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Episode
136

Disney Part I: The History

Feb 26, 2021
History
-
21
minutes
Film & Cinema
Art
Advertising
Business
Weird history
USA

In the first part of our three-part series, we take a look at the fascinating history of Disney.

From why Mickey Mouse isn't a rabbit through to what Walt Disney was like as a person, the history of Disney is as interesting as it is magical.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part one of a three-part mini-series on Disney.

[00:00:28] When I was writing this episode, I was struggling to find a word to describe what Disney actually is.

[00:00:35] Is it a film company? Is it an entertainment company? Is it a cartoon company?

[00:00:41] But what about the toys, the books, the adventure parks, Disney is actually a lot harder to describe in one, snappy word than one might think.

[00:00:50] Disney means different things to different people, but it is associated with magic, with entertainment, with adventure and with fun, and has been for almost 100 years now.

[00:01:03] In part one of this mini series we are going to talk about the history of Disney, the story of how it all started, and went from being a dream to the world’s biggest magic company.

[00:01:15] In part two, which is going to be available exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, we’ll talk about the business of Disney, of some of the reasons that it is such a powerful, successful company, because that also really is a fascinating story.

[00:01:30] And finally, in part three we’ll talk about the magic of Disney, of some of the emotional reasons that it works, and how a Disney story all fits together.

[00:01:42] You can, of course, listen to them independently, but they will be even more fun when listened to in sequence.

[00:01:50] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcripts, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:06] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:02:20] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:29] OK then, the history of Disney.

[00:02:32] Our story starts in Chicago in 1901, with the birth of Walter Elias Disney, otherwise known as Walt Disney.

[00:02:43] From a young age, he was a keen artist, and when he was just 18 years old he got his first job as a commercial illustrator

[00:02:52] His first few years of work weren’t filled with any notable success - he was actually laid off, he lost his job, then started his first business, but that didn’t really go anywhere.

[00:03:06] When he was just 21 years old, he set off for the west coast of America, to California, to seek his fortune.

[00:03:15] Disney’s first hope, reportedly, was to be a live-action director, not a cartoonist, and to have a shot at achieving his dream he needed to be in Hollywood. 

[00:03:27] His older brother–and future business partner–Roy Disney was also there, recovering from tuberculosis.

[00:03:35] A few years prior to arriving in California, Disney had created a series called Alice Comedies, which were short films about a girl in an animated, cartoon world. 

[00:03:47] It was loosely based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 novel by the English author Lewis Carroll.

[00:03:55] They were a mixture of cartoons and live-action films, you can still find a lot of them on YouTube, just search Alice Comedies, and you’ll see where it all started.

[00:04:07] Going back to our story, when he arrived in California, he looked for companies that would distribute these films, companies that would pay him for the Alice series.

[00:04:18] And it didn’t take him long to find one. 

[00:04:21] He arrived in California in July 1923, and by October he had found a distributor, M.J. Winkler Productions. The distributor agreed to pay Disney $1,500 per reel of film, today’s equivalent of around $23,000. 

[00:04:40] And it was this money that acted as funding for the company.

[00:04:47] Together with his brother Roy, Walt Disney formed Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. 

[00:04:54] Walt was the artist, the creative one.

[00:04:57] Roy handled the business side of things.

[00:05:01] The money they made from the distribution company meant they were able to hire other illustrators, and the company started to grow.

[00:05:09] One thing that is important to remember is that actually creating a film was very expensive, and cartoons, animated films, were even more so. 

[00:05:20] Every scene needed to be drawn by hand. You needed lots of people to do it, and this made them very expensive to make.

[00:05:29] Nevertheless, by 1927 Walt Disney had decided that he wanted to go full time into cartoon making, and he created a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:42] In the first year, he produced 26 short films with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:48] His studio would make the cartoons, then they would be distributed by a company called Universal Pictures.

[00:05:55] When Walt Disney went back to Universal Pictures for more money to continue making the cartoon, he realised that something terrible had happened.

[00:06:04] Universal Pictures, the distribution company, in order to try to save money, had gone directly to Walt Disney’s illustrators, his employees, trying to cut Disney’s studio out.

[00:06:18] Surely they can’t do that, the young Disney must have thought. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit is my creation, someone else can’t just make Oswald films without my permission?

[00:06:31] However, looking closely at the contract Disney realised that he didn’t actually own the rights to Oswald - Universal Pictures did. 

[00:06:41] There was nothing that Walt Disney could do.

[00:06:45] This was a tough lesson for young Walt, but it was to be a valuable one. From then on, Disney made sure that he owned everything he made, so that this experience could never be repeated.

[00:06:59] As he couldn’t use Oswald, Disney had to come up with a new character, a character that you will no doubt now be familiar with - Mickey Mouse.

[00:07:10] Mickey Mouse’s first breakout appearance was in the 1928 film ‘Steamboat Willie’, which was one of the first ‘sound cartoons’.

[00:07:20] Now, to briefly explain what ‘sound cartoon’ means, and why it is important, before ‘sound cartoons’ movies were silent. 

[00:07:30] There was normally music, but it wasn’t synchronised to what was happening on the screen.

