Walt Disney: HOW HE DID IT

Part 1

 NOTE: Part 1 of this series originally appeared in The Great Lakes Cartoonicator.

Young Walt Disney had his first experiences with animation as an employee of the Kansas City Film and Ad Co., which made commercials for movie theaters. He is shown here at the rear left, wearing a visor and smoking a pipe. Next to him is Fred Harmon who later created the syndicated comic strip, "Red Ryder," for NEA Service, Inc. In the middle row seated in the second chair is Ub Iwerks whom Walt brought to Film Ad after their one-month old advertising studio, Iwerks-Disney, failed. Date of this photo: 1920.

© The Walt Disney Company

by Ed Black

It's well nigh impossible today to think of a time when the name Disney stood for nothing.

No Disneyland or Disney World; no Disney Channel, no Mickey Mouse, no animated shorts, no full-length features, no television programs. There was a time when Disney was just another name in the telephone directory, like Mitchell, Van Horn, Davis, Smith or Fenstermacher.

How did that change? What did a son of the Midwest do to turn the entertainment world on its ear? Who was this kid and how did he do what he did? Let's try to find out.

There were very few hints during his upbringing that Walter Elias Disney would turn out to be who he did turn out to be. Mozart was a piano prodigy who toured Europe as a youngster performing for royalty and who started composing symphonies at the age of eight. It could be assumed his career might have been in music. Henry Ford tinkered with the internal combustion engine in the 1890s while working at Detroit's electrical generating plant.

Perhaps he would wind up building horseless carriages with these engine things. But no one could guess what Walter Disney would do by observing him during his formative years. It was all there in his head, waiting to be unleashed.

It all began January 1, 1888, when Walt's parents, Flora Call and Elias Disney, were married. They headed to Florida to raise cattle and oranges, but that didn't work out; so, they bundled up their infant son, Herbert, born December 8, 1888, and headed for Chicago where Elias took classes in carpentry. He found he had a talent for that skill and also for building furniture. He built the family home on Tripp Ave. designed by Flora-and became a contractor building homes, churches and some of the exhibits at the Columbia World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The family kept growing. Raymond was born December 30, 1890 and Roy came along on June 24, 1893.

Elias had befriended a preacher, Dr. Walter Parr, whom he promised to name his next child after if it were a boy. It was a boy, born on December 5, 1901, and christened Walter Elias Disney. Rev. Parr's wife presented him with a son soon after; that boy was called Elias.

On December 6, 1903, a daughter, Ruth, was born and that completed the family.

The neighborhood around the Disney home began to grow rowdy. Herb was 17 and Ray was 15 and they could be easily influenced by the miscreants. Drunks would stagger past the house, hardly a place to raise a daughter, Elias thought. Two teenagers were arrested for shooting a conductor at a streetcar storage barn during a robbery. That was it for Elias. It was time to get out of Chicago.

Through his brother, Robert, he bought a 45-acre farm in Marceline, Missouri.



19 year-old Walt Disney at Kansas City Film Ad in 1921 where he became fascinated by animation. The company made commercials for movie theaters. Walt borrowed a camera from the company owner, Vernon Cauger, and experimented at night in a set-up he built in his brother Herb's garage.

© The Walt Disney Company

Elias by nature was a hard taskmaster. He worked Herb, Ray and Roy from dawn to dusk in the manual labor that farming was back then. In 1906, Walter was too young for the rigors of farm life, so he enjoyed the animals, wading in the pond and Iying in the hay. He started to show a penchant for drawing. His aunt would bring him tablets and crayons when she visited. On one occasion he and his sister painted animals on the side of the frame home using sticks and tar. Elias was livid, but left the crude sketches where they were. One day the local physician, Doc Sherwood, asked Walt to sketch his horse, Rupert. For his efforts, the doctor paid Walt a shiny new quarter (one can only wonder if that sketch had survived to this day what its worth would be).

In the summer of 1911, they moved to Kansas City, Missouri where Elias bought a 700-customer newspaper route. Walt's halcyon days were over. It was his turn to come under the aegis of his father. He and Roy had to arise at 3:30 am to deliver the Kansas City Star, in all kinds of weather and before school when it was in session; after school they had to deliver the Kansas City Times. Walt never did forget his time in Marceline or life on the farm. Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland and Disney World? A cleaned-up version of downtown Marceline.

Walt and Ruth attended Benson Grammar School where Walt became friends with Walt Pfeiffer. In fact he spent more time at the Pfeiffer household than his own because the father was a jolly, friendly, tolerant man. He would take young Disney along when the family attended the movie and vaudeville theater. Walt liked Charlie Chaplin comedies and laughed at the vaudeville acts. Elias considered such diversions a waste of time; work was important, so Walt never told Elias of these ventures. He and young Pfeiffer would imitate the vaudeville acts around the parlor piano and Mr. Pfeiffer would laugh at their antics.

