The Letter That Started It All

By Keith Mahne

People often wonder which piece of Disney history is the most significant. The answer always has to be Walt’s October 16, 1923 handwritten letter that announces the start of the Walt Disney Company. Each year the Company celebrates October 16th as it’s birthday; the day Walt Disney founded the company when he was just 21 years old. Today you’ll get to see and read that handwritten letter Walt sent to Virginia Davis’ parents officially starting the Walt Disney Company…

21 year-old Walt Disney directs a live-action sequence for an ALICE comedy not on a Hollywood backlot, but on a dirt lot not far from his Uncle Robert’s house. From left, Virginia’s father, Walt Disney, Virginia Davis, and Roy O. Disney on camera. Close inspection of the original photograph reveals a large split in Walt’s right shoe; he was flat broke.
In October of 1923, Walt Disney was flat broke and living in a room at his Uncle Robert’s house in Hollywood. He had left Kansas City a few months earlier after declaring his Laugh-O-Grams company bankrupt. He didn’t even have the cash to finish the “Alice” comedy demo film he had begun. Not ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but the adventures of a live-action little girl named Alice set in a cartoon world. The 4 year- old girl who played Alice, Virginia Davis, stayed back in Kansas City when the bankrupt and discouraged Walt Disney turned his back on animation and hopped a train for Hollywood. But after not finding work as a live-action director in Hollywood, Walt reconsidered the animation field, and desperately sent the half-completed “ALICE” film to distributors as a sample of his ability. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Walt had no way of knowing it in advance, but October 16th was to be the day the magic started. That was the day Walt received a telegram from Felix the Cat film distributor Margaret Winkler, agreeing to distribute a series of Walt Disney Alice comedies, as long as the same little girl, Virginia Davis, starred. The Disney Studio was in business! Walt immediately pulled out his “Walt Disney, Cartoonist” letterhead, which his brother Roy had loaned him $10 to have printed, and feverishly wrote a letter to the parents of the little girl in fountain pen being that Walt couldn’t afford a typewriter.
 
 
Below you can read the three page letter that contains misspelled words as Walt had only attended one year of high school, but he more than makes up for it in enthusiastic Disney persuasiveness:
 
 
 

 
 
 
About a week later, Walt writes a follow-up letter, outlining the terms of Davis’ employment.
He spells out exactly how much she will be paid:
 
 
 

 
 
 
Famous Disney collector and seller Phil Sears purchased these directly from Virginia Davis early in the 1990’s. She was living in Orange County, California, and he had heard that she was looking to sell her Walt Disney items and move to Idaho. She was thinking of auctioning them through one of the major auction houses. Phil told her to get the auction estimates from the firms she was considering, and he’d beat their highest estimate as Sears really wanted those letters and understandably so. The auction estimates came in, and he did as he said by making an offer that topped the high estimates. When else would he get the opportunity to own the letters that founded the Disney Company? Think about this, every character, from Mickey Mouse to Ariel, every film, from Snow White to Frozen, every theme park, from Disneyland to Walt Disney World and Tokyo and Paris, sprung from that day in October of 1923 when Walt (thankfully) failed to find work as a movie director and fell back on animation, forming one of the most influential companies the world has ever known.

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