The First Official Walt Disney Biography (1937)

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Today, I have dozens of Walt Disney biographies on my bookshelves, most of them absolutely horrible and inaccurate.

I have numerous "children" themed biographies that should generally be ignored except for Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies by Bob Thomas, who also wrote the official Walt Disney Company biography of Walt titled Walt Disney: An American Original that I always highly recommend. Walt did five additional interviews with Thomas for the book because Walt wanted to connect with younger readers.

I have biographies in foreign languages like a translation (that cost me a pretty penny) of the Russian book The Life and Fairy Tales of Walt Disney by Arnoldi that was published in 1972. I have biographies that have appeared in magazines. I have biographies that were done as comic books.

I even wrote a book titled Call Me Walt: Everything You Never Knew About Walt Disney filled with information about Walt's personal life that doesn't appear in any of these books in my collection.

There is so much information available now that most people have a good basic understanding of the career and achievements of Walt Disney but once upon a time that was not the case.

I have always believed that it is important to share whatever Disney information I have with as many people as I can rather rather than hoarding it like some others do. Sometimes people are interested and other times they are not but at least it is out there and available for people to reference.

RKO distributed Disney theatrical cartoons from 1937 to 1956. Back in the late 1980s, at a National Fantasy Fan Club convention, I bought from one of the dealers a pack of eight yellowed pages that were stapled together which was entitled "Biographical Sketch of Walt Disney".

It was produced by RKO in 1937 as a publicity release for newspapers and magazines in connection with their taking over the distribution of Disney cartoons, as well as for use with their upcoming release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs later that same year.

While in quarantine, I have been sorting through my paper collection and ran across a manila envelope with the RKO release that I had forgotten I had. Since there really was no biographical information about Walt Disney at the time, other than an odd article in a magazine, this may be the first "official" Walt biography since I've never heard of Columbia or United Artists producing a similar handout when they distributed Disney cartoons.

Walt, Lillian and Mickey Mouse

It was probably written by Joe Reddy who did publicity for the Disney Studio and sometimes even wrote articles and speeches credited to Walt. Decades later, Marty Sklar would do similar work.

Nothing amazingly new in the biography, except for some Walt quotes that don't appear anywhere else and the fact that Walt must have talked personally with a writer who formatted that information.

In Part Two, next week, I will finish the press release and add in the changes and additions that appeared in the 1951 RKO press release that I was able to obtain a few years later at yet another Disney fan convention.

While reading, please remember that this was done before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, and that there was no internet source nor books about the history of animation or Disney. This release was done with the participation and approval of Walt himself and I hope you will enjoy it:

"Walt Disney's valiant and Lilliputian Mickey Mouse is much more real to children, not only in America, but in every country in which his films are distributed, than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Unlike those symbolical childhood characters even sophisticated grown-ups believe solemnly in Mickey and his devoted sweetheart, Minnie.

"The Disney Silly Symphonies, those lovely colored bits of fantasy and whimsy, are America's finest contribution to the world's folklore. Legend has been made to walk and talk.

"But of the young man Walt Disney who created them, little has ever been known or written - due mostly to his innate modesty, and to the fact that his work, the accomplishment of a dream, still interests him far more than the fame which has come to him because of it. It is time Walt Disney were made to walk and talk. Perhaps this story may bring you closer to him.

"He was born in the city of Chicago, Illinois, on December 5th, 1901. He probably looked a little like Mickey Mouse at the time, since most new babies do. He real name is Walt Disney; his father was Elias Disney, an Irish-Canadian, and his mother, Flora Call Disney, is of German-American descent. He has three brothers and one sister.

"Elias Disney was a contractor and builder in Chicago for 20 years; later the Disneys moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri, where Walt attended a little country school and probably carried his lunch in a red lard pail. Later he went to the Benton Grammar School in Kansas City.

"He remembers being on the track team but he was too busy to be especially active in athletics. At the age of 9, he tackled his first business venture which was not unlike the financial debut of many young Americans. He had a paper route.

"It was not always comfortable work. He had to get up at 3:30 every morning, and deliver papers till 6:00. Then he hurried home for breakfast and went off to school. Every evening after school he made the same route.

"'No,' he recalls with a boyish smile, 'that's not quite right. I missed a total of one month during those six years, on account of illness. I was pretty proud of my record, though.'

"It was always pitch dark when he started out on winter mornings, and often bitter cold. Sometimes he plowed his way through several feet of freshly fallen snow, breaking his own path in those early hours. Occasionally, when he reached the warm hall of an apartment house, he would lie down for a short snooze - waking to find it was daylight. Then he'd have to run the rest of the way so that he could deliver all his papers and not be late for school.

