Think of the best movies from your childhood. Now think of the happiest place on earth. Add in an interesting man who created a character that is the most recognized cartoon in the world, not to mention this man has a great mustache. Now you have the makings for another fun episode of Great Mustaches in History. Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Hermosa, Illinois. Walt and his brother Roy started Walt Disney Productions. Disney has become one of the biggest and best-known names in all of entertainment. Walt Disney changed the way animation was done and raised the bar for family entertainment. He created the most recognized cartoon character ever; Mickey Mouse. In addition to that Walt Disney earned 22 Academy Awards and changed the way families took vacations when he opened Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In 2013 the Walt Disney Company had an annual revenue of approximately $45 billion. Walt Disney’s influence will be felt for generations to come.
Walt Disney’s parents, Elias and Flora (Call) Disney
Walt Disney’s father was Elias Disney and his mother was Flora Call Disney. Walt Disney had three brothers and a sister. Most of his childhood was spent in Missouri. As a kid he drew and painted. In 1911, he moved to Kansas City. In Kansas City he spent most Saturdays taking art courses at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1917 Walt Disney and his family moved to Chicago and Walt spent his freshman year at McKinley High School in Chicago. He took drawing and photography classes. Also, he was the cartoonist for the school paper. At night, he took courses at the Chicago Art Institute. When Walt Disney was just 16, he dropped out of school to join the army because he wanted to help win World War I for America. They would not let him join the army because he was too young. But he was not too young to join the Red Cross. He went to to France for a year to drive an ambulance but it was after the war ended in 1918.
A collectable sculpture released by Disney featuring Walt Disney holding a monochrome Oswald in his hand
A very young Walt Disney returned from France in 1919. He moved back to Kansas City and became a newspaper artist. In Kansas City, Walt Disney met cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks. Walt Disney worked at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made commercials based on cutout animation. Around this time, Walt Disney began experimenting with a camera, doing hand-drawn cel animation. He decided to open his own animation business. He recruited Fred Harman as his first employee. Walt Disney and Fred Harman made a deal with a local Kansas City theater to show their cartoons. They called them Laugh-O-Grams. Everyone loved the cartoons. They were so popular that Walt Disney started his own cartoon studio. He called the new studio Laugh-O-Gram. Walt Disney hired several employees including his friend Ubbe Iwerks.
They did a series of seven-minute fairy tales that combined both live action and animation, which they called Alice in Cartoonland. Walt Disney was great at making movies but he was not so great at business. He kept having to borrow money to pay his employees and keep the studio open. By 1923 the dept got to be too much and Disney declared bankruptcy.
Walt Disney was not one to give up, so he and his brother, Roy, put the money they had left together and moved to Hollywood. Iwerks also relocated to California, and there the three began the Disney Brothers’ Studio.
They made a deal with New York distributor Margaret Winkler, to distribute their Alice in Cartoonland cartoons. They also invented a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They sold shorts at $1,500 each. That was a lot of money back then. In 1925, Walt Disney hired an ink-and-paint artist named Lillian Bound. Lillian and Walt fell in love and got married. But something bad happened. Margaret Winkler and her husband, Charles Mintz stole the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And as if that were not bad enough, they also hired away all of Walt Disney’s animators. The only one that stayed with Walt and Roy Disney was his old friend Ubbe Iwerks.
Walt and Roy Disney and Ubbe Iwerks did not have any time to lose. So they produced three cartoons starring a new character Walt had been developing. Can you guess the name of that new character? It was Mickey Mouse. The first two shorts starring Mickey Mouse were called Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho. They were both silent films but no one would distribute them. But when movies could have sound they made a short called Steamboat Willie. Walt Disney did the voice of Mickey Mouse. It became an instant sensation.
In 1929, Disney created Silly Symphonies, which featured Mickey Mouse’s newly created friends, including Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. Walt Disney earned the first of many Oscars in 1932. All of this was during the Great Depression. In 1933, The Three Little Pigs and its title song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became something that people going through hard times could relate to.
Golden Age of Animation
Walt Disney introduces each of the Seven Dwarfs in a scene from the original 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs theatrical trailer
On December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated film, premiered in Los Angeles. Everyone thought Walt Disney was crazy to make that movie. They thought it cost too much, was too hard to make, and it would be another time that Walt Disney went bankrupt. Boy were they all wrong! The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and earned over $8 million on its initial release. In today’s dollars that is over $100,000,000. And don’t forget, this is in the middle of the Great Depression. The movie won a total of eight Oscars.
During the next five years, Walt Disney Studios completed another string of full-length animated films, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. In December 1939, Walt Disney Studios moved to a new location in Burbank, California. Things were looking great but in 1941 the Disney animators went on strike. Many of them resigned, and it would take many years before the company fully recovered. Also, Walt Disney never had as good of a relationship with his animators as before ever again.
Cinderella was released in 1950, followed by Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), a live-action film called Treasure Island (1950), Lady in the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). In all, more than 100 features were produced by his studio. Walt Disney was one of the pioneers of early television. He had shows like Zorro and Davy Crockett. He also created The Mickey Mouse Club. It starred teenagers known as the Mouseketeers. All of these were super popular with young baby boomers. Walt Disney’s last major success that he produced himself was Mary Poppins. It was mostly live actors but it mixed in some animation.
Walt Disney (center) showing Orange County officials plans for Disneyland’s layout, December 1954.
Walt Disney created a them park that was a place for families to have fun, take rides, and even meet their favorite Disney Characters. It cost $17 million, but the Disneyland theme park opened in 1955. In a very short time, the park made all the money back and lots, lots more. It even started attracting tourists from around the world. Within a few years of the opening, Disney began plans for a new theme park and something he called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow in Florida.
Illness and Death
Walt Disney was a chain smoker his entire adult life, although he made sure he was not seen smoking around children. In 1966, Walt Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65. Disney was cremated, and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. After his brother’s death, Roy Disney finished the theme park in Florida. It opened in 1971 and is called Walt Disney World.
Interesting Facts About Walt Disney
Walt Disney wanted to call Mickey Mouse “Mortimer” but luckily his wife talked him into naming him Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney received more Academy Awards and nominations than any other person in history.
No one knows what his last words were supposed to mean. Shortly before he died, Walt Disney scribbled the words “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. Even the actor Kurt Russell has no idea why he wrote that.
The famous “Walt Disney” signature was never actually drawn by Walt Disney himself.
After his death, Walt Disney was NOT cryogenically frozen and stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride. He was cremated and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California
Walt Disney has earned a place in history as one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived and he had a mustache to boot. So when you think of fun entertainment and a mustache, just remember Walt Disney.
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