Walt Disney in Chicago

By Scott Holleran


Last year’s celebration of the Walt Disney studio’s centennial largely skirted founder Walt Disney’s mid-American origins. Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago on December 5th, 1901 (Disney died at a hospital across from his Burbank, California studio on December 15, 1966). Though he was young when his father moved the family south to Missouri, Mr. Disney’s time in Chicago affects, shapes and forges Disney’s stories, legacy and ethos.


“After the family farm [in Marceline, Missouri] failed, Walt’s father moved the family first to Kansas City, then [back] to Chicago, where Walt took lessons at the Chicago Museum of Art,” James Stewart wrote in Disney War (2005, Simon and Schuster). “[Walt Disney] astounded his pragmatic father when he announced in 1919 that he decided it would be easier to make a living as an artist than [as] an actor, his other ambition.” 

Young Walt Disney


According to Dave Smith in Disney A to Z (1996, Disney’s Hyperion Books) Walt Disney was born in Chicago at 1249 Tripp Avenue, “a home that had been built by his father, Elias…[who] had started out as a carpenter in the city, and eventually began building houses that were designed by his wife, Flora. [Disney’s dad] also built the church the family attended.” “My dad worked as a carpenter in Chicago on the World’s Fair building,” Walt once recalled. “Out of his earnings, he and my mother saved enough money to go into business. Mother drew the plans and my dad would build all the houses.”

Courtesy of the Walt Disney Birthplace.

The Tripp Avenue address was changed to 2156 North Tripp Avenue in a citywide renumbering in 1909. Today, the house is the site of the Walt Disney Birthplace and is being renovated and restored by a former Hollywood producer. Flora and Elias Disney moved to Missouri a few years after Walt’s birth, later returning to Chicago, where Walt attended McKinley High School before joining the Red Cross during the Great War.

All the family moving made Disney restless to live on his own and see the world. Walt Disney’s time in Chicago was fragmented and brief yet formative. As childhood friend Walter Pfeiffer recalled about the plucky high school student in Remembering Walt: Favorite Memories of Walt Disney (1999; Disney Editions): “On [Abe] Lincoln’s birthday, Walt came to school all dressed up like Lincoln…He made this stovepipe hat out of cardboard and shoe polish. He purchased a beard from a place that sold theatrical things. He did this all on his own.” Pfeiffer said that when the principal saw Disney, he asked ‘why are you dressed this way?’ Walt answered: “It’s Lincoln’s birthday and I want to recite his Gettysburg address.” Disney, whose Disneyland would feature an Animatronic attraction honoring the Illinois statesman and America’s first Republican president, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, “got up in front of the class and the kids thought this was terrific.” McKinley High’s principal took Disney to every classroom. “Walt loved that.”

Aside from immersing himself in the land of Lincoln’s history, Walt Disney made an effort to bring Chicago friends and colleagues into the Disney studio. For example, Vernon, Illinois, native Herb Ryman, who, like Disney, also attended Chicago’s Art Institute met Disney in 1938 and later started working on FantasiaDumbo and, in 1953, after Walt asked Ryman to draw the first detailed conceptual rendition of Disneyland, created designs for Main Street, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, New Orleans Square, Tomorrowland, the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean—in a single weekend. Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955.

Later, Ryman made conceptual drawings for EPCOT, Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. He was working on concepts for Disneyland Paris when he died in 1989. Herb Ryman didn’t take Disney’s opportunity for granted, recalling in Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists (2008; University Press of Mississippi) that: “All the men who graduated with me from the Chicago Art Institute—talented though they were—couldn’t get a job even at $10 a week. And here I was…making [more money].” Another Walt Disney classmate, Bianca Majolie, who attended McKinley High School, later solicited Mr. Disney for work at the Burbank, California studio; she was soon hired to write stories.