[00:07:36] With a sound cartoon, what you heard reflected what was happening on screen. If on screen a character hit his head, you would hear the bang, and so on.

[00:07:47] To you or me now, this might sound pretty basic, but it was a big development back in 1928.

[00:07:55] After this appearance in Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse was an almost instant success, and to this day he is the symbol of Disney. 

[00:08:06] Relatively soon after the creation of Mickey Mouse, Disney realised the potential of merchandising his characters, he realised that people didn’t just want to watch Mickey Mouse on screen, they wanted Mickey Mouse on pencils, on toothbrushes, there were Mickey Mouse comic books, and the face of this little mouse was everywhere.

[00:08:29] Not only was this good because Disney was paid by companies to use Mickey Mouse, but all of these Mickey Mouse objects acted as adverts for Mickey Mouse movies. 

[00:08:41] This is one of the magical parts of the Disney business, which we’ll come on to discuss more in the second part of this mini series, but the point here is that it was the start of Disney realising that there was a lot of money to be made from the characters, which he could then reinvest in making more and more movies. 

[00:09:01] As the studio continued to grow, Disney was able to make more ambitious, more expensive, movies, the first of which was one I’m sure you will have seen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

[00:09:14] Before Snow White, Disney mainly made short films, and Snow White was the first animated feature film, the first long film. 

[00:09:24] Now, by modern standards, it’s quite short, it’s only 1 hour and 28 minutes, but it was really pushing the boundaries for Disney.

[00:09:34] When Walt Disney first suggested it to his animators, they weren’t all sold on the idea, they didn’t all think that it was sensible, but Disney was convinced.

[00:09:45] It took three years to make, but on December 21st 1937 it was released to the general public, and was a huge hit

[00:09:56] It was the highest grossing film of all time, it was the film that made the most money at the box office, and it wasn’t until 1939 that it was overtaken, by Gone With The Wind.

[00:10:08] If anyone had any doubts about whether Disney should make these longer, feature-length films, these doubts had now been erased.

[00:10:17] However, they were still incredibly expensive films to make, and film-making was a risky business. 

[00:10:24] If you made one dud film, one bad film, that didn’t do well at the box office, your company could go bankrupt.

[00:10:34] And Disney, despite all of its commercial success, was in quite a dangerous position.

[00:10:41] Nevertheless, Disney didn’t slow down, and the 1940s saw the creation of some of the films we now regard as timeless classics.

[00:10:50] Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, Bambi in 1942. 

[00:10:57] But there was something else going on in the world in the early 1940s that was exceptionally bad for business: World War II.

[00:11:06] The European markets were dead, because the cinemas were closed, these films weren't commercial successes, Disney ended up $4 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.

[00:11:19] After the war was over, it was difficult for Disney to get right back into the flow of things, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to produce hit films again, such as Cinderella, in 1950.

[00:11:33] By this time, Walt Disney was dreaming bigger and bigger, and of diversifying.

[00:11:40] In 1953, after the release of Peter Pan, he created a film production company called Buena Vista, which started off by making nature documentaries.

[00:11:51] Now, compared to cartoons, nature documentaries were very profitable, because you didn’t have to painstakingly draw out every single clip.

[00:12:01] But his biggest dream, perhaps his most ambitious project, was for an amusement park.

[00:12:07] He used to take his own children to amusement parks, to fairgrounds, but what always happened was that he would end up sitting on the bench while his kids had all the fun. 

[00:12:18] He thought, what if there was a magical place where adults and children could have fun, where entire families could go and nobody would feel left out?

[00:12:31] His creation was, as you’ve probably guessed, Disneyland.

[00:12:35] This new park opened in 1955, in Anaheim, California.

[00:12:41] Now, I imagine that some of you may have been to this Disneyland, or another kind of Disney theme park. If you haven’t been to one, I’m sure you will have seen pictures.

[00:12:52] Walt Disney’s original vision for Disneyland was that it should never be completed, that new attractions, new areas, new rides should always be added, that as long as there was imagination left in the world, new rides, new areas, and new magic should be added. 

[00:13:11] And from this original Disneyland in California, there are now 11 more, 12 parks in total, from Florida to Tokyo, Paris to Hong Kong, and hundreds of millions of people, perhaps even you, have gone through the gates at one of these parks.

[00:13:30] So, by the early 1960s, Disney hadn’t only cemented its reputation as the world’s favourite producer of cartoons, but had branched out into nature films, theme parks, and merchandise.

[00:13:44] Then, in 1966, Walt Disney died, aged 65. He was a heavy smoker, and died one month after his doctors discovered cancer in his lungs.

[00:13:57] Over the course of his life he had been involved in 81 feature length films, was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, and won 22 of them.

[00:14:08] Since his death, much has been written about him as an individual, but it seems that historians are divided over the man’s actual character.

[00:14:19] From the outside, he was the face of Disney, the face of happiness for children, someone who always had a big smile on his face, always ready to laugh.

[00:14:30] But, reportedly, he was very shy, and embarrassed in public, and he only managed by putting himself in a different, public-facing character, almost playing a different role when he was Walt Disney of the Walt Disney Company rather than just ordinary Walt Disney at home.

