#2 Walt Disney



Walt Disney revolutionized entertainment, creating iconic films, pioneering color television, reimagining amusement parks, and advocating for conservation and innovation. Neil Gabler's book, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," delves into Disney's life, revealing his relentless pursuit of excellence, despite a limited formal education. Overcoming early business betrayals and industry skepticism, Disney's visionary leadership and obsession with control led to the creation of Disneyland, a testament to his enduring influence on American culture. Despite personal tragedies, including his mother's death and his own battle with lung cancer, Disney's legacy persisted, with his death in 1966 marking the loss of a man who shaped the dreams of millions and exemplified the triumph of imagination and determination.

Summary Notes

Early Achievements and Influence of Walt Disney

  • Walt Disney created a new art form and produced several classics.
  • Provided cultural and moral support during the Depression, World War II, and the post-war era.
  • Influenced children's understanding of responsibility and allowed them to express their feelings toward the adult world.
  • Refined traditional values and American myths, despite criticism of possible oversimplification.
  • Advanced color films, color television, and reimagined the amusement park.
  • Promoted conservation, space exploration, atomic energy, urban planning, and historical awareness.
  • Built a powerful entertainment empire that survived long after his death.
  • Founded a school of the arts and was commemorated with a concert hall in Los Angeles named after him.
  • Demonstrated the ability to assert one's will in a world that seemed chaotic and incomprehensible.
  • Recognized as a master of order, not just entertainment.

"He had changed the world. He had created a new art form and then produced several indisputable classics. Within it. He had provided an escape from the depression, strength during war, and reassurance afterward."

This quote encapsulates Disney's impact on entertainment and culture, highlighting his role in providing solace and strength during challenging times.

Walt Disney's Early Life and First Business Venture

  • Walt Disney developed a passion for drawing and aspired to be a cartoonist.
  • Started his first business at 19 in Missouri, focusing on advertisements and cartoons.
  • Despite a limited formal education, he became one of the most successful and famous figures in history.
  • His initial business failed, prompting him to move to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams.

"Something a lot of people don't know about Walt Disney is he never even graduated high school. He has a 9th grade education, yet he is one of the most arguably successful, most famous people that in history."

This quote highlights Disney's limited formal education juxtaposed with his immense success, emphasizing that formal schooling is not the only path to success.

Betrayal and Business Challenges

  • In his early career, Disney faced significant business challenges and betrayal.
  • Partner Mintz tired of financial negotiations and sought to remove Disney from control.
  • George Winkler and Hugh Harmon were involved in the betrayal, though they are not central to the story.
  • Disney was unaware of the extent of the betrayal and the staff's discontent.
  • Mintz negotiated a new contract with Universal without securing rights for Disney, leaving him vulnerable.
  • Disney's attempt to negotiate a better deal was met with resistance and underhanded tactics from Mintz.

"In 1928, just as everything seemed to be going well, came one of the most devastating episodes in Walt Disney's life."

This quote introduces the pivotal moment of betrayal in Disney's life, setting the stage for the challenges he would face and overcome.

Lessons Learned from Betrayal

  • Disney learned the importance of control and protecting one's interests.
  • The betrayal by Mintz and his staff led to a shift in Disney's approach to business.
  • Disney would never again allow himself to be in a position where he could be so easily undermined.
  • The experience reinforced Disney's determination to maintain quality and control in his projects.

"He would say that you had to be careful with whom you trusted, that he had learned that you had to control what you had, or it would be taken from you that he had seen how duplicitous the business world could be."

This quote reflects the lessons Disney learned from the betrayal, which shaped his future business practices and his insistence on control.

Creation of Mickey Mouse and Resilience

  • After the betrayal, Disney began anew and created Mickey Mouse on his train ride back to Los Angeles.
  • The creation of Mickey Mouse marked a turning point and the start of a new chapter in Disney's career.
  • Despite the setback, Disney's resilience and creativity led to the birth of one of the most iconic characters in history.

"On the train ride back from being betrayed by mints, he makes drawings and he comes up with Mickey Mouse."

This quote signifies the moment of Disney's rebound from betrayal, where he conceived the idea for Mickey Mouse, which would become a cornerstone of his future success.

