December 21, 1937
The night air was crisp as Walt Disney drove up with his wife to the premiere of the first ever full length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney had invested three times as much money in the film as he had intended, nearly $1.5 million. An astronomical amount for any film, but especially for a kids’ cartoon. Then it took three years to produce. Critics learned of the undertaking and called it “Disney’s Folly.” It was sure to sink the dreamer with a mouse.
As they pulled up to the Carthay Circle Theatre, the tall, white bell tower stood prominent in the night sky. The theater’s Spanish colonial style architecture was reminiscent of the mid-city area of Los Angeles he had come to call home since 1923. It was a far cry from the wide open spaces he grew up with in Marceline, MO. It was in Marceline where Disney first began drawing for others and getting paid for it.
Newspaper reporters and photographers waited to chronicle the event as the door opened to Disney’s car. Disney knew that some were there expecting a failure and couldn’t wait to detail the collapse of Disney’s company after such an extravagant undertaking as this. They would cite the recent depression and Disney’s dreamer ideals as reasons he lost everything. His father had been the first to point out his son was a dreamer, but Disney had always believed in his dream to entertain and lift people through good stories. He was acquainted with disappointment though. His head was no longer in the clouds. He knew what was at stake.
Disney and his wife made their way into the theater, now half-full of VIP’s, and took their seats. Disney remembered sitting in a theater in Kansas City in late 1920 pitching his new Laugh-O-Grams to the owner Paul Newman. He bought the Laugh-O-Grams for $.35 a foot, less than what it cost Disney to create the short comics that would run before the feature films. Disney would take on odd jobs to help make ends meet, but in about three years, he had to declare bankruptcy and move to Los Angeles to start again.
The theater was now almost completely full. Many people had come up and greeted Disney, though, he wasn’t much for social gatherings. His wife and daughters were the most important people to him, but he performed well when the lights were on. Entertaining came easy to him. He was anxious for the show to begin and to see how this great undertaking would turn out.
As the lights went out and the show began, Disney was excited to see his vision come to life. He never tired of seeing his ideas make it to the big screen. Whether it was his first Alice in Cartoonland hit, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, or finally Mickey Mouse. All those projects had been fun, and the first two had nearly doomed him in their creation, but none had required the great attention to detail and skill as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney had required a much higher level of perfection with his first full-length film, and it was now showing. Disney laughed with the crowd at the silly antics of the dwarfs, a favorite part of the project for Disney.
Despite his brother and wife, lovingly cautioning him to reconsider such a monumental task, Disney moved forward with his vision. He believed it would not only be good for kids, but parents would like it too. Disney had to mortgage his house to keep the dream alive. The president of the bank that helped finance the movie had to step in and grant Disney the time to finish the movie.
What was the result?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs grossed more than $4.2 million that year in the USA and Canada alone (still considered the Great Depression years) and it won eight Oscar awards. It ranks in the top ten movies at North American box offices of all time. It set the stage for more classics and a golden age of animated films that families have enjoyed for decades.
Walt Disney once said, “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with ‘expressing’ myself with obscure creative impressions.”
In studying Walt Disney, I was struck by how many times he failed or nearly failed. To have followed a passion and failed many times makes it hard to keep going. Disney was a starving artist long before he had tons of money and theme parks. He was a failed entrepreneur years before he had a 1000 artists employed with his company. He had partners leave and become competition. He had distributors steal the rights to characters and hire away artists from him. But he never gave up on himself or his vision of entertaining and telling stories through animation.
“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true,” Walt Disney once said. “This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”
Consider your vision. How much do you believe in your dream? What’s it worth to you? Are you prepared to see it through? Are you ready to listen to your heart as much or more than the critics? If so, you are on your way to accomplishing your vision.