From the Archives: Wizard of Fantasy Walt Disney Dies

Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney, the one-time Missouri farm boy who for more than a quarter of a century created fantasies that made a troubled world laugh, died Thursday.

Disney, 65, succumbed at 9:35 a.m. in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Burbank, across the street from Walt Disney Productions, where more than 4,000 employees under the famous showman’s driving leadership created worlds of make-believe.

Hospital and studio spokesmen declined to state the specific cause of death, saying only that he died of “acute circulatory collapse.” A cardiologist was at his bedside when he died, the hospital said.


Underwent Lung Operation

Disney entered the hospital Nov. 2 and underwent surgery 19 days later for removal of a portion of his left lung. At the time, a studio official said Disney was admitted for treatment of an old neck injury received while playing polo.

“During the preliminary examination, a lesion was discovered . . .,” stated a medical bulletin issued at the time. “A tumor was found to have caused an abscess which, in the opinion of doctors, required a pneumonectomy.”

Studio officials, however, declined to say whether there was any malignancy.

Disney later was released, but was readmitted Dec. 5 — his 65th birthday — for what was described as a routine post-operative checkup.

He never left the hospital again.

Funeral services will be private.

Since he began commercial cartooning in a Hollywood garage in the late 1920s, Disney created hundreds of characters out of ordinary barnyard animals, fashioned pure-hearted heroes and awesome villains that are instantly recognized in the remotest corners of the world.


There was Mickey Mouse, the squeaky-voice rodent which carried Disney to fame and fabulous wealth after years of penny-pinching and frustration.

There was Donald Duck, Goofy, Horace the Horse, Pegleg Pete. There were characters of the classics — Snow White, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins — who mouldered on library shelves until Disney brought them into the light of movie and television screens.

There was “Fantasia” and the imagination-capturing documentaries, the “True Life Adventures,” the films of the animal world, Davy Crockett and a new word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

There was Disneyland, 70 acres of the past, present and future wrapped up in a smile in Anaheim.

In all there were more than 600 films, ranging from full animation to a mix of live and cartoon characters, to works of flesh and blood actors.

The creations of Disney and his artists, musicians and actors brought an unending stream of honors to the soft-spoken showman, who liked to be addressed simply as Walt.

He won 31 Academy Awards, and more than 900 other citations from presidents, kings and queens, world statesmen and neighborhood service clubs.

A French magazine once proposed Disney for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. His characters knew no politics, and received affection from the young at heart of whatever political persuasion or ideology.

Yet Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse served their country in time of war. Millions of World War II GIs learned aerial bombardment or the mathematics of field artillery from training films peopled by Disney characters.

The password at Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe on D-Day was: “Mickey Mouse.”

Engage in Peacetime Pursuits

Mickey and his barnyard pals also engaged in serious peacetime pursuits. Disney made films for overseas distribution on methods of improving housing, sanitation, disease control and agricultural improvements.

There was more to come.

Disney has been engaged in creating a $40 million year-around recreation facility at Mineral King, a spectacular mountain area in the Sierra, 55 miles east of Visalia.

And last year his organization launched a three-year project, Disney World, at Orlando, Fla., which the governor of Florida called the biggest single undertaking in the state’s history.

When completed, the $100 million project — the East Coast’s answer to Disneyland — will cover 27,000 acres, twice the size of Manhattan Island.

Disney and his staff were constantly seeking new ways to amuse, enlighten and entertain the world. One of his latest projects was electronic, three dimensional characterizations, such as the Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland.

To brainstorm and test new ideas for presentation to Disneyland visitors, Disney created WED Enterprises in Glendale. He called it his fun factory where a staff of nearly 200 experts — architects, engineers, artists, sculptors and designers — created and perfected new displays and programs. The facility gets its name from Disney’s initials.

“We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious,” wrote the showman who was once described as a Walter Mitty who makes all his daydreams come true.

“Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths,” Disney said in a 1965 stockholders report. “We’re always exploring and experimenting.”

At another time the man who thought like a boy all his life declared:

“There’s no magic to my formula. I just make what I like — good, human stories in which you can get with people and which prove that the better things of life can be as interesting as the sordid things.”

In commenting on the life-in-the-raw type motion picture, Disney once said:

“I hate to see a downbeat picture so that when I come out (of the theater), it makes me feel everything’s dirty around me. I know it isn’t that way, and I don’t want anybody telling me it is.”

Yet Disney insisted that his films and television shows were not only for the young and unsophisticated.

“I never did make films just for the children,” he said.

Disney’s death stunned millions around the world.

Flag at Half-staff

The Flag was lowered to half-staff at all county facilities by order of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. It was also lowered at Disneyland, but the park remained open to accommodate the throngs of visitors seeking to enjoy the creation that Disney repeatedly vowed would never be completed.

Roy O. Disney, Walt’s 73-year-old brother, who is president and chairman of the board of Walt Disney Productions, declared:

“Walt Disney’s preparation for the future is a solid creative foundation. All the plans for the future that Walt had begun through motion pictures, the expansions of Disneyland, television production and our Florida and Mineral King projects will continue to move ahead.

“That is the Walt wanted it to be.”

And the show will go on.

NBC-TV, which presents Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color,” said the annual Disney Christmas television program will be shown as scheduled Sunday. The program, “Disneyland Around the Seasons,” was filmed several weeks ago, and now will include a special tribute to the amusement park’s creator.

