Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) was an American entrepreneur, animator, voice actor, and film producer. A pioneer of the American animation industry, he introduced several developments in the production of cartoons. As a film producer, Disney holds the record for most Academy Awards earned by an individual, having won 22 Oscars from 59 nominations. He was presented with two Golden Globe Special Achievement Awards and an Emmy Award, among other honors. Several of his films are included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Born in Chicago in 1901, Disney developed an early interest in drawing. He took art classes as a boy and got a job as a commercial illustrator at the age of 18. He moved to California in the early 1920s and set up the Disney Brothers Studio with his brother Roy. With Ub Iwerks, Walt developed the character Mickey Mouse in 1928, his first highly popular success; he also provided the voice for his creation in the early years. As the studio grew, Disney became more adventurous, introducing synchronized sound, full-color three-strip Technicolor, feature-length cartoons and technical developments in cameras. The results, seen in features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio, Fantasia (both 1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942), furthered the development of animated film. New animated and live-action films followed after World War II, including the critically successful Cinderella (1950) and Mary Poppins (1964), the latter of which received five Academy Awards.
In the 1950s, Disney expanded into the amusement park industry, and in 1955 he opened Disneyland. To fund the project he diversified into television programs, such as Walt Disney’s Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club; he was also involved in planning the 1959 Moscow Fair, the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1965, he began development of another theme park, Disney World, the heart of which was to be a new type of city, the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT). Disney was a heavy smoker throughout his life and died of lung cancer in December 1966 before either the park or the EPCOT project were completed.
Disney was a shy, self-deprecating and insecure man in private but adopted a warm and outgoing public persona. He had high standards and high expectations of those with whom he worked. Although there have been accusations that he was racist or anti-Semitic, they have been contradicted by many who knew him. His reputation changed in the years after his death, from a purveyor of homely patriotic values to a representative of American imperialism. He nevertheless remains an important figure in the history of animation and in the cultural history of the United States, where he is considered a national cultural icon. His film work continues to be shown and adapted; his namesake studio and the company maintains high standards in its production of popular entertainment and the Disney amusement parks have grown in size and number to attract visitors in several countries.
Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. He was the fourth son of Elias Disney—born in the Province of Canada, to Irish parents-and an American of German and English descent aside from Disney, Elias and Flora’s sons were Herbert, Raymond, and Roy; the couple had a fifth child, Ruth In 1906, when Disney was four, the family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where his uncle Robert had just purchased land. In Marceline, Disney developed his interest in drawing when he was paid to draw the horse of a retired neighborhood doctor. Disney practiced drawing by copying the front-page cartoons of Ryan WalkerDisney also began to develop an ability to work with watercolors and crayons. He and his younger sister Ruth started school at the same time at the Park School in Marceline in late 1909.
In 1911, the Disneys moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There, Disney attended the Benton Grammar School, where he met fellow-student Walter Pfeiffer, who came from a family of theatre fans and introduced Disney to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures. Before long, he was spending more time at the Pfeiffers’ house than at home. Elias had purchased a newspaper delivery route for The Kansas City Star and Kansas City Times. Disney and his brother Roy woke up at 4:30 every morning to deliver the Times before school and repeated the round for the evening Star after school. The schedule was exhausting, and Disney often received poor grades after falling asleep in class, but he continued his paper route for more than six years. He attended Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute and also took a correspondence course in cartooning.
In January 1920, as Pesmen-Rubin’s revenue declined after Christmas, Disney and Iwerks were laid off. They started their own business, the short-lived Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Failing to attract many customers, Disney and Iwerks agreed that Disney should leave temporarily to earn money at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, run by A. V. Gauger; the following month Iwerks, who was not able to run their business alone, also joined. The company produced commercials using the cutout animation technique
Disney became interested in animation, although he preferred drawn cartoons such as Mutt and Jeff and Koko the Clown. With the assistance of a borrowed book on animation and a camera, he began experimenting at home.