At Benson, the two Walts would perform the acts during assemblies. In fifth grade he used crepe paper to dress up as Abraham Lincoln on the late president's birthday and recited the Gettysburg Address before the class. The principal, J.D. Cottingham, was so impressed he took young Disney to each class an event which took place each year. The nerve endings in Walt Disney's brain began to tingle; he wasn't afraid to get up before a group and perform.


Walt Disney and his younger sister (by two years) Ruth, attended Benson School here, a few blocks from their home. It was here that Walt dressed as Abraham Lincoln one February 12th and recited the Gettysburg Address for his classmates. His performance so impressed the principal, James Cottingham, that it became an annual event until Walt graduated in 1917.

Photo: Ed Black

In 1912, Roy, who was 19, ran away. Elias hadn't been paying his sons, saying room and board was suffcient reward for delivering his papers.

By 1914, Elias had misgivings about his newspaper route. He could easily lord over Walt, but had no such control over other boys he had hired and customers would complain repeatedly about not getting their newspapers. He had a chance to invest in a jelly factory in Chicago. He contributed $16,000 toward the venture (despite his failures, Elias always seemed to come up with the needed wherewithal for the next venture!).

Walt stayed behind in Kansas City until school in Chicago started. He and Roy lived with their brother, Herb, who by now was married with a daughter at their home on Beilfontaine Ave. Roy worked at a bank. That summer Walt worked as a "candy butcher" on the railroad selling, candy, fruit and soft drinks to the passengers. Herb worked for the post office.

In the fall of 1917, Walt joined his parents and sister in Chicago and began his freshman year at McKinley High School. He drew cartoons for the school paper and attended classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts three nights a week. He attended weekend art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and also took some correspondence courses in cartooning. Elias felt this was money well spent because it kept his son occupied (as if delivering papers morning and night seven days a week did not!), never dreaming it would result in a career.

More nerve endings in Walt's brain began to tingle. His interest in cartooning began to intensify. At the Academy working commercial artists and cartoonists from the Chicago papers taught classes. Frank King, Billy De Beck, Frank Willard, and Carey Orr were some of the faculty.

The U.S. entered World War I in April, 1917 and patriotism was at a fever pitch. The war had been bloodying Europe since 1914, and the U.S. tried its best to stay out of it, but German warships and submarines continued to sink U.S. ships. Roy was in the Navy and Ray was in the Army. Walt spent the summer of 1917 washing jars in his dad's jelly factory for seven dollars a week; he also worked as a conductor at one of the elevated rail lines for 40¢ an hour and later at the post office for 12 to 14 hours a day picking up mail room mailboxes around Chicago in a horse-drawn wagon. Rather than return to school, Walt wanted to get into the military, but he was too young at age 16. When he found out about the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, he changed his year of birth from 1901 to 1900 and was accepted.

While training north of Chicago, Walt came down with the flu during the worldwide influenza pandemic. An ambulance driver became an unsung hero by taking Walt to his home. Had he gone to a hospital he surely would have died.

His mother nursed him back to health and she, too, and Ruth got the flu. Both recovered. Walt rejoined his unit. On November 11, 1918, the war ended; one week later Walt and other ambulance drivers were on their way overseas, still needed for mopping-up operations. Walt saw first hand what war did to people and their areas. He also, during down time, drew gag cartoons and submitted them to the stateside humor magazines, but they were rejected.

A year later, his unit left France and he was mustered out. His father suggested he work at the jelly factory, but Walt wasn't interested. He was a man now. and didn't need any dictatorial orders from his father about his future. When he said he wanted to be an artist, Elias cringed. Back in Kansas City Roy was working in a bank. Walt took his samples to the Chicago newspapers. There were no openings. Roy suggested he try Kansas City. Walt and Roy lived at the Disney homestead now occupied by Herb, his wife and daughter. Again Walt was unsuccessful in his rounds of the Kansas City papers. Roy suggested he try at a small art shop he had heard needed help during the Christmas rush. Walt started at the Pessman-Rubin studio in October, 1919. Besides the two owners there was another commercial artist working there, a man a few months older than Walt named Ubbe Iwwerks. The meeting was auspicious as we shall see. Walt was fascinated by all the shortcuts involved in preparing ads for farm implement companies, techniques he had never learned in art school.


Walt Disney's first animation studio was Laugh-O-grams in Kansas City at 31st and Forest Ave. in this building. It was on the second floor behind the car at the right. It was a regular corporation registered with the state, established May 22, 1923 with $15,000 in investments from friends and other businessmen. The studio, however, was doomed to failure because of a bad business deal with Pictorial Films, but not before an educational film for the Kansas City schools, "Tommy Tucker's Tooth," and an unfinished cartoon with a live girl in a cartoon world called "Alice's Wonderland." That film resulted in October, 1923, in a contract with Margaret Winkler for a series called "Alice in Cartoonland." Walt was on his way although the road would be very rocky at first.

