Walt Disney

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by Bob Thomas

  The partners intended to call their enterprise “Disney-Iwerks.” But when they put up the listing in the lobby of the Railroad Exchange Building, they discovered it sounded too much like an optical firm. So it became Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Iwerks did the straight drawing and lettering; Disney was the cartoonist and salesman. He hustled around to print shops, theaters, stores and oil companies in search of work. The first month’s business netted $135, more than they had been receiving at Pesmen-Rubin.

  The Iwerks-Disney firm lasted only a month. On January 29, 1920, Ub spotted an advertisement in the Kansas City Star:




  Steady, Kansas City Slide Company

  1015 Central

  Ub discussed the ad with Walt, and both agreed that Walt should apply for the job. He reported for an interview with the head of the Kansas City Slide Company, A. Vern Cauger, at the firm’s office on Central Street. Cauger was impressed with the young man’s cartoons and offered him a position at $40 a week. Walt was overwhelmed by the salary, but he had hoped to work part-time while he and Ub continued their new enterprise. Cauger insisted he wanted a full-time cartoonist. Walt discussed the matter with his partner, and Ub urged him to take the job. “I can manage the business,” Ub assured him. But he was not outgoing enough to be a salesman, and the business quickly dwindled. In March 1920, Walt persuaded Cauger to hire Ub, and Iwerks-Disney went into limbo.

  After Walt had been working a few weeks at the slide company—which had moved to 2449 Charlotte with the new name of Kansas City Film Ad Company—he received a call from Lawrence Dickey of the Journal. The newspaper needed a cartoonist, and Walt could have the job. If the offer had come earlier, the course of his career might have proved far different. But Walt had been introduced to something that intrigued him more than newspaper cartooning. He declined the Journal’s offer.

  Now he was making cartoons that moved. Kansas City Film Ad produced one-minute advertising films to appear in motion-picture theaters. The animation was primitive: human and animal figures were cut out of paper and pinned to a sheet; the joints of the figures were moved and photographed, creating the illusion of movement. The artists made their cutouts and gave them to the cameraman with an outline of the action; each department was jealous of its own secrets and declined to share them. But Walt was curious to learn how things worked. He made friends with the cameraman, Jimmy Lowerre, who showed the young cartoonist how the paper figures were photographed in stop-motion to provide the illusion of animation. Soon Lowerre permitted Walt to operate the camera himself.

  Walt wasn’t satisfied with such a crude method of animation. He noted how the New York–made movie cartoons like the Mutt and Jeff and Koko the Klown series moved with greater realism. They were created with drawings, not cut-outs, and Walt was determined to learn how. He found two books in the Kansas City public library, one a simple handbook by Carl Lutz on the essentials of animation, the other Eadweard Muybridge’s classic study of human and animal motion. Walt pored over Muybridge’s photographs of running horses and athletes in movement, then had the pages copied by a photostat firm. He returned the book to the library and kept the stack of photostats beside his desk as a guide for his drawing. His employers were delighted with the improved realism of the drawn cartoons, and he and Ub began turning them out for Film Ad.

  Walt was dissatisfied with the material given to him by the Film Ad copywriters, and he began injecting gags of his own. In an ad for a bank, he depicted a man floating down a river on a raft with the catchline “You can’t drift through your life.” For another bank he drew a locomotive chasing a cow—“You’ll never get anywhere until you get on the right savings track.” For a maker of canvas car covers he showed an automobile with a sparkling top. The dialogue between owner and friend: “Hi, old top—new car?” “No, old car—new top.”

  The Film Ad company made live-action movies as well as cartoons, and Walt portrayed paint salesmen or garage mechanics in the films. When an automobile careened down a nearby hill and crashed onto its side in front of the Film Ad office, a resourceful film maker grabbed a camera and shouted, “Come on, Diz, follow me!” Walt hurried outside and climbed into the overturned car. The cameraman spun the wheel and threw some dust in the air as the dazed young man emerged from the accident. The film became an ad for an insurance company.