He came to the conclusion that cel animation was more promising than the cutout method. Unable to persuade Cauger to try animation at the company, Disney opened a new business with a co-worker from the Film Ad Co, Fred Harman. Their main client was the local Newman Theater, and the short cartoons they produced were sold as “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams”.] Disney studied Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables as a model, and the first six “Laugh-O-Grams” were modernized fairy tales.
In May 1921, the success of the “Laugh-O-Grams” led to the establishment of Laugh-O-Gram Studio, for which he hired more animators, including Fred Harman’s brother Hugh, Rudolf Ising and Iwerks. The Laugh-O-Grams cartoons did not provide enough income to keep the company solvent, so Disney started production of Alice’s Wonderland—based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—which combined live-action with animation; he cast Virginia Davis in the title role The result, a 12-and-a-half-minute, one-reel film, was completed too late to save Laugh-O-Gram Studio, which went into bankruptcy in 1923.
Disney moved to Hollywood in July 1923. Although New York was the center of the cartoon industry, he was attracted to Los Angeles because his brother Roy was convalescing from tuberculosis there, and he hoped to become a live-action film director. Disney’s efforts to sell Alice’s Wonderland were in vain until he heard from New York film distributor Margaret J. Winkler. She was losing the rights to both the Out of the Inkwell and Felix the Cat cartoons and needed a new series. In October, they signed a contract for six Alice comedies, with an option for two further series of six episodes each. Disney and his brother Roy formed the Disney Brothers Studio—which later became The Walt Disney Company—to produce the films, persuaded Davis and her family to relocate to Hollywood to continue production, with Davis on contract at $100 a month. In July 1924, Disney also hired Iwerks, persuading him to relocate to Hollywood from Kansas City.
Early in 1925, Disney hired an ink artist, Lillian Bounds. They married in July of that year, at her brother’s house in her hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. The marriage was generally happy, according to Lillian, although according to Disney’s biographer Neal Gabler she did not “accept Walt’s decisions meekly or his status unquestionably, and she admitted that he was always telling people ‘how henpecked he is’.”Lillian had little interest in films or the Hollywood social scene and she was, in the words of the historian Steven Watts, “content with household management and providing support for her husband”.Their marriage produced two daughters, Diane (born December 1933) and Sharon (adopted in December 1936, born six weeks previously). Within the family, neither Disney nor his wife hid the fact Sharon had been adopted, although they became annoyed if people outside the family raised the point. The Disneys were careful to keep their daughters out of the public eye as much as possible, particularly in the light of the Lindbergh kidnapping; Disney took steps to ensure his daughters were not photographed by the press
By 1926 Winkler’s role in the distribution of the Alice series had been handed over to her husband, the film producer Charles Mintz, although the relationship between him and Disney was sometimes strained. The series ran until July 1927, by which time Disney had begun to tire of it and wanted to move away from the mixed format to all animation. After Mintz requested new material to distribute through Universal Pictures, Disney and Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character Disney wanted to be “peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim.
Creation of Mickey Mouse to the first Academy Awards: 1928–1933
To replace Oswald, Disney and Iwerks developed Mickey Mouse, possibly inspired by a pet mouse that Disney had adopted while working in his Laugh-O-Gram studio, although the origins of the character are unclear. Disney’s original choice of name was Mortimer Mouse, but Lillian thought it too pompous and suggested Mickey instead. Iwerks revised Disney’s provisional sketches to make the character easier to animate. Disney, who had begun to distance himself from the animation process provided Mickey’s voice until 1947.
Mickey Mouse first appeared in May 1928 as a single test screening of the short Plane Crazy, but it, and the second feature, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, failed to find a distributor. Following the 1927 sensation The Jazz Singer, Disney used synchronized sound on the third short, Steamboat Willie, to create the first post-produced sound cartoon. After the animation was complete, Disney signed a contract with the former executive of Universal Pictures, Pat Powers, to use the “Powers Cinephone” recording system; Cinephone became the new distributor for Disney’s early sound cartoons, which soon became popular.
