Walter Elias Disney, 1901-1966

“I’d rather entertain and hope that people learn, than teach and hope that people are entertained.”

Walter Elias Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966 during the production of The Jungle Book. He was a chain smoker, suffered from a chronic cough that alerted others to the fact that he was in the room, and eventually died from complications from lung cancer.

Little more than a month before his death, he checked into hospital to undergo surgery related to what he thought was an old polo injury. But x-rays revealed a large lesion on his left lung, which turned out to be a tumour. Doctors performed a pneumonectomy — removing the entire lung — and estimated that Walt would return to work four-to-six weeks later.

“There is no reason to predict any recurrence of the problem or curtailment of his future,” doctors told United Press International. That article was printed on Nov. 23, 1966. Within two weeks, he died of acute circulatory failure.

He was born on Dec. 5, 1901. He spent his youngest years in Marceline, Missouri, from the age of 4 to 10. The well-to-do, but small town became a core influence in his later work and among the strongest vision of his idyllic small-town America — it even became the backdrop for Lady and the Tramp. In 1911, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and Walt began to take art classes. During the First World War, he drove an ambulance for the Red Cross and when the war was over he joined his family at their new home in Chicago, where he pursued his childhood passion by taking night classes at the Chicago Art Institute.

In 1923, Walt and his brother Roy moved to Los Angeles and set up the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in their uncle’s garage.

Walt didn’t know the meaning of failure or setback, and for those reasons became an iconic vision of the American industrialist. Indeed, Walt’s beloved Mickey Mouse wasn’t born overnight. First came Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927, whose shorts were distributed through Universal Pictures. While Oswald starred in 26 cartoons over the years, copyright complications led Walt to part ways with the rabbit. (Oswald, of course, has been welcomed back into the Disney fold in 2006 after the company bought the rights to the character from NBC and he was re-introduced to fans in the 2010 Disney video game Epic Mickey.)

Not deterred by his loss, Walt and his longtime friend Ub Iwerks immediately began work on a new character. In 1928, Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie made their public debut in the animated short Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound. Mickey became a smashing success leading to the Silly Symphonies series and eventually Walt pushed the boundaries of innovation again with his first full-length animated feature: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Walt Disney Studios quickly became a fixture in the world entertainment scene. His films were translated into dozens of languages and enjoyed by young and old. Walt was never short-sighted, though. In the Second World War, he put ambulance driving behind him and used what resources he had to help the allied war effort. The full might of his studio was put into instructional videos and propaganda, almost bankrupting his company in the process.

Which presents the two sides of Walt Disney: The beloved, family-friendly cartoonist and the politically adept American businessman. He gladly accepted an invitation from the U.S. State Department to tour South America on a goodwill mission in the 1940s and even produced several animated features to help make the program more successful. Even after the war, as his studio was ramping up animation and preparing for the release of Cinderella, the threat of communism overwhelmed the U.S. and Walt was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Walt was questioned by Robert E. Stripling and his testimony is recorded here. But unlike others who appeared before the committee, Walt’s allegiance to the United States was never in question. Instead, he was used as an avenue to find other communists who may have been hiding under the guise of labour unions within his staff. Walt lept at the opportunity to name them.

HAS: Have you had at any time, in your opinion, in the past, have you at any time in the past had any Communists employed at your studio?

WD: Yes; in the past I had some people that I definitely feel were Communists.

HAS: As a matter of fact, Mr. Disney, you experienced a strike at your studio, did you not?

WD: Yes.

HAS: And is it your opinion that that strike was instituted by members of the Communist Party to serve their purposes?

WD: Well, it proved itself so with time, and I definitely feel it was a Communist group trying to take over my artists and they did take them over.

CHAIRMAN: Do you say they did take them over?

WD: They did take them over.

HAS: Will you explain that to the committee, please?

WD: It came to my attention when a delegation of my boys, my artists, came to me and told me that Mr. Herbert Sorrell

HAS: Is that Herbert K. Sorrell?

WD: Herbert K. Sorrell, was trying to take them over.

Disney’s speech is lengthy and names several other labour leaders from his staff. In fact, Herbert K. Sorrell was accused of being a communist from a number of fronts, but even an investigation by HUAC never found enough evidence to convict him. In fact, only two years before Walt’s testimony, the American Communist Party denounced Sorrell’s strike organizing. Sorrell, though, was already on Walt’s bad list for having previously organized an animator’s strike at Walt Disney Studios in 1941.

Later, with the construction of Disneyland and his growing impact on American industry as well as entertainment, he became an icon of business. He was even a role model for the century’s other celebrity innovator and businessman, Steve Jobs.

In his best-selling biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson makes the comparison between the Apple and Pixar executive and Walt Disney.

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” Walt Disney once said. That was the type of attitude that appealed to Jobs. he admired Disneys’ obsession with detail and design, and he felt that there was a natural fit between Pixar and the movie studio that Disney had founded.

Then, later in the book:

Jobs had always admired the creative spirit of the great Walt Disney, especially because he had nurtured a company to last for generations.

Walt Disney was inspiring to Steve Jobs for his attention to detail, artistic vision, blunt personality and his ability to build a lasting company. The attention that is paid to the latest Apple releases today can be easily found in the bated breath of newspapermen of the 1940s and 1950s as each Disney feature was released. Personality and leadership, combined with clear vision of product, created a company that few could argue was among the greatest in the world.

These were values that Jobs emulated in building both Pixar and Apple, and in his speech to Pixar staff when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, he said: “My goal has always been not only to make great products, but to build great companies …Walt Disney did that. And the way we did the merger, we kept Pixar a great company and helped Disney remain one as well.”

Walt was succeeded as president of the Walt Disney Company by his brother and company co-founder Roy O. Disney. It took Walt 29 years from the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs until he death to build his vast empire. It has been 46 years since he died, and his company still brings smiles to millions around the world. Few could wish for a greater legacy.

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