March 26, 2012

Sparky (Charles M. Shulz) Makes a Loser into a Winner

Sparky was a young boy who felt like a loser.  Everyone treated him like he was a loser too.  He got bad grades in every subject.  In fact, he failed all of his classes in Eighth grade!  He still holds the record for being the school’s worst Physics student.  He was terrible at sports too, costing the golf team the championship by his poor performance.  The only thing Sparky could do well was draw.  He could draw funny cartoons and he would show them to others.  His Kindergarten teacher told him that someday he’d be an artist.  Ironically, his High School Yearbook rejected his submitted drawings.  

Sparky was shy and quiet, probably because he felt like such a failure.  His Mom saw an ad that read, “Do you like to draw?” that advertised a nearby correspondence course teaching graphic design.  He applied to this school by copying one of their pictures and was accepted.  He was glad to be accepted.  Sparky worked hard to learn how to cartoon and his dad paid the high tuition while he was a Senior in High School.  It was during the depression and money was scarce, but the family made the sacrifice for Sparky, their only child.  Sparky passed the Art Instruction School course.

Sparky graduated from high school and applied to the Walt Disney Art Studios.  He wanted to study cartooning and work for Disney.  Part of the application asked potential students to submit a cartoon of a clockmaker fixing a clock by shoveling the parts back into the case.  Sparky’s submitted artwork was rejected and he wasn’t admitted to the school.  Another failure!  If it wasn’t so devastating, it might even be funny.  

After serving in World War 2, Sparky was later hired to teach at the school.  While he was teaching, he started developing a comic strip he called the “Lil Folks.”  He had some success with this strip at the local paper, but finally settled on a new idea when “Lil Folks” was dropped from the newspaper.  His main character was a loser boy who couldn’t do anything right.  He modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  Sparky’s real name was Charles M. Schulz. 
The friends he made at Art Instruction School became the models for the rest of the ‘Peanuts’ gang.  Linus and Shermy were named for friends there with those exact names.  Peppermint Patty was modeled after his cousin Patricia.  And his love interest, ‘the little red haired girl’ was modeled after a girl he actually had a crush on who worked with him at the Art Instruction school.  When he proposed (in real life), she turned him down and married someone else!  

The first cartoon to run in National newspapers appeared on October 2, 1950 when Sparky would have been about 27 years old!  That’s a long time to wait for success!  His Peanuts gang cartoons ran in newspapers until 2000, when Sparky formally retired as his health failed.  And several Television specials ran over the years, the most famous probably being “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus recounts the Christmas story in childlike innocence.  There is a popular play called, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” that High School drama departments like to perform.  There was a day called “Charles M. Schulz day” declared by President Ronald Reagan.  Among many other honors, his finest may be that his star appears on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near Walt Disney’s.  

People all over the world loved to read Peanuts because they identified with Charlie Brown.  Although he perpetually failed at everything he tried, he kept trying with a simple hope that he could finally succeed.  He stubbornly wouldn’t give up even when it was clear he had no hope of winning.  People could identify with him, a chronic underachiever with a childhood full of misadventures.  Like Sparky, people could see the humor in what could also be seen as devastating experiences.  Wikipedia reads, “It has been described as ‘the most shining example of the American success story in the comic strip field,’ ironically based on the theme of ‘the great American unsuccess story,’ since the main character, Charlie Brown, is meek, nervous and lacks self-confidence, being unable to fly a kite, win a baseball game or kick a football.”

Sparky injected his own failures and difficulties into his comic strip successfully because he knew what Charlie Brown felt like when he failed.  Charlie Brown’s insecurities made him beloved by the public.  In Valentines comic strips, Charlie Brown never received any Valentines.  When the Television Special ran, “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown,” he again received no Valentines, people all over North America sent the Network that aired the special Valentines for Charlie Brown.  

I liked learning about Sparky because he wasn’t a loser.   He was a kind man shaped by his painful childhood failures, who laughed with others about it through Charlie Brown.  He was really a winner who just took extra time to find his place to succeed.  He said, “If I could be given an opportunity to give a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability of each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”  

Remember that the challenges we face in childhood will affect our lives as adults--for good.   

