The Image - Part Two “The Man”

By David Johnson

 

 

 

 

So much has been written about Walt Disney. Yet paradoxically little attempt has been made to get at the genuine man behind the legend. Who exactly was this man who not only set the standard of cartoon animation but who would found a virtual empire with his name a worldwide household word? We all know the image of the benevolent visionary painted in sharp colors. In this second of two articles, Disney the man is explored (utilizing unpublished material along with lesser-known published accounts) in a manner that hopefully will bring this unique individual into the sharper focus of a much more complex reality.

Walt Disney was basically a mid-western country boy whose roots he would carry with him to the grave. Though his acquaintances later included Chaplin, Mary Pickford, H.G. Wells and the like, he rarely would feel comfortable among intellectuals, preferring instead the more modest company of Will Rogers, whose home-spun philosophy and humor was much closer to his heart. Certainly not a high-brow himself and suspicious of that particular scent even from a distance, he nevertheless was responsible more than anyone else for elevating the animated cartoon to a fine art. He was christened Walter Elias - Walter after the Congregational minister who baptized him, Elias from his father - shortly after his birth in Chicago on December 5, 1901, The youngest of four boys (preceded by Herbert, Raymond, and Roy - a sister, Ruth, would follow later), he would spend his first four years there, although his formative upbringing took place on a farm near the small town of Marceline, Missouri and later, in Kansas City . In all locales the Disney family was far from prosperous and the young Walt often spent many idle hours on the farm pursuing his favorite pastime: drawing. It is doubtful, however, if his obvious talent received much, if any, encouragement at home. Certainly not from his father.

Elias Disney, originally from Canada of Anglo-French descent, would enjoy the only respect he ever knew solely through his youngest son's eventual fame. He was, by all accounts, an uninteresting, humorless, narrow-minded, apparently religious man one would not want to meet at a party. At best, he was the mid-western Protestant work ethic personified who taught his family the virtues of hard work and honesty, something Walt would never outgrow. Unfortunately, his lack of imagination and foresight was matched by a remoteness that rarely, if ever, took in the feelings and needs of those around him. Inept at business, he would barely provide for a family from whom he expected more than a fair share of work. And, of course, he was a strong believer in corporeal punishment, all adding up to an environment with potentially powerful consequences for any sensitive boy. Not surprisingly, Walt became a somewhat remote figure himself who rarely indulged in any introspection which might bring deeper conflicts bubbling up from a place better left alone and undisturbed. In spite of a definite strain of sentimentality Walt would later prefer reticence at expressing deep emotion or indeed anything unpleasant, a pattern that must also find its source in this sterile yet most likely common mid-western family atmosphere of the period. It is also probably true that Walt suffered a keen sense of shame all his life for a father who seemed to fail so miserably in almost every way - for reasons of his own making.

As for his mother Flora Call, even less remains in printed accounts to provide little more than a sketch. Born in Ohio of mixed-German ancestry, she was briefly a schoolteacher before she swapped that job for the far less lucrative one of Mrs. Disney. Walt's very first memories center around his mother who "used to go out on a construction job and hammer and saw planks with the men" (Elias was then in the contracting business). Flora in all likelihood subordinated herself to her willful though small-minded and incompetent husband and probably suffered in silence through all of Elias' (mostly) failed endeavors. That underlying her shadowy presence was a figure who loved and cared for the welfare and future of her children there can be little doubt. There is even reason to believe that Walt was very close to his mother and that her conspicuous absence in the records is the result of the little-known though tragic circumstances of her death, from which Walt never fully recovered.

Fortunately there was Roy. Roy Disney, his next older brother by eight years and destined for the title of "his brother's keeper," was Walt's closest confidant and a man with a large heart. Though he left home when Walt was only ten, Roy's lasting imprint had already fostered an uncomplicated confidence that Walt was unlikely to find on his own. Walt was not shy, and certainly had no fears in dealing with people face to face. But moodiness was a trait that would give his future staff more than a few tense and uneasy moments while, at other times a wayward enthusiasm needed to be better grounded in reality (on this last point, however, Walt usually had his way). Roy would always be the great stabilizer whose interest in his younger brother, even when very young (unusual for one so much older), had indeed provided Walt with a vital cornerstone for his own development. That Walt's future empire could have been built without Roy's innate financial astuteness (he had no qualifications save some brief, prior accounting experiences) is impossible to say. It is safer to claim that Roy nurtured the very ingredients Walt needed to develop in order to bring his dreams to reality.

By his eighteenth birthday and just beginning a career in commercial art, Walt could look back on a life filled with the kind of experiences most youths of today would find difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. At ten, with Elias and family now in the urban vitality of Kansas City on a new job, Walt soon learned what it was like to be awakened at 3:30 each morning to help deliver the papers of his father's newly purchased route. That itself was bad enough but with three feet of snow on the ground, it was positively a nightmare the memories of which would descend upon an unwary and peaceful sleep with terrifying regularity the rest of his life.

