Walt Disney

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by Bob Thomas

  One day in December a local dentist, Thomas B. McCrum, paid a call to the Laugh-O-gram office to inquire about a film to promote dental health. He was surprised to find that young Disney was the only person in the office, but they discussed the film and agreed on a fee of $500. In later years Walt liked to tell the story of how Dr. McCrum telephoned one evening and asked Walt to come to his house to complete the deal. Walt said that he couldn’t. He confessed that his only pair of shoes was at the cobbler and he didn’t have the $1.50 to redeem them. The dentist came to the office and gave him money for the shoes and an agreement for the dental-health film.

  Walt hired back some of his Laugh-O-gram workers for Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, and the unexpected revenue recharged his ambition. He searched for another subject to put Laugh-O-gram back in business. He had admired the Out of the Inkwell cartoons produced by Max Fleischer, in which cartoon figures animated on the drawing boards of artists. Why not reverse the technique and put a human figure in a cartoon world? He devised the idea of Alice’s Wonderland, in which a real girl would act out adventures amid cartoon figures. He hired Virginia Davis, a winsome six-year-old model with Mary Pickford curls, and photographed her against a plain backdrop, devising a storyline that would be drawn later. He sent off enthusiastic letters to distributors in New York. One letter, dated May 14, 1923, went to a woman named M. J. Winkler who distributed Out of the Inkwell and other cartoons:

  We have just discovered something new and clever in animated cartoons!

  The first subject of this distinctly different series is now in production, and will require a few weeks more for completion. It is a new idea that will appeal to all classes, and is bound to be a winner, because it is a clever combination of live characters and cartoons, not like Out of the Inkwell or Earl Hurd’s but of an entirely different nature, using a cast of live child actors who carry on their action on cartoon scenes with cartoon characters.

  These new subjects will be a full reel in length, and can be released at regular intervals of two weeks or a month….

  Disney suggested that Miss Winkler see Laugh-O-gram’s previous cartoons for Pictorial Clubs as an example of the company’s work. She replied with an encouraging letter, and Walt began production. But his resources dwindled further. Dr. Cowles advanced him an occasional $10. Roy, who had moved from Santa Fe to another hospital in Tucson, sent Walt a blank check with instructions to fill it out in any amount up to $30. Walt wrote it for $30.

  The money soon disappeared, and Walt’s bill at the Greek restaurant continued to mount. When it reached $60 Jerry said his partner wouldn’t allow him to extend any more credit. Two days later, Jerry went up to the Laugh-O-gram office and found Walt sitting on a box and eating beans out of a can. “Oh, Walter,” said the Greek, “I don’t care what my partner says. You go downstairs and get something to eat.”

  With Alice’s Wonderland half finished, Walt found himself completely out of funds. Walt went to his early investors and asked them to help keep Laugh-O-gram in business; but they had already resigned themselves to losing their money and saw no reason to throw away more. On June 18, Walt dispatched a brave letter to Miss Winkler:

  Owing to numerous delays and backsets we have encountered in moving into our new office, we will not be able to complete the first picture of our new series by the time we expected.

  However, it will be finished very soon, and the writer expects to be in New York about the first of July with a print of same, and an outline for our future program….

  Unable to pay the rent at the McConahay Building, Walt moved to smaller quarters. But there was no way to continue. He described his situation in a letter to Roy, who had moved to a veterans’ hospital at Sawtelle, west of Los Angeles. Roy replied, “Kid, I think you should get out of there. I don’t think you can do any more for it.” Walt resigned himself to bankruptcy. When settlement was made years later, the creditors received 45 percent of their claims. A modest income had been received from the successors to the Pictorial Clubs.

  Another cartoon maker in Kansas City offered Walt a job. But he wanted to leave the scene of his failure, and to leave the cartoon business as well. Instead of heading for New York, where the cartoon studios were centered, he was going to Hollywood, where he planned to become a director. His only problem was raising the railroad fare. He went door to door photographing babies, then sold his camera and bought a one-way ticket to California.