© The Walt Disney Company



After the Christmas rush, in January, 1920, Walt was laid off and soon after so was Iwwerks who changed the spelling of his name to Ub Iwerks.

Walt suggested they start their own commercial art studio, so Iwerks-Disney was born. But not without money. Walt wired his parents in Chicago to send him his $500 he saved in France. His father wouldn't hear of it, but his mother compromised by sending half -- $250 -- to Walt for drawing boards, an airbrush and other equipment. So, out of the dictatorial grip of his father, Walt was cutting his own career path.

What the two young men needed now were clients. Ub did the artwork while Walt drummed up business. Nerve endings began to awaken. Walt had an outgoing and persuasive personality and although new, he developed a client base of restaurants, theaters, print shops and stores mostly for a publication called The Restaurant News. Walt also produced cartoons for the ads when called for.

Then on January 29, 1920, an ad appeared in the Kansas City Star calling for an artist at the Kansas City Slide Co. which later became known as the Kansas City Film Ad Co. Walt applied on a whim and, to his surprise, was hired. He offered his services part time in order to keep Iwerks-Disney going, but the job was full-time or nothing. When Walt broke the news to Ub, Ub confidently said he'd continue on.

Being hired by Kansas City Film Ad was an auspicious occurance. It was there where Walt Disney was introduced to animation. He became thoroughly fascinated with it. The company prepared what today are TV commercials. The ads were run in theaters (there, of course, was no TV in 1920) between the features. The ads were done with cutouts much as "South Park" TV show is prepared today. Walt also did still ads in a cartoon style for which he became noted.

He took out books from the Kansas City Public Library on animation which was not difficult to do there were only two. He convinced the owner of the company, Vernon Cauger, to lend him a used camera (the Disney convincing nerve endings went to work again). He rigged it up in his brother Herb's garage and began experimenting with hand-drawn animation after work, many times well past midnight. Walt Disney may not have known it, but he found his niche. Ub Iwerks would come over and both would work and experiment with animation.

It wasn't too long before Ub gave Walt the bad news: their ad agency had failed and he was going to file for bankruptcy. Although he was a good artist, the diffident Iwerks did not have the convincing and out going personality Walt had to get and maintain clients.

Walt got Ub a job at Kansas City Film Ad where he, too, liked working in animation.


Walt Disney's bothood home on Bellefontaine Ave. in Kansas City where he lived from 1910 to 1917. His father, Elias, had moved the family from Marceline, MO after he bought a newspaper delivery route. Walt and his older brother, Roy, had to get up at 3:30 am seven days a week to deliver the Kansas City Times and in the evening deliver the Kansas City Star. The weather didn't matter.

Photo: Ed Black

Meanwhile, Elias's venture in the jelly factory failed and he, Flora and Ruth moved back to Kansas City into the Disney homestead with Walt, Roy and Herb and his family. Elias looked for work as a carpenter and just couldn't understand Walt's fascination with film cartoons, but he did charge him five dollars a month rent for use of the garage.

Walt came to the point where he wanted to do more than experiment. He animated a series of current problems around Kansas City such as chuck- holes plaguing drivers and police corruption. He took them to the manager of the Newman theater chain who ordered a reel a week. Walt quoted a price and later realized the price was what he paid for each foot of film; in other words he allowed no profit.

Walt soon gained a reputation around Kansas City. His boss, Cauger, was proud of what he was doing. Walt approached Cauger with the idea of producing animated cartoons for theaters, just as Max and Dave Fleischer, J.R. Bray, and Paul Terry were doing in New York, but Cauger turned down the suggestion. He was doing quite well producing animated and live-action advertising for theater chains all over the Midwest.

Walt decided to do the work on his own at his shop which he called Newman Laugh-O-grams. He advertised for students to learn animation. Three teenagers applied and Walt instructed them in what knowledge he had attained by trial and error.

In 1920, Roy had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a military hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico to recuperate. By now he was in a hospital in Los Angeles. So Walt had to start a business on his own without Roy's guidance.

In the spring of 1921 he quit his $60 a week job at Kansas City Film Ad and formed Laugh-O-grams, Inc. (minus the "Newman") on May 23, 1922. He gathered $15,000 by asking locals he had met through his work to invest between $100 to $250. He hired five more artists, a secretary and a salesman and moved into the second floor of an office building at 31st and Forest Streets in Kansas City. He started work on "Little Red Riding Hood" while the salesman went to New York to seek a distributor. He found Pictorial Films of Tennessee who liked the idea and sent a down payment of $100 with a promise of paying $11,000 for a series of fairy tales.


PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3