As a student, Walt was slightly above average (according to Lillian, his future wife, he "hated school"), while art occupied most of his free time, in his case usually over before it had barely begun. He did manage to take as many art correspondence courses as he could afford (Elias was not above "borrowing" from his son, rather than the other way around) and, in a moment of rare indulgence, his father let him enroll in Saturday morning life drawing classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. These, as well as an occasional theatrical "stunt" he and his friend Walt Pheiffer (of eventual "Pogo" fame) revelled in from time to time, would later be recalled as sources of immense pleasure to a boy growing old probably much too soon.

Just as Walt was getting settled in to his home of five and a half years, his parents (i.e. Elias) decided it was time to move again, this time back to Chicago. Walt no doubt would have preferred to stay in Kansas City indefinitely but decided instead to remain only long enough to first finish out his sophomore year and then find a job for the summer before joining his family up north. The job turned out to be educational in more ways than one. Spent as a "news butcher" on the Santa Fe Railroad, it took him to sights unknown (in this case as far afield as Pueblo, Colorado) and provided some unintended excitement by an inadvertent side trip (his first and probably last) to a local brothel.

Such experiences could not help but further dampen Walt's appetite, probably meager at best, for learning within the confines of a boring school room. Sure enough, after returning to home town and parents that fall, he attended what would be his last (and junior) high school year. The Great War was on, Roy was in the Navy and Walt itching to join him. Unfortunately the cut off age was 18 and suddenly, before he knew it, Armistice made any dreams of war and conquering heroes a thing of the past. His mind still made up to somehow follow in Roy's footsteps, Walt heard that the Red Cross Ambulance Unit needed volunteers for duty overseas. As usual, his father objected but his resigning mother intervened, signed the necessary papers and then gently looked the other way as her youngest son altered his own birth year by one in order to pass the age requirement. It was 17.

When he returned stateside, Walt was determined to pursue a career in commercial art, something Elias had taken a dim view of all along. A final rupture between father and son soon found Walt heading back to Kansas City where at least Ray (another brother) and Edna (Roy's childhood sweetheart) would make life somewhat more tolerable (Roy himself had developed mild tuberculosis during the war and would spend the next three years recuperating in hosptial, first in Tuscon, Arizona and then in Sawtelle, California, near Los Angeles). Over the years Walt had grown more intuitive by experience and independent by choice and, while still a teenager by two years, seems not to have needed the kind of social contact most young adults his age find necessary for basic fulfillment. This would remain characteristic of one whose growing aloofness shaped a personality of remarkable resilience needing few friends and having less, in any case being probably too busy to notice anyway.

He soon found work at an advertising agency (Gray Advertising Company - for $50 a week) requiring skill at mechanicals, something his previous (and mostly fine) art training did not encompass. Within six weeks, Walt not only taught himself, becoming more than merely proficient but, as work became sparse (though begun only in Oct., 1919, by Nov., with the Xmas rush over, he was obliged to work in a post office), he typically decided to branch out on his own. So with the help of a few hundred dollars saved up from home (to buy equipment) and a newly-found fellow artist and future partner, Ubbe Iwwerks, Walt Disney, aged eighteen, began in business for himself.

Of all the early contacts Walt made on his return to Kansas City, Ub Iwwerks (or Iwerks as he is more commonly known) would undoubtedly have the greatest consequence on Walt's future. Because of his infectious enthusiasm and growing single-mindedness, Walt soon found himself surrounded with talent that later, when he moved to California and at a loss for help, would pack up their bags to join him. Iwerks, a feisty son of Dutch immigrants, became Walt's first business associate in a venture that was a continuation of the design and layout work they both had done at Gray's Ad Agency. His, and Walt's true calling, however, became evident a short time later when, in Feb., 1920 (and after $135 earned in their first month of free lancing), Walt decided to change gears and answered a job advertisement for the Kansas City Film Ad Company which made animated lantern slides. He was hired for $40 a week.

Walt's first experiences behind an animation board was not the usual cartoon drawings with lines but paper cut-outs, whose joints moved by dowels. Not that it would have mattered anyway. At the time, Walt's exposure to the animated cartoon, past or present, was severely limited, thanks in large part to his father's stern disapproval of "the movies," something no doubt Walt would have loved. He had, in fact, seen his very first feature-length movie only four years before. Now, making up for lost time with a vengeance at something definitely love at first sight, the works of Max Fleischer and Paul Terry became a staple diet devoured by Walt and Ub as well, who after only two months at trying (single-handed and unsuccessfully - Ub lacked Walt's drive or imagination) to keep their little advertising company afloat, decided to join Walt at the film company. Within a year, Walt's passion for his new-found medium left little room for thoughts of commercial art (or anything else, for that matter), and he was soon convincing Ub to join him in a brand new enterprise.

