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Young Walt blossomed in the City of Big Shoulders, but he thrived in a small, small fantasy-filled world

By Patrick T. Reardon
Tribune staff reporter

Just think, Walt Disney used to walk through that door," Neal Gabler says, as we stand at the curb in front of the former William McKinley High School on Adams Street, a block west of Damen Avenue.

"It's kind of thrilling to be here."

Ninety-nine years ago, Disney was a 15-year-old freshman when he passed through that entrance into the massive classical structure (now called Cregier Multiplex, home of three small public schools) where he would have his first success as a cartoonist.

Gabler -- the author of a new 851-page biography of the man who created Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" (Knopf) -- has never before seen the building except in photos. And he's excited.

But, then, he's a man of enthusiasms -- passionate about movies, passionate about writing and, even after seven years of work, still passionate about Disney.

"McKinley High School was important," the 56-year-old Gabler says as we drive around the Northwest and Near West Sides looking at Disney sites on a sunny but sharply cold afternoon. "If you go through the McKinley Voices, Walt heavily illustrated that magazine. You see so many Walt Disney pictures in there. Clearly, this was Walt's first opportunity to draw extensively and to be published."

Chicago is often overlooked in accounts of the man who transformed cartooning into an art form, invented the theme park and made his name synonymous with high-quality, family entertainment. Yet, for Disney, the city was the place in which his talents and drive began to emerge -- and from which he sought escape.

He was born in Chicago on Dec. 5, 1901, in a two-story frame house that his father, Elias, had built at 2156 N. Tripp Ave.

When we stop on Tripp and walk around the home, Gabler peers over a side fence, looking for the back-yard tree from which Elias, an often harsh figure, would cut switches to use in disciplining Walt and his other children. But it's long gone.

This is a return visit for Gabler, who examined the house during his long research work on Disney, and he's glad to be back. "You go up to the second floor of that home, and this is where Walt Disney was born," he says. "There's something really exciting about seeing this."

In his book, Gabler, who grew up in Chicago about four miles north of this home, portrays Disney as a complex figure driven by memories of an oppressive, hard-edged father to achieve excellence and to create a succession of fantasy worlds in which he could exercise control and reshape reality.

Seeing the home, Gabler says, gives him the same rush he felt when he would open a file in the Disney archives and pick up a document handwritten by Disney. Both provide a physical connection to his subject.



Method biographer

"It's tactile, but it's also psychologically tactile," he says. "I'm a method biographer. When you're dealing with a subject, you've got to find the correspondences in yourself to make you channel the subject."

Walt had just turned 4 when Elias decided to move the family to Marceline, a remote and, for the boy, idyllic Missouri town that, decades later, would be the model for Disneyland's Main Street.

In an interview nearly half a century later, Disney described Chicago as a "crowded, smoky" place, the antithesis of the farm country where he joyfully herded pigs, skinny-dipped in Yellow Creek and rode an old horse named Charley.

Later, though, economics forced the family to move to another metropolis, Kansas City, where, in addition to school, Disney worked an early-morning paper route for the dour and demanding Elias.

The job was so filled with drudgery, pain and exhaustion that he had nightmares about it the rest of his life.

As an adult, Disney showed a deep distaste for urban life. "He didn't like cities," Gabler says during the afternoon tour. "He couldn't understand why people would live in them." That included Chicago and Kansas City, New York and Los Angeles.

Much of Disney's life work, Gabler says, can be seen as an attempt to fashion alternate worlds where, unlike in the city and unlike under the thumb of his father, Walt could be in control -- whether in the make-believe worlds of Mickey Mouse and Snow White or in the real-life theme parks of Disneyland and Disney World or in the full city that, at the time of his death, he was planning to build from scratch in Florida.

Yet, Walt's only other year in Chicago was key in his development.

In 1917, again for financial reasons, the Disneys returned to Chicago and moved into a home, now gone, at 1523 W. Ogden Ave., across from Union Park. Walt entered McKinley that September and, over the next 12 months, blossomed as an artist.

Not only was he furiously drawing cartoons for the school magazine, but he also bought his first movie camera, "having himself filmed in the alley behind his parents' home as [Charlie] Chaplin, ... and then hatched a plan for making children's films," Gabler writes. Alas, the camera was repossessed.



Evening classes

Even more important, though, were the evening classes Disney took at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, then located in the Willoughby Building at 8 S. Michigan Ave.

It was there he realized that his talent lay in caricature, and he took a class in cartooning -- "no doubt," he later said, "the turning point of my whole career."

A workaholic who routinely put the needs of his creative work ahead of his wife, Lillian, and a man who had been scarred by his own father, Disney was, nonetheless, a devoted parent, Gabler says near the end of our tour.

"There is no question, when you read interviews with his daughters or you talk with [his daughter] Diane, they truly adored him -- not because they had to or because he was Walt Disney, but because he clearly adored them," the biographer says.

In many ways, Walt had more in common with his daughters than with Lillian.

"Walt really was a case of arrested development," Gabler says. "Walt enjoyed being a child. That aspect of Walt would have had a very difficult time surviving in the real world, but Walt didn't live in the real world. He was a big kid with childlike enthusiasm. Everybody else loses that stuff. He never lost it."

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Disney's Chicago connection: 10 facts

1. Walt Disney's father, Elias, worked as a carpenter in the construction of the World's Columbian Exposition, which opened in 1893.

2. In 1893, Elias built a two-story wooden cottage (right) at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. as his family's home.

3. Walt, the third Disney son, was born in that cottage on Dec. 5, 1901.

4. Early in 1906, Elias moved his family out of Chicago to the remote Missouri town of Marceline because two neighbor boys had been arrested for killing a policeman in an attempted robbery. Elias feared his older two sons would be similarly led astray.

5. Walt, who had just turned 4 when the family moved, later said he remembered Chicago as "crowded, smoky."

6. When the family returned to Chicago in 1917, Walt attended William McKinley High School at 2040 W. Adams St. as a freshman.

7. Walt drew cartoons for the school magazine, The McKinley Voice.

8. Walt attended evening classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, then in the Willoughby Building, 8 S. Michigan Ave. (right), an experience that he later described as "no doubt the turning point of my whole career."

9. In the summer after his freshman year, Walt worked as a substitute mail carrier and as a uniformed gatekeeper at the 35th Street elevated station. He also bought his first movie camera then.

10. Although he never lived in Chicago after 1918, he passed through often. On one visit, he dragooned a friend into spending the evening riding the "L" while Walt reminisced about his time in Chicago.

Source: "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" by Neal Gabler