During a trip with Walt to Chicago, Disney animator Ward Kimball remembered Disney’s nostalgia for trains: “[H]e asked if there was any place I wanted to go. I told him of a jazz group playing someplace, and he said, ‘you can do that anytime. Let’s go ride the L.’ So we rode the damned elevated train half the night, and he was looking out the window, reliving his childhood.”

Disney’s gilded memories, ability to imagine and fondness for the wholesome and childlike fueled his legendary theme park and movie studio. These qualities also propelled his perseverance, according to his brother, the late Roy O. Disney, who once said that Walt had “a memory like an elephant—Walt…remembered when we left Chicago for the farm in 1906…My mother, my little sister, Walt and I traveled by Santa Fe train.” When the train stopped and the kids disembarked, Roy said that Walt, who was five years old, spotted and picked up a pocket knife. Roy, who was nine years older than Walt, took it from him.

Walt Disney, right, with his younger sister Ruth

Sixty years later, Roy mused that “something came up at the [Disney] studio, and Walt accused me of bullying him. He said, ‘you’ve been doing this to me ever since I was born! I remember you tried to take that pocket knife away from me!”

Some of what Walt Disney could not have known (or did not remember) from before his birth and during his youth, including living in Chicago, was discovered by biographer Neal Gabler in his 2006 book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Knopf). Disney’s parents, Elias and Flora, had married in Florida when Disney’s mom was 19 and his dad was nearly 30 years old. Elias Disney had “bought an orange grove, but a freeze destroyed most of his crop…” When Flora’s father died, Elias followed his handsome, taller, gregarious younger brother, Robert Disney, north to Illinois “—to a nine-room house in Chicago.”

Walt’s uncle, Robert Disney, had come to Chicago in 1889 “in anticipation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which would celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America,” Gabler wrote. Uncle Robert built a hotel. Walt’s dad, Elias, who’d worked as a postman in Florida, followed to work as a carpenter, “a skill he had apparently acquired while laboring on the railroad.”

The Disney family arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1890, “with their infant son, Herbert, and with Flora pregnant again. Elias rented a one story frame cottage at 3515 S. Vernon on the city’s south side, an old mid-19th century farmhouse…” Gabler reports that Elias earned a dollar a day. “But he was industrious and frugal, and…by the next year he had applied for a building permit at 1249 Tripp Avenue to construct a two-story wooden cottage for his family.”

With his younger brother’s real estate contacts, and leveraging the house through mortgages, Elias Disney began buying lots in a subdivision, designing residences with wife Flora’s help with some success. Walt’s parents were “deeply religious,” Gabler writes, and life revolved around church, Saint Paul’s, which the couple rebuilt. Mr. and Mrs. Disney attended religious ceremonies during the week as well as on Sundays. Elias occasionally substituted for the minister at the pulpit. Flora gave birth to Walter Elias Disney, who was “finely featured and golden haired and favoring” his mother’s side more than Disney’s. Walt was four years old when Elias decided to move again, choosing a “remote Missouri town where his brother Robert had recently purchased some farmland as an investment.”

After the family returned to Chicago, Walt had been at McKinley High a month when the school magazine, the Voice, announced that “Walter Disney, one of the newcomers, had displayed unusual artistic talent, and has become a Voice cartoonist.” The circulation manager said he was always having to write passes so that Walt could be excused from class to draw. “Already,” the manager later wrote to Disney, “it was the passion of your life!”

Gabler noted that Walt spent his time that year drawing cartoons, many with a sharp political tone, commenting on what became known as the first world war. One cartoon depicts a man quizzing a wounded doughboy with the caption: “Your summer vacation. Work or fight. Will you be doing either?” One McKinley High classmate remembered Walt scribbling cartoons while another remembered Disney’s desk “cluttered with pictures of pretty dancing girls.” Another student recalled that Walt entertained classmates by sketching a man’s head on a large sheet of paper, turning it upside down to reveal a different face. “Walt so excelled at illustration that, when his art teacher gave a homework assignment of drawing the human body, and Walt submitted a perfect rendering, she thought he had copied it, and made him draw another in front of the class,” Gabler wrote. Describing students with one or two words, the Voice chose to tag Walt Disney as an artist.

