December 18, 2006

A tribute to Walt Disney

I took this directly from a newsletter I subscribed to. (Looking Back ... with Ken Tate, Dec. 13, 2006: Remembering Walt Disney)

Trivia Questions:
1: Where did the EPCOT Center at Disney World in Florida get its name?

2: What was Mickey Mouse's original name?

See the answers at the end of this e-letter.

Got a trivia question? See the link at the end of this e-letter to ask Ken. You might see your question in the next issue of Looking Back.

Don McLean wrote a song, American Pie, released in 1971 in which he mourned "the day the music died" (referring to the death of Buddy Holly in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959). I suppose, therefore, that this Friday would mark the 40th anniversary of "the day the magic died." Or perhaps it was "the day the laughter died." Yet again, maybe it was "the day the fantasy died."

Call it what you will, Dec. 15, 1966, was the day Walter Elias Disney died of lung cancer at the much-too-young age of 65.

Walt Disney was an American icon who went from hardscrabble days during his childhood to heading one of the greatest entertainment empires of all time. His films, cartoons, documentaries and short subjects carried positive messages to audiences of all ages. But his greatest accomplishment was to put fairy dust into the minds of millions of children all over the world.

Walt was born on Dec. 5, 1901, in Chicago, one of five children of Elias and Flora Disney. Elias moved the family to Marceline, Mo., when Walt was about 5 years old. That north-central Missouri farming community was Walt's haven until the family moved to Kansas City in 1910. In later years he wrote: "Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us... To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have ever happened since -- or are likely to in the future."

By the time he entered high school, Walt's family was back in Chicago and he was already honing his natural talent as an artist in night classes at the Chicago Art Institute.

Disney dropped out of school to join the Army and serve in World War I, but, at the age of 16, he was too young. After his mother forged a change in his birth certificate to say he was born in 1900, Walt was accepted into the Red Cross. For the next year he drove a Red Cross ambulance in France (see photograph), and adorned its canvas walls with Disney characters.

After the war, Walt and a friend opened a commercial art business in Kansas City, but it quickly failed. Walt moved to Hollywood with $40 in his wallet and an unfinished cartoon in his suitcase. Enlisting his brother Roy, who had earlier moved to Los Angeles, as moral support and financial backer, the two formed Disney Studios.

After several successes and failures, Walt conceived the idea of a new character -- a mouse named Mickey. After two silent cartoons featuring the whimsical rodent, Mickey Mouse was featured in the first animated talkie, Steamboat Willie, which debuted on Nov. 18, 1928.

The growing success of Disney Studios brought an unforeseen change in Walt's life: On July 13, 1925, he married Lillian Bounds, one of the studio's first employees. Walt and Lillian had a daughter, Diane, born in 1933. They then adopted a second daughter, Sharon, a year later.

Walt was known as the consummate father and family man. He wasn't a Hollywood socialite, preferring dinner at home with his wife and daughters to cocktail parties. His daughter Diane once said about him: "Daddy never missed a father's function no matter how I discounted it. I'd say, 'Oh, Daddy, you don't need to come. It's just some stupid thing.' But he'd always be there, on time."

Perhaps Walt's biggest gamble was when the studio spent nearly $1.5 million in the depths of the Great Depression to produce the world's first full-length animated musical movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When the feature premiered on Dec. 21, 1937, it was hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of motion pictures. The film brought in over $8 million -- the equivalent of nearly $100 million today.

The success of Snow White birthed other animated full-length features like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo, not to mention cartoon-short characters like Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto, but it also brought about one of the great tragedies of Walt's life. In 1938, buoyed by the movie's income, Walt and Roy bought their parents a new home close to the studios. In less than a month, their mother Flora Disney was dead due to asphyxiation caused by a faulty furnace. Flora had been one of Walt's chief cheerleaders during the tough years. In Walt's mind, his success had become a contributing factor to her death, and the guilt stayed with him for the rest of his life.

In 1950, a weekly television program, Disneyland, premiered on ABC. Walt used the new medium to familiarize the public with his new venture, a theme park in Anaheim, Calif., by the same name. Disneyland opened in 1955, the first of what would become a growing empire of amusement parks around the world. The same year the studio debuted The Mickey Mouse Club, a daily children's show that became wildly popular with Baby Boomers.

The television show changed its name to Walt Disney Presents after 1955. It then became Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1961 with the advent of color TV technology. The show took its last name, The Wonderful World of Disney, and aired under that name until 2005.

Trivia answers:
#1: EPCOT is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Walt envisioned EPCOT to improve conditions in American cities, but his ideas never came to fruition in his lifetime. Walt Disney World began development shortly before Walt's death. The resort and the Magic Kingdom Park opened in 1971; the EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World opened in 1982.

#2: The mouse's original name was Mortimer, but Lillian Disney, Walt's wife, disliked the name and convinced Walt to rename him Mickey. Some have claimed that Mickey Mouse was named after Mickey Rooney, who was in those days a very popular child actor, but it is difficult to verify that claim.

Here are some helpful links if you would like to read more about Walt Disney:

Just Disney
Walt Disney

Photo credits


Blogger imluna47 said...

Zar, Walt Disney's nephew lived here until he died about eight years ago. He was a Dr of Geology,and he taught at Crowder College,in Neosho,MO. His wife is still alive, I believe. The family home is on Cyclone Road, down by Pineville, Missouri. It is about ten miles from where I live. Since the Disney family has roots here in Missouri, and they have purchased a 500 acre tract in Jane, Mo, there is some conjecture that there may be plans in the making to build a new theme park here in our area, because the area is growing by leaps and bounds. Just thought you would like to know! Later, Di

Dec 29, 2006, 4:09:00 AM  

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