top of page

Media Essays: The Story Of The Man Behind The Mouse

Title card

Written by TCH2

Greetings and salutations, friends and readers and fans! I am Thomas Holmes II! And...

(Takes a deep breath)


Yes, it's hard to believe that this animation god has been around for a hundred years, but, well, here we are. Disney themselves are honouring the occasion with a film about the iconic wishing star; fans everywhere have been doing fan tributes across the Internet; the Media Man has been giving ten facts about Disney each month this year; and I himself have been doing Disney Sing-Alongs!

But alongside all that, I've decided to write a biography devoted to the man who started it all. I know obituaries are generally written for recent deaths, but it seems the best term for this article.

So, get ready to fly, wish upon a star and feel the magic. This is the story of the Man Behind the Mouse himself: Walt Disney!

From a Horse to a Company

'I think of a child's mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly.'

Walt Disney

The man whose name would become the most iconic in media history, like so many other famous people, had humble origins. Walter Elias Disney was born in Hermosa, Chicago on the 5th of December, 1901. The fourth son of Elias and Flora Disney, his first home, and the place he was born, was 1249 Tripp Avenue, which, believe it or not, still stands to this very day! I'm not kidding; look it up!

Anyways, at age four, Walt moved with his family to Marceline, Missouri, where they settled on a farm. It's said that Marceline inspired the design of Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland. While living there, two of Walt's biggest passions would be written deeply into the book that was his mind.

One of them was drawing, when he was paid to draw the horse of his neighbourhood doctor who had just retired. Yeah, it was a horse that started it all. Guess it's no wonder that one of Mickey's friends, Horace, is a horse. Walt then took to copying the cartoons of Ryan Walker out of the Appeal to Reason newspaper as practice for his craft. He was particularly adept at painting with watercolours and crayons. Always remarkable to think of where great things came from, eh?

His other big passion was trains. His farm was near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line, where his uncle worked as engineer. Walt and his classmates would often marvel at the massive iron workhorses that passed through the town. He was even once dared to climb into the cab of a deserted engine and blow the whistle. Walt 'ran like the dickens' at the whistle's shriek, as he later recalled.

When Walt was 9 or 10, the family moved to Kansas City. It was at Benton Grammar School that Walt's true passion was awakened. His classmate, Walter Pfeiffer, swept Walt away by introducing him to vaudeville and motion pictures. Fascinated by the possibilities of such arts, Walt took Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute and correspondence course on cartooning. His journey to becoming an animation god had truly begun.

After doing propaganda for newspapers and serving as an ambulance driver in World War I (the latter mostly after the armistice), Walt joined the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in October 1919 as an apprentice artist. There, he met who would become his life-long friend and collaborator, Ubbe Ert Iwerks, or Ub Iwerks, as he's better known.

Over the next 3 years, Walt and Ub began their first venture into the world of animation. They started by doing commercials in Kansas City, using cut-out animation. However, Walt felt cel animation was more promising, and so, he set up a new business - the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. It was there, that in July 1922, he released his first ever cartoon - Little Red Riding Hood, which you can actually find on YouTube.

Though these cartoons showed plenty of promise, they didn't generate enough income to keep Laugh-O-Grams afloat, and the company filed for bankruptcy in July 1923. Undeterred, Walt moved to Hollywood to meet up with his brother Roy, where he landed his big break in October working for Margaret J. Winkler to produce the Alice Comedies. These short films were to be produced by the brothers' newly-founded studio, which opened its doors on October 16th 1923 as the Disney Brothers Studio, with Ub soon joining them as chief animator. The Disney Brothers Studio would eventually be renamed The Walt Disney Company in January 1926. Thus, an animation and media giant was born.

Starting With A Mouse (Or A Rabbit, To Be More Precise)

'I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing...that it all started with a mouse.'

