December 15 is the 45th anniversary of the passing of Walt Disney. Walt put his heart and soul into everything he did. He immersed himself in his projects to the point where even up till the last days of his life, he would stay at the studios long after everyone else had gone home and visit his animators’ desks to check on the day’s work and make suggestions for improvements. Even lying in the hospital the night before he died, he imagined a map of the “Florida project” on the ceiling above his bed and explained to his brother, Roy, about why they would need to construct a road that ran east-to-west through it for their guests’ convenience. It was this type of dedication to seeing a project through to fruition that drove Walt’s ambitions and led to the phenomenal growth of the Disney Empire. Walt even coined a phrase for it: “Stick-to-it-ivity.”
When Walt was 18 years old, he was working as a commercial artist for the Kansas City Slide Company. During that period he discovered two books in the Kansas City library that altered the course of his life. One was Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Human Figure in Motion,” and the other was, “Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origins and Development,” by Carl Lutz. After studying both books, Walt could no longer see himself drawing static cartoons that appeared for one day in a daily newspaper. Instead, he began dreaming of making drawings that lived and moved. In ensuing years, Walt perfected his new craft. In May of 1922, he established a new enterprise, Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc.
After some initial modest success, however, the new company foundered, and by July 1923, Laugh-O-gram Films filed for bankruptcy. The court allowed Walt to keep just one camera and his unfinished “Alice’s Wonderland” film, and ordered all his other assets liquidated to pay his creditors. Most people would have given up, but not Walt.
With $40 in his pocket, he boarded a train for California with the dream of becoming a motion picture director, only to be turned away by every studio in and around Los Angeles and Hollywood. Through pure persistence, and despite having no money and no studio, he got back into the cartoon business by securing a contract to produce six “Alice” comedies for a movie distributor named Margaret Winkler. But a few years later, Winkler’s ruthless husband, Charles Mintz, dealt Walt a deathblow. After Walt had fulfilled his contractual obligation to produce 26 Alice comedies a year, Mintz told Walt they had run their course. Mintz said he had a major studio that wanted a series starring a rabbit, but he refused to tell Walt which studio it was until all the details of the contract was set in stone. The studio was none other than Universal.
The new series, called, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” was a huge success. But when Walt asked Mintz for more money per cartoon, Mintz instead offered him a pay cut saying, “take it or I’ll ruin you.”
And he just about did.
Mintz sent his brother-in-law, George Winkler, to the Disney studios supposedly to collect completed Oswald reels. The real reason for his being there, however, was to hire away most of Walt’s artists. It soon became apparent to Walt that Mintz and Universal were attempting a corporate takeover. The final kick in the pants came when Walt’s brother, Roy, who was as much a financial wizard as Walt was a creative genius, had an attorney look over the fine print of the contract Walt had signed with Mintz. The attorney discovered that Walt had unknowingly signed over ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures.
Walt had trusted Mintz and the man robbed him blind. Consequently, Walt lost his only cartoon character and his entire animation staff. Again, it would have been easy to cash it all in. Instead of despairing, however, Walt’s propensity for “Stick-to-it-ivity” rose to the top and on a train ride back to New York from Los Angeles, wondering what he was going to tell Roy and pondering how he was going to replace Oswald, he remembered a little mouse that he had tamed at the Laugh-O-gram Films studio in Kansas City.
Mickey Mouse was born on that train ride and the rest, as they say, “is history.” In a 1934 article Walt wrote for “The Windsor Magazine,” he commented on this particular time of his life:
“But was I downhearted? Not a bit! I was happy at heart. For out of the trouble and confusion stood a mocking, merry little figure. Vague and indefinite at first. But it grew and grew and grew. And finally arrived—a mouse. A romping, rollicking little mouse…By the time my train had reached the Middle West I had dressed my dream mouse in a pair of red velvet pants with two huge pearl buttons, had composed the first scenario and was all set.”
The lesson here is that life is inevitably going to throw us curveballs and place obstacles before us. It’s how we react to these challenges that define our character. Remember, the next time things seem hopeless, practice “Stick-to-it-ivity” and—just like Walt—you’ll soon see better days ahead.
For more information on handling life’s challenges check out Dale Carnegie Training of Philadelphia and Allentown’s upcoming schedule of Effective Communications & Human Relations/Skills For Success courses!
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