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Disney’s 1924 letter to Ub Iwerks

Mike Van Eaton (disclosure: he advertises on Cartoon Brew) is in the midst of compiling and co-producing a mammoth animation art-and-artifact auction with Profiles in History (run by Joe Maddalena) with over 1,500 lots, set to happen May 14th and 15th at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. Day one will feature 700 lots containing some of the most coveted items in Disney Animation history, including a handwritten letter written in 1924 by Walt to his former colleague and soon-to-be designer of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks (1901-1971).

This is the letter – which has been quoted in such books as Mike Barrier’s The Animated Man, Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original, and Leslie Iwerks/John Kenworthy’s The Hand Behind The Mouse – in which Walt convinces Ub to come to Hollywood and join the studio… the rest, as you know, is history. Mike has graciously allowed me to post the letter exclusively on Cartoon Brew for all our readers to enjoy.

Note the envelope and letter is on Disney Bros. Studio letterhead, and addressed to his “Dear friend Ubbe.” Disney wrote (transcription in full):

“Dear friend Ubbe,

I’ll say I was surprised to hear from you and also glad to hear from you. Everything is going fine with us and I am glad you have made up your mind to come out. Boy, you will never regret it — this is the place for you — a real country to work and play in — no kidding — don’t change your mind — remember what ol’ Horace Greeley said” ‘Go west young man — go west!’

We have just finished our sixth comedy for M. J. Winkler and are starting tomorrow on the seventh of the first series of twelve. Miss Winkler is well pleased with them and has given us some high praise — she is leaving New York for here June 1st, and I believe we will be able to start a twice a month schedule, instead of our monthly schedule.

I can give you a job as artist-cartoonist and etc. with the Disney Productions, most of the work would be cartooning. Answer at once and let me know what you want to start and I will write more details. At the present time I have one fellow helping me on the animating, three girls that do the inking, etc. while Roy handles the business end. I have a regular cast of kids that I use in the picture and little Virginia is the star.

Write and tell me how soon you want to come out — if you can leave before the first of the month all the better — of course you would sell all of your furniture and also your car? Wouldn’t you? I believe it would be best if you did. Anyways, write and let me know all the details. Give my regards to everyone at the Film Ad and the boys at the Arabian Nights, and also to your mother. As ever your old friend.

Walt ———

Don’t hesitate — Do it now — !

— P. D. Q. —

P.S. I wouldn’t live in K.C. now if you gave me the place — yep — you bet —

Hooray for Hollywood — !!”

Mike says, and I agree, “One could argue that had this letter not been exchanged, the world would never have known Mickey Mouse, and Disney himself might have ended up as little more than a footnote in Hollywood history.” Photos of Iwerks driving the Davis family’s seven-passenger Cadillac across the U.S., as mentioned in the letter, are posted below (click thumbnails to enlarge). The winner of this lot gets these photos and a letter of authenticity from Ub’s son, David Iwerks. More info is at Profiles In History website and also at Van Eaton’s site starting later today.

  • It seems like, if this letter hadn’t been written, Max Fleischer would be king.

    • childisfatheroftheman

      He is!

  • One of the most important letters ever written.

  • Mark McD

    Cute that someone cut off the cancelled stamp for their collection, thinking that would be more valuable than the old letter it came on. Or maybe Ub or someone in his family collected stamps.

  • “Disney himself might have ended up as little more than a footnote in Hollywood history”

    I disagree. Disney flourished despite the loss of immense talents like Ub Iwerks, Carl Stalling, Fred Moore, Bill Tytla and Burt Gillett. I agree that the development of Mickey Mouse would have been different. It might not have been a mouse, but Disney would have found a way to the top. He proved it with Snow White, Fantasia, Mary Poppins and Disneyland. You can’t keep a good man down.

    • I agree. Walt was SUPER mad he lost the rights to Oswald and with the type of person he was, he’d of found “someone” to have drawn and perfect the “mouse”.

      That said, i might not have been a mouse, but something like it. Like they say, there’s so much of “Walt” in Mickey. He could have been ANY character, as long as Walt was behind it.

