Walt Disney, one of the most recognized names in American entertainment culture, wasn’t always famous. While his name will long be remembered in the movie production company and theme parks around the world that bear his name, he had the humblest of beginnings. Born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Walt was the fourth son (and fourth overall out of five children) of Elias Disney and Flora Call.
He had three older brothers — Herbert, Raymond, and Roy — and a younger sister, Ruth. The Disneys were a farm family in the Midwest in early 20th century America. It doesn’t get more humble and obscure than that. It was Walt’s early experiences on the farm, however, that helped hone his already keen imagination to become the animation powerhouse we know him for today. Here is a look at the childhood of Walt Disney, and how it shaped him to become the man the world knows and loves.
Disney spent much of his childhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri. He was once paid to draw the horse of a retired local doctor, which got him interested in drawing. As he practiced drawing the cartoons from the front page of the newspaper his father subscribed to, Walt also began to gain skill with watercolors and crayons. Elias did not approve of Walt’s interest in drawing, believing instead that Walt should spend his time engaged in hard, manual labor. However, in one of the few times his mother was able to successfully intervene for him with Elias, she convinced her husband to buy Walt a set of colored pencils and some drawing paper. Walt was thrilled and spent every spare moment he had in honing his drawing skill and enjoying his hobby. Despite Walt’s later remarkably huge success as an animator, Elias never considered it a real job or approved of it.
After moving to Kansas City, Missouri when he was ten, Walt attended the Benton Grammar School. It was there that he met and befriended a fellow student named Walter Pfeiffer. Walter’s family were fans of the theater and introduced young Walt Disney to vaudeville and the movies. Walt loved these things so much that be eventually spent more time at the Pfeiffer home than at his own because his father did not approve of such things.
In fact, Walt’s father, Elias, was a harsh man, with a strict moral code that did not involve any playtime, games, or toys for his children and lots of hard work at young ages. When Walt was still living in Kansas City, his father purchased a newspaper route and made Walt and his older brother Roy work it. Elias awakened his two youngest sons at 3:30 a.m. every day before school, so they could deliver the newspaper, and they had to do it again for the evening edition when they came home from school. Between that and doing their school work, Walt and Roy were exhausted for much of their adolescent years. Elias didn’t even let them keep the money they earned from the route, because he believed they were too young to know the value of money. Still, in spite of all this, Walt managed to take courses on Saturdays at the Kansas City Art Institute, as well as a correspondence course in drawing cartoons.
When Walt was 16, Elias moved the family back to Chicago. Elias had purchased stock in the O-Zell Company there and took a job in the management of the company, which was headquartered there. While in Chicago, Walt attended McKinley High School, where he became the cartoonist for the school’s newspaper. As the school’s cartoonist, he drew cartoons about WWI that were patriotic in nature. He took night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
Looking to get away from Elias, Walt tried to join the war in 1918, but the Army rejected him because he was still under 18. He tried again, forging his birth date on his birth certificate. With the forged document in hand, he was able to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was sent to France. However, he arrived there after the armistice so didn’t get to do much. Instead, he spent his short time in France drawing cartoons on the side of his ambulance, and some of his work was published in the Stars and Stripes, which was the Army’s newspaper.
After almost a year in France, Walt came back to the states and went to Kansas City once more. There, he worked as an apprentice artist for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. It was the beginning of his lucrative, successful, and legend-making animation career.
However, before he got to this point, Walt had to endure a childhood with Elias Disney for his father. Elias was known for being so stern, that Walt’s two oldest brothers, Herbert and Raymond, left home as soon as they were old enough to do so, and were not involved in Walt’s life in any way thereafter. His mother, Flora, was too worn down by farm chores and a harsh husband to offer any comfort or protection for Walt. His only real companion was his brother Roy, to whom he was quite close, and they remained close for Walt’s entire life, even going into business together. Roy, though, was eight years older than Walt, so much of Walt’s childhood was spent alone.
To make up for the loneliness, he made friends out of the farm animals when his family lived on the farm in Marceline, Missouri. He anthropomorphized the animals into his personal companions, particularly the pigs. In fact, he once said that his best friend as a child was a pig on the farm named Porker. He loved Porker so much that he would sometimes get on her back and ride her, and she let him. Walt once said of Porker:
I guess I really loved that pig. . . . She had an acute sense of fun and mischief. . . . Do you remember the Foolish Pig in Three Little Pigs? Porker was the model for him.
