“Newsies: The Musical” has taken Broadway by storm. The Disney Theatrical Productions stage musical smash is based on the 1992 film “Newsies” (which in turn was inspired by the real-life New York City newsboys strike of 1899).
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein, “Newsies” has earned rave reviews and has become a box office champ, breaking house records at the Nederlander Theatre.
“Newsies” has been nominated for eight 2012 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction, Best Choreography, Best Actor, Best Set Design, and Best Orchestrations. It’s also been nominated for five Drama Desk Awards and seven Outer Circle Critics Awards.
In addition “Newsies” can actually draw a line back to the cofounders of The Walt Disney Company, Walt and Roy Disney.
On July 1, 1911, “Kansas City Star” Route No. 145 was purchased in the name of Walt’s older brother and future business partner, Roy O. Disney (although Walt and Roy’s father Elias held a tight fist over the coffers of the endeavor). The route was between 27th and 31st streets and Prospect and Indiana avenues in Kansas City, Missouri. The route had 680 subscribers to the morning “Times” (also owned by the “Star”), 635 to the evening “Star,” and 635 for the Sunday “Star.”
Walt remembered, “My Dad bought this ‘Kansas City Star’ route. The ‘Star’route was quite a thing. They gave me a small route. Oh, I must have had 50 customers. I was about nine or ten when I started that.”
At the age of nine, Walt was suddenly exposed to the harsh reality of being a newsie. He was awakened well before dawn, every single day. His delivery destination numbers dictated that he deliver a load of newsprint weighing upwards of 30 pounds (the average nine year old weighs in at a little over 60 pounds). The paper was expected without fail, every day, in any weather or circumstance. “In the winter we’d go out around 3:30 in the morning, right after the blizzard—or in the blizzard—or in pouring rain,” Walt remembered. “It didn’t matter. I did that for six years. It was tough.”
Even 50 years later, this experience was indelible in Walt’s memory. “You know, the period I went through as a newsboy was one, I mean, that I’ve never forgotten. You know, to this day I have dreams that I’ve missed some customers on my route…I wake up and think, ‘Gosh, I’ve got to hurry and get back, my dad will be waiting up at that corner.’ I still dream that. It’s the darndest thing. Still have those dreams.”
Tough or not, Walt gained a certain expertise and comfort with the daily delivery grind, and after a few years, he talked his father into ordering an extra 50 papers to sell on the street before school. Once Walt realized that his father would simply keep the extra earnings, the youngster cut out the middleman, and ordered the extra papers himself.
One of the serendipitous results of this youthful career was Walt’s attendance at a Newsboy Appreciation Day event held at the Kansas City Convention Hall in 1916. Sixteen thousand children were in attendance (the hall could seat 22,260), surrounding four separate screens set in the center of the arena. Four projectors ran simultaneously, and the film was accompanied by a live orchestra.
The film was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” starring Marguerite Clark. Walt was sitting in one of the top galleries of the hall. The young boy was fascinated by the film and its story—which he never forgot. “It was one of the first big feature pictures I’d ever seen,” Walt said. “I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs, you see? It had the heavy. It had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story.”
In addition, the configuration of multiple screens and the live orchestra created an indelible impression on the future showman.
Walt’s career as a newsie reached its end when he was 16. “It was 1917,” he said, “My father sold, moved to Chicago, and I didn’t move. I stayed because the man who bought the route from my father retained me.” Certainly it made good business sense. Under the Disney brothers’ stewardship, Route no. 145 had added an additional 245 morning “Times” subscribers, 115 for the “Evening Star,” and 24 for the Sunday “Star.”
But Walt’s older brother had another plan in mind. Walt recalled, “When school was out, my brother said, ‘Kid, I think you should be a news butcher. I think it would be very educational for you.'”
A news butcher (often called a “news butch”) was a young man who worked on railroad passenger cars. From a large flat tray hung by a strap around his neck, a news butch sold newspapers, apples, soda, and cigars.
Walt applied to the Van Noyes Interstate News Company, and was soon peddling his papers on the Missouri Pacific Line. “I was selling soda pop,” he said. “We’d go out loaded with things for the trip. The first trip was from Kansas City, Missouri, to Jefferson City, Missouri, which was about an eight-hour run. Then I’d stay overnight, and the same train would turn around and come back the next day.”
Walt’s youth and inexperience proved his downfall as a news butcher, though. “I began to lose money, and my brother said, ‘Look, kid, I think you better get out of that business.’ It was in the late summer and I had to go to Chicago, because that’s where my folks were living. So I went to Chicago.”
Walt was one of seven Californians holding the California Newspaperboy Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award, presented to him in 1964. Several years before that he was named to the Newspaperboy Hall of Fame by the International Circulation Managers Association. It was noted in 1966 that more than 17,500 newspaperboys visited Disneyland each year, either as Walt’s guests or at discounted rates.
So, although Walt’s career as a newsie was brief, it was highly influential, and a century later the newsboys of old New York bring that bygone era to life, eight times a week at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street in Manhattan.
“Naturally, it’s fun to be able to relate such a meaningful new project back to our Company’s founder,” says Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group. “But what makes it really resonate is that Walt himself had the same spirit, the same resilience, the same pluck as our boys who carry the banner.
“He overcame oppressors against all odds and created Mickey Mouse, he boldly progressed when all were convinced of his folly with ‘Snow White’ and Disneyland—and for every failure he had, he learned, and rebounded, and grew better.
“Walt certainly knew how to seize the day.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”