      Great post, and thanks for sharing this piece of animation history :)

    • TheBeezKneez

      while a nice sentiment, the fact remains that the letter is significant. Animation is largely collaborative and ideas don’t just come from the ether. Ub’s presence is very likely required for the character mickey mouse to have been made. without him, it’s likely disney could’ve ended up with a less endearing character, while his tastes may have stayed the same and the execution may have been present even in Mickey’s absence, any one element added or missing can mean success or obscurity.

      When working in animation there are a million and one conversations, remarks or observations that spark ideas such as the creation of a mouse character or how to build a better infrastructure to produce work. No one sits in a room and magics these ideas out of nowhere. To say Disney would’ve achieved the same success with or without Ub Iwerks assumes the success of the Mickey Mouse shorts didn’t provide the monetary resources to allow Disney to continue producing shorts. That it didn’t allow Disney to continue training artists and experiment with creating more “realistic” animation. And certainly he could not have financed a full animated feature without these previous successes in the face of widespread assumption that his gamble, “Snow White,” would fail.

      To ignore this is to ignore animation history and the nature of how animation works. Saying Disney would’ve been great no matter what is cute, but it’s a wildly naive notion.

      • Paul N

        Keep in mind that Mickey wasn’t Disney’s first success at producing a series. The Alice comedies were very successful, and Oswald was such a success that Walt had the character taken out from under him by his distributor.

        No one will ever know what might have happened if Ub had not come West, but it’s not naive or far-fetched at all to assume, based on what came before, that Walt would still have been successful – maybe just through a slightly different path.

      • TheBeezKneez

        I find it a bit disturbing that your point suggests that Disney was a one man show and Ub Iwerks can be written off as an irrelevant bystander…

      • Paul N

        Not suggesting any such thing. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

  • Hold on to that piece of history. Don’t let anything happen to it. That is super cool.

  • Had Steve Jobs not partnered with Woz, there would be no Apple I computer. In fact, there might not even be an Apple today.

  • Brad Constantine

    Animation Geek Nirvana!

  • Scott

    In all honesty I hope whoever wins this immediately hands it over to the Disney Museum in San Francisco. I suspect their mouths are already watering.

    • Iritscen

      The winner gets the photos, not the letter.

      • optimist

        No, the actual handwritten letter IS one of the lots. The photos are also part of the lot along WITH the letter.

    • Iritscen

      Err, scratch my last comment, I need to brush up on my reading comprehension.

  • dr. truth

    A letter from Walt Disney to Ub Iwerks:

    ” Dear Ub,

    I cannot draw, so thanks for designing, drawing and animating that mouse character for me. You’re fired. You’ll now go off to create some bizarre, ill fated, color cartoons about balloon people and eggs spooning in a spoon. Good luck with that. I’ll be taking all the credit, glory and money for the mouse cartoons. I’m off to become the most over-rated, talentless hack the world has ever known by retelling existing fairy tales and calling them my own. Have fun dying in obscurity.
    You pal, Walt.

    P.S- In the future, nazi supermen will be our Superiors.”

    • Gobo

      Ah, the sound of trolls under the bridge.

    • I’ll bet you read ‘Hollywood’s Dark Prince’ too, didn’t you?..

    • Truth is …

      “Dr. Truth” (if that really IS your real name), what the hell are you talking about ?

      Ub Iwerks quit Disney of his own free will. He took Pat Power’s offer to financially back a new Ub Iwerks Studio. Ub was not fired by Walt.

      When Ub had enough of running his own studio Walt took him back and Ub Iwerks was an important contributor to the Disney Studio in the area of technical advances and special effects until his retirement.

      Maybe you’re just trying to be purposefully sarcastic and all “wink-wink” with your imagined letter from Walt to Ub , but taint funny.

    • Fred Sparrman

      Physician, heal thyself.

    • Scarabim

      Dr. Truth, you need a new username. How about something completely different, like “Seth McFarlane”?

