There was a time when Disney wasn't a brand. Before Mickey. Before Snow White. Before Disneyland. Back then, it was just Walt. Young Walt Disney.
Everything that Walt Disney became he credited to where he came from. Historian William Silvester's sheds scholarly pretense and gives a fresh, readable account of Walt Disney growing up on the family farm in Marceline, driving for the Red Cross in France, and creating his first animations in Kansas City.
Silvester takes you back to the early 1800s, when Walt's grandfather emigrated to New York from Ireland, and follows the Disney tale through Walt's escape from his failures in Kansas City to fairy-tale California, and fame.
In The Adventures of Young Walt Disney, you'll read about:
The Adventures of Young Walt Disney is the official companion to Logan Sekulow's feature film, As Dreamers Do, available on demand through Amazon, Blockbuster, DirecTV, and elsewhere, and for purchase and Netflix, and for purchase at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and other retail outlets.
Put aside those Mickey ears. They haven't been invented yet. Come back to a simpler time, a time when America was changing so fast you had to dream just to keep up with it, a time when the biggest dreamer of them all was imagining the magical future he would soon create.
3Kansas City: 1911–1917
7Kansas City: 1920–1922
8Kansas City: 1922–1923
9The Rest of the Story
I have had a one-sided relationship with my entertainment hero for the first 28 years of my life. That changed in 2013 when I decided to make my narrative directorial debut in a movie about a young man named Walt. The focus of the film is on a portion of Walt’s life that I knew was rarely portrayed. So we did it—we made a movie, and it has already been released. We called it As Dreamers Do, a title that seems fitting once you get to the end of our story.
The Adventures of Young Walt Disney takes place in the exact same time period as our film: from Walt as a young boy all the way up until he is ready to make the jump to Hollywood. When I heard this book was coming out, I was both excited and depressed. Excited because those that liked our movie may want to dig deeper, and this is a great resource for them. Those that read this book first may want to see the story on the big screen. Depressed because this would have been an amazing resource to have when we were working with our screenwriter. As many of you know, Disney fans (like myself) are very quick to point out any inaccuracies in historical media about Walt. They are purists and often have heard a story one way and won’t consider another. What I really enjoy about Young Walt Disney is that William Silvester is not only giving you the facts, but also reminding us that there is often more than one version of the same stories. When making As Dreamers Do, we had many versions of each plot point to choose from, and it often ended up with us having to make a decision. Do we go with what a historian said or with what Walt said?
Walt was a master storyteller, so many of the stories he told were often altered by historians later on, but I liked Walt’s stories. They had the magic you want—they had a mouse and vaudevillian-style characters and they wove together a beautiful, full life. Whether those stories were embellished…that is for you to decide…but this book gives you a bit of both, and I really love that.
As a child, I once picked up a book, similar to the one you are reading now, that focused on the entire history of Walt Disney. It was way too big and I was way too young for it. But that story has stayed with me forever. Really, it was that first part…the young Walt…the farm boy, the early animator, the Walt that some would even say was a failure…that was what interested me so much. I could connect with this kid.
His was no overnight success story—it was an adventure filled with major highs, but even bigger lows. Walt’s childhood was plagued with heartache, death, financial troubles, loss of friends, and loss of business, but that often repeated quote from Walt was true even then. He kept moving forward.
Every American with a dream can relate to Walt’s life, especially his younger years. He wasn’t some hot-shot business man born into Hollywood royalty. He started how most of us did and he fought his way up to the top , rarely conceding defeat—even when it seemed inevitable.
My one-sided relationship with Walt disappeared when we made As Dreamers Do. I had moments where it literally felt like we time-traveled back to the Laugh-O-gram offices and were making Alice’s Wonderland. I hope my film and this book can do the same for you. In the official Walt Disney documentary, this entire book, and our entire movie, are covered in 15 minutes, yet there is so much to tell.
Our movie makes a great companion piece for this book and is a great way to introduce kids to the man behind the name they love so much. Check out As Dreamers Do and visit our website at WaltMovie.com.
Our film-making journey has been as an adventure, but none of it could have happen without a midwestern boy with a dream. This is The Adventures of Young Walt Disney.
For most people, the name Walt Disney conjures up a gray-haired, mustached, grandfatherly gentleman wearing a suit, tie, and endearing smile. For others, it isn’t a person at all but a company dealing in princesses, cartoons, magic, and theme parks. Both images are correct, to a certain extent, but they are the images of what Walt Disney was to become. The fascinating story of how he came to be the artist, entrepreneur, and entertainer we know today is the subject of this book.
