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by Bob Thomas

  RCA said it would accept the recording of Steamboat Willie for $600, plus the cost of an orchestra, a $1,000 royalty charge, a “music tax” to be paid to a publisher, etc. “They are not anywhere within our reach; I have dropped them from my mind entirely,” Walt wrote to California.

  As Walt continued his dealings with the New York film world, he became more convinced of the future of sound. He wrote to Roy and Ub that talkies were still a mystery to most of the movie executives—“None of them are positive how it is all going to turn out, but I have come to this definite conclusion: Sound effects and talking pictures are more than a mere novelty. They are here to stay and in time will develop into a wonderful thing. The ones that get in on the ground floor are the ones that will more likely profit by its future development. That is, providing they work for quality and not quantity and quick money. Also, I am convinced that the sound on film is the only logical thing for the future. At the present it is necessary to have both in order to cover the field one hundred per cent.”

  The merchant of sound who most impressed Walt was P. A. (Pat) Powers, who owned an independent system called Cinephone.

  “He is a dandy,” Walt enthused in his letter home, relating an entire afternoon spent with the expansive movie executive. Powers introduced the young man from Hollywood to a movie actor, George Walsh, whom Walt described as “a fine fellow; he was telling me how to play polo and about what a great sport it was.” Walt also met Carl Edouarde, conductor of the pit orchestra at the Strand Theater—“a dandy fellow—big salary, but he knows his stuff.” Edouarde expressed eagerness to record the cartoon and said he could do it with five or six pieces and a couple of sound-effects men. Powers proposed a charge of $1,000 including a royalty on the Disney films, and he offered to use his connections to help arrange a releasing company. “I have made up my mind to score it with Powers,” Walt wrote to Roy.

  Later Walt was to learn that Pat Powers was known to the film trade as one of the great New York City slickers, his shenanigans in the early days of movies having become legend. An Irish blacksmith from Buffalo, Powers shouldered his way into the infant business by bootlegging cameras from the Patents Company, which owned the rights to film equipment. In 1912 Powers battled with Carl Laemmle for control of Universal. One day Powers and a gang of strong-arm men claimed the props and furniture at Universal and carried them away in vans. During a board meeting at 1600 Broadway, Powers declined to turn over the company’s financial records to Laemmle; instead he threw them out the third-floor window. Laemmle eventually bought out his antagonist, and Powers continued his dealings in the industry. By 1928 he had returned to his beginnings—using pirated equipment. His Cinephone system was based on other people’s patents.

  The twenty-six-year-old cartoon maker from California was overwhelmed by Powers’ Irish charm. Walt wrote home: “Powers is a very big and influential guy….He is all wrapped up in his work….He is personally taking care of me….He is big enough that if he wants Adolph Zukor [head of Paramount] to look at it he simply calls him and says, ‘Come on over, Adolph, and give it a look.’”

  Walt gave Powers a deposit of $500, telling Roy to “be sure and have enough money in the account to meet the check.” Walt had been in New York only a week, but already he was wearying of big-city life, and even Steamboat Willie itself.

  “Personally I am sick of this picture Steamboat Willie. Every time I see it the lousy print spoils everything. Maybe it will be a different looking picture with sound. I sure hope so. I am very nervous and upset and I guess that has a lot to do with my attitude in the matter. This DAMN TOWN is enough to give anybody the HEEBIE JEEBIES. I sure wish I was home. I sure wouldn’t make a good traveling salesman. I can’t mix with strangers and enjoy myself like some people. This is not affecting my attitude toward the matter I came here for. That is the only thing that is on my mind. But I have so much time to kill at night that I almost go nuts.” But in the letter he quickly recovered from depression and urged Ub to go forward with the fourth Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Barn Dance.

  When the time came for the recording session, Walt learned that seventeen musicians would be required, plus three trap drummers and sound-effects men. “I argued till I was blue in the face for a very small orchestra,” Walt wrote Roy, offering the consolation: “This is our first picture. It has got to be a wow. On the strength of it we are going to sell the entire series.”