Triumph of Snow White

  • Walt Disney spent years developing "Snow White," the first feature-length cartoon.
  • Skeptics doubted the success of a feature-length cartoon.
  • "Snow White" was released and became a massive success, grossing significant amounts in its initial weeks.
  • The film became the highest-grossing American film at that time.
  • Despite low ticket prices and children paying less, "Snow White" was seen by a vast audience.
  • It played internationally, with substantial gross earnings in London, Paris, and Sydney.
  • In Holland, children boycotted a Snow White chocolate bar until censors lifted a ban on the film for those under 14.
  • "Snow White" was dubbed into ten languages and played in 49 countries.
  • The movie's success extended beyond theaters with a wide range of merchandise.
  • Walt Disney had a radio program but canceled it due to his perfectionism.
  • Original cells from "Snow White" were sold for profit.
  • K. Cayman managed the separate business for Disney merchandise, which was very profitable.
  • "Snow White" received significant accolades, including a unique Academy Award.

The nine months after Snow White debuted may have been the best months of Walt Disney's adult life. The picture was an astounding success in its first week at the Carthay Circle, that's theater. It grossed $19,000 in its 2nd $20,000. And by the time it finished its ten week run, it had grossed just under $180,000.

This quote shows the immediate financial success of "Snow White" upon its release, highlighting its impact on Walt Disney's career.

Because of the low ticket prices at the time and because children, who were a significant segment of the film's audience, paid even less, Walt always maintained that Snow White had been seen by more people in this country than any other motion picture.

Walt Disney believed that "Snow White" had been seen by more people than any other film in the country at the time, indicating its widespread popularity despite low ticket prices.

When K. Cayman reported as early as May 1938 that $2 million worth of Snow White toys had been sold and another $2 million worth of Snow White handkerchiefs, the New York Times merrily editorialized that animation might be a way out of the depression.

The success of "Snow White" merchandise sales was so significant that it was suggested animation could help alleviate the economic depression, showing the film's broad economic impact.

When the Oscars were awarded in February 1939, Walt did receive a special acknowledgment for his achievement, one large Oscar statuette and seven smaller ones.

This quote indicates that Walt Disney received a unique Academy Award for "Snow White," which included one large and seven smaller statuettes, symbolizing the film's main characters.

Walt Disney's Personal Life and Family

  • Walt Disney's work obsession strained his relationship with his wife Lillian.
  • Lillian was not initially supportive of "Snow White" and had a critical view of Walt's work.
  • The couple discussed divorce around the time of "Snow White."
  • Lillian shifted her focus to their family, particularly after the birth of their daughter Diane.
  • Lillian expressed her frustrations through occasional outbursts.
  • The couple adopted a second daughter, Sharon Mae, and were very private about the adoption.
  • Walt's work continued to take a toll on his health and social life.
  • His involvement in polo diminished after a fatal accident and his own injuries.
  • Walt's social circle was limited, and he was known to be hard to befriend.
  • Even during leisure activities, Walt would discuss studio work and ideas.
  • Walt recognized his work addiction and sought a ranch for recreation but found little time for it.
  • After "Snow White," Walt began to refocus on his family.

His family, especially his wife and then his two daughters, become as important to Walt as his obsession with his work.

Walt Disney's family became increasingly important to him, balancing his dedication to his work with his personal life.

Lillian would erupt. Diane remembered coming down for breakfast one morning and seeing a large brown stain on the wall. She later learned that her mother had hurled a cup of coffee at Walt.

This anecdote illustrates Lillian's frustration with Walt's preoccupation with work and her willingness to stand up for herself despite her generally poised demeanor.

Walt and Lillian were so secretive about the adoption that he had his gardener, Diane's nurse, and Marjorie Sewell pick Sharon up from the hospital, lest someone recognized the Disney's.

The Disney family's privacy regarding Sharon's adoption reveals their desire to protect their personal lives from public scrutiny.

He was so self absorbed, so fully within his own mind and ideas that he emerged only to share them and to have them executed.

This quote summarizes Walt Disney's character as someone deeply immersed in his work and ideas, often to the exclusion of other aspects of his life.

