. Soon Walt had a new contract for more Alice films, which allowed him to bring more of his old Laugh-O-Gram colleagues from Kansas City to ramp up production in a new stucco office building with a new name: Walt Disney Studio.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Despite their successful three-year run, the Alice shorts had become old hat by late 1926. Mintz approached Walt with a request from Universal Pictures for cartoons featuring a rabbit. Only a few months later, they produced the first short featuring Walt’s first original signature animated character.
“Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s first venture into the all-cartoon medium, provided an important lesson for the young film maker,” Thomas wrote. “He realized what he had known instinctively: that a strong, attractive central character was essential; and that a good storyline was needed, but too much plot could destroy laughter. He also learned that film-company committees could throttle creativity.”
Walt maintained his meticulous insistence on improving technical production details and honing the scripts to deliver as much comedy as possible, and the tireless work that he and his animators put into the series soon brought glowing reviews and public acclaim. Oswald’s likeness even began to appear in third-party merchandise across the country.
Walt didn’t realize, however, that Mintz was about to pull out the rug from underneath him. Hoping to cut his costs, the distributor issued an ultimatum: Walt must either accept a much lower price for producing each cartoon, or Mintz would take almost all of Walt’s animators away to work for him directly. Only Walt’s old friend Ub Iwerks had remained loyal in the face of Mintz’s secret offers to defect. Perhaps the worst blow was the realization that Oswald would remain the property of Universal.
“Walt was disheartened,” Thomas wrote. “All of his hard work and creative effort had created a valuable property which he didn’t own. When he told Lilly the sorrowful news, he vowed, ‘Never again will I work for somebody else.’” Walt rejected Mintz’s deal and returned to California without a new contract.
The Birth of Mickey Mouse
Somewhere between New York and Los Angeles, Walt conceived of a new character. From this humble beginning, born out of the necessity to forge a new, independent path as a studio, Mickey Mouse was destined to become one of the most recognizable characters in the world.
Walt’s studio was still under contract for its final three Oswald cartoons, and the soon-to-be defecting staff of animators were scheduled to remain working on the premises until the shorts were completed, so he and Iwerks began producing the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in secret.
The first two cartoons in this new series received little interest from distributors, so Walt brainstormed for new innovations. Inspired by The Jazz Singer, a new “talkie” that heralded an era of synchronized sound for motion pictures, Walt decided to set the new Steamboat Willie short to a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of relying on live theater organ accompaniment the way he had always done with older cartoons.
Working out the timing with a metronome, he enlisted the aid of Carl Stalling, an old theater organist friend from Kansas City who would go on to become a legendary cartoon composer for Warner Bros. during the subsequent decades. Walt had to develop costly techniques to train musicians how to keep time with the action, and enlist the experimental technology of upstart company Cinephone to keep the audio paired with the images.
He was sure the completed cartoon would be a hit, but distributors still refused to bite. A promoter friend named Harry Reichenbach convinced Walt that he had to take Steamboat Willie directly to the people, by renting the Colony Theater in New York City for two weeks, and relying on positive audience reactions to lure the distributors. The gamble paid off with phenomenal reviews. Everybody loved Mickey Mouse.
“Night after night Walt stood at the back of the theater and listened to the warm, fresh waves of laughter that greeted the cartoon images on the screen,” Thomas wrote. “Reichenbach had been right; at last the film companies were calling Walt Disney to come in and discuss a deal. Walt was so encouraged by the prospects that he sent for Carl Stalling to join him and start writing the scores for Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho.”
The distributors wanted Walt to create new cartoons for them on a work-for-hire basis, but he was determined to remain independent. He decided to team with Cinephone on an ongoing basis, and continue making new cartoons their own way. The freedom brought new opportunities to innovate, but the hiring of new animators, Walt’s insistence on ever-increasing quality, and Ub’s meticulous perfectionism kept costs soaring and personal relationships began to fray. Before long, Ub had left to work for Cinephone on his own and the Disney brothers turned to Columbia Pictures to keep their productions funded.
Pioneering Industry Techniques
A steady stream of new material meant that Walt’s animators had to develop new methods for working efficiently that became pioneering techniques for an entire industry. They developed a method to preview preliminary drawings in order to test the quality of footage before it was completed. They created storyboarding to plan out the visuals of a cartoon before beginning production, a method today used in visual narratives of every type.