[00:14:50] Indeed, in a documentary that aired back in 2015, it was reported that Walt Disney told a friend "I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink."

[00:15:08] So, he was painfully aware of the difference between what he was expected to be, and his own true character.

[00:15:19] And, like after the death of any slightly mysterious but very famous person, all sorts of accusations came out about who he actually was. 

[00:15:28] Since his death he has been accused of anti-semitism, of racism, and of being a manipulator of American culture.

[00:15:37] But, his critics are far outnumbered by those who have a positive view on him, and he is considered above all to be the founding father of modern animation.

[00:15:49] Since his death, it’s telling that nobody has even come close to achieving what Walt Disney has.

[00:15:56] After he died, his brother, Roy, took over, and the company went from strength to strength. 

[00:16:02] Like many successful businesses, it was good at adapting.

[00:16:06] By the 1980s the market for family films that had been Disney’s bread and butter had started to diminish, and there was demand for teenage movies.

[00:16:18] Disney stepped up to the challenge, establishing a new company called Touchstone Pictures, and starting to produce films for teenagers and young adults.

[00:16:28] Now, there are some names here that you might not have known were Disney films, such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Pretty Woman, and Dead Poets Society. These were all Touchstone Pictures films, which was ultimately owned by Disney.

[00:16:44] But you wouldn’t see any mention of Disney on the films - the company wanted to keep the Disney brand out of the picture, out of sight.

[00:16:53] And this is a strategy that Disney has continued to this day.

[00:16:57] Firstly there are the films made by companies that are part of the Disney family but most people might not be aware are Disney films, such as Armageddon or Pearl Harbour.

[00:17:08] But also Disney has snapped up, it has bought up other production companies, it’s bought up the rights to distribute other films, as well as TV channels.

[00:17:19] Now, The Walt Disney company owns ABC, a broadcasting company, a news company.

[00:17:25] It owns ESPN, an American sports network, it owns cruise lines, it owns a subscription TV service called Hulu.

[00:17:32] And in the past decade it has gone on a huge spending spree, a massive shopping trip, buying up Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars franchise, and then in 2017 it announced that it was acquiring 21st Century Fox, another huge American media company.

[00:17:52] And coming back to the original, family-friendly movies that Disney became famous for, it has continued to make smash-hit after smash-hit, breaking its own records, and making more and more films every year.

[00:18:07] Indeed, between the animated and non-animated Disney films, so between things like Frozen and Star Wars, Disney has made 25 films that have each made over a billion dollars at the box office, and that’s before you take into account sales of merchandise - toys, pencils, comic books, computer games, and so on.

[00:18:30] We’ll talk more about the actual business of Disney in part two of this mini series, but the point to remember is that it is now an absolute giant, and has tentacles that stretch far further than most people realise.

[00:18:44] If you look at the mission of Disney, it has changed a bit over the years, as would be expected, but it all comes down to creating happiness, to provide enjoyment and entertainment for people of all ages.

[00:18:59] And as far as that is concerned, it’s hard to debate that the world is a lot more magical thanks to Walter Elias Disney.

[00:19:09] OK then, that is it for part one of this three part mini-series on Disney.

[00:19:14] As a reminder, part two is going to be all about the business of Disney, and how it has managed to create such a hugely successful commercial enterprise

[00:19:23] That will be coming out exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, on Tuesday.

[00:19:28] And then part three is going to be on some of the theories about why people love Disney so much, why it has such a universal appeal, why this isn’t going to go anywhere any time soon and how a Disney story is created.

[00:19:43] So, that is all to come.

[00:19:45] As a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, the key vocabulary, and the bonus episodes - like part 2 of this mini-series - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:20:07] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:13] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode


[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part one of a three-part mini-series on Disney.

[00:00:28] When I was writing this episode, I was struggling to find a word to describe what Disney actually is.

[00:00:35] Is it a film company? Is it an entertainment company? Is it a cartoon company?

[00:00:41] But what about the toys, the books, the adventure parks, Disney is actually a lot harder to describe in one, snappy word than one might think.

[00:00:50] Disney means different things to different people, but it is associated with magic, with entertainment, with adventure and with fun, and has been for almost 100 years now.

[00:01:03] In part one of this mini series we are going to talk about the history of Disney, the story of how it all started, and went from being a dream to the world’s biggest magic company.

[00:01:15] In part two, which is going to be available exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, we’ll talk about the business of Disney, of some of the reasons that it is such a powerful, successful company, because that also really is a fascinating story.

[00:01:30] And finally, in part three we’ll talk about the magic of Disney, of some of the emotional reasons that it works, and how a Disney story all fits together.

[00:01:42] You can, of course, listen to them independently, but they will be even more fun when listened to in sequence.

[00:01:50] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcripts, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:06] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:02:20] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:29] OK then, the history of Disney.

[00:02:32] Our story starts in Chicago in 1901, with the birth of Walter Elias Disney, otherwise known as Walt Disney.

[00:02:43] From a young age, he was a keen artist, and when he was just 18 years old he got his first job as a commercial illustrator

[00:02:52] His first few years of work weren’t filled with any notable success - he was actually laid off, he lost his job, then started his first business, but that didn’t really go anywhere.