  After the recording session on September 15, Walt telegraphed Roy:


  Walt had tried to hide his own crushing disappointment over the expensive failure. Conductor Edouarde had disregarded Walt’s system of synchronizing music to film, declaring he could match the action by watching the screen. But the cartoon moved too fast for the musicians to follow. In California, Roy was struggling to find money for another recording session. Walt contributed what to him was an extreme sacrifice: Roy was given permission to sell Walt’s beloved Moon roadster.

  “I am figuring on a good release,” Walt assured Roy and Ub. “I don’t think we will have any trouble getting it; this may mean the making of a big organization out of our little Dump. Why should we let a few dollars jeopardize our chances? I think this is Old Man Opportunity rapping at our door. Let’s don’t let the jingle of a few pennies drown out his knock. See my point? So slap as big a mortgage on everything we got and let’s go after this thing in the right manner.”

  Walt sat at midnight in his lonely room at the Hotel Knickerbocker and typed four-page, single-spaced letters about his New York experiences. Sometimes his desperation showed through: “Well, fellows, I have told you all I know, and then some. It is very hard to put the entire situation on paper. Try and read between the lines. If you knew the entire situation as I do I feel sure you wouldn’t be able to Sleep or Eat. I can’t.” But in most of the letters he retained his native optimism, as when he ended his October 1 message: “All together now—’Are we downhearted?’ HELL NO.” The HELL NO was typed in red.

  For the second recording session, Walt filmed a moving ball on the frames of the film to indicate the musical beats. He persuaded Edouarde to cut down the size of the orchestra and hire only two special-effects men. Walt himself supplied Mickey’s squeaks, Minnie Mouse’s shouts and the voice of a parrot calling “Man overboard! Man overboard!” This time Edouarde followed the beat marks on the screen, and the orchestra finished in perfect synchronization with the film. At last Steamboat Willie had sound. Now all Walt had to do was sell it.

  Pat Powers arranged for showings at the offices of the major distributors, and Walt went from one to another with the same result. He appeared before the receptionist and said, “I’m Walt Disney and I have a cartoon to show.” He was directed to a company official who told him, “Just put it in the projection room and we’ll get to it as soon as we can.” Walt sometimes waited at the projection room for hours as the movie men watched their own product. Finally, one of them said, “Oh, that cartoon thing that fellow brought over—put it on.” Finally Mickey Mouse and Pete appeared on the screen, and Walt listened carefully to determine if their antics got laughs. They did, but when Walt asked for an opinion, the executives replied, “We’ll call you about it” or “We’ll be in touch with Pat Powers.” But no one came up with an offer.

  Walt’s dealings with the film crowd brought both disillusion and wariness. “I have certainly learned a lot about this game already,” he wrote Lilly on October 20. “It is the damnedest mixed-up affair I have ever heard of. It sure demands a shrewd and thoroughly trained mind to properly handle it. There are so damned many angles that continually come up that if a person hasn’t the experience, etc. it would certainly lick one. They are all a bunch of schemers and just full of tricks that would fool a greenhorn. I am
sure glad I got someone to fall back on for advice. I would be like a sheep amongst a pack of wolves. I have utmost confidence and faith in Powers and believe that if we don’t try to rush things too fast that we will get a good deal out of this. We will all just have to have patience and confidence. I am very optimistic about everything and want you all to feel the same way. I really think our big chance is here.”

  Walt was convinced that Steamboat Willie was a winner, and he couldn’t understand why the companies weren’t flocking to sign up a series of Mickey Mouse cartoons. It was explained to him by a show-business veteran, Harry Reichenbach: “Those guys don’t know what’s good until the public tells them.”

  Reichenbach was a colorful promoter-publicist who was operating the Colony Theater in New York for Universal Pictures. He had seen Steamboat Willie during one of the projection-room screenings and thought it would create a sensation. “I want to put that cartoon in the Colony,” he said.

  “Gee, I don’t know,” Walt replied. “I’m afraid that if I run it at a Broadway house, it’ll take the edge off my chances to sell it to a distributor.”

