Walt Disney Christmas Storiesby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I love this time of the year, and two of my favorite Walt Disney stories took place at Christmas. I haven't shared the story of Walt's Christmas Boots in more than a decade and I thought this year would be a nice time to tell it again.
It is only covered in a few sentences in Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas because so much happened to Walt it was impossible to cover everything. Fortunately, Diane Disney Miller gave me access to the interviews her father did with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin in 1956 as well as other material, so I was able to piece together a fuller version of the story.
Walt giving a Christmas puppy to his wife Lillian always makes me smile as well, especially when I am in Town Square of Magic Kingdom's Main Street U.S.A.
Walt's Christmas Boots
In 1911, Walt's father, Elias, bought a newspaper distributorship in Kansas City, Mo., which meant that he had a certain area where he was responsible for the daily delivery of the newspaper.
He hired boys to deliver the papers, paying them up to $2.50 a week. His son, Walt, also delivered those papers starting at age nine but was paid nothing. Elias felt that since he provided clothing and food for his son that was payment enough.
In addition to doing his paper route, Walt earned extra money by delivering prescriptions for a local drugstore and sold extra newspapers on street corners without his father knowing about it.
During the noon recess at school, he swept out the candy store across from the school in return for a hot meal. Some days after school, he wasn't even able to steal a few minutes to play football or baseball with his school friends because he had to deliver the afternoon edition of the newspaper.
Walt never forgot his days as a newsboy, and some of those memories weren't always pleasant ones. Walt had reoccurring nightmares throughout his life, and one of them was that he had missed customers on his paper route. He'd wake up in a kind of a cold sweat and think, "Gosh, I've got to hurry and get back. My dad will be waiting up at that corner."
His dad was stern about it because he really wanted to make that business a success after so many other failures and Walt could sense that anxiety.
Young Walt's route was in a fairly wealthy neighborhood. Those folks were certainly much better off financially than the Disney family at the time. Walt would start out at 3:30 a.m. Some of the kids in the neighborhood had wonderful toys and often they would leave them out on the porch after playing with them the previous evening.
Walt didn't have any toys. If he got a top or marbles or something, it was a big deal. Everything his parents gave him was something practical like underwear or a winter jacket.
His older brother Roy was the one who set aside some extra money from his job so that Walt and his younger sister Ruth would always get some small toy for Christmas.
Anyway, there would be kid's toys out on these big porches. At 4 a.m. in the dark, Walt would put his bag filled with newspapers down and go up and play with these wind-up trains and things. He'd sit there and play all alone with them. One time he came to a porch and there were some toys as well as a box of half eaten candy. So he sat there and ate some of the half-eaten candy and played with the toys.
When Walt told about this time in his life, he always insisted on saying that he left the toys in good shape and always carefully put them back in the exact same place so the families wouldn't know he'd played with them. Then he'd have to hurry and finish his route before school started.
In the wintertime, he had to get up at 3 a.m. and he'd fall back asleep sitting on the edge of his bed while tying his shoes. His dad would yell 'Walter!' and he'd wake up with his heart racing and finish tying his shoes.
He delivered the papers to the apartments first. He'd go up three floors and deliver to all the doors and come down. Years later, he could remember with clarity those icy cold days when he was just a kid. One time the snow drifts were higher than he was.
The weather records for Kansas City during that time confirm that fact. It was not hyperbole on Walt's part. On those chilly mornings he'd sometimes have to crawl up those icy, slippery steps very slowly. Walt once told his daughters that he would sometimes take a misstep and slip down the steps and just cry at the bottom because he was all alone and so cold.
In the winter Elias would insist that every paper had to go behind the storm door. On those days when Walt finally got home, people had looked out on their porch but wouldn't open the front door because it was so cold.
They'd look out the window and see no paper and they'd go and phone Elias to complain and Walt's dad would say sternly, 'Walter, did you forget to deliver to so and so?" And his dad would never believe Walt when he said he had.
Elias would say "Well, they say they didn't find it. Now here, here's another paper." Walt would have to go all the way back up there. Young Walt would struggle back through the cold and go up and ring the bell. When they'd open the door, the paper placed behind the storm door would fall at their feet. Walt would be standing there holding another one outside.
They'd say something like "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't look there". No matter how often it happened, they'd still forget to look there, claimed Walt.
One Christmas when Walt was about thirteen years old in 1914, he decided he wanted a particular pair of boots. The kids at school were all wearing a particularly fashionable style of boots then and he really wanted a pair of these high leather boots with metal toes and decorated leather strips over the laces.