“With his staff expanding, Walt Disney began to establish the attitudes and modes of operation that would continue throughout his professional career,” Thomas wrote. “Not yet thirty, he had been in the animation business a dozen years, and his maturity belied his years. Some of his underlings had worked longer in New York cartoons, but all viewed Walt Disney as a leader to be followed, and obeyed. … His employees learned not to engage him in the banter that animators used as relief from the tedium of drawing. His mind was too involved with the problems of the moment — a storyline that defied solution; a cartoon that failed to evoke laughs at the preview; an overdue check from Columbia Pictures that threatened next week’s payroll. His workers learned not to be offended if he passed them in the hallway without a word; they knew that he was preoccupied with a studio problem.”
The deal with Columbia soon gave way to a new arrangement with United Artists, and black and white gave way to Technicolor. Walt began hiring animators with an academic art background and even initiated an art school at the studio to bring more advanced artistic techniques to each new production. Soon, they achieved unprecedented success with Three Little Pigs, which got top theatrical billing even above feature films and spawned a hit song. Disney also received the first Oscar ever awarded to a cartoon for the Flowers and Trees Silly Symphony short. Other studios began copying the Disney style and hiring away the studio’s animators to carve out a piece of the growing market for animated shorts. Walt, though, had something more ambitious in mind.
The Birth of Animated Features
Profit margins on cartoons were getting thinner all the time, so Roy “was alarmed by Walt’s plans to spend perhaps $500,000 on a feature” of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Thomas wrote — a figure that turned out to radically underestimate the eventual $1.5 million cost of the completed film. “But Walt could not be dissuaded.” He developed a multiplane camera to add new depth to the flatness of animated backgrounds, brought in a woman to serve as a reference model for lifelike Snow White movements, and agonized over every production detail from camera angles to music to voice actors. The United Artists contract had reached its end, so Disney signed a new deal to distribute Snow Whiteand its short cartoons with RKO.
“The two million drawings that made up Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been combined to produce eighty-three minutes of superlative motion-picture entertainment,” Thomas wrote. “Critics were unanimously enthusiastic, audiences were enthralled. All attendance records were broken in an unprecedented three-week run at the Radio City Music Hall; the attraction could have run longer, but the Disney brothers believed it should play the New York neighborhoods while the public interest was still high.”
The film that had been known in the industry during its production as “Disney’s Folly” was an unprecedented success, with hit songs, enduring characters, an honorary Oscar, and an $8 million box office gross that put Disney back in the black and signaled an ongoing creative direction for the studio. All the hard work, struggle, and innovation dating back to Walt’s early days in Kansas City had culminated in the birth of a cultural juggernaut.
As always, Walt’s artistic ambitions and subsequent production costs continued to rise. He spent $2.6 million producing Pinocchio, and another $2.3 million on Fantasia, bringing new feature-length artistic grandeur to the music-centric format he had pioneered with the original Silly Symphony shorts and developing a new stereophonic recording process, Fantasound, to bring the classical score to life. Bambi required a new focus on rendering naturalistic animal movements, a far cry from the caricatures of the studio’s earlier animal cartoons. He built a new animation studio to handle the all the simultaneous film production.
Although Walt was prouder than ever at the caliber of the studio’s artistic success, box office returns did not cover the studio’s costs. Before long, Roy had to break the news to Walt that they were $4.5 million in debt. They reorganized Walt Disney Productions and issued stock to cover the shortfall, but they soon faced a new financial threat — union organizing, strikes, layoffs, and a consequent slowdown in production. The studio settled the dispute, but things were never quite the same afterward.
“The 1941 strike had a profound effect on Walt, shading his attitude toward politics and his relations with his employees,” Thomas wrote. “He was pushed further toward conservatism and anti-communism. And he suffered disillusion in his plan to make the Disney studio a worker’s paradise. The noonday volleyball games continued but the snack shop in the Animation Building was closed. Workers now had to sign in and out on a timeclock. Never again would the studio’s creative people know the same free, intimate relationship with Walt that had existed in the studio during its formative years.”
