Walt Disney may have been a controversial figure, particularly retrospectively, but the story of how he overcame adversity and multiple setbacks to become one of the most famous names in entertainment is a testament to his immense passion.
Bankrupt aged 22 following the failure of his second company, Walt Disney’s career suffered numerous setbacks. Yet by the time of his death he had won 21 Oscars and owned a stake in the multimillion dollar company bearing his name. Disney had formed a legacy as one of the most inspirational cartoonists and animators – and as a great storyteller. The biggest driving factor was the innate passion he held for both his drawings and for entertaining people.
“I have never been interested in personal gain or profit. This business and this studio have been my entire life.”
Passion, the compelling desire or enthusiasm to entertain, was Disney’s driving force. Disney loved to draw, selling sketches to neighbors from the age of seven then, at high school, drawing comics for the school paper. Aged 16 he dropped out of school and, after being rejected from the army for being underage, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the red cross in France. Though far from being his dream job as a cartoonist, he paid heed to his passion, covering his ambulance in drawings.
Disney’s big break came with his third venture, Walt Disney Studios, where he produced successes such as ‘The Alice Comedies.’ However, in 1928 he discovered that he did not own the rights to his most successful character creation – Oswald the Lucky Rabbit –- and to add insult to injury, most of his staff had been poached. On the train ride back to Hollywood, preparing to give the bad news to his brother and business partner, he sat and doodled. On that train he drew the sketch that ultimately became Disney’s most famous character – Mickey Mouse. Disney released his first animation to feature sound, Steamboat Willie. The star was Mickey Mouse and both the cartoon and the character were instant hits.
Walt Disney had no interest in receiving dividends from the increasingly successful Disney company. Instead, he believed in reinvesting profits to allow the company to entertain generations of children. His dream to create the first full length cel animated feature film was dismissed by his peers as ‘Disney’s folly’, deemed to be both too expensive and too technically difficult. Despite it risking the entire company and the project going 400% over budget, he persevered. The resultant Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an epic success and still today remains one of North America’s top grossing films of all time (adjusted).
“I’ve wanted to do things; I wanted to build things, to get something going…”
Disney’s passion for entertainment was not limited to his own desire to be an entertainer. Disney loved entertainment and wanted to nurture future artists. In 1960, Walt Disney developed a plan for a school for performing and visual arts – a platform for budding artists, musicians and actors to learn under one roof and inspire one another. Along with his brother, he guided the merger of two arts schools which were suffering financial difficulties, the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute, to form The Californian Institute of the Arts. Sadly, Walt died before his vision was realized, but he ensured that it was provided for within his will, with 25% of his estate given to developing the institute. Today, CalArt (as it is commonly referred to) continues to act on Disney’s idea. Academic results are not considered when reviewing applicants for the college, entry is based solely on artistic merit and potential.
Disney faced a lot of adversity in his career. His first venture, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, lasted one month. His second, Laugh-O-Grams, went bankrupt a year after incorporation. The work he produced was criticized, with Walt famously being fired from a newspaper job for lacking creativity. Financial triumphs such as Snow White were followed by epic flops such as Fantasia. But in spite of this, Disney persevered, creating a lasting legacy in the entertainment industry