Mickey Mouse’s Magyar Roots?

Olga Vállay Szokolay

Mickey Mouse’s Magyar Roots?

Margaret Winkler

Walt Disney, founder of the world-renowned animation studio wearing his name ever since, was an undisputable genius.  What is less known is that a once bankrupt Walt achieved his big break in Hollywood, thanks to one pivotal person, Margaret Winkler.

Margaret was born in Budapest, April 22nd, 1895.  She immigrated to the United States in 1904 as a nine-year-old with her parents and three brothers. Not much is known about her early life and schooling.  She made her name in the movie business as the personal secretary for Harry Warner, the dealmaker of Warner Brothers, which was then strictly a film-distributing firm.  He was impressed with Margaret’s talents.  Thus, when the owners of Fleischer Studios came to him with their series of Out of the Inkwell, he gave it to Winkler and encouraged her to form her own distribution company, Winkler Productions.

Margaret did and, in 1922, she signed a contract with Pat Sullivan Productions to produce Felix the Cat cartoons. This established her reputation as the top distributor in the cartoon world, being the first female film distributor in a world dominated by men.  She often concealed her gender by signing her name “M.J. Winkler”.  She was also the first female member of the Motion Picture Producers Guild.

Walt Disney was only 21 at the time he met Winkler.  He had recently declared bankruptcy and abandoned his small “Laugh-O-Gram” cartoon studio in Kansas City, to start fresh in Hollywood. The only thing he still had to show for his decade in Missouri was an incomplete live-action/animation film reel he created before he left, called Alice’s Wonderland (sic).

Walt sold his only motion picture camera to pay for his train ticket and arrived in Los Angeles in August 1923 with just $40 to his name.  He didn’t even own the clothes on his back: a family friend lent him his son’s suit so he could look presentable when he arrived in California.

Being unemployed, Walt lived with his Uncle Robert, while his expenses had to be paid by his brother Roy.  He had put his drawing board away.  All he wanted was a job in a studio, any studio, doing anything.  The Alice reel was his last remaining hope if he ever wanted a future in filmmaking. He sent dozens of letters soliciting distributors for it, but received only rejection letters, if anything at all.

Margaret Winkler was the only exception.

She was only 28 herself, but she saw promise in the film and agreed to buy the negative, once completed, for $1,500.  This alone would have overjoyed the rejected Disney, but what came next changed his life.  Margaret offered to distribute Alice’s Wonderland as a series, for $1,500 apiece for the first six films and $1,800 for each subsequent one thereafter, for up to 12 initial pictures.  She even offered the full amount for each negative up front instead of making Walt wait until she had gotten bookings or money for them herself.

Needless to say, Walt was ecstatic and accepted the generous offer immediately.  He used the promised money of the 12-picture contract to get the equipment he needed and to put together his dream team of animators. He also talked his brother Roy into operating the business side of the venture.  They named their new company Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.

Today’s Walt Disney Company appropriately considers October 16, 1923 as the date of the start of the Disney Company.  That was the day Margaret Winkler signed the contract for Walt to begin production.  Her offer did not only give Walt newfound hope that he could draw again, she single-handedly financed his animation studio, which has been the longest running one of its kind in US history.

During the first several months, Margaret helped Walt hone his craft and improve his animations. She insisted on editing all of the Alice episodes herself.  The year after she signed the contracts with Disney, she married one of her employees named Charles Mintz. Once they had their first child together, she retired from her business and turned it over to her husband.

Regrettably, the business partnership between Margaret and Walt soured and ended altogether in 1928 as a result of the duplicitous decisions of her husband.  Yet, by then her company had already financed a staggering 56 Alice films for Disney, as well as 26 productions of Walt’s first major animated cartoon, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

From then on, Walt and Roy were able to get the best of this life-saving opportunity presented by Margaret Winkler.  Without her, the animation studio that eventually funded Pixar, Marvel, Disneyland, and now Disney+, may have never existed at all.

After retirement, Margaret Winkler lived a quiet life with her family of two children, Katherine and William.  She passed away just as quietly at age 95 on June 21st, 1990 in Mamaroneck, New York, credited only by a meager 63-word Los Angeles Times obituary

Sources: Newsweek, Wikipedia

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.