[00:03:06] When he was just 21 years old, he set off for the west coast of America, to California, to seek his fortune.

[00:03:15] Disney’s first hope, reportedly, was to be a live-action director, not a cartoonist, and to have a shot at achieving his dream he needed to be in Hollywood. 

[00:03:27] His older brother–and future business partner–Roy Disney was also there, recovering from tuberculosis.

[00:03:35] A few years prior to arriving in California, Disney had created a series called Alice Comedies, which were short films about a girl in an animated, cartoon world. 

[00:03:47] It was loosely based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 novel by the English author Lewis Carroll.

[00:03:55] They were a mixture of cartoons and live-action films, you can still find a lot of them on YouTube, just search Alice Comedies, and you’ll see where it all started.

[00:04:07] Going back to our story, when he arrived in California, he looked for companies that would distribute these films, companies that would pay him for the Alice series.

[00:04:18] And it didn’t take him long to find one. 

[00:04:21] He arrived in California in July 1923, and by October he had found a distributor, M.J. Winkler Productions. The distributor agreed to pay Disney $1,500 per reel of film, today’s equivalent of around $23,000. 

[00:04:40] And it was this money that acted as funding for the company.

[00:04:47] Together with his brother Roy, Walt Disney formed Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. 

[00:04:54] Walt was the artist, the creative one.

[00:04:57] Roy handled the business side of things.

[00:05:01] The money they made from the distribution company meant they were able to hire other illustrators, and the company started to grow.

[00:05:09] One thing that is important to remember is that actually creating a film was very expensive, and cartoons, animated films, were even more so. 

[00:05:20] Every scene needed to be drawn by hand. You needed lots of people to do it, and this made them very expensive to make.

[00:05:29] Nevertheless, by 1927 Walt Disney had decided that he wanted to go full time into cartoon making, and he created a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:42] In the first year, he produced 26 short films with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:48] His studio would make the cartoons, then they would be distributed by a company called Universal Pictures.

[00:05:55] When Walt Disney went back to Universal Pictures for more money to continue making the cartoon, he realised that something terrible had happened.

[00:06:04] Universal Pictures, the distribution company, in order to try to save money, had gone directly to Walt Disney’s illustrators, his employees, trying to cut Disney’s studio out.

[00:06:18] Surely they can’t do that, the young Disney must have thought. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit is my creation, someone else can’t just make Oswald films without my permission?

[00:06:31] However, looking closely at the contract Disney realised that he didn’t actually own the rights to Oswald - Universal Pictures did. 

[00:06:41] There was nothing that Walt Disney could do.

[00:06:45] This was a tough lesson for young Walt, but it was to be a valuable one. From then on, Disney made sure that he owned everything he made, so that this experience could never be repeated.

[00:06:59] As he couldn’t use Oswald, Disney had to come up with a new character, a character that you will no doubt now be familiar with - Mickey Mouse.

[00:07:10] Mickey Mouse’s first breakout appearance was in the 1928 film ‘Steamboat Willie’, which was one of the first ‘sound cartoons’.

[00:07:20] Now, to briefly explain what ‘sound cartoon’ means, and why it is important, before ‘sound cartoons’ movies were silent. 

[00:07:30] There was normally music, but it wasn’t synchronised to what was happening on the screen.

[00:07:36] With a sound cartoon, what you heard reflected what was happening on screen. If on screen a character hit his head, you would hear the bang, and so on.

[00:07:47] To you or me now, this might sound pretty basic, but it was a big development back in 1928.

[00:07:55] After this appearance in Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse was an almost instant success, and to this day he is the symbol of Disney. 

[00:08:06] Relatively soon after the creation of Mickey Mouse, Disney realised the potential of merchandising his characters, he realised that people didn’t just want to watch Mickey Mouse on screen, they wanted Mickey Mouse on pencils, on toothbrushes, there were Mickey Mouse comic books, and the face of this little mouse was everywhere.

[00:08:29] Not only was this good because Disney was paid by companies to use Mickey Mouse, but all of these Mickey Mouse objects acted as adverts for Mickey Mouse movies. 

[00:08:41] This is one of the magical parts of the Disney business, which we’ll come on to discuss more in the second part of this mini series, but the point here is that it was the start of Disney realising that there was a lot of money to be made from the characters, which he could then reinvest in making more and more movies. 

[00:09:01] As the studio continued to grow, Disney was able to make more ambitious, more expensive, movies, the first of which was one I’m sure you will have seen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

[00:09:14] Before Snow White, Disney mainly made short films, and Snow White was the first animated feature film, the first long film. 

[00:09:24] Now, by modern standards, it’s quite short, it’s only 1 hour and 28 minutes, but it was really pushing the boundaries for Disney.

[00:09:34] When Walt Disney first suggested it to his animators, they weren’t all sold on the idea, they didn’t all think that it was sensible, but Disney was convinced.

[00:09:45] It took three years to make, but on December 21st 1937 it was released to the general public, and was a huge hit

[00:09:56] It was the highest grossing film of all time, it was the film that made the most money at the box office, and it wasn’t until 1939 that it was overtaken, by Gone With The Wind.