Walt Disney

By July 1927, Walt had tired of the Alice Comedies, and decided to transition to making all-animated shorts. And so, when Margaret's husband Charles Mintz requested new material for Universal to distribute, Walt and Ub created their true breakout character: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who hit screens in the short Trolley Troubles. Oswald was one of the first cartoon characters to be given a full personality, described by Disney Archives director Rebecca Cline as 'charming, lovable, a bit naughty and truly appealed to audiences.' Unfortunately, Walt's fortune didn't last: he discovered that Universal held the rights to Oswald, and most of his animators left him to work for Mintz after the latter started his own studio.

Fortunately, Walt and Ub were able to bounce big-time from this major blow. While the exact origins of their next character remain a mystery even after 95 years, in 1928, audiences were treated to the three shorts Steamboat Willie, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, which introduced them to the most iconic cartoon character of all time: physically designed by Ub and given a soul by Walt, Mickey Mouse!

These three shorts were notable for being some of the first to have synchronised sounds, inspired by The Jazz Singer. And this was just the beginning of Walt Disney's drive to experiment with various new techniques for animation, as well as storytelling.

Creativity and Innovation:

'It's no secret that we were sticking just about every nickel we had on the chance that people would really be interested in something totally new and unique in the field of entertainment.'

Walt Disney

It's no secret that Walt Disney was responsible for continuously pushing the boundaries of animation more than anyone else. In addition to pioneering synchronised sounds in animation, he produced the first commercial film in full-colour three-strip Technicolor Flowers and Trees, which won him the first of his many Academy Awards.

Another innovation, this one story-related, came about with the Silly Symphony short Three Little Pigs, which is considered the most successful animated short in history and won Walt his second Academy Award. The short placed a great emphasis on well-developed and compelling characters, as Walt had realised the importance of telling emotionally-investing stories to draw the audience and not let them go. Thus, he henceforth had storyboard artists to detail all his subsequent material.

In 1937, the world was graced with the first-ever full-length, full coloured animated film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite naysayers snidely commenting that it was sure to be a failure, Snow White was a huge hit with critics and audiences. Notably, this film popularised the use of the multi-plane camera, which placed various pieces of drawn artwork on top of each other and moved them in different speeds to give the sense of depth to the animation. This was followed by Pinocchio, which broke new grounds in effects animation, with realistic vehicle movements and natural effects with rain, water, lightning and more; Fantasia, which applied Fantasound, a sound reproduction system that made it the first film shown in stereo; and Bambi, which animated animals realistically as opposed to the cartoony ways of previous films. These four movies, along with Dumbo, comprised the era that the Walt Disney Family Museum now refers to as the 'Golden Age of Animation', even if it was blighted by the studio's financial losses due to WWII preventing European distribution. Said losses nearly plunged the company into bankruptcy until the release of Cinderella in 1950.

Over a decade later, though he was less involved by this time, Walt would oversee the production of more films that employed new techniques: Lady and the Tramp, which used CinemaScope for widescreen; Sleeping Beauty, shot in Technirama 70mm film allowing for sharper, high-res images and more angular character designs; and One Hundred and One Dalmatians, made with Xerox cells which had the drawings copied directly onto the film cels.

Other interests:

'I don't want the public to see the world they live in while they're in the park. I want them to feel they're in another world.'

Walt Disney

By this point, though, Walt had branched out from simply doing animation. He had produced live-action films, such as Treasure Island; nature documentaries; a TV variety series The Mickey Mouse Club; and he had invested in the building and subsequent opening of a theme park designed to appeal to both children and their parents. And so, in July 1955, overseen by WED Industries, Disneyland was opened in Anaheim, California. In addition to its Main Street, U.S.A. being based, as previous mentioned, on his hometown of Marceline, the park also used a narrow-gauge railway to carry visitors around from one part of the park to another - the Disneyland Railroad, one of the park's most popular attractions. This had been inspired by Walt's own miniature railway, built in the backyard of his Holmby Hills home.

(On a side note, I wonder if Walt had any thoughts on the Railways Series?)

Notably, the company that built it and all subsequent parks, WED Industries, would lately be named Walt Disney Imagineering in 1986. The name 'Imagineering', coined by Alcoa in the 1940s as a portmanteau of imagination and engineering, exemplified Walt's belief in putting creative endeavours into practice.