Walt Disney's Public Persona vs. Private Life

  • Walt Disney was uncomfortable with the celebrity status imposed on him following his film success.
  • Despite his fame, he maintained a modest lifestyle, living in a house that was not overly extravagant.
  • He drove modest cars and bought off-the-rack clothing, favoring simple meals like canned beans.
  • Disney consciously kept Disney products out of his home to separate his work from his personal life.
  • As a father, he was affectionate and playful, engaging in activities with his daughters that showed a more personal side.

"Walt enjoyed the limelight, but he hated the public Persona he was forced to assume." This quote reflects Disney's discomfort with the celebrity image and the expectations that came with it, which contrasted with his personal values and lifestyle.

"He lived modestly in other ways, too, until he got his first Cadillac in the early 1940s." This quote illustrates Disney's modest approach to his personal life, even after achieving success and wealth.

"He told one interviewer that he deliberately kept Disney products out of his house because I've lived with it too much, and I just didn't want to live with it at home." Disney's desire to keep his work separate from his home life is evident in this quote, highlighting his need for a personal space devoid of his professional world.

"He would chase the girls around the house, cackling like the witch from Snow White, or he would troll them endlessly by their heels for hours and hours, Diane would say." This quote showcases Disney's playful and loving nature as a father, engaging in imaginative and fun activities with his children.

Family Importance and Personal Tragedies

  • Walt Disney's focus shifted towards his family, particularly his daughters, Diane and Sharon, as he grew older and less social.
  • Disney experienced significant personal tragedies, including the betrayal by Charlie Mintz and the death of his mother due to a faulty heating system in a home he had purchased for his parents.
  • The death of his mother deeply affected Disney, leading to a lifelong impact on his emotional state and relationships.

"The quote we just went over is some of the happiest days of his life were when his daughters were young, when they were in love with their dad." This quote highlights the joy Disney found in his role as a father and the significance of his daughters in his life.

"It may have been the most shattering moment of Walt Disney's life." The death of Disney's mother is described as a profoundly devastating event, emphasizing the emotional toll it took on him.

"Walt never spoke of her death to anyone thereafter." This quote reveals Disney's deep emotional pain and his tendency to internalize his grief, avoiding discussion of the event that caused it.

Career Challenges and Innovations

  • Walt Disney faced numerous professional challenges, including a devastating animators' strike that led to a significant reduction in studio staff.
  • The strike and other events caused Disney to lose his passion for the studio, leading him to pursue other interests like trains.
  • Despite setbacks, Disney continued to innovate, developing the concept for Disneyland, which became his primary focus and passion for the remainder of his life.

"And there was a strike by the animators that basically he credits for destroying the studio." This quote indicates the severe impact of the animators' strike on Disney's studio and his perception of the event as a destructive force in his professional life.

"He starts getting obsessed with trains. So he builds trains that are basically like one 10th or one fifth a scale of life size trains." Disney's shift in focus from the studio to personal hobbies like trains demonstrates his need for a new creative outlet during a tumultuous period.

"He was always thinking about Disneyland." Disney's dedication to the creation of Disneyland is underscored in this quote, showing his shift in creative energy and attention to this new venture.

The Creation of Disneyland

  • Disneyland was Walt Disney's dream project, reflecting his desire to create a unique and immersive amusement park experience.
  • Disney sought to distinguish Disneyland from traditional amusement parks, hiring individuals without prior amusement park experience to encourage innovation and learning.
  • The park's development faced skepticism from industry operators, but Disney thrived on the challenge and was determined to prove his vision successful.

"With the exception of his advisors, he didn't want anyone on the staff who had amusement park experience because he told them Disneyland wouldn't be an amusement park." This quote illustrates Disney's intent to redefine the amusement park concept and his strategy to hire staff willing to embrace his innovative vision.

"He loved the fight now that he had something to fight for." Disney's determination and enjoyment of overcoming skepticism and challenges are highlighted in this quote, showing his persistent drive to achieve his goals.

"He was always thinking about Disneyland." The constant focus on Disneyland is reiterated, emphasizing Disney's deep personal investment in the park as his primary creative endeavor.

