Walt Disney Biography: The Man Who Believed in Dreams

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

In this success story, we are going to share Walt Disney biography and his path to success. It wasn’t easy, but Walt believed in his dreams and did all his best to make the world happy. Enjoy reading a great life story about one of the greatest persons in history.

Walt Disney is a famous American artist, director, producer and creator of a series of full-length animated films that won him worldwide fame. He is a Doctor of Fine Arts, a winner of 7 Emmy Awards, 22 Academy Awards (Oscars), and Cecil B. DeMille Award. Additionally, he was awarded the highest civilian award of the U.S. government – The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Walt Disney is the co-founder of an entertainment conglomerate, The Walt Disney Company, and creator of the world’s first large amusement park, Disneyland. He and his team members created a number of famous fictional characters such as Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Goofy.

It is believed that anyone in the United States of America can become a millionaire or president. Those who wish to attain the goals is better to start a career as an advertising agent, shoe shiner or courier. These creative professions do not require specialized training, but won’t let you miss the successful event after which the fate will help you conquer the well-being.

Walt Disney must have been familiar with the mythological stamp. By the way, his success can be compared to the model of a typical American who is self-made. In other words, the path to success Walt Disney began being a newsboy.

Early Life

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was born on December 05, 1901 in Chicago, to a large family of an Irish immigrant, Elias Charles Disney, and Flora Call Disney, who was of German and English descent. His father, Elias Charles Disney, was engaged in a small construction business, but his family was stricken for finances. In 1878, Elias Charles Disney, moved from Huron County, Ontario, Canada to the United States during the gold rush, seeking gold in California before settling down to farm with his parents near Ellis, Kansas until 1884. Elias Charles Disney and Flora Call got married on January 01, 1888 in Acron, Florida. In 1890, they moved to Chicago, Illinois, a hometown of Elias’ brother Robert, who financially supported Elias for most of Walter’s childhood. In 1906, Elias and Flora Disney set off to Marceline, Missouri, where his elder brother Roy had recently bought farmland.

Walt Disney Biography

Elias Charles Disney and Flora Call Disney, Walt Disney’s parents.

Elias struggled at work, and when he came home, he took out his anger on his children and wife. Walter Disney had a younger sister, Ruth Disney, and elder brothers, Herbert Disney, Ray Disney, Roy O. Disney, the latter would co-found The Walt Disney Company together with Walt Disney. His elder brothers, Herbert and Ray, ran away from home in 1906 because they had been fed up with the endless work and little money to spend.

In the fall of 1909, Walt and his sister, Ruth, enrolled at the new Park School of Marceline. The Disney family stayed in Marceline for four years. On November 28, 1910, they had to sell their farm and in 1911, the family decided to move to Kansas City following the example of many neighbors who were migrating across the America without the end. In Kansas City, Walt and Ruth enrolled at the Benton Grammar School. There he met Walter Pfeiffer, who introduced Walt vaudeville and motion pictures. But to learn the art of drawing Walt Disney had only about a year and the first thing he did was to start to attend Saturday courses at Kansas City Art Institute.

On July 01, 1911, his father acquired a newspaper delivery route for The Kansas City Star. Walt and Roy were asked to distribute newspapers and advertisements of the father’s firm. They delivered the morning newspaper Kansas City Times to about 700 readers. Additionally, they had to distribute the evening and Sunday Star to over 600 readers. In any weather, early morning or late at night, Walt Disney ran from Twenty-seventh Street to Thirty-first Street, and from Prospect Avenue to Indiana Avenue in his worn-out shoes, hurrying to deliver the newspapers on time. Elias always took away all the money his son earned. But Walt did not complain and once finding a new subscriber, he concealed the received money from his father. Additionally, the boy bought newspapers directly in editorial and thus got his little income that he spent on favorite sweets that were forbidden at home. Thus, Walter began his career as an entrepreneur.

