Old Story Of Walt Disney Never Gets Old

The oft-told tale of how Walt Disney spun gold from the ideas he imagined in his head gets another going-over in a new six-part History Channel docuseries starting next Sunday.

But no matter how many times I encounter his story on TV or in books, the tale of how Disney came from obscure origins in Kansas City to become one of the world’s most familiar brands is one I never tire of hearing.

History Channel’s series is titled “How Disney Built America,” part of an ongoing series of docuseries on the channel organized under the “Built” umbrella.

Sometimes the titles are a little awkward. If one takes the title of this one literally, for example, then one might argue that Walt Disney did not technically “build” America.



He built a company, though, that bears his name to this day.

Why? Because Walt himself was as famous a brand as the globally recognized characters he created, starting with Mickey Mouse.

The birth of Mickey is the subject of the show’s first hour. In the 1920s, Walt Disney and his older brother Roy were partners in an animation studio with decidedly narrow profit margins.

Finally, Walt and co-creator and animator Ub Iwerks (pronounced b -werks) came up with a breakthrough character they hoped would place them at or near the forefront of animation.

The character? Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. If I already knew this story when I heard it the other day while previewing Episode One of “How Disney Built America,” then I had forgotten it.

According to the show, the character represented an advancement in cartoon characters generally since Oswald possessed distinct characteristics that were his alone, and would carry over into cartoon after cartoon.

There was only one problem for Walt and Roy, however: They unknowingly sold the character to Universal when they made a distribution deal with the studio without carefully reading the contract.

Well, this was never to happen again to Walt Disney. Soon, he and Ub set to work on a new character, a mouse with round ears that Ub designed by tracing a couple of coins. 

From these simple beginnings, these ears would become one of the most recognizable brand identifiers on the planet Earth.

Another thing I must have forgotten from other Disney docs: That the Disney brothers could not attract interest from distributors for Mickey Mouse until Walt conceived the idea of surrounding Mickey with sound.

As a result, Disney did for animation what “The Jazz Singer” did for movies -- namely, to give voice to the characters on screen and, in one fell swoop, consign the silents to the dustbin of Hollywood history.

In “Steamboat Willie,” the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey, as Willie, whistled -- and the rest was history.

Like other History Channel productions, “How Disney Built America” relies on extensive reenactments such as the one pictured above in which actors play Walt Disney (standing) and Ub Iwerks as they collaborate.

Whether or not Walt Disney actually “built” America, he built something that was, and still is, American. 

For me, the best word in the title isn’t “built.” It’s “how,” as in, how Disney did it. This is the story that never gets old.

“How Disney Built America” premieres Sunday, April 28, at 10 p.m. Eastern on History Channel.

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