To improve the quality of the music, Disney hired the professional composer and arranger Carl Stalling, on whose suggestion the Silly Symphony series was developed, providing stories through the use of music; the first in the series, The Skeleton Dance (1929), was drawn and animated entirely by Iwerks. Also hired at this time were several local artists, some of whom stayed with the company as core animators; the group later became known as the Nine Old Men. to trim costs from the process by urging Iwerks to abandon the practice of animating every separate cel in favor of the more efficient technique of drawing key poses and letting lower-paid assistants sketch the in-between poses. Disney asked Powers for an increase in payments for the cartoons. Powers refused and signed Iwerks to work for him; Stalling resigned shortly afterward, thinking that without Iwerks, the Disney Studio would close. Disney had a nervous breakdown in October 1931—which he blamed on the machinations of Powers and his own overwork—so he and Lillian took an extended holiday to Cuba and a cruise to Panama to recover
With the loss of Powers as distributor, Disney studios signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to distribute the Mickey Mouse cartoons, which became increasingly popular, including internationally. Disney, always keen to embrace new technology, filmed Flowers and Trees (1932) in full-color three-strip Technicolor he was also able to negotiate a deal giving him the sole right to use the three-strip process until August 31, 1935. All subsequent Silly Symphony cartoons were in color. Flowers and Trees was popular with audiences and won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) at the 1932 ceremony. Disney had been nominated for another film in that category, Mickey’s Orphans, and received an Honorary Award “for the creation of Mickey Mouse”.
In 1933, Disney produced The Three Little Pigs, a film described by the media historian Adrian Danks as “the most successful short animation of all time”.The film won Disney another Academy Award in the Short Subject (Cartoon) category. The film’s success led to a further increase in the studio’s staff, which numbered nearly 200 by the end of the year. Disney realized the importance of telling emotionally gripping stories that would interest the audience, and he invested in a “story department” separate from the animators, with storyboard artists who would detail the plots of Disney’s films.
Golden age of animation: 1934–1941
By 1934, Disney had become dissatisfied with producing formulaic cartoon shorts and believed a feature-length cartoon would be more profitable. The studio began the four-year production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the fairy tale. When news leaked out about the project, many in the film industry predicted it would bankrupt the company; industry insiders nicknamed it “Disney’s Folly”.The film, which was the first animated feature made in full color and sound cost $1.5 million to produce—three times over budget. To ensure the animation was as realistic as possible, Disney sent his animators on courses at the Chouinard Art Institute; he brought animals into the studio and hired actors so that the animators could study realistic movement. To portray the changing perspective of the background as a camera moved through a scene, Disney’s animators developed a multiplane camera that allowed drawings on pieces of glass to be set at various distances from the camera, creating an illusion of depth. The glass could be moved to create the impression of a camera passing through the scene. The first work created on the camera—a Silly Symphony called The Old Mill (1937)—won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film because of its impressive visual power. Although Snow White had been largely finished by the time the multiplane camera had been completed, Disney ordered some scenes to be re-drawn to use the new effect
Snow White premiered in December 1937 to high praise from critics and audiences. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and by May 1939 its total gross of $6.5 million made it the most successful sound film made to that date. Disney won another Honorary Academy Award, which consisted of one full-sized and seven miniature Oscar statuettes. The success of Snow White heralded one of the most productive eras for the studio; the Walt Disney Family Museum calls the following years “the ‘Golden Age of Animation’ ”.With work on Snow White finished, the studio began producing Pinocchio in early 1938 and Fantasia in November of the same year. Both films were released in 1940, and neither performed well at the box office—partly because revenues from Europe had dropped following the start of World War II in 1939. The studio made a loss on both pictures and was deeply in debt by the end of February 1941.
In response to the financial crisis, Disney and his brother Roy started the company’s first public stock offering in 1940 and implemented heavy salary cuts. The latter measure, and Disney’s sometimes high-handed and insensitive manner of dealing with staff led to a 1941 animators’ strike which lasted five weeks. While a federal mediator from the National Labor Relations Board negotiated with the two sides, Disney accepted an offer from the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to make a goodwill trip to South America, ensuring he was absent during a resolution he knew would be unfavorable to the studio. As a result of the strike—and the financial state of the company—several animators left the studio, and Disney’s relationship with other members of staff was permanently strained as a result. The strike temporarily interrupted the studio’s next production, Dumbo (1941), which Disney produced in a simple and inexpensive manner; the film received a positive reaction from audiences and critics alike.
