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"Walt Before Mickey" illuminates Disney's tough times in Hollywood, when Walt decided that he " ... was through with the cartoon business"

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"Walt Before Mickey" illuminates Disney's tough times in Hollywood, when Walt decided that he " ... was through with the cartoon business"

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By now, you've no doubt seen the maquette of that statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse which is supposed to be prominently displayed on Buena Vista Street (i.e. Disney California Adventure's entrance plaza. The Main Street, U.S.A. equivalent for this revamped theme park).

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In a recent entry on the Disney Parks Blog, Ray Spencer (the veteran Imagineer who's Buena Vista Street's creative director) said that this statue depicts the Company's founder right after he ...

... arrived in California from Kansas City, and as (Walt) looks around in wonder and optimism, the world is his oyster to realize his dreams.

Which is all well & good. But as Timothy S. Susanin reveals in "Walt before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919-1928" (University Press of Mississippi, April 2011), optimism wasn't exactly what Walt was feeling when he stepped on that train in Los Angeles in August of 1923.

Copyright University of Mississippi Press.
All right reserved

The way that Roy O. Disney remembers his little brother looking when he met Walt at the train station was that " ... he was carrying a cheap suitcase that contained all of his belongings." More to the point, when Roy encouraged ...

... to find work ... even if it meant returning to cartooning ... Walt rebuffed his brother, saying, "No, I'm too late [for cartoons] ... I should have started six years ago. I don't see how I can top those New York boys now." Walt later explained, "When I got to Hollywood, I was discouraged with animation. I figure I had gotten into it too late. I was through with the cartoon business."

And according to the painstaking research that Susanin has done (which involved spending dozens of hours at The Walt Disney Company Archives, The Walt Disney Family Museum and the Library of Congress, unearthing all sort of interesting little tidbits buried down deep in decades-old interviews, newspaper accounts and correspondence), Walt was a man of his word. During the months of August & September 1923 ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... Although he was "fed up with cartoons," Walt decided that he still wanted to be a part of the motion picture industry. "What I wanted to do," he said," was get a job at a studio - any studio, doing anything." His "ambition at that time was to be a director," even though he was open to accepting any job a studio would offer him. He would take "anything. [I wanted to just g]et in ... Be a part of it and then move up." His goal was to "learn .... the picture business[.]"

Now regular JHM readers will remember that I recently did a story about Walt spending several days after he initially arrived in Hollywood lurking around the Universal Studios lot. But what Susanin has uncovered with "Disney's Early Years, 1919 - 1928" is how much this behavior used to frustrate Walt's brother:

"I kept saying to him, 'Aren't you gonna get a job? '" Roy recalled. "'Why don't you get a job?' He could have a job, I'm sure, but he didn't want a job. But he'd get into Universal, for example, on the strength of applying for a job and then ... he'd just hang around the Studio lot all day ... watching sets and what was going on ... MGM was another favorite spot where he could work that gag."

Mind you, it was while Walt was visiting with a friend from Kansas City who was working as an extra at Metro Goldwyn Mayer that Disney almost managed to break into the live-action side of things in Hollywood.  As Susanin recounts, Walt was told by his friend that ...

"I got a job in a picture called The Light That Failed ... They need more extras. You can ride a horse, can't you, Diz?" Walt said that he could, and "went [to the studio] and hung around and got signed." He was selected to appear in a cavalry scene, but the weather did not cooperate. "Well," Walt said, "it rained like hell. So I didn't get to go. And that was the end of my career as an actor. When they started all over again, they needed a whole new bunch."

So who knows? If it hadn't rained that day during the production of "The Light That Failed," an entirely career path might have opened up for Walt Disney in the film industry.

As Roy works the camera, Walt directs Virgina Davis in one of the Alice Comedies.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

It's this exact aspect of "Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919 - 1928" that made this book so enjoyable and insightful. Susanin took what everyone else thought was a pretty well-worn narrative thread (i.e. Walt Disney's start in film-making) and by piecing together research in ways that film historians hadn't before, Timothy created this genuinely entertaining & vibrant account of Walt's time in Kansas City and his struggles in Hollywood.

And make no mistake. As "Walt Before Disney" shows, the two Disney Brothers did go through some pretty tough times in Tinsel Town. During one particularly tight period where Walt & Roy couldn't really afford an apartment, Walt remembered that ...

" ... we took just a sleeping room and got our meals at a cheap cafeteria to save time. We worked out a system in that cafeteria. Roy and I always went in together. One would get a meat order, the other a vegetable. When we reached our table we would divide up." The cafeteria was "inexpensive" and "dreary." Walt recalled. "there was many a week when Roy and I ate one square meal a day - between us."

Roy and Walt Disney during their lean years in Hollywood
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Given how many people are genuinely struggling these days just to make ends meet, I think - in a way - it's far more valuable that Timothy S. Susanin made this portrait of the young Walt Disney available to the world, rather than that romanticized version which Ray Spencer and his team from WDI plan on placing on Buena Vista Street.

So if you want to get a sense of who the real Walt Disney was - especially when he was just starting out in the entertainment industry - be sure and pick up a copy of "Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919 - 1928." And then prepare to be amazed by all of the false starts & missteps that Walt made along the way to Mickey Mouse, all of the blind alleys that Disney went down, all of the possible career paths that he explored before Walt finally found lasting success in the field of animation.

FYI: The nice folks at the University Press of Mississippi provided me with a review copy of Timothy S. Susanin's book.

Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure theme park. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • Great article, as usual. :) I can't wait to see what Buena Vista Street looks like!

    Also, is the little smiley with an angel halo in the place of the "a" in "he would take (a)nything" deliberate? Or is my computer just reading this site oddly?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Hmmn ... That is a weird little glitch which I hadn't noticed that before. Thanks for pointing that out, DisneylandOrBust. I've now fixed it ... Though -- to be honest -- I now wonder what the long-term spiritual ramifications will be of removing an unexpected angel. Especially towards the end of the holiday season. Here's hoping that I didn't just do something very stupid

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