Walt’s First Music Man…Carl Stalling

Walt Disney could without any argument be included among history’s greatest legions of Innovator’s, Dreamers and Showmen. Walt had the uncanny ability to know what would work, and was a stickler for perfection. He was also the eternal optimist. No matter what, Walt always had a bright outlook, even during bankruptcy; it seemed nothing could bring him down. Even when his distractors were telling him no, (Walt’s wife Lillian and Brother Roy as Walt planned “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) Walt Disney never wavered a bit, stuck to his guns, and finished his “Dreams” In the end, he was usually proven right. But even Walt knew that all the dreaming in the world could not be accomplished alone. Since the early days of the “Laugh-O-Gram” studios, he obtained the best and brightest artists and craftsmen he could find.


When one thinks of Disney music, most people conjure up the images of the Sherman Brothers. Also known as the “Boys”, this musical duo has composed some of the most memorable music and lyrics in Disney history. But in fact, there was one man in the very beginning of the Disney Brothers studios, Carl W. Stalling, a brilliant and innovative musician and songwriter who, while at Disney, invented a system for cartoon music scoring for his early Mickey cartoons and also was instrumental in the “Silly Symphonies” cartoon series. Stalling is known as the “Most famous unknown composer of the 20th Century”. It was because that most of Stalling’s work was done on animated films and cartoons during what was known as the “Golden Age” of cartoons. Unlike the Sherman Brothers, who penned the most iconic scores for Disney; movies like “Mary Poppins”, the “Jungle Book” and theme park songs that are heard by millions of guests every day, “It’s a small world after all” and the song “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room”, Walt’s first audio-animatronic attraction the “Enchanted Tiki Room” Stalling’s work, though brilliant and innovative, was not as well know.

Carl W. Stalling was born on November 10, 1891 to Ernest and Sophia C. Stalling, who emigrated from Germany in 1883, and they settled in Lexington, Missouri. Carl loved music from an early age and began playing the piano at six years old. Carl affirmed that his love of the movies began at five years old when he saw the film, “The Great Train Robbery. “It made such an impression on me,” he said in an interview. Using an old piano his father had repaired, he became so proficient that by the age of eight he was playing the organ and by age 13 Stalling was playing piano between reels at the local movie houses. His career blossomed during the ‘20’s as an accompanist in the silent movie houses in the Kansas City area. This was before the “Talkies” and a good accompanist had to keep the music in step with the silent movie and keep the audience’s attention. There were no written scores per-se, most of the times it was improvised and done by the mood of the performer and picture alike. It was these skills that served Stalling throughout his career.

It was during the time Stalling was an organist at the Isis Theater in Kansas City that he and Walt Disney developed a rapport. Walt Disney’s “Laugh-O-Graham” studio was around the corner from the theater and that is where Walt first encountered him, playing the organ. But when Laugh-O-Grahams went bankrupt in 1923, Stalling helped out Walt by getting him a contract with the Jenkins music company to produce a “Song-O-Reel” live-action film. With lyrics posted on the title cards, the audience could sing along with the musical accompaniment.

This “Song-O-Reel” was called “Martha, just a plain old-fashioned name”. Done in the spring of 1923, was written by Joel L Sanders, and the film made his debut at the Isis theater where Carl Stalling was the organist for the piece. Carl stalling played the tune while the audience was encouraged to sing along. With the money made, Walt purchased used motion picture camera to take pictures of kids and their families making $10-$15 a job.  He then paid off the camera and saved the money for his train ticket the Los Angeles, where he and his Brother Roy began the Disney Brothers Studios in October 16th, 1923.

Walt’s new studio was always in need of monies and Walt contacted Stalling to produce song films. Walt keeps in communication with Stalling and hired him in 1928 as music director for the studio.


At the time, sound cartoons were a complete novelty, since talkies only came out a year earlier (The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson). When Walt was trying to synchronize the sound with Pat Powers bootleg “CinePhone” system for his “Steamboat Willie” cartoon, Mickey Mouse’ first sound entry, the orchestra could not get the timing right. In order to do another session, Walt had to sell his prized “Moon Roadster” car to finance the second attempt. Carl Stalling to the rescue.  Carl had been developing a system called the “Tick System” where the orchestra members wore a headphone with had a synchronized beat which helped keep time with the action on the screen.

