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Walt Disney — American Moguls

Walt Disney, American Moguls, 7”x7”, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark Wyatt McGinnis

American Moguls

Walt Disney


He was a legend in his time.

Walt was born to Elias and Flora and had four siblings. Elias was a carpenter in Chicago. A fundamentalist Christian he moved the family to the Kansas City, Missouri area, claiming Chicago to be a den of immorality, although he had a liking for whiskey and gambling. In their new location, Elias took up farming with his four boys as his labor force and became an ardent socialist supporter. He was a brutal father, beating his sons with a thick leather strap almost daily as the youngest, Walt, suffered the most. His older brother, Roy, would comfort his sobbing through the night. The two older brothers left the farm, with Elias pledging he would never speak their names again. His father lost the farm and bought a 1000-person newspaper delivery route in Kansas City. Roy and Walt rose very early to deliver papers and then again for the evening edition seven days a week.

In school, Walt was an average student but loved reading and drawing. He would make up little dramas with his friends, and Charlie Chaplin enthralled him. The paper route was not profitable, and Elias moved the family back to Chicago. Walt became a high school newspaper cartoonist and took some night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. When WWI broke out, Walt ran away from home and became a driver for officers in France. Upon returning from the war, Elias wanted Walt to join his business. Walt turned him down and went to Kanas City to become a commercial artist.

He had been submitting drawings to magazines for years and had always been rejected, and again he was rejected by commercial art agencies. The truth was that Walt could not draw well enough. He started his own little business, Laugh-O-Grams Company, with his friend Ub Iwerks; they promised to be lifelong partners. The company made short, humorous films that included primitive animation, photos, news items, and jokes.The shorts played in movie theaters before the features. Iwerks and Disney Co. had some modest ups but mostly downs and went bankrupt in 1923. Walt sold his secondhand movie camera and bought a ticket to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a director.

Walt was turned away by every major studio. He was staying in a one-room apartment with his brother Roy, who was recovering from tuberculosis. At 23, Walt married an Idaho girl, Lillian, who would be his wife for 42 years. In 1926 Walt set up Walt Disney Studio, producing cartoons for theaters. Roy was in charge of financial matters. Felix the Cat had been having great success, and Walt, wanting to imitate, came up with the idea for the character Oscar the Rabbit. He was a success in theaters, but through legal complications, Walt lost the rights to Oscar. Walt remembered a fellow occupant of his old studio in Kansas City, a mouse. He did some drawings, and then Ub Iwerks, who was working for Walt as an animator, reworked the character to a professional level. Lillian suggested the name, Mikey. The first 10-minute film took 1400 drawings. Ub made hundreds of drawings a day. All the distributors rejected the cartoon. Walt shelved it. The second Mickey Mouse cartoon borrowed heavily from a Buster Keaton film and was called “Steamboat Willie.” The “talkies” were beginning, and Walt added sound using his voice for Mickey. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy. The cartoon was a huge success, and Walt had his first hit at 26.

Walt became Hollywood’s wonder boy, and interviews poured in, and Walt didn’t once mention Ub Iwerks’ huge contribution. It was Walt’s baby. It was the roaring 20s, and Walt roared, having his studio produce 31 Mickey Mouse cartoons in the next 18 months. Their popularity soared. Ub was frustrated by his lack of recognition and left Disney to start his own studio; Walt felt utterly betrayed. By 1930 Walt’s manic working drove him to a nervous breakdown. Lillian took him on a long trip which is what he needed. He came back rested and full of ideas for new cartoons. Walt wanted to make color cartoons. Roy said it was too expensive. Walt did it anyway. The first one won an Oscar. Then the company began merchandising Mickey, cartoon strips, books, toys, and Mickey Mouse Fan clubs that had a million members the first year. He was “Uncle Walt” to countless children.

Walt was an incredible director of films and a precise editor, and his staff, now in the hundreds, made his ideas into excellent films. But it was always Walt the genius animator, no credit elsewhere. During the Great Depression, Walt forced a 15% wage reduction on his workers. He hired “apprentice” animators at $10-$15 weekly. Many workers resented Walt, but in his egotism, he imagined they loved him and should be and were grateful to be working for him. Many of his workers called his style “Waltotalitarianism.” Walt projected a squeaky clean all-American image and expected the same of all who worked for him. But Disney smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and drank whiskey to excess. Later in life, one of his favorite breakfasts was fresh donuts dunked in Scotch.

Awards and honorary dinners abounded for him, but Lillian attended few; she was a private person and did not need or want attention from others. In 1933 she gave birth to a daughter, Dianne Marie. To commemorate Dianne’s birth, Walt declared that on the first day of his films, orphans everywhere were to be admitted free.

