Friday, December 5, 2008

Walt Disney, An American Original -- Born Determined in Chicago On This Date in 1901

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Walt Disney, who died at the age of 65 in 1966. He has brought immeasurable joy, laughter, and precious memories to millions, and his work and genius continue, every day. He loved kids, he loved having fun, and he loved trains. Especially interesting to me is the story of his dogged determination to succeed, his undying faith in himself, and his triumph over repeated business setbacks.

Disney was born in Chicago in 1901. After moving away when he was about 5, his family returned some years later and he began high school on the city’s west side. He drew cartoons for the school newspaper and enrolled at the Art Institute at night. He dropped out before finishing and went off to the Western Front as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross.

After the war he settled in Kansas City and in a few years had a small cartoon business. Despite some innovative work, the business went bankrupt, his creditors eventually receiving 45 cents on the dollar. Disney then decided to seek his fortune in Los Angeles, where his older brother Roy and a retired uncle were living. Bob Thomas, in his terrific biography Walt Disney: An American Original, writes: “He left Kansas City in July [1923], wearing a checkered coat and un-matching pants. He had $40 in cash, and his imitation leather suitcase contained only a shirt, two undershorts, two pairs of socks and some drawing materials. But when he paid his fare for the trip to California, he bought a first-class ticket.”

He couldn’t find work at any of the Hollywood studios and had to borrow money from his brother to pay modest rent to his uncle. He had no options but to resume making cartoons on his own, using makeshift equipment in his uncle’s garage. But soon he secured a distributor and was back in business. Thomas describes how his brother Roy joined him in business and the two shared a single room in a rooming house, with a bathroom down the hall.

In the early years, his most successful creation was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1928 at the age of 27 Disney traveled to New York City with his wife to renegotiate the contract with his distributor. The meeting was a disaster. The distributor announced that he had surreptitiously acquired all of the property rights to the Oswald character and had hired away almost every one of Disney’s small number of cartoonists. Disney left town crestfallen, without his most valuable property and without almost his entire staff. But on the long train ride back to Los Angeles, undeterred, he bucked himself up and began sketching out a new character. He picked the name Mortimer, but his wife suggested Mickey, and so it was.

Years later, in middle age and with a successful studio in hand, he got around to another long-simmering idea. Here’s Thomas quoting Disney:

It all started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sunday. I sat on a bench eating peanuts and looking all around me. I said to myself, dammit, why can’t there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together? Well, it took me about fifteen years to develop the idea.
The Disney studio, with many investors, was not interested in financing a new risky line of business, so Disney had to secure financing for the park on his own. Thomas: “To [his wife’s] dismay, he began borrowing on his life insurance; before he finished, he was [personally] $100,000 in debt.” Because his brother feared Walt Disney company stockholders would object to Disney’s using his own name for his new separate company, he called it WED Enterprises, using his own initials.

Disneyland eventually opened in 1955. Here’s Thomas again:
Disney never seemed to tire of striding through the park and watching the people and their reaction to Disneyland. “Look at them!” he enthused to a companion. “Did you ever see so many happy people?” …. One day at twilight, a Disneyland engineer was strolling through Frontierland when he saw a solitary figure sitting on a bench. It was Walt Disney, savoring the sight of the Mark Twain pulling around the bend with a puff of white steam.

Richard Balsamo