This early experience allowed Walt to develop the imagination necessary to create entire worlds full of anthropomorphized animals in his cartoon drawings and animated movies. The most famous of these “animals turned people” is Mickey Mouse. There are dozens, if not hundreds more, from the animals of Bambi and Lady and the Tramp to the secondary characters of the mice in Cinderella and all the various anthropomorphized inanimate objects in Fantasia.
This keenly honed imagination carried Walt through an oppressive, repressive childhood under Elias’s thumb. As Elias experienced business failure upon business failure in Walt’s childhood, before finally finding success as a building contractor when Walt was almost grown, Elias became more tyrannical toward his family who remained at home. Since Elias kept all of the money Walt earned on the paper route, Walt eventually began buying newspapers himself and delivering them as an independent contractor so he could keep the money — he did this in secret, and Elias never knew about it. Walt also got a very part-time job in a local candy store during the noon recess at school. He kept that money, too, and also kept it a secret from Elias.
The secret-keeping was apparently a family trait because Walt’s brother Roy once told a similar tale about Elias. Apparently, Elias loved to play the fiddle, but his own parents did not approve of it. So, Elias would go to the woods alone to practice, and when he was good enough at it, he snuck into the local dance hall so he could play the fiddle with other musicians. He did this for a while before his parents found out about it, but they eventually did. When Elias’s parents found out what he was doing, they came to the dance hall, where his mother grabbed his fiddle and smashed it, then dragged him out of the hall by the ear. According to Roy Disney, his grandparents believed playing the fiddle and dancing were evil and didn’t want Elias to have any part of it.
Ironically, Elias wanted Walt to learn to play the fiddle so he would always have a means of earning money to fall back on. He forced Walt to practice, and Walt had a hard time keeping his elbow in the right position for playing. Walt recalled Elias slapping him every time his elbow moved out of position. Despite this harsh teaching, Walt never became proficient at the fiddle, as Elias wanted him to be.
Elias beat Roy and Walt almost every day, for the slightest offense. However, his extremely religious conservative attitude and refusal to show any emotion, love, or affection to his family was common for the Kansas City area during the time the Disney family lived there. The city had a Recreation Superintendent in those days, a man named Fred McClure, as well as a Board of Public Welfare investigator named Fred R. Johnson. These two men regulated all forms of amusement and fun in Kansas City, with an aim to keep all of the city’s citizens on the straight-and-narrow. Their regime was a repressive one, as was Elias’s own reign over his family.
Outside of Kansas City, however, the worldview of the Kansas City officials, as well as Elias Disney, was becoming antiquated. Others even began to see this worldview as self-destructive. Walt recalled his father being cheated many times in his various business ventures, and in his opinion, it was because Elias believed everyone was as honest as he was. Elias even refused to use fertilizer on his crops (which made him a failure as a farmer, because fertilizer would have made his crops healthier), because he believed it gave the plants an artificial boost of what seemed like good health, but would only make them worse off than they were before in the long run. Elias Disney held these naïve world views until he was a quite aged man; it took most of his life for his rigidly held views to begin to move and change even a little.
Because of his strict upbringing, girls were not a consideration for Walt until he was grown. In fact, he was kept so busy working for Elias, as well as conducting his own personal activities of both economic and educational natures, that girls were of no interest to him whatsoever for a long time. He later said that when he was young, girls were no more than a nuisance to him. As a grown man, he once commented to Time Magazine in 1954 that
“I was normal, but girls bored me. They still do. Their interests are just different.”
When he joined the Red Cross, the educational program he and other young recruits were given about venereal disease before they were sent to France further put Walt off of any thought of girls. He did not get married for many years after, marrying Lillian Bounds when he was twenty-four years old. Not surprisingly, his parents did not attend the wedding. Ironically, being disinterested in girls, Walt’s only children were two daughters, one biological and one adopted.
Despite the lack of love and affection in his own childhood, Walt became, by all accounts, a loving and devoted husband and father. His wife always spoke glowingly of him, and his daughters seemed proud to carry on his legacy. It seems perhaps Walt learned the most valuable thing of all from Elias — what not to do as a family man. By being the opposite of Elias in every way in his family life, Walt was able to break the chain of emotional and physical abuse in his own family. While some of Elias existed within him, Walt seems to have kept it confined to his work life, where those who worked for him often described him as a difficult, temperamental, unknowable man. To his family, however, where it really counted, his tough childhood made him into the husband and father they all deserved.