For more information, see Rice, Wayne, Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks, p. 189.

March 19, 2012

Walt Disney's World

Recently we took a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.  We had a great time with our family, all together again since Trevor came home from his mission.  I wanted to tell you about the man who made it all possible this week.  He has a great inspiring story.

Walter Elias Disney was born into a family of 5 children in 1901.  He immediately showed artistic talent and spent hours doodling all over his schoolwork.  He grew up in rural areas and studied nature and animals when he wasn’t doodling.  He sold some of his drawings to neighbors to make extra money, as his family was poor and times were hard.  In high school, he studied class work by day and went to an Art school at night.  His teacher often called on him to tell some of his stories, which he would illustrate as he spoke using chalk on the chalkboard.  Walt also enjoyed entertaining his friends by performing skits he had seen Charlie Chaplin do.  He was so good at this that some nights he would sneak out to perform at the local theater.  

When he was 16, World War 1 broke out.  He tried to enlist but was rejected because he was too young.  But he persisted, instead joining the Red Cross.  They sent him to France, where he drove an ambulance.  Most of the ambulances were painted with camouflage; Walt painted his with cartoons!

Returning home after the war, Walt set out to begin a business in commercial art.  He began making small animated cartoons for local businesses.  This business eventually failed and Walt began to look for other options.  His brother Roy Disney was in California doing similar work.  Walt packed his bags and moved to Hollywood California.  He and Roy pooled their money ($250) and borrowed more ($500) and started a business in their uncles’ garage.  Walt was only 22 years old. 

Over the next few years, Walt and Roy worked on creating animated short movies, eventually hiring artists to work for them.  In 1925 Walt married an employee, Lillian.  They had two daughters.  Walt was just finalizing his first silent cartoon called “Plane Crazy” when sound technology was introduced.  He held off releasing ‘Plane Crazy’ to try his hand at a cartoon with sound.  In this creative process of 1928, Mickey Mouse was born.

Walt recalled, "When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it's because he's so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.  He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner.  Born of necessity, the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry. He provided the means for expanding our organization to its present dimensions and for extending the medium cartoon animation towards new entertainment levels. He spelled production liberation for us.  We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin- a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”

The first animated (black and white) movie with synchronized sound was ‘Steamboat Willie’ which Walt produced in 1928.  He voiced Mickey’s voice.  It was a huge success and remains a classic to this day.   

Within a few years, color was introduced to filmography, and Walt seized this new medium with a vengeance.  He obtained a Copyright to ‘Technicolor’ and was the only one able to use it for 2 years, helping to propel his career forward.  Within a few years, Walt released his first color cartoon, ‘Flowers and Trees’ of 1932, and he received his first Academy award because of it.  

In 1937, Walt released his first full-length color animated movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  It was a huge gamble, as it cost him $1.5 million to produce it.  In those days, that was so much money!  But it was another huge success, making huge profits for Walt.  It began the era of Disney cartoons we still enjoy today.  When television became popular, he stepped up production of short cartoons and other programming like ‘The Wonderful World of Color’ which preceded ‘The Wonderful World of Disney.’  And he started the famous ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ too.  

Walt expanded his vision to include other forms of entertainment.  He wanted a place to take his family that was kid-friendly and safe, with wholesome entertainment.  His idea of Disneyland was born. It opened to the public in 1955.  The grand opening was televised live on ABC.  (Admission was $1, and rides cost between 10 and 35 cents each.)  He said, "Biggest problem? Well, I'd say it's been my biggest problem all my life. MONEY. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true. From the very start it was a problem, getting the money to open Disneyland. About seventeen million it took.  And we had everything mortgaged including my personal insurance.  It's no secret that we were sticking just about every nickel we had on the chance that people would really be interested in something totally new and unique in the field of entertainment.  We did Disneyland, in the knowledge that most of the people I talked to thought it would be a financial disaster - closed and forgotten within the first year.  I first saw the site for Disneyland back in 1953.  In those days it was all flat land - no rivers, no mountains, no castles or rocket ships - just orange groves, and a few acres of walnut trees.  We believed in our idea - a family park where parents and children could have fun- together.  Disneyland is a work of love. We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.”

