Several Weeks ago, I was given the amazing opportunity to interview Don Iwerks, son of Disney Legend Ub Iwerks. The purpose of the interview was to discuss his book honoring his fathers’ incredible contributions and inventions for the film industry, and in particular, Walt Disney and his studio. It was Walt and Ub, both at the young age of 19 years old who worked together and helped launch the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studios. As any Disney aficionado knows, Ub was the “Fasted pencil in the business” who could draw up to 600 drawings a day and it was he who gave Mickey Mouse his physical form, and it was Mickey that finally placed Walt Disney Studios on the map. But he was also the man who helped Walt in the early years, animating the Alice comedies, and who brought Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to life. And he was instrumental in launching the iconic “Silly Symphonies” cartoon series with the “Skeleton Dance”, considered even today as top-notch animation. But that seemed the extent of what most people knew about Ub.
But Ub was a genius, a mechanical genius, a master of camera lenses, optics and fabrication, and had the ability to look or hear about a problem and almost immediately has the answer to it. But, today even the most ardent Disney fans and historians, has only a pedestrian knowledge of his enormous contributions to the industry, and to Disney. We are blessed that his son, Don Iwerks has written a masterful manuscript, chronicling the full depth of his Dad’s contributions. And I say it is about time that the Genius of Ub Iwerks is finally reveled…
There has been more written about Walter E. Disney, Et Al then perhaps any other business and entertainment persona in history. Biographies of Walt, stories and information about his family members and uncounted hundreds of animators, writers, lyricists, his theme parks, attractions, shows, characters; and people throughout Walt’s and the company’s history who helped forge it into the entertainment giant it is today are rife. But one person who almost single-handedly helped the fledgling Disney Brothers studio rise to prominence, is hardly mentioned. Ub Iwerks. But thanks to his son, this has been rectified. Don’s new book, “Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor-The Genius of Ub Iwerks” tells the full story.
Before we go into the book, a little about Don is in order. Don was born in 1929 in Los Angeles. He grew up learning about photography, woodworking and metalworking, and learning to use tools from his dad Ub, very much like Ub learned from his father, Eert Ubben Iwwerks an inventor and fabricator in his own right. In 1950, Don joined Disney and his father as a lab technician, left after a short time to do a stint in the Korean War and returned to work in the legendary Studio Machine Shop. Like his dad, Don forgo formal education and he spent 30 years contributing techniques and ideas, including the first 360 film camera and first Circle-Vision 360 film called America the Beautiful, and with his father Ub, worked on many innovations for the film industry. Don and Ub share on a window on Main St. USA, and are both Disney Legends.
In 1985 after 35 years at Disney, Don left and formed his own company, Iwerks Entertainment, developing special films and virtual reality theaters around the world. In 1998, at the 70th Academy Awards show, Don received an Oscar. He was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which is given each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to “An individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry” On March 21, 1999, at the 71st Academy Awards show, he was presented an Oscar for Scientific and Technical Achievement for an innovation called the Iwerks 8/70 Linear Loop projection system. In 2009, Iwerks was inducted by Robert A. Iger and Roy E. Disney as a Disney Legend, honoring him as an individual whose “imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic.
Unlike many articles written, this book is not researched or information obtained second or third hand, but penned by a loving son who thought it was high time his father was given the accolades he deserved. But Ub was not a man to go looking for praise. He was a hard-working man who enjoyed solving problems and delved into his work. Walt Disney was a genius in his own right, and was not a man to give a lot of praise to his workers. Ub was once asked if he held any resentment against Walt for not giving him the full credit for Mickey, he said… no, “It isn’t the creation of the character that counts, it’s what you do with it after you created it” He gave Walt full credit for making something out of Mickey Mouse.
This book should be on every Disneyphile’ bookshelf, or anyone who would be interested in how the Walt Disney Company came to be. It is beautifully bound, peppered throughout with until now, never before seen photos, which are Don’s own personal pics. It has copious illustrations, most drawn by Don which illuminate many of his father’s inventions. In the book Don refers to his father as “Ub” for the readers sake. There are also many gorgeous prints throughout, covering the New York World’s Fair, many Disney attractions and personal cards and letters to Ub. Don takes the reader from the beginning with Walt, with many early story sketches with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Steamboat Willie, the Skeleton Dance and more. The ten years that Ub had his own studio, where he created and animated “Flip the Frog” and “Willie Whopper” is also covered in detail, again with many never seen before prints and illustrations. In my interview with Don, I asked about his thoughts on if Ub never made that 1924 trip to join Walt in California after the “Laugh-O-Grams studios went bankrupt, and was not with Walt in the early days, or not at all, did he think the Disney Company would be the same today, or if it ever would advanced beyond the “Alice Comedies” series produced by Margaret Winkler.
Don’s answer surprised me, he said he could not speculate on that, and the company did manage to go on. Again, after reading this book, and realizing just how important Ub was in the foundation of Walt and Roy’s Studio, in my opinion with just Walt and main animators Rudy Ising and Hugh Harman, the Alice Comedies would not have that “Polished” look. And if they did soldier on until asked to be replaced, it was Ub who helped design and draw the next character, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”. And history shows that after Charles Mintz hired away Walt’s animators (Ub remained loyal and refused to sign with Mintz) and told Walt, either work for me or you are finished. Walt, who knew he didn’t own the rights to Oswald, needed a new character. Ub helped again to design and animate for Walt the first three iconic “Mickey Mouse” cartoons which was the turning point for the Disney Studios.
This book is important in many other ways…It clears up many myths and misconceptions, one for instance that when Ub returned to Disney in 1940, Walt held a grudge because Ub left. Not true. Don explains there was a bond and love that was evident and remained so up to Walt’s passing.
The book lists all the awards and honors Ub garnered over his career, they are even more impressive because this hard-working and loyal man had no formal education; he had to quit school to support his Mother, Laura May Wagner Iwwerks after his father abandoned the family when Ub entered High School. Don illustrates just how Ub could be asked to solve a problem or come up with a solution by Walt, and instinctively knew what to do. He could look at camera or device and fabricate and design an improvement almost on the spot! Also listed are the many people that Ub worked with and help him in his accomplishments. It is a remarkable list of Disney “IL luminaries” that even the casual fan will know of.
It was Ub and these many innovations in photography, mechanics and processed that helped Walt achieve so many of his dreams. After reading this book, you will be astonished of just how many Disney attractions, shows and movies we enjoy today, would not be possible without the genius of Ub Iwerks. And most important, this book illustrates the life-long friendship, mutual love and admiration that Walt and Ub shared throughout their lives. When Walt passed away on December 15th, 1966 Ub was devastated. One must remember, they have been companions, friends, collaborators and colleagues since they met at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio at 19 years old. They shared a lifetime of innovation, experimentation and together helped the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio into what is the Disney Company today.
The book is forwarded by famed film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. He also gives this book the high praises it deserves. For me, who has written and researched Walt and his Company for 20 years, I believe this is one of the most important manuscripts written, for it chronicles the man who, if Walt had never met, it is quite possible the Disney Company would have a different look today. Again, thanks to the love and devotion of his son Don, Ubbe Ert Iwwerks star will shine forever…
You can obtain this historic book from…Amazon.com, Target, Walmart, E-bay, Wordery, Booksrun or contact “DISNEY EDITIONS- 978-1-4847-4337-1 and on EBOOK 978-1-368-01342-0.