"Business interfered a great deal with his pleasure at this time; still he managed to be a member of the 'gang', build a few caves, join a couple of secret societies, the aims and aspirations of which are still a secret even to its members, and take part in a few shows.

"He was always interested in the stage, and Charlie Chaplin was his idol. On amateur nights in neighborhood theatres he often did impersonations of the great silent comedian, for which he sometimes won prizes of as much as two dollars!

"He was not alone in his stage ambitions; his chum, a boy named Walt Pfeiffer, and he got up a vaudeville skit. Pfeiffer pere coached them, and the boy's sister played the piano for their songs. Their billing read 'The Two Walts,' and they won prizes in several local theatres.

"Later on, in Chicago, finding another dramatic aspirant, Walt tried to go into vaudeville with a "Dutch comedian" act. The act got, as he calls it, the hook - and his stage career ended. But he never entirely got over his early passion for disguises and sleight-of-hand tricks, and even now will attempt the latter occasionally unless watched carefully.

"But the thing he always liked to do best, as far back as he can remember, was drawing. He doesn't know why; nobody else in the Disney family is at all artistically inclined. The other boys are all business men, including his brother Roy who handles all of the studio's business affairs.

"His were not the type of parents who doted on 'showing off' their children's talents. He got no particular inspiration from them or from his brother or sister, but could always count on sympathetic interest and encouragement. His favorite aunt supplied him with pencils and drawing tablets, he recalls; and a very dear old neighbor, a retired doctor, often "bought" his drawings with little presents.

"'I remember one time especially,' he says, laughing. 'I guess I was about 7. The doctor had a very fine stallion which he asked me to sketch. He held the animal while I worked with my home-made easel and materials. The result was pretty terrible - but both the doctor and his wife praised the drawing highly, to my great delight.'

"At high school, McKinley High School in Chicago, Walt divided his attention between drawing and photography, doing illustration for the school paper and taking his first motion pictures with a camera and projector he had bought.

"Motion photography was to interest him more and more; it is his long interest in both mediums which has led to their happy combination in his pictures. Not content with school all day, he also went to night school at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied cartooning under Leroy Gossitt, a member of the old Chicago Herald staff.

"His first real job was when in 1917, at the age of 15, school was over, he became what is known as a 'news butcher'. With peanuts, candy, magazines, apples, he supplied the strange wants of people riding on trains between Kansas City and Chicago. Any boy of his age would have loved such a job. He liked traveling; he liked hanging nonchalantly on the steps of the train as it pulled into stations -- and he loved wearing a uniform.

"Sometimes he would go up and ride on the coal car with the engineers, buying that privilege with a cigar or a plug of tobacco. It was a job with a special sort of thrill.

"But it didn't last long," he regrets. "It wasn't a very profitable venture. You see, I was only 15—and I ate up all my profits!"

"During the summer of 1918, when there was a shortage of man power in Chicago on account of the War, Walt Disney decided to apply for a post office job.

"He was only 16, and looked it—and of course he was turned down. Here his talent for character disguise stood him in good stead, for he went straight home, changed his clothes; wearing a hat instead of a cap, he put on old make-up and promptly applied again for the job - and to the same man.

"Since his first application had not gotten as far as his name, and the man did not recognize him with 10 years added, he got the job. He worked for several months as a down-town letter carrier in the daytime and a route collector at night.

"That fall the War had set in in good earnest, and it was the fashion for young men to enlist. Turned down by both the Army and Navy and Canadian enlistment offices on account of his age, Walt felt as though he were too young for anything.

"He was finally successful in joining the Red Cross as a chauffeur. After a short period of training he was sent overseas, where he spent a year driving an ambulance and chauffeuring Red Cross officials. On one occasion he drove General Pershing's son Jack then eleven years old, around Neufchateau, France, when the boy visited his famous father.

"Walt had the distinction of driving one of the most unusual ambulances in France -- for with all the excitement of war, he had not forgotten entirely about drawing. His vehicle of mercy was covered from stem to stern with works of art, and not stock camouflage, but original Disney sketches.

"Although his education was not completed, and he was only 18 years old when the War suddenly stopped, Walt could not bear the thought of going back to school. He wanted to do something practical, something constructive. He took stock of his two ambitions: should he be an actor or an artist? It would be easier, he decided, to get a job as an artist; so an artist he would be.

"Walt Disney's first art job was with an advertising company in Kansas City which did work for farm journals, and where he was required to draw such inspiring things as egg-laying mash, salt blocks for cattle, and farm equipment. Since he was merely an apprentice, the two other artists in the company kept him turning out rough sketches, which they finished themselves, often changing them entirely.

