At the age of four, Walt's parents, Irish-Canadian Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney, of German and English descent, moved from Chicago, Illinois to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. It is reported that Walt became interested in drawing very early, selling his first sketches to neighbors when he was only seven years old. In Marceline, the Topeka and Santa Fe Railway ran through town and Walt's Uncle was an engineer. Walt was often seen putting his ear to the tracks in anticipation of his Uncle's train rumbling through the small community.
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At the age of nine, Walt's family moved to Kansas City and he, along with his younger sister Ruth, were enrolled in Benton Grammar School. Here Disney met Walter Pfeiffer who introduced him to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures. Additionally, the Kansas City Art Institute, founded in 1885, offered Saturday children courses that Walt attended on a regular basis sharpening his artistic skills. Kansas City also afforded Walt the opportunity to patronize the Electric [Amusement] Park, which was only 15 blocks from his home. The Electric Park of the Heim Brothers Brewery, at the time the largest brewery in the world, would have a major influence on Walt's design of Disneyland.
In 1917, the Disney family moved back to Chicago and Walt was enrolled at McKinley High School. Here he divided his attention between drawing and photography, while contributing to the school paper as a cartoonist. At night he attended the Academy of Fine Arts furthering his art education. During this period, the United States entered World War I and Walt, aged 16, tried to enlist into military service but was rejected because he was too young. Undeterred, Disney went to France and served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. He decorated the sides of his ambulance with cartoons and had his work published in Stars and Stripes.
In 1919, Walt, briefly returned to his Chicago home but decided to move back to Kansas City to be with his banker brother Roy, who got him a job at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. Here he worked, with cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks, primarily as an illustrator creating ads for newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters. The following year the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio failed and Iwerks and Disney launched a new business called, "Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists " to make cartoons about fairy tales. He and Iwerks made about a dozen but was unable sell them forcing him to move in with Iwerks and accept a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Here he made commercials based on cutout animation that were shown in theaters between movies, he was determined that that was to be his future. He would say to friends, "This is the most marvelous thing that has ever happened."
He decided to become an animator gleaning most of his techniques from a book by Edwin G. Lutz, called Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development. Disney opened his own animation studio recruiting, artist Fred Harman from the Kansas City Film Ad Company, as his first employee. Frank L. Newman, a popular "showman" and theater owner in the Kansas City, agreed to screen their cartoons that Disney titled "Laugh-O-Grams" at Newman's local theater. The cartoon shorts were a hit and Disney expanded his studio, which he named Laugh-O-Grams. Two years later, his poor business practices that included the hiring of a vast number of highly paid animators resulted in Laugh-O-Grams bankruptcy.
In 1927, Walt Disney dropped "Alice in Cartoonland" in favor of a series about "Oswald the Rabbit." Oswald, that was drawn and created by Iwerks, became a popular figure for the blossoming Disney studio and Walt hired back Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman Maxwell, and Friz Freleng from Kansas City.
Disney, his wife, his brother Roy and Mr. Iwerks began to brainstorm together on creating a new character for a cartoon series. They tried sketches of various animals, such as dogs and cats, but none of these appealed to Disney. A female cow and male horse sketches were also brought to the group by Iwerks but they were rejected. The inspiration for another cartoon character came from a tame mouse that Walt often fed at his desk at Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. In 1925 Hugh Harman, in attempt to poke fun at Walt and his new pet, surrounded a photograph of Disney with sketches of mice. Ub Iwerks was directed by Disney to sketch a new mouse character for the teams consideration.
The sketches were a hit and Disney named the new character Mortimer Mouse. Lillian, however, dislike the name Mortimer and together the creative team settled on Mickey Mouse. Mickey Rooney would later claim that he met cartoonist Walt Disney at the Warner Brothers studio during his Mickey McGuire days, and this inspired him to name Mickey Mouse after Rooney.
In order to make the character simple to animate, Iwerks designed Mickey's body out of circles. Mickey's body would later replace its circular design with a pear shaped body. Mickey's ears, however, remained true to the circular design is most noticeable in his ears, which in traditional animation, always appear round no matter which way Mickey faces. Mickey's hands were drawn with only three fingers and a thumb because, according to Disney:
"Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one half minute short has saved the Studio millions."
|Very Early Mickey Mouse Concept Drawings courtesy from the collection of The Walt Disney Family Museum
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, was made as a silent film and given a test screening to a theater audience on May 15, 1928. Disney took it to New York for distribution but the distributors were apathetic. "Felix, the Cat" was ruler of the cartoon field, and they saw nothing unusual in a mouse. Plane Crazy was followed by another silent cartoon, the Gallopin' Gaucho, but its test also failed to impress audiences and gain a distributor. Disney believed that his next animation, Steamboat Willy, should follow the example of the Jazz Singer and be released with synchronized sound. Steamboat Willy was produced in black-and-white by the Walt Disney Studios and released by Celebrity Productions. In October, 1928, the cartoon opened at the Colony Theater in New York. The success of the animated short film was immediate marking the beginning of the Disney empire.Today, the cartoon is incorrectly considered the debut of Mickey Mouse.
The next project after Mickey was a series of musical shorts titled, Silly Symphonies. The Skeleton Dance, which featured four human skeletons dancing and making music around a spooky graveyard, was released in 1929. Skeleton Dance was entirely drawn and animated by Iwerks, who was also drew the bulk of the Silly Symphonies released by Disney. Silly Symphonies were a success but the Disney studio was not seeing its rightful share of profits from distributor Patrick Anthony Powers, who had sold Walt Disney a Cinephone system so that he could make the sound cartoons. In 1930, Disney signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures because the cartoons were a popular musical novelty. Sixty-four years later, Skeleton Dance would be voted #18 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
During the production of Silly Symphonies, Iwerks and Disney had a falling out over credits and Walt's harsh command. Pat Powers wooed Iwerks with a distribution contract and Iwerks opened his studio in 1930. Animation suffered at Disney Studios with Iwerks' departure but it rebounded when Disney recruited a new team of young and talented animators.
Illness and death
Walt Disney's death occurred at 9:35 A.M., on December 15th, 1966 and was attributed to acute circulatory collapse. Disney was a chain smoker throughout his entire adult life and had been stricken by lung cancer. He had undergone surgery at the St. Joseph Medical Center in November for the removal of a lung tumor that was discovered after he entered the hospital for treatment of an old neck injury received in a polo match at the Riviera Club in Hollywood. After several cobalt therapy sessions, Disney and his wife spent a short time in Palm Springs, California. On November 30th, Disney collapsed at his home. The last thing Disney reportedly wrote before his death was the name of actor Kurt Russell, the significance of which remains a mystery, even to Russell.
Roy Disney, his 74-year-old brother and Walt Disney Productions President and Chairman said:
"We will continue to operate Walt's company in the way that he had established and guided it. All of the plans for the future that Walt had begun will continue to move ahead."Roy Disney changed the name of the Florida project to Walt Disney World in honor of his brother. In addition to his brother, Walt Disney is survived by his widow, Lillian, two daughters, Diane Marie and Sharon Mae.
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