  Walt and Roy Disney were living with their brother Herbert and his wife in the house their parents still owned at 3028 Bellefontaine. Both young men often visited the home of Roy’s sweetheart, Edna Francis, arriving conveniently at mealtime. During the meal, and often into the night, Walt talked about his work at Film Ad and his plans to advance beyond advertising films into something more rewarding.

  The young artist was developing a style. While his vocabulary was unpolished and he sometimes used barracks language, he could express himself surprisingly well, especially when he was relating a fable or gag sequence he planned to draw. Now that he was earning a steady salary, he could afford to dress with a flair. Photographs show him as a young man in jaunty tweed cap, trim double-breasted dark suit with gray vest, his four-in-hand neatly tied. He is swinging a golf club in a city park, and clowning in a statue pose atop a giant urn, a cigar clamped in the side of his mouth. Then he appears at the Kansas City Artists Ball in full Western regalia, looking as handsome as a Hollywood cowboy. He was full-grown at almost six feet and had no trouble getting dates with the girls who worked for Film Ad.

  Walt’s ingenuity distinguished his work at Film Ad—and sometimes covered up his lack of draftsmanship. Assigned to a theater commercial for a hat company, he realized that he couldn’t draw the handsome faces ordinarily seen in hat ads. Instead he drew comic faces under the hats, and they delighted Cauger, and theater audiences as well. Walt wanted to do his own experimenting, and he asked Cauger for the loan of one of the company’s stop-action cameras. Cauger resisted at first, but Walt continued asking him, and he gave in. Walt enlisted Roy to help rig a makeshift studio in the family garage. Working past midnight every night, Walt experimented with incandescent lights, called “inkies,” until he achieved the best exposure for his drawings.

  He needed a subject that would capture local attention, and he decided to exploit the anger of Kansas City citizens over the poor repair of city streets. In the hyperbolic style that marked his early cartooning, he depicted drivers’ losing their teeth when striking ruts, trucks disappearing into gaping holes. He wanted to photograph his own hand making the drawings, in the manner of the Out of the Inkwell cartoons. But he couldn’t fit his hand under the camera. So he made a photograph of his hand and moved the photograph under the camera to create the illusion that he was drawing.

  Walt completed three hundred feet of cartoon and took the film to the Newman Theater Company, which owned three movie houses in Kansas City. “I like it, kid,” said the manager, Milton Feld. “I can use one every week. How much do they cost?” Walt calculated his expenses and replied, “Thirty cents a foot.” Feld agreed to pay that amount, and Walt left the office elated—until he realized that the thirty-cent figure did not provide any margin for profit.

  Walt worked all day at Film Ad, then spent hours each night in his garage studio. Feld gave him suggestions for new cartoons—a theater anniversary, a political campaign, a Christmas program. Feld asked Walt’s help with a bothersome problem for theaters—patrons who bothered their neighbors by reading aloud the titles for the silent movies. Walt created a comical professor who slammed a mallet on the head of title readers, or released a trapdoor that chuted them to the street.

  Walt named the films Newman Laugh-O-grams. A few of them have survived, and they show surprising skill in an artist so new to animation. The cartoonist’s hand skims over the paper, seeming to make the droll drawings in lightning speed. As his knowledge of cartooning grew, Walt introduced real animation. “Kansas City’s Spring Cleanup,” obviously based on one o
f the city’s periodic police scandals, shows a parade of policemen marching into headquarters. Signs of a struggle come from within, then bodies fly out. A man exits from the building to hang a sign: “Cops Wanted.” There can be no doubt that the scandal-weary Kansas City audience reacted with applause.

  The Newman Laugh-O-grams began making a minor celebrity of Walt Disney. When he met friends from Benton School, they remarked about seeing his films. His boss at Film Ad was proud of Walt’s achievements and always introduced the young man to important visitors. Cauger asked to borrow the Laugh-O-grams to show his company’s offices in other cities what could be done with cartoons for theaters. Walt had been urging Cauger to buy sheets of celluloid so the staff could copy the methods of the New York cartoon studios. Walt ordered a hundred new celluloids. The purchasing agent changed the order to cheap discards, and they arrived scratched and ink-stained, but Walt and his fellow workers cleaned each one with solvent and soft cloths. For Walt it was a thrill finally to make cartoons on celluloid, as all the important New York cartoonists did. His vision grew. “Why don’t we make a series of cartoon shorts to sell to theaters?” he proposed to Cauger. The company owner rejected the suggestion. Film Ad had a thriving business of selling advertising movies to theaters throughout the Midwest; he saw no reason to attempt something new and risky.