[00:10:08] If anyone had any doubts about whether Disney should make these longer, feature-length films, these doubts had now been erased.

[00:10:17] However, they were still incredibly expensive films to make, and film-making was a risky business. 

[00:10:24] If you made one dud film, one bad film, that didn’t do well at the box office, your company could go bankrupt.

[00:10:34] And Disney, despite all of its commercial success, was in quite a dangerous position.

[00:10:41] Nevertheless, Disney didn’t slow down, and the 1940s saw the creation of some of the films we now regard as timeless classics.

[00:10:50] Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, Bambi in 1942. 

[00:10:57] But there was something else going on in the world in the early 1940s that was exceptionally bad for business: World War II.

[00:11:06] The European markets were dead, because the cinemas were closed, these films weren't commercial successes, Disney ended up $4 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.

[00:11:19] After the war was over, it was difficult for Disney to get right back into the flow of things, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to produce hit films again, such as Cinderella, in 1950.

[00:11:33] By this time, Walt Disney was dreaming bigger and bigger, and of diversifying.

[00:11:40] In 1953, after the release of Peter Pan, he created a film production company called Buena Vista, which started off by making nature documentaries.

[00:11:51] Now, compared to cartoons, nature documentaries were very profitable, because you didn’t have to painstakingly draw out every single clip.

[00:12:01] But his biggest dream, perhaps his most ambitious project, was for an amusement park.

[00:12:07] He used to take his own children to amusement parks, to fairgrounds, but what always happened was that he would end up sitting on the bench while his kids had all the fun. 

[00:12:18] He thought, what if there was a magical place where adults and children could have fun, where entire families could go and nobody would feel left out?

[00:12:31] His creation was, as you’ve probably guessed, Disneyland.

[00:12:35] This new park opened in 1955, in Anaheim, California.

[00:12:41] Now, I imagine that some of you may have been to this Disneyland, or another kind of Disney theme park. If you haven’t been to one, I’m sure you will have seen pictures.

[00:12:52] Walt Disney’s original vision for Disneyland was that it should never be completed, that new attractions, new areas, new rides should always be added, that as long as there was imagination left in the world, new rides, new areas, and new magic should be added. 

[00:13:11] And from this original Disneyland in California, there are now 11 more, 12 parks in total, from Florida to Tokyo, Paris to Hong Kong, and hundreds of millions of people, perhaps even you, have gone through the gates at one of these parks.

[00:13:30] So, by the early 1960s, Disney hadn’t only cemented its reputation as the world’s favourite producer of cartoons, but had branched out into nature films, theme parks, and merchandise.

[00:13:44] Then, in 1966, Walt Disney died, aged 65. He was a heavy smoker, and died one month after his doctors discovered cancer in his lungs.

[00:13:57] Over the course of his life he had been involved in 81 feature length films, was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, and won 22 of them.

[00:14:08] Since his death, much has been written about him as an individual, but it seems that historians are divided over the man’s actual character.

[00:14:19] From the outside, he was the face of Disney, the face of happiness for children, someone who always had a big smile on his face, always ready to laugh.

[00:14:30] But, reportedly, he was very shy, and embarrassed in public, and he only managed by putting himself in a different, public-facing character, almost playing a different role when he was Walt Disney of the Walt Disney Company rather than just ordinary Walt Disney at home.

[00:14:50] Indeed, in a documentary that aired back in 2015, it was reported that Walt Disney told a friend "I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink."

[00:15:08] So, he was painfully aware of the difference between what he was expected to be, and his own true character.

[00:15:19] And, like after the death of any slightly mysterious but very famous person, all sorts of accusations came out about who he actually was. 

[00:15:28] Since his death he has been accused of anti-semitism, of racism, and of being a manipulator of American culture.

[00:15:37] But, his critics are far outnumbered by those who have a positive view on him, and he is considered above all to be the founding father of modern animation.

[00:15:49] Since his death, it’s telling that nobody has even come close to achieving what Walt Disney has.

[00:15:56] After he died, his brother, Roy, took over, and the company went from strength to strength. 

[00:16:02] Like many successful businesses, it was good at adapting.

[00:16:06] By the 1980s the market for family films that had been Disney’s bread and butter had started to diminish, and there was demand for teenage movies.

[00:16:18] Disney stepped up to the challenge, establishing a new company called Touchstone Pictures, and starting to produce films for teenagers and young adults.

[00:16:28] Now, there are some names here that you might not have known were Disney films, such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Pretty Woman, and Dead Poets Society. These were all Touchstone Pictures films, which was ultimately owned by Disney.

[00:16:44] But you wouldn’t see any mention of Disney on the films - the company wanted to keep the Disney brand out of the picture, out of sight.

[00:16:53] And this is a strategy that Disney has continued to this day.

[00:16:57] Firstly there are the films made by companies that are part of the Disney family but most people might not be aware are Disney films, such as Armageddon or Pearl Harbour.

[00:17:08] But also Disney has snapped up, it has bought up other production companies, it’s bought up the rights to distribute other films, as well as TV channels.

[00:17:19] Now, The Walt Disney company owns ABC, a broadcasting company, a news company.