  “No, it won’t,” said the persuasive Reichenbach. “You can chase that cartoon all over town and those companies won’t buy. Not until the public tells ‘em it’s good. Let me run it for two weeks so the press can see it. You’ll get good reviews, and the people will come in droves. I’ll give you five hundred dollars a week.” Walt was immediately convinced. That was more money than anyone had ever paid to play a cartoon in a single theater. The $1,000 was desperately needed to shore up the Disney finances.

  Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater on November 18, 1928, and it was the sensation that Walt had dreamed it would be. The bill featured a talking movie, Gang War, starring Olive Borden and Jack Pickford, and a stage show headed by Ben Bernie and his orchestra. But the patrons left the theater talking about Steamboat Willie, billed as “the FIRST animated cartoon with SOUND.” Variety reported: “It’s a peach of a synchronization job all the way, bright, snappy and fitting the situation perfectly….With most of the animated cartoons qualifying as a pain in the neck, it’s a signal tribute to this particular one….Recommended unreservedly for all wired houses.” Weekly Film Review: “It kept the audience laughing and chuckling from the moment the lead titles came on the screen, and it left them applauding.” Exhibitor’s Herald: “It is impossible to describe this riot of mirth, but it knocked me out of my seat.”

  Even the New York Times took note of the first sound cartoon by Walter Disney, described as the creator of Oswald the Rabbit and now of “a new cartoon character henceforth to be known as ‘Mickey Mouse.’” The Times critic conceded that the film was “an ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun. It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality.”

  Night after night Walt stood at the back of the theater and listened to the warm, fresh waves of laughter that greeted the cartoon images on the screen. Reichenbach had been right; at last the film companies were calling Walt Disney to come in and discuss a deal. Walt was so encouraged by the prospects that he sent for Carl Stalling to join him and start writing the scores for Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho.

  Walt’s homesickness showed in his letters to California. He began one to Lilly: “Dear Little Sweetheart: I have just returned from a little shopping tour. I bought me a pair of pigskin gloves (something like the ones I used to have). It is so cold here now that I really needed them. It is now about six o’clock and I haven’t had anything to eat since about nine o’clock this morning. Carl developed a headache about two o’clock and had to go to bed. He is just sort of upset over the trip….I am as hungry as the Devil right now, but will wait until he is ready. By that time I will sure be good and hungry. I wish I could sit down to one of my Mama’s meals???”

  The talks with film distributors followed the same pattern. They asked how much he wanted to be paid each week for producing Mickey Mouse. He replied that he didn’t want to be paid by the week, that he had his own studio and wanted to remain independent. They answered that they would either hire him by the week or buy the cartoons outright. No, said Walt, he had to own the cartoons himself. No deal, said the distributors.

  The only company that gave Walt encouragement was Universal, for whom he had created Oswald. When Walt reported to the Universal offices for a conference, he was startled to find Charles Mintz waiting in the reception room. Walt did not believe in bearing grudges, and he gave a cordial greeting to the man who had taken away Oswald and most of the Disney staff. Inside, the Universal bosses said they wanted Mickey Mouse and would give Walt a contract assuring a healthy profit. But Universal would retain control. The offer was tempting, but Walt still said no.

  “I agree with you,” said Pat Powers. “You should remain independent, and I am willing to help you. I want to promote Cinephone. That’s my only interest: promoting Cinephone. Your Mickey Mouse can do it for me. I’ll make you a better deal than any of the majors. I’ll sell rights to the cartoons in each state, and I’ll pay for the salesmen and all the expenses. I’ll advance you the money you need to make the cartoons, and I’ll take only ten percent of the gross.”

  The offer seemed far more attractive than any from the major companies, and Walt agreed to it. He and Carl Stalling added sound to Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and the newly completed The Barn Dance. Walt’s New York ordeal was over at last, and he could return to Lilly in triumph. He came home with a brand-new contract and $2,500 in cash—more money than he had ever seen before.

