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Monday, December 04, 2006

Walt Disney Born, December 5, 1901

Today in 1901, Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois. Known to the world as Walt, Disney became an animator, director, voice actor and philanthropist. He leant his name to The Walt Disney Company, a multi-national entertainment conglomerate whose revenues now exceed $30 billion a year.

Disney's childhood was spent mostly in Missouri. His love for drawing developed early and it didn't take long for his talent to develop. A local doctor everyone called simply "Doc" paid young Disney to draw pictures of his horse; it was his first paying job. Disney's family moved back to Chicago in 1917, where the young man took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute while attending high school during the day. He quit school soon thereafter to join the Army, but at 16, he was too young. Still eager to see the World War that was raging in Europe, he and a friend joined the Red Cross. His mother forged his birth certificate, instantly turning him into a 17-year old. He spent a year in France behind the wheel of an ambulance unlike anything the world had ever seen---the canvas top was completely covered with cartoon characters drawn by Disney.

After the war, Disney moved to Kansas City with the intention of working as an illustrator. His brother Roy got him a job in the area, the place where he met Ub Iwerks. Iwerks and Disney quickly became friends and soon took the decision to start their own business. Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists came into being in 1920, but had trouble attracting clients. Soon, Iwerks was doing work for other firms to make ends meet and Disney was forced to follow suit a short time later. It seemed that Kansas City just wasn't ready for them.

Disney then decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He arrived in Los Angeles nearly broke with no intention of pursuing a career in animation. Somewhere along the way, Disney had decided that he was meant to be a director---Hollywood had other ideas. He knocked on the door of every studio in town, but none of them wanted anything to do with him. He returned to animation, the thing he knew best. He found early success with a series of animated shorts with live action characters based on Alice's Wonderland. He brought Iwerks and his family out to California and talked his brother Roy (who was recovering from tuberculosis) into managing the finances. Thus Disney Brothers' Studio was born. Disney also hired Lillian Bounds to paint the celluloid frames. He married her in July, 1925.

In 1928, Disney lost a battle with Universal Pictures over the use of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", a character who had starred in a series of cartoons Disney's company had produced for the studio. In the end, Disney lost most of his animators. A group of them would reappear at Warner Brothers' studio as the creators of a series known as Looney Tunes that included the adventures of a certain rabbit named Bugs Bunny. Disney was left in the lurch without a "star" character.

Several biographies claim that the idea of a mouse character came to fruition during Disney's trip back home after losing the Oswald battle. It is not known who, between Disney and Iwerks, actually designed the rodent, but it was Iwerks who animated the first films starring a mouse with round ears who was called "Mortimer". The first cartoon starring Mortimer was called "Plane Crazy" and was a silent film. No distributors expressed interest in the new character, so Disney ordered another cartoon made with sound and called "Steamboat Willie". Around this time, Lillian Disney decided that the name "Mortimer" just wasn't working out. Instead, the character would be called "Mickey Mouse". "Steamboat Willie" became a success and all future Disney cartoons were released with soundtracks. Walt Disney became the voice of Mickey Mouse and remained so until 1946. He received a special Academy Award in 1932 to recognize Mickey's creation. A star was born.

In 1934, Disney made plans for a full-length animated film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". The general consensus of the film industry was that Disney's company would be destroyed by the project. The industry was almost correct. After more than two years of production, the studio ran out of money in 1937. Disney showed a rough cut of the film to loan officers at Bank of America, who quickly approved a loan so the project could be completed. When the film debuted on December 21st, 1937, it received a standing ovation. It was the most successful film of 1938.

On top of short cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto, the newly renamed Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California was now making more full-length animated films such as "Pinocchio", "Fantasia" and "Bambi". None were as popular as "Snow White" and the studio suffered the additional misfortune of having the animation staff go on strike during the production of "Dumbo". After the US entered the Second World War in December, 1941, the Army paid Disney to produce training and propaganda films for the military. Though the studio staff was busy during the war, the military films brought in little income. It was not until the late 1940's that Disney was again turning a profit. Films begun before the war, such as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan", were finished and released to the public.

Soon after the war, Disney came up with the idea for a theme-based amusement park. It would eventually be called Disneyland, a children's paradise built on 160 acres in Anaheim, California. Opened on July 17, 1955, Disneyland has seen more than half a billion visitors in the past 50 years. Walt and Lillian Disney, separate from the corporation, maintained ownership of the park's steam train and monorail, earning income on each spin of the turnstile. They were eventually absorbed into the Disney corporation in the 1980's.

From the early 1950's onward, Disney expanded into live-action films and television. Animated films continued as a core function of the business, but short cartoons were abandoned in the mid-1950's. In 1964, Walt Disney Productions began purchasing land southwest of Orlando, Florida for what was called the "Florida Project". Eventually, the company bought 27,000 acres and lobbied the Florida state government to grant the company nearly complete governmental control of the property.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney would not live to see his sequel to Disneyland. He died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966, at 65 years of age. Contrary to urban legend, Disney's body was NOT frozen for later revival. Instead, he was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Walt's brother Roy, his business partner for so many years, continued the Florida Project but ordered it renamed. Today it is known as Walt Disney World and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.

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