Walt knew that money was tight and that his dad would never agree to such an extravagance. He tried arguing that the boots would be very practical for delivering newspapers through the slush and rain. It would give him more traction and so he could deliver the papers quicker. His dad didn't agree with that premise.
Walt remembered hounding his parents for quite awhile hoping the boots would appear as his birthday present on December 5. Walt got some practical gift instead. With Walt's birthday so close to Christmas, he often only got one big present to celebrate both of them.
Walt's mom, Flora, had put aside a few pennies each week from the housekeeping budget without her husband knowing and Roy had gotten some extra work and contributed that money so on that Christmas, Walt got his pair of boots. They were wrapped underneath the tree and when Walt tore it open, his face beamed.
He put them on and ran downtown and leaned against a drugstore near the intersection of 31st and Indiana showing off his new boots in hopes that some of his school friends might pass by and he could show off his new boots. It was a warmer winter and some of the ice had already started to melt a bit.
According to Walt, it got dark early at that time of year and about 6 p.m. he decided to go back home. While he was walking across the street, he came up with a new game to kill time. There were hunks of ice frozen in the street because the street was where the ice would start to melt first.
So with those new boots on, Walt was kicking these hunks of ice. He'd kick them loose and they'd skid across the street, and Walt was trying to figure what new variations he could create by kicking harder or softer or at an angle.
He came up to kick one large hunk of ice and—to his surprise—he got stuck. He tried to pull his foot out and he couldn't. There was no leverage. There was a nail frozen in that block of ice. A big horseshoe nail. The nail had gone right through the boot into his foot.
There wasn't anyone around. Everyone was home celebrating the holiday with their families at that time. Walt couldn't break loose from that hunk of ice. He couldn't put any pressure on his foot and he started to panic and just yelled: "Help! Help!"
Walt said that streetcars went by in the distance as he frantically waved and yelled, "Help!" The people just looked at him and went on by. Even people walking a block away didn't stop. They thought he was just a kid playing around with some game. They didn't realize he was really stuck to that piece of ice.
Walt claimed he was stuck that way for a good twenty minutes or more before a horse-drawn delivery wagon came by. Whether that was true or not, it is true that Walt believed it felt like that much time.
Walt yelled to driver, "Help! I'm stuck! I'm stuck!" But the guy didn't believe him. He started to go on. And Walt finally broke into tears. And the driver pulled on the reins and stopped. He said suspiciously, "Are you kidding me?" And through his tears, Walt said, "No, I'm stuck!"
So the driver got off the wagon and walked back to see the situation. He had to go and get a tool to chop the ice loose. And he carried the small frail boy down to the corner where there was a doctor's office.
He took Walt up to the doctor's office, and the only thing the doctor could do was get a big pair of pliers and got another big man besides the driver to hold the young boy's legs down. He said, "Kid, I haven't got anything to give you. Just hang on."
So, without any pain killing medicine, Walt had to grit his teeth as the doctor got these huge metal pliers to dig in and slowly pull the nail out of his foot. In order to do that, the doctor had to cut the boot off. Then he went in and he had to open up the hole to get the dirt out and then, of course, came the tetanus shot.
To make matters worse, Walt's father had to be called to come pick him up and pay the bill.
Walt was laid up for two weeks. He had to lay on the couch in the living room with his foot elevated. He felt terrible. What was he thinking? How could he have been so stupid as to kick blocks of ice?
The Disney family would never be able to afford another pair of boots. The fear of being trapped alone on that cold, darkening street came back to haunt his dreams.
Unable to go to school and with no radio or other forms of entertainment, all Walt could do was read or sketch cartoons in a big pad given to him by his aunt. At one time, he had seriously considered being a doctor or a lawyer, but finally realized that he wasn't an exceptional student. With all the work he was doing, he would sometimes try to catch a catnap in class and miss important information.
He didn't have the grades necessary to go to a good college and his family would never be able to afford to send him to college even if he did. He thought about performing and, while he had had some recognition with his various comedy acts, he really did lack the self confidence to pursue a career on the larger vaudeville circuit.
He realized that he loved cartooning. His drawings got chuckles from the people at the local barbershop where the barber would take one in lieu of payment for a haircut and then post it in the window. His fellow students at school loved his cartoons as well.
When his mother went to the school each day to pick up his homework for the couch-confined Walt, she would drop off his cartoons and then report back to him on the positive reactions they had gotten.
By the time his foot healed, he had made a firm decision to become a professional cartoonist. Certainly it was an odd choice for a poor boy, and there weren't many opportunities for cartoonists. Newspapers already had their staff cartoonists and weren't looking for new talent.