To Walt Disney, life and work were “fun,” the word he repeatedly used to describe his far-flung activities. Once when pressed by a reporter about his most rewarding experience, Disney replied:

“The whole damn thing. The fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it. Some of the people at the studio have been with me for 35 years.”

But manufacturing “fun” was serious business. At the studio he was a hard-driving executive who liked to say: “I don’t get ulcers, I give them.”

He frequently poked around his sprawling studio to check operations. Usually he was cheerful to his employees. But on occasion he could be grumpy.

A wisecrack among his Burbank workers was a question: “Who’s boss today?”

Sometimes it was” “It’s the one with the harp and halo.”

Other times it was: “Look out, he’s wearing the wounded-tiger suit.”

Disney was not even officially a corporate officer of Walt Disney Productions. He left the financial operation of the firm which last year grossed $116 million in the hands of his older brother.

No Key Man

But Walt was active in every facet of the artistic end of the business. A competitor once tried to hire away Disney’s “key man” and asked employees for his identity.

He was told there wasn’t any key man.

Disney was proud of his work, even in early days of struggle and hardship.

He recalled that a passenger on a cross-country train once asked him his occupation.

“I told him I made cartoons and all he said was ‘Oh.’ That’s all, just ‘Oh.’ but his tone was enough. I still think about that guy. Things like that used to get may goat,” he said.

Walter Elias Disney was born Dec. 5, 1901, in Chicago where his father Elias, an Irish-Canadian, was employed as a contractor. His mother, the former Flora Call, was of American-German descent.

Later the Disneys moved to a farm near Marceline, Mo., where young Walt developed a love for farm animals. He attended a small country school for a time, then went to the Benton Grammar School in Kansas City.

Disney returned to Marceline in 1960 for the dedication of an elementary school in his name.

“I’m not modest,” he said at the ceremony. “I’m scared. I’m not funny. I hide behind the mouse, the duck and a lot of other things. I’m still a farm boy — a small town boy.”

Last June Disney shipped an amusement ride to the town’s Walt Disney Municipal Park.

He got his first job at 9 — delivering papers. As a boy he liked to draw, and his works paid for his haircuts. A barber liked them so well that he displayed them in his shop window, giving the boy free haircuts in exchange.

As a boy Walt was stage-struck. His idol was Charlie Chaplin, and he frequently impersonated the famed comedian on amateur nights at local vaudeville houses.

Later, at McKinley High School in Chicago, he studied art and photography. At night he studied cartooning at the Academy of Fine Arts.

During summer vacations, he hawked newspapers, fruits and candies on trains between Kansas City and Chicago.

“It wasn’t a very profitable venture,” he once recalled. I was only 15 and I ate up all my profits.”

When World War I came, Disney became a postman in Chicago, and later tried to enlist, but was turned down because he was too young.

He was not quite 17 when he became a Red Cross ambulance driver and served in France for a year.

With the war over, Disney decided against returning to school and went to work for a Kansas City advertising company, where his job was to draw sketches of farm equipment and livestock.

He later took a $35 a week job as a cartoonist for a Kansas City firm that made slides for projection on theater screens.

In the early 1920s, Disney began experiments in filming animated cartoons. He later sold several one-reelers to theater owners.

It was while engaged in these early experiments, that Disney first met “Mickey Mouse.”

He recalled that he always liked mice, and was amused by their antics in his workshop. He captured some and kept them in cages.

One, bolder that the rest, would crawl over his drawing board. Disney called him Mortimer, but later decided that name was too formal, and decided on Mickey instead.

Joined by several other young cartoonists, Disney later formed his own company and created animated fairy tales, starting with Little Red Riding Hood. But the venture flopped, and Disney moved to Hollywood.

He arrived with a two-year-old suit, a sweater, some drawing materials and $40.

Forming a partnership with his brother, Roy, Disney began another attempt at cartooning. He created a one-a-month cartoon series, “Alice in Cartoonland,” which combined child performers with cartoon characters. Then came “Oswald the Rabbit.”

Disney at last seemed on the road to success, but when he attempted to expand his operations he fell into a disagreement with a New York distributor and lost the “Oswald” series.

On the way back to California from New York with his wife, the former Lillian Bounds, one of his cartoonists, Disney hit upon the idea of using his old friend Mickey Mouse as a cartoon character.

Mickey was featured in a series of cartoon sketches called “Steamboat Willie.” The first one was shown in 1928. After setbacks, mainly due to the introduction of sound in the film industry, Disney was at last on his way.

Next came “Silly Symphonies” and experiments with color cartooning, then Donald Duck, who challenged Mickey’s popularity.

During World War II, virtually the entire production of the Disney studious consisted of training films and other war work.

Disney’s first postwar feature was a musical, “Make Mine Music,” which utilized the voices and instruments of some of Hollywood’s top entertainers. The film was the first of its kind.

Other Notable Films

Then came other notable Disney films — “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and a series of family-type films without cartoon characters.

In addition to his wife and brother, Disney leaves two daughters, Mrs. Ron Miller and Mrs. Robert Brown; another brother, Raymond A. Disney, and a sister, Mrs. Ruth Beecher.

The family requested that that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the California Institute of the Arts, care of Walt Disney Productions. Disney was instrumental in founding the institute, a college-level school of the creative and performing arts.

Disney looked upon the institute, now being built on the Disney Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, as his single most important contribution to posterity.

“That’s the principal thing that I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures,” he said. “If I can provide a place to develop talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.”