  Roy Disney had proved himself a steady, conscientious worker at the First National Bank, and his salary had increased enough to allow him and Edna Francis to talk seriously about getting married. During 1920, Roy suffered two serious attacks of influenza, and his doctor recommended removal of his tonsils. His brother Herb suggested a surgeon who would perform the operation during Roy’s lunch hour at the bank. Roy had the surgery done one noon and returned to his job. His throat hemorrhaged, and Mitchell Francis rushed him home. Afterward, X rays detected a spot on Roy’s lungs; it was tuberculosis. The Veterans Administration assigned him to a hospital at Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a tearful parting for Roy and Edna. Five years would pass before they could marry.

  Again Elias Disney failed. His investment in the jelly factory disappeared in bankruptcy, and the company president was imprisoned for fraud. Again Elias sought to improve his fortune by moving on. He and Flora returned to Kansas City, where he sought work as a carpenter. Elias found the garage of the Bellefontaine house taken over by Walt’s contraptions. Elias didn’t understand why his son wasted his time on such things, but he allowed Walt to continue using the garage, for a rental of $5 a month.

  Elias found little work in a housing industry hit by the postwar slump. He helped one of Flora’s relatives build a house in Glendale, California, but decided against moving there because the country was too arid. The postal service had transferred Herb to Portland, Oregon, and he urged his parents to join him. Elias decided they would, and in November 1921, he and Flora and Ruth left Kansas City by train. Walt went to the station for their departure, and Ruth noticed tears forming in his eyes. He said his goodbyes and left abruptly.

  New owners moved into the Bellefontaine house, and Walt shifted his belongings to a rooming house. His enterprise had outgrown the garage, and he now rented a small shop. He could no longer do all the work himself, and he advertised for boys who wanted to learn the cartoon business. Three applied, and Walt conducted night school in the tiny shop, teaching the elements of cartooning. He told the boys he couldn’t afford to pay them, but he promised they would share in future profits of the enterprise, for which he confidently predicted success.

  To achieve that success, Laugh-O-grams needed to progress beyond the one-minute program filler. The next step would be cartoon shorts like those produced by the New York studios. He devised plans for a series of cartoons based on traditional fairy tales, modernized and sprinkled with gags. For six months Walt and his youthful film makers worked at night on their first production, Little Red Riding Hood.

  Walt was so pleased with the cartoon that he quit his position at Film Ad, where he had been earning an impressive $60 a week. On May 23, 1922, he incorporated Laugh-O-gram Films with $15,000 from local investors who contributed from $250 to $500 apiece. The new firm’s capital equipment included three inker’s and tracer’s tables, seven chairs, three animating booths, one cabinet, superintendent’s desk, projector, winder, electric fan, eight hundred feet of positive film, one still camera, movie camera and stand, lighting equipment and copying stand.

  Walt persuaded Ub Iwerks to leave Film Ad, and Laugh-O-gram Films took over the remaining assets of Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. They were joined by five other young animators—Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Carman Maxwell, Lorey Tague, Otto Walliman—as well as a business manager, a girl who inked and painted the celluloids, a salesman and a secretary. All worked in a five-room suite on the second floor of the McConahay Building at 31st Street and Forest.

  Laugh-O-gram started production of a series of fairy-tale films following the pattern of Little Red Riding Hood. The salesman went to New York to hunt for buyers, and he made a releasing deal with a nontheatrical distribution company, Pictorial Clubs. The company sent a check for $100 and a note promising $11,000 for six cartoons. The workers at Laugh-O-gram were jubilant, and Walt put five additional subjects into production—The Four Musicians of Bremen, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella.

