When people think Walt Disney, they usually think Mickey Mouse. When people think Mickey Mouse, they usually think Walt Disney. But there is one man who is often forgotten, without whom Disney’s mascot Mickey, or perhaps Disney all together, would not be possible. In light of the upcoming Kansas City FilmFest, we take a look at the Kansas City man behind the most famous mouse in the world.
Ubbe (Ub) Iwerks was born in 1901 in Kansas City to father Eert, a German immigrant artist/inventor and mother Deborah. Ub’s father had taken out patents on cameras and liked to tinker with things. Ub clearly picked that talent up from his father. By 1914, Ub’s father had left his mother and it fell on Ub to take care of the family. At the age of fourteen, Ub had to drop out of school and support his mother. After trying various odd jobs, he ended up at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio where he was their main lettering man. This is where Ub met Walter Disney (who grew up in Marceline, Mo.) and they quickly became good friends.
Iwerks was a highly talented artist who was shy and reserved, while Disney was a visionary idea man who was very outgoing and business minded. Walt came upon an ad placed by the Kansas City Slide Company seeking a full time employee. Walt got the job and soon convinced the boss to hire Ub, too. This is where they would both learn the fundamentals of film animation. One weekend Walt borrowed a film camera from work and created short trailers, satiric little comedies about life in Kansas City, for the local movie theaters. They were such a hit that he quit his job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company to start Laugh-O-Gram Studios in 1922. Their office was on the second floor of the McConahay Building, at 1127 East 31st in Kansas City. Sadly, this venture was short lived and first Disney, then Iwerks headed west to form Walt Disney Studios in Hollywood.
In 1926, Iwerks was put in charge of a cartoon that quickly became very popular for its time, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.” The popularity of the Oswald series led to a dispute over ownership rights of the character. On top of losing the character, Disney also lost nearly all of his animators to the rival company, except for Ub. Disney vowed to never again work with a character he didn’t own the rights to. Ub sketched different characters, one of which was a little mouse. Walt loved it. Originally named “Mortimer,” Walt’s wife, Lilian, spoke against the name, coming up with a “cuter” name, “Mickey.” Ub finished animating the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Plane Crazy,” all by himself in two weeks, producing more than 600 drawings per day. The third Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” would be the one that catapulted Mickey into stardom; however, short tempers, lack of screen credit, and long hours took their toll, and Ub left Walt Disney Studios in 1929.
The Iwerks Studio was opened in 1930, where he created his own set of cartoons. Unfortunately none were ever a major commercial success and they failed to rival Disney. The Iwerks studio closed in 1936. He did contract work through the rest of the decade, including work on Looney Tunes shorts, before returning to Disney in 1940. After returning, he pioneered the development of special effects such as a process used in “Mary Poppins,” of combining animation with live action, as well as developing other animation techniques. Iwerks did special effects work outside of the studio as well, including his Academy Award nominated achievement for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963. Ub continued to work after Disney’s death, until he passed away from a stroke in July 1971. His son Don became a renowned Disney executive and his granddaughter Leslie makes documentary films.
Iwerks legacy as an animator and a Missourian lives on. Celebrate those who have been inspired by him – visit the Kansas City FilmFest, April 5-13. A special presentation, focusing on animation, is taking place this year at the Alamo Drafthouse entitled Animation@The Alamo. Special guests include director Bill Plympton, the ‘King of Indie Animation,’ with his new feature film “Cheatin”; director Ralph Bankshi, giving a retrospective of his work; and animator Stephan Franck, who worked on such hit films as “The Iron Giant,” “Space Jam” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” A short film program will be held, with animated shorts featured in the Reel Spirit competition for young filmmakers. Find more details with the full schedule at KCFilmFest.org.
A group of Kansas Citians are looking to bring Laugh-O-Gram Studios back to its glory. A not-for-profit group called Thank You Walt Disney Inc., is hoping to convert the historic studio into an interactive museum and digital projection studio. Also, they are planning to at establish a new center nearby that would serve as a classroom for aspiring digital animators. The group says the conversion could begin within the next two years. Until then, the group is focusing on taking care of the existing building and drumming up further financial support for the project. Learn more at ThankYouWaltDisney.org.
Article provided by the Missouri Film Office.