[00:17:25] It owns ESPN, an American sports network, it owns cruise lines, it owns a subscription TV service called Hulu.

[00:17:32] And in the past decade it has gone on a huge spending spree, a massive shopping trip, buying up Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars franchise, and then in 2017 it announced that it was acquiring 21st Century Fox, another huge American media company.

[00:17:52] And coming back to the original, family-friendly movies that Disney became famous for, it has continued to make smash-hit after smash-hit, breaking its own records, and making more and more films every year.

[00:18:07] Indeed, between the animated and non-animated Disney films, so between things like Frozen and Star Wars, Disney has made 25 films that have each made over a billion dollars at the box office, and that’s before you take into account sales of merchandise - toys, pencils, comic books, computer games, and so on.

[00:18:30] We’ll talk more about the actual business of Disney in part two of this mini series, but the point to remember is that it is now an absolute giant, and has tentacles that stretch far further than most people realise.

[00:18:44] If you look at the mission of Disney, it has changed a bit over the years, as would be expected, but it all comes down to creating happiness, to provide enjoyment and entertainment for people of all ages.

[00:18:59] And as far as that is concerned, it’s hard to debate that the world is a lot more magical thanks to Walter Elias Disney.

[00:19:09] OK then, that is it for part one of this three part mini-series on Disney.

[00:19:14] As a reminder, part two is going to be all about the business of Disney, and how it has managed to create such a hugely successful commercial enterprise

[00:19:23] That will be coming out exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, on Tuesday.

[00:19:28] And then part three is going to be on some of the theories about why people love Disney so much, why it has such a universal appeal, why this isn’t going to go anywhere any time soon and how a Disney story is created.

[00:19:43] So, that is all to come.

[00:19:45] As a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, the key vocabulary, and the bonus episodes - like part 2 of this mini-series - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:20:07] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:13] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is part one of a three-part mini-series on Disney.

[00:00:28] When I was writing this episode, I was struggling to find a word to describe what Disney actually is.

[00:00:35] Is it a film company? Is it an entertainment company? Is it a cartoon company?

[00:00:41] But what about the toys, the books, the adventure parks, Disney is actually a lot harder to describe in one, snappy word than one might think.

[00:00:50] Disney means different things to different people, but it is associated with magic, with entertainment, with adventure and with fun, and has been for almost 100 years now.

[00:01:03] In part one of this mini series we are going to talk about the history of Disney, the story of how it all started, and went from being a dream to the world’s biggest magic company.

[00:01:15] In part two, which is going to be available exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, we’ll talk about the business of Disney, of some of the reasons that it is such a powerful, successful company, because that also really is a fascinating story.

[00:01:30] And finally, in part three we’ll talk about the magic of Disney, of some of the emotional reasons that it works, and how a Disney story all fits together.

[00:01:42] You can, of course, listen to them independently, but they will be even more fun when listened to in sequence.

[00:01:50] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcripts, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:06] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:02:20] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:29] OK then, the history of Disney.

[00:02:32] Our story starts in Chicago in 1901, with the birth of Walter Elias Disney, otherwise known as Walt Disney.

[00:02:43] From a young age, he was a keen artist, and when he was just 18 years old he got his first job as a commercial illustrator

[00:02:52] His first few years of work weren’t filled with any notable success - he was actually laid off, he lost his job, then started his first business, but that didn’t really go anywhere.

[00:03:06] When he was just 21 years old, he set off for the west coast of America, to California, to seek his fortune.

[00:03:15] Disney’s first hope, reportedly, was to be a live-action director, not a cartoonist, and to have a shot at achieving his dream he needed to be in Hollywood. 

[00:03:27] His older brother–and future business partner–Roy Disney was also there, recovering from tuberculosis.

[00:03:35] A few years prior to arriving in California, Disney had created a series called Alice Comedies, which were short films about a girl in an animated, cartoon world. 

[00:03:47] It was loosely based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 novel by the English author Lewis Carroll.

[00:03:55] They were a mixture of cartoons and live-action films, you can still find a lot of them on YouTube, just search Alice Comedies, and you’ll see where it all started.

[00:04:07] Going back to our story, when he arrived in California, he looked for companies that would distribute these films, companies that would pay him for the Alice series.

[00:04:18] And it didn’t take him long to find one. 

[00:04:21] He arrived in California in July 1923, and by October he had found a distributor, M.J. Winkler Productions. The distributor agreed to pay Disney $1,500 per reel of film, today’s equivalent of around $23,000. 

[00:04:40] And it was this money that acted as funding for the company.

[00:04:47] Together with his brother Roy, Walt Disney formed Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. 

[00:04:54] Walt was the artist, the creative one.

[00:04:57] Roy handled the business side of things.

[00:05:01] The money they made from the distribution company meant they were able to hire other illustrators, and the company started to grow.

[00:05:09] One thing that is important to remember is that actually creating a film was very expensive, and cartoons, animated films, were even more so. 

[00:05:20] Every scene needed to be drawn by hand. You needed lots of people to do it, and this made them very expensive to make.

[00:05:29] Nevertheless, by 1927 Walt Disney had decided that he wanted to go full time into cartoon making, and he created a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:42] In the first year, he produced 26 short films with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[00:05:48] His studio would make the cartoons, then they would be distributed by a company called Universal Pictures.

