December 5, 1901 – Walt Disney is Born
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
On December 5, 1901, Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Elias and Flora Call Disney. A few years after his birth, the Disney family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where young Walt developed a love for simple farm life and drawing. The family eventually moved to Kansas City in 1910, where Elias owned a newspaper distribution business, and Walt delivered papers for him before school. In 1917, the family moved back to Chicago, where Walt began high school and took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute. At age sixteen, Walt dropped out of high school to join the army during World War I, but he was rejected for being underage. He and a friend decided to join the Red Cross and were sent to France for a year. After the war, Walt came back to Kansas City and found work, thanks to his brother Roy, at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio, creating advertisements. It was there that he met Ub Iwerks, and the two soon started their own commercial art company.
In1920 Walt became fascinated with animation, and decided to start another studio, called Laugh-O-Gram. This venture failed as the studio’s debts mounted, and Walt decided to move to Hollywood, California, to start again. After convincing his close friend Iwerks to move all the way from Kansas City, Walt and his brother Roy set up the Disney Studios there in 1923. The studio had a hit with the Alice Comedies (live action girl in a cartoon world), and then had a success with their animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1928, Oswald was taken away from the Disney Studios, along with most of the studio’s animators, by their distributor, Charles Mintz. Needing a new character, Iwerks and Walt worked in secret, and on November 18, 1928, their new character, Mickey Mouse, debuted on the big screen, becoming an overnight success. The Silly Symphony short films quickly followed and led up to what Hollywood had dubbed “Walt’s Folly,” the film that changed the face of animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The studio thrived until 1941, when it was taken over by the U.S. armed forces for creating training and instruction videos. Many propaganda and training films were released during this period, with one film in particular, Victory Through Air Power, convincing President Roosevelt to use air power to help win the war. However, these films did not generate as much income as the studio needed, and it took several years after the end of the war for prosperity to return to the studio. It wasn’t until the release of the 1950 animated feature Cinderella that Walt had another hit on his hands.
In 1955, Walt opened his biggest project to date: Disneyland. It was designed as a place where adults and children alike could enjoy the attractions. The success of Disneyland gave the company the financial stability it had sought for many years. Walt also devoted time to other media, including live-action films and television, revolutionizing both with great triumph. He continued to work until his death of lung cancer on December 15, 1966. Thanks to the weekly televised anthology series Disney hosted, millions of children thought of him as “Uncle Walt,” and he was mourned the world over.
There is much to say about Walt Disney: he was an innovator, able to see the potential in people and new processes, starting with synchronized sound, to Technicolor, to the multi-plane camera, to television and theme parks. His many firsts helped revolutionize the entertainment industry. At virtually every step, people called his projects a “folly” or “unattainable,” but Walt would always surprise them. The company still thrives today, with millions of people visiting the theme parks, and millions of children still enjoying the films their parents and grandparents loved, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Mary Poppins. They say it all started with a mouse, but it really all started with a man: a dreamer and modernizer named Walt Disney.