Teenage Years

In 1917, Elias became a shareholder of O-Zell jelly factory in Chicago. Therefore, he moved his family back to the city. In the fall the same year, Walter Disney started to attend McKinley High School as a freshman. Also, he attended night courses at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts under the guidance of Louis Frederick Grell (1887–1960), an American figure composition and portrait artist. Later he started drawing patriotic topics for the school newspaper on World War I.

In the fall of 1918, Walter attempted to be enlisted in the army forces to participate in World War I, following the example of his brother Roy, whom he admired much. Having been refused because of being under-aged, he volunteered for the Red Cross and was sent to France, where he had been working for a year as an ambulance driver. This car became a local landmark, as it was decorated with an amusing cartoonish character of the future animator.

Walt Disney Biography

Walt Disney drew a cartoonish character on the ambulance car that he used to drove while working as an ambulance driver.

After returning home, Walt Disney started working for his father’s company, O-Zell factory, as an assistant and then as a night watchman. The latter particularly suited him because it gave him an opportunity to study drawing to which he was drawn from an early age. He notably succeeded in drawing of animals sketches. He had even earned a nickel icon for one of his drawings at the age of seven.

The dream to become a professional artist prevailed and in 1919, Walt relocated to Kansas City to start his career as an artist. However, despite having the talent of a graphic designer, he lacked some bitterness and anger that were so necessary to create satirical newspaper cartoons. Therefore, an attempt to settle in the art department of a provincial newspaper in Kansas City was not successful.

Finally, fate smiled at Walt Disney. His brother, Roy, helped him to find a temporary job of an auxiliary worker through a bank colleague, he had been working with, at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. Walt Disney temporarily was creating advertisements for newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters for a very modest salary of $50 per month. Unfortunately, the job was temporary and by the end of Christmas rush, the young artist was unemployed again. Despite working at the studio for a short period, he gained an experience of how the advertising business functioned inside and decided to try his hand at it. At the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio, Walt Disney got acquainted with Ubbe Eert “Ub” Iwerks, a cartoonist, with whom he started running their own commercial business.

Beginning of Animation Career

In January 1920, Walt Disney and Ubbe Iwerks established a short-lived company called, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Disney’s first client was a publisher, Restaurant News, that issued leaflets. He persuaded the company that the marginally profitable newspaper could be improved by adding an illustrated advertising application to it. Being conquered by the spell of Disney, the publisher let him and his friend, Ubbe Iwerks, use an available room (actually a bathroom) as a studio. Walt purchased the necessary equipment on his extra savings in the amount of $250. Then he launched a broad expansion of printing and publishing houses.

Thanks to the perseverance of Walt their company was successfully developed. Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists seemed to have good prospects at the beginning. The partners moved into a new office, and both of them had enough money to visit the local cinema, where they were particularly surprised by cartoons. One day, Walt was reading a local newspaper and saw a job advertisement of an animator at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Walt Disney temporarily left their business to earn some money at that company. After seeing the illustrations of Disney, the company director offered him $40 per week. The work and payment were quite attractive. Walt could not resist and agreed. In February 1920, he left the established business, leaving the reins to Ubbe Iwerks. At the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Walter Disney designed advertisements based on cutout animation. He became interested in animation technique and decided to be an animator.

To enrich his knowledge, Disney read Edwin G. Lutz’s book Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development. He learned that celluloid animation to be much reliable technique than the cutout animation. Disney quickly became a star among the animators. The original work carried out in his spare time became the basis for creating his company Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

Laugh-O-Gram Studio

On May 18, 1922, Walt Disney established Laugh-O-Gram Studio and hired his Kansas City Film Ad Company teammate, Fred Harman (February 09, 1902 – January 02, 1982). Also, he invited to join his company his close friend Ubbe Iwerks, Fred Harman’s brother, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising.

Walt Disney Biography

Laugh-O-Gram Studio Building, the first animation studio of Walt Disney.