Shortly after the release of Dumbo in October 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. and they made military moves. The military films generated only enough revenue to cover costs, and the feature film Bambi—which had been in production since 1937—underperformed on its release in April 1942 and lost $200,000 at the box office. The company had debts of $4 million with the Bank of America in 1944.
Theme parks, television, and other interests
In early 1950, Disney produced Cinderella, his studio’s first animated feature in eight years. It was popular with critics and theater audiences. Costing $2.2 million to produce, it earned nearly $8 million in its first year. Disney was less involved than he had been with previous pictures because of his involvement in his first entirely live-action feature, Treasure Island (1950), which was shot in Britain, as was The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952). Other all-live-action features followed, many of which had patriotic them. He continued to produce full-length animated features too, including Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). From the early to mid-1950s, Disney began to devote less attention to the animation department, entrusting most of its operations to his key animators, the Nine Old Men, although he was always present at story meetings. Instead, he started concentrating on other ventures
For several years Disney had been considering building a theme park. In March 1952 he received zoning permission to build a theme park in Burbank, near the Disney studios. This site proved too small, and a larger plot in Anaheim, 35 miles (56 km) south of the studio, was purchased. To distance the project from the studio—which might attract the criticism of shareholders—Disney formed WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) and used his own money to fund a group of designers and animators to work on the plans; those involved became known as “Imagineers”.After obtaining bank funding he invited other stockholders, In mid-1954, Disney sent his Imagineers to every amusement park in the U.S. to analyze what worked and what pitfalls or problems there were in the various locations and incorporated their findings into his design. Construction work started in July 1954, and Disneyland opened in July 1955; the opening ceremony was broadcast on ABC, which reached 70 million viewers. The park was designed as a series of themed lands, linked by the central Main Street, U.S.A.—a replica of the main street in his hometown of Marceline. The connected themed areas were Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
Although there were early minor problems with the park, it was a success, and after a month’s operation, Disneyland was receiving over 20,000 visitors a day; by the end of its first year, it attracted 3.6 million guests. The money from ABC was contingent on Disney television programs. The studio had been involved in a successful television special on Christmas Day 1950 about the making of Alice in Wonderland. Roy believed the program added millions to the box office takings. In a March 1951 letter to shareholders, he wrote that “television can be a most powerful selling aid for us, as well as a source of revenue. It will probably be on this premise that we enter television when we do”. In 1954, after the Disneyland funding had been agreed, ABC broadcast Walt Disney’s Disneyland, an anthology consisting of animated cartoons, live-action features and other material from the studio’s library. The show was successful in terms of ratings and profits, earning an audience share of over 50%.n April 1955, Newsweek called the series an “American institution”.
One of the segments of Disneyland consisted of the five-part miniseries Davy Crockett which, according to Gabler, “became an overnight sensation”.The show’s theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, became internationally popular, and ten million records were sold. As a result, Disney formed his own record production and distribution entity, Disneyland Records.
In 1964, Disney produced Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers; he had been trying to acquire the rights to the story since the 1940s. It became the most successful Disney film of the 1960s, although Travers disliked the film intensely and regretted having sold the rights. The same year he also became involved in plans to expand the California Institute of the Arts (colloquially called CalArts) and had an architect draw up blueprints for a new building.