This proved to be no less than Walt's own animation company, a rather ambitious choice for someone with less than twelve months experience. Nevertheless, it soon became obvious that in Ub, Walt had found not only a professional soul-mate but a virtuoso draughtsman, something he was not, nor interested in becoming. Even at this early stage Walt's control and growing authority was beginning to assert itself. This was no problem for Iwerks who not only respected Walt's judgment but soon discovered one day the true extent of his partner's drive: Iwerks distinctly remembers glancing over at a furiously busy yet secretive Walt on one idle afternoon writing his name over and over again - creating a new signature to match an ever increasing ego and someone who obviously was "going to make it."

Walt was not only ambitious. He was likable and must have been an extremely hard sell. After moving to larger quarters (he had been working in a small garage), he began recruiting anyone he could find and with typical enthusiasm and optimism, persuaded his young flock to work for nothing (like himself), in return for a chance to learn a new profession in a newly-formed company. Within a short time, Walt somehow managed to find not only a New York distributor but backing for his new studio at the not inconsiderable sum of $15,000, quite a feat for a man only just past twenty. Called "Laugh-O-Gram Corporation" (after his earlier efforts made for the local Newman Theaters), Walt and crew produced updated versions of popular fairy tales like Puss-in-Boots and Grimm's Four Musicians of Bremen. For a time, a success of sorts seemed to be materializing as Walt's crew began to savor their first pay ckecks and Walt himself his new position of President of Laugh-O-Gram Corporation. Destiny had other plans.

Cartoon distribution, at the time, was governed by a principle known as "state's rights," in which prints were sent from a main distributor (usually in New York) to rental agencies that in turn sold them to theaters in specified areas. Not adverse to making an extra dollar or two (illegally, of course), anyone involved from the distributor on down might make duplicates of the prints they handled, keeping any such profits for themselves. And they did, routinely. Walt (who was still a minor, a fact not lost by the New York distributor), soon saw his profits, small to begin with, gradually disappear entirely. After only five films, his staff was dissolved, along with everyone's initial capital as well, a fact that seemed to bother the investors less than Walt, whose spartan life style (with its almost steady diet of canned beans) was rapidly elevating him to folk-hero status - checks from Roy, now in California, notwithstanding.

Searching for a gimmick that might still save his foundering company, in a last-ditch effort he decided to combine live action with animation as Max Fleischer was now doing so successfully in his Out of the Inkwell series, starring Koko the Clown. Only here, and characteristically, Walt would do something different: where Koko was a cartoon over a photographic live background, Walt's live "Alice" would preside over a cartoon landscape. Alice's Wonderland was Walt's last hope but with mounting debts and the only person he really loved hollering at him to forget it and join him out West, Walt soon found himself waiting on the platform at the Kansas CIty Station to board the Santa Fe California Limited. On him was $40 in cash, all that was left after having just sent the only print of his six-minute short to a New York agent where he thought, quite realistically, it would never be heard from again.

When Walt Disney first touched California soil in August of 1923 and inhaled that fabled aroma of orange blossoms mixed with fresh salt-sea air, any former dreams of cartoon glory had been quietly laid to rest. He was obviously six years too late, he told himself, and that was all there was to it. The cartoon studios were back East anyway but he was, after all, in Hollywood, and since he had some experience on both sides of the live-action camera, (he had done some live-action directing and a couple of acting spots mostly to help pay off some of his debts in Kansas City), perhaps as a director he might just make it.

That Walt was in many ways a pragmatist is clearly demonstrated by his first days in a place destined to be his final stop from wanderings, both real and symbolic. While still in Kansas City, Walt had filmed a smattering of newsreels under the aegis of Selznick News, then handled by Universal Studios (again to pay back his creditors). Now in Hollywood, he had business cards printed (a habit learned early on) which read WALT DISNEY - Universal News and Selznick News Representative, Kansas City, Missouri, and promptly proceeded to the Universal lot. There, with the aid of the business card telling the appropriate party just who and what he was, he was given that most coveted of possessions: a studio pass. He aimed to observe a director's job first hand and learn whatever else he could about motion pictures. Observe he did, from nearly dawn until evening, over the course of several visits, practically everything in sight.

Unfortunately, what he learned, among other things, was that no one wanted to hire a twenty-one year old novice director, a dilemma for someone with Walt's sensibilities. As any artist, Walt also had a need for self expression, which could never be satisfied by merely earning a living at just any job. Luckily, any artistic aimlessness had been tempered by the rigors of childhood discipline which, in this case, left no sober alternative than to return literally to the drawing board. Fame and success aside, Walt knew better than anyone else that real satisfaction lay more in doing what you loved.