      Here is the actual truth: Iwerks wasn’t fired, he quit. And Walt didn’t take all the credit, glory and money for the mouse cartoons. He plowed most of the money back into the studio and gave his animators raises before he gave himself one. As for credit, yes, his name came first on all of his product. So what? Max Fleischer did the same. So did the brothers Warner, so did Mayer and Goldwyn. And that “talentless hack” advanced the art of animation beyond anything anyone else imagined or had the foresight, courage and determination to do. And his “retellings” of existing fairy tales improved and immortalized them for generations who would otherwise have ignored them.

      Do a little research before you attempt to debunk a legend. People more literate than you have tried it, and have also failed.

    • John A

      I don’t even know if the above comment even deserves to be taken seriously, but for the record, Walt did not “fire” Ubbe, In fact, Iwerk’s weekly salary was more than what Walt paid himself.If you bothered to check the credits of the first series of cartoons, you’d see Walt gave Ubbe full credit for animating Mickey Mouse. Other studios thought they could copy Walt’s success by hiring away Walt’s artists, and Ubbe was lured away by a rival studio. After Flip the Frog failed to catch on with audiences, he was let go,and Disney hired him back where he worked in the effects department for a few decades.

    • andreas Wessel-Therhorn

      bitter and pointless. and decidedly untrue

  • I also disagree with the assessment that Disney would have gone nowhere. Mickey was originally to be called Mortimer. It was Disney’s creation and he had the skills to draw it. He wasn’t the animator Iwerks was, but he could have gotten someone already in California. Iwerks once broke with Walt to do Flip the Frog, then came back when that didn’t work out. It could be argued Iwerks would have become the footnote, not Walt, had he not returned after Flip.

  • Mike

    I think it’s significant that Ubbe is 23 and Walt 22 at the time this letter was written.

  • pspector

    The letter will eventually end up in a cardboard box in somebody’s basement or a safe deposit box, and get trotted out every twenty-five years or so (if we’re lucky). By the way, what’s the opening bid?

  • Jorgen Klubien

    Hooray for Hollywood-!!
    (Now let it go to the Family Museum in San Francisco.)

    • I’m dumbfounded.

      Why aren’t these artifacts taken by the WD Museum?? I can’t see any one person/place more deserving.

  • AaronSch

    Sorry, “Dr. Truth” but without the vision and leadership of someone like Walt Disney, his animators would never have had the opportunity of creating some of the most beautiful animated art ever committed to film.

  • I think if you look at the cartoons that Iwerks produced while he was with Powers you can definitely see how he languished without Disney’s guiding hand. Though some of the cartoons have moments of brilliance on the whole, they are pale imitations of the Disney shorts he left behind.

  • Why would you even consider auctioning something like this off? Why is it not in a museum where future generations can see it on display?

    • The Gee

      Money changes hands even when the destination is a museum. Not everything in museums is a donation. If there’s money to be made by whom ever has it, money will try to be made off possessing it. That’s the way it always goes.

      If you carve out an exception for this letter–which has very little interest to others outside of the animation stratosphere–what of the other more interesting items, the ones which may be display-worthy? I’m not saying certain, specific museums wouldn’t covet this, there are those which probably do want it.

      The letter is a big deal to those who want to see it as a Big Deal. In fact, the transcription Jerry provided worked out okay for most people. After all, the writing in the letter is more than the paper.

      • optimist

        Very few of the exhibits in any museum were outright “free” donations from people. At least in our times, most are purchased by museums for HUGE sums, at auctions just like this this one.

        I’m sure it’ll be expensive–if it gets sold, assuming the reserve set isn’t too insane. It’s very valuable historically in a certain realm, and it would be idea if it was at the Disney Museum, but even they have limits on what they can spend on one item.

      • Yeah, I’m well aware of how museums work, guys. But auctioning off such an important piece of correspondence to the highest bidder like it was an innocuous/overpriced cel, production drawing, film print, etc. al, just seems unethical.

      • optimist

        “seems unethical”? How so?

        No, it doesn’t. It’s a letter whose contents are reproduced widely and it has a certain historic importance, therefore it has value, and the owner is interested in selling it. It was a piece of paper, but it’s events, not paper, that matter in the end(if there’s a “permanent” record, whatever permanent is). But no one owes anyone anything.

