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It's a Small World: Disney in Connecticut

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Walt Disney was born in Illinois, raised in Missouri and lived his entire adult life in California. No other state — other than Florida, of course — can lay meaningful claim to Disney in any way. Except, that is, for Connecticut, which boasts many fascinating links to the man who sired Mickey Mouse, including some surprising connections to his signature character.

In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. Two months later, Disney’s older brother, Roy, joined the Navy; in July 1918, another sibling, Ray Disney, was drafted into the Army. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1917, after completing eighth grade in Kansas City, Walt started his freshman year at McKinley High School in Chicago. He contributed patriotic cartoons to the school magazine in support of the war effort — his dream at that time was to draw political cartoons — but once classes let out in June, he was determined to get in uniform himself.

It's a Small World: Disney in Connecticut

Walt Disney (top row, center, dwarfed by two men standing to his immediate right) in a photograph of his unit at Camp King, Sound Beach, Connecticut, circa early to mid-November 1918. 

Not yet 17 years old, Disney was too young to legally enlist in the military. So he fudged his age and in September 1918 joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, much as his fellow Illinoisan Ernest Hemingway had done, and was assigned to a training unit at Camp Scott in Chicago, where he received basic instruction in mechanics and driving. In a memoir published in 1939 by a man who had served as a sergeant in Walt’s original unit, the author, Ellis E. Wilson, said the American Red Cross was “militarized and is mobilized and conducted as a regular military organization.”

In November 1918, Walt was sent to Camp King at Sound Beach, Connecticut. Camp King was located on Long Island Sound, at Ye Old Greenwich Inn on Greenwich Point, a mile south of present-day downtown Old Greenwich. The inn was described by Sgt. Wilson as “a large wooden building and well furnished hotel which had closed for the season,” and had been leased to the Red Cross “to house the boys until sent overseas.”

Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s empire, was in Disney’s outfit. They seem not to have been acquainted at the time, but 36 years later, Kroc wrote to his former mate “to inquire if there may be an opportunity for a McDonald’s in your Disneyland Development.” Kroc prefaced his pitch by saying, “I look over the Company A picture we had taken at Sound Beach, Conn., many times and recall a lot of pleasant memories.” (There was, it turned out, no “opportunity” for McDonald’s at the Disney park being built in Anaheim, and is no evidence of any further contact between these two master entrepreneurs.)

Walt rarely spoke about his experience at Camp King, which lasted two short weeks. Although in an interview in the mid-1950s with an early biographer, Pete Martin, a writer and editor with the The Saturday Evening Post, he joked about “spending half the time” at Sound Beach in the guardhouse, and on kitchen patrol, as punishment “for just clowning.” Apparently, he was not alone. Sgt. Wilson wrote in his memoir:

Because of infractions of regulations several mischievous boys were confined in the guard house which in army language is called the “hoosegow,” on a bread and water diet with green apples for dessert. Our daily life seems to be made up of a series of incidents. And some who were fat are getting thin and some who were lank are getting fat.

Making Mickey

The Armistice effectively terminating World War I was signed in 1918 while Disney was in Connecticut. Still, Walt got his wish to make it “over there.” He arrived in France in early December 1918, spent some time in Paris, and ultimately was based in Neufchâteau, as the driver of a Red Cross canteen car catering to troops based near the silenced battlefields. A highlight of his 11-month stint in France was the honor of driving his boss, Miss H. Alice Howell, and the 10-year-old son of General John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American army, on an outing to Domrémy, birthplace of Joan of Arc.

Discharged in September 1919, Walt returned to Kansas City and was hired by a firm specializing in ads in the form of lantern slides and film footage flashed on the screens of local movie theaters. This got him hooked on movie-making and animation. He also launched several sideline ventures involving cartoons and motion pictures, but by August 1923 was heavily in debt. To make a fresh start, Walt joined his brother Roy, the future financial head of the Disney studio, in Los Angeles, where Roy was being treated by the VA for tuberculosis, contracted during his wartime service.