When Disney wasn’t drawing in a Chicago high school, “he was thinking about it.” Gabler noted that he skipped classes, going to the art institute or loitering near newspapers “with my mouth wide open, watching…the fascinating things that went on, and hoping that I someday too would be on the staff of a big newspaper.” Disney revered a Chicago Tribune cartoonist named Carey Orr, “who…summarized the news of the day through barbed illustrations.” Urged by an editor at the school publication, Disney started attending night school three times a week in downtown Chicago at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the Willoughby Building where Orr taught, “getting his father to foot the bill by convincing him it had educational value. It was the first time that Walt worked with life models, and he was so entranced by the process he would not even take a bathroom break.”

Walt Disney eventually realized “that his talent lay in caricatures” finding his enthusiasm at the Academy in a cartooning class by LeRoy Gossett, who worked for the Chicago Herald. Disney later called his academy studies “the turning point in my whole career.” He thought of his Red Cross experience as an adventure. Assigned to Camp Scott, the Red Cross’s training grounds on the south side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago, Disney’s training included lessons in driving trucks and ambulances, automotive mechanics and repair and military drills before being sent to France. Within days of being dispatched, Disney contracted the 1918 influenza and, because hospitals were deemed unsafe, he was taken home by ambulance to recover. By the time he felt better three weeks later, Disney’s company had left for France.

Biographer Gabler wrote that, though Walt Disney enjoyed studying downtown, sketching cartoons and could be found “romping through Humboldt Park” with a girlfriend, he later remembered Chicago as a “crowded, smoky” city which neither matched his imagined, romanticized metropolis nor his vision of an idyllic prairie town. Disney did return to Chicago. During one visit, a friend remembered him performing Snow White as they toured the Field Museum of Natural History.

In the summer of 1933, Disney attended Chicago’s Century of Progress fair, taking “his first airplane ride on the final leg from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles.” Lenox Lohr, president of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, which hosted the fair, let Disney “backstage at a pageant called Wheels a Rolling, presented on a 450-foot platform off Lake Michigan embedded with tracks for historic locomotives.” Walt operated several old train engines and appeared in the show.

“Walt didn’t particularly like cities,” Gabler wrote. “While riding in the train from the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948, he commented to Ward Kimball that he couldn’t understand why people lived in cities when they could live in open spaces—and he especially hated Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. Imagineers said when they were planning Tomorrowland, Walt would carry around books on city planning, and mutter about traffic, noise, and neon signs, and he kept three volumes in his office to which he frequently referred: Garden Cities of Tomorrow by Sir Ebenezer Howard, originally published in 1902, and re-issued in 1965, which promoted…a more pastoral urban life; and The Heart of our Cities and Out of a Fair, a City, both by an architect and mall designer named Victor Gruen, who urged the reconceptualization of the city as more ordered, rational and humane.”

Walt Disney’s interest in urban planning was “so intense that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who had met Walt in a department store during a Christmas shopping spree and become a friend, once approached him about running for mayor of Los Angeles.”

On the eve of the 1948 Chicago railroad fair, Disney called Ward Kimball and asked if he wanted to accompany him to Chicago. They took the Super Chief from Pasadena, Gabler writes, and, “[a]t one point the president of the Santa Fe Railroad invited Walt and Kimball to ride in the engine and pull the cord to blow the whistle. Kimball said that Walt pulled long and hard. When they returned to their car, Walt ‘just sat there, staring into space, smiling and smiling,’ Kimball recalled, adding: “I had never seen him look so happy.”

Former Chicagoan Scott Holleran, an award-winning journalist and writer in Burbank, California, wrote “The Last Statesman,” about his 44 years with the late Illinois Congressman John Porter, for Classic Chicago. Read and subscribe to his newsletter, Autonomia at — https://www.scottholleran.substack.com.