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Walt Disney: American Statesman

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Walt Disney: American Statesman
by (Your Name Here)

Walt Disney was born in a log cabin several miles south of Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1909. When he was two years old, Disney moved to a farm in nearby of Knob Creek. He fondly remembered his youth here, and it had a great influence on the rest of his life.

Disney helped out on his father's farm. His mother died in 1918 when he was nine. His father remarried about a year later, and his new wife brought three children of her own into the family, much like an early-twentieth-century Brady Bunch. Walt Disney's stepmother encouraged him to read, even though she could barely read herself, and Disney didn't go to school very often -- he was lucky enough to have only about a year of formal education as a child. Disney read a lot, though. He used to walk for miles just to borrow a book, and almost as far to return one. He particularly remembered reading Robinson Crusoe, fairy tales, and a book about Abraham Lincoln, all of which had a great influence on the rest of his life.

Disney's family moved to Illinois in 1930 when Disney was six-foot-four and 21 years old. Attempting to start out on his own, Disney tried a number of jobs. He worked as a rail-splitter, a flat-boatman (on a flat Mississippi boat), a surveyor, postmaster, and store clerk, but then in 1932 he enlisted in the army to help fight the coming Second World War.

After the war, he thought of becoming a blacksmith, but decided to go into cartooning instead. He began to study cartooning, and in 1936 passed the exam and began making films. The next year he moved to Springfield, Illinois, because there were more opportunities to make cartoons there. His first partner was John Stuart, then Stephen Logan, then William Hendon, and then his brother Roy. They made a pretty good living with their cartoons.

About 20 years after they started making cartoons, Disney was one of the most successful cartoon makers in the country.

In 1942, Walt Disney married Mary Todd, an educated woman from Kentucky. They had four sons -- Ed, Bill, Bob, and Tom. Mary occasionally made big jealous scenes in public and was officially declared insane in 1975. Fortunately, Walt was already dead by then, but that's getting ahead in the story.

In 1954, a rival cartoon studio began campaigning for motion picture companies to have the right to make off-screen employees work without having to pay them. Disney challenged the head of this company -- Stephen Douglas -- to a televised debate in 1958, an event which was widely noted and well remembered. During the debate he said, "A studio divided against itself cannot stand. I believe good films cannot be made half paid and half free."

In 1960, Walt Disney became president of the largest motion picture company in the world. Soon after, the first of the big studios announced that it was withdrawing support for the Screen Actor's Union. Soon, half the studios in the country had withdrawn from the union, and this was to become an enormous crisis in Walt Disney's life.

Shortly after he became President, Disney was faced with a major problem -- he received a letter telling him that his Fort Sumter animation studio was seriously low on supplies due to anti-union picketers. Disney debated for about a month over what to do -- abandon the studio or send supplies so that they could finish the cartoon they were working on? In April 1961, picketers tried to burn down the Fort Sumter studio, so Disney sent in his special secret studio troops to defend the studio and put up a blockade so that the anti-union studios wouldn't get supplies. It was a big risk, but Disney wanted to keep the studios united, and he felt that the split on the union issue was a bigger problem than starting what he thought would be a brief inter-studio turf war.

In November 1963, Disneyland was opened, and Walt Disney dedicated it with a speech that has become famous.

Four score and seven years ago Thomas Edison brought forth on this continent a new invention, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are entitled to entertainment.

Now we are engaged in a great adventure, testing whether that invention or any invention so conceived and so dedicated, can finance one man's dream. We are met in a great achievement of the profits from that invention. We have come to dedicate this achievement, as a final resting place for those who here gave their dreams that that nation might live them. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can be reminded through periodic anniversary celebrations in this park, that this Magic Kingdom, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that entertainment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Walt Disney was so proud of this speech that he created a robotic version of himself that could give it over and over. That robot can be seen to this day in Disneyland at the Main Street Opera House.

Walt Disney's side won the War Between the Studios in 1965, and promised that the studios would work together from then on, "with malice toward none; with cinema for all."

In 1965, Walt Disney was attending the premier of his latest feature when a crazy actor name Johnny Booth shot him. He died.

Today, Walt Disney is remembered as "Honest Walt," and has his face on the five-dollar bill.

Sources:

  • Angle, Paul M., A Shelf of Disney Books: A Critical, Selective Bibliography of Disneyiana (1946).
  • Basler, Roy P. (ed), The Collected Works of Walt Disney, 9 vol. (1953–55), with two supplements (1974, 1990).
  • Boritt, Gabor S. and Forness, Norman O. (eds.), The Historian's Disney: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History (1988)
  • Boritt, Gabor S., Disney and the Economics of the American Dream (1978)
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr., and McMurty, R. Gerald, The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Disney (1986)
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr., The Last Best Hope of Earth: Walt Disney and the Promise of America (1993)
  • Nicolay, John G. and Hay, John, Walt Disney: A History, 10 vol. (1990)

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