In partnership with Roy, Walt found his true calling, beginning with a string of shorts featuring a live-action girl named Alice in a fanciful Cartoonland, followed by a popular all-cartoon Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, produced for Universal. In a March 1928 meeting in New York, however, to renew his contract for Oswald, Walt was offered less money per film than he’d been receiving. He refused and, with his wife Lillian, boarded a homebound train, pondering what to do next.

What he did next was Mickey Mouse, conjured up, it’s now generally agreed, on the long train ride back to L.A. The story of how Mickey was born is a snarled web of fact, fiction and conjecture. In the end, the mouse that emerged was a bulked-up version of frisky, small-scale cartoon mice that abounded in Walt’s Alice and Oswald series. And yet, in a planning session with Roy and his ace animator, Ub Iwerks, prior to production on Plane Crazy — the first of the Mickey cartoons actually made, though not the first to be released, because it was a silent — Walt gave at least passing consideration to a distinctly different persona for his fledgling star, as a rather foppish fellow he initially wanted to call “Mortimer.”

The only tangible record of how Mickey’s graphic look came about is a sheet of pencil sketches belonging to the San Francisco-based Walt Disney Family Foundation. One image on the sheet shows the head of a mouse with rimmed, saucer-like ears quite unlike the Mickey Mouse we’re accustomed to. Four sketches show mice in long pants, sporting a frilly Buster Brown- or Little Lord Fauntleroy-style necktie. These figures clearly were inspired by characters, both named Johnny Mouse, drawn by two cartoonist friends with links to the Nutmeg State, Clifton Meek and Johnny Gruelle, creator of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy characters. Meek and Gruelle lived for a while in the Silvermine arts community near Norwalk, and seem to have amicably traded ideas back and forth with one another.

Meek probably was the first to draw one of these mice, in a pre-World War I comic strip, The Adventures of Johnny Mouse, which Disney was well aware of. In a 1944 interview in the New York Post, Walt described Meek as a man “who used to draw cute little mice and I grew up with those drawings. They were different mice from ours — but they had cute ears.”

Meek read that interview, and in “A Tribute to the Late Walt Disney,” printed in the Norwalk Hour in February 1967, two months after Disney’s death, he said:

Needless to say I was surprised and delighted to learn that I had in some small way kindled a spark of inspiration in an unknown country boy who was loaded with genius. From where I sit such a freely offered and unsought acknowledgement is the hallmark of a pretty decent guy. I wrote and thanked him and stated that there still is such a man but that he resigned from the mouse and rat race years ago. … I have never had the slightest thought or feeling that he pilfered anything from me or anyone else. He simply picked up an idea that I had discarded, made a huge success of it and I rejoiced in the fact that I had unwittingly lighted a candle for him.

In the 1920s, well after Disney grew up, Meek also published a number of free-standing mouse cartoons in Life, which at the time was a popular humor magazine. A half-century later, Floyd Gottfredson, who for decades drew the Mickey Mouse comic strip, confirmed Disney’s debt to Meek when he remembered seeing “a couple of sketches” of mice — the sheet owned by the Disney Family Foundation — lying about on a conference table at the Disney studio in 1930, some of which, he felt, were “very similar” to Meek’s mouse in a drawing in the April 28, 1921, issue of Life.

Mickey Mouse debuted in what New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall hailed as “the first sound cartoon,” Steamboat Willie — “an ingenious piece of work” — on Nov. 18, 1928, at the Colony Theatre, now the Broadway Theatre, in New York. The “leading man” in Steamboat Willie, of course, looked nothing like the mice drawn by the two pals from Connecticut. Nor did he bear the name Mortimer, which Lillian Disney, famously, had all but vetoed as sounding too prissy.

Just how close Walt Disney came to choosing the Mortimer option for his new star, we’ll never know, though few would dispute he made the right call.

