1900-1949 · America · Pre-World War II America

The Making of Disney

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Flora Disney

“Mother! Mother!” Walter yelled as he ran into the house. “Where are you?”

“I’m in the kitchen,” I responded, adding some bacon to the soup on the stove. He certainly sounded excited. Fortunately, he had outgrown the stage when I was afraid I would hear him confess to some foolish trick like writing on the house siding with tar.

I shook my head as I put the leftover bacon back in the icebox, vividly remembering the horror I felt upon seeing his tar illustrations on the side of the house after returning from a trip to town. Thank heavens, children do grow up!

Walter careened into the room, an odd contraption in his hands, his face gleaming with impishness. “Mother, look what I just bought!” He set it on the table, then ran to the cupboard and pulled out a plate. “It’s called a Plate Lifter. You put the plate on this side,” he explained as he put the  plate on one side and picked up a remote that was attached by a cord. “Then you push the button on this end, and…” He pushed it. To my astonishment, the plate lifted a few inches into the air.

“Mercy! It’s like magic!” I exclaimed. “How on earth does it work?”

Walter grinned at me. “It’s simple, actually. When you push the button, it forces air through the tube, which lifts the plate on the other side.” He released the button and the plate settled back on the table. “I thought it would be fun for school lunches.”

He had inherited my sense of humor, that’s what. After all, what was life without laughter? On the other hand, my husband Elias wouldn’t know a joke if it jumped off the vaudeville stage, slipped on a banana peel, and landed in his lap. I grinned slowly, an idea taking shape in my head. “Walter, before you take it to school, let’s pull that on your father.”

Walter’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “No way. Father would have my head!”

“Then let me run it. He swore to never remove my head from my shoulders when he said ‘I do.'” I replied with a wink.

Walter grinned. “You got it!”

I glanced at the clock. “Your father will be home any time, so why don’t you set the table while you’re in here?”

Walter made quick work of the chore, discreetly hiding the tube under the tablecloth and setting Elias’ bowl on the lifter. Conveniently, the remote dangled a few inches below the table, right where my hand would be after saying grace.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Elias and our other children, Roy and Ruth, joined us at the table.

“So, how was school today?” Elias asked as he tucked the napkin in his collar.

“Oh, it was fun!” Our youngest, Ruth, replied. “In literature, we discussed a book that just came out last year called The Secret Garden. It’s about a girl who grew up in India who returned to England to live with her uncle after her parents died of fever. Then, she discovers a garden that seems to be magical–“

I pushed the button just as Elias was dipping his spoon in the soup. Ruth stopped, mid-sentence, keenly impersonating a wide-mouth, glassy-eyed bass as soon as she saw the plate rise from the table.

Elias just scooped up some soup and blew on it. “Who wrote it?”

Walter cleared his throat, but whether it was to answer Elias’ question or to keep from laughter, I never knew. “Frances Hodgeson Burnett, sir.”

Elias nodded. “Another woman author, eh? Land of Goshen! The publishing industry is being taken over by ’em.” He dipped his spoon towards his bowl and I pushed the button again. “Afore you know it, there will be more lady authors than men. Why, Mrs. Montgomery’s off and made it big on that series about the red-headed girl that doesn’t hush up.”

I chortled. How could I help it? Elias was completely oblivious to the location of his soup bowl!

Elias looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “What? You don’t think it’s inappropriate for a woman to make a living like a man?”

I choked down another guffaw. “Times change, Elias. Some women need to support themselves. Having a choice between teaching, sewing, housekeeping, and writing doesn’t seem like a bad idea.” I pushed the button again, but Elias went on eating as though nothing was different. I had to quickly lift my glass to my mouth to keep myself from laughing.

Roy glanced from Elias’ bowl to my face which, I am sure, was as red as a cherry from my efforts at suppressing giggles. “Mayor Green came into the bank today,” he said. “He even came to my booth.”

“Very nice,” Elias said, taking another spoonful of soup and again, missing that there was something out of place about the table setting.

I laughed outright.

Elias only glared at me in confusion. “Flora, what is wrong with you?” I laughed so hard that tears cascaded down my cheeks. “Flora,” he tried again,  puzzle deepening to concern. “I have never seen you so silly. Are you feeling okay?”

I guffawed, wiping the tears from my face. “I just need a moment,” I gasped and ran from the table.

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Daisy Beck

Walt was always a talented boy, even if the other teachers never saw his potential. So what if they didn’t? I did, and I pushed him to be all he could be. I had him in seventh grade for homeroom and arithmetic. I was also able to convince him to try out for the track team, which I coached. Glad I did, too, because he ended up winning a medal at the end of the year.

But I am getting ahead of myself. It wasn’t that Walt didn’t stand out in class, because he did. He just stood out for all the wrong reasons. First, at fourteen, he was two years older than all the other children in the class. Second, he was always the class clown and doodled on all his books and papers. Little mice and other creatures always surrounded his work assignments, which infuriated my colleagues because they felt that he wasn’t taking school seriously. Third, he was constantly falling asleep in class. Nonetheless, he displayed a curiosity in class that betrayed a keen intellect and great mind.

I couldn’t care less about his age: in my classroom,  all students were there to learn. Napping in class I could tolerate. He got up at 3 A.M. to help his father deliver newspapers, after all. Who wouldn’t need to catch forty winks after a schedule like that? The doodling was easily managed, too. The first time I caught him drawing, I asked him to stay after class for a few minutes.

