Things You May Not Know About Walt Disney

Disney came from humble beginnings.

Walt Disney at the age of 1, in 1902. (Credit: Apic/Getty Images)
Born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, Disney, the fourth of five children, moved with his family to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, when he was four. It was in Marceline—a small-town community Disney remembered as an adult as having been idylli—that he first received encouragement for his burgeoning interest in drawing, from both an aunt as well as a neighbor who was a retired doctor. However, Disney’s father had difficulty making a living in Marceline and sold the farm in 1910; the following year, the family relocated to Kansas City. There, Disney’s father purchased a newspaper route and for the next six years Walt helped with the deliveries, working before and after school and on weekends. In 1917, his father sold the paper route and moved the family back to Chicago, where he was employed at a jelly and fruit juice company. Walt dropped out of high school at 16 (he had been an inattentive student but drew constantly) and, with the Unites States fighting World War I, joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps by forging his birth certificate in order to meet the Corps’ minimum age requirement of 17. He was sent to France in late 1918, shortly after the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting. Disney spent his time driving Red Cross officials and doing other tasks before being discharged in 1919.

He was the voice of Mickey Mouse.

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Following his Red Cross service, Disney moved to Kansas City, hoping to become a newspaper cartoonist. Instead, he found work creating advertisements for magazines and movie theaters then became interested in animation. In 1922, he opened a film studio called Laugh-O-Gram but it struggled financially and shut down in 1923. That same year, he moved to Hollywood and formed Disney Brothers Studio with his older sibling Roy. After producing various short, animated cartoons, the studio started making a series in 1927 about a character Walt had developed called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, the next year, in what was a major blow, Walt lost the rights to his popular creation and many of his employees were poached in a corporate dispute. In response, he developed a new character originally dubbed Mortimer Mouse before it was decided Mickey would be a better moniker. Mickey Mouse made his official debut in a 1928 short film titled “Steamboat Willie,” one of the first cartoons ever to use synchronized sound effects. The rodent quickly became a star, and soon there were Mickey Mouse Clubs for children as well as merchandise and a comic strip. When Mickey spoke for the first time, in 1929’s “The Karnival Kid” (his words were “Hot dog, hot dog”), Walt was unhappy with how the character sounded and went on to lend his own voice to the mouse until 1947’s “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” when he said he was too busy to continue doing so.

Disney produced propaganda films for the U.S. government during World War II.

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During the war, Disney employees created educational films for various federal agencies, including a 1942 animated short, “The New Spirit,” commissioned by the Treasury Department to encourage people to pay their income taxes as a way to support the war effort. The film, which starred Donald Duck, was shown in thousands of movie theaters and even earned an Academy Award nomination. The Disney studio also made training films for the American military, and created, free-of-charge, more than a thousand insignia for military units; the designs centered around established Disney characters as well as new characters. Although Walt initially was reluctant to risk tarnishing his image as a non-political entertainer by producing blatantly propagandistic works, his team eventually turned out animated shorts such as 1943’s “Der Fuerher’s Face,” which made fun of the Nazis and again starred Donald Duck. Additionally, after reading the 1942 best-seller “Victory Through Air Power” by Major Alexander de Seversky, Walt, driven by his own patriotism, decided to adapt it as a 1943 live action-animated feature of the same name in order to win support for the book’s theories—considered controversial by some U.S. military officials—about strategic long-range bombing. Both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the film, which reportedly made an impression on them.

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