Speaking of theme parks, in 1964, Walt was approached about designing projects for the 1964/65 New York World's Fair, which celebrated the achievements of nations around the world, and was the pinnacle of Walt's values for both futurism and worldwide co-operation. Inspired by the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco, Walt designed four new attractions for the Fair, all based around the new technology of Audio-Animatronics - 'It's a Small World', 'Carousel of Progress', 'Ford's Magic Skyway' and 'Great Moments with Mr Lincoln'. All these would eventually find their way into Disney theme parks.

So, yeah; by this point, Walt Disney was many things - an artist, an animator, a film producer, a TV show-runner, an entrepreneur and a designer of theme parks and their rides. This man was constantly expanding his horizons. And he almost went even further.

A City of Tomorrow That Never Was:

'E.P.C.O.T will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. It will always be showcasing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.'

Walt Disney

In 1962, Walt began making plans for his biggest project yet: a city of the future. We all know of Epcot today as one of the theme parks that make up Walt Disney World, but originally it was known as E.P.C.O.T. - the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Designed to be the basis of inspiration for new urban living conditions, E.P.C.O.T. would be a model community housing 20,000 residents with underground traffic, monorails and PeopleMovers for carrying people about above ground, schools and recreational complexes, an airport, a connecting theme park called Magic Kingdom, and more.

Walt poured most of his time and energy into making this project a reality. He used dummy corporations to purchase 27,800 acres of swampland in Florida between Orlando and Kissimmee. He petitioned with Florida's State Legislature for municipal jurisdiction over said land. He even made models and drawings of his planned community, and did a film to promote it. You can find more information here:

Sadly, it was not to be. Walt had been a heavy smoker since WWI. In November 1966, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was eventually taken to St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank, California. However, he was not discouraged from his dream of E.P.C.O.T., and apparently continued to make plans for it in his ward. Alas, before the Disney board could finalise their decision to build E.P.C.O.T., Walt Disney quietly passed away on 15th December 1966, just ten days after his 65th birthday. He was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California, having produced 81 films in his life, and won 22 Academy Awards out of 59 nominations, a record that has never been equalled since.

With its leading man dead, the Disney board ultimately pulled the plug on the E.P.C.O.T. project. But not all was lost. Walt's brother Roy came out of retirement to take over, and managed to win approval for the construction of Magic Kingdom. And, in October 1971, nearly five years after Walt's death, the first section of what would become the largest theme park in the world, Walt Disney World - named in the man's honour - was opened.

Character and legacy:

'I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink.'

Walt Disney

It is often said we are our own worst critics, and Walt Disney was no exception. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood and Walt's own biographer Richard Schickel described him as prone to shyness, insecurity and self-deprecation, which he knowingly hid behind a bashful tycoon façade. He was also described by New Republic critic Otis Ferguson as a common and everyday man in his private life.

All this shows that Walt Disney wasn't in it for money or fame; that he was never proud or conceited, despite his high expectations; and that he never forgot what was important to him.

Walt has many quotes attributed to him that speak volumes about the kind of man he was:

'Disneyland is a work of love. We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.'

'A man should never neglect his family for business.'

'You're dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.'

'I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous.'

'We don't make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.'

And there are many more that I simply cannot all include. But I can say beyond doubt that Walt Disney is the kind of man we should all strive to be like in our own unique way - passionate, varied, innovative, humble, optimistic, curious, respectful and more.

Walt Disney, wherever you are, I, as well as countless people around the world from the past 100 years, cannot thank you enough for everything you brought us, and everything that came after you. True, not everything that came after you was good, and the company isn't as wholesome as it once was. But as long as we remember you, the true heart of Disney will never forgotten. It may have all started with a Mouse, but that Mouse started with an imaginative and aspiring farm-boy.

Walt Disney

'If you can dream it, you can do it.'

Walter Elias Disney

5th December 1901 - 15 December 1966

20 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page