  He left Kansas City in July, wearing a checkered coat and un-matching pants. He had $40 in cash, and his imitation-leather suitcase contained only a shirt, two undershorts, two pairs of socks and some drawing materials. But when he paid his fare for the trip to California, he bought a first-class ticket.

  BY 1923, when Walt Disney arrived with his half-filled suitcase, Hollywood had become a company town. It had been scarcely a decade since movie makers started arriving in California, and now films were approaching the status of an industry. Mammoth studios had risen from the lemon groves of Hollywood, and others had grown up in Culver City and over the Cahuenga Pass in the San Fernando Valley. Walt set up residence with his uncle, Robert Disney, who had retired to Los Angeles, and began exploring the new, sunswept world.

  Near his uncle’s house was Edendale, where Mack Sennett filmed his Keystone Comedies. Not far away were the crumbling remains of Babylon, the gigantic set D. W. Griffith built for Intolerance. Walt rode the big red trolley of the Pacific Electric to Culver City and gazed in awe at the mammoth Circus Maximus of Ben-Hur. He walked along LaBrea Avenue in Hollywood, past the English bungalows of the Chaplin studio, hoping that he might glimpse the comedian he had idolized.

  Walt wanted to be on the inside of the studios, directing movies. He ordered business cards proclaiming himself as Kansas City representative of Universal and Selznick Newsreels. He presented the card to the receptionist at Universal and announced that he wanted a pass to the studio. He seemed so self-assured that he was allowed to enter, and for hours Walt roamed the glassed-in stages and outdoor sets, watching film makers at work. Returning to the employment office the following day, he cited his experience in Kansas City and asked for work as a director. He was turned away.

  He drew the same reaction when he applied for work at other studios. No one was impressed by the raw kid from Kansas City. Walt said he was willing to accept any kind of work, just to be inside a studio. “No openings,” he was told.

  Walt ran out of money and had to borrow from Roy to pay Uncle Robert $5 a week for room and board. Walt visited his brother at the veterans’ hospital in West Los Angeles and told him of his frustration. Roy suggested that Walt should return to the cartoon business. “No, I’m too late,” Walt said. “I should have started six years ago. I don’t see how I can top those New York boys now.”

  Yet the animated cartoon had made little progress in the ten years since it had become a movie attraction. Early attempts at cartoons had been made by J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906 and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in 1911. McCay, a newspaper cartoonist, also toured in vaudeville with his Gertie, the Trained Dinosaur, which responded on the screen to his commands. Not until John R. Bray’s The Artist’s Dream in 1913 were the commercial possibilities of the cartoon realized. In the following year Bray introduced the first popular series, Col. Heeza Liar. Production of cartoon movies became practical with the 1914 innovation by Earl Hurd of using celluloid for action drawings and laying it over backgrounds. Thereafter series proliferated—Hurd’s Bobby Bumps, Max Fleischer’s Koko the Klown and Out of the Inkwell, Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat, Paul Terry’s Farmer Al Falfa, Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, and others based on newspaper comic strips such as The Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat, Bringing Up Father and Happy Hooligan. The cartoons were rarely more than comic strips that moved. Characters were two-dimensional, and they hurtled from one gag to another with no concern for plot.

  It was rare for Walt Disney to be wanting in confidence, but he didn’t believe he could compete with t
he professionalism of the New York cartoon studios. Besides, there were no cartoonists to help him in Hollywood; the animation business was entirely centered in New York. He continued seeking work at the studios. One day he encountered a Kansas City friend who was equally movie-struck.

  “I got a job in a picture called The Light That Failed,” the friend announced. “They need more extras. You can ride a horse, can’t you, Diz?” “Of course,” said Walt, although his riding days had ended in Marceline. The studio hired him for a cavalry charge, and Walt reconsidered his earlier ambition to become an actor. Then rain postponed filming, and the cavalry was cast with new extras.

