What Was Walt Disney Up to Before Mickey Mouse?

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A Brief History

On September 5, 1927, long before he became famous for his feature film cartoons and amusement parks, Walt Disney’s production of Trolley Troubles, an animated cartoon featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was released by Universal Pictures.  A far cry from what we now associate Walt Disney with, Trolley Troubles was only just over 6 minutes long and was in black and white, and although it did not feature sound to go along with the animation, music and sound effects were added years later.  Oswald became a popular cartoon character and Disney was on his way to becoming one of the immortals of entertainment, virtually synonymous with family fun.

Digging Deeper

Walt Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, right around the time moving pictures became popular.  (Moving pictures first appeared in theaters in 1895, in France and the United States.)  Of Irish, German and English descent (Disney’s father was born in Canada), Walt was moved to Missouri as a 4 year old in 1906.  There he became interested in drawing, a skill that would later make him a fortune.  As Walt developed a love for art, including various types of drawing and painting, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he had the good fortune to meet another boy from an entertainment family.  Exposed to theater and moving pictures, Disney was hooked on the idea of using his artistry to make a career.  As the cartoonist for his school newspaper, Walt drew patriotic oriented cartoons in support of the US war effort during World War I.  The patriotic lad tried to join the US Army but was sent home for being too young. Determined to serve, Walt signed up to be an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and was sent to Europe but arrived after the war had ended.  After getting some of his drawings published in Stars and Stripes (the military newspaper), Disney returned home and went to work at a local art studio.  Working as a commercial artist, Disney became friends with Ub Iwerks (not a typo, this German American’s name just seems a bit different).  Walt’s friendship and collaboration with Ub became quite providential.

A publicity photograph (circa 1929) of Ub Iwerks and his most famous co-creation, Mickey Mouse.  Official Disney publicity photograph, © The Walt Disney Company according to Disney’s Art of Animation by Bob Thomas (Hyperion Press, 1991/1997).

Iwerks and Disney started their own business after they were laid off from work, though their initial business failed.  Disney went to work for another company that used “cut out animation,” short cartoons for a local theater called “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams.”  Disney started a new business in 1921, one he called Laugh-O-Gram Studio, and brought some of his buddies into the company.  As the company struggled, Disney produced a combination live action/cartoon feature called Alice’s Wonderland with a running time of 12 minutes and 30 seconds.  The short film was a success and temporarily kept the company in business, though the company folded in 1923.

Disney packed up and moved to Hollywood, with the goal of becoming a movie director.  (New York was the capital of animated cartoons at the time.)  Disney used his Alice’s Wonderland film to land a contract for 6 more such shorts, with options for more.  Walt teamed with this brother, Roy, to form Disney Brothers Studio‍, the company that would become famous as The Walt Disney Company.  Walt contacted his buddy, Ub Iwerks, and convinced Ub to join the company in Hollywood.

Walt married in 1925 and his business flourished with the Alice franchise. His first effort with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in a cartoon called Poor Papa, was not well received by Universal, the client for the cartoon character.  Disney and Iwerk performed a makeover on the character and produced Trolley Troubles, which saw success and began a popular series starring the lucky bunny.  Oswald became a popular character and Disney et al were pumping out a new cartoon every 2 weeks.  Oswald became the character that brought Walt Disney to prominence, at least of some kind.

After 9 Oswald cartoons had been produced, Disney and company looked for their next big thing, and found it in 1928 with the advent of Mickey Mouse.  Walt supposedly wanted to call the new character “Mortimer Mouse,” but was allegedly overruled by his wife, Lillian, who preferred “Mickey Mouse.”  Although Walt had designed Mickey, it was Iwerks that adapted the character for ease of drawing.  Mickey first appeared in Plane Crazy and then in The Gallopin’ Gaucho, but it was the third short featuring Mickey Mouse that really made the character and began Walt Disney’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune, the immortal cartoon, Steamboat Willie, which featured synchronized sound.  Steamboat Willie was the first “post-produced” sound cartoon and was groundbreaking at the time.  (The sound track was added after the animation had been produced.)  Walt Disney provided the voice of Mickey Mouse continuously until 1947.

The first appearance of Mickey Mouse, in Steamboat Willie (1928)

Disney rode the Mickey Mouse success into further successes with animated movies and later live action and television shows.  The 1937 feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was sneered at as “Disney’s Folly,” but the dramatic success it enjoyed brought Walt into the big time of movies and numerous other hits followed.  His namesake amusement parks are among the most visited and famous in the world.  Walt took home 22 Academy Awards (Oscars) for his work, plus an additional 4 honorary Oscars.  He also earned 3 Golden Globe Awards and an Emmy for his trophy case.

Disney’s company produced training films for the American military during World War II, and Disneyland, the Anaheim, California theme park, was opened in 1955.  Unfortunately, Walt Disney had been a lifelong heavy smoker, and the habit caught up with him in 1966, with a diagnosis of lung cancer.  He died a month after the diagnosis, in December of 1966, only 65 years old.  The world had lost a legendary artist and entertainment tycoon.

Grave of Walt Disney at Forest Lawn, Glendale.  Photograph by Arthur Dark.

Walt Disney had an engaging public persona, warm and affable, but was said to be somewhat shy and distant in person, even “diffident.”  In spite of his alleged shyness, this magical man is probably responsible for more people being entertained than just about any other person.  (Can you think of anyone that has entertained more people?)  Having been to both Disneyland and Disneyworld, as well as seeing many of his animated and live action movies, this author certainly misses the one and only Walt Disney.  Do you?  (Note: Dr. Zar has been to Disneyland Paris.)

Question for students (and subscribers):  What is your favorite Disney movie or character? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Goldberg, Aaron. The Disney Story: Chronicling the Man, the Mouse and the Parks.  Quaker Scribe, 2016.

Kurtti, Jeff. Travels with Walt Disney: A Photographic Voyage Around the World. Disney Editions, 2018.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Disney Editions, 1994.

The featured image in this article, a return address of a business envelope featuring a self portrait, used by Walt Disney in approximately 1921, on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.