A few days ago I started off with the introduction of a new series Through the Decades. I want to look at the people, events, films etc that make Disney what it is. Before diving head first into the 1920s and the start of the studios, there is one important man above all the rest that probably needs no introduction but I will mention anyway. Walt Disney.
Born on 5th December 1901 Walt Disney was more than just the young and passionate cartoonist who created Mickey Mouse. The fourth child to Flora and Elias Disney, he grew up at a time when the world was thrust into many different directions. Those global events still have their repercussions to this day but for a patriot like Walt, it influenced many of his life decisions.
During the First World War he drew patriotic cartoons for his high school newspaper, displaying his support for the troops. On seeing his older brother Roy join the Navy just out of high school, he wanted to go with him. Enlisting was unsuccessful, but his patriotism grew stronger when he found out that the Red Cross were asking for volunteers as young as 17. All it took was a simple forgery and that was that. However, struck down by the influenza epidemic he didn’t reach the frontline until the war had actually ended, and even then most of his time was spent chauffeuring around army officers and special dignitaries. Despite this, his time in France only increased his respect for American servicemen and women, influencing his actions in WWII for the Disney Studios to be commandeered by the American government.
As well as a patriot, Walt was a dreamer who combined nostalgia from the past, curiosity for the future, and universal ideals to build the most celebrated global entertainment corporation that continues to expand with every year. Drawing on his lifetime’s success The Saturday Evening Post once claimed him to be “the world’s most celebrated entertainer and possibly its best known non-political public figure.” I think they had that spot on, although forgetting that Walt himself always wanted to be known and remembered as a storyteller. In truth newspaper reports about him don’t need to prove it – we see his flair for storytelling in films made during his life and in the Disney parks, particularly Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
He was also a visionary – reinventing animation by turning it into a credible art form; constructing the first theme park that would change how all amusement parks are conceptualised; working with television as well as film; advancing the idea of monorails; designing an entire city, that had it been built, would have incorporated the latest technology and urban planning…
However, when we look at Walt Disney, we always look at him as a storyteller, as a public figure, and whilst it is how everybody sees him, it is not the real Walt. Who he was behind closed doors often remained hidden, and sometimes even those who worked with him never knew the truth about certain aspects of his life, especially the events surrounding his last admission into hospital and ultimately his death. A keen polo player, Walt sustained a few nasty injuries to his spine that caused him to have nasty arthritis and constant pain. As the pain plagued him regularly, no suspicion arose when employees were told that he’d gone into hospital to take care of “an old polo injury,” remaining ignorant of the lung cancer that did end his life.
As a universal figure and one that changed the outlook of people during a time of great stress and upheaval, many didn’t want to let him go. His memory of course lives on in everything Disney creates (or we hope it still does) but Walt’s death sparked a surge of rumours and myths that do continue to circulate. Some people claimed he was in fact the son of a Spanish woman and was adopted by his parents at the turn of the century. Not only is this debunked by the fact he wasn’t old enough to enter the Armed Forces during WWI, and that he was born in Chicago, Walt’s lineage has been traced back to Insigny-sur-Mer in northern France – his ancestors came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, anglicised d’Isigny to Disney, and then moved about before settling in America.
More widely known, one newspaper reported that his body had been cryogenically frozen and then stored under Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland until medics found a cure for cancer. In truth, his fate was fire – cremated to then have his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, not too far away from his own studios.
Alongside other reports notifying us as to his true character, the strength of these myths and legends suggests that no one is entirely convinced as to who he was, ultimately providing us with the idea that there was no greater myth than Walt Disney himself.
Whether I choose to ponder that when I dive into Disney history is something yet to be decided, but I cannot deny that it might have some influence on past events later published in future posts.
In the end, Walt Disney was a figure head and a public figure that we all admire one way or another.
Thank you for reading this introductory/first post into Through the Decades and have a brazzle dazzle day!
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