Through Depression and wars, Walt Disney's hold on our collective conscience remains strong

Is there any modern epic that could approach the success story of Walt Disney?

Born in 1901 at the dawn of the American century, he became its quintessential prototype: Midwestern upbringing; genteel poverty; tireless worker and innovator who early on discovers an inexhaustible source of commercial appeal — children’s dreams.

He sends Mickey Mouse out into the world as ambassador without portfolio (the licensing agreements and building plans come later), and makes both Walt and the Disney logo international icons of Americana that some deeply distrust but most venerate.

For who in his right mind would want to topple a Magic Kingdom, especially if it’s made of money?

A high school dropout, Walt Disney worked as a commercial artist for $40 a week in Kansas City, Mo. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1923 with his friend and partner Ub Iwerks, he had made his first film, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and found a New York company to distribute his animated/live-action “Alice” series.

In a half-office near Vermont Avenue, he and brother Roy set the Walt Disney Co. in motion. By 1927, sale of his cartoons brought in $2,250 each.

In 1997, the company’s revenues reached $25 billion. Of the top media giants including AOL Time Warner, Viacom and General Electric, only Disney is identified solely by a family name.

Disney is a major presence in every commercial entertainment form, from Hollywood to Broadway, including radio, television, cable, video, DVD and publishing. Its endless licensing merchandise includes clothes, bracelets, clocks, mugs, posters, CDs — anything to which a picture or symbol can be attached. The company owns theme parks in Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Tokyo. It owns luxury hotels; its cruise ships sail the Caribbean.

If it appears that the vastness of this conglomerate power, this “national entertainment state” as Nation magazine termed it, with its notorious secrecy and tight controls, contradicts what its avuncular founder saw in his peaceable kingdom and its manageable terrors, he did in fact set the terms after an experience that nearly ruined him.

In his first incarnation, Mickey Mouse was not a mouse. He was a cartoon rabbit named Oswald who debuted in 1927 to critical and popular acclaim. A year later, when Disney went to New York to negotiate a new contract, he discovered his distrib had hired away all his animators except Iwerks and, worse, had kept the rights to Oswald.

Disney’s answer was to trim Oswald’s ears and change his specie; hence the birth of Mickey. Disney would never relinquish control of a property again. On Nov. 18, 1928, “Steamboat Willie” debuted with Mickey at the helm. It was cinema’s first synchronized sound cartoon and it hit big.

As for licensing, a year later a man stopped Disney in a hotel lobby and offered him $300 for the right to Mickey’s appearance on the cover of a children’s writing tablet. Disney took the deal and the merchandising idea and spun off Walt Disney Enterprises. Another protocol was set.

A lot has been written over the past few decades, particularly after Disney’s death in 1966, about the hustle under the pixie dust. Business books, even favorable ones like Ron Grover’s “The Disney Touch” and Bob Thomas’ “Building a Company, Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire,” allude to, well, empire and its stresses.

The Disney saga moves from personal to corporate in John Taylor’s “Storming the Magic Kingdom, Wall Street, the Raiders and the Magic Kingdom.” More recently, as in books such as Henry A. Giroux’s “The Mouse That Roared, Disney and the End of Innocence,” we see a lot of hand-wringing over commercial culture’s slaughter of childhood and children’s freedom to imagine anything much beyond soda, cereal, video — disposable consumerism.

Amazingly after all these years, the Mouse House is still Disney’s company in spirit. Aside from his business acumen and technological zeal, he was curiously untouched. Marceline, Mo.’s Main Street, where he spent part of his youth, was his Rosebud, its surrounding woodland filled with the critters that later bore witness to his cartoon heroes’ distress.

World War I didn’t cashier him into the Lost Generation. Ezra Pound wrote of “laughter out of dead bellies.” Disney drew cartoons.

He gave people a break. The Disney menagerie helped take the country through the Depression, with its bread lines, crime, labor strife and bitter misery.

In 1937, when the landmark “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released, the Rome-Berlin Axis accord brought Europe closer to war and Japan invaded Manchuria. Everywhere, it seemed, America and Western civilization were imperiled.

Within his limitations, Disney felt the changes. “Snow White” showed the latest advances in animation artistry, but it was the first to bring feature-length cartoons into Bruno Bettelheim country, where psychological themes of suffering, loss, betrayal, violence and sexual awakening mixed with the cute and sentimental.

A world gone up in flames and a mother killed posed a tough few minutes for any kid watching “Bambi,” for example. Some of the constant themes that play through much of the Disney canon, from “Pinocchio” to “The Lion King,” deal with the anxiety and confusion of childhood and what kind of world awaits.

Not too bad, as it turns out. While corporate Disney plumps our inner child for cash, it carries an American message, too, in old Walt’s Midwestern his faith in the future and a can-do spirit.

Two things are true anyway: Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the Disney saga is unprecedented.

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