On Saturday morning, April 27, at 6:30 a.m. I was standing in the Rose Garden at the Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort while a valiant cosmetologist was unsuccessfully trying to make me look like George Clooney.
I was there because a Chicago early morning talk show called "Windy City Live" was prefilming segments at Walt Disney World for its May 22 broadcast and they wanted someone to talk about Walt's connections to the city of Chicago. The segment was only five minutes long and, supposedly, they will post it on their website.
However, an earlier pre-interview with a production assistant lasted more than two hours. While many people can discuss Walt's early life in Marceline and Kansas City, Missouri in five minutes, very few can talk about the influence of Chicago on young Walt Disney.
Those who know me know that once I get excitedly talking about some aspect of Disney, I can go on forever. I ended up suggesting that they should just fly me up to Chicago to do a walking tour with the hosts of all the Walt-centric sites that still exist there today.
While I don't believe that will happen, I didn't want all the information to get lost so in this column I am sharing all the things that didn't make it on camera.
In the Spring of 1890, Walt's family was living in Chicago, just south of downtown and about a mile from Lake Michigan.
They had moved from Florida, where Elias and Flora had been married and gave birth to their first son, Herbert. The Disney family had struggled in Florida and, when their small orange grove was destroyed by a frost and Elias came down with malaria, Elias felt it was time to move to a new location.
They had relocated to Chicago because Elias' younger brother, Robert had moved there in 1889 and built a hotel in anticipation of the upcoming Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It was named the World's Columbian Exposition, to commemorate Christopher Columbus' discovery of America 400 years earlier.
Elias hoped to find work as a carpenter building pavilions since construction would begin early in 1891.
He loved working on the fair and later shared stories about it with an impressionable Walt, who was not only fascinated by the grandeur of the place but how it was divided into two sections: One with pavilions showcasing upcoming new technology and another with international pavilions where visitors could interact with different cultures from around the world.
It was a place where an entire family could go to have fun together and it was educational as well as entertaining. Obviously, those concepts greatly influenced Walt's thinking about an entertainment venue.
At Walt Disney World, the Confectionery Shop on Main Street references that fair with a poster, announcing the Columbian Exposition, near the counter selling fudge and with all the mechanical devices throughout the store supposedly inspired by the fair's Hall of Machinery.
A second Disney son, Raymond, was born in Chicago on December 30, 1890.
"My dad worked as a carpenter on the World's Fair buildings," remembered Walt in an interview with journalist Pete Martin. "He worked as a carpenter for $1 a day. And out of that, he and my mother saved enough money to go in business. I don't know how he did it. He eventually ended up as a contractor. He'd buy land and mother drew the plans. My dad would build the houses and then sell them."
Elias worked seven days a week for the fair, but was frugal enough to save enough money (and with his brother's real estate connections) to buy a lot at 1249 Tripp Avenue in the northwestern section of Chicago in October 1891 and built a two-story house on it by 1892. It was painted white with blue trim and it was admired for its clean lines and served as a model for the houses Elias could build for others.
In 1909, the address of the house changed to 2156 North Tripp Avenue, when Chicago did a numbering change on addresses. It is still there today with no historical marker to indicate its importance.
For many years, it was owned by a rather cranky woman. If you went to the door and asked, "Do you know whose house this is?" She would yell, "Yes, MINE!" and slam the door and turn on the sprinklers. I suppose one too many Walt fans had asked that same question.
Roy Oliver Disney was born there on June 24, 1893, followed by Walt on December 5, 1901 (in the upper bedroom) and sister Ruth on December 6, 1903.
After his work on the fair was completed, Elias became a contractor building houses, including two on the same block where he lived.
"There was a place called Hermosa or something where my dad built a whole row of houses," Walt said. "He'd buy this land, and build the houses and sell them. He was doing that when I was born."
Elias' wife, Flora, would do the designs and sometimes even go out to the sites and hammer and saw planks with the men.
"There's nothing mysterious about drawing up plans for a house," said Flora in a later interview. "And a woman ought to know more about making it livable."
Elias was modestly successful in this endeavor, certainly more so than previous occupations.
Walt honored his dad with a window on Disneyland Park's Main Street USA that says "Elias Disney. Contractor. 1895." It was only in Chicago that Elias was classified as a contractor.
Elias was deeply religious and when the local Congregational church decided to construct a new building for its members, Elias stepped in and helped build St. Paul's Congregational Church that was officially dedicated October 1900. It was located at 2255 North Keeler Avenue, about two blocks from the Disney home. Today it is Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Betania (Bethany Evangelical Baptist Church) Flora would play the organ for services and Elias would occasionally take the pulpit to preach.
