Biography of Walt Disney, animation pioneer, iconic entertainment empresario, theme park builder, movie producer and chief Imagineer® of the future.
The Mouse is Irish! — Disney’s Genealogy
Arundel Disney was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1804. He later married a fetching (and fecund) Irish lass named Maria Swan, who would bear him 16 children. Their eldest child, a boy they named Kepple, was born in Dublin on November 2, 1832. Two years later, Arundel decided to seek the family fortune in America, and made the journey with his brother, Robert. They sailed from Liverpool, England and arrived in New York on October 3, 1834.
Canada caught Arundel’s eye, and he settled in Ontario and sent for his family. They joined him as he forged a living in the rugged northern country, trying everything from drilling for oil to manufacturing salt.
Kepple married Irish immigrant Mary Richardson on March 18, 1858 and began his own family. Their eldest son, Elias, was born February16, 1859. In 1878, Kepple set out for the California gold fields but was persuaded to buy 200 acres of railroad land near Ellis, Kansas, and settled his family there instead.
Elias married Flora Call on New Year’s Day, 1888. They moved to the small town of Chicago where sons Ray (1890) and Roy (1893) were born. The family attended the St. Paul Congregational Church where Elias became fast friends with the pastor, Walter Parr. When their wives became pregnant at about the same time, the two friends agreed that if either of the children were a boy, the father would name him after his friend. So it was that Walter Elias Disney entered this life on December 5, 1901.
The Disneys lived at 1249 Tripp Ave. in Chicago — definitely a working-class neighborhood. Although it would be another twenty years before Al Capone would headquarter in nearby Cicero, Elias and Flora were increasingly concerned about the effects of urban life on their five children. Shortly after two neighborhood boys were arrested for the murder of a policeman during an auto theft, Elias decided his family needed a more wholesome environment. They settled in Marceline, Missouri, and young Walt Disney’s formative years were full of the rural enchantments of farm life.
The family lived off the crops they grew, trading the surplus whenever they could. Unfortunately, Elias’ health turned for the worse and the economic pressure of raising five children finally got the better of him. He sold the family farm in 1910 and moved them all to Kansas City.
Young Walt was now exposed to the rigors of city life again. He worked a paper route for six years, rising at 3:30 A.M. daily to help supplement the family’s meager income.
A Natural Cartoonist Tickles Funny Bones
Walt Disney’s talent was already evident in his early teen years. Never a gifted artist in the classical sense, he had a talent for touching the mind, heart, and funny bone with his cartoons and caricatures. He cartooned incessantly and teamed with another animation legend, Ubbe Iwerks, to begin selling cartoon slides to local movie houses.
Walt Disney was not the first animator; the cartoon animation process, though crude and uninspired, had been around for a while. Walt created a small animation studio in his garage and began turning out short films that tickled his Kansas City neighbors when they went to the movies. For example: long before cell phones became a major irritant in movie theaters, people reading aloud the subtitles of silent films drove other patrons up the wall. Disney created cartoon shorts that showed vocal subtitle readers being struck on the head with a mallet, or dropped through a trapdoor. Who could resist laughing at that?
Walt married Lillian Bounds on July 13, 1925, creating a partnership that would last until death parted them. The coming years would sorely try Disney’s commitment to his vision, and Lillian was his rock through every trial.
The Serious Business of Cartooning
He began work on a concept combining live action with animation, using the Alice in Wonderland theme. The project taught him a dear lesson about how expensive animation could be. His little company folded before the concept was complete, and Walt Disney boarded a train for California with $40 in his pocket and a heart full of dreams. There, he teamed up with his brother, Roy, and raised investment capital from family and friends to resume the Alice in Wonderland project. They found a buyer who would give them $1800 per picture for the Alice films, a figure that severely pressed profit margins. When the first Alice series contract was complete, the conspiring buyer hired away all of Disney’s hand-trained animators except for Iwerks. A despondent Disney said to his wife, “Never again will I work for someone else.”
A Moment of Inspiration
The return journey to Kansas City was a very long train ride, but an eventful one. Disney used the time to dream up a new character, one “Mortimer Mouse”. Lillian objected to the name, and with the stroke of a creator’s pen, Mickey Mouse was born. Mickey began to gain some popularity, but the real breakthrough came when Disney released “Steamboat Willie”, the first animated cartoon to feature a soundtrack of music and character voices.
Breaking Into the Big TIme
The “Silly Symphonies” were Walt’s next big project, a stepping stone to his true grail: the animated feature film. No one had ever thought animation was a worthy medium for producing a feature film. Disney changed all that with the 1939 release of “Snow White”. It was a critical and financial success for Disney and began an unrivaled chain of animation classics.
Unfortunately, the profits from “Snow White” were consumed by the making of “Pinocchio”, “Fantasia”, and “Bambi”. By the end of WWII, Disney owed Bank of America over $4 million. The success of “Cinderella” and a re-release of “Bambi” allowed him to finally pare his bank debt. He enjoyed a good laugh with his brother, Roy, commenting, “Roy, remember when we couldn’t borrow a thousand dollars?” The Disney film juggernaut had finally gained momentum.
Making It Real–Theme Parks
Walt presided over the launch of the Happiest Place on Earth®, fabled Disneyland® on July 17, 1955. Unfortunately, he would not live to see the completion of Florida’s Walt Disney World®, passing away on December 15, 1966 in Los Angeles. (No, he is not cryogenically preserved.)
Walt Disney’s true genius was in the conception of characters and projects, and bringing the team together to make them happen. His friend, President Dwight Eisenhower, said at his passing, “His appeal and influence were universal, for he touched a common chord in all humanity. We shall not soon see his like again.”
®The Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, Imagineer, and Walt Disney World are all registered marks of the Walt Disney Company.