On the capital of $15,000, earned from the sale of shares to several townspeople, Walt created two short animated films based on fairy tales, which were spread throughout the country. But despite the fact that both films were very popular, Disney did not receive any payment from his sale-agents. Having achieved recognition, he nevertheless went bankrupt. Walt managed to protect from sale only a camera and a copy of his most original work, Alice in Wonderland. Became loaded with debt, pursued by creditors, Walt fell into extreme poverty: he had no money for clothes or food.

Therefore, when a dentist, Dr. Thomas B. McCrum, asked Walt Disney to make a little promotional video about dental health and invited Walt to his house to discuss the deal, Walt Disney had to decline his offer shyly as he had no shoes to walk out. He explained to him that he had left them with the cobbler at the repair shop who would not let him have them back until Walt paid him for the work a dollar and a half. Soon, Dr. Thomas B. McCrum visited Laugh-O-Gram Studio, not only bringing $1.5 for the shoes but also $500 to produce a promotional video about dental health. The money he had earned from shooting the video for the dentist was not enough to pay off his debts. However, biographers believe that this unexpected work gave Walt Disney the second wind. Disney released a ten minute, 32-second advertising film about “Tommy Tucker’s Tooth” and Dr. McCrum was completely satisfied. A few years later, Dr. McCrum made another order, and Walt Disney produced for his company another advertising video called, “Clara Cleans Her Teeth”, combining animation and live action again.

Hollywood and Alice Comedies

Accumulating a little money from the video project and advertising photography for local newspapers, Disney decided to leave Kansas City and move to Hollywood, California to set up a cartoon studio. Before setting off to Hollywood, Walt finished working on the live-action/animation Alice’s Wonderland and took the final reel with himself. In July 1923, he arrived in Hollywood that had already become the center of the world cinema. Roy (Walt’s brother) was already in California. The first days Walt walked around pavilions and film sets from morning till night, carefully studying the process of making movies. He managed to make his real career here, despite having $40 in his pocket and only one shirt in his suitcase.

After several attempts, Walt Disney was convinced of the futility of exploring the studios hoping to find a job. “If there is no work, – he said to himself – I have to do something on my own!” Walt and Roy rent a small garage from their Uncle Robert Disney. Walt invited Virginia Davis, an American child actor, who was already a live-action star of Alice’s Wonderland. They hired two employees who ink and painted the celluloid. Walt rented a shabby shooting camera and installed it in the garage. Roy operated the camera, and Disney was responsible for animation. On October 16, 1923, Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney founded “Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.”

Walt and Roy were filming Alice Comedies and were looking for a distributor. They managed to find one and signed a contract with Margaret J. Winker, a New York cartoon distributor, and agreed to deliver 12 Alice Comedies series. On December 26, 1923, they produced the first comedy series, Alice’s Day at Sea, and received $1,500 for it.

Walt Disney Biography

The new series, Alice Comedies, proved reasonably successful.

Walt enthusiastically started working on live-action/animation, Alice in Wonderland. In February 1924, they relocated to a new office located in a former real estate agency at 4651 Kingswell Avenue. Walt hired the first animator, Rollin Hamilton, and invited his old friend, Ubbe Iwerks, and his family to relocate to California to join “The Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio”. His key focus became the film scenarios, so he delegated primary responsibilities of animation to Ubbe Iwerks. That was the end of Walt’s career as an animator.

In December 1924, Walt Disney hired Hugh Harman and Rudolf “Rudy” Carl Ising (who later would establish Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation studios). Walt personally hired an inker, Lillian Bounds. On July 13, 1925, Walt Disney and Lillian Bounds got married.

Walt Disney Biography

Walt Disney and Lillian Bounds after the wedding ceremony, July 13, 1925.

