Walter "Walt" Elias Disney was the son of Elias Disney, a carpenter, and his wife, Flora (Call) Disney. The couple married in 1888. The first of five children, Herbert, was born later that year. Raymond, the second child, was born in Chicago in December 1890. In subsequent years, the family grew with the birth of Roy in 1893, Walt in 1901, and a daughter, Ruth, in 1903.
In Florida, Elias sought to provide for his wife and child through various jobs and ventures, including hotel management and, finally, as owner and operator of a citrus grove. A killing frost brought Elias' investment in the citrus grove to an abrupt end, inspiring him to move on again, his destination being Chicago in 1890.
Upon arriving in Chicago in 1890, Elias established himself in the carpentry trade, hoping to claim a share of the booming construction business in the rapidly growing city. For their home, the Disneys soon rented a small cottage on the Near South Side at 3515 South Vernon Avenue (demolished), erected initially when the area was an isolated prairie. Ironically, the neighborhood had subsequently become a fashionable residential area, with the Disney's modest home being sandwiched amid costly brick dwellings of well-to-do Chicagoans. Even though the Disneys had little money and probably paid a small rent for their modest cottage, they nevertheless became residents of one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods.
Elias Disney found an outlet for his carpentry skills in the massive construction project for the buildings and grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Jackson Park in 1893. Construction on the fairgrounds began early in 1891, with Elias probably commuting to the Fair's site from the nearby 35th Street Station on special worker trains run by the Illinois Central Railroad.
With the work on the fair well underway and two children in the household, Elias Disney began to plan for the future. On Halloween Day, 1892, Disney paid $750 for a 25' x 125' comer lot on Tripp Avenue in the Hermosa neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. The area had been annexed into the city in 1889 and soon became a desirable location for working-class families to buy lots and build homes independently. When Disney purchased his lot, Tripp Avenue had been improved with city sewers but was otherwise largely undeveloped. This changed rapidly within a decade as the vast tracts of vacant land became densely built with small cottages and two-flats. Many of these closely resembled the Disney cottage in appearance and scale.
Elias Disney chose to wait to build on his land, possibly due to its remoteness from his employment at the World's Fair site. Within a year, however, the work on the fair was essentially complete, and the family was expecting the birth of a third child, Roy, born in June 1893. Free of the necessity to live on the South Side, the Disneys began plans to leave their rented cottage and erect a house on the Tripp Avenue lot. Flora Disney later recalled the modest circumstances of the Disney family when the house was constructed.
in 1892, Elias earned an average of $7 a week, $364 a year. That's $12,000 a year today, far from the highlife. He borrowed the money to build his house, but already had the lot.
On November 23. 1892, Elias obtained a building permit to build a two-story, 18 x 28-foot wood cottage, costing approximately $800. Elias could keep the costs for the cottage low by acting as his own contractor and doing much of the construction work himself. It is doubtful that a professional architect was consulted, but family reminiscences suggest that Flora Disney was instrumental in working out the floor plan and securing the construction materials.
In a 1967 interview, Roy Disney recalled how his parents made a business of erecting similar houses for their Northwest Side neighbors. Dad had his contacts where he could get help to get a loan, and he would draw the plans and build the houses. Mother was the architect, and between the two, mother drew the plans and bought the materials, and dad was the builder, and they worked like a team.
The Disney house was similar to the typical low-cost, wood frame workers' homes built throughout the city at the time. The house was a clapboarded, two-story, gable-roofed structure, probably planned with a parlor and combined kitchen/dining room on the first floor and bedrooms above. An early photograph taken circa 1905 suggests that the house was initially built at grade, without a basement. The entrance on Tripp Avenue was accessed by a simple open platform porch. Roy Disney later recalled the exterior being painted "white with blue-grey trim." He also remembered the apple tree in the backyard.
The Disney family settled into their new home by early 1893 and, in the subsequent years, witnessed the surrounding of their once-isolated home with other small cottages and dwellings. Elias and Flora Disney invested in this neighborhood real estate boom by erecting two additional dwellings on Tripp Avenue for income purposes: a bungalow at 2118 North Tripp which was constructed in 1899 and sold upon completion, and another at 2114 North Tripp, erected in 1900 and retained by the Disneys as a rental income property,
Unfortunately, the peaceful environment the Disneys chose for raising their family soon began to change. By the turn of the century, the quiet, isolated neighborhood that Elias found in 1891 soon showed signs of some of the negative aspects of being part of a large city, one of the most disturbing aspects being the proliferation of nearby saloons. Elias sought to organize the parishioners of St. Paul's Church into a protest against the saloons and resulting displays of public intoxication. He soon realized that he was facing a losing battle. After nearly fifteen years of living on Tripp Avenue, the Disneys decided it was time to move on. After purchasing a farm near Marceline, Missouri, Elias and Flora severed their ties with Chicago by selling the house on Tripp Avenue in February 1906 to Walter Chamberlain, who was listed in the city directory as a "clerk."
At the farm in Marceline, Missouri, young Walt Disney was intrigued by the animals and wildlife of his new rural environment and soon displayed an aptitude for drawing. He often chose animals as his subject matter, perhaps forming the foundations of his later career. Walt stayed in his rural environment from age four until he was eight, when his family moved again. He settled in Kansas City in 1910, where Elias established himself in the newspaper delivery business, assisted by his young sons.
