Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois, the fourth of five children, to Elias and Flora Call Disney. When he was four, the family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where an uncle had recently purchased land.
Disney’s interest in drawing began when he was asked to draw the horse of a retired neighbor. He practiced drawing by copying newspaper cartoons and soon after developed an ability to work with watercolors and crayons. Living near the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line, he also developed an interest in trains.
The family moved again in 1911, this time to Kansas City, Missouri, where Disney attended Benton Grammar School and met student Walter Pfeiffer whose family was interested in theater. It was Pfeiffer who introduced Disney to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures.
Disney continued his study of art by taking Saturday classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and a correspondence course in cartooning. In high school he became the cartoonist of the school newspaper and drew patriotic pictures about the Great War (World War I).
He tried enlisting to fight the Germans but was too young. Forging the date on his birth certificate, he joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver and was shipped to France. He drew cartoons on the ambulance and was published in the army’s Stars and Stripes.
When he returned home, Disney drew commercial illustrations for advertising, theater programs, and catalogs for the Pesmen-Rubin Studio. He and fellow artist Ub Iwerks were laid off in January 1920, due to the studio’s decline after Christmas. The two of them decided to start their own business, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, but it failed fairly quickly.
From there, they went to work at KC Film Ad Company which produced commercials using the cutout animation technique. Disney liked animation, but preferred drawn cartoons. With a borrowed book on animation and a camera, he began experimenting and decided cell animation was more promising. Unable to convince his boss, he and co-worker Fred Harman opened a new business with Newman Theater as their main client. The short cartoons, known as Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams, proved successful and allowed the small company to expand. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide enough money to keep the company in business and it filed bankruptcy in 1923.
Next Week: Disney moves to Hollywood
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.email@example.com.