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Walt Disney

Born: 1901

Died: 1966

Source of Wealth: Entertainment

It may sound like hyperbole, but the noted British cartoonist David Low once described Walt Disney as “the most significant figure in graphic arts since Leonardo.”

Think of it: No modern artist has spawned a greater financial empire than the man who popularized Mickey Mouse.

Disney started modestly enough delivering newspapers, and at 14, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. Two years later, he was on the World War I battlefields of France, as a volunteer ambulance driver. Returning to the United States in 1919, he went to work at a commercial art studio in Kansas City. There he met Ub Iwerks, another young artist who would become a lifelong colleague.

The two began dabbling with animated cartoons that they sold to local theaters under the name Laugh-o-Grams. When the company they formed went bankrupt, Disney and Iwerks headed to Hollywood in 1923. Forming a partnership with Disney’s brother Roy, they began producing a series of cartoons called “Alice in Cartoonland.” In 1927, Disney and Iwerks created a new cartoon series, “Oswald the Rabbit.” A year later, Mickey Mouse was born.

Adding sound, Disney, who used his own voice, went nautical with Mickey and created “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. Next came animated films like “The Skeleton Dance” and “The Three Little Pigs.”

In 1934, Disney, who by then had stopped actually drawing, decided to embark on making his first feature-length cartoon. It was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which became a box-office hit in 1938. It led to a string of others, like “Fantasia” in 1940, which was a collaboration with conductor Leopold Stokowski.

During World War II, Disney created propaganda films for the U.S. war effort. One of those was the animated feature “Victory Through Air Power” in 1943. During this period Disney, who was known as an authoritarian, faced his first labor issue, a strike by animators, many of whom quit the company and formed United Productions of America.

The company reinvented itself in 1950 when Disney released its first real action film, “Treasure Island.” As a businessman, Disney formed Buena Vista, a distribution company that removed his dependence on other Hollywood companies to distribute his films.

Even so, the studio seemed to be faltering during the early ’50s. But Disney rolled the dice in a series of moves that would dramatically change the future of the company.

In 1954, he launched a prime-time series, “Disneyland,” an anthology that became the first major hit on the struggling ABC network. The historic deal was the first major relationship between a movie studio and network. “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a daily daytime TV series on ABC, followed with enormous success.

In 1955, Disney, who had bought a large tract of land in Anaheim, opened Disneyland.

While his company still had not realized anywhere near its ultimate growth potential, Disney died in 1966 of acute circulatory collapse following the removal of a tumor in his lung.

Frank Swertlow

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