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Toon Tuesday: What was it like to work at the Mouse Factory back in the 1950s?

Toon Tuesday: What was it like to work at the Mouse Factory back in the 1950s?

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A group of young guys and gals gathered in the office of a Disney veteran on the third floor of the Animation Building. “Boy, you missed it,” the old timer rhapsodized as he spoke about the good old days of the late 1930s and early 1940s. “This used to be a great place to work, but the strike ended all that.”

If you know your Disney history, you’re probably aware of, what might be called Walt Disney’s paternalism during the early days of the Hyperion Studio. Disputes between labor and management were hardly an issue during the Great Depression. Most young guys and gals were happy to have a job, and a job at Walt’s cartoon factory was better than most.

Walt’s midwestern philosophy of, an honest days work for a fair wage appeared to prevail at the fledgling studio. There was no need to speak of unions or workers rights when there was no guarantee the studio would even be in business the following week.

The old guys I’ve spoken with told me they were delighted to quit their jobs as delivery boys or soda jerks in order to earn a wage at the drawing board. Better yet, Walt Disney even tossed in a few extra bucks for those industrious enough to come up with gags or ideas for future cartoon shorts.

Walt Disney’s fatherly attitude continued when the studio moved to its new Burbank facility in the San Fernando Valley. While there was a lost of intimacy provided by the overcrowded Silverlake plant, it was more than made up for by the efficiency of the new studio. Still, Walt Disney provided his staff with an ideal artists environment. While the nation crawled out of a crippling depression, the Disney animators enjoyed what could have been called a workers paradise.

Yet, even in paradise, all was not well. Walt found it difficult to create Disney magic when his animation staff was increasingly divided by a contentious labor action. The bitterness created by the 1941 strike could not be easily dismissed, and it would change forever the relationship between Walt and his artists.

The Walt Disney Studio in the 1950's
The Walt Disney Studio of the 1950s provided artists
with the perfect working environment

The legacy of that Disney labor action ushered in “The Bad Old Days.” No longer would Walt’s artists and staffers enjoy the perks and privileges of the studios’ glory days. From now on Walt Disney would run a tough, hard as nails, no nonsense business. The fun and games were over.

Well, at least that’s the way the old guys tell the story. However, I’ll have to add, “Well, you could have fooled me!” You see, when I found the Disney Studio at its worst, it was still better than most studios at their best. This, however, might take some explaining.

This young kid arrived at Disney in the early 1950s with scant knowledge of the studio's labor history. So, when the old guys informed me that Walt had stripped away all the “goodies,” I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. From this kid’s naive point of view, everything looked just great. Yet, I was reminded continually that we were bearing the brunt of the 1941 strike, and all of us were being reprimanded by “Big Bad Walt.” So, I decided to compile a list on the many ways we were being “punished.”

First of all, let’s talk about working conditions. Number one, we had our own animation building and most of us had a private office, or at least we shared one with a colleague. In this case, I mean a real office with a door and a window with a view. The so-called office cubicle was non-existent.

Walt’s studio commissary operated at cost as a convenience for the workers. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing a menu from the Disney cafeteria or lunch counter, you would probably be in shock. Even though most didn’t earn much, we could still dine at lunchtime for around a dollar. If you chose wisely, you might even return to your drawing board with change in your pocket.

The commissary included a studio store that actually sold some pretty special toys and gadgets. Not the cheesy stuff so often seen today.

Marshall Horton and Buzz Fortney circa 1950 at the Walt Disney Studios
That's Marshall Horton & Buzz Fortney. We were all young kids
delighted to be working for Walt Disney

Walt Disney also provided an onsite post office where employees could purchase stamps and mail packages. No need to hop in your car and leave the studio lot when everything needed was a few doors away.

There was ample wall space in the studio library for artists to exhibit their work. Should you be lucky enough to sell all your paintings or sketches, the earnings were yours to keep.

There were free classes and lectures by the Disney Masters on the subjects of animation, layout and story. All provided without charge and conducted at the studio after work. The Disney veterans donated their time in order to provide training for a new generation of animation artists.

A carpenter shop, machine shop, and an electronics department that would gladly help you solve problems should you require their help. Of course, this was in addition to their regular company work. The electronics department repaired my tape recorder, and Disney’s machine shop helped me build an animation camera stand. All freely given because we were “part of the family."

Finally, Walt Disney provided working conditions like no other studio in town. While most movie employees labored in grungy, factory like facilities, the Disney studio lot was a landscaped campus complete with squirrels that scampered across manicured lawns.

I began my animation career working in these “dreaded conditions,” clearly being punished for the sins of my predecessors. The funny thing is -- since I didn’t know Walt was punishing me, I assumed I was working in paradise.

If you were lucky enough to work for Disney back in the f1950s when Walt and Roy ran the place, you might have had a few gripes about things. However, you’d be less than honest if you didn’t admit that Walt Disney Productions at its worst had to be an incredible studio. And if you decided to remain in the cartoon business for the remainder of your career -- it would never, ever be this good again.

A Young Floyd Norman working on Sleeping Beauty for the Walt Disney Studios
This young kid was working on "Sleeping Beauty" back in the good old days

Did you enjoy today's Toon Tuesday column? If so, Floyd Norman currently has three books on the market that also look back on his fascinating career in the animation industry.

These volumes include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • Interesting as always, Mr. Norman!  If it was so good at the Studio when you were there, what were some things lacking from before that your coworkers were complaining about?

  • Thanks for another great article, Floyd!

  • A situation that looks great to a "kid" doesn't look quite so swell to someone who has a wife, kids and a mortgage.  Perhaps there's a reason why some companies hire an awful lot of youngsters.

    And no mention, either, of Disney's full-page ad in Variety blaming Communists for the strike (though historians Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund have stated "In actuality, the strike had resulted from Disney's overbearing paternalism, high-handedness, and insensitivity"), or Senator Tenney's investigation into "Reds in movies" directly resulting from Disney's woes, which ballooned into the Hollywood blacklist.

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: http://dismarks.com/GeneralDisney/Floyd_Norman_What_was_it_like_to_work_at_the_Mouse_Factory_back_in_the_1950s

  • RudyV, I had a relative that worked at the Disney studio. Much of what Floyd has stated was echoed by him. This relative also worked at Disney prior to the strike, and he had NOTHING BUT PRAISE for how Walt handled the studio and its employees. He blamed labor leader Herb Sorrell for threatening, in the crudest, vilest way possible, to turn Walt's studio into a "dustbowl" if Walt didn't knuckle under. My relative believes that it was Sorrell's manner and threats that got Walt's back up. And it is a fact that Sorrell was a Communist sympathizer. He's on record for saying that while he wasn't a Communist, he didn't mind accepting money from the Communist Party. So Walt maybe had a reason for blaming Communists for the strike.

    And oh, how nice of you to blame Walt for the blacklist. The FACTS are that Communists really were infiltrating Hollywood, and Walt was a victim, as were many others, including Hollywood actors who really didn't know they were being used by nefarious people. The unfortunate blacklist and the work of Sen. Joe McCarthy were overblown offshoots of that troubling time.

    "High-handedness"? "Insensitivity"? Walt treated his employees to air conditioning, waiters who delivered their meals, recreational areas..yeah, he was a MONSTER.

    Call that "overbearing paternalism" if you like. Others would call Walt a good, if demanding boss. My relative certainly did!

  • Thank you for posting a picture of my brother. He was drawing Disney cartoon figures since he was about 12.

  • As the world is moving towards modernization many advances are made in the field of technology. This is why we are losing the uniqueness of the work that we did in 1950s.

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