–Not Always Living The Dream!
By Graham Hill
We talk about some people and even ourselves as being in our own world – well if there was ever someone who spent his whole life in his own world – it’s Walt Disney.
Unlike all the rest of us though, he would not just simply talk or dream about it –he went out and made it happen. As one of the greatest iconic names to come out of the 20th century, he was also one of its greatest self-promoters, if not the greatest. Whether you grew up with his animation on the silver screen, tuned-in to his weekly TV show or visited one of his theme parks.
The Disney name was everywhere, in every part of the world and on scores of products that you just felt compelled to buy. Even in death, his name and his influence is still very much alive. He commands a reverence that even a saint would envy.
But Walt Disney despite all the praise and bally-hoo -was no saint. He was just a man. A man who as you’re about to discover, was full of the same contradictions and complexities as the rest of us.
I never personally met this very special man, but as a life-long admirer and Hollywood historian, I feel I’ve come to know him. Not being influenced or blinded by the sheer scope of his achievements, I’d like to offer my own personal take on his life, putting it into a more human perspective or scale, that also reflects the era in which he lived as much as the impact he had on it.
As a cartoonist or animator, Walt Disney would probably be rated as just fair. I’ll not go into all his early history and biographical detail, for that I refer you to the numerous sources. Those historically accurate perspectives are more than valid, but they generally have to follow an approach that doesn’t conflict with the studio’s mythical and almost religious devotion to its founder and greatest asset.
In 1901, Queen Victoria died and Walter Elias Disney was born. It marked the end of the colonial British Empire and the beginning of the American rise to being both a super-power and a technological trend setter.
The cartoon as we know it now was already alive and well and had been since its birth in 1841, with the first publication of the British satirical magazine Punch. Motion pictures were now in their teens, sound and color still had another generation to go. And the first animated cartoon was not going to make its debut till 1908.
When Walt and his older brother Roy started an animation studio in Kansas City, it is close friend and all-around technical wizard Ub Iwerks who is partnered with them.
On the returning journey home from visiting the double-crossing distributor who was handling their product at the time, Walt and his wife Lillian are determined to come up with a new cartoon character that they can not only call their own, but one that they actually can own! “Mortimer Mouse” is what Walt calls him, but Lillian talks him into calling their rodent savior “Mickey Mouse”.
The basic crude drawing that he made on the train, will soon be refined and defined by Iwerks, who besides being a much better animator was also a fast animator with an unassuming disposition that didn’t seek out credit or reward.
Being able to pick and surround himself with the right talented people at the right time, when he needed them the most, became the most single attribute that would define Walt Disney himself. Ambition and drive he had in abundance, but Walt was an “ideas” man. His brother Roy would be the one who was always faced with the task of making it financially happen.
Walt would always be dependent on others to physically turn his dreams or “ideas” into reality. Iwerks wasn’t just his top animator, he was also his most creative. To put it mildly, throughout the 1920’s Ub Iwerks was Disney animation.