Soon, Virginia Davis no longer played Alice. Therefore, they invited both Dawn O’Day and Margie Gay to play the role. However, the series Alice Comedies lost popularity and by 1927 ended. The primary focus of the series was done more on the animated characters (Julius the Cat) than on the live-action, Alice, that is why Alice Comedies lost their popularity among the audience.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

The story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was not smooth for Walt Disney. In 1926, the Walt Disney Studio received an order from a producer, Charles Mintz, to develop an animated character and all animated cartoon series for Universal Pictures. Ubbe Iwerks created and drew the Oswald Rabbit. In total, they produced twenty-six animated Oswald Rabbit’s features. The project was very successful: it became quite popular and highly demanded.

Walt Disney Biography

In 2006, the Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal.

However, in February 1928, when Walt Disney flew to New York to discuss a higher fee to produce the Oswald Rabbit cartoon series, Charles Mintz offered Disney to cut expenses by 20 percent and proposed to reduce the fee. Walt Disney could not agree to such conditions and declined Mintz’s requirement.

Walt Disney’s hands were tied because the Oswald Rabbit trademark belonged to Universal Pictures and such animators as Friz Freleng, Carman Maxwell, Hugh Harman, and Rudy Ising were performing under the terms of the contracts signed with Universal Pictures.

Declining to agree on reductions, most of their animators were hired away except Iwerks, who later would help Disney to create a new character, Mickey Mouse, that would become a triumph for Walt Disney and his studio.

Mickey Mouse

After losing the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney was understandably disappointed. In the spring of 1928, Walt Disney asked Ub Iwerks to develop a new character. Ubbe tried many sketches of animals including dogs, cats, a female cow, a male horse, a male frog; however, Walt Disney did not like none of the ideas. Mickey Mouse inspired the team from a tame mouse that had been drawn by Hugh Harman at Laugh-O-Gram Studio yet in 1925. Therefore, Ub started working on improving the original sketches of Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney Biography

Ubbe Iwerks, the creator of Mickey Mouse.

It is interesting to know that the original name of the character was “Mortimer Mouse” before his wife, Lillian Disney, convinced him to change it to Mickey Mouse. Thus, Ub Iwerks animated Mickey Mouse, and Walt Disney gave it a soul being the Mickey’s voice until 1947.

On May 15, 1928, the Disney team first featured Mickey Mouse in a test screening of a short cartoon, Plane Crazy. However, the audience was not impressed by the new character. Walt gave another try and featured the Mickey in another short cartoon, The Gallopin’ Gaucho. Unable to find a distributor the cartoon was not released either.

However, Walt Disney did not give up and on November 18, 1928, Mickey appeared in Steamboat Willie, a short animated film with sound co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. This time, Walt managed to find a distributor. Pat Powers (1870 –1948), an entrepreneur involved in the movie and animation industry, became Steamboat Willie distributor and sold Disney Cinephone sound system that allowed to release Steamboat Willie with soundtracks that led Walt Disney to success. Furthermore, The Plane Crazy, The Galloping Gaucho were re-released with soundtracks and all subsequent Mickey Mouse animated cartoons were released with soundtracks as well.

Walt Disney Biography

Mickey Mouse appearance in Steamboat Willie (1928). The running time of the short film was 7 minutes 42 seconds.

Silly Symphonies

Followed in the footsteps of Mickey Mouse series, a series of 75 animated short films called, Silly Symphony, had been released by Walt Disney team from 1929 to 1939.

In 1930, Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute Silly Symphony series. By 1932, Mickey Mouse had become a favorite cartoon character. Silly Symphony also performed well, but it just needed that extra added touch. The same year Disney noticed an increase of competition. One of their main competitors was Max Fleischer (July 19, 1883 – September 11, 1972), a Polish Jewish American animator, who created an animated character, Betty Boop. It was considered as the most famous sex symbols of animation. On April 13, 1931, Columbia Pictures suspended the distribution of Walt Disney’s films and was replaced by United Artists.

