ED BLACK'S CARTOON FLASHBACK
Walt Disney at age 19 when he was first introduced to animation at his job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. His first studio, Laugh-O-grams, began in Kansas City, only to go bankrupt. Walt went to California in 1923, when he said he was through with animation. The rest, as the cliche goes, was history.
© The Walt Disney Company
by Ed Black
Walt was really in business now. He put several cartoons into production such as "Puss in Boots," "The Four Musicians of Bremen," "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." It was a strange contract in that nothing would be paid until six months after delivery of the finished cartoons!
Meanwhile, Herb had been transferred by the Postal Service to Portland, Oregon and invited his parents to join him. Others moved into the Disney homestead and Walt had to take up quarters at a rooming house. He was alone, but full of enthusiasm about his work. Those nerve endings were really cooking now!
Walt was also the Kansas City stringer for several newsreel companies such as Pathé and Universal. For years, right through the early 1960s news would be presented in theaters after the main feature, albeit a week or two after it happened, and cameramen swarmed all over the world to get those news items. Walt would get assignments in the Kansas City area for one dollar per foot. Usually, the companies would request 100 feet of film shot of an event. When the assignment came in, photographing the cartoon cels would cease. Walt would dismantle the camera, grab a tripod and head for the shoot. Afterward, he'd rig up the camera and stop-motion shooting of the cartoon in production would resume.
Walt faithfully followed the contract and delivered each cartoon on time, but while he and his young animators were slaving away, Pictorial Films had filed for bankruptcy. All Laugh-O-grams received was the $100. Walt's staff was unpaid, including Ub Iwerks, whom he convinced to work for him. They left. Walt had to move into the Laugh-O-grams offices, sleep on the floor and eat beans out of a can. He did get credit from the owners of the Greek restaurant on the street floor of the building. One of them had seen Walt eating beans and felt sorry of the young man.
Before the bottom fell out of his studio, Walt got the idea of reversing Max Fleischer's successful "Out of the Inkwell" series. In those films, a character named Koko the Clown would come out of the inkwell, bother Max in his studio, get into other mischief and jump back into the inkwell at the end. (Koko was actually Max's brother Dave, filmed in a clown suit, then rotoscoped by the animators. Rotoscoping is a method of blowing up each frame of film to 8 by 10, then tracing the same action onto a sheet of drawing paper for the cartoon effect). Walt's idea was to place a human girl into a cartoon world, a film he called "Alice's Wonderland." For the girl he hired a five-year-old he had seen in the Warneke Bread ads in the paper. He started shooting it in April, 1923. The girl visits Walt in his studio. He shows her how he animates. She goes home and dreams of a visit to Cartoonland. Some of it was shot in the Davis home with Davis's mother putting her to bed for the evening. But since there was no income, the film could not be completed.
Just before that, in December, 1922, a Kansas City dentist called Walt with an idea of making a film on dental hygiene. Walt said he could not meet with Dr. Thomas McCrum because his only pair of shoes were in for repairs and he did not have the $1.50 to get them. Dr. McCrum got Walt's shoes and came to the Laugh-O-grams office. The local dental society was willing to pay $500 for a film to be shown in the Kansas City school system. Walt brought back some of his staff and the result was "Tommy Tucker's Tooth," half live-action, half animation. A print of the film was discovered about 12 years ago and is now in the Disney Archives at the Disney Studios in Burkbank, California.
Walt was completely out of money now and had no choice but to file bankruptcy. He got work photographing babies in their homes and saved enough for a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles. He missed Roy and was disgusted with animation. He had directorial experience so he would go to the Hollywood movie studios for work. In July, 1923, he bid Kansas City good-bye and headed west by train.
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This garage behind the Disney home in Kansas City was built by Walt's father, Elias, who was a carpenter by trade. It was here young Walt set up a makeshift animation studio -- complete with a camera he borrowed from his boss at Kansas City Ad Co., his day job. Fellow employee Ub Iwerks worked here with Walt at night after work. They taught themselves to animate and photograph their work onto film. Iwerks went on to become one of the top animators in Hollywood and later specialized in special effects at the Dosney Studio there.