"He had a coat, a frock coat that he used to wear when he did that," said Walt with a laugh. "I finally used that coat later to do Charlie Chaplin (imitations)."
The Disney family would attend every Sunday and often during the week, as well.
The church had a new young minister named Walter Parr whose wife was pregnant at the same time Flora was with Walt. According to Disney legend, Elias and Parr supposedly agreed that if the children were male, Elias would name his child after Parr and Parr would name his after Elias. That is reportedly the reason why Walt was named Walt.
"[My dad] and the minister were great pals," Walt told Martin. "The minister's name was Walter Parr. The minister had a baby coming and my dad had a baby coming and so they probably, when they were breaking bread somewhere, said ‘Well, if you name your son after me, I'll name my son after you'. I'm known as Walter after this minister, Walter Parr. Dad was feeling pretty good so he also gave me the middle name of Elias,"
Walt didn't remember much about his few early years in Chicago, because the Disney family moved to Marceline in 1906 when Walt was barely 4 years old.
"I do remember a few things," Walt said. "I remember waiting anxiously and I can remember looking out this window and seeing Roy coming with a tricycle. Now, why that sticks in my mind… .See, it was an important thing to me. I'd been maybe promised a tricycle. I remember leaving Chicago. That was a big moment when we were going to go away."
Roy O. Disney remembered very well having to push Walt in a baby carriage up and down Tripp Avenue and photos do exist of Walt in frilly baby clothes.
"It was Roy's chore to push me around, see? And he started to do it then and has ever since," said Walt with a laugh when talking to Martin. "He always seemed like a brother. The others were older and seemed more or less like strangers to me, especially in Chicago."
The success of the World's Fair brought an influx in the Chicago population, including some questionable new additions like saloons on three different corners down the block from where the Disney family lived. The quiet neighborhood was definitely becoming rougher with some children running wild while parents worked long hours trying to make a living.
However, the thing that most concerned Elias was that two neighbor boys who were the same age as his two oldest sons and who attended St. Paul's had attempted to rob a car barn and had killed a policeman during a shootout. One of the boys went to Joliet Prison for life and the other got 20 years.
The Disney home was near to the neighborhood of Cicero that, eight years later, in 1924, would become the headquarters of Al Capone and other gangsters.
Elias wanted a healthier environment to raise his family and sold the Tripp house for $1,800, and purchased some farmland in Marceline, Missouri (where his brother Robert had earlier purchased some land as an investment).
However, while Walt had many fond memories of a childhood in Marceline, Elias was unable to make a living off of the farm, especially after his two oldest sons left and Elias got sick. The Disney family then sold the farm and moved to Kansas City.
While living in Kansas City, Elias invested heavily (his entire life savings including money from Walt's savings) in the O-Zell Company in Chicago. The O-Zell Company made jelly and was going to launch a juice soft drink that Elias thought was going to rival Coca-Cola. The factory was located in the 1300 block of West Fifteenth Street.
"I finally got around to where I had $20 in the bank that I'd earned," Walt recalled. "My father got sold on a deal of investing money in a preserving factory. So [my parents] called me in. They said, ‘Walter, we've been thinking. Your father's going to invest in this factory and we're going to invest your twenty dollars'. I didn't want to invest it. I had a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to build an automobile and I wanted to get all the parts. I had to turn [the money over]. They kept it and invested it."
When the company began experiencing difficulties, Elias invested even more money and moved the entire family to Chicago again so he could take a more active role in the company.
"They gave him a job there in charge of all the construction and things," Walt said.
Walt graduated from Benton School on June 8, 1917 in Kansas City and took a summer job as a news butcher for the Van Noyes Interstate News Company, claiming he was 16 years old.
The Disney family rented a small flat at 1523 Odgen Avenue (now torn down) which was closer to downtown than their old address. Walt enrolled in the eighth grade at nearby McKinley High School at 2040 West Adams Street. Walt was 15 years old when the fall semester started.
McKinley High School, which originally opened in 1904, is now a collection of three separate schools under one roof: Foundations Elementary School, Nia Elementary School, and Best Practices High School.
The October 1917 issue of the McKinley High monthly magazine/newspaper, "The Voice" stated that "Walter Disney, one of the newcomers, has displayed unusual artistic talent, and has become a Voice cartoonist… "
Walt not only immediately became the school cartoonist (and was known by the nickname "The Artist") but also did some photography for the high school publication.
The same year that Walt attended McKinley High School, he also took evening cartooning classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts located at 81 East Monroe Street in the old Willoughby Building at the corner of Monroe Street and Michigan Avenue. Walt went three nights a week after school studying anatomy, pen technique and cartooning.
