Two months ago, Disney was just a brand to me. A monolithic corporation that I knew and was familiar with but to me it was no different than any other Warner Brothers or Dreamworks. It was simply a company. If you’ve been following this project, you’ll know that I decided to start Vault Disney after a visit to Disney World, my first, in which I got engaged and fell in love with the Disney universe. Since then, I have come to know a man and his struggles and triumphs. I’ve studied him and learned about his roots and his dreams and now, eighteen films in, it is time to say goodbye to Walt Disney.
I’m not going to go deep into the history of this man’s life as there are so so so many ways to learn about him. I’ll simply go over some of the basics and what they mean to me. Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago. In 1906, the family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where Elias eventually purchased a paper route.
Growing up, he worked hard as his father, Elias Disney, put him and his brother Roy to work on the paper route. They’d go out every morning before school at 4:30 AM and then again at 4 PM to deliver papers, come rain or shine or snow. Often times, while wading through the snow, he might even pass out from exhaustion or fall asleep in class, then he’d wake up and keep going. During the winter, Elias asked they boys to put the papers inside the front screen doors of the houses, but customers would forget to look there and think that they did not recieve their paper. They’d call Elias and he’d send the boys back out into the snow without a second thought. The customer was never wrong and even if their paper was right in the door, the boys would deliver a second to make up for the confusion.
Walt found a love of drawing cartoon characters as he continued his education and became the cartoonist for his school paper. He attempted to join the army to aid in World War 2 but was only 16, so he got a job with red cross, driving an ambulance. This was a man who was determined to do whatever he set his mind to.
Walt wanted to get into animation, so rather than go to school or hire someone, he read. He went to the library and sat down and read books all about how animation was made and soon was making his own short cartoons. He hired a co-worker from the ad company he’d been working at, Fred Harman and before long they were started on the Laugh-o-grams series of short cartoons. The shorts were an instant success. The problem was that these kids had no way of managing money and soon the company went bankrupt. Walt moved to the place where he knew his dreams could come true: Hollywood.
Walt and his brother Roy decided to try again as they set up their own company called the Disney Brothers’ Studio, wherein they would start making new cartoons all based around Alice in Wonderland. He hired Lillian Bounds to ink the cells of the cartoons and by 1925, they were married.
Many people know the story of how Walt and animator Ubbe Iwerks created a little rabbit named Oswald and how the rights were basically taken from them due to Walt not being willing to budge on his amount of compensation. But despite these troubles, a new star was born. A star who would change everything for Disney. Walt often said that we should never forget that this all started with a mouse, and that mouse’s name was Mickey. Mickey starred in two shorts, Plane Crazy, which was silent, and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, also silent, before Disney finally put him in a cartoon with sound called Steamboat Willie. The short was an instant success and Walt was on his way to greatness.
From here, Walt and Iwerks would create even more shorts as part of the Silly Symphonies series, leading all the way up to 1937 when Disney would change the world by releasing the very first full-length animated feature and the film which started this little project of ours, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In Disney’s life, we see a man who went for what he wanted. We see a man who was driven, who didn’t know how to stop working. We see a man who pushed for greatness and had no problem squashing a project or putting it on the back burner until he could get what he wanted from it. Walt wasn’t afraid to take chances, because at the end of the day, he was an entertainer and one who demanded something new and different, something that would thrill audiences and give them something they’d never seen before. He wanted to dazzle and inspire and he was constantly trying to one-up his last project. He was an innovator, someone willing to try the newest technology. He wanted to be the first.
In 1955, he opened a park, dedicated to all the amazing creations under his studio’s belt, Disneyland, which he coined as the most magical place on Earth. Now, Disneyland and Disney World have expanded world wide and have grown to have enormous success. Walt Disney is literally a part of every single day we live and breathe, whether we like it or not.
People have criticized Walt for many things, as so many great men often are, and I’m not going to tell you they’re right or wrong, because I don’t have all the answers. I would like to speak to one critique though. Many people found Walt’s worlds and the entertainment he provided to be overly optimistic. To this I say, why not? The world is full of awful and sad and depressing things. What’s wrong with a little bit of happy? What’s wrong with a little bit of magic? Walt’s life was never perfect. He had a rough childhood and he faced bankruptcy and loss at many turns, but he took that pain and turned it into stories of redemption and success. He found ways to give the world the happy endings they so desperately desired.
Walt was a man who lived to tell stories and create memorable characters and put smiles on his audience’s faces. As a creator and a writer, this moves me in very strong ways. To see how hard he worked and pushed is inspiring to say the least. Just learning about his world and how he became the man we remember makes me stronger everyday. It literally feels as though I am ingesting fairy dust as I write these articles and the magic he created so many years ago seeps into my day to day life. I whistle “Spoon Full of Sugar” and I wish upon stars and I stop to take a picture every time a silhouette resembling Mickey Mouse ears catches my eye. I seem to have found this mystical Neverland that has been waiting for me all my life and not only am I entertained by it, I am driven by it. I want to know that every minute of my life was spent achieving something special, something more and Walt has given me the hope that a dream like this one, can come true.
In 1966, Walt was scheduled for a surgery to repair a neck injury he had acquired during his days of playing polo with friends in Hollywood. During the x-rays for the procedure, a tumor was found on his left lung, a side effect of his heavy smoking throughout the years, which he did his best to keep secret. His lung was removed shortly after. Not even a month after that surgery, Walt collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital where at 9:30 AM on December 15, 1966, only ten days after turning 65, Walt Disney passed away.
My mother was six years old. I was not even born yet. So many years ago and still he has affected my world in this way. That was Walt’s legacy. A man greater than the sum of his parts. A man who even though he is gone, he can still be felt all around us. His name is synonymous with happiness and magic. I can’t imagine a better way to be remembered.
We head now into a new future. A Disney without Disney. The future looks scary but I have faith that the next few movies will prove that Disney studios can be even greater. I read this great story from the Sherman brothers who talked about how the last time they saw him, he was giving notes on The Jungle Book and he looked at the group and said, “Well boys, keep up the good work,” and went into his office. Even to the end he was pushing his team to be great. I can only imagine what great things are yet to come, but in the meantime I will say that Walt will be missed. I’ve come to love reading about him and writing about him and my articles will start to have less and less of him in them and it’s a sad thing, but in a way, he’ll be in all of them, at least a little bit, just like he is in all of our lives, at least a little bit.
He got one thing wrong though. It didn’t start with a mouse. It started with a man, a great man, who had the courage to believe in magic.
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The Vault Disney project has three posts a week. Two full posts, one on Sunday and one on Wednesday, and fun tidbit video on Thursday.