Walt embellished on the system and devised a way to solve the problem of synchronization. He had a ball printed on both the sound track and the film, which rose and fell to the accent of the beat, giving musicians a visual signal. All they had to do was watch the ball and change the tempo with the ball. It worked perfectly. Walt’s Steamboat Willie was of course a proven success, and even in the early days, he knew that he needed more than Mickey to succeed and wanted to diversify. He first considered a series of live action talking comedies, and a cartoon series without one central character, like Mickey. This would also give his animators a chance to explored different areas of animation.

It was Carl Stalling who came up with one of Walt’s greatest success stories beside Mickey. He proposed a cartoon series that unlike the animations they were now doing, with the music following the animation, but start with the music and have the animation follow it. For the first subject, Carl as a child had seen an ad in “The American Boy” magazine with a dancing skeleton. He suggested Walt animated a large group of skeletons which danced to one of Carl’s own scores. He wrote to Roy about Carl’s idea of a “Skeleton Dance” and admitted it had “Dandy Possibilities” Ub Iwerks animated the short and it became the start of Walt’s “Silly Symphonies”. Later on, Carl is also credited with the score for the popular “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo” the opening song for the early Mickey Mouse shorts. In addition, Carl scored 15 Mickey shorts and had a voice line in the short, “Wild Waves and provided the singing vocals for the walrus.

But Carl Stalling’s tenure with Walt and the new company was about to end. Carl Stalling and many of Walt’s animators always felt they never received the proper recognition for all the work they did on making the companies’ cartoons successful. Even his valiant and stalwart friend Ub Iwerks was tired of Walt’s micro-management style and him not getting any credit for all his work. (Although Ub did quit the company on January 21st 1930, many believe that Pat Powers had coerced Ub to quit and begin his own studio).

That same morning, Carl went into Roy’s office. He was upset about Ub’s departure and tired of what he believed was Walt’s “High Handedness” He even complained that he was not getting the royalties from “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo”. Citing that he could not get along with Walt, Roy paid his back salary and he left. Carl went on to work for Aesop’s Fables Studio in New York, which was short-lived. He went to work for Ub Iwerks for six months in 1931 in his new studio on his “Flip the Frog” series. The two had been friends while working for Disney.  Stalling then worked on the Three Little Pigs and several other Disney cartoons as a freelance arranger and musician. He returned to Iwerks in 1933. But his studio went bankrupt in 1936, Stalling finished out his career working for Warner. During his tenure at Warner, Carl was an innovator. He was among the first music directors to use the metronome to time film scores. He is also credited with the invention of the “Click Track” along with composers Scott Bradley and Max Steiner. He used the technique called the “Musical Pun” which referenced popular and classical music pieces to add humor and action to the cartoons. This and many other innovations helped Warner to the forefront in the 1940’s.

In addition to Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo and the Skeleton Dance, Carl also contributed to Disney’s The Barn Dance 1928, Gallopin’ Gaucho, 1928, Plane Crazy, 1928, The Merry Dwarfs, 1929, The Opry House, 1929, When the Cat’s Away, 1929, Springtime, 1930 and Wild Waves, 1930. Carl’s last score of his career was for Warner Brothers “To Itch his Own” 1958. He then retired. Carl Stalling passed away in 1974 at the age of 86. Although he was with Disney just a few short years, his early involvements in Walt’s company certainly affirmed the fact Walt always believed, you need talented people to make your dreams come true.   Carl Stalling my not be as well-known as Ub Iwerks, Les Clark, Freddy Moore or Wilfred Jackson, or any of the many stars in the Disney universe, but his contributions to music and animation will always be known anytime you watch a Disney or Warner Bros’ cartoon.

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One Comment

  1. Laurie October 28, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    He died 19 days after his 81st birthday in 1972 leaving his wife Gladys I. Baldwin Stalling. He is my fifth cousin in law, thank you for correcting this error. I have seen online records including headstone, death certificate, and social security.

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