By the end of 1932, an American scientist and engineer, Herbert Thomas Kalmus (November 9, 1881 – July 11, 1963), completed his first three-strip Technicolor camera. He met with Walt Disney and proposed him to re-release the black and white Flowers and Trees through Technicolor camera. In 1932, The colored Flowers and Trees brought Walt Disney remarkable success and the first Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. After releasing Flowers and Trees illustrated in color, all next Silly Symphony series were illustrated in color as well.

On May 27, 1933, following the success of Silly Symphony, Disney released another animated short film, The Three Little Pigs, directed by Burt Gillett. The animated film was the hit for many months in theaters. The Walt Disney Productions invested $22,000 in it and grossed $250,000. It was the second animated short film that received Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1934.

Walt Disney Biography

Three Little Pigs animated film gained popularity thanks to the strength and wisdom of its story. It led Walt Disney to open a Story Department that was responsible for story development and scenario.

In 1935, when Disney production was rapidly growing, he announced a competitive recruitment contest for artists. The company received 6,000 applications and eliminated most candidates during the preview of their submitted drawings. As a result of hard work, Walt Disney managed to select 30 potential employees, and only 10 of them were able to handle their duties at the studio. Since there were few animators with professional skills, Walt Disney had to educate them himself.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The turning point that played a significant role not only in the animation industry but also in business was the creation of the world’s first full-length animated cartoon called, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made in Technicolor. When Roy Disney estimated the expected cost of the film he shuddered with horror – it was a half-million dollar forecast. This was almost double cost of the entire annual production of the studio. Walt and Roy could not afford to shoot a full-length film with live actors, extras, expedition and built scenery. To obtain the funding they turned for help to loan officers. To persuade them to believe in the success of Snow White, Walt Disney had to show them a rough draft of the motion picture. Loan officers believed in Disney, and after three years of work on the film it was finally released under the distribution agreement with RKO Radio Pictures. The total budget spend amounted to $1,488,423. On December 21, 1937, the animated musical fantasy film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater and the audience highly admired it. Snow White brought them a profit of $8 million dollars (in today’s money – $132 million). The resulting wealth was not accidental or unexpected. Walt Disney had been working very hard to reach this goal. He would have reached it one way or another. Maybe this would have required many years more. However, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made Walt Disney a millionaire immediately.

Walt Disney Biography

Walt Disney holds an album with sketches of dwarfs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Walt Disney earned a great fortune on film production, but all financial matters were secondary for him, whatever benefits they could bring. Most of his savings, he put on the protection of his artistic interests. He had no lust for money, and he could have much more of it if he wanted to. Disney considered money as a working tool. It would be wrong to say that Disney struggled for some lofty artistic ideals. However, it was clear that he did not want to depend on anyone else. The Disney art can be regarded differently, but he often put it above the desire to “make money.”

World War II and Postwar Period

In 1940, the Walt Disney Studios released full-length features Pinocchio, an American animated musical fantasy film, and continued to work on Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Peter Pen (1953). The shorts teammates were working on Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto animated short series.

When the United States entered World War II, most of the Disney studio’s facilities were involved in cooperation with the US Army and Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. The Disney team was responsible for creating training and instruction motion pictures such as Victory Through Air Power, Aircraft Carrier Landing Signals and animated propaganda short film, Der Fuehrer’s Face, featuring Donald Duck in a nightmare working at a factory in Nazi Germany in horrible conditions. The latter one won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film on March 04, 1943.

In a postwar period, the Walt Disney Studio started working on Cinderella (1950), that became the most popular full-length animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Theme Park: Disneyland

Along with the complex real world, an imaginary world of fairy tales were living in the Walt Disney’s mind. Being tired of the long-term film production industry, he found himself at the mercy of a new idea in building a theme park, which he called, Disneyland.

The idea of Disneyland came into Walt Disney’s mind when he was attending Griffith Park in Los Angeles with his daughters Diane and Sharon. To get inspiration, he started to visit other play parks including Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, Children’s Fairyland in the United States, and Efteling in the Netherlands.

