So, you think you know Walt Disney. But did you know that "Disney" wasn't his family's ancestral surname? That he drove an ambulance? That his first studio went bankrupt in just one year? Or that he was a train nut and had a miniature railroad put in his backyard? To celebrate the 107th anniversary of his birthday, here are Neatorama's 10 Fun Facts About Walt Disney:
Origin of the "Disney" Name: d'Isigny
Walt's ancestors were named d'Isigny, and came from Isigny-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. They moved to a village in Lincolnshire, England now named Norton Disney.
Disney Tried to Join the Army, but was Rejected
In 1917, Walt tried to join the Army to fight in World War I and was rejected ... because he was too young! He was 16 at the time, so he joined The Red Cross instead. His first job there? Driving an ambulance.
Walt Disney as an ambulance driver in France - photo via Croce Rossa Italiana
Laugh-O-Gram: Disney's First Venture Went Bank-O-Rupt
In 1922, Disney founded an animation company called Laugh-O-Gram. The company immediately ran into financial troubles (Disney had to live in the office and take baths once a week at a neighboring train station). In just about one year, the studio declared bankruptcy. Disney sold his movie camera for a one-way ticket to Hollywood, California.
The studio produced only a few animations, including one called Tommy Tucker's Tooth, which was commissioned by a local dentist about the merits of brushing your teeth. (More on Laugh-O-Grams at The Animation Empire)
Before Mickey Mouse, There was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Walt and Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (who looked suspiciously similar to Mickey) for Charles Mintz of Universal Studios. In 1928, with the popular cartoon series going strong, Disney asked Mintz for an increase in budget. Instead, Mintz took over his current employees and demanded that Walt take a budget cut!
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - via Los comienzos de Walt
Mintz thought that he had Disney cornered - instead, Walt went on to start anew with Iwerks and a loyal apprentice named Les Clark. They tried sketches of various animals, including dog, cat, cow, frog and horse before settling on a mouse (based on Disney's pet mouse Mortimer).
They were going to call the character Mortimer Mouse, but Walt's wife Lilian convinced him to change the name to Mickey Mouse (she thought "Mortimer" sounded pompous) (Source).
Disney's Folly: Snow White
In 1934, Disney embarked on his most ambitious project yet: a full-length animated feature called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both his brother Roy and wife Lilian tried to talk him out of it, saying that it would be too difficult and too expensive (Lilian said: "No one's ever going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.") The Hollywood movie industry mocked it as "Disney's Folly."
Two years later, while still in mid-production, Walt ran out of money. The initial production cost of $250,000 (already 10 times the average budget of his other animations) ballooned to over $1.5 million. (today's value: $21 million) He had to mortgage his house and get a loan to finish the movie.
Walt in the trailer of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - via Wikipedia
In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarf was released and became an instant success. The movie won an honorary Oscar (see this post on Neatorama: Oscars Fun Facts) and grossed over $66 million domestically. Over its lifetime, the movie grossed over $184 million. Not bad for a "folly."
Disney Goes to War
In 1942, a naval officer wrote a letter to Walt asking for a design for an emblem of the Navy's new fleet of torpedo boats nicknamed "mosquito boats." Disney obliged with a drawing of a mosquito riding a torpedo (the insignia was such a hit that every torpedo boat in the fleet soon had it).
Words spread, and Disney was bombarded with requests for insignias for tanks, minesweepers, bombers, and figher planes. Skylighters.org has a neat article about Disney's artistic contribution to the Great War: Link (text from LIFE Magazine)
Walt Disney was a Train Lover
Disney loved trains. He even built a miniature railroad in his backyard called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. It was named after the street on which his home was located.
Walt's railroad had 2,615 feet of track, including trestles, loops, overpasses, and even a tunnel (after his wife vetoed the train going through her flower beds).
Disney's backyard railroad became an inspiration for the Disneyland theme park.
Walt's Disneyland Tribute to His Father
Photo: David Ball [Wikipedia]
Elias Disney, Walt's father, was a carpenter who earned about $1 a day. In 1895, Elias began a modest home construction business that ultimately failed. He continued to work odd jobs afterwards, including farming, running a newspaper delivery business, and working in a jelly factory.
Elias didn't live long enough to see Disneyland, but the lamp in his window is always lit in his honor. (Source: Disneyland Detective: An Independent Guide to Discovering Disney's Legend, Lore, and Magic by K. Trahan, D. Hawkins, and B. McKim)
Cigarettes Killed Disney
Walt Disney was a chain smoker. In 1966, he was scheduled to undergo a neck surgery for an old polo injury, but a pre-surgery X-ray showed a large tumor in his left lung. Doctors ultimately removed the lung, but Disney died later that year.
In 1951, Disney produced a short clip titled "No Smoking" of Goofy trying to quit smoking. The company banned the cartoon from TV broadcast.
Disney's Mysterious Tie Clip
The Walt Disney bronze statue in Disneyland has a weird tie clip that looks like a symbol from an alien language.
Photo: Zesmerelda [Flickr]
It turns out the symbol is made of the letters S, T, and R, which stands for "Smoke Tree Ranch," Disney's ranch in Palm Springs, California. Nearby Walt's ranch lives a good friend of his, who became the inspiration of the character "Jacques" the Mouse in Cinderella! (Source: Hidden Mickeys, with a lot more fun facts of Disney)
Previously on Neatorama: 10 Cool Secrets About Disneyland
So gather around children and "Uncle Ed" will explain:
Back in the day, a very popular and universally recognized brand of resoling supplies was the "Cats Paw" line of replacement rubber heels and soles. So for the Disney animators to include the very clear heel mark with "Pussy Foot" on it was actually a 3 way gag. 1. The word play on the Cats Paw name 2. The implication that it was a resoled shoe and thus well worn, and 3. The visual/word play on "pussy foot" as in to step lightly when the cigar has just been smashed flat.
Nothing pornographic here. So those of you looking for prurient intent need to go review the Iwerks material from the mid to late 30s more closely and come back when you've actually done your homework.
I also always like learning about the tribute windows on the second story of Main Street USA.