By 1917, the family was again in Chicago, where Elias had invested in a soft-drink manufacturing company. For their new Chicago residence, the Disneys chose not to return to their former Northwest Side neighborhood. Instead, they rented a large frame house at 1523 West Ogden Avenue, Chicago, just east of Ashland Avenue (demolished and was on old Route 66), located on the Near West Side near Union Park.
THE BEGINNING OF WALT'S CAREER
Walt Disney enrolled for his senior year at McKinley High School, where his drawing talents were used to provide humorous cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper and yearbook. He also sought to hone his skills by taking night classes at the Academy of Fine Arts, a private art school located on Madison Street near Michigan Avenue, and by closely following the work of cartoonists who appeared in the Chicago newspapers and national humor magazines. Many of Disney's early cartoons drawn for the McKinley High School publications involved patriotic subjects promoting support for and participation in World War I. Disney's patriotic fervor led him to lie about the year he was born to enlist as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1918, serving in France during the war's closing months. Even in France, Disney used his artistic talents to make signs, posters, and drawings for the benefit and amusement of his fellow ambulance drivers.
After leaving France, Disney returned to Kansas City, where he undertook a career in commercial art and later a job with a commercial slide company that was working in the rapidly developing film cartoon animation industry. Taking an interest in the technical and artistic aspects of the medium, Walt began experiments m the improvement of the processes used by the company and set up a small studio in his garage where he started making animated cartoons of his own. Realizing that the most incredible opportunities in the film industry were in California, Disney liquidated his modest assets and moved to Hollywood in August 1923, where he and his brother Roy opened their own West Coast studio and resumed producing animated cartoons.
Starting modestly with limited capital, the Disney animation studios soon became one of the country's most remarkable success stories. Many of their early cartoons were well-received shorts featuring animal characters. Walt Disney and his fledgling studio were suddenly catapulted into international attention by introducing a charismatic character known as Mickey Mouse. Initially introduced as a silent feature in 1928, Disney followed the trend towards "talking" movies by giving his third Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," synchronized sound. The public response was overwhelming, with the image of Mickey Mouse becoming one of the most popular cultural images of the time, a reputation that continues undiminished today.
Mr. Ub Iwerks was the artist/co-creator of Mickey Mouse. Ub animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Plane Crazy," alone and in complete secrecy. During work hours, Ub would place dummy drawings of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” on top of his Mickey drawings so nobody would know what he was doing.At night, Ub would stay late and animate on Mickey. He animated the entire six-minute short singlehandedly in just a few weeks, reportedly averaging between 600-700 drawings a night, an astounding feat that hasn’t been matched since.
"Plane Crazy" starring Mickey Mouse; Walt Disney, 1928.
By the 1930s, Disney Studio was one of the largest and most successful in the world. The studio gained a reputation for its technical innovations and the creative advancement of animated cartoons as a serious art medium. Facing dire predictions of failure from his associates, Walt Disney undertook the production of what was to become one of the pioneering full-length musical animated features, the 1937 release "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," a work which elevated the status of the animated "cartoon" to a level equal to contemporary live-action films. Disney soon became synonymous with quality animated features and the creation of innumerable imaginary characters who have become staples of international fantasy imagery.
Rumors of Walt Disney being Anti-Semitic debunked.The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) was an American organization of high-profile, politically conservative members of the Hollywood film industry. It was formed in 1944 for the stated purpose of defending the film industry and the country as a whole against what MPA founders claimed was communist [a political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs] and fascist [a government led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, media, etc., emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and racism] infiltration. Over the years, employees stated it was absolutely preposterous that Walt was Anti-Semitic.The MPA organization was described by its opponents as fascist-sympathizing, isolationist, antisemitic, race-baiting, anti-unionist, and supportive of Jim Crow laws. The MPA denied these allegations, with Jewish writer and MPA member Morrie Ryskind writing in defense of his fellow members, which included Walt Disney. In 1954, Ryskind was a board member of the American Jewish League Against Communism.Sam Wood, a committed anticommunist, helped found the watchdog group in 1944 and served as its first president. Walt Disney was a member. The Alliance officially disbanded in 1975.
By the 1950s, the Disney studios had branched out into live-action films and a successful venture into the medium of television, with Walt Disney himself acting as the genial host of a long-running program featuring the innovative products of his genius. Again working against the negative pronouncements of his associates, Walt Disney began constructing an unprecedented fantasy recreational park in Anaheim, California, which opened as Disneyland in 1955. Now acknowledged as the progenitor of the medium of "theme parks," Disneyland features rides and attractions based on his own fantasy characters and historical, scientific, and technological themes.
The result was creating a self-contained "dream city," one Disney biographer speculated derived from the stories Elias Disney told his son about Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The themes of Disneyland were carried further in another park developed near Orlando, Florida, in the 1960s, which was opened in 1971 as Walt Disney World, a project initially planned by Disney to incorporate a model residential community as an integral part of the development, a feature which has yet to be carried into reality.
With Walt Disney's death at 65 years old in December 1966, the legacy of his ideas and creations was far from over. His creations have remained vital in the public's mind, and the studios and theme parks he founded continue to flourish and maintain a high reputation for their creative vitality.
In terms of international recognition, Walt Disney is one of Chicago's most famous native citizens, yet his associations with the city remain largely unknown. His importance is of sufficient magnitude that the city of his birth has intrinsic value worthy of preservation. By doing so, Chicago can rightfully reclaim its significant role in Walt Disney's life and career.
Complied by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.