Photo: Ed Black
The 21-year-old director wannabe arrived in Los Angeles with $40 and a cardboard suitcase. He stayed with his Uncle Robert at 4406 Kingswell Ave., just east of Vermont Ave. The one-story house is still there. Apparently the current owners are aware of its significance because the address is painted in huge numbers on the front steps. Young Walt's first stop was the Sawtelle Veterans' Hospital for a reunion with Roy who was still recuperating from TB. He felt he could get a director's job at a movie studio based on his director's work at Laugh-O-grams with the live-action "Song-O-Reels," "Tommy Tuckerts Tooth,"' and the "Alice's Wonderland"' live sequences. He gained access to the studios with his newsreel ID cards, but no studio was interested. Animation was the farthest thing from his mind. There were no animation studios in L.A. and the nerve center of animation in 1923 was New York with Fleischer, J.R. Bray, Paul Terry and Pat Sullivan all churning out animated cartoons.
As the weeks went by and Walt's nest egg dwindled, his uncle badgered him about his inability to secure a job.
He began to think of animation again. Fortunately his creditors in Kansas City allowed him to send the unfinished "Alice's Wonderland" reel to Margaret Winkler, a cartoon distributor in New York with an accompanying letter that read in part:
We have just discovered something new and clever in animated cartoons! The first subject of this distinctly different series is now in production It is a new idea and is bound to be a winner because it is a clever combination of live characters and cartoons using a cast of live child actors who carry on their action on cartoon scenes with cartoon characters
Then it was deja vu. Walt built a camera stand in his uncle's garage with the intention of making joke reels just as he did in Kansas City. He went to see Alexander Pantages at his theater on Hollywood Blvd. near Vine St. and the Disney 'persuasive nerve endings' went to work because he interested the theater chain owner in his idea. Pantages suggested the young man work up some ideas on film. "'If it's what you describe, I'd be very interested."
While he was building his garage studio, Walt sent a letter to Winkler stating he "was no longer connected with Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc. of Kansas City, Mo."
Walt made it sound as if he was starting a new company with animators ready to work:
"I am establishing a studio in Los Angeles I am taking with me a select number of my former staff and will in a short time be producing at regular intervals "
It's a good thing Walt had the foresight to update Winkler because before he had the chance to prepare the reel for Pantages, a telegram arrived from Margaret Winkler dated October 15, 1923:
Believe series can be put over will pay fifteen hundred each negative for first six
She also would pay $1,800 for each film in two more series after that. Walt was ecstatic. He grabbed a streetcar for West L.A. to tell Roy. It was late when he arrived and his excited whispering began to bother the other patients in the open bay quarters.
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It didn't take very many people to produce animated cartoons in 1925. Walt Disney, 23, poses outside of his small studio on Kingswell Ave. in Los Angeles with Ub Iwerks (left) and Ham Hamilton (center), both animators. Two girls worked in ink-and-paint, Mike Marcus operated the camera and Walt's older brother Roy handled the books and ran the camera for the live-action filming of the 5 year-old actress, Virginia Davis, who played Alice.
© The Walt Disney Company
Roy left the hospital the next day and was never bothered by TB again. On October 16, 1923, they signed the contract with Winkler for the Alice comedies. Thus began the animation and film company which exists today as The Walt Disney Company.
Winkler ordered the same girl in the demo reel play Alice. The Disney 'persuasion nerve endings' went to work once again and he talked Virginia Davis' parents into bringing her out to California to star in the series for $100 a month.
Walt needed money and borrowed $500 from his Uncle Robert. Roy kicked in $200 from his navy pension. Walt rented space behind a real estate office at $10 a month, hired two girls for inking and painting at $15 a week each, bought a camera for $200 and by Christmas "Alice's Day At Sea" was finished. Walt animated it himself and photography took place in his uncle's garage.
Walt moved to office space at 4649 Kingswell Ave., two blocks west of Uncle Robert's, at $42 a month, moved the camera there and hired his first animator, Ham Hamilton (he later went on to a long career at the Leon Schlesinger-Warner Bros. "Termite Terrace" where he had a young assistant named Chuck Jones). That building is still there and the current occupant who runs a copy shop advertises its significance. There is a round plaque in the window with a crudely drawn Mickey Mouse stating "Walt Disney's first studio." Inside, over the customer counter is a larger sign with Disney characters declaring likewise On the wall is a laminated newspaper page with an article detailing what was done at this Disney Bros. studio in 1923.
Walt had found his niche. The veteran who maybe wanted to be an artist on a newspaper now had his own small studio. His desire to direct was realized, too. He rented a lot near Hollywood Blvd. where he directed five-year-old Virginia Davis to react with creatures who weren't there; they would be added later via animation. That's another thing: When he made "Alice's Wonderland" in Kansas City, he somehow figured out how to marry live-action with animation on film.
Roy's job was to handle the books, and work the camera for both live-action and animation.
Meanwhile, Winkler married Charles Mintz back in New York and he virtually took over her business.
