Walt returned home from France in the fall of 1919, determined to become an
artist. He moved into the old Disney house in Kansas City with his brothers, Roy
and Herbert (and Herbert's family), and tried unsuccessfully to get a job as an
artist at the Kansas City "Star." Roy helped him get a position as an
apprentice at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he drew horses,
cows, and bags of feed for farm-equipment catalogues. Of course, he didn't ask
what he'd be paid: the princely sum of $50 a month. Unfortunately, just before
Christmas, there wasn't enough business to keep him on the payroll, and Walt was
laid off. So he and another laid-off artist, Ub Iwerks, decided to start a
commercial-art business together, called Iwerks-Disney (because the other way
around it sounded like an eyeglass company!).
Iwerks-Disney had one big client off the bat; the father of Walt's old friend
Walt Pfeiffer hired them to work on the United Leatherworkers Journal. But
business wasn't booming. Walt was offered a $40-a-week job at the Kansas City
Slide Company (later renamed the Kansas City Film Ad Company), making animated
commercials. He took the job, and a few months later Ub joined him.
Cartoon-making was in its infancy. Even the best -- like Krazy Kat and the
Katzenjammer Kids -- were jerky, repetitive black-and-white efforts based on
popular newspaper comic strips. But the public was still intrigued and amazed by
the new form of entertainment. As was Walt. He wanted to improve upon the clumsy
means of animation used at Kansas City Film Ad. He read books about animation
and discovered how the leading New York animators worked. And he started making
his own cartoons.
Walt agreed to pay his father $5 a month to rent the family's garage as a studio
(though Roy never recalled ever seeing any money actually change hands). After
work, Walt stayed up late into the night working on animation. At the time,
Kansas City theaters rented cartoons from East Coast animators. Walt decided he
could compete with them by creating his own with a local twist. He successfully
sold the idea to the Newman Theater and began making his own Newman
Laugh-O-grams. Typically, he priced them too low and made no money. But he was
in the cartoon business. His folks had returned to Kansas City, but they didn't
stay for long. In 1921, Herbert, Ruth, Flora, and Elias moved to Portland. Then
Roy came down with tuberculosis and went to a hospital in Arizona. Walt, all
alone, found a place in a rooming house.
Walt threw himself entirely into cartooning, bringing in several young, unpaid
apprentices. Using an amazing gift for salesmanship, Walt raised some $15,000
from investors, quit his job, and incorporated his tiny company, called
Laugh-O-gram Films. He made a deal to sell a series of fairy-tale cartoons for
$11,100, accepting a down payment of $100. After six months of work, his client
claimed bankruptcy. Walt never saw another penny. Despite desperate efforts to
make money, Walt couldn't pay the rent and moved into the Laugh-O-gram office.
His workers left him. He barely had enough money to feed himself. Then, he got
$500 for a dental hygiene film and poured it into a new effort called
"Alice's Wonderland." But before it could be completed, he had to
declare bankruptcy. With the unfinished film in hand, he took his remaining few
dollars and purchased a train ticket to California.