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Have you heard of Margaret Winkler? She's the woman behind Disney's 100th birthday

On Oct. 16, 1923, Margaret Winkler agreed to produce and distribute <em>Alice Comedies</em>, a new series by Walt Disney. That contract is considered the founding document of The Walt Disney Company.
On Oct. 16, 1923, Margaret Winkler agreed to produce and distribute Alice Comedies, a new series by Walt Disney. That contract is considered the founding document of The Walt Disney Company.

Before Mickey, Snow White and Moana, there was Alice and her cat Julius. Say what?

The Walt Disney Company has been celebrating its 100th birthday all year long. But it was on Oct. 16, 1923 that the magic began – thanks in large part to a woman named Margaret Winkler. She named her film company M.J. Winkler Productions, lest anyone find out that one of the most successful entrepreneurs in animation was a woman.

Winkler, a Hungarian immigrant, was 18 years old when she began her career in entertainment as a secretary for studio executive Harry Warner. She learned the ins and outs of the film business and in 1921 left Warner to found her own production and distribution business.

She turned her first cartoon – Felix the Cat – into a global star. A savvy promoter who understood the business side of creativity, she sold the series both domestically and overseas, regularly spinning her success to the trades.

Alice Comedies lobby card
/ Disney
Alice Comedies lobby card

"Winkler's most significant contribution was her talent for identifying and building a market for these short films," wrote Malcolm Cook for Columbia University's Women Film Pioneers Project.

By contrast, Walt Disney was a struggling cartoonist in Kansas City in 1923. His Laugh-o-Gram Films was nearly bankrupt. But he still held out hope for a project that featured a live action character named Alice interacting with animated characters – including her cat Julius.

According to Disney, "In the summer of 1923, [Walt] used some of his last $40 to buy a first-class train ticket to Los Angeles, where he and his brother Roy O. Disney would work on making animated films out of their uncle's garage and later in the back of a real estate office two blocks away."

In a letter to Winkler, who was based in New York, Walt wrote, "In the past, all cartoons combining live actors have been produced in an amateur manner... It is my intention to employ only trained and experienced people for my casts and staff that I may inject quality humor, photograph and detail into these comedies."

Winkler wrote back, "If your comedies are what you say they are and what I think they should be, we can do business."

Before signing a deal, Walt checked Winkler's "responsibility and standing" with her former boss, Harry Warner. "She is responsible for anything she may undertake," Warner responded. "In my opinion, the main thing you should consider is the quality of goods you are going to give her, and if that is right, I don't think you need any hesitation in having her handle your merchandise."

On Oct. 16, 1923, Winkler and Disney signed a deal to produce and distribute 12 episodes of Alice Comedies.

According to Disney, the contract "is considered the founding document of The Walt Disney Company."

Alice Comedies contract page
/ Disney
Alice Comedies contract page

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco and produced by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.