  Uncle Robert nagged Walt about his unemployment and his lack of prospects. Finally Walt concluded that the only way he could break into the movie business was with cartoons. He would have to start as he had before—by selling joke reels to movie theaters. He rigged up a cartoon stand in Uncle Robert’s garage, using dry-goods boxes and spare lumber. He needed a patron, and he paid a call to the offices of Alexander Pantages, who operated a chain of movie and vaudeville theaters. Walt outlined his idea to an assistant, who replied, “Mr. Pantages wouldn’t be interested.” A voice answered, “How do you know I wouldn’t?” Pantages himself appeared, and Walt outlined his plan. “You make me up one of those, and if it’s what you describe, I will be very interested,” said Pantages.

  Walt returned to Uncle Robert’s garage and started work on a scenario for the Pantages reel. The crude equipment would not allow anything complicated, so Walt decided to employ stick figures against simple backgrounds; the comedy would derive from gags in balloons over the characters’ heads.

  He pursued another possibility. He believed that Alice’s Wonderland, which he had made in Kansas City, might still provide his entrée into the cartoon business. He printed some stationery with the letterhead “Walt Disney, Cartoonist” and he sent off a letter to Margaret Winkler, the cartoon distributor in New York:

  This is to inform you that I am no longer connected with the Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc., of Kansas City, Mo. and that I am establishing a studio in Los Angeles for the purpose of producing the new and novel series of cartoons I have previously written you about.

  The making of these new cartoons necessitates being located in a production center that I may engage trained talent for my casts, and be within reach of the right facilities for producing.

  I am taking with me a select number of my former staff and will in a very short time be producing at regular intervals. It is my intention of securing working space with one of the studios, that I may better study technical detail and comedy situations and combine these with my cartoons….

  Walt’s Kansas City creditors agreed to release Alice’s Wonderland for Miss Winkler to review. On October 15, a telegram arrived for Walt Disney from M. J. Winkler:


  It was late evening when Walt received the telegram. He rode the bus to Sawtelle and found the porch ward where Roy was sleeping. Roy awoke with a start and saw his brother standing over him with a wide smile, waving a piece of paper in his hand. “What’s the matter?” Roy whispered.

  “We’re in! It’s a deal!” Walt exclaimed. The other patients in the ward began to stir, and Roy shushed his brother and asked him to explain quietly. Walt told him the contents of the telegram. This, finally, was his chance to get started in the animation business in a big way. But he needed help—Roy’s help. “Let’s go, Roy,” Walt pleaded. The older brother viewed the prospect calmly. Could Walt deliver the films on schedule? Walt assured him he could. Was it possible to make a profit? Walt had calculated that the reels could be produced for $750; that meant a 100 percent profit. “Okay, Walt, let’s go,” said Roy. Walt beamed, patted his brother on the shoulder, and stole out of the darkened ward.

  Roy left the veterans’ hospital the next morning and never returned; the spot on his lung had healed, and he was never again troubled with tuberculosis. He had saved $200 from his $80 monthly pension, and the money went into the new enterprise. Roy applied for loans at local banks and was told that movie cartoons were too risky an investment. Roy concluded that Uncle Robert was the only prospect as a backer. “Walter doesn’t pay his debts,” said the old man, citing Ray Disney’s complaint that Walt had failed to return Ray’s $60 investment in Laugh-O-Grams. Roy was persuasive, and Uncle Robert finally agreed to lend $500 for his nephews’ new enterprise.

  On October 16, 1923, Walt and Roy Disney signed a contract with M. J. Winkler for distribution of six Alice Comedies for a price of $1,500 apiece, and six more at $1,800 apiece, with an option for two more series. Walt told the distributor: “The first of this series, the title of which has been changed from Alice’s Sea Story to Alice’s Day at Sea, is now in production and in all probability I will have this subject to you by December 15th. But on account of the many details attached to the starting of a series of this nature it may require a week longer.”