Walt wasn’t born with an animator’s pencil in hand. As a child, he knew little of the heroes he would later immortalize in his films, and any amusement parks he may have known about were beyond his means to enjoy. Although born in Chicago to parents who struggled to get ahead for most of their lives, he was brought up mainly in Marceline and Kansas City, Missouri, where he learned much of the morality and solid Midwest values that would sustain him in times of hardship. And it was here that he met and became friends with the key people who would help him achieve the many accomplishments of his life.
Walt’s time in France as a volunteer driver for the American Red Cross took him from the security of his demanding but dependable family to the devastation of post-war Europe. Here, at the age of 17, he rapidly matured, filled out, and became a man. By the time he returned home, Walt knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be a cartoonist.
There are hundreds of books written about Walter Elias Disney and his legacy. Few of them pay much attention to the early years of his life when the man he would become was molded and formed. His environment, his family, the people who befriended him, his misfortunes, and his blunders in the first 21 years of his life are where the true roots and the key to understanding Walt Disney can be found.
After the publication of my Handbook of Disney Philately and Handbook of Disney on Stamps, I began looking for the topic of another book. I felt that other authors had given short shrift to Walt’s early years in favor of his glamorous Disney Studio and Disneyland years, and so I began to research young Walt. I didn’t want to reproduce someone else’s scholarship. Instead, I wanted to write a book for everyone, short but complete
I sent Bob McLain at Theme Park Press a couple of chapters and asked him what he thought. Bob replied: “Although I’m familiar with many of the basic facts of the narrative, I enjoyed how you presented them and how well the story flowed. Just enough detail to make it interesting, not so much to dull the senses. Bottom line is that I enjoyed reading the chapters you sent, and I’d love to publish the book.”
Encouraged, I continued to delve into every facet of Walt’s early life that I could find. I wanted my book to cover the formative years of Walt’s life, from his birth in December 1901 until he boarded a train for Los Angeles in 1923. It is the beginning of a rag to riches story that is often ignored by writers interested only in Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Disneyland.
So many people who knew Walt have been interviewed over the years that a startlingly comprehensive amount of information has been dredged from their memories, much of it accurate, some of it faulty. Often the person telling the story did not have the incident in context or did not remember exactly when a certain event occurred. This makes a definitive chronology almost impossible, so I have placed most events where they seemed to fit best, or where previous writers have placed them.
In addition, the internet has given modern researchers advantages never dreamed of. We can scour the census records, deeds, wills, and other bits of information—things that not long ago were difficult to access and beyond the abilities of many writers. YouTube and the Disney Company (on its DVDs) have provided us with most of the old black-and-white silent films that were Walt’s earliest creations. We no longer have to depend on a writer’s critical synopsis of these early treasures; instead, we can view them and judge them ourselves.
It is interesting to note how Walt was never satisfied with the status quo even in his early years. He was always experimenting, pushing ideas to the limit, trying to go one step better than the next guy. At times he took short cuts and repeated himself, and some of his gags were little better than those from other studios of the time, but his attention to detail, his storytelling in cartoons when most shorts of the time were little more than a series of jokes, set him apart. As Leonard Maltin wrote in Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons: “It is impossible to overstate the impact that Walt Disney had on the development of animated cartoons.”
A note on names: I use “Walt” not because of any personal familiarity, but because that was how he preferred to be addressed. I use the spelling of Ubbe Iwwerks because during the time period dealt with in this book that is the spelling he used. He did not change it to Ub Iwerks until he moved to California in 1924. The spelling of some names varies from source to source, including official census records, in which case I have adopted the most commonly used version.
William Silvester is a prolific author, with hundreds of articles, mostly historical in nature, to his name.
As a philatelist, he began writing about Disney postage stamps, a previously unfilled niche in Disneyana. This resulted in numerous articles in philatelic publications and a bi-monthly newsletter. In the 1990s, his Handbook of Disney Philately was published, followed by Harry Potter Collector’s Handbook in 2010 and A Solo Wargamer’s Guide in 2013. In 2012, the American Topical Association published his Handbook of Disney on Stamps with full-color illustrations of all the Disney stamps issued from 1968 to date and the stories behind them.
Having long been fascinated by tales of Walt’s early life, Silvester next began to research and gather information for this book, The Adventures of Young Walt Disney, which chronicles the beginning of a rag-to-riches story that is often ignored by writers interested only in Mickey Mouse, Snow White, or Disneyland.
Silvester’s second book for Theme Park Press, Saving Disney: The Roy E. Disney Story, will be released in early 2015.
If you have a question for William Silvester that you would like to see answered, please ask it here.
In this excerpt, from France: 1918–1919, William Silvester recounts an enterprising Walt Disney’s efforts to augment his army pay through some question artistic pursuits, complete with blood and bullet holes.