"He forgot to ask in advance what his salary would be, in typical artist fashion. For a week he sketched happy farmers and contented cows, and at the end of it they informed him that he would receive $50 a month. He would have thought $5 a month very generous.

"He came on the job in the fall; when the Christmas rush was over, they fired him. He got a job with the post office again and delivered Christmas cards until New Year's. Then, appropriately to the season, he made a resolution; he would go into business for himself, as a commercial artist. Optimistically he figured that two months' experience warranted this momentous decision.

"His first free lance jobs were designing letterheads and theatre ads; and an enterprising publisher of a small newspaper gave him "free" desk space - in return for a great many advertising drawings. It was there that he met a man with the unbelievable name of Ubbe Iwwerks, another young apprentice artist out of a job.

"He and Iwwerks formed a partnership then and there. Disney was the contact man and artist, while Iwwerks did the lettering and took care of the office detail. The first month the two of them made $125, and any free lance artist will agree that that wasn't bad - especially if they thought to collect any of it!

"However, in spite of their success, they still watched the want ads, and when a slide company in Kansas City advertised for a cartoonist, Walt answered the ad and got the job—at $35 a week, which almost floored him.

"I knew I wasn't worth it," he says, "but I decided to try it. I turned the commercial art business over to Iwwerks, and it was at the slide company that I got my start in the animated cartoon game. Two months later my partner was working there with me. We made animated advertising films, and my boss let me take home an old camera that was lying around. I rigged up a studio in a garage and started experimenting in my spare time.

"At the slide company we used the old cut-out method of animation, joining arms and legs together with pins and moving them under the camera. I found a new method of animation in a book from the library, tried it out and convinced my boss it was a better system, so he installed it."

"Walt's home experiments led to his making a short reel of local Kansas City incidents, which he sold immediately to the owner of three large local theatres. He arranged to furnish one subject a week, animated cartoons of local happenings. It is interesting to note that he was able to make and sell this film for a price of thirty cents per foot. The cost of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons today is well over $25 per foot!

"It was while he was first fumbling around in the realm of animated cartoon ideas with no special direction that Walt Disney met Mickey Mouse, then utterly unknown, and even unnamed. Walt had always liked mice. He caught them in wastebaskets around the studio, and kept them in a cage where he could watch their antics.

"One of them, bolder than the rest, used to crawl all over his drawing board, and seemed to have a distinct personality of his own. At first Walt called him Mortimer Mouse; but Mortimer seemed much too formal, and as they became better friends, he often addressed his cute little pal as Mickey Mouse. The name seemed to fit him to a T. But the young artist had no idea that the name Mickey Mouse might some day be more famous than his own!

"Walt Disney was impatient. He wanted to carry his experiments in animation much farther than he was able to alone, and while he was employed daytimes. He could not afford to give up his job; but he enlarged his garage studio, and invited several prospective young cartoonists to spend their evenings helping him with a new idea - the animation of fairy tales. Their recompense was a share of his knowledge on the subject - and the promise of a job if the venture were successful.

"For six months he spent his evenings and spare time working with his 'staff' on a short subject called 'Little Red Riding Hood'. When it was completed to his fair satisfaction, he left his job with the slide company and formed his own company, a $15,000 Missouri corporation, to produce modernized fairy tales.

"Seven of these films were made altogether, and sold to a distributing firm in New York. But the New York outfit went broke shortly after the deal was made, and the corporation went into bankruptcy. Success had again proved to be a mirage.

"Walt decided he had gone as far as he could in Kansas City. He was not discouraged; he still knew his ideas were good - but he lacked opportunity to carry them out. He knew then that he must some way get to Hollywood. But he was flat broke, and far in debt; he had had no salary for months, had just scraped along. What to do?

"First he made a song film for a theatre organist, which paid enough to buy him an ancient motion picture camera. For two weeks he scouted around Kansas City taking moving pictures of babies, selling them to proud parents. Finally he had enough money for a ticket to California, and even found a purchaser for his camera.

"He landed in Hollywood in August 1923 - a little over 10 years ago, mind you! - with a suit of clothes two years old, a sweater, some drawing materials, and $0. (Korkis Comment: ACTUALLY WALT CLAIMED TO HAVE $40 CASH IN HIS POCKET.) Behind him in Kansas City were debts which it took him several years to clean up.

"He also had with him a print of the last fairy tale subject he had made; the stockholders of the defunct corporation had granted him this favor. (Korkis Comment: THIS IS MISLEADING. IT WASN'T A FAIRY TALE BUT THE COMBINATION ANIMATION/LIVE ACTION CARTOON Alice in Cartoonland.)"

Next week: The rest of the first full biography of Walt Disney with additions and corrections from the 1951 RKO biography and more commentary from me.