In 1935, Disney began work on his first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Roy worried it would be too expensive for the studio. Walt hired hundreds more animators and charged ahead again. He supervised every step of the production. His creative team was required to watch a Charlie Chaplin film every day. The teams worked three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. The budget increased to $500,000. Some people in Hollywood began calling it “Walt’s Folly.” Disney was near another nervous breakdown; Roy talked him into another vacation. It worked. In 1937 Snow White premiered. Both high and low cultures hailed it as a masterpiece. Audiences were awed and delighted, and it evokes the same feelings 86 years later. The film grossed $8 million, with an average ticket cost of 25 cents. It was shown in 45 countries. Walt began building a $4.5 million studio complex of 20 buildings and started three new feature films.

Lillian threatened a divorce if they did not have a second child. Due to Walt’s low sperm count, they had to adopt. The fact that Sharon Mae was adopted was kept secret.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal supported the establishment of unions, and Hollywood was no exception. Disney would not permit them at his studio as he said they already had “Jesus Christ Communism.” Ub Iwerks’ studio failed, and Disney agreed to hire the prodigal son, but they were no longer friends. Ub stayed for 30 years. J. Edgar Hoover, who was looking for communists in Hollywood, recruited Disney as an FBI informant, which lasted 25 years; he eventually attained the rank of “Special Agent in Charge.” Walt believed that FDR was a communist dupe and that communists controlled the union movement. A 1941 strike at Disney studio drove Walt to the brink of another breakdown — another trip remedied the crisis. While Walt was gone, Roy yielded to the strikers and recognized the Cartoonist’s Guild.

In 1945, Walt resigned as president of Walt Disney Productions and retreated to the home he had built for Lillian. There he had built a 1/8-scale railroad that went around the house and grounds. He could sit on the engine and spent much of his time riding it. One day the train jumped the track and crashed through the side of the house. Lillian was concerned about his combining of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and alcohol.

In 1947, Walt was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, DC. He gave committee names of Hollywood people he believed to be communists and told them the “reds” threatened the film industry. His testimony and others led to the blacklist and the rejection of screenwriters, directors, and producers; even his beloved Charlie Chaplin was exiled.

When Walt told Roy of his idea of an amusement park called Disneyland, Roy took it as a sure sign Walt was going insane; Walt surged on. He had a secret team design the park in their private building. The construction of the park was plagued with problems and worker strikes. In 1955 the park was opened prematurely, and a series of disasters unfolded during the day. Walt had invited 15,000 people — 33,000 showed up. Despite this, the park received rave reviews, and a million people visited in the first seven weeks.

When Elias and Flora, Walt’s parents, were in the eighties, Walt had a cottage built for them north of Burbank and hired a housekeeper. Elias would show up at Walt’s studio almost daily, wearing overalls and carrying a hammer. His son put him to work in the set shop.

Disney’s films had great successes over the decades, and a few not so great, but awards and accolades poured in. He increased his fame in television by producing Walt Disney Presents, the top-rated show in prime time, and the Mickey Mouse Club, a national phenomenon. By 1954 about a billion people had paid to see one of his films. The merchandising of products related to his films was an empire in itself. At the end of his life, his personal wealth was $35 million, about $3 billion today.

Long a dream, Disney began making the film Mary Poppins in 1961. He threw himself into making the film as he had his first films, guiding and directing every aspect. It debuted in 1964 with a spectacular reception. It grossed $45 million and won five Oscars. Marc Eliot, in his comprehensive biography, “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince,” said, “Mary Poppins is Disney’s greatest depiction of the eternal triumph of hope over cynicism, of youth over old age, of life over death. It is his grand monument to immortality.” Walt himself considered it his greatest achievement.

Walt bought 27,000 acres of swampland outside Orlando, Florida in 1964. It was to be home to his second grand amusement park, Walt Disney World. The designing began for the most fabulous amusement park in the world.

In 1966, Walt’s health began a serious decline; severe back and neck pain, kidney failure, and memory loss. He washed down painkillers with shots of whiskey. He was admitted to the hospital in November, and one lung was removed. It contained tumors the size of walnuts, and cancer had spread to his lymph glands. Walt Disney, the world’s uncle, died on December 14, 1966, at 65. On Walt’s deathbed, Roy told him he would finish Walt Disney World on time. Roy did and died two months later.

Walt Disney created suffering for many people through his decades as an FBI informant and his participation in the Hollywood blacklist that ruined the careers of gifted people. His paternalist, condescending administrative style, added to underpaying his overworked staff, made a hostile workplace for many.

Walt Disney created joy and wonder for untold millions with his genius and dogged determination. His masterworks like Snow White and Mary Poppins are timeless and will bring happiness to people for the unforeseeable future.

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