[00:05:55] When Walt Disney went back to Universal Pictures for more money to continue making the cartoon, he realised that something terrible had happened.

[00:06:04] Universal Pictures, the distribution company, in order to try to save money, had gone directly to Walt Disney’s illustrators, his employees, trying to cut Disney’s studio out.

[00:06:18] Surely they can’t do that, the young Disney must have thought. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit is my creation, someone else can’t just make Oswald films without my permission?

[00:06:31] However, looking closely at the contract Disney realised that he didn’t actually own the rights to Oswald - Universal Pictures did. 

[00:06:41] There was nothing that Walt Disney could do.

[00:06:45] This was a tough lesson for young Walt, but it was to be a valuable one. From then on, Disney made sure that he owned everything he made, so that this experience could never be repeated.

[00:06:59] As he couldn’t use Oswald, Disney had to come up with a new character, a character that you will no doubt now be familiar with - Mickey Mouse.

[00:07:10] Mickey Mouse’s first breakout appearance was in the 1928 film ‘Steamboat Willie’, which was one of the first ‘sound cartoons’.

[00:07:20] Now, to briefly explain what ‘sound cartoon’ means, and why it is important, before ‘sound cartoons’ movies were silent. 

[00:07:30] There was normally music, but it wasn’t synchronised to what was happening on the screen.

[00:07:36] With a sound cartoon, what you heard reflected what was happening on screen. If on screen a character hit his head, you would hear the bang, and so on.

[00:07:47] To you or me now, this might sound pretty basic, but it was a big development back in 1928.

[00:07:55] After this appearance in Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse was an almost instant success, and to this day he is the symbol of Disney. 

[00:08:06] Relatively soon after the creation of Mickey Mouse, Disney realised the potential of merchandising his characters, he realised that people didn’t just want to watch Mickey Mouse on screen, they wanted Mickey Mouse on pencils, on toothbrushes, there were Mickey Mouse comic books, and the face of this little mouse was everywhere.

[00:08:29] Not only was this good because Disney was paid by companies to use Mickey Mouse, but all of these Mickey Mouse objects acted as adverts for Mickey Mouse movies. 

[00:08:41] This is one of the magical parts of the Disney business, which we’ll come on to discuss more in the second part of this mini series, but the point here is that it was the start of Disney realising that there was a lot of money to be made from the characters, which he could then reinvest in making more and more movies. 

[00:09:01] As the studio continued to grow, Disney was able to make more ambitious, more expensive, movies, the first of which was one I’m sure you will have seen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

[00:09:14] Before Snow White, Disney mainly made short films, and Snow White was the first animated feature film, the first long film. 

[00:09:24] Now, by modern standards, it’s quite short, it’s only 1 hour and 28 minutes, but it was really pushing the boundaries for Disney.

[00:09:34] When Walt Disney first suggested it to his animators, they weren’t all sold on the idea, they didn’t all think that it was sensible, but Disney was convinced.

[00:09:45] It took three years to make, but on December 21st 1937 it was released to the general public, and was a huge hit

[00:09:56] It was the highest grossing film of all time, it was the film that made the most money at the box office, and it wasn’t until 1939 that it was overtaken, by Gone With The Wind.

[00:10:08] If anyone had any doubts about whether Disney should make these longer, feature-length films, these doubts had now been erased.

[00:10:17] However, they were still incredibly expensive films to make, and film-making was a risky business. 

[00:10:24] If you made one dud film, one bad film, that didn’t do well at the box office, your company could go bankrupt.

[00:10:34] And Disney, despite all of its commercial success, was in quite a dangerous position.

[00:10:41] Nevertheless, Disney didn’t slow down, and the 1940s saw the creation of some of the films we now regard as timeless classics.

[00:10:50] Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, Bambi in 1942. 

[00:10:57] But there was something else going on in the world in the early 1940s that was exceptionally bad for business: World War II.

[00:11:06] The European markets were dead, because the cinemas were closed, these films weren't commercial successes, Disney ended up $4 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.

[00:11:19] After the war was over, it was difficult for Disney to get right back into the flow of things, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to produce hit films again, such as Cinderella, in 1950.

[00:11:33] By this time, Walt Disney was dreaming bigger and bigger, and of diversifying.

[00:11:40] In 1953, after the release of Peter Pan, he created a film production company called Buena Vista, which started off by making nature documentaries.

[00:11:51] Now, compared to cartoons, nature documentaries were very profitable, because you didn’t have to painstakingly draw out every single clip.

[00:12:01] But his biggest dream, perhaps his most ambitious project, was for an amusement park.

[00:12:07] He used to take his own children to amusement parks, to fairgrounds, but what always happened was that he would end up sitting on the bench while his kids had all the fun. 

[00:12:18] He thought, what if there was a magical place where adults and children could have fun, where entire families could go and nobody would feel left out?

[00:12:31] His creation was, as you’ve probably guessed, Disneyland.

[00:12:35] This new park opened in 1955, in Anaheim, California.

