Did you know that Walt Disney’s life was a series of failures? That even after huge, groundbreaking successes like Snow White, his company was often on the verge of financial ruin? It’s natural to think people like Walt Disney had it easy, but that is rarely the case. I recently found out all this and so many more fascinating details- all through an ultimately happy run-in with a terrible book.
It began with misplaced optimism in a classic book. (I, like so many high schoolers, have grown to be suspicious of most books termed ‘classics’. I hate the majority of them). But, after seeing and greatly enjoying Bloomsday, a play where the book Ulysses has a central role, I decided I wanted to check out the book. Since Bloomsday warned that the book is for the ears, not the eyes, I got the audiobook version at the library.
I listened for as long as I could, but after 1.5 hours I learned the truth of a line from Bloomsday: “The real hero of Ulysses is the reader.” I returned the book, desperate for another. To me, audiobooks are a necessity while I drive. It’s a great way to ingest all those books I want to read, but somehow just never seem to get to. Also, I’m addicted. If I finish an audiobook before I have my next one, it’s distressing! So I feverishly browsed the nonfiction audibooks at the library, and happened upon a likely candidate: a biography of Walt Disney.
Within 10 minutes of starting Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, I was captivated. Considering how many times I’ve been to Disney World, and how many Disney movies I’ve seen, I quickly realized that I knew surprisingly little about the man who started it all. It was interesting hearing about Walt’s family, his early life, and what got him into the Mickey business. But what interested me most was how many times he failed. And failed hard. Surviving off cold canned beans and sleeping in the office hard. Eventually his cartoons became successful, but it was still far from smooth sailing. Even once he launched the very first feature cartoon, which was wildly popular, he and his company were still often on the verge of bankruptcy!
As I learned more about Walt Disney, I found myself in a strange situation: I both admired and disliked him more than I had before I knew more about him. That may seem contradictory, but hear me out. Walt Disney the entrepreneur; Walt Disney the storyteller; Walt Disney the motion picture genius. These aspects of Walt, I now admire far more. It is truly incredible what he achieved. I knew he had made the first feature-length animation movie, but there were several other firsts he achieved too. The most stunning one to me is that Walt Disney invented the storyboard. Yes, that rather important thing in basically every movie today- Walt was the first!
On the flip side, as I learned more about Walt’s character, my vague image of him as a benevolent and kind man slowly came into focus, showing me quite a different picture. Walt had a vision where his employees would all work together and be happy in a utopian studio. However, he failed to take into account the actual feelings of his employees. He gave them what he thought they should want. That’s why it hurt him when, in his eyes, they didn’t fully appreciate it. How unhappy were they? Enough that most of his long-time employees eventually defected to rival studios. Enough to stage a prolonged strike.
Yet it doesn’t matter how I or anyone who knew Walt Disney felt about his personality. It was necessary to his success.
If he had really been the kindly father figure his public image suggests, the Disney company most likely would not have survived. Or, if it had, it would have been a pale shadow to the innovative, dominating force it is today. And just how did Walt make it into that dominating force? You’ll have to read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series to find out!