The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod     


Walt Disney, the Early Years

August 30, 2012


A businessman of colossal vision and skill, Walt Disney built a wildly successful empire around the artform of animated cartoons and film entertainment. Along with commercial talent, he was also capable with pen and drawing board. A skilled artist, Walt Disney drew talking animals with personality; decades later the characters he devised are still beloved the world over..


Seven years old. That is how old Walt Disney was when he sold his first sketches. A born creator, Disney was drawing, sketching, and painting as a young child, and then the entrepreneurial boy began selling his works of art.

Born on December 5, 1901, Walter Elias Disney was the fourth of five children of parents Flora and Elias Disney. Walt and his siblings Herbert, Raymond, Roy and little sister Ruth lived in Chicago, Illinois until 1906. Apparently worried about rising criminal activity in the city, Elias moved his family to a farm near Marceline, Missouri.


Moving the family to Kansas City, Missouri six years later, the Disney children found new interests. In particular, Walt developed a love of trains. The penchant for railways ran in the family - his uncle Michael Martin was a train engineer and Walt's childhood home was near the Santa Fe Rail Line.

But Walt Disney's first summer job when he was a teenager wasn't in the creative field. Instead, he worked "with the railroad, selling newspapers, popcorn and sodas to travelers," said Walt Disney's 100th Birthday Celebration"During his life Walt would often try to recapture the freedom he felt when aboard those trains, by building his won miniature train set." Disney later built an 1/8-scale railroad in his backyard. He dubbed his train the "Carolwood Pacific" and also called it the "Lilly Bell" after his wife..

Walt Disney at Laugh-O-Grams Desk  
Walt Disney's "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit"  
Walt Disney Creating Laugh-O-Grams, © Walt Disney  

Attending McKinley High School in Chicago, Disney studied photography and art. He contributed his cartoons to the school newspaper. "At night," said, "he took courses at the Chicago Art Institute."

Teachers made use of the talented young man, asking him to give talks to the class while sketching illustrations on the board. Perhaps those were a form of Chalk Talks!

When World War One broke out, Disney dropped his school work and signed up for duty. He was rejected - Disney was only 16 years old. It didn't stop him, though. Instead, he joined the Red Cross "and was send to France for a year to drive an ambulance," stated

Walt Disney's "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." © Walt Disney Corporation  

Returning from overseas in 1919, Disney's brother Roy found him a job with Pesman-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City. There he met a future great cartoonist and illustrator - Ub Iwerks.

Next working at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Disney made advertisements using time consuming cut-out animation. While there, he dabbled in animation using hand-drawn cels. So pleased with his product, Disney opened his own studio. The company was called "Laugh-O-Grams." Disney hired creator Fred Harmon, and as business flourished, also hired Ub Iwerks.

"They did a series of seven-minute fairy tales that combined both live action and animation," said, calling the clips The Alice Comedies.. By 1923, however, the studio had become burdened with debt and Disney was forced into bankruptcy." Disney's dream remained front and centre; he was still only 22 years old.

Walt Disney Drawing Mickey Mouse

Partnering with his brother in California, Walt and Roy pooled their money and then borrowed a few hundred dollars to get a new business started. The men "set up shop in their uncle's garage." said Walt Disney's 100th Birthday Celebration, and "soon, they received an order from New York for the first Alice in Cartoonland (The Alice comedies) featurette." Expanding out of the garage, the animation studio Disney Bros. Studios moved to a space behind a real estate office.

"Roy operates a secondhand camera while two girls were hired to ink & paint the celluloids," noted Walt Disney Timeline. "Walt does the animation."

One of Disney's employees was more to his liking than the others. On July 13, 1925, Disney married Lillian Bounds, one of the inker girls. The Disneys would later raise two girls, Diane and Sharon.

Two years later, the blossoming studio was renamed Walt Disney Studios. He hired Rollin Hamilton as animator.

Walt Disney Drawing Mickey Mouse Character © Walt Disney Corporation  

Ub Iwerks also worked with the studio. Disney designed a new character, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" and sold the rights to Mintz Distribution. "When costs became too high Walt wanted to end distribution. As a r,esult, "Oswald" becomes Mintz's own, and Mintz takes Walt's best animator, Ub Iwerks," said Walt Disney Timeline. It must have been quite a blow to the Disney studio.

The year 1928 was momentous for the creator. The character that would become known and loved world wide was born: Mickey Mouse. Mickey debuted in "Plane Crazy" to great fanfare, then made an even bigger splash in "Steamboat Willie." The Mouse also made technical history with "Steamboat Willie." The film was the first animated cartoon with sound. Mickey Mouse was a star. Disney learned an important lesson from his "Oswald" character. He would never sell his rights away again.

Walt Disney was a star too, and his story was only just beginning. Disney's imaginative future included groundbreaking animation, beloved movies, the joyfilled theme parks Disneyland and Disney World, merchandise, books... and so much more.

Suffering from lung cancer, Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966. An inspiration to creators, the Disney name will not easily be forgotten.

© Susanna McLeod 2012