  Roy considered the Powers contract far from triumphant. For the first time since they had entered business together, the two brothers had a stormy argument. Shaking the contract at Walt, Roy exploded, “Did you read this? Do you know what you promised?” He read the provisions for Disney to pay $26,000 a year for ten years’ use of the Cinephone equipment. “What the hell,” Walt replied, “I needed the equipment.”

  Powers shipped the sound system to the Hyperion studio, and Walt began producing Mickey Mouse sound cartoons. His animation staff was expanding, as the result of his recruitment of cartoonists in New York. Ben Sharpsteen and Bert Gillett joined him in the spring of 1929, and Jack King and Norm Ferguson arrived a few months later. The spark plug of the staff remained Ub Iwerks, who turned out a prodigious number of drawings every day. He timed the action to a musical beat, since the Mickeys were scored by Carl Stalling with songs. The timing was recorded on an exposure sheet, which Ub kept by his animation table. The exposure sheets caused the first squabble between Walt and Ub. Nearly every night, Walt returned to the studio to attend to business matters and to review the cartoon work that had been done that day; Lilly often accompanied him and fell asleep on the couch while he worked until early morning. Walt studied Ub’s drawings and prepared exposure sheets for them. Ub seldom displayed emotion, but he was upset by this invasion of his artistic function. Walt’s timing was not what he had planned, Ub snapped, and he wanted no such interference. Walt agreed to let Ub make his own exposure sheets.

  On his next visit to New York, Walt witnessed the growing popularity of Mickey Mouse. He wrote Lilly that The Barn Dance “went over very well” at the Strand Theater on Broadway, and he added: “The Strand has a big cutout of Mickey in the lobby and gives it as much space as any of their other sound shorts. I am enclosing a programme—this shows how much prominence they give it. Mickey Mouse is getting to be a very familiar character on Broadway—he is what is known as a ‘HIT.’The exchange men that buy them all give lots of praise for their cleverness—they all claim they are the cleverest sound shorts on the market. All the salesmen consider it their best asset in approaching customers—I am thankful for all the nice things that are said about them and I hope we will be able to prove to them that it is not an accident but a consistent standard.”

  Walt was immensely pleased with Mickey’s ascendancy, but he had vague misgivings. Prosperity would permit him to build his organizati
on and heighten the quality of the cartoons, but the studio would be forced to produce shorts, one after another, starring the same character. Walt had gone through that with Alice and Oswald, and he found it stultifying.

  During a New York recording session, Carl Stalling suggested a different kind of cartoon, a graveyard frolic to be animated to Grieg’s “March of the Dwarfs.” When Walt returned to the studio, he and Ub devised a storyline with skeletons floating out of graves and dancing a bony gavotte. Les Clark contributed some of the animation, but most of it was done by Ub, working with more than his usual industry. He insisted on animating every frame of his sequences, and his stubbornness led to arguments with Walt, who reasoned that it was wasteful for the studio’s best animator to make drawings that the in-betweeners could readily accomplish. The incident brought further friction between Walt and Ub.

  But Walt, in a February 9, 1929, letter, when he returned to New York, sent encouragement to his chief collaborator: “I am glad the spook dance is progressing so nicely—give her Hell, Ubbe—make it funny and I am sure we will be able to place it in a good way. I have them all worked up and raring to see it—so we can’t disappoint them—we have a wonderful score to it. The music sounds like a little symphony. I feel positive everything will fit the picture properly….”

  On the following day he wrote to Lilly: “I feel positive the ‘Spook Dance’ will make a real hit when shown. Everyone praises Ubbe’s art work and jokes at his funny name. The oddness of Ubbe’s name is an asset in a way—it makes people look twice when they see it. Tell Ubbe that the New York animators take off their hats to his animation and all of them know who we are.”

  Walt planned to release The Skeleton Dance as the first of a new series of cartoons to be called Silly Symphonies, each a new subject without continuing characters. The series would permit him and his animators to experiment with new story material and new techniques. He dispatched a print of The Skeleton Dance to Pat Powers, suggesting that he screen it for potential customers. Powers replied: “They don’t want this. MORE MICE.”


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