Header image edited from the cover of Walt Disney’s Garage of Dreams

Your garage holds more than just your cars and rarely-used power tools. It holds the potential for greatness. The wide-open floorplan and separation from the rest of the house mean that the garage is the perfect room for making noise, as countless hobbyist handymen or teenage bands have discovered. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the greatest companies in the world got their starts in garages.

Join us as we explore these achievements through a running blog series, updated every Monday. We’re interested in learning all there is to know about the creativity produced in the most pivotal garages in history, and we’ll bring all of our findings straight to you.

Welcome to Garage Greatness.

Making Mickey: Disney’s Dream Turned Reality 

 

Walt Disney’s success sounds almost like one of his fairy tales. When the young cartoonist began filming his “Alice Comedy” shorts in his uncle’s garage, no one could have predicted that Disney would spend the next century growing into a multi-billion dollar international king of family entertainment, revolutionizing animation and building some of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, the Disneyland parks in Florida, California, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong.

Walt himself was born in 1901 in Chicago, one of five children of a handyman carpenter. Soon, however, the Disney family moved out to a 45-acre farm in Missouri and Walt learned to work in the fields. His mother Flora instilled in young Walt a sense of wonder by reading him fairy tales, and in his spare time Walt drew sketches of the animals around him. When the family moved again in 1909, Walt encountered his first amusement park, the Electric Park in Kansas City.

Even in his early art classes, Walt was drawing human features on flowers and experimenting with his imagination. He excelled in reading and attended evening art classes, which he paid for by cleaning jars in the jello factory his father had come to own. When his older brother Roy went in to the army during World War I, 16-year-old Walt left school and found a position in the Ambulance Corps. He toured France and Germany, spending ten months abroad.

After returning to Kansas City in 1919, Walt found work as a commercial artist with Pressman-Rubin Studios until January 1920, when he was laid off and found work instead with the Kansas Film Ad Company. During this time, Walt borrowed an unused camera from the studio and taught himself how to film stop-motion animations of his animal drawings. In time, his private work surpassed what he was doing for the company, but when Walt suggested that the company look at producing cartoons as well as commercials, his proposal was rejected.

Soon thereafter, Walt quit the Kansas Film Ad Company and opened his own studio to begin working on cartoons full-time. He sold the cartoons he had been working on, called Laugh-O-Grams, to Pictorial Films in Tennessee, but when Pictorial when bankrupt in 1923, Walt’s company followed closely after. He moved to Los Angeles to be with his brother Roy and found a New York cartoon distributer who was interested in his Alice Comedy series, which combined live action with animation. Walt and Roy finished the cartoons together, using a camera stand made out of plywood boxes and scrap lumber.

They built this first crude studio in their Uncle Herbert’s Garage.

With these initial funds, Walt could afford to move to a larger space in the back of a real estate office, as well as hiring two other employees to ink and paint the celluloid used in filming. By 1924, the incoming revenue let him move up again, this time to a storefront that bore the name “Disney Bros. Studio.” Alice in Cartoonland was released to theaters in June of 1924, and almost universally praised in trade papers because of the innovative combination of live action over an animated background.

The fledgeling Disney company continued to grow as Mickey Mouse was created in 1928, designed by Walt and named by his wife Lillian Bounds. Mickey’s screen debut coincided with the innovation of adding sound to movies, making it the first synchronized sound cartoon. 4 years later, Disney scored another first with the release of Silly Symphonies Flowers and Trees, the first animated film to utilize Technicolor®. Later in 1932, despite everyone else (including his brother Roy and wife Lillian) telling him that a feature-length dramatic cartoon would be a colossal failure, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs releases to enormous success. Costing an unheard of sum of $1.4 million to make, the cartoon nets Disney a huge profit after a gross of $416 million.

Disney built a new luxury studio in Burbank after Snow White’s success, but the onset of World War II followed by the unionization of his employees shook Walt’s faith in the company. Disney produced almost seventy hours of footage for the U.S. Government, most of it training films starring the iconic Disney characters, but it wasn’t until the success of a Disney television show that Disney was able to finance his next dream – the construction of a themed amusement park, based on his childhood memories of Electric Park and designed to be a clean and innovative solution to the problems he saw at other theme parks

The opening of Disneyland was rife with problems but in spite of the counterfeit tickets, broken rides, gas leak, and melting asphalt, the fans adored Disneyland. Ninety days later, the one-millionth guest entered the park.

After Walt Disney’s passing in 1966, Roy Disney ran the company for five years until his own death. Over the next 18 years, Disney faced dissension from within and commercial failures from without, until Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s enormously successful release spurred a renewed interest in American Animation. Disney released The Little Mermaid later that year, ushering in the period known as “The Disney Renaissance,” which saw Disney’s return to their dominant position at the head of animation with the releases of Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).

Walt Disney Studios outgrew the garage it began in long ago, but that first studio is still available for tourists interested in digging deeper into Disney’s origins. It remained on the same property where the Disney family used it for several years before being auctioned to concerned fans who didn’t want to see the garage demolished. Now, it has found a home at the Garden Grove Historical Society’s Stanley Ranch Museum and Historical Village, a mere ten minutes from Disneyland, and is available for tours.

 

This is not an isolated story; great companies and inventions seem to naturally find their starts in garages. Next Monday, Garage Greatness will look at the origins of The Yankee Candle Company, the American manufacturer of scented candles and gift products with 560 stores around all fifty states. Michael Kittredge, the company’s founder, was only 16 when he started making candles in his garage. Although he had only intended to make one candle, as a Christmas present for his mother, after seeing the demand for his product he opened a retail shop and for four years ran his business out of his parent’s garage. We’ll explore the founding of Yankee Candle and the company’s rise to nationwide fame next week, on Garage Greatness!

Everyone has a favorite Disney movie – what’s yours? Are Disney’s recent movies like Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 better or worse than their timeless work? Do you think that the Disney company should own the garage that Walt started in, or is it better off with a preservation society? Let us hear your response using any of the links of the left side of the page! 

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