Marketing the Mouse: Watches and Pez

Revenue from Mickey Mouse and other Disney cartoon shorts paled in comparison to the income generated by feature films. Walt also was a perfectionist who tended to go over-budget in order to make a superior product. Consequently, he and Roy had to pursue other ways to sustain and grow their business.

A daily Mickey Mouse comic strip kicked off in the New York Daily Mirror in January 1930. In February, a deal was inked with Borgfeldt & Co. to sell playthings based on the character. Borgfeldt’s most successful item to date was the Kewpie doll, created by Rose O’Neill, a resident of Westport (she and her doll make cameo appearances in John Steuart Curry’s fresco, Comedy).

Mickey toys were used by movie theaters as display items or promotional giveaways in partnership with local businesses eager to connect with kids. The New Haven Dairy, for instance, like other dairies across the country, had its name printed on the cover of two-color Mickey Mouse Magazines distributed in 1933-34 at Saturday movie matinees for children. By 1949, Collier’s magazine would report that Mickey’s “name and face” had been emblazoned “on 2,000 articles of merchandise, including bath towels, wrist watches, Belgian candy, fruit juices, British milk of magnesia and weather vanes,” and “saved two companies from bankruptcy, and helped gross upward of $100,000,000 a year for manufacturers using Disney labels.”

The most enduring of these commercial tie-ins was the Mickey Mouse wristwatch, manufactured by the Ingersoll-Waterbury Co. of Waterbury, which was widely publicized when it went on sale at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in the spring of 1933. According to the Woman’s Home Companion, “The Ingersoll factory turned out more than a million Mickey Mouse watches in eight months but was unable to keep up with the demand.” (They cost $2.95 apiece, a tidy sum during the Depression.) The New York Times Magazine said that “by himself” Mickey had restored “a famous but limping watch-making company to health — after eight weeks of his treatment the company throws away its crutches, adds 2,700 workers to its payroll and proceeds to sell 2,000,000 watches.”

Mickey and, starting in the mid-’30s, other Disney characters (Three Little Pigs and Donald Duck) would become a constant presence in the nation’s consumer culture. Among notable later additions, starting in the mid-1950s, are the candy dispensers bearing the heads of Mickey, Donald and friends manufactured by Pez Candy Inc., whose North American headquarters and plant, since 1974, have been located in Orange.Walt Disney (top row, center, immediately right of two standing highest), Gov. Wilbur Cross, the novelists Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), John Buchan (The 39 Steps) and other recipients of honorary degrees from Yale University, standing outside Woodbridge Hall on the Yale campus, June 22, 1938. Courtesy, The Walt Disney Family Foundation, San Francisco, Calif.

High Art and the Ivied Realm of Yale

By the mid-1930s, Disney and his films were being taken seriously by more and more people.

In October 1934, in a personal letter to Rose T. Marucci, an art student (apparently) residing on Lloyd Street in New Haven, Disney said: “It is our theory that artistic ability develops naturally while the execution and technique of the arts comes only after much hard work and practice. Every artist should be able to thoroughly analyze emotions, sensations and reactions. In my estimation, the same requirements apply to any line of art, whether it be drawing, painting, caricature, music, photography or even cooking!” He concluded: “Please understand that my views, as expressed above, are made entirely with respect to our type of work — the art of animation.”

Earlier that year, a sophisticated chap was seen in a New Yorker cartoon at a cocktail party grousing to a companion: “All you hear is Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse! It’s as though Chaplin had never lived.” The New Yorker, in fact, led the way among upper-crust journals in singing Disney’s praises. In 1931, Gilbert Seldes, arguably the first critic to take American pop culture seriously, authored a long essay on Walt in its pages.

Seldes was not alone among the intellectual elite. In September 1934, in a telegram from Hollywood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright (and Yale graduate), Thornton Wilder (Our Town), bragged to his mother back in New Haven that he’d “roller skated with Walt Disney.” Two years later, in an interview, Wilder paired Disney with Charlie Chaplin as one of the “two presiding geniuses of the movies.”

