For almost 100 years, the name Walt Disney has been so synonymous with animated films, television channels, and child-friendly theme parks that it’s easy to forget that, at one time, the moniker referred to an actual person. Born in 1901, Walter Elias “Walt” Disney grew to be one of America’s most preeminent business tycoons by the time he died in 1966. Within this short time, he also became a beloved animator, producer, director, screenwriter, and voice actor (who just happens to have more Academy Awards and nominations than anyone else in history). Not too bad for a cartoonist from Chicago. Although Walt Disney died almost 40 years ago, the mass media stronghold of his eponymous company remains as strong as ever. The voluminous canon of Walt Disney Studios, not to mention the work of all of its subsidiaries, often overshadows the life of its founder.
Soon, however, the voice of Walt Disney himself will be pumped into movie theaters throughout the country. On November 27th, the Walt Disney Animation Studios will release Get a Horse!, a 7-minute animated film featuring the studio’s quintessential stars, Mickey Mouse and his favorite lady friend Minnie Mouse, who embark on a jubilant musical wagon ride (that is, until Peg-Leg Pete arrives and tries to ruin all the fun). Get a Horse! will accompany the studio’s new feature film, Frozen, and will include archival recordings of Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey Mouse. In honor of the short film’s release and the resurgent voice of the company’s creator, here are seven facts you may not have known about both the man and the studio named Walt Disney.
1. Mickey was almost Mortimer. On a train ride following a less than fruitful business meeting in 1928, Walt Disney, then only 27 years old, sketched a mouse. This mouse would eventually become the official mascot of a multinational corporation worth tens of billions of dollars, but Walt, of course, didn’t know this at the time. He called the sketch “Mortimer Mouse” and showed it to his wife, Lily. After deeming the name Mortimer much too pompous, Lily suggested giving the mouse a cuter name, such as Mickey. Thankfully, Walt agreed with her, and a star was born.
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2. Walt was anti facial hair…with one exception. It took almost 60 years, but, as of this year, employees at Walt Disney’s two U.S. theme parks can finally show up at work with a stylish beard or goatee (but only if they are “neat, polished, and professional,” according to the official memo). However, at Disneyland in the 50s and 60s, even guests with facial hair, not to mention longhaired hippies, were turned away, as they were told they unfortunately failed to meet the standards of Disneyland’s dress code. Even Jim McGuinn, the future frontman of The Byrds, was once denied admittance for sporting a provocative Beatle cut. The company eventually relented on this policy, though, and allowed all hirsute patrons to enjoy “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Now, the peculiar double standard: Think of any picture of Walt Disney that you have ever seen. What exists in almost all of them? A mustache.
3. The final words ever written by Walt Disney were “Kurt Russell.” Really, no joke. In 1966, as Disney was suffering from lung cancer and nearing the end of his life, he scrawled the name “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper and died soon after. At the time, Kurt Russell was a child actor for the studio and had just signed a lengthy contract. To this day, no one knows what Disney meant or intended, including Russell himself.
4. Walt still has a home at Disneyland. During the construction of Disneyland in the 1950s, Walt moved into a one-bedroom apartment above the theme park’s Fire Station on Main Street in order to work and watch his dream come to life. The apartment still exists and has been left largely untouched. During his stay there, Walt lit a lamp in the window to alert the staff of his presence. This lamp is now permanently ablaze in his honor.
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5. Don’t be surprised if you experience Disney déjà vu. When you first watched Disney’s Robin Hood, did you wonder if you had seen it all before? If so, there’s no need to worry. In 1915, an animation technique called rotoscoping was invented. This technique involves drawing over film footage of live actors, which allows animators to capture realistic human movement. It also lets animators recycle animated movements for use on characters in different films. So, the next time you watch Disney’s Robin Hood, just remember that large parts of it were, thanks to the studio’s use of rotoscoping, gathered from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats.
6. Mickey and Minnie Mouse actually got married. Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor are not well-known names, even among Disney aficionados, but their animated personas are seared into most people’s minds. In 1991, Allwine, who was the voice of Mickey Mouse for 32 years, married Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse, and the couple remained happily married until Allwine’s death in 2009.
7. Nobody, including Walt Disney, is perfect. While Walt Disney was an innovative and successful man, he was also the subject of many controversies, most of which involved rumors that he was anti-Semitic and racist. These rumors were, and still are, hard to dispel. In the 1930s, Disney attended meetings of a pro-Nazi organization, the German American Bund. He also hosted a known Nazi propagandist and filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, and gave her a tour of Disney Studios. To make matters worse, Disney was also accused of perpetuating black stereotypes in his films. But, for all of his critics, Disney also had scores of supporters who claimed he was far from being either anti-Semitic or racist. The debate on Disney’s alleged discrimination and racism continues to this day.