When Mintz took over, a flurry of letters between Mintz and Disney crossed the country for years, with Mintz incessantly criticizing the Alice cartoons -- even though they were praised in the trade papers!
Mintz criticized the quality of the Alice comedies, saying her live-action portions were too light on screen and too jerky. Later he would write that he made no money on the first six Alice shorts. He then sent Disney only $900 per film, one-half of the contracted amount, alleging a cash flow shortage with the rentals. "We need money," Walt responded in August, 1924 (The $900) puts us in a 'ell of a 'ole We will have to skimp and at this time it would not be best to do that."
The half-payments put a strain on the Disney payroll, too. He did the animation on the first two Alice shorts, Hamilton helped him on the third. In late 1923, Walt wrote to Ub Iwerks and invited him to come west and work for him. Ub was back at Kansas City Film Ad making $50 a week and was reluctant to change jobs as he had done a few years before to work at Laugh-O-grams where he lost money because of the bankruptcy. But Walt's 'power of persuasion' nerve endings kicked in and Ub decided to head west where he would animate at $40 a week. He arrived in February, 1924.
In December, 1924, Mintz offered a new contract for 18 Alice comedies at $1,800 each plus a percentage of theatrical rentals. Walt hired a third woman for ink-and-paint, Lillian Bounds from Lewiston, Idaho and also contacted two more of his former Laugh-O-grams employees to come west: Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. Harman brought his brother, Walker, along.
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Walt's right-hand man in the early days of his studio, Ub Iwerks (1901-1971). There are those who insist he created Mickey Mouse when the studio lost their lucrative character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1928, but Walt didn't seem to have been the type of person who would sulk on a train ride home to Los Angeles without thinking of something. One thing is for certain: Walt didn't animate Mickey; Ub Iwerks did; so, perhaps he returned home with a rough sketch and Ub expanded it. Walt was the voice of Mickey Mouse from 1928 to 1948. Ub left Disney in 1930 to produce his own cartoons such as "Flip the Frog." He returned to Disney in 1940, concentrating on improvements in spectal effects.
© The Walt Disney Company
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On a personal note, Roy brought his girlfriend, Edna Francis (with her mother), out and on April 11, 1925, they were married at Uncle Robert's home with Walt as best man. On July 13, 1925, Walt married His ink-and-paint girl, Lillian Bounds, at her home in Idaho. The brothers built adjacent homes on Lyric Ave., up the hill and a short distance from their new studio on Hyperion Ave. in Los Angeles, just beyond Griffith Park Boulevard. With their growing staff they moved into the one-story stucco building in early 1925 and renamed the organization Walt Disney Productions.
Even though the new contract was in effect, Mintz continued to criticize the Alice comedies. In fact, he praised only one, "Alice the Firefighter," (released October 18, 1926): " I think Alice the Firefighter is as good as anything you have turned out and perhaps a little better."
Because of, as Mintz put it, cash flow problems and lack of profits the money to Disney was slow in coming. The full amount was supposed to have been paid upon the delivery of the finished short. Mintz' brother-in-law, George Winkler, was on the coast hand-delivering the checks to the Disney studio. That was not all he was doing, as we shall see.
Mintz went looking to join a larger distributor, not only for Disney, but for himself as he was now producing the "Krazy Kat" cartoons in New York. He found Joseph Kennedy's Film Booking Offices (yes, that Joseph Kennedy). This deal opened up a wider distribution territory for his and Disney's films, which meant more money.
Before the FBO deal, the slowness of Mintz' checks forced the Disneys to do away with Virginia Davis' $100-a-month contract. They decided to pay her for her actual time before the camera. If 18 films were planned for a given year, they would shoot her part in 18 days -- at a substantial decrease in salary. Her mother wouldn't hear of it and wrote a letter of complaint to Mintz. Mintz sided with the Disneys and the Davises pulled Virginia from the series.
Disney then hired a girl named Dawn O'Day, who made one Alice short before her mother pulled her out because of the tiny payment. O'Day in her adult years was known as actress Ann Shirley.
Disney then hired Margie Gay who went on to make the most Alice comedies, 30, from February, 1925 to December, 1926. Where Virginia Davis had long Mary Pickford-like blond curls, Margie Gay had a short, straight black hairstyle with bangs over her forehead.
When she left, Disney hired Lois Hardwick to play the part (she, in the early '30s went on to play Mary Jane in a series of "Buster Brown'' films).
