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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Walter Elias ‘Walt’ Disney: Cartoonist turned Mogul

The cartoonist, actor & entrepreneur pioneered and popularised cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. His company, which owns multiple Disney World and Disney Land amusement parks, is a major global entertainment brand.

inspiring-lives Updated: Sep 06, 2019 12:38 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
As a boy, Walt Disney was interested in drawing and honing his skills by observing popular artist Ryan Walker’s cartoons that appeared in a newspaper.
As a boy, Walt Disney was interested in drawing and honing his skills by observing popular artist Ryan Walker’s cartoons that appeared in a newspaper.(Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Born on December 5, 1901 at Hermosa, Chicago, Disney grew up with four siblings. In 1906, he moved with his family to Marceline, Missouri, where he joined the Park School. Two years later, he again moved to Kansas City and enrolled in the Benton Grammar School there.

Early life

As a boy, Disney was interested in honing his skills by observing popular artist Ryan Walker’s cartoons that appeared in a newspaper. Gradually, he became comfortable using crayons and watercolours. Even though he performed poorly at school, Disney joined a course on Saturdays at the Kansas City Art Institute and enrolled in a distance course in cartooning.

Learning art

At school, a fellow student, Walter Pfeiffer, introduced him to the world of motion pictures that his family was engaged in. In 1917, he returned to Chicago with his family, joined McKinley High School and was the cartoonist of his school paper. He also attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

Career as cartoonist

In 1918, he worked as an ambulance driver with Red Cross and was sent to France, where he continued churning out cartoons. A year later, he returned to Kansas and became an apprentice artist at an art studio. He created illustrations for advertisements and met artist Ub Iwerks, with whom he struck a partnership. In 1920, Disney joined the Kansas City Film Ad Company where he explored animation. He also launched the Laugh-O-Gram studio. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood, where he set up Disney Brothers Studio along with his brother Roy. This later became the Walt Disney Company. He got Iwerks and artist Lillian Bounds (later his wife) to move to California and join the company.

Major breakthrough

In 1927, film distributor Charles Mintz asked Disney and Iwerks to create material for Universal Pictures. They created the first big cartoon character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Mintz took the rights of this character in 1928 and claimed it as Universal’s unofficial mascot.

Mickey Mouse

In 1928, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse for their studio. At first, he named the character Mortimer but on the suggestion of his wife Lillian, it was given the name Mickey. The character’s provisional sketches were developed by Iwerks for animation and it gained attention with the animated film Steamboat Willie. After its first appearance in short film Plane Crazy, Mickey Mouse has featured in over 130 films.

Disney grew manifold into a recognised brand and diversified into feature-length movies based on fairy tales. In 1938, the studio released the animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which became the most successful film at the time. The first Disneyland opened in California in July 1955.


Disney holds the record for winning the highest number of Academy Awards, having won 22 of them. Many of his films like Steamboat Willie, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi and others have been included in US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Interesting facts

1. In 1918, Disney quit school in the hope of joining the US army against Germans. He was rejected due to being below the stipulated age. He then forged his birth certificate to join the Red Cross.

2. For six years, Disney and his brother Roy delivered the Kansas City Times newspaper before going to school, and repeated the schedule by delivering the Evening Star after school hours.

3. After the debut of Mickey Mouse in 1928, Disney worked as the voice artist for his character. Though, the moving-sketches of Mickey for storylines were drawn by Ub Iwerks, Disney remained the original voice of Mickey until 1947. In later years, artists such as Carl W Stalling, Clarence Nash, Jimmy MacDonald and Wayne Allwine rendered voice-overs to the immortal character.

4. Disney once acted as Peter Pan in the school play The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by JM Barrie. Later, in 1953, Disney produced a wonderful animated movie based on the character of Peter Pan.

Sources: Walt Disney: An American Original(book), news reports and Wikipedia

First Published: Sep 06, 2019 12:37 IST