Over the last few weeks, I’ve written a lot about Walt Disney. I’ve covered his political journey, his faith, his commitment to excellence, his patriotism, his futuristic vision, and the presence of certain Judeo-Christian values in his films (with more to come in the ensuing weeks). Today I want to emphasize the commitment Walt and his brother Roy held to the free market, remarkable in light of the fact that the brothers grew up in a socialist household.
Roy and Walt’s father Elias had an entrepreneurial streak but he was either unlucky or a terrible businessman. Yet he professed socialist views. Elias tried to impress these ideals on his sons. As I wrote about him recently:
Elias…was a Socialist — in particular, he followed the philosophy of J. A. Wayland. Wayland created a unique strain of Prairie Socialism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Wayland’s newspaper, Appeal to Reason, “was folksy” and “reached the common man’s ears but irritated the intellectual’s.” Elias Disney subscribed to Appeal to Reason, and Walt remembered cutting his teeth as an artist by copying the cartoons. Walt said he “could draw cartoons of ‘Capital’ and ‘Labor’ pretty good, the big fat capitalist with the money with his foot on the neck of the laboring man with the little cap on his head.”
Elias Disney voted for Progressive William Jennings Bryan and Socialist Eugene Debs in presidential elections, despite being an entrepreneur and employer.
Roy, who became Walt’s business partner, may have provided an early education in capitalism and the entrepreneur’s spirit. Bob Thomas writes in his biography Building A Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (which I am currently reading):
Clem Flickinger, a boyhood friend of Walt’s, recalled in 1987 what may have been Roy’s first venture into capitalism. He planted an acre of popcorn. When the ears ripened, he shucked them, dried them in the sun, and shelled the kernels. He packed the popcorn into candy sacks and sold them in Marceline.
When Walt headed to California to pursue his dream of running his own studio, he sought out Roy for advice, partnership, and a little seed money. Walt provided the creative spark, and it was up to Roy to conjure up the funds to fulfill the ideas.