Walter Elias Disney
Founder of Walt Disney Co.
"If you can dream it, you can do it."-Walter Elias Disney
Few individuals have had a greater impact on both the entertainment industry and the popular culture of the 20th century than Walter Elias Disney. His many innovations include the first cartoons with synchronized sound, the first full-length animated feature film and, of course, the theme park. His most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, is a universally recognized cultural icon. And his numerous films celebrating the triumph of the little guy and the simple charms of small-town life captured the imaginations and fueled the dreams of six generations. But while wholesomeness and nostalgic sentimentality were Disney's trademarks, the forces that shaped this maverick movie mogul and his empire were much darker and more complex.
Walt Disney's childhood was anything but idyllic. His father was a strict disciplinarian who thought nothing of taking a switch to Walt and his brother Roy to administer "corrective" beatings that became a part of their daily routine. Young Walt found an escape from his father's brutality through drawing. With pen and ink, he created his own little fantasy world where life was always beautiful, people were always happy, and, most important, he was always in control. World War I provided Disney with yet another means of escape. At the age of 16, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps and was sent to France.
After the war, Disney moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he took a job with Film Ad Co. The firm's principal products were animated advertisements that were shown before feature films. Disney had found his calling. He loved bringing his drawings to life through the magic of animation. Advertising was less than fulfilling, though, so he converted his garage into a studio and, with borrowed equipment, began producing his own shorts, called Laugh-O-Grams. But he found it difficult to persuade local theater owners to show them. Strapped for cash, Disney gave up his apartment and started living out of his office, surviving on cold beans. But it was to no avail.
It wasn't until he moved to Los Angeles in 1923 and teamed up with his shrewd and kindly older brother, Roy, who took care of business for him, that Walt began to modestly prosper. Even so, his first commercially successful creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was stolen from him. Disney had carelessly allowed the character to be copyrighted not under his name, but under his distributor's name. It was a mistake Disney would not repeat. In subsequent years, he would gain a reputation for keeping close tabs on his creations and insisting on complete control.
Searching for a replacement for Oswald, Disney hit upon the idea of creating a new cartoon character based on a mouse that had lived in his office in Kansas City. As Disney liked to tell it, "Mice gathered in my wastebasket when I worked late at night. One of them was my particular friend."
With the help of Roy and Ub Iwerks, an illustrator from his Film Ad days, Disney fleshed out his new character-and Mickey Mouse was born. Disney released two Mickey Mouse cartoons, which were met with moderate success. But the real breakthrough came in 1928 with the release of "Steamboat Willie." The first cartoon to include a synchronized soundtrack, "Steamboat Willie" was an instant hit. The day after its debut in Manhattan, Variety gave the cartoon a rave review, and The New York Times called it ingenious.
Disney hired a team of artists and animators, and Mickey Mouse films rolled out of the studio. Disney continued to embrace the latest techniques, adopting the new medium of Technicolor just as readily as he had sound. While the Depression gripped the rest of the country, the Disney studio flourished. Disney's cartoons offered escape at a time when Americans needed it most. Meanwhile, as his short features raked in cash, Disney was planning a bigger project-a movie-length cartoon in full color, with music.
Given the time-consuming nature of animation, the project was costly and risky. But when "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was released in 1937, it proved to be no risk at all. Three years in the making, it was Hollywood's first full-length animated film. Previously, Disney's work had been the sideshow; now it was the main event. Critics raved at this artistic breakthrough and audiences crowded the theaters. Disney even received a special Academy Award for his work.
"Snow White" was followed by other animated features: "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo" and "Bambi." Each became a classic and contributed to the legend that was growing around its creator. In addition, Disney began making nature documentaries and live-action films such as "Treasure Island" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." He was also the first Hollywood studio head to embrace the new medium of television, with "The Mickey Mouse Club" and "Walt Disney Presents." The latter, hosted by Disney himself, became not just a profit center for the company, but also a promotional engine for all its works, including Disney's greatest achievement, which was still yet to come.
Disney had long dreamed of creating an amusement park based on his characters, but had difficulty getting financing for the project. Finally, in the early 1950s, he mortgaged his life insurance, stock holdings, house and furniture to purchase an orange grove near Anaheim, California, and finance the construction of a 185-acre amusement park. Opened in 1955, Disneyland quickly became one of the world's most popular tourist attractions. Dubbed "The Happiest Place on Earth," Disneyland became the real-life version of the fantasy world Disney had escaped to in his youth.
By the early 1960s, Disney presided over a sprawling family entertainment empire, but, unsatisfied, he bought 27,000 acres near Orlando, and soon a second magic kingdom, Walt Disney World, began to rise above the Florida swamps. But Disney never saw his dream completed. He died of lung cancer in 1966, at the age of 65.
Shortly before his death, Disney said, "I hate to see downbeat pictures.I know life isn't that way, and I don't want anyone telling me it is." Clearly millions of his fans agreed, and their adulation made him one of the most popular and influential figures in postwar American culture. And as the studio he founded continues to churn out films that bear his personal signature, Disney's magic is sure to touch the lives of many more generations to come.
Originally, Walter Elias Disney wanted to name his famous mouse Mortimer. But his wife, Lillian, thought it sounded "too sissy" and suggested the name Mickey instead. In what was probably one of the smartest decisions of his life, Disney chose to take his wife's advice.
One of the reasons Walter Elias Disney's legacy has endured lies in his extraordinary management skills. Disney pioneered branding, brand stretching and merchandising. In addition to being the first full-length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was also the first film to have a complete merchandising campaign in place when it was released. Walt Disney Co. is now a merchandising machine, with nearly 25 percent of its revenue coming from consumer products.