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Life sure is a funny thing, isn’t it? If it wasn’t for you, well, getting stolen and all that, I wouldn’t be here! I guess that isn’t quite true. If it wasn’t for Elias and Flora Disney… or Daisy Beck… or Roy Disney … or Newman Laugh-O-Grams … or even Charlie Mintz, neither one of us would have ever existed!
I met Walt because I needed a job and Disney Brothers Productions needed a second inker. In the early ’20s, animators would draw their illustrations on regular paper, then an inker would transfer them to a special, see-through paper called celluloid. Then, we’d take pictures of the celluloid drawings with a special camera. To tell the truth, the only reason why I took the job was because I could walk to it. After growing up in a small town in Idaho, Los Angeles traffic terrified me.
“So, Lillian, are you ready for your first day of work?” My sister Hazel, who I was living with at the time asked.
“Nervous, but yes. I studied a map last night, but I’m still not sure I can remember the way.”
“Well, take Marjory with you. She’s familiar with the streets.”
I was so frightened that I took Hazel up on her offer. Imagine the scene of a 7-year-old walking her grown aunt to work for the first time. I felt like I was back in kindergarten, but nonetheless, I was grateful for the company.
Back then, I had no desire to get involved with either of the Disney boys. Roy was in a long-term relationship with a girl back east and Walt– well, he was a special cookie. A nice guy and all, but he only had one suit and didn’t even own a sweater to go out with a girl on a Friday night. Besides, I had overheard Walt joking one day that he wouldn’t get married until he had $10,000 in the bank. A small fortune like that would take years to save up, especially with the way that the boys poured money into the business.
Fortunately, time has a way of changing opinions. Walt was a hopeless romantic and soon won me over. After courting for a few years, we finally got married on July 13, 1925. Around the same time, Disney Brothers Productions began really growing and Walt was able to hire several of his pals from Kansas City. Walt was thrilled, but that there were still challenges to overcome. Walt’s employees felt overworked, Roy was breathing down Walt’s neck to spend less money, the studio was hard-pressed to come up with fresh ideas for the two Alice’s Wonderland films every month, and to make matters worse, Charles Mintz of Universal Studios, who had bought out M.J. Winkler Studios, refused to pay for the reels Walt sent him.
Months flew by in a mind-numbing whirl. Finally, after the 1926 new year, Mr. Mintz and Walt worked out their differences. They drew up a new contract, this time for a new animated series: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Oswald was an overnight smash. Everyone loved him. Kids wrote into the studio asking for his autograph. And for the first time, we actually had a steady income, which rose steadily over the next couple of years. Even better, we didn’t didn’t have to send the reels by mail any more. Mr. Mintz’s brother-in-law, George Winkler, came by to get them personally. Whenever he dropped by, he would stand around and chat, which put Walt at ease. As long as the men could talk shop, the business relationship would hopefully stay strong.
Walt and me and Roy and Edna bought houses next door to each other in a better neighborhood. Then, Christmas of 1927, our family expanded.
“Here you go, darling,” Walt said, handing a hat box to me.
“Oh, Walt dear,” I said, giving what I hoped was a genuine smile, “Is it the one with the bow I was looking at in the store window the other day?” I hoped not. After thinking about it, I had realized that the ribbon would not go well with my eyes, and the whole hat would clash with everything in my wardrobe. I was worried, though. One thing that Walt and I disagreed about was hat fashions. If I hated it, he would be sure to love it.
“Well, it has a bow…” Walt answered with a chuckle, so I bit back a groan as I placed the box in my lap. As soon as I pulled off the ribbon, the lid jumped.
“Oh!” I screamed. The lid jumped again and out popped a cute little black nose. It disappeared for a second before a puppy’s fluffy, blonde head emerged from the box. “Oh, Walt,” I breathed.
“Do you like him?” Walt asked nervously, peering into my face. I didn’t like dogs because they stank, had fleas, and shed. But that clever and sneaky man had purchased a book months before about different breeds and read it out loud to me. After the chapter about chows, I made an off-hand comment that a chow would be the best option for a family pet.
Fortunately for Walt, my shock faded into love as soon as the puppy stretched out of the box and licked my nose. “Oh, Walt, I love him!” As I gently lifted the tiny chow out of the box, I watched as Walt sagged in relief. The puppy was the cutest ball of fur you ever did see. He cocked his blonde head at me and wagged his tail. “Let’s name him Sunnee.”
Three months later, Walt and I went to New York City. It was marvelous to get away from Los Angeles, even if it was a working vacation. We were going to meet up with Mr. Mintz to discuss renewing the contract for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The film series had been doing crazy well over the past couple of years. Walt Disney Productions, as it was then called, had employed dozens of Walt’s loyalest and oldest friends and everyone seemed to be happy with work arrangements.
Mr. Mintz met us at the train station. “Ah, Disney!” he called as we stepped onto the platform. He wore a knee-length mink fur coat, pinstripe pants showing underneath. He leaned fashionably against a cane in his right hand. Yet, even with his friendly manner, the look on his young, hardened face put me on edge. His narrow eyes watched my husband like a cat watching a goldfish and his smile was plastic at best. “Good to finally meet you in person!” He shook Walt’s hand then turned to me, tipping his hat. “And this must be the lovely Mrs. Disney. It’s a pleasure, ma’am, a real pleasure. Well, you kids must be starving. Why don’t you come back to the Hotel Astor with me and we’ll have lunch.”
“The Hotel Astor?” Walt repeated. “But that’s one of the poshest ones in the nation!”
“Precisely, my dear boy. You are on the road to becoming a sensation. It’s time to live like one!”
