Walt Disney’s First Professional Movie Camera Heads to Auction

Looking for the ultimate Disney collector’s item? One of the most historic items from the history of the Walt Disney Company will be coming up in an auction this summer: Walt Disney’s first professional movie camera!

Walt disney

Credit: Disney

The Heritage Auctions Blog shared the news that the first professional camera used by Walt will be joining the lineup of entertainment-themed items available at a Heritage Auctions event on June 18, 2022. In addition to Walt’s camera, the auction will feature items relevant to Star Wars, Universal, and a variety of other cartoon, movie, and literary characters.

The Universal (Burke & James) 35mm Model Hand-crank Motion Picture Camera that once belonged to Walt Disney dates back to the early 1920s when it was acquired from the former site of Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studios in Kansas City, Missouri.

Original to Walt’s first company, Laugh-O-Gram productions began in 1922 with short series of cartoons inspired by classic fairy tales like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella,’ with the studio’s first major hits coming with the popular ‘Alice in Wonderland’ series that was developed in 1923. The Alice shorts combined live actors with animated sequences, and while they are seldom seen by fans today, the shorts truly paved the way for new animation technologies and storytelling by Disney in the years to come.

Universal Burke James Camera

Credit: WorthPoint

The camera that will soon be heading to auction was purchased as a used piece of equipment by Walt with money acquired from stocks. Originally, the piece was used by Walt Disney and Red Lyon to create newsreels for Pathé and Universal.

By the end of 1923 however, Laugh-O-Gram studios succumbed to bankruptcy and Walt prepared to make his historic move to California. As Walt moved west, some of his original animators stayed behind. The new legal owner of Laugh-O-Gram, Fred Schmeltz approached Harman, Ising, and Maxwell and formed a new studio known as Arabian Nights Cartoons using the original equipment, including Walt’s camera.

When Arabian Nights also failed, Harman and Ising were contacted by Walt to join him in California, where they worked with Disney on the Alice Comedies and early shorts featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After they did finally part ways with the Walt Disney Company, the two went on to found the Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation studios.


Laugh-O-gram Films title card, c. 1920; courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library

Moving up to today, documents from the bankruptcy files at Laugh-O-Gram were obtained by Heritage Auctions which in addition to assets like “two animating booths, one punch, one camera and stand, one re-wind table, one copy-o-graph, one inking table, one steel cabinet, two chairs,” included a Universal (Burke & James) 35mm Model Hand-crank Motion Picture Camera.

The item which is listed with serial number 2388 is described by the auction host as measuring “approx. 11 ¼ in. x 12 in. x 4 ¾ in. and is built with a black wooden housing with heavy gauge aluminum hinged doors on both sides featuring an engine turned finish.”

The camera that is heading to auction was originally discovered without the front hand crank, which is essential to any possible function with this kind of device, however, it has already been restored to its original condition by professional conservators.

Walt Disney Camera

Walt Disney and Fred Harmon standing behind camera, c. 1920; courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library

As the auction listing points out, the legacy of the camera cannot be understated, as it was a part of the early histories of the Walt Disney Animation Studios as well as Warner Bros. and MGM. For Disney fans, the camera played a role in Walt’s early years crafting his skills as both a creative and a businessman, and if it weren’t for items like this one we might not have the legacy from the Walt Disney Company that we have today.

Complete information on the auction is available online ahead of the June 18, 2022 event.

About Brittany DiCologero

Brittany is a New England-based writer focused on the history of the Walt Disney World Resort. She is the author of "Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Reality of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort," and "Brittany Earns Her Ears."

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