When he came up to my desk after the rest of the students left, I could tell he was fearing the worse. “Yes, Miss Beck?”

I smiled reassuringly. “Walt, you have a great mind.”

Walt blinked a coupled of times before stammering, “Th-thank you, Miss Beck.”

“But you’ve got to have something inside of it so that you don’t waste it. So, I’m thinking we can strike a compromise. You finish your arithmetic work, then you can draw all you like. Sound fair to you?” I doubt I’ve seen a more shocked face before or since that moment. He opened his mouth a couple of times, but no sound came out. Finally, he just nodded. “Very good. You may go.”

As I watched Walt walk towards the door, an idea struck me. “Oh, Walt?”

He turned to face me, his hand on the doorknob. “Yes, Miss Beck?”

“What would you say to drawing cartoons for the class once a week? Maybe on Fridays for the last fifteen minutes of class? You can take over the blackboard and tell any story you might have floating around in your head.”

Walt’s jaw dropped. “Seriously?” I nodded. “I can draw whatever I want?”

I had to swallow hard to keep from giggling. “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Hot dog! You’ve got yourself a deal! Can I start this Friday?”

“Absolutely.”

The rest of the year, Walt enthralled us with cartoon stories every week. Little did I know then that he would use that same basic concept years later when storyboarding his films.

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Roy Disney

I always knew my kid brother was something special. He could draw anything and he had a drive to prove his metal, but he was a lousy businessman. Lousy!

Take the train job, for instance. The summer after he graduated, I got him a job on the Santa Fe Railroad as a vender. He sold everything from newspapers to candy to bottles of pop. Every day, he would head to work and every night, he came home with some new story about something he saw. The summer was full of new experiences for him including but not limited to being short changed, finding candy stolen from his locker, and accidentally buying rotten fruit. Once, he put down his pop bottles in the back train-car and wandered away. He didn’t realize that was a problem until after the last few cars had been detached and sent God-knows where. Let’s just say that he ended the summer owing debts to me and the Railroad.

After World War I, Walt went to work for the Kansas City Slide Company where he got his first taste of animation. It was a new frontier in the film business and Walt got a big kick out of it. One of his first “paid” jobs as an enterprising animator was for one of the local cinemas. He approached the Newman Theater and showed them a short he did that he titled a “Newman Laugh-O-Gram.”

“It’s good, kid,” the cinema manager told him. “But I got to know the bottom line. How much?”

“Uh, well… How about… 30c a foot?” Walt replied.

My dear brother hadn’t thought that part through. That’s how much his overhead was for the Laugh-O-Grams. So in the next few years, Walt didn’t make a single penny off of those films. He did gain experience and local notoriety, though. Folks would recognize him on the streets and talk with him, which definitely helped Walt’s ego.

Finally, he was able to get his film business off the ground. It was extremely exciting for Walt and his partner, Ubbe Iwwerks. Unfortunately, Walt displayed as much business savvy with his own business as he did with the train job. As a result, the company went bankrupt before Walt turned 22.

Anyone with less determination and less spunk would have given up his dream of drawing professionally and started searching the wanted ads. Not Walt. He moved out to Los Angeles and in with our Uncle Robert while he tried to find animation work. That was around the time that I moved to LA from Arizona. For the past two years, I’d been suffering, then recovering, from the terror known as tuberculosis.

One day, Walt walked into my hospital room. “Hey, Roy! How are you feeling?”

“Well, recovering from TB is no picnic, but hey, at least I’m recovering.”

“Yeah, I can tell. The color’s returning to your cheek.”

“So, what’s up with you?”

“I just sold an idea to M.J. Winkler Studios. She works primarily for Warner brothers and really likes my work.”

“That’s swell! So, what does that mean for you now?”

“Well, it means that I can finally afford to get my own apartment. Uncle Robert’s great and all, but he smokes inside and I walk outside smelling like tobacco. For another, it means that I need to hire a financial expert. If there’s one thing I learned from the Laugh-O-Grams, it’s that I need one. So, I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking the job?”

I just about fell over.

“Walt, come on, that kind of joke isn’t good for a recovering invalid.”

“I’m serious. Be my partner. We can call ourselves the ‘Disney Brothers Productions!’ “

Lots of thoughts ran through my mind in the next minute. Walt’s uncanny knack for charming people onto his team, the logistics of running a business, the chances of success and failure, the amount of work that went into starting a business… and what my doctor would say when I signed myself out of the hospital.

“The name doesn’t strike me.” I said at last. “It needs work, but we’ll change it when we think of something better.”

I think the last time I saw Walt grin that widely was at school telling his friends about Mother pulling that bowl-moving trick on Father.

“Then you’re in?”

I shrugged. “I’m in.”

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For Further Exploration

The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney by Katherine and Richard Greene (Penguin Books, 1991)

Margaret Winkler, the Unheralded Discoverer of Walt Disney by Egg Van

Alice’s Wonderland Cartoons (ran from 1924-1927):  Alice Visits the Studio and Alice’s Tin Pony

Other Bibliography Sites

List of Mayors of Kansas City, Kansas by Wikipedia

Soda vs Pop vs. Coke: Who Says What, And Where? by the Huffington Post

Most Popular Books Published In 1911 by Goodreads

Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016

Photo credit: Michael Sult

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