The Walt Disney Story
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The Struggling Years

He returned home at about the age of 19, to tell his parents he was going to be an artist. His father would not hear of it and Walt could not convince him it was the right decision. Walt moved to Kansas City to try to find a job as a political cartoonist. After much discouragement, Walt found a job with the Gray Advertising Company for $50 a month. After the Christmas rush was over, Walt was let go because of business became slow. As he was packing up to leave, he met Ub Iwerks, another young artist that had just been let go also.

They decided to join forces and start their own graphics business. During this time, Ub found an ad for a cartoonist for a company that makes movie theater cartoons. Walt applied for the job and got it. But he wasn't satisfied with the method used to make these cartoons and began trying to perfect they way they were made. When he did, he tried to sell his work to theaters. But it was a more expensive format and businessmen were not very willing to over extend themselves. When his work began to catch on, he and Ub raised $15,000 to start the Laugh-O-Gram Company. These cartoons contained so much humor and imagination that a film distributor in New York offered to send them to theaters all over the world... and business was booming!


Laugh O Grams Screen title                              Laugh O Grams office-May 1923

This was the birth of a series of cartoons to be called "Alice in Cartoonland". The concept used a live actress and film against a plain white background. Later the cartoon figures would be drawn in. A New York distributor loved the idea and they sent a sample cartoon. Unfortunately, the New York distributors were using Walt and Ub's work and not paying for it. At the age of twenty-two, Walt put Laugh-O-Grams into bankruptcy.

Walt lived sparingly for quite a while, looking for jobs, living in the old Laugh-O-Gram studio, and barely eating. When he finally had enough money to leave Kansas City, Walt decided to go to Hollywood because his brother Roy was there in a Veteran's hospital recovering from tuberculosis.

When Walt Disney arrived in California, he schemed his way into many major studios trying to get hired. But no one was willing to take a chance on a young director with no experience. Then Walt received a letter from a New York distributor that was impressed with the "Alice in Cartoonland" series and offered to buy them. Walt asked for Roy's help. And the two brothers were in business. Walt did the drawings and Roy operated the camera and handled the finances. They set up a studio in a small room behind a real estate office. "Alice in Cartoonland" became so popular that the Disney brothers needed help and Walt called Ub Iwerks. They also hired a girl to fill in the drawings; then another girl to help out and finally a third - Lillian Bounds. Lillian listed endlessly to Walt - the 23 year old artists - and often took him home to her sister's house for dinner because she felt he was so undernourished. Shortly, thereafter, Lillian and Walt were married.

Early studio staff

By 1927, Walt realized he had gone as far as he could with the "Alice" series. Walt needed a new star and came up with a long eared rabbit named Oswald. It was "Oswald the Rabbit" that established Walt Disney as a leading cartoon-maker in the film industry. They were turning out 2 or 3 cartoons a month.

  As Oswald's popularity grew, Walt wanted to perfect the process by which the cartoons were made. This would cost more money. But the distributors did not want to pay more, they wanted to pay less. Walt felt that he could convince the distributor better in person. So he went to New York and took Lillian with him.

The distributor would not hear any of Walt's ideas. Walt tried to convince them that they needed the changes to make Oswald more appealing so the public doesn't get tired of him. When Walt was very angry, he said he would take Oswald elsewhere. That is when Walt found out that the distributor owned the rights to Oswald due to fine print in their contract. Walt and Roy lost Oswald the Rabbit and were again out of a job.

Telegram from Walt to Roy reassuring him everything is OK

On the train back to California, Walt worked feverishly on his new character - a mouse. It was during the time of Charles Lindbergh's flight in 1927 and Walt's new cartoon, Plane Crazy was influenced by the times. Walt showed Lillian his new character and told her he was going to call him Mortimer Mouse. Lillian hated the name, so they came up with Mickey Mouse. When Walt and Lillian arrived in Hollywood with a whole new character and concept, Roy was very enthusiastic.

They worked very hard on Mickey Mouse. Walt wanted Mickey to look more human, so he gave him human hands and covered them with gloves. Four fingers were easier to draw then 5, so Mickey had 4 fingers. At last Plane Crazy was completed. It previewed at a local theater with a wonderful response. But something was lacking. The Disney Group continued on the next Mickey cartoon, Gallopin' Gaucho. But still the theaters were not interested. The film industry was beginning to use sound in it's pictures. So Walt began work on the third Mickey Mouse with sound. It will be called Steamboat Willie.

The premiere of Steamboat Willie was in New York City at The Colony Theater on November 18, 1928. With the success of Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse became a star. Film companies from everywhere wanted Mickey Mouse cartoons.