  Among the many details was Alice herself. Miss Winkler had specified in her original telegram that Alice had to be played by the same little girl in the unfinished reel. Virginia’s father agreed to leave his job in Kansas City and move his family to California. Walt promised to pay his star $100 a month.

  Walt inquired about office rentals at a real-estate office, declaring he could pay $10 a month. The only place at that price was a room at the back of the real-estate office. “I’ll take it,” Walt said. He bought a secondhand camera for $200 and taught Roy how to operate it. Two girls were hired at $15 a week to ink and paint the celluloids, and Walt himself did all the animation. The first reel was finished on schedule, and on the day after Christmas came the joyous telegram from M. J. Winkler:


  The arrival of the first check cheered the Disney brothers, and Walt launched production on the second reel, Alice Hunting in Africa. For $10 a month, he rented a vacant lot at Hollywood Boulevard and Rodney Drive, three blocks away, where he could photograph live action with Virginia Davis and neighborhood kids whom Walt enlisted at fifty cents apiece. Alice’s dog was portrayed by Uncle Robert’s German shepherd, Peggy. In February of 1924, Walt hired his first animator, Rollin (Ham) Hamilton, and moved into a small store at 4649 Kingswell at a rental of $35, plus $7 for a garage which Walt converted into an office. The store window bore the letters: “DISNEY BROS. STUDIO.”

  Walt shipped Alice Hunting in Africa to Miss Winkler with the notation: “I sincerely believe I have made a great deal of improvement on this subject in the line of humorous situations and I assure you that I will make it a point to inject as many funny gags and comical situations into future productions as possible.” The distributor replied that the timing of the films was greatly improved but the comedy still was lacking. Her customers had found the Alice cartoons “nice and clean” but felt they needed more laughs.

  With the delivery of Alice’s Spooky Adventure in February, Walt wrote: “I am trying to comply with your instructions by injecting as much humor as possible and believe I have done better on this production. I have had professional critics at all previews and have been informed that we are making big improvements on each one. However, they seemed to be well pleased with all of them at that. It is my desire to be a little different from the usual run of slapstick and hold them more to a dignified line of comedy.”

  Margaret Winkler was pleased with Alice’s Spooky Adventure and used it to sell the series to distributors in southern New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia. “I am very optimistic about the future and believe we have something here of which we will all be p
roud,” the distributor wrote. The first Alice Comedy reached the theaters in March 1924.

  Walt spent more money on each new comedy, and the margin of profit narrowed and sometimes disappeared. The tiny studio needed more financing, and Walt urged Roy to ask his Kansas City sweetheart, Edna Francis, for a loan. “Absolutely not,” Roy replied. Walt himself wrote to Edna, asking her not to tell Roy about the plea for cash. Edna had saved some money from her salary at an insurance company, and she sent Walt a check for $25. Roy was incensed when he found out. Walt importuned Carl Stalling, the organist at the Isis Theater in Kansas City who had once ordered a song reel from Laugh-O-gram. Stalling contributed $275 to the Disney Brothers Studio.

  Walt completed the first series of six Alice Comedies in late May 1924. He had done most of the animation, and it was hard, exacting work. He felt the company would progress faster if he could devote more time to the scenarios. Although he was facile with gags, he realized he didn’t have the draftsmanship to be a topnotch animator. He decided to send for Ub Iwerks.

  Ub was understandably reluctant to leave Kansas City. The last time he had joined forces with Walt Disney, he had ended with $1,000 in unpaid salary (he later received $450 in the bankruptcy settlement). Ub was earning $50 a week at Film Ad, and it seemed foolhardy to leave his position with an established firm for the nebulous future of Disney Brothers Studio in Hollywood. But Walt was a young man with rare powers of persuasion, and Ub wrote his onetime partner that he would come to California.


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