  The Laugh-O-gram office was an exhilarating place to work. The president of the company was twenty years old, and he declined to act the role of executive. He did some of the animation, operated the camera, washed the celluloid sheets—“cels”—for reuse. Many of his employees were still in their teens, and they shared his zest for the cartoon medium, often working past midnight. They were unconcerned when they received only half of their salaries on weeks when the company treasury was low. On Sundays they joined Walt in Swope Park or on the roof of their office building and acted out the charade of filming a melodrama.

  Walt had bought a Universal camera for $300 and it saw multiple duty. On weekends, Walt mounted it on the rear seat of a touring car and rode through the downtown Kansas City streets cranking the camera, his cap turned backward like a Hollywood cameraman. A sign on the car read: “These pictures will be shown at the Isis Theater tomorrow night.” Walt contracted with the Jenkins Music Company to make a film illustrating the song “Martha,” and he took three girls from the office to a nearby woods to film a sequence. He delighted in playing the director, complete with megaphone.

  He used the camera as Kansas City correspondent for Selznick, Pathé and Universal newsreels. When the New York offices telegraphed Disney with special assignments, cartoon filming ceased. Walt removed the camera from the cartoon stand, picked up a tripod and hurried out to photograph a news event. He rode the streetcar to an automobile lot, rented a Ford motoring car and placed a press sticker on the windshield. He received an important assignment to cover the American Legion convention, which was being attended by Vice President Coolidge, Marshal Foch and General Pershing. The father of a schoolfriend owned the building across the street from the reviewing stand, and Walt carried his camera to the roof. It was a perfect vantage point to film the dignitaries and the parade. Payment for such assignments was $1 for a foot of film—usually one hundred feet was ordered. If the newsreel did not use the film, the equivalent amount in unexposed negative was returned to him.

  Walt was convinced he could sell newsreel footage of airplane acrobatics, and he persuaded a couple of barnstorming pilots to perform for him. Walt consulted a cameraman friend on how to photograph in the air. He was told to “stop down all you can—limit the exposure to the barest minimum.” Walt took his camera up in one of the planes and photographed some daring stunts. When his film was developed, it was totally dark except for a white doughnut caused by the whirring propeller. He had “stopped down” too far.

  The camera was also used in taking baby pictures for proud Kansas City parents. That part of the enterprise resulted in publicity from the newspaper that Walt had onc
e delivered, the Kansas City Star:

  The Laugh-O-gram Films Company, Inc., 1127 East Thirty-First Street, has added the feature of photographing youngsters to its regular business of making animated cartoons. An admiring parent wishing to preserve the native graces of his progeny’s actions notifies “Walt” Disney, president of the corporation and head cartoonist for the animated cartoons. The company furnishes a projector service with its filming, which provides that a private showing be made in the home—three showings for each hundred feet of film.

  By the autumn of 1922, it was becoming more and more difficult for the youthful film makers to maintain their exuberance. The fairy-tale cartoons were being shipped off to Pictorial Clubs, but no money returned. Under the contract no payment was required until six months after signing, and by that time Pictorial Clubs had gone bankrupt. For producing the half-dozen seven-minute cartoons, Laugh-O-grams had been paid only the deposit—$100.

  With salary checks growing thinner, Laugh-O-gram employees began to drop out. Ub Iwerks left the company to return to Film Ad. In late November, Walt persuaded his principal backer, Dr. Cowles, to supply an additional $2,500 to satisfy the company’s major creditors. Walt found himself unable to pay his rooming bill, and for a couple of weeks he roomed with Ub Iwerks. Then Walt took up lodging in the Laugh-O-gram offices—the rent had been paid in advance. Like others in the office, he ate on credit at the Forest Inn Cafe downstairs, operated by a pair of Greeks, Jerry Raggos and Louis Katsis. Since the offices had no bath, Walt made a weekly journey to the railroad station, where he bought a warm tub, a towel and a bar of soap for a dime. After the bath he stood on the platform where he had seen his parents, his sister and Roy depart for the West. He couldn’t avoid tears as he watched the passengers leaving for other towns and cities. “It was so lonesome,” he recalled in later years.


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