He Was No Mouse
"I never had any real play time," said the media kingpin.
When he was in his 50s and a millionaire many times over, sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night. He'd be in a cold sweat from a nightmare about his childhood job.
His father owned a newspaper delivery route. That was his job. That was the family’s source of income. Its sole source of income
He put the business in his older brother’s name, perhaps because he was embarrassed to have such a demeaning job.
Walt was nine years old when his father started getting him up early to deliver papers. Early as in 3:30 a.m. The little boy, his brother, and their father would pick up the newspapers. Walt would get 50. At first he walked his route on foot. In later years he rode his bike.
He was home by six a.m., and after such a rousing morning’s work, he went back to sleep and got up again for breakfast.
His pay? Usually nothing. After all, it was his father’s business.
He did make a few cents by also delivering medicine (at the same time he delivered the newspapers) for a neighborhood druggist.
Finally, he got his dad to give him another 50 papers. He tried selling them at a trolley stop. Kids hawking competing papers there bullied him away, so he sold papers on the trolley.
Then, after all that, he went to school. Of course, he had to leave school early—to get the afternoon papers.
There wasn’t much time for fun on the weekends. He collected subscription money on Saturdays. Sundays were the worst day—because the papers were so thick and heavy.
Snow up to his neck
Winters were the worst time to deliver papers. In later years, he boasted that he somehow walked in snow drifts up to his neck. He recalled that sometimes he was so exhausted he fell asleep in apartment building lobbies and then got up to finish his route.
How long did he do this? He did this for six years. During that time, he only took three weeks off, and two of those were because he was beastly sick.
“I was working all the time,” Walt Disney recalled. “I never had any real play time.” The experience made him appreciate what little free time he had. As he got older and got serious about his hobby, which was drawing, he knew he didn’t have a moment to waste. No wonder that his first mega-success was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a story about a girl trapped by cruel adults in a life of misery and thankless toil.
As far back as he could remember, he liked to draw. When his only aunt came to visit, she brought him pencils and pads of paper. An elderly doctor took a liking to him. One day he asked Walt to draw him a stallion with crayons.
The old man gave him a nickel in exchange for his finished work. Then he framed it and hung it on his wall. That was one of the shining moments of his childhood. He remembered it the rest of his life.
“Don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance,” the doctor told him.
He may have remembered that wise advice, but as a young entrepreneur he forgot it. The young Disney, having incorporated with his brother Roy as Disney Brothers, went to work for movie producer Charles Mintz.
Mintz apparently looked like a villain in Disney movie. He chain smoked. He obsessed over his favorite thing—his collection of police badges. His eyes were cold, his features grim. He rarely deigned to speak with his employees. Disney had a contract with Mintz (and his wife Margaret Winkler). He would make the cartoons with his own staff, and Mintz would bankroll his work and distribute the films to movie houses.
It wasn’t such a bad deal. After all, Disney got a share of the ticket revenues. Now Mintz wanted more—more cartoons and more jokes in every cartoon. Disney and his team could hardly keep up. Soon Mintz wanted even more movies.
The hare was a hit
The two men vied for creative control, but Mintz held the whip hand and wouldn’t give in. The financial pressures drove Disney to distraction. No matter what he did he couldn't make ends meet working for Mintz. He so badly needed extra money to meet his payroll that he sunk to making a short called Clara Cleans Her Teeth, a movie about proper dental care.
Then in early 1927 Mintz told Disney the good news—he’d struck a new deal with Universal. There was one condition—Disney would make no cartoons about cats. Apparently, there was a glut of cat cartoons on the market.
So Walt drew what seemed to be the next best animal—rabbits, and they agreed to produce a series of 26 cartoons about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Of the resulting short films, Motion Picture News raved, “This series is destined to win much popular favor.”
The hare was a hit, but Disney was about to be dumped. Mintz and his partners decided they no longer needed him. Behind Disney's back, Mintz hired away most of his animators.
Disney struggled to negotiate his own deal with studios to produce the Oswald series. But Walt, still a babe in the Hollywood woods, didn't know what he didn't know. Disney was ignorant and didn't know he was ignorant. He learned the sickening truth—Mintz owned all the intellectual property rights to the character of Oswald.
He could have kept working for Mintz, but by now far too much ill will had arisen between the two men. In later years he told friends, “it was just like the plot of one of [my] stories where good will win and the villain will be defeated.”
In reality, Disney's disastrous comeuppance with Mintz was the best thing that ever could have happened to him. He learned the legal ropes, albeit the hard way, and he got strong experience supervising staff, managing production, and running a studio—except that he didn’t have the final say.
Seething with anger and humiliation, he vowed he would never again work for anyone—but himself. He would be his own boss, and he would create—and own—the characters he created.
Disney's courage led to a real Mickey Mouse achievement. Now his own man again, Disney got the idea for the renegade rodent when he saw a mouse at his windowsill. On the other hand, his wife said Mickey’s genesis came when Walt was brainstorming at work. Film historians, on the other hand, say mice played second banana roles in earlier Disney cartoons. Others contend Mickey was merely Oswald drawn differently and that Walt based Mickey on cartoons in humor magazines.
Why was Mickey a hit? Yes, he was cute—and sassy, but his first film Steamboat Willie wasn't even the first cartoon with sound. But it was the first cartoon with sound that was good. It had that Disney magic.
“Laughs galore,” chuckled Variety. Almost instantly Disney had offers galore. The man who had been too busy to play as a child now found it child's play to make children's dreams come true.
It's a good thing Walt doesn't know what his creation has become today.
I believe Mr. Disney, while still living in Kansas City, made another film about dental hygiene, called "Tommy Tucker's Tooth". I believe it was commissioned by the Missouri Dental Association. The tooth was animated, the 2 boys in the film were not.