With income from Disneyland accounting for an increasing proportion of the studio’s income, Disney continued to look for venues for other attractions. In late 1965, he announced plans to develop another theme park to be called “Disney World” (now Walt Disney World), a few miles southwest of Orlando, Florida. Disney World was to include the “Magic Kingdom”—a larger and more elaborate version of Disneyland—plus golf courses and resort hotels. The heart of Disney World was to be the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT), which he described as: an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise. During 1966, Disney cultivated businesses willing to sponsor EPCOTHe increased his involvement in the studio’s films, and was heavily involved in the story development of The Jungle Book, the live-action musical feature The Happiest Millionaire and the animated short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day
Illness, death, and aftermath
Disney had been a heavy smoker since World War I. He did not use cigarettes with filters and had smoked a pipe as a young man. In November 1966, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was treated with cobalt therapy. On November 30 he felt unwell and was taken to St. Joseph Hospital where, on December 15, ten days after his 65th birthday, he died of circulatory collapse caused by lung cancer. Disney’s remains were cremated two days later, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
The release of The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire in 1967 raised the total number of feature films that Disney had been involved in 81. When Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was released in 1968, it earned Disney an Academy Award in the Short Subject (Cartoon) category, awarded posthumously. After Disney’s death, his studios continued to produce live-action films prolifically but largely abandoned animation until the late 1980s, after which there was what The New York Times describes as the “Disney Renaissance” that began with The Little Mermaid (1989). Disney’s companies continue to produce the successful film, television and stage entertainment.
Disney’s plans for the futuristic city of EPCOT did not come to fruition. After Disney’s death, his brother Roy deferred his retirement to take full control of the Disney companies. He changed the focus of the project from a town to an attraction. At the inauguration in 1971, Roy dedicated Walt Disney World to his brother. Walt Disney World expanded with the opening of Epcot Center in 1982; Walt Disney’s vision of a functional city was replaced by a park more akin to a permanent world’s fair. In 2009, the Walt Disney Family Museum, designed by Disney’s daughter Diane and her son Walter E. D. Miller, opened in the Presidio of San Francisco. Thousands of artifacts from Disney’s life and career are on display, including numerous awards that he received. In 2014, the Disney theme parks around the world hosted approximately 134 million visitors.
Disney has been portrayed numerous times in fictional works. H. G. Wells references Disney in his 1938 novel The Holy Terror, in which World Dictator Rud fears that Donald Duck is meant to lampoon the dictator. Disney was portrayed by Len Cariou in the 1995 made-for-TV film A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story, and by Tom Hanks in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks. In 2001, the German author Peter Stephan Jungk published Der König von Amerika (trans: The King of America), a fictional work of Disney’s later years that re-imagines him as a power-hungry racist. The composer Philip Glass later adapted the book into the opera The Perfect American (2013)
Disney received 59 Academy Award nominations, including 22 awards. He also received four Emmy Award nominations, winning once, for Best Producer for the Disneyland television series. In February 1960, Disney was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame with two stars, one for motion pictures and the other for his television work; Mickey Mouse was given his own star for motion pictures in 1978. Disney was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1986, the California Hall of Fame in December 2006, and was the inaugural recipient of a star on the Anaheim walk of stars in 2014. The Walt Disney Family Museum records that he “along with members of his staff, received more than 950 honors and citations from throughout the world”
Several commentators have described Disney as a cultural icon. On Disney’s death, journalism professor Ralph S. Izard comments that the values in Disney’s films are those “considered valuable in American Christian society”, which includes “individualism, decency, … love for our fellow man, fair play and toleration”.Disney’s obituary in The Times calls the films “wholesome, warm-hearted and entertaining … of incomparable artistry and of touching beauty”.Journalist Bosley Crowther argues that Disney’s “achievement as a creator of entertainment for almost an unlimited public and as a highly ingenious merchandiser of his wares can rightly be compared to the most successful industrialists in history.” Correspondent Alistair Cooke calls Disney a “folk-hero … the Pied Piper of Hollywood”, while Gabler considers Disney “reshaped the culture and the American consciousness”. In the American Dictionary of National Biography, Langer writes:
Disney remains the central figure in the history of animation. Through technological innovations and alliances with governments and corporations, he transformed a minor studio in a marginal form of communication into a multinational leisure industry giant. Despite his critics, his vision of a modern, corporate utopia as an extension of traditional American values has possibly gained greater currency in the years after his death.
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