By this time the novelty of the Alice comedies had worn off, even for Disney. He had stopped animating when Ub Iwerks arrived to work on stories and to direct the exterior-live-action sequences. He was more interested in the cartoon animation. Alice was relagated to appearing in the beginning and at the end of the later films, with the action being carried out by Julius, a rip-off of Felix the Cat.
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Walt Disney in 1921 at his Laugh-O-grams studio in Kansas City. He had a small staff of animators, but did a lot of the animation along with them. Walt jumped the gun by producing six fairy tale cartoons for Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee before he received a substantial amount of money. By the time the cartoons were finished, Pictorial Clubs was bankrupt and Laugh-O-grams was left with only the $100 down payment. The contract called for $11,000. Walt could not pay his staff or his stockbrokers, so he was forced into bankruptcy by early 1923.
© The Walt Disney Company
Meanwhile, Mintz had gone from FBO to Universal Pictures as distributor. The head of Universal, Carl Lemmle, didn't feel the Alice comedies were funny and suggested to Mintz star a rabbit in a new series of cartoons. The final Alice short, "Alice in the Big League," with Lois Hardwick, was released August 22, 1927. Mintz named the new character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Ub and Walt worked up some character sketches and "Poor Papa" went into production in early 1927.
The picture was met with disdain by a group of Universal officials in New York. They called the character design ugly and didn't like the story of Oswald shooting at storks to stop delivery of numerous baby rabbits down his chimney. Mintz called Oswald "sloppy and fat" and suggested he redesign the character as "young and snappy-looking with a monocle."
The next cartoon, "Trolley Troubles," released in July, 1927, showed a cuter Oswald as a street car driver.
Meantime, Ham Hamilton had left the studio after a rift with Walt (he later returned). Hugh Harman suggested he hire a Kansas City acquaintance, Friz Freleng, who also was at Kansas City Film Ad. Freleng came west and later, after a rift with Disney, left and eventually became one of the legendary directors of Warner Bros. cartoons.
The Oswald cartoons were doing well and Walt continued to hire more animators. He even shared in what today is called licensing. In the summer of 1927 a Portland, Oregon, candy company made Oswald candy bars and in 1928 an Oswald stencil set for kids appeared on the market, as were buttons with Oswald's image. There was a notation on the candy bar wrapper: Watch for Oswald in Universal pictures.
Walt concentrated totally on stories. The storyboard hadn't been invented yet (that would be done by Disney staffer Webb Smith c.1932) so Walt planned the Oswald plots on sheets of 8 x 10 drawing paper divided into six frames. Whenever a frame was rejected, an "X" would cross out the frame.
In February, 1928, Walt and Lillian boarded a train for New York to negotiate a new contract with Mintz for more Oswald cartoons. Walt's goal was to increase the price per film from $2,250 to $2,500.
In Mintz' office Walt presented his proposal. Mintz countered with $1,800 per film. Walt was surprised, then shocked at what Mintz added. Oswald, as it turned out, was the property of Universal Pictures, not Walt Disney. Mintz then provided the coup de gras: his brother-in-law had signed up all of Walt's animators except Ub Iwerks to work for him in making the Oswald cartoons. He offered Walt a job as director. Walt was numb. The men he had taught animation to back in Kansas City and for whom he provided jobs in California had, he felt, betrayed him. For a couple of more bucks they were leaving. Walt went to the Universal offices and tried to negotiate a deal which would exclude Mintz, but Universal refused. Walt had no choice but to give up the character he thought was his and worked so hard to improve. In March, 1928, he and Lillian boarded a train back to Los Angeles
This is the part that's shrouded in mystery. For years, the story went that on the train ride back to Los Angeles, Walt decided to create a new character for a new series of cartoons. He did some rough sketches of a mouse he called Mortimer and showed them to Lillian who did not like the name and suggested Mickey.
Now it is said that when he learned his fellow animators were defecting, Ub Iwerks created a series of new characters, among them a mouse, and greeted Walt at the door on his return March 18, 1928, with the handful of sketches. Walt chose the mouse. It is difficult to determine which story is true. One can't picture the just-cheated young Disney riding from New York to Los Angeles without thinking of the future of his studio. He had no character about which to produce cartoons. On the other hand, why did Ub not defect for, at least, job security?
The building in Kansas City where Walt Disney started his first animation company, Laugh-O-grams. His studio occupied four rooms on the second floor at the right of the photo. Atty. Dan Veits, a Disney biographer, and others bought the building when Kansas City planned to tear it down. The Thank You Walt Disney group plans to restore the structure to its 1920s splendor. The Disney family is also involved in that effort. Several of the young men who worked here formed the core of Hollywood animation a little over ten years later.
Photo: Ed Black
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