In December 1932, the Mouse figured for the first time in a work of fine art — decades before he was embraced by Andy Warhol and his pop art brethren — as a detail in a mural commission for the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Arts of Life in America, painted by Thomas Hart Benton.

Two years later, Benton’s fellow American regionalist, John Steuart Curry, painted two frescoes, Tragedy and Comedy, on the walls of the auditorium of what is now Kings Highway Elementary School in Westport. Tragedy depicts a theater stage packed with figures like Hamlet (embodied by John Barrymore) and Uncle Tom, grieving as Little Eva ascends to heaven. The action in Comedy is set in a movie house. In this pendant to Tragedy, in the words of a 1934 Time magazine cover story, Curry “gaily jumbled” Charlie Chaplin with Mickey Mouse and other personages, among whom, in the audience, are Peter Rabbit, Mutt and Jeff, Popeye and a Kewpie doll, perched in a loge next to Rose O’Neill.

Brooke Peters Church, who chaired the committee that supervised Curry’s Westport commission, justified Mickey’s place in the mural by asking, “who is the world’s most popular star today?” She answered her own question:

Why Mickey Mouse, of course. … Mickey Mouse gets the laughs now. He is as familiar a figure of fun to our children as Punch and Judy were to our parents. To perpetuate him in a school fresco is a recognition of the fact that we perpetuate him in the children’s memories. Typical modern comedy is much of it grotesque farce, and to leave this element out of the picture would be to falsify the facts.

Benton’s Whitney murals, now at the New Britain Museum of American Art, were unveiled a month after the close of the first exhibition devoted to original Disney art, at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Throughout the 1930s, Disney production art was showcased at scores of museums and galleries, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Wesleyan University (in November 1933), and New Haven’s Munson Gallery, which, in October 1938, hosted what it called the “First National Showing and Sale of the Original Watercolors from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Galleries across the country acquired what are known as cel set-ups from Disney cartoon shorts and full-length pictures. Cel set-ups are pieces of transparent celluloid on which figures like Jiminy Cricket were inked in outline, colored in with paint on the reverse, then laid over a sheet of real or simulated background art before being matted and framed. Objects like these entered such collections as those at Yale University (in 1949) and Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, which in 1939, purchased a Snow White cel set-up from Brentano’s bookstore in Hartford.

Meanwhile, Disney, the man, was gaining recognition from some of America’s leading academic institutions. In June 1938, he received honorary diplomas from the University of Southern California, Yale and Harvard.

Well before USC and Harvard, Yale had considered paying tribute to Walt. In a memo dated Dec. 19, 1935, sent to William Lyon Phelps, a renowned emeritus professor of English at Yale (addressed as “Dear Billy”), Carl A. Lohmann, secretary of the university, asked:

By the way, are you with me in proposing for the honorary degree of Master of Arts — Walt Disney, who invented America’s ambassador who has done more to endear America to the hearts of foreigners than our entire State Department put together?

Billy’s reply, penned in large letters in the margin of the original memo, was: “Yes, 1000 times!” In his remarks at the ceremony, on June 22, 1938, as recorded in the New Haven Evening Register, Phelps began his citation of Disney’s accomplishments as follows:

In every way an American of the 20th century. Born in Chicago, educated in the high schools of Kansas City and Chicago, he became a commercial artist at the age of 17, and at 18 began his career in animated cartoons. He has the originality characteristic of genius, creating the demand as well as the supply. He has achieved the impossible. He has proved that popular proverbs can be paradoxes — for he labored like a mountain and brought forth a mouse! With this mouse he conquers the whole world.

Among Walt’s distinguished fellow honorees at Yale were Connecticut Gov. Wilbur Cross, the German novelist Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), the British novelist John Buchan (The 39 Steps), then serving as governor general of Canada, and a U.S. Supreme Court justice (and Yale undergrad), Stanley Reed.

