Walter Elias Disney, the famous creator of Disney Magic, was born on December 5th, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Elias Disney, was an Irish-Canadian, born in Canada and his mother, Flora Call Disney, was of German-American descent. Walt was one of five children, four boys and a girl.
After moving many times as a child due to Walt’s father’s ideas and business ventures, in 1910 his family to a farm in Missouri. Walt’s older brothers opted to stay in the city while Walt and Roy, the younger boys along with their only sister, Ruth, headed to the farm for new adventures. It was on the farm that Walt began to draw. Although his parents did not encourage these abilities, Walt continued to draw and would sell his art to neighbors to make extra money (Just Disney). Shortly after moving to the farm his father sold the property and moved once again. This time to Kansas City, where he owned and operated the Kansas City Star, a local newspaper. Walt was now nine years old and Roy was seventeen. When Walt turned fourteen, his father finally allowed him to take some professional art classes, as long as he would fulfill his responsibilities at the newspaper. After Kansas the family moved once more, to Chicago. Walt attended McKinley High School, where he studied art and photography (Just Disney).
Walt had a strong sense of loyalty to his country and in 1917 during World War I; he enlisted in the Navy, along with his brother Roy. However, it was determined early on that Walt was too young to enlist, so he volunteered his service as a Red Cross Ambulance Driver. After returning home from France, where he was stationed he attended the Kansas City Art Institute (Movie Database). Unfortunately, it became too expensive for Walt to continue, so he was unable to complete his education. Although his education was lacking, Walt’s enthusiasm, imagination and talent were not. He was not yet eighteen years old when he took his first job at the Kansas City Film Ad in 1919, a company that produced what was known as stop-action photography.
In less than a year Walt was able to save enough money and enter into a contract with a local movie house in Kansas to create the Newman Laugh-O-Grams (Movie Database). By the end of the 1920’s Laugh-O-Grams was Disney’s first owned and operated business venture. This venture created and produced six Disney animated shorts.
In 1923 Alice’s Wonderland was created, and although it was successful, Walt’s business venture was unable to sustain its financial demands and he closed Laugh-O-Grams. His brother Roy had decided to settle in Santa Monica, California upon his return from the war and Walt decided to move there and join him. It was in California, at age twenty-one that Walt and Roy Disney began The Disney Studio’s in California at 4651 Kingsweil. In October of 1923 they signed their first contract, and only one year later needed additional office space. Only four months later, the Disney brothers bought property at 4649 Kingsweil, and enlarged their operation to accommodate new artists, musicians and animators. Since there was room for expansion it was time for Walt to contact his talented colleagues from the Kansas City Film Ad to join him in California. Between the years 1924 and 1925, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harmon, Rudolf Ising and Lillian Bounds joined the Disney team. As plans for expansion of the Disney brother’s studio continued, Walt decided that it was time to consider his personal life, which had been on hold. On July 13, 1925 he married his long time friend and employee, Lillian Bounds, in Lewistown, Idaho. Walt and his wife completed their family with two daughters, Diane and Sharon.
The Disney Studio’s began to make their mark in 1927, when a team of artists completed over sixty episodes of Alice’s Wonderland. Shortly thereafter, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was created. However, Walt was convinced that poor business practices, between George Winkler and Charles Mintz allowed the concept to be stolen from his studio along with some of Disney’s employees. Ub Iwerks was among those employees that left Disney. Although at the time, Iwerks believed that he would benefit from his move to New York, he later realized that Walt Disney would become a trailblazer in the fields of cartoons, animation, and film.
After the disappointment of losing Ub Iwerks, not only an employee, but also a close friend, Walt decided it was time for him to get back to the drawing board. While on a long train trip from New York to California, Walt created the legendary Mickey Mouse. It was the creation of Mickey that led Disney to experiment with sound. The concept of Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse would be how Walt would debut his creation. Walt believed that a full-scale orchestra of professional musicians would be best for his venture. Once again, he set out for New York, hired an orchestra and set his original score to music. After his musical venture, Walt wanted a guarantee that Mickey’s creation would remain with him forever. It was then, that Walt became the voice of Mickey Mouse.
Walt became the first producer to find a creative way to use sound with animation. He was able to synchronize sound with his animated characters. Disney thought of Mickey Mouse as his alter ego. Mickey’s first endeavors with sound were a harmonica and a metronome. It was shortly after that, at the tender age of twenty-six, in 1928 when Walt’s creation of Mickey Mouse made his debut. Walt continued to be the voice behind the mouse. Now that Steamboat Willie was ready for the movies, Walt needed a distributor. Henry Reichenbach offered Disney a two-week contract to play Steamboat Willie, at the Manhattan Colony Theater. On November 18, 1928 Steamboat Willie opened in Manhattan to excellent media revues.
The next major innovation created in the Disney studio was by Webb Smith. Along with Walt, he created the concept of storyboards for the Disney organization. Using the storyboard concept would provide all cartoons, animation and movies with their main characters and storyline. Storyboards are used today in just about all forms of movies, advertisements and/or cartoons.