World War II proved to be far more disruptive still, with the army commandeering Disney’s sound stage and part of its Animation Building for military use. The studio began producing training and propaganda films “in such volume that Walt and Roy were forced to reconsider the direction of the company,” Thomas wrote. Disney was now producing about 10 times as much finished footage per year as they had before, and with a smaller staff — more than a third of which had been drafted for other assignments before some of them were allowed to go back to work on war films, in uniform. The studio had to shut down production on most of its animated features in development, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Wind in the Willows.
“After four years of devoting most of its energies to government work, Walt Disney Productions was out of tune with public tastes, financially depleted, confused about its own destiny,” Thomas reported. Although box office prospects remained bleak, Walt insisted on rebuilding the staff and delving back into a full production schedule. Roy brought in their financier, Joe Rosenberg, to explain to Walt the harsh reality that they couldn’t keep up their rate of spending. Walt, however, insisted that they would continue to ramp up their animation and simply turn to another bank if Rosenberg refused to keep the money flowing.
Rather than delving directly back into full animated features, Walt initiated a series of shorter films like Mickey and the Beanstalk and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, live-action hybrids like Song of the South, and nature films like Seal Island. Little from this period proved financially successful, and bank debt continued to escalate. Walt finally began to take cost-cutting seriously, reducing payroll, adhering to detailed production schedules, and sticking to budgets. He produced the studio’s first entirely live-action feature, Treasure Island.
Reversal of Fortune
“The Disney fortunes began to turn in 1950,” Thomas wrote. “The long hungry years ended with public acceptance of Cinderella, the first unqualified hit for the studio since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Treasure Island was also well received, and the second of the True-Life Adventures, Beaver Valley, proved even more popular than Seal Island. By the end of 1950, the debt to the Bank of America had been reduced to $1,700,000.”
Walt began to venture into television, with Christmas specials for NBC, and rebooted the studio’s educational films division. Walt Disney Productions still had mixed success, however, losing $1 million on the release of Alice in Wonderland, for instance.
Disney’s relationship with RKO had begun to sour after mogul Howard Hughes purchased the company, and the distributor was no longer sure how to market the array of different types of movies the studio was now creating. Roy decided it was time to take distribution into the studio’s own hands, and launched a fledgling Buena Vista sales team to book Disney’s new documentary, The Living Desert, in theaters.
Its careful release schedule paid off handsomely, and The Living Desert “became the biggest profit-maker in Disney history, earning $4,000,000 after a production cost of $300,000,” Thomas reported. The venture proved so successful that Buena Vista soon expanded to distribute every Disney film.
Dreaming of Disneyland
Walt cultivated hobbies that he hoped to build into new business ideas, and his love of amusement parks, railroads, miniatures, and mechanized puppetry had led to a new ambition — a Mickey Mouse Park.
“The idea had its inception, he later said, on the Sunday mornings when he took Diane and Sharon to amusement parks after Sunday school,” Thomas wrote. “As his daughters went on the rides, Walt studied the boredom of other parents, and he noted the squalor of the parks—paint cracking on carousel horses, the grounds dirty and littered, the ride operators cheerless and unfriendly.”
Walt had a vivid, detailed plan in mind for park attractions that would combine the idyllic scenes of small-town life with westerns and carnival rides, but Roy insisted that it would be financial folly considering the studio’s still uncertain revenue streams. Instead of using company funds, Walt began planning the park by borrowing on his life insurance policy. He incorporated a new company specifically for park planning, hired a staff, collected miniatures, purchased animals, planned rides, and visited other parks to gauge their operations. Walt eventually incurred $100,000 of personal debt in the process.
Although Roy remained opposed to the idea, his attitude began to soften after Walt solicited pledges from studio employees to invest in the park. Then, Walt finally had a financing idea that changed Roy’s mind completely — creating a new television show that would feature both the park and Disney’s expanding library of films, creating a synergy between them both. Roy soon sold the idea to ABC “in return for a $500,000 investment in the Disneyland park,” Thomas reported, as well as guaranteeing loans up to $4.5 million.
The show was a ratings smash, and brought widespread public attention to Disney productions both old and new, but it still wasn’t enough to build Disneyland. The park’s budget had grown from $7 million to $11 million, so Bank of America brought in Bankers Trust Company to share the loan. Still, work forged ahead and eventually the grand opening arrived.