From Bridgeport to Savin Rock

There are more Disney connections to Connecticut. In the 1938 Howard Hawks screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn (who grew up in Hartford) and Cary Grant find themselves under arrest in an unspecified, verdant quarter of Connecticut, perhaps Westport or Fairfield. A bumbling town constable named Slocum, thinking they’re hardened criminals, asks: “Who was with you last month in Rockdale in that mail truck job?” Grant’s exasperated response: “Mickey-the-Mouse and Donald-the-Duck.”

In terms of more direct connections, Gunther Lessing, a legal counsel and executive with Disney from 1930 till the mid-1960s, attended Yale Law School, and the creator of the Pogo comic strip, Walt Kelly, who worked for Disney from 1936 to 1941, graduated from Bridgeport’s Harding High School. (TV Guide, in 1965, quoted Kelly as saying that if you were “hard-working,” Walt was “an amazing man to work for. … I thought of him as a genius.”)  

In the realm of sport, there’s the epic 1968 college football game at Harvard Stadium in which underdog Harvard battled the mighty Bulldogs of Yale to a miraculous, come-from-behind tie, during which, at halftime, the Yale band razzed its rival with the “Mickey Mouse Club March.”

Five years later, David Levine, the most prolific and esteemed American caricaturist of the second half of the 20th century, drew a monumental pen-and-ink portrait of Walt Disney as the Pope to illustrate an article in a November 1973 issue of New York magazine. Levine, who generated thousands of images in a similar vein — a veritable pantheon of writers, artists, politicians and historical figures, past and present — for The New York Review of Books, Time, Newsweek, The Nation, and other publications, summered in Westport between 1956 and 1977. According to Matthew Levine, a current Westport resident, his father idolized Disney, and as a young teen applied to the studio for a job as an artist. Matthew says the drawing, Saint Walt (page 48), at almost 22 inches high, is the largest caricature by his father he’s ever seen.

Finally, there is the rumored interest the Disney company had in the old beach-front Savin Rock Amusement Park, a seasonal operation that had fallen into decline starting in the late 1940s, according to West Haven Town Commissioner Beth Sabo. (The Grand Carousel, the last piece of the park, she notes, was sold off to a Six Flags location in 1969.)

Todd James Pierce, author of the new book, Three Years in Wonderland: The Disney Brothers, C. V. Wood, and the Making of the Great American Theme Park, says that in the 1960s the company “looked into a lot of possible sites for expansion eastward. There was even a brief period where Disney considered smaller regional parks — around 1965.” In addition, Pierce says, “in the early 1960s, NBC/RCA also looked into New England sites, hoping to attract Disney into a large New England cooperative venture.”

There is nothing in local press coverage, or the dozen or so books about the business side of Disney published in recent decades, to confirm the company’s interest in the Savin Rock property. However, according to Pierce, if someone acting on Disney’s behalf “spent a little time in Connecticut and told some locals that they were exploring locations for a possible Disneyland East park, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But I know of no plans to seriously explore any site in Connecticut for an actual Disney park.”  

While Disneyland never made it to the state’s shoreline, it is true that — from a youthful Walt Disney “just clowning” in Greenwich to a more accomplished man earning an honorary degree from Yale, from Mickey Mouse’s roots in the creations of two Silvermine cartoonists to state companies churning out innumerable Mickey watches and Pez dispensers — Connecticut is, in many ways, a land of Disney.

It's a Small World: Disney in Connecticut

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Garry Apgar is an art historian (Ph.D., Yale) and former cartoonist for the Roanoke Times. He wrote the principal essay in The Newspaper in Art (1996) and edited the anthology A Mickey Mouse Reader for the University Press of Mississippi (2014). His monograph, Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, was published late last year by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press. He lives in Bridgeport