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Walt Disney

Craig Ceely

Art director Ken Anderson was given fifty cents by his boss, told to have dinner and return to the studio. Other employees received the same instructions. When they returned, the sound stage was lit by one light. The boss was onstage.

His employees seated before him, Walt Disney outlined his grand idea: a full length, animated feature film. Anderson and the others were charged with creating one of the most ambitious projects in film history: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Anderson says, "We didn't even realize it was impossible."

Walt Disney had been drawing and selling cartoons since he was seven years old. At 23, he'd formed two production companies, produced six cartoons (based on fairy tales) and a live action-animated film, Alice's Wonderland, and was bankrupt. In July 1923 he went to Hollywood to become a film director with his brother Roy. By spring 1924 the first Disney animated shorts reached theaters.

Early Disney characters - Julius the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - looked a lot like Pat Sullivan's creation, Felix the Cat. In his earliest days, so did another character. A mouse.

Creator Pat Sullivan refused to adapt Felix to color and sound. Walt Disney, returning by train after an unsuccessful business trip to New York, began sketching Mickey Mouse on a pad. The Disney Studios went to work producing an animated Mickey short named Plane Crazy; no distributors were interested in that or the second Mickey short, The Gallopin' Gaucho. The third effort changed everything.

Steamboat Willie opened in November 1928 - with synchronized music and sound. The dominance of Felix the Cat was over.

Between 1930 and 1932, Walt Disney began a syndicated series of Mickey Mouse comic strips and introduced the characters Pluto and Goofy. Mickey Mouse Clubs reached one million members. The demanding Disney, insisting on quality stories, introduced the use of storyboards in production, a technique still in use in animation and commercials to this day.

Mickey also saved Lionel Trains for the next generations of toy train enthusiasts. The Depression had brought hard times to Lionel - and bankruptcy. But a Disney merchansising representative, Herman Kamen, had licensed the images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse to Lionel - and 253,000 sets of Mickey and Minnie trains were sold in four months.

Disney was determined to bring quality color to animated films. He negotiated an exclusive two year agreement to the United Artists 3-color Technicolor process, and continued releasing his Silly Symphonies series of shorts, including the enormously popular Three Little Pigs. But his increasing demands for quality were becoming more and more expensive, and the returns from shorts were not rising to meet those expenses. Something had to give - or a new path had to be forged. In Paris in 1935 to receive an award from the League of Nations, the brothers noticed a theater offering a bill of six Disney shorts. They realized that audiences were willing to sit through ninety minutes of animation. Here was the new path.

Working on Snow White, the entire crew found themselves learning so much, so fast, that eventually Walt discarded the first six months production: it was no longer as good as what they were producing on a daily basis. The rest of the industry was unimpressed: Walt's original estimate of a $500 thousand budget was too low, and experts assumed that "Disney's Folly" would bankrupt the company.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs grossed over eight million dollars and won an Academy Award. Within six months of release, the debt-plagued Disney Studios had retired all of their bank loans.

During the 1950s Walt Disney unleashed another blast of innovative entrepreneurial energy. He created the theme park with Disneyland; opening in 1955, it hosted one million visitors in seven weeks. He entered the world of television production, soon enjoying three hit shows and becoming one of the first to offer a program broadcast entirely in color. And, after years of frustration with distributors, he created the Buena Vista Corporation to distribute all Disney films.

For his lifelong entrepreneurial activity...for creating Mickey Mouse...continual innovation in every field of endeavor he entered...for creating the theme park...for combining art, technology and imagination in an effort to bring joy and a sense of wonder to children (and adults) everywhere: the most solemn of salutes to Walt Disney, Hero.



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