Very reluctantly, Walt's father allowed him to take his first art lessons on Saturday mornings at the Kansas City Art Institute. When the family moved to Chicago a year or so later, Walt took more classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and studied with Leroy Gossitt, who was an editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Herald newspaper, and Carey Orr, the editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.
He went three nights a week after school, studying anatomy, pen technique and cartooning. It was the only formal art training he ever had in his life.
Almost three years after getting those boots for Christmas, Walt returned from being overseas with the Red Cross Ambulance Corp in France and was ready to pursue his future as a cartoonist.
It was that Christmas gift of a pair of boots that gave the world the Walt Disney we know today. It was that gift that helped a thirteen year old focus on what his future would be and to work to make that dream come true. The right Christmas gift can transform a young person's future.
Walt's Christmas Puppy
Walt Disney loved dogs and he had many special ones as pets over the decades. The first dog he and his new wife Lillian got when they lived at Lyric Avenue proved to be very special as Walt himself revealed:
"When we got our first home, I wanted a dog. And my wife would have nothing to do with dogs. For some reason she did not like dogs. She said 'Oh they get hair on everything. They're dirty and there are dog odors'.
"I got a book on dogs and the Chow did not shed hair or have fleas and had very little odor. She said 'If I had to have a dog that's the kind of dog I would want'. That's what I wanted.
"The next day I went out and bought a Chow and I kept it under wraps until Christmas. I bought it when it was about 6-8 weeks old. And it was about a month before Christmas.
"We had our Christmas tree and her sister [Hazel] would come over and her little niece [Marjorie Sewell], who was about eleven then. And the niece was always the one who took the presents from under the tree and took them around and gave them to everybody. We had a kind of little family Christmas.
"I picked up my chow from the dog kennel in the afternoon. I took it over and kept it at my brother Roy's [who had a house next door]. I got a big hat box. I got a big ribbon on it.
"When the time came, I went over, put the little puppy in the hat box, tied it up with a ribbon and when they were all busy I put it over by the tree. And my niece was tipped off. So my wife didn't see me bring it in.
"So then my niece went over and got this and she said, 'Oh who is this for?' and I said 'It says to Lilly from Santa Claus.' So [my niece] brought this big hat box over and put it in front of my wife on her lap and my wife said, 'Oh, Walt, you didn't!'
"Now she didn't know I'd bought a dog. She thought I'd bought her a hat. And that's one thing she doesn't want anybody to do. She wants to buy her own hats. She was upset because I had bought her a hat.
"So when she started to open it, it moved. And she let out a scream. And when she opened it, this little chow stuck its head out of there and from that time on that was her baby. It had to sleep in our bedroom."
Marjorie in an interview said that she was scared carrying the box to her aunt because she could see that Lillian getting angrier and angrier with each step she took toward her. Lillian hated Walt's taste in hats and admonished him about it for his entire life.
Lillian named the female chow puppy Sunnee, and it really became her dog rather than Walt's and rarely left her sight. In regard to Lillian's affection for the dog, Walt laughed that he "never saw anyone so crazy about an animal." Perhaps because Walt was always working at studio, Sunnee offered Lillian some much needed companionship around the house.
When Walt would take Lillian, her mother and his young niece for a drive on Sunday afternoons, he would always stop for ice cream on the way home. He made sure to buy an ice cream cone for the dog as well and would stand on the curb feeding it to her.
One night, the Disneys could not find Sunnee and Lillian was distraught and wouldn't go to bed until the animal was found. Walt spent the entire night roaming the neighborhood in a rainstorm looking for the dog who he discovered at two a.m. in his brother Roy's garage next door.
She had apparently gotten accidentally locked in when Roy had returned from work the previous evening.
Sunnee lived a long and happy life as can be seen in many photos and home movies where she cheerfully appeared. The dog was brokenhearted for a time when daughter Diane was born in 1933, because up until that time she was an only child and got all the attention. To a magazine reporter, Walt said that his "best pal" was his wife Lillian with "Sunnee running a close second".
That incident as a hatbox gift inspired a similar scene at the beginning of the animated feature Lady and the Tramp (1955), where the little cocker spaniel Lady is given as a Christmas gift in a hat box from a husband to his wife.
At Walt Disney World, the sign for the Chapeau hat shop in Town Square features the exact same hat box from the animated feature.
It has a double meaning because it not only represents signage for the hat shop but is also near Tony's Town Square Restaurant that is themed to the classic animated feature, the only Disney animated film to both begin and end at Christmas.