However, the story of its creation from concept to realization was not easy. Investors were sympathetically sighing talking about hard times and advised Walt to go somewhere to relax when Disney was trying to make them interested in his new venture. His brother, Roy, did not support him either. He believed that the project would not bring revenue.

In a desperate attempt to get funding for the project, Disney turned for help to the television industry. Although the industry of show business was considered almost a pariah at that time, Disney agreed to cooperate with the joint venture, ABC. In exchange for the investments in the amount of $5 million, Disney agreed to broadcast Mickey Mouse short-film series on television.

Walt Disney purchased 160 acres (65 ha) of land in Anaheim, California. The construction of Disneyland started on July 16, 1954, with the total investment spend of $17 million (in today’s money – $150 million). The opening day was held on Sunday, July 17, 1955.  Since then everything went differently for ABC as well as for Walt Disney Company and the American public.

Walt Disney Biography

An aerial view over the park in Anaheim, California in the late 1950s.

Disneyland quickly became an American landmark. As of 2014, 16.77 million people visited Disneyland in Anaheim. Therefore, another concept of the artist that seemed just a fantasy turned into a big business venture. The Walt Disney Company has four Disneyland parks in California, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Paris, and one Walt Disney World in Ontario, Florida. Also, the entertainment conglomerate has in its assets 320 Disney stores located throughout the world, hockey and baseball teams, a number of newspapers and magazines and diversified television networks.

Family

Lillian’s first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She became pregnant again and on December 18, 1933, gave a birth to daughter Diane Marie Disney. Later, the parents adopted Sharon Mae Disney (December 31, 1936 – February 16, 1993) due to Lillian’s birth complications.

At the age of 20, Diane married Ron Miller. They had seven children: Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, Walter, Ronald, and Patrick. The Miller family founded a winery in California called Silverado Vineyards. Later, Diane Disney Miller became the co-founder of The Walt Disney Family Museum. She died on November 19, 2013.

Sharon Mae Disney was born December 31, 1936 in Los Angeles, California. On May 10, 1959, she married Robert Brown. Their marriage lasted until Robert’s death in 1967. They had one child. In 1969, Sharon Disney and William Lund got married. They had two children, but in 1975, they got divorced.

Walt Disney Biography

This photo captured Walt Disney, his wife (standing between two daughters) their daughters, Diane (right) and Sharon (left), June 1949.

Walt Disney not only had a strong creative will but also was an influential leader and organizer. He paid great attention to recruitment and organization processes. The working process of the Disney Studio was as perfect and accurate as his drawings and cartoons. He always required from the animators and artists to work according to high professional standards. However to hire a sufficient number of experts was tough.

All his life Walt Disney considered himself as a good manager. However, many workers were disgruntled by the system of management. They believed that they had made a significant contribution to the filmmaking and demanded the recognition of copyrights while Walt thought the original authorship belonged to the Walt Disney Company. The animators’ strike broke out at the studio. The U.S. Department of State helped to defuse the situation by organizing a business trip for Disney in South America. The conflict gradually subsided, but the question was not resolved until the end.

The path traversed by Disney is the road in a length of forty years, during of which he became a major industrialist in the field of cinema and television. Here is what one might achieve endowed with talent, perseverance, imagination and determination. Walt Disney made the general public love the animation. We identify the emergence of his cartoon characters on the screen with the joy of life. And for that, he deserves the greatest glory.

Walt Disney died at 9:30am on December 15, 1966, when he was 65. The cause of death was acute circulatory collapse. However, the work he had started, is continuing to live and grow steadily till now. The revenue of the Walt Disney Company in the fiscal year 2015 reached $52.46 billion with its media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products, and interactive.

We hope you have enjoyed reading Walt Disney biography, his success story and history of the Walt Disney Company, and we hope it’s inspired you to new discoveries.

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Tags: Biography

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  • Tod Smoth

    this is really good I feel like i learn so fricken much