        No one can take away the right of an owner to sell something like this. In fact, assuming the winning bidder isn’t a weirdo who would like to burn it after paying 5 figures(my guess) for it, trading it publicly gives more people a shot at it and helps to ensure it IS preserved as valuable, rather than as someone put it, shoved away in a shoebox(I mean, come on) and inadvertently disposed of.

        And if you were aware of how museums work, why did you ask the question? We have no idea what someone might plan to do with the money they’ll get by auctioning this, and it’s really no one’s business anyway. Don’t assume everything is about greed.

      • The Gee

        “But auctioning off such an important piece of correspondence to the highest bidder like it was an innocuous/overpriced cel, production drawing, film print, etc. al, just seems unethical.”

        Well, again, it is the eye of the beholder. The letter’s value just depends on who finds it valuable.

        I am just saying there’s no reason not to sell it. And, since apparently a Gallery is involved, it is hard to think the owner will be generous and give it away for posterity’s sake.

        And, yeah, Thad, I’m sure you know how most museums acquire things, including getting things on loan. I’m just pointing it out because not all private owners are so generous to give valuables away, unless they leave things in their Wills or are just rich and own too much while they are alive.

  • Manny

    Cartoonbrewleaks FTW!

  • timmyelliot
  • Interesting that he uses the phrase “Hooray for Hollywood” long before it showed up in the song of the same name.

  • I like the little mom joke he sneaked in at the end there. Real classy disney you old rascal.

    • optimist

      It sounds to me like he knew Ubbe’s mom, and said to give her his regards. Where’s the joke?

  • After Ub’s studio failed, he apologized to Walt, and asked to come back. Disney accepted Ub’s apology and they remained friends to the end.

    The Iwerks, Disney rift is hogwash like most of the stories promulgated by those who weren’t even around. Both men were classy. Both were gentleman.

    • Jonathan Hohensee

      The Disney Version, which is a source that I mostly trust, states that they weren’t actually friends afterwards, and that Ub and Disney mostly avoided talking to teach other, which is par for the course for how Disney treated people who “betrayed” him, and if not, it’d at least make sense that at that point of his life, the Disney Corp. was so large that the Disney would be too busy to keep up with a tech guy from one department.

      • Doug Nichols

        “…a tech guy from one department.” That’s nine innings worth of strike outs. You may want to re-think your most trusted source.


      • Jonathan Hohensee

        When Iwerks went back to the company, his responsibilities was working in the visual effects department… I don’t see what’s incorrect about my statement.

        His impact might had been significant, and he might of been responsible for great leaps of technology, but he was still no longer a above-the-line producers.

      • Jonathan Hohensee

        Oh, wait, I just got the point of linking that Floyd Norman wiki. Yeah, I guess he’d be a better source then the book.

    • MadAboutMGM

      I’m sure he forgave UB though it took Walt a couple of years to fill the void with a draftsmen just as good.
      Could you tell us your experiences with the two, because you were assisting Milt Kahl on Sleeping Beauty. Ub had to have popped up your work place every now and then. After all he practically invented Xerography during the this period of time and was used within the movie.

  • Mark

    Yeah not to mention Ub was given a 20% stake in the company which he sold back to Roy for $2000 dollars.

  • Bob Smith

    Nice letter, how is his bankruptcy case going.

  • Matthew Koh

    The letter was mentioned in a documentary about Ub Iwerks.


  • Adolpho

    Any truth to the story that Ub managed to do one drawing in every Disney feature until he retired? Makes a great story but did he really do that?

  • MadAboutMGM

    Adolpho: No, UB was absent until 1940 when he returned Walt was reluctant to re-hire him. Though he wound up working in the technical department mainly on special effects and the development of Xerography, which eliminated the use of cels.

    • Paul N

      No, Xerography eliminated the inking part of ink and paint. Cels didn’t go away until the late 80’s with the advent of CAPS.

      • The Gee

        Yes. Yes.
        Though, I’m sure it was a simple mistake on the other poster’s part for writing cels instead of inking.

      • Paul N

        Probably. But there’s no way to know for sure, and this is how misinformation begins to spread. Better to offer a gentle correction than let a mis-statement stand.

  • chipper

    Disney should have made a Pincushion Man movie.

  • MadAboutMGM

    I meant inking.