Walt Disney's Personal Involvement in Disneyland Creation

  • Walt Disney was hands-on in creating Disneyland, personally overseeing every detail.
  • He walked the entire park, directing adjustments to ensure the park matched his vision.
  • Walt demanded perfection and wanted the park to reflect his imagination.
  • He was involved in even the minutest details, such as tree placement.
  • Despite enjoying the park, he was impatient with construction pace and worried about the visibility of financial investments.

"He walked over every inch of Disneyland, Ward Kimball said, telling him to move a fence a little more to the left because you couldn't see the boat as it came around the corner."

This quote illustrates Walt Disney's meticulous attention to detail and desire for guests to have the best possible view and experience in Disneyland.

"He wanted the park as realized, to match the park in his mind's eye."

This quote captures Walt Disney's vision for Disneyland, highlighting his dedication to creating a park that lived up to his imagination.

The Financial and Emotional Investment in Disneyland

  • Walt Disney was emotionally invested in Disneyland, showing signs of stress over finances.
  • He was concerned that the park's construction costs were not visibly justified.
  • The emotional toll of the investment was evident when he cried over budget concerns.
  • Walt's commitment to Disneyland was unwavering despite the challenges.

"You know, I've spent 50% of the total budget already, and there isn't one thing that you can call terrific out there right now."

This quote reflects Walt Disney's financial concerns and his high standards for the park's attractions.

Promotion and Anticipation for Disneyland's Opening

  • Walt Disney used his television program to promote Disneyland for nine months.
  • ABC network invested heavily in advertising and prepared extensively for the live telecast of the opening.
  • The park garnered immense public interest even before its official identification as Disneyland.
  • There was a national sense of anticipation for the grand opening.

"For nine months, Walt had been promoting the park on his television program, and ABC had taken out $40,000 worth of full page newspaper advertisements to Ballyhoo, the 90 minutes live telecast of the event."

This quote demonstrates the extensive promotional efforts and the media's role in building anticipation for Disneyland's opening.

Walt Disney's Childlike Enthusiasm and Last-Minute Preparations

  • Walt Disney personally tested the attractions, displaying childlike joy or constructive criticism.
  • He was involved in last-minute adjustments, such as landscaping and scrutinizing building facades.
  • His playful nature was evident when he interacted with children and employees at the park.
  • Even close to the opening, Walt was still perfecting Disneyland, illustrating his dedication.

"He was the first one to ride the attractions. Just like a little kid, he'd get off and giggle."

This quote encapsulates Walt Disney's enthusiasm and personal involvement in experiencing the attractions of Disneyland.

Disneyland's Opening and Immediate Success

  • Despite initial concerns, Disneyland's opening was a triumph, attracting significant visitor numbers.
  • The park quickly became a top tourist destination, surpassing major national parks in attendance.
  • Walt Disney's vision was vindicated as Disneyland's popularity soared.
  • His commitment to continuous improvement meant that he never considered the park finished.

"In its first year, it would attract 3.6 million visitors."

This quote highlights the overwhelming success and appeal of Disneyland following its opening.

Walt Disney's Health Decline and Distrust of Doctors

  • Walt Disney experienced health issues, including shortness of breath and weight loss.
  • He was distrustful of doctors, which may have delayed the diagnosis of his serious condition.
  • Disney's deteriorating health was noticeable to his employees and family.

"Walt, why no hyperchondriac, was nevertheless distrustful of doctors and was concerned."

This quote shows Walt Disney's reluctance to seek medical help, which was part of his personality.

Walt Disney's Final Days and Legacy

  • Walt Disney underwent surgery for lung cancer, a result of his long-term smoking habit.
  • His condition was kept mostly secret, with the public and even some family members unaware of the severity.
  • Despite his health, Walt Disney remained focused on future projects like EPCOT.
  • His death was a shock to his family, who had not fully accepted the gravity of his illness.
  • Walt Disney's legacy continued through his enduring impact on entertainment and theme parks.

"The day before the operation, a Sunday, he drove the short distance from Diane's recently vacated house in Encino, where he and Lillian were staying while a Carolwood house was undergoing renovation, to Diane's new house in Encino for a visit."

This quote depicts one of Walt Disney's final personal moments, highlighting his family ties and the normalcy he sought amidst his health struggles.

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