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Walt Disney

  b. 1901; d. 1966 | American filmmaker

At The Bottom
 1923

Bankrupt and heartbroken... he was surviving on a diet of cold, canned beans while showering once a week at a train station.

Walt Disney was not only bankrupt and heartbroken, but he was surviving on a diet of cold, canned beans while showering once a week at a train station. Friends were worried about his weight, wondering if the 22-year-old artist had tuberculosis.  He hadn’t expected things to go wrong so quickly.  While working as an advertising artist, Disney had begun producing short, animated pieces that he sold to a Kansas City theater owner beginning in 1921.  Known as “Laugh-o-Grams,” Disney’s cartoons proved popular and earned him recognition and minor celebrity status. Using nearly all of his modest savings and eventually quitting his day job as an advertising artist, Disney purchased a Universal camera for $300 and began hiring young animators for his new studio, which he imagined would produce longer animated films, including parodies of well-known fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Unfortunately, Disney overestimated the market for cartoons; theaters used them as add-ons to regular features, but no one was willing to pay much for them.  To compound the problem, no one — including Disney himself — really knew much about animation to begin with, and the Laugh-of-Gram company failed to turn anything close to a profit.  Before long, Disney could no longer afford to pay his artists, and in early 1923 he pulled the plug on his studio.

At The Top
 1959

Disney's stock value had leapt nearly 700 percent since 1952, and there seemed to be no end to the company's growth.

Walt Disney sipped a V-8 and leaned back in his chair, his office filled with tokens of his achievements — a bookcase filled with children’s books, color posters from his studio’s films, a portrait of Mickey Mouse, and an enormous aerial photograph of Disneyland, the amusement park that Disney had opened four years earlier in Anaheim, California.  “We have a business here we built from scratch,” he told a reporter from Think magazine, “and boy, we had to scratch plenty.” The previous year, Disney Productions had earned $50 million from its three television series, books, toys, and related merchandise.  The Disney company was responsible for full-length animated classics like Fantasia, Snow White, and Peter Pan as well as live-action films like Old Yeller, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Swiss Family Robinson.  Millions of children watched The Mickey Mouse Club five days a week, while families everywhere enjoyed the studio’s weekend show, The Wonderful World of Disney.  Disney’s stock value had leapt nearly 700 percent since 1952, and there seemed to be no end to the company’s growth.  As Roy Disney, Walt’s partner and younger brother put it, “our product is practically eternal.”

The Comeback

"Never once did I hear him express anything except determination to go ahead."

For someone who was indeed gravely disappointed by his first failure, Walt Disney never let on to others the depth of his humiliation, and he remained consistently upbeat.  “I never once heard Walt say anything that would sound like defeat,” one of his friends remembered.  “He was always optimistic . . . about his ability and about the value of his ideas and about the possibilities of cartoons in the entertainment field.  Never once did I hear him express anything except determination to go ahead.” Disney himself admitted later in his life that the bankruptcy of Laugh-o-Gram studios had toughened him up, leaving him more determined and able to withstand failure if it came along again.  Rather than brood over failure, Disney picked himself up and moved to California, where he quickly opened a new studio and found a distributor for his new work.  Disney would suffer more setbacks in his career — he lost control over one of his first major cartoon characters, Oswald the Rabbit, in 1928 — but Disney bounced back quickly, creating a new character that he based on a pet mouse he’d adopted in his younger days.  He decided to name the new character “Mortimer,” though he soon changed it — at his wife’s suggestion — to “Mickey.”  Over the years, his tireless imagination and relentless marketing turned “Disney” into a symbol of American culture throughout the world.

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