Although the first day was a fiasco, with unmanageable crowds, counterfeit admission tickets, malfunctioning rides, unbearable temperatures, and even a gas leak, Walt set about methodically addressing each issue and honing the park’s operations further on each subsequent day.
“During the day he walked through the park, observing the people and their reactions, asking questions of the ride attendants, waitresses, store clerks, janitors,” Thomas wrote. “From the beginning, he insisted on utter cleanliness. Remembering the tawdry carnivals he had visited with his daughters, he told his staff, ‘If you keep a place clean, people will respect it; if you let it get dirty, they’ll make it worse.’ He didn’t want peanut shells strewn on the sidewalks; only shelled nuts were sold. No gum could be purchased inside the park. Young men strolled through the crowds, retrieving trash as soon as it was discarded.”
A Legacy of Creative Success
After its rocky beginning, Disneyland went on to achieve a tremendous profit, surpassing all attendance and revenue expectations. Another new television show, The Mickey Mouse Club, expanded Disney’s presence in popular culture even further. The studio’s movies were hits. Walt was gratified, but never satisfied.
“I’ve always been bored with just making money,” Walt is quoted as saying in the Thomas biography. “I’ve wanted to do things, I wanted to build things. Get something going. People look at me in different ways. Some of them say, ‘The guy has no regard for money.’ That is not true. I have had regard for money. But I’m not like some people who worship money as something you’ve got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere. I’ve only thought of money in one way, and that is to do something with it, you see? I don’t think there is a thing that I own that I will ever get the benefit of, except through doing things with it.”
Walt did indeed keep doing new things with the solid financial base he had finally created for the company. There were new television shows like Zorro; a huge lineup of new films, including Mary Poppins, Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians; and ambitious new rides like the Matterhorn, the Submarine Voyage, and the monorail. The park Walt had dreamed of for so long continued to grow, year after year.
“As Disneyland began its tenth year, it had grown from twenty-two attractions to forty-seven, from an investment of $17,000,000 to $48,000,000,” Thomas wrote. “Forty-two million people had passed through the main gate. Walt and Roy Disney appeared at a tenth-anniversary dinner attended by those who had helped them build Disneyland into one of the showplaces of the world.” In his remarks, Walt remained as forward-looking as ever. “I just want to leave you with this thought: that it’s just sort of been a dress rehearsal, and that we’re just getting started. So if any of you start to rest on your laurels, I mean, just forget it.”
An Original, Period
Walt continued to have a far-reaching impact on the surrounding culture, receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson, establishing California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and planning an even more ambitious park in Florida to include both Walt Disney World and his technological model city, EPCOT.
Ultimately, though, a lifetime of smoking caught up to Walt in 1966, with a lung cancer diagnosis followed by circulatory collapse after a short period of unsuccessful treatment. He died at age 65. Thomas quotes CBS Evening News journalist Eric Sevareid’s thoughts about Walt’s life and legacy:
He was an original; not just an American original, but an original, period. He was a happy accident; one of the happiest this century has experienced; and judging by the way it’s been behaving in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him.
He probably did more to heal or at least to soothe troubled human spirits than all the psychiatrists in the world. There can’t be many adults in the allegedly civilized parts of the globe who did not inhabit Disney’s mind and imagination at least for a few hours and feel better for the visitation.
But what Walt Disney seemed to know was that while there is very little grown-up in a child, there is a lot of child in every grown-up. To a child this weary world is brand new, gift wrapped; Disney tried to keep it that way for adults.
People are saying we’ll never see his like again.
Climbing the income ladder from poverty to wealth almost never entails a direct, straightforward rise. Bob Thomas makes it clear in Walt Disney: An American Original that even the most successful people struggle to gain a stable footing, meet with innumerable obstacles, and slip a few rungs here and there.
Walt had to overcome a childhood filled with hardship, an unsupportive father, many years of chronic company debt, duplicitous business associates, fickle public tastes, and much more. He never lost sight of his creative ambition, however, and met every failure with another attempt to innovate, adapt, and bring new ideas to life. In the process of achieving his American dream, Walt Disney sparked the imaginations of countless other people — both children and adults — giving them reason to believe that they, too, can follow their dreams and make the world a better place.