In 1923, twenty-one-year-old Walt Disney arrived in Los Angeles fresh from the disappointment of his first cartoon studio going bankrupt in Kansas City. He went to see his twenty-nine-year-old brother Roy in the Veteran’s Hospital were he was recovering from tuberculosis. Roy, a former bank teller and navy man was concerned about his brother’s skinniness. “Hey kid, haven’t you been eating? I’m supposed to be the sick one. So now that you’re in L.A. what are you are going to do with yourself?” “I don’t know. I’ve given up on animation. But I’ve got to get into show business somehow. I’ll think I’ll try and become a director.”
Walt who had filmed some newsreel footage in Kansas City, printed a business card stating he was a member of the press, which he used to finagle his way onto studio lots. He had a meeting with a secretary at Metro. “Yes, I had my own studio in Kansas City, I made cartoons and live action films perhaps you heard of me?” “No I can’t say that I have. And we really have a lot of people coming here looking for work and no jobs.” Metro was in a state of chaos, Rudolph Valentino was demanding more money and they had frozen his salary. Because of the movie The Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse (1921) Valentino was now an international star who was surviving by hunting rabbits in the Santa Monica Mountains. Walt, who would later know great fame combined with money trouble could have identified, but he had his own problems.
Turned away at Metro Walt decided to go to Charlie Chaplin’s studio in Hollywood and ask the great star for work personally. Chaplin had been Walt’s hero, when Disney was thirteen he had won a two dollar prize imitating the tramp on stage, not an easy trick. One time Charlie Chaplin had entered a similar contest and lost.
Walt waited all day on the sidewalk for Chaplin to come out but he never did. Disney didn’t know that Chaplin buried himself in his work, afraid to go home where his 16 year old pregnant wife Lita and her mother were filling his mansion with unwanted relatives, turning the Beverly Hills estate into the 1923 version of the Jerry Springer show. Or that the liberal Chaplin was infuriating his United Artist partner the conservative Mary Pickford by taking forever to finish his films, sometimes emerging from his editing room with a long beard looking like Robinson Crusoe. Walt had his own concerns.
Once again, Walt used his makeshift press pass to sneak into Universal Studios. This was exciting filmmaking! Men dressed like cowboys pretending to shoot at each other and falling over. And a castle. It reminded him of Paris where he had driven an ambulance for the Red Cross after World War I. Curious, he walked over to question some workmen about the structure. It turned out they were building the Court Of Miracles set for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney. Walt who remained star struck all his life, began looking around for the famous actor who was known for playing characters who were deformed, sometimes armless and legless with incredible body contortions. Back in the twenties there was a saying, “If you see something unusual on the floor, don’t step on it might be Lon Chaney.” Suddenly Walt felt a tap on his shoulder. Sitting on a horse behind him was the famous Austrian director Eric Von Stroheim, known as the man you love to hate. Completely bald with a monocle, riding crop and thick boots, which early film directors working in the Hollywood hills wore to protect from snakes, Von Stroheim made an imposing figure. “What are you doing here”. Walt confessed he snuck in and asked if there was any work. But he was talking to a man who used to twist the arms of his leading ladies when he wanted them to cry in his films. “Get out now and never come back.” Years later, when he had his own studio, Walt went out of his way to give young people a chance to show what they could do.
With no other prospects Walt decided to get back into animation but this time he would get some help. One night in 1923 he returned to the Veteran’s Hospital where Roy was feeling better. Excitedly Walt told his brother about his plans awakening other patients in the ward,” But I can’t do it alone. I don’t have your head for numbers.” “I don’t know kid, cartoons that’s risky. I was thinking about getting a safe job at a bank, getting married. I mean I think your talented but. . .” “Ah come on Roy, forget about a job. We’ll work for ourselves. This is better than a job, we can do this thing.” “I don’t know. . .” “Ah please.” Walt would not take no for an answer. Roy finally agreed to the new venture when one of the soldiers in a nearby bed sat up and said, “Roy will you go with him already so we can get some sleep!”
About the author
Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audiobooks Fascinating Walt Disney and Tales Of Hollywood. The Saint Louis Post Dispatch says,” these two elaborate productions are exceptionally entertaining.” Hear realaudio samples of these great, unique gifts at www.hollywoodstories.com.