"He loved being at a drawing board," Diane Disney Miller told journalist Pete Martin. "He hated to leave it so much that if he had to go to the bathroom he'd put it off until the class was dismissed."
"It wasn't hard to argue Dad into those cartoon courses," Walt recalled to Martin. "Because while he watched expenses, he was always on the side of anything he thought would educate one of his children. If I wanted to go to a movie at night, the best way to see it was to tell him that the picture had some educational value. If he believed me, he'd shell out."
Walt's instructors included Carey Orr who was the editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune and Leroy Gossett who was a cartoonist of the old Chicago Herald (that became the Chicago Examiner when it was bought by William Randolph Hearst in 1918). They both invited young Walt to come visit the newspapers where they worked and introduced him around to the reporters and other staff.
Orr had just started at the Tribune and was roughly 10 years older than Walt at the time. (Orr had been working for another paper before the Tribune.) Orr worked for 46 years at the Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1961, six years before his death.
Walt was so impressed by Orr that when Walt went overseas he got a little German Shepherd puppy and named him "Carey" and did some drawings of the dog that he sent back home to his mom.
Walt's earliest surviving cartooning was in the McKinley High School monthly magazine/newspapers called The Voice.
Walt's early cartooning shows a lot of influence from Orr and even on one cartoon dated June 1918 for The Voice, Walt wrote at the bottom "apologies to Orr" because he was copying the style of Orr's The Tiny Tribune with Walt's The Tiny Voice. These early cartoons show clearly that not only could Walt draw ,but draw well for the time period but he was a good enough artist to know that others could draw better.
Walt spent long hours on his artwork and attending vaudeville shows where he copied down jokes to use in his cartoons. Stern Elias only permitted this fascination if Walt could contribute to the family income.
So, Walt made $7 a week working at the O-Zell jelly factory washing jars, capping them, mashing apples for pectin and nailing up boxes, and even, one night, serving as a terrified night watchman with a .38 caliber revolver and flashlight. The wife of the president of the company saw Walt's artistic talent and had him draw a poster for the annual picnic.
Walt tried to find a better-paying job and worked from July to September 1918 for the Post Office in the old Federal Building, which was razed in 1965 to make way for the 45-floor Kluczynski Federal Building.
He sorted mail and made deliveries from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. He lied about his age and penciled a mustache on his face and some lines on his forehead and wore his dad's suit so he would look older in order to get the job. He made 40 cents an hour, which he thought was a "gold mine".
The job would finish in mid-afternoon and Walt found work as a guard and gateman during rush hour at the Wilson Avenue station at The 35th Street "L" (elevated train) station, that was destroyed in 1962 by fire.
Walt's job was to load a car as efficiently as possible with as many commuters as he could and then ring a bell twice to signal a motorman to leave the station. He worked an additional four hours or so added to his regular eight hour shift at the post office.
With the money he was able to save, he put a down payment on a cheap movie camera and photographed himself doing his Charlie Chaplin imitation. He speculated about making children's film but the camera got repossessed when Walt couldn't keep up with the payments.
In the summer of 1918, when he was 16 , Walt altered his birth date on his passport affidavit so he and his friend Russell Maas could join as volunteers the American Ambulance Corp which was part of the Red Cross. An influenza epidemic struck Chicago and an ill Walt was delayed in being shipped overseas until after World War I was over.
Walt spent almost a year in France and then returned to Chicago. After all his experiences overseas, Walt had no desire to return to finish high school, but was eager to get started pursuing his dreams.
His dad offered him a job at the O-Zell jelly factory for $25 a week, but Walt was set on the idea of being a cartoonist and moved to Kansas City, where his older brother Roy was working as a teller for the First National Bank of Kansas City.
Chicago is where Walt had his very first girlfriend ever, Beatrice Conover, who broke his heart.;
While he was overseas, he wrote her letters, but when he came back in 1919, Walt said he found that she had been married for three months so the French perfume, handmade French blouses, lace and more he brought back he gave to one of his sister-in-laws and said, "I am through with women."
While that is a funny story that Walt loved to tell, in actuality, Walt returned in October and Beatrice was not married yet. She would marry the following April, but was obviously seeing someone else while Walt was away and was most probably engaged or committed to be engaged.
I don't feel too badly for Walt because, in a Roy O. Disney interview, he claimed that Walt was infinitely more upset to find out that his German shepherd puppy had died of distemper while he was away than he was that Beatrice was "untrue."
As you can see, just one teenage year in Chicago had a huge impact on creating the Walt Disney that we know and love today… and believe it or not, there are still a few more things about Walt's Chicago story waiting to be shared.