Walt was often called upon to drive dignitaries about the area, so he went to the village priest to find out what sites were worth seeing. This bit of ingenuity soon gave him a reputation as an expert guide. On July 14, 1919, he was in Strasbourg and witnessed that city’s first Bastille Day in the fifty years since it had been annexed to Germany.
The train ran through the town on its way to Nancy, and often the cars were loaded with American troop replacements on their way past. The doughboys would hop off the train at the stop and visit the canteen. To attract the crowds, Walt drew posters advertising that hot chocolate and other goodies were available at the canteen as well as hot showers for those wanting them. He was paid 15 francs a week out of unit funds and made a variety of signs, some showing an arrow over a mug pointing the way to the canteen, or a muddy foot dipping into a steaming tub to indicate the bathhouse. All service, excepting full meals, was provided at no charge and only a small amount exacted for those.
The Red Cross operated seventy-five canteens on railroad lines connecting the French cities with the front, for the benefit of American and Allied soldiers in transit. This service added to the comfort of the passing troops by furnishing meals, distributing hot drinks, cigarettes, tobacco, chocolate, medical supplies, and other articles, as well as baths, showers, and shelter, and by administering to the sick and wounded.
An enterprising Georgia boy who called himself The Cracker saw in Walt’s artistic ability a way to make some money. He was a driver like Walt, and they lived in the same canteen barracks. Previous to meeting Walt, he had devised a plan to make a few extra dollars. Whenever he had to drive somewhere near an old battlefield, he would stop and scrounge around picking up German helmets that had been left behind. Many of the trenches had not been cleaned out yet, and he was able to find armfuls of them or buy them from other drivers.
The Cracker would then take them back to the station where he would meet incoming troop trains. He seldom bothered with the trains headed away from the front to the demobilization stations, as these men had seen combat and would have their souvenirs. He knew the men on trains going the other way were replacements fresh off the boat, and so very anxious to pick up war souvenirs. The Cracker was happy to oblige, charging a premium for German helmets with “bullet holes” in them, ostensibly caused by a sniper. The Cracker did a lucrative business, as the green troops fought over these trophies.
Another man Walt befriended was a German soldier named Rupert. Some German POWs had been conscripted into work parties, and a squad of these had been assigned to the canteen. Rupert worked in the shower room. When he was off duty he would sit and talk to Walt, and, on occasion, they would go for a drive in the country. One day they drove into a village where some prisoners were loading cord wood into trucks. The local school children recognized them as the long despised Boche and began throwing rocks at them. Walt tried to get them to stop, having Rupert speak to them in French, but the children persisted. Seeing no other recourse, he told the Germans to fill their pockets with stones and retaliate. Rupert led the charge and the children quickly ran screaming back to their homes.
Sometime later, Rupert approached Walt with an empty wine bottle in his hand and told him that Miss Howell had requested that Walt buy her some more wine. He did as requested, though wondering why Alice would ask him to buy wine for her. On his way back with the full bottle, Rupert stopped him and said he would take the wine to Miss Howell. Walt saw no reason why not, so he handed the bottle over and went back to the canteen. Shortly afterwards, he went to have a shower and discovered Rupert and his squad happily drinking the wine Walt had bought.
Meanwhile, Walt was trying to make a few extra dollars on his own by drawing sketches and sending them to American magazines such as Judge and Life. His bunk mates saw what he was doing and helped him out with ideas of their own. The drivers would then wait for the latest issues of those magazines to arrive and search hopefully for Walt’s drawing, only to be disappointed. Not long after, the rejection slips would come back with his artwork.
In between magazine drawings, he would draw other things such as caricatures on the sides of some of the trucks he drove, usually a beady-eyed doughboy. One idea was inspired by the Frenchman who looked after the canteen barracks. While chatting to Walt, he mentioned that he had earned the Croix de Guerre, a French military medal awarded for acts of heroism, with a square cross on two crossed swords hanging from a green- and red-striped ribbon. Walt asked if he could borrow it for a couple of days so he could copy it in oils onto his jacket as a joke. When the others in his outfit saw the “medal”, they wanted one for their own coats. Walt agreed, and soon a number of the boys had forked over 10 francs for their own Croix de Guerre.
Another money-maker was a camouflaged footlocker. Walt painted his first and the idea caught on. That’s when The Cracker stepped into the picture. He wondered if Walt could camouflage one of his helmets, making it look old and well used. Taking up the challenge, Walt used a quick dry paint that cracked when it dried, making it look old. The Cracker then rubbed the helmet in the dirt and bashed it around a bit to age it even more. He would then line them up and shoot a hole in each one. He paid Walt 10 francs per helmet but only took one of these special helmets to the train at a time so he could charge more for the unique head gear.
