Walt Wednesday: Partners in Crime (Kansas City Years)

It’s a running joke here at This Happy Place Blog that Estelle and I are as opposite as night and day. Our different personalities make this blog (and our friendship) interesting. It’s good to have someone in your life who challenges you to be better and who doesn’t just agree with everything you say. Our differences keep us on our toes and for Walt Disney — his partner in crime was one of his oldest friends- – Ub Iwerks.

When Walt returned from the war, he was armed with confidence and optimism for his future. He knew he wanted to pursue a career as an artist — he just needed to get his foot in the door somehow. Opportunity finally came knocking in the form of two men, Louis Pesmen and William Rubin. They were two commercial artists that had an office in downtown Kansas City.  After a “trial run” with them, Walt was officially hired as an apprentice making $50 a month. That was more than he ever thought he’d be making. He was illustrating advertisements and catalogs and while the work wasn’t completely cutting edge, he was happy for the experience nonetheless. Getting down the basics, he learned about cutting, pasting over, scratching out with razor blades, and anything else that would get the job done. It was in this office where he met Ub Iwerks, although they were more like acquaintances than friends at first. While the co-workers would get together for poker games or just to take breaks, Walt would stay at his desk, working (you can imagine how much they probably made fun of him for that). Though it was exciting for Walt to finally call himself a professional artist, that privilege was short lived.

Once the holidays were over, so was the advertising rush and Walt found himself looking for a job once again. It seemed as if he was taking one step forward and two steps back. Getting a job at the post office kept him afloat, but it was hard to sustain a regular job now that he knew what it was like to be a real artist, making money doing what he loved best.


That’s when Ub stepped into the picture once again. He had been laid off as well and was worried about his future since he had his mother to support. As dissimilar as they were, they made the best team. Walt was very sociable and talkative while Ub was the quieter, more reserved man. Walt was good at cartooning while Ub specialized in letters. While Walt talked people up, tried to hustle up some business, Ub was diligently working, glad not to have to deal with the schmoozing of clients.

Thus Iwerks-Disney was born. Pretty soon they had steady jobs lined up enough for their own office in the Railway Exchange Building. Their earnings in one month were more than they had been making at Pesmen-Rubin combined. All looked promising, but, of course, owning your own business isn’t the easiest or most steady venture in the world.

When an ad was placed looking for an employee for the Kansas City Slide, Co., Walt went down there thinking they might hire Iwerks-Disney as a subcontractor.  When the company said they were looking for a full-time employee, Walt took it, knowing that Ub would still be running their shop. However, he didn’t have Walt’s gregarious personality and soon the burden of trying to give the good old sales pitch weighed heavily on him. He finally caved and asked Walt if there were any openings at the Kansas City Slide Co. Soon, the two were reunited, drawing cartoons for films and advertisements on those long tables.

Their business may have gone belly-up, but the partnership persevered for many years to come. Ub followed Walt when he created the Laugh-O-gram Films and even when they went bankrupt, Ub went with him to Hollywood to join the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. It seems like a huge leap of faith to take for someone, but who are dreamers without the people who support and believe in them? Dreamers not only need support, they need pragmatic people to help bring those dreams to life — one mainly being Mickey Mouse. They were a duo as unlikely as Bert and Ernie or Timon and Pumbaa, but they clicked. Ub went on to be one of the most influential people at The Disney Company and as much as people like to give Walt credit for practically everything, he would have been completely lost without his shy and extremely smart partner.

So what exactly did Ub contribute? Well, that’s a tale for another time…

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

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