December 5, 1901: Walter Elias Disney is born in the upstairs bedroom of the family’s Chicago residence. Namesake of his father (Elias Disney) and the local preacher (Walter Parr), Walt is the fourth boy of five children. The family will spend the next four years living in the city’s Hermosa neighborhood before rising crime rates prompt a move to rural Missouri.
1906: The Disney family moves to the small community of Marceline, Missouri, the place Walt would forever consider his hometown. His time spent on the family farm and watching the trains pass through town each day would lead to lifelong interests that manifested themselves countless times throughout his career. It was also here that Walt made his very first profits as an artist when a neighboring farmer paid him a nickel for a sketch of his horse.
1911: Financial difficulties force the family to relocate to Kansas City. For the next six years, Walt rises at 3:30 each morning to work his father’s paper route before school. The job would haunt him well into his later years and was said to be a motivator for his success. During this time, Walt befriends local boy Walt Pfeiffer, whose father is very much the opposite of his own, introducing Walt to films and vaudeville shows. The two boys create an original vaudeville act to perform for friends and neighbors, billing themselves as “The Two Walts.”
1917: The family returns to Chicago, where Walt begins taking his interest in art more seriously. He begins drawing for his high school newspaper and taking formal classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, in hopes of eventually making his living as a newspaper cartoonist.
1919: After a stint in France as a driver for the American Ambulance Corps following World War I, Walt moves to Kansas City and takes a job at the Pesmin-Rubin commercial art studio for $50/month.
1920: Walt and co-worker Ub Iwerks decide to leave Pesmin-Rubin for their own venture, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The company fails in a matter of weeks, and the two are hired by the Kansas City Slide Company, where they are introduced to—and very much intrigued by—a brand new art form known as animation.
Company stationery from Walt’s early attempts at making a living as an artist
1922: Walt incorporates his second business venture with Iwerks, Laugh-O-gram Films.
Walt raised $15,000 from investors to get the studio off the ground
1923: Walt produces a one-minute short entitled Alice’s Wonderland, combining live-action film and animation. Before he can land a distributor, however, his studio once again goes bankrupt, prompting a fateful move west to Hollywood. Using his uncle’s garage as a workshop, Walt continues work and secures a contract for an entire series of shorts known as the “Alice Comedies.” He and brother Roy establish the Disney Brothers Studio.
Walt and Roy with Margie Gay, who played Alice from 1925-27
1924: Iwerks rejoins Walt, who decides to focus exclusively on story development and direction, leaving the animation to his ever-growing staff of more talented artists. One of the newly-hired inkers, Lillian Bounds, captures Walt’s attention…and heart, and the two are married the following year.
1926: The growing operation relocates to its now-famous Hyperion Avenue location and rebrands as the Walt Disney Studios.
1927: The studio creates a highly-successful series of animated shorts, featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. A greedy distributor, however, tries to capitalize and threatens to take over the Studios. Walt is forced to relinquish his work and the character. All but one of his animators follow—longtime friend, Ub Iwerks.
Concept poster art for Oswald’s The Ocean Hop
1928: Together, Iwerks and Disney begin work on a new character, one that will fill the void left by Oswald and serve as the studio’s new icon. Rounding and blackening the rabbit ears into the circular shapes so recognizable today, the two create a lovable, squeaky-voiced little mischief-maker called Mortimer…quickly renamed by Lillian to a less “depressing” moniker…Mickey Mouse.
Telegram sent by ever-optimistic Walt immediately following the loss of Oswald