Disney completed his first Technicolor cartoon, Flowers and Trees in 1932. It was this accomplishment that led to full color animation. Knowing that once Flowers and Trees was released, others would follow and the competition might hurt his studio; prior to the release of his finished cartoon, he entered into an exclusive agreement with Technicolor, that no other studio could use the three-strip color system for the next two years. This agreement would ensure that Disney Studios would be so far in front of all other studios within this time, that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to catch up.
Walt always wanted to be first; because of this, he decided that it would be best for the animators at Disney Studio’s to have some formal art training. It was then, that Disney hired an Art Professor, Chouinarand, who created the Disney Art School, right at the studios on Hyperion Avenue. The Art School would eventually be used to hire and train new artists and animators. In 1934 Disney’s latest innovation was to produce a full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney gave the order to hire 150 artists, which would be needed for his next venture. Teams of artists searched the entire nation for these animators (Art 121). Snow White became the world’s most expensive film, which cost a million and a half dollars. It was difficult for the entertainment industry to comprehend that Disney would spend this much money on an animated film for children, especially during the Great Depression. Soon after Snow White, Pinocchio (Art 153), Fantasia (Art 179), Dumbo and Bambi (Art 207), would follow. However, these films were created at a much lower cost.
During World War II, in 1941, the Disney Studio’s became involved in the presentation of training materials. The Armed Services believed that animation was an important tool in getting their message out, and doing it inexpensively. It was here that Walt used his innovative techniques and business acumen to produce low budget training films for the Armed Services in time of war. Disney received contracts from the government to produce these films. However, he continued to make his animated shorts of Mickey Mouse. His introduction of Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto would take place during this time. In 1942 he discontinued his Mickey Mouse shorts.
During the war it was Walt’s ingenuity, which provided the government with interesting new ideas of making propaganda shorts. Through his characters and animation he was able to provide government agencies with what was necessary, like Education of Death, a powerful satire that suggests Germany’s children have been schooled to kill. In the early forties, Walt was asked to travel to Latin America, sponsored by the United States government. These Latin American countries would be the background for some new animated films. Saludos Amigo and Three Caballeros brought forth new additions to the Disney family of animated characters. These films also became an entity for the musical talents of bandleader, Benny Goodman, along with singers Ethel Smith and the Andrew Sisters (Art 223). Most of the time, Disney characters were used to illustrate important concepts and matters of public interest during World War II in animated shorts shown in movie theaters around the nation.
Most of Disney’s animated movies were based on fairytales, fables or legends, many of which are considered literary masterpieces. Once the war was over the Disney Studio’s began producing films for happier times, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was the first of these to be released in 1948. However, the studio continued to release cartoon shorts for movie theaters.
In 1950, Cinderella was released, Walt’s first full length animated movie since Snow White in 1942 (Art 230). His next feature, Alice in Wonderland, was released in 1951 to bad revues, and it was this movie, which was truly Disney’s first flop. It was ironic, since his first real success came from Alice’s Wonderland in the early 20’s. Unfortunately, as a full length feature it was hard for the team at Disney to create a movie that could create many fictional scenes as a child does in their own world of fantasy. Disappointed with the revues of Alice in Wonderland, Disney moved on to his next film, Peter Pan, which was extremely successful two years later (Art 234).
In 1955 the Disney Studio would once again challenge themselves. They would embark on new territory. CinemaScope was now on the horizon, and Disney’s latest film Lady and the Tramp, would find its creators challenging themselves once again with the watchful eye of Walt at the helm (Art 431).
After Lady and the Tramp debuted, the Disney team of animators would continue to produce more films, but Walt was moving in a new direction (Art 431). Simultaneously, a project that Walt had been working on prior to World War II would come to fruition. In July of 1955 Disneyland would open its doors. It was the true imagination of Disney and it was beyond film. He had new ideas and new concepts. Once again he would attempt to conquer uncharted territories. He created a new company known as WDI for Walt Disney Imagineering. The amusement park would not be just rides for children, but he envisioned a place that would be enjoyable to adults and kids alike. As a filmmaker, Walt was trained to think sequentially. One thing must follow another, and that is exactly how he built the Disneyland Park. Each exhibit, ride or store, connects to something else, and there is always something going on, maybe two or three things at the same time. Once again being the first to conquer no place where man has been before, Disney needed to fulfill a commitment to the American Broadcasting Company, ABC, for their help in the creation and completion of Disneyland. During the construction of the park, Walt needed additional financial support, which he received from ABC-Television. For these monies, he committed the Disney Studios to provide a weekly family oriented television series that would appear on ABC-TV, known as the Wonderful World of Disney. This was the first full-color program for television.
In addition to all of his great innovations and creations Walt Disney won thirty-two and seven Emmy Awards in his lifetime. After many surgeries and hospital stays, his last battle was with cancer and he had his lung removed in September of 1966. Thinking he would survive, he went back to work. After a long day at the office, he became tired and went home. On December 10, 1966 his wife Lillian brought him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in California where he died five days later on December 15. Walt died in the hospital from advanced lung cancer, which was most likely caused from many years of smoking. His daughter, Diane, recalls that her father spoke frequently about his desire to be cremated, which he was. Walt’s remains are currently interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
The wonderful life of Walt Disney came to an end in December of 1966. However, his innovations, talents, imagination and legacy live on through the multi-faceted Disney Studio’s.