[00:12:41] Now, I imagine that some of you may have been to this Disneyland, or another kind of Disney theme park. If you haven’t been to one, I’m sure you will have seen pictures.

[00:12:52] Walt Disney’s original vision for Disneyland was that it should never be completed, that new attractions, new areas, new rides should always be added, that as long as there was imagination left in the world, new rides, new areas, and new magic should be added. 

[00:13:11] And from this original Disneyland in California, there are now 11 more, 12 parks in total, from Florida to Tokyo, Paris to Hong Kong, and hundreds of millions of people, perhaps even you, have gone through the gates at one of these parks.

[00:13:30] So, by the early 1960s, Disney hadn’t only cemented its reputation as the world’s favourite producer of cartoons, but had branched out into nature films, theme parks, and merchandise.

[00:13:44] Then, in 1966, Walt Disney died, aged 65. He was a heavy smoker, and died one month after his doctors discovered cancer in his lungs.

[00:13:57] Over the course of his life he had been involved in 81 feature length films, was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, and won 22 of them.

[00:14:08] Since his death, much has been written about him as an individual, but it seems that historians are divided over the man’s actual character.

[00:14:19] From the outside, he was the face of Disney, the face of happiness for children, someone who always had a big smile on his face, always ready to laugh.

[00:14:30] But, reportedly, he was very shy, and embarrassed in public, and he only managed by putting himself in a different, public-facing character, almost playing a different role when he was Walt Disney of the Walt Disney Company rather than just ordinary Walt Disney at home.

[00:14:50] Indeed, in a documentary that aired back in 2015, it was reported that Walt Disney told a friend "I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink."

[00:15:08] So, he was painfully aware of the difference between what he was expected to be, and his own true character.

[00:15:19] And, like after the death of any slightly mysterious but very famous person, all sorts of accusations came out about who he actually was. 

[00:15:28] Since his death he has been accused of anti-semitism, of racism, and of being a manipulator of American culture.

[00:15:37] But, his critics are far outnumbered by those who have a positive view on him, and he is considered above all to be the founding father of modern animation.

[00:15:49] Since his death, it’s telling that nobody has even come close to achieving what Walt Disney has.

[00:15:56] After he died, his brother, Roy, took over, and the company went from strength to strength. 

[00:16:02] Like many successful businesses, it was good at adapting.

[00:16:06] By the 1980s the market for family films that had been Disney’s bread and butter had started to diminish, and there was demand for teenage movies.

[00:16:18] Disney stepped up to the challenge, establishing a new company called Touchstone Pictures, and starting to produce films for teenagers and young adults.

[00:16:28] Now, there are some names here that you might not have known were Disney films, such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Pretty Woman, and Dead Poets Society. These were all Touchstone Pictures films, which was ultimately owned by Disney.

[00:16:44] But you wouldn’t see any mention of Disney on the films - the company wanted to keep the Disney brand out of the picture, out of sight.

[00:16:53] And this is a strategy that Disney has continued to this day.

[00:16:57] Firstly there are the films made by companies that are part of the Disney family but most people might not be aware are Disney films, such as Armageddon or Pearl Harbour.

[00:17:08] But also Disney has snapped up, it has bought up other production companies, it’s bought up the rights to distribute other films, as well as TV channels.

[00:17:19] Now, The Walt Disney company owns ABC, a broadcasting company, a news company.

[00:17:25] It owns ESPN, an American sports network, it owns cruise lines, it owns a subscription TV service called Hulu.

[00:17:32] And in the past decade it has gone on a huge spending spree, a massive shopping trip, buying up Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars franchise, and then in 2017 it announced that it was acquiring 21st Century Fox, another huge American media company.

[00:17:52] And coming back to the original, family-friendly movies that Disney became famous for, it has continued to make smash-hit after smash-hit, breaking its own records, and making more and more films every year.

[00:18:07] Indeed, between the animated and non-animated Disney films, so between things like Frozen and Star Wars, Disney has made 25 films that have each made over a billion dollars at the box office, and that’s before you take into account sales of merchandise - toys, pencils, comic books, computer games, and so on.

[00:18:30] We’ll talk more about the actual business of Disney in part two of this mini series, but the point to remember is that it is now an absolute giant, and has tentacles that stretch far further than most people realise.

[00:18:44] If you look at the mission of Disney, it has changed a bit over the years, as would be expected, but it all comes down to creating happiness, to provide enjoyment and entertainment for people of all ages.

[00:18:59] And as far as that is concerned, it’s hard to debate that the world is a lot more magical thanks to Walter Elias Disney.

[00:19:09] OK then, that is it for part one of this three part mini-series on Disney.

[00:19:14] As a reminder, part two is going to be all about the business of Disney, and how it has managed to create such a hugely successful commercial enterprise

[00:19:23] That will be coming out exclusively on the website, leonardoenglish.com, on Tuesday.

[00:19:28] And then part three is going to be on some of the theories about why people love Disney so much, why it has such a universal appeal, why this isn’t going to go anywhere any time soon and how a Disney story is created.

[00:19:43] So, that is all to come.

[00:19:45] As a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, the key vocabulary, and the bonus episodes - like part 2 of this mini-series - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:20:07] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:13] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode


[END OF EPISODE]