Since Walt was never the type to "wait for the big break," he quickly settled down to work, this time in his Uncle Robert's garage at 4406 Kingswell Avenue, Hollywood. Uncle Robert, with whom he was living (at $5 a week for room and board - Roy was still in the Veteran's Hospital in nearby Sawtelle), was too close in kind to his father for Walt's comfort, a man who viewed both his nephew and his ambitions with suspicion. Nevertheless, with a rented Pathé camera, Walt proceeded to sketch out his first project, a proposed series of little animated cartoons illustrating popular jokes, when Fate intervened. A New York distributor, Margaret J. Winkler, had seen his one Alice effort and, recognizing above average promise, was prepared to offer $1,500 apiece for a series. Walt was ecstatic and made a bee-line to tell Roy. In what would become the rule rather than the exception, Walt's enthusiasm found its match in the reservations of his more cautious brother - without the benefit of a prophetic oracle quite rightly intimidated by a twelve picture deal with no money up front and a "company" made up of two individuals, barely. However, and typical of what was to come, Walt prevailed and with $500 borrowed from a begrudging Robert, the two young men began to set the world on fire.

What proved to be Walt's real beginning was hardly an auspicious debut. Doing all the animation himself, the earliest Alices were perhaps charming and inventive but also left much to be desired. Winkler had, in fact, grown rapidly disenchanted and planned to cancel the contract after number six, something Roy and Walt were not about to let happen. Persistent in holding her to the agreement, Walt wired Ub Iwerks back in Kansas City, himself pining away for just such a chance, and offered him $160 a month to join forces. The decision would prove providential: free from drawing, Walt's genius with story now became apparent, even to him. Needless to say, any of Margaret's remaining reservations were forthwith dispatched.

Ub Iwerks was the first of several transplanted "Kansas City Boys" who soon found themselves at the burgeoning Disney Bros. Studio, now a store-front space at 4649 Kingswell, just down the road from Uncle Robert's rented house. With "Alice" becoming a modest success, by mid-year of 1925 Walt's studio was rapidly outgrowing its quarters, something that would happen again and again (the store-front itself was a remedy for the original, cramped area at the rear of the adjacent office). So, with the heady confidence that only young married people can know (Roy had married his childhood sweetheart Edna Francis in spring of that year; Walt his new secretary, Lillian Bounds, in July), the brothers located a vacant lot in the Silver Lake district of Hollywood, which they purchased on July 6, with a $400 deposit. Almost immediately a small rectangular building began to take shape on the site whose address would in less than ten years be known as the mecca of world animation: 2719 Hyperion Avenue.

At that time, Walt's presence in the industry was hardly a force to be reckoned with. The New York studios of Paul Terry, Pat Sullivan, Bray, and especially Max Fleischer were producing cartoon shorts whose technical expertise were far superior to Disney's. Yet even then the Disney product was sowing the seeds of its greatness. Ub Iwerks began teaching animation to new recruits, favoring a type known as "pose-to-pose", which he personally helped to develop. This technique, in which the key poses of an action are drawn first and later filled out, was at variance with the studios back East, long known for "straight-ahead" or line-to-line" animation, with drawings done consecutively. Though both methods had their own strengths, Iwerks' newer technique, coupled with the older, traditional one, gave Disney animators a leading edge and provided them with a format that allowed greater flexibility. Also, Disney animators were trained to draw in a rough, free style, again at variance with other studios whose animators drew mostly tight, clean drawings, no doubt for economic reasons - something for which Walt would never compromise.

Even at that time Disney wanted the best workplace for his staff and, as revenues increased, saw that they got it. Improvements and innovations became almost a commonplace. One day, Iwerks remodelled an old projector transforming it into a "moviola". Now the staff could view their efforts in its rough, penciled form, criticizing and correcting poor animation before any further work be attempted. Known as "pencil tests", this was an extravagance few other studios would even consider. For Walt it soon became a way of life as each new animated scene was photographed and developed at night on the premises and viewed the next day as a negative print around the moviola. Such innovations were quietly laying the foundation for a new cartoon with a freshness that, coupled with Walt's fabled perfectionism already in evidence, would soon have an unexpecting public well within its grasp.

This first became apparent with Walt's new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Inaugurated in 1927, after Alice was respectfully laid to rest, "Oswald" was Walt's first all-cartoon series and became an instant success. So much so, in fact, that it precipitated a crisis that directly would lead to the most important turning point in Walt's life - one which, after the dust settled, would leave him a changed man forever, in more ways than one.


This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson’s permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.