Walt later opened Disney World, this time buying up huge tracts of land in Florida so his dream could grow and expand.  He said, “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland...the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine."

What would the world be like without Disneyland, Disney World, the Disney Princesses, Disney Channel, Mickey Mouse and the other things of Disney?  A mighty boring place!  And it all began because a kid had an imagination and took time to draw what he saw on paper, and then kept pushing his imaginings into reality.  Walt said, "When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do. And one thing it takes to accomplish something is courage."

Dare to dream big.  

For more information, see

March 7, 2012

George Nissan Invents Trampoline to Help Him Train

Like last week, l wanted to tell you about another athlete who invented something that we see everywhere now.  It’s the Trampoline!

George Nissan was a son of immigrants.  He was born in Iowa in 1914.  He loved Gymnastics and participated on that team and the Diving team while in High School.  It was then that he went to the Circus and saw the trapeze artists do their tricks and then fall into the nets.  When they landed, they’d bounce back up and strike poses and do flips.  George was always trying to find more ways to improve his dives and his gymnastic moves.  If he could jump on something springy he could have more opportunities to practice his moves.

In his parent’s garage, George cobbled together a metal frame from pipes he had scavenged from a local junkyard.  He stretched a canvas inside the frame using rubber inner tubes to attach it to the frame.  He tried it and loved it.  He was just 16 years old when he made this first prototype.

George began college at the University of Iowa.  He consulted with his Gymnastics coach and the engineering department at the school.  They helped him build a stronger rig that he could commercialize in 1934.  George brought his contraption to a summer camp where he had a job as a camp counselor.  When he saw how much fun the kids were having jumping on it, he knew it would be a hit.  Some of the kids would rather jump than swim!  George studied Business so he could know how to market his invention and graduated from University of Iowa with a Business degree in 1937.  While in college, George won the Inter-Collegiate National Championship three times in Gymnastics, probably due to extra training time on his invention.

George rounded up a couple of friends (they called themselves the ‘Three Leonardo’s) and they took the Trampoline around America and Mexico to demonstrate fun moves on it, in an effort for it to catch on and sell.  While in Mexico, he named it a ‘Trampoline’ after the Spanish word (el trampolin) that means ‘diving board’ or ‘spring board.’  George began making them for customers, first with canvas and then with nylon as the netting.  One of his first big customers was the US Government.  World War 1 had broken out and the trampoline was used to train parachutists, pilots and divers to reorient themselves midair.    

George joined the Navy in 1943, and after serving during the war, he spent years demonstrating the utility and enjoyment Trampolines offer.  He incorporated the ‘Nissan Trampoline Company’ to build and market it. He married an Acrobat and they travelled around the world to showcase tumbling on the Trampoline.  He even arranged for a Kangaroo to jump with him on one of his demonstrations in New York’s Central Park.  Another time, he assembled a trampoline on top of an Egyptian Pyramid and jumped high above it.  

George was thrilled in 1947 when ‘Trampoline’ or ‘rebound tumbling’ became a Gymnastic event.  Many years later, in 2000, ‘Trampoline’ became an Olympic Sport for the first time at the Sydney Olympic games.  George was so happy to hear this that he bought himself and his family tickets to each of the Trampoline events there in Australia.  

A crazy idea to help a 16 year old boy train in his chosen sports of Gymnastics and Diving became a world sport and a common backyard toy.  Don’t discount the ideas that you or other kids have.  They might just change the world.

For more, see:
Hevesi, Dennis.  “George Nissan, Father of the Trampoline, dies at 96.”  April 13, 2010, New York Times.  Found at:
_____, MIT Inventor of the week website, March 2004, found at:
Nelson, Valerie J.  “George Nissan dies at 96; Inventor of the Trampoline,” April 10, 2010, Los Angeles Times.  Found at: