Extra! Extra! Read All About It

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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In the July 9, 1938 edition of the Arizona Daily Star, the newspaper printed a letter written by Walt Disney dated April 26,1938:

Newspaper boys of America!

I was an old man of nine when I tackled my first business venture. You guessed it—I had a paper route in Kansas City.

To say the least, it kept me out of mischief, because my brother and I had to get up every morning, deliver papers, have breakfast and then go off to school. After school, we started out all over again.

I can remember how proud I was of the fact that during my six years of carrying papers I missed a total of only a month on account of illness. However, I'll bet hundreds of you can better than record.

Our father had charge of the circulation in our part of town and did he spoil his subscribers! In the winter, especially, he saw to it that we put the paper inside the door so that it wouldn't be damaged by rain or snow, and the occupants of the house wouldn't have to step outside to get it. And woe unto the Disney boys if a subscriber ever phoned and said he couldn't find his paper!

I'm genuinely glad that I had all this experience when I was a boy. In fact, sometimes I feel sorry for the boys who never have had the chance to carry papers or sell magazines or haven't had some way to earn their own money, because I think you'll all agree that it's a pretty swell feeling to know that the money in your pocket is there by your own efforts, and that you're getting experience in business that can't help but stand you in good stead later on.

Walt had a tendency to sentimentalize some of his childhood memories. The Disney family was hardworking but very poor. It always seemed to be a constant struggle to pay bills and as a result the family went without some of the things that their neighbors enjoyed.

The famous Kansas City paper route that Walt would talk about with such joy also resulted in re-occurring nightmares for him that lasted for the rest of his life. Yet, in everything I have read, Walt never felt sorry for himself nor did any of the hardships he faced as a child ever discourage him or make him angry and rebellious.

After selling their farm in Marceline, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Elias Disney managed a paper route.

The local papers, the Star and the Times were reluctant to give the route to Elias Disney because he was 51 years old, so the owner of record for the route was Roy Oliver Disney, who was 18 at the time. It was probably the reason that Elias tried so hard to make the business a success and exceed his subscribers' expectations to prove that he could handle the responsibility.

Elias was firm that the newspapers were not to be tossed into the yards or even on the porches from boys riding bicycles, but carried up the walk to the house. The papers couldn't be rolled or folded and had to be anchored down with a rock or a heavy object if there was a chance a wind would blow the paper away. "He insisted that it be delivered fresh and clean, without wrinkles. He was meticulous about it," stated Walt in a 1966 interview.

Route No. 145 was between 27th and 31 streets and Prospect and Indiana Avenues. The Disney family assumed control of the route on July 1, 1911. There were over 600 subscribers for the morning Times, 600 for the evening Star and 600 for the Sunday Star and by the time the Disneys gave up the route the subscribers had increased over 200 more subscribers in each category.

Walt remembered there were tough kids along the route including the Pendergast and Costello gangs who in snowball fights would pack their snowballs with rocks. One time, they even threw a brick at Walt and opened a nasty cut on his scalp.

Elias hired boys to deliver the papers, paying them roughly $2.50 a week. His sons, Walt and Roy, also delivered those papers but were paid nothing. Elias felt that since he provided clothing and food and shelter for his sons that was payment enough.

In addition to doing his paper route, Walt earned extra money by selling 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 sports with his school friends because he had to deliver the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

For six years, Walt delivered the newspapers (missing only four weeks during all that time because of illness). He delivered in rainstorms and blizzards. He got up around 3:30 in the morning in order to get the papers from the delivery truck by 4:30.

Sometimes Walt never made it home in time for breakfast after the skinny 9-year-old had hauled around 30 pounds of newsprint through the neighborhood. There was barely time to hustle off to school where he struggled to stay awake during classes. The Sunday edition with all the inserts was three or four times the size of a regular daily edition.

In the morning, as soon as Walt got up to get dressed, he'd fall back asleep sitting on the edge of his bed, 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 at the time confirms that fact. On those icy cold days he'd sometimes have to crawl up those icy, slippery steps. Walt once told his daughter Diane and author Peter Martin when they were interviewing him for his biography that he would sometimes slip down the steps and just cry because he was all alone and so cold.

During that same interview, Walt also shared the following story. 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. They'd look on the porch 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 wouldn't believe him when he told them he had.

Elias would say 'Well, they say they didn't find it. Now here, here's a 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 come, he'd open the storm door and the paper would fall at their feet and Walt would be standing 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.

Walt had re-occurring nightmares throughout his life and one of them was that he had missed customers on his section of the 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 really wanted to make that business a success after so many of his other business failures and Walt could sense that anxiety.

The kids who lived along his route were certainly much better off financially than the Disney family at the time. The kids would leave their toys 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.

At 5:00 in the morning in the dark, Walt would put his sack of papers 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 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.

Walt liked to recall how he, along with other Kansas City newsboys, had been invited over the weekend of July 27-28, 1917 to the silent movie version of Snow White starring Marguerite Clark at the Kansas City Convention Hall that was sponsored by the Kansas City Star. The movie was projected on four screens in the huge auditorium, and from where he was sitting, Walt could watch two of the screens that weren’t quite in synchronization. It had been his most vivid early memory of attending the movies and probably influenced his choice of selecting the story for his first animated feature.

While looking through some of my more obscure books for some information on another topic , I ran across another book that has an interesting insight from Walt himself on being an newspaper boy.

The following excerpt from Walt is from The Newspaper boys' Hall of Fame by Sid Marks and Alban Emley (House-Warven Publishers 1953). Among other things, this book contains testimonies from former newspaper boys like Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey, and Art Linkletter but here is Walt's contribution:

I have yet to meet a man who once was a newspaper boy who isn't proud of the experience. I myself look back upon the time when my brother Roy and I delivered papers in Kansas City, Missouri, with great appreciation for what this daily chore meant then and what it has meant in all my grown-up life.

At the time, the sense of responsibility which goes with the job may seem like an onerous thing to a boy. Doing his work regularly every day, in all kinds of weather, often against his inclinations to loaf and postpone his accepted duties, gives a youngster a good foundation for his responsibilities as a man and a citizen later on. It helps greatly to equip him for the tasks and the satisfactions of business or professional life.

Delivering papers to many homes and offices gives a boy an added feeling of being respected by his neighbors and of belonging to his town or community, as well as being an important and reliable member of his own family. In all this he builds a proper pride and confidence in his own abilities—a good self-reliance and competence which comes from earning his own money.

I base these convictions on my own experience, and on the experience of other men familiar to me in many places in America.

My newspaper route in Kansas City got me up at 3:30 every morning and kept me hustling right up to breakfast and time to hurry to school. Then, after school, I did the same thing with the evening paper.

My father was a newspaper distributor for our end of town. He insisted that brother Roy and I always place the papers inside the screen doors or safely on the porch of our customers. And woe to us if we were slipshod about this. When it snowed, the job became all the more demanding. At the time, I'm afraid, I didn't think too highly of this requirement for taking pains. But today I appreciate what my father so thoroughly inculcated into us in the formative time of our youth.

I believe that the benefits to a boy who carries newspapers on the neighborhood routes of his town or section, if he is not too young and the task is not too burdensome, are as generally sound and valuable today as they were in the days of my youth.