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Disney, Walt (1901-1966)

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Born in Chicago to Elias Disney (an Irish Canadian) and Flora Call Disney (a German American), Walt Disney, who was one of five children in the family, spent most of his early life in Missouri (first in Marceline and later in Kansas City). After serving in Europe as an ambulance driver in Europe at the end of World War I, Disney returned to Kansas City, where he worked with Ub Iwerks at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. The two decided to set out on their own in 1922 and founded Laugh-O-gram Films. Although working at their own company allowed them to fine-tune a method of combining live action with animation, distribution problems led to the demise of Laugh-O-grams in a year. In 1923, Disney moved to Hollywood and founded the Walt Disney company with his brother Roy. Iwerks later joined them as a key animator. The company’s first contract was to produce the short, animated, live-action Alice Comedies.

In 1927, Disney created the cartoon character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which proved to be popular with audiences. However, Disney later learned that Universal, his distributor, owned full rights to the Oswald character, a hard-learned lesson that pushed Disney to create a new character, Mickey Mouse, who was featured in Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928). On November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie , which featured Mickey and his companion, Minnie Mouse, was the first Mickey cartoon to be released, premiering at the Colony Theatre in New York City. This was the first synchronized sound cartoon, and while Disney auditioned many people for the voice of Mickey, he chose to provide the high-pitched voice himself. Disney won an Academy Award in 1932 for the creation of Mickey Mouse, and he continued to provide the voice until the late 1940s.

The summer after Steamboat Willie was released, Disney kicked off his Silly Symphony series with The Skeleton Dance (1929), which won acclaim for its synchronized sound and movement. Other Silly Symphony cartoons followed, including Flowers and Trees (1932), which was the first full-color cartoon and the first animated film to win an Academy Award. Disney’s use of Techni-color saved this unproven commodity and garnered Disney an exclusive three-year contract with Technicolor, giving him an edge over his competitors. The Academy Award-winning Three Little Pigs (1933), another in the Silly Symphony series, was praised for character development, and the cartoon’s theme song—"Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" by Frank Churchill—was popular with Depression-era audiences.

As Disney prepared for the creation of the first full-length animated film, he started exploring new techniques in animation photography. His third Academy Award-winning Silly Symphony, The Old Mill (1937), was the first short subject to use the multiplane camera technique. Disney also won a special Academy Award for the design and application of the multiplane camera, a device that photographed up to six sheets of glass held several inches apart, thereby producing animation with a greater sense of depth and dimension. That same year, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles as the first full-length animated feature film. It won critical and popular acclaim and broke ground for the future of animated films. The film capitalized on Disney’s animation achievements to date and took great leaps in the creation of well-developed cartoon characters who exhibited a wide range of emotions and could evoke emotions from the audience as well.

Disney is known for other firsts in animated feature films. Fantasia (1940), which features visual interpretations of orchestral classics, was the first animated film to use Fantasound, a multitrack sound system that paved the way for stereophonic sound. The Reluctant Dragon (1941) combined animation with live action. Lady and the Tramp (1955) was the first animated feature film to use the widescreen projection process Cinema Scope, while Sleeping Beauty (1959) was the first animated feature film to use the widescreen projection process Technirama 70. Other notable animated features that were produced by Disney Studios during Disney’s lifetime include Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), and The Sword in the Stone (1963). The Jungle Book (1967) was the last animated film that Disney was personally involved in, although it was released after his death. Disney believed in education for animators, which was the impetus for the establishment of an animation school at his Hollywood studio in 1932. The excellent training that his animators received not only improved the quality of Disney films but upgraded industry standards. Later, in 1961, Disney led the establishment of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia as a college-level professional school that specialized in creative and performing arts.

On July 19, 1950, Disney Studios released the live-action feature Treasure Island , which was the first of sixty-three live-action films that Disney oversaw before his death. Other notable live-action Disney classics include Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Pollyanna (1960), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), The Parent Trap (1961), and The Incredible Journey (1963). Mary Poppins (1964), which was acclaimed for its combined use of animation and live action in a key sequence and is often considered to be Disney’s last great film, won five Academy Awards.

Disney also made his mark in television. In 1950, his first television show, One Hour in Wonderland , was broadcast on Christmas Day. During the early 1950s, after the success of his first show, the networks began pursuing Disney to create a weekly show, but he was focused on opening his Anaheim, California, theme park, “Disneyland.” Finally, in 1954, Disney agreed to supply a series to ABC if the network would provide a loan to begin construction of the park. Disney used the series to promote the park, which was well publicized through the show by the time it opened on July 17, 1955. In 1961, Disney moved the series to NBC and began producing the series in color, changing its name to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ; the series was eventually called The Wonderful World of Disney . Meanwhile, Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club , which ran from 1955 to 1959, was another television venue that the creator used to bolster interest in the theme park. “Walt Disney World,” a similar, yet much larger, park opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971.

Although Disney left his mark as a film innovator, he was also a savvy entrepreneur. His keen sense for what audiences wanted helped him to created many types of media that would satisfy—and continue to satisfy—the American public. Under his leadership, Disney’s studio won hundreds of awards, including forty-eight Academy Awards, seven Emmy Awards, and two Grammy Awards.

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