To make them extra special, he would sometimes get hair from the floor of the barbershop and stick a few of them in the bullet hole held in place with dried “blood”. “The gorier they looked, the more they’d pay,” Walt later confessed.
Young Walt's adventures in France were just beginning. He still had a court martial in his future—or did he?
In this excerpt, from Kansas City: 1922–1923, the bell tolls on Walt's days in Kansas City, as things continue not to go his way.
It had become apparent to Walt by the end of 1922 that all was not well regarding his contract with Pictorial Clubs. In his naiveté, he had run up his bills assuming the situation would greatly improve when Pictorial Clubs paid the $11,000 for the films he had sent them. He had upheld his end of the bargain and shipped the completed seven-minute fairy tales as required, but other than the initial $100 no other money had been forthcoming. Numerous attempts were made to contact his distributor, but as Pictorial’s financial problems increased, the availability of its owners decreased. The reason soon became known, for even though Pictorial was not required to send any money until six months after the signing of the contract, by that time they had gone bankrupt. The New York branch of Pictorial had taken over the assets of the Tennessee branch, including the Laugh-O-gram films, but none of its liabilities.
Walt’s initial capital was starting to run out and future donations were not forthcoming once his backers learned of the demise of Pictorial Club. Creditors started knocking on Walt’s door. He owed $39.57 to the Kansas City Telephone Company, $57.20 to Charles Stubbins theatrical supply company, $38.20 to Franz Wurm Hardware and Paint, $42.27 to Schutte Lumber, and $13.50 to Alexander Printing Company.
Walt Pfeiffer and Rudy Ising enjoyed telling the story of how a short, round, red-faced man often struggled up the stairs to the Laugh-O-gram offices with a fist full of papers demanding to see a Walt Dinsey. “Who?” the artists would ask “There’s nobody here named Dinsey.” Frustrated, the man, who was a process server, mumbled about having spent two weeks trying to serve the papers and how he was getting pretty tired of climbing all those stairs.
Eventually, the process server figured it out. One day when he arrived, Walt Pfeiffer was there and he was talking to Walt Disney and called him by name. The server confronted Walt and he admitted who he was but stressed that his name was Disney not Dinsey.
Walt desperately looked around for something, anything, to save his company. He recalled that in the spring of 1922 his artists had produced a series of short joke reels as an opportunity to experiment with clay modeling, matchstick animation, and just to have fun. Similar to the Newman Laugh-O-gram, they were approximately 300 feet long and called Lafflets to distinguish them from the former. Inker and painter Aletha Reynolds was now transferred to do editing work on the Lafflets. Walt thought that due to their novelty appeal and the fact that they could be produced quickly, it might be a way to bring in much needed revenue.
One of the Lafflets is described in Walt in Wonderland, in which Ubbe Iwwerks was featured “walking up to a formless mass of clay and working furiously (like the sketching hand in the Newman reels) to produce a clay model of Warren G, Harding. Then Iwwerks walked away, leaving Harding smoking a cigarette.” The film had been shot in reverse with a slow crank so that it appeared Ubbe was just throwing the bust together.
A Pirate for a Day, with three reels of footage instead of the usual one, was a serious effort and almost qualified as a feature film. Unfortunately, nothing is known about its story or graphics as, like all the Lafflets, copies no longer exist.
Other Lafflets were produced with intriguing titles such as: Aesthetic Camping, A Star Pitcher, Descha’s Tryst with the Moon, Golf in Slow Motion, Reuben’s Big Day, Rescued, and The Woodland Potter. Some of these were included in the Laugh-O-gram reels sent to Pictorial Clubs. With high hopes, a sample reel was also sent to Universal, but they were not interested.
Still seeking a backer, Walt approached John Frederick Schmeltz, a customer at Franz Wurm’s hardware store where Walt also owed money. Schmeltz agreed to pay some of Walt’s debts on Laugh-O-grams behalf and in time would put $2500 into the company. Unlike other investors, however, Schmeltz wanted collateral and only invested his money in return for a Chattel Mortgage on Laugh-O-grams. Walt signed the mortgage without consulting the Board of Directors and at the same time stopped drawing his own salary.
Though his employees had run on exuberance for the first few months, the lack of pay was starting to take its toll. Walt remained optimistic but the artists started resigning, with Ubbe Iwwerks among them despite being owed $1,003 in back pay. He went back to his old, more secure job with Kansas City Film Ad as he needed a steady income to support his mother. Rudy Ising stuck around longer than most, as he had sunk $500 of his own money into the business. Walt could not pay him back but talked him into taking stock options instead.
Young Walt's luck would not change. He had not yet hit bottom, but it was coming up front. Read about Walt's final days in Kansas City in "The Adventures of Young Walt Disney".