Walt was beaming, so I decided to set aside my first impression of this man. If he was going to treat us to a meal at the Hotel Astor, perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all.
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, Mr. Mintz checked us into the hotel and sent our luggage up with a bellboy. “I’m sure you won’t mind living here while you’re visiting the greatest city in the world, would you?” Before we could even say thank you, Mr. Mintz was directing us to the dining room. “Ah, Ben Harrison! Hello! How’s the wife? Say, meet Walt and Lilly Disney. Walt’s the kid from Los Angeles I was telling you about.”
“Pleasure,” said Mr. Harrison, rising from his table and bowing slightly. “And how long will you be visiting our fair city?”
“Just a couple of weeks, sir,” Walt replied. “We’re here on business to renew the contract.”
“Well, don’t let Mintz lock you away in meetings all day. Take some time to see the sights. There’s nothing quite like seeing Lady Liberty on a clear day, especially with a lovely lady on your arm.”
Walt squeezed my hand affectionately. “Thank you. We will, sir.”
Mr. Mintz gestured away from Mr. Harrison. “Come along now. My table is this way.”
“So, Mr. Mintz, do you think we’ll be able to reach more cinemas under the new contract?” Walt asked as we walked towards a table set for three.
“Oh, come now, Disney. Let’s enjoy our meal without business conversations. We can talk about Oswald later.” An elderly gentleman with a cigar in his mouth approached our table. “Ah, Mr. Livermore, thanks for stopping by. This is Walt Disney, the young animator I was telling you about. He’s going to go far, I tell you, he’s going to go far.”
That night, I was lounging in our room, waiting for Walt to get back from a meeting with Mr. Mintz. Flipping through the Sears-Robuck, I paused in the baby section. We hoped to start a family soon, and a boost in Oswald profits would definitely help us set up a nursery.
A key jangled in the lock on the door and Walt breezed through. “Welcome back,” I said as I stepped over to greet him. His arms wrapped around me listlessly and his kiss lacked its typical passion. “Walt? What’s wrong? Did the meeting not go well?” Possibilities ran through my head, but the worst option I could think of was that Mr. Mintz wanted to pay less for Oswald than he was currently.
Walt slumped onto the bed, placing his head in his hands. “You could say that. He wants to cancel the contract all together.”
My heart skipped a beat. “He wants to what?”
“He wants to control Oswald outright. Said so himself. He’s not going to renew the contract at all. I threatened to take Oswald to another distributor, but Mintz only laughed. Said that… George Winkler’s been going behind my back to convince all the boys at the studio to go to work for Mintz. Said that I can keep working on Oswald if I go to work for him, too.”
I leaned against the wall, trying to breathe normally. Walt and me hadn’t had any idea that any of the studio employees were even dissatisfied. And suddenly, just like that, they were gone. Still, it sounded too horrible, too underhanded to be true. “What if he was bluffing?” I murmured. “What if he’s just trying to manipulate you? He knows you can’t talk to any of your employees until we go home, so there’s no easy way to confirm–”
“I called Roy on the hotel phone before coming up. It’s all true. Except for Ub Iwerks, all the employees have turned in their two-week notices.”
“No,” I sighed, glancing at the Catalog on the bed. The nursery would have to wait. “What are we going to do?”
“For now, all we can do is try to sleep tonight. Tomorrow, I’m going to try to find a new distributor.”
But there was no distributor to be found. It didn’t take too long for Mr. Mintz to hear what Walt was trying to do and wasted no time informing us that, according to the original contract, Universal Studios owned all rights to Oswald. With that final blow on our minds, we headed to the train station on a stormy Thursday afternoon. In three days, we would arrive at a practically empty studio with no contract, no money, and without even an Oswald. Mintz had legally stolen everything from us.
“I’m going to send a telegram to Roy,” Walt whispered in my ear as we passed the Western Union booth. He pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil from his pocket and scribbled, “Don’t Worry. Everything OK. Will give details when arrive.”
I grinned slightly and shook my head. “You liar.”
“Not entirely. I’m about to get on a train with the love of my life and the source of my inspiration. We have three whole days to come up with some smashing good ideas to make sure I’m not a liar.” He ripped the top page off the notepad and walked to the booth.
Once on the train, I took the window seat of our private compartment. Walt sat down next to me and pulled out his notepad again. While I stared out the window, he doodled. By the time I looked over his shoulder, he had drawn a large circle with two smaller circles on the top. As I watched, a mouse’s face began to smile up at me. “He’s cute.” I said at last.
“Thanks. What do you think of the name ‘Mortimer Mouse’?”
I scrunched up my nose. “Doesn’t sound right.” I took the pad from Walt’s hands and stared at it in the . “But what about Mickey?”
“Mickey, huh?” Walt took the pad back. “Mickey Mouse. I like it. Not sure if it will go anywhere, but it’s worth a shot.”
I gave him a peck on the cheek. “Walt, you’re the luckiest man I know. I have no doubt that Mickey will go much further than Oswald ever did.”
So you see Ossie– do you mind if I call you Ossie?– it takes a lot to make a legend. I’m 88 years old as of last February. And oh boy, has it been a fun ride. I’m a world-wide sensation now, along with my girlfriend Minnie, my dog Pluto, and my friends Goofy, Donald, and Daisy. On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened in California. But that was just the first of many! Today, there are three Disneylands worldwide and five Disney Resorts! Life sure is great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next 88 years bring!
Well, gotta go!
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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)
Walt’s Valentine by the Walt Disney Family Museum
Other Bibliography Sites
Destinations Around the World by Disney Parks
Calculate the value of $10,000 by Dollar Times
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016