Walt Disney: American Icon, Inventor of Pop Culture – Pipe Smoker

Fred Brown

[Editor’s note: After conducting several hours of research, the above photo was the only one that could be found of Walt Disney smoking a pipe. Although he was a chain-cigarette-smoker, and occasional imbiber of the pipe, he avoided smoking when he was in public view, especially where he might be seen by children. The third photo shows him holding a cigarette.]

Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Ill., in 1901, into a hard-working, adventuresome family of Irish immigrants. That he would become one of the world’s great storytellers is not hard to picture. But Walt Disney also became the world’s "imagineer"—an engineer of imagination who created universes of wonder and magic through his cartoons and animated films. His world of whimsy became our world where you dreamed upon a star.

The Disney clan claimed their lineage was linked to the d’Isignys of Normandy. And their coat of arms is further burnished in that the Disneys are said to have come to England with William the Conqueror and fought with him at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a war that changed the history of England.

And, in fact, the Disney surname survives in d’Isigny today. His earliest known ancestor was Jean-Christophe d’Isigny. The name was later shortened to Disney.

Walt Disney’s family took an Irish tour, then a Canadian sojourn before settling in America. A branch of the family moved to County Kilkenny, Ireland. Arundel Elias Disney was the first of the family to come to America, then moved to Ontario, Canada.

Elias Disney, Walt’s father, was born Feb. 6, 1859, in Ontario. He wound up in Lake County, Florida, around 1886. About two years later, Elias married Flora Calls, another Irish immigrant family, in Kismet, Florida.

By 1890, Elias, Flora and their growing family arrived in Chicago where Elias hoped to get a job as a carpenter for a gala exhibition—the 1893 anniversary of Columbus’s 400-year-old discovery of America. Chicago planned an exposition to honor the occasion, and the fair meant jobs, especially for carpenters.

Walt Disney was born Dec. 5, 1901, on Chicago’s south side, in the upper bedroom of a house built by Elias, beginning one of America’s great triumphs of achievements through genius and grit.

Early in his life, Walt knew that he loved to be the center of attention. He craved it, in fact. Acting came naturally, even to the point of his enjoying a scold from a teacher. At least he was being noticed and singled out.

He also excelled in drawing, especially cartoons. Despite his family’s penchant for moving—Missouri, Kansas City, back to Chicago—Walt was able to concentrate on his art to the point that many of his school mates would later write of their extraordinary classmate that they knew he would be famous and would be an artist.

Even in France during World War I as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, Walt continued to sketch and draw. He said he found his ambulance as good a place as any to draw.

He spent a year in France at the war’s end and when he returned home, he had learned the French habit of smoking, something he would enjoy to excess the rest of his life.

In addition to cigarettes, Walt began to smoke a pipe by the time he was 20 years old. Later, after a pipe burned a hole in a pocket, he said pipe smokers were "too slow" and "too laid back." He returned to his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

He chain-smoked cigarettes to such a degree that his fingers, one writer said, "calcified" from the cigarettes. Chesterfields and Camels were his cigarettes of choice, but he also smoked Gitanes, a French import brand as well.

Walt Disney rose from obscurity to the most recognized American of his time, and perhaps of any time. His iconic animated characters—especially the most recognized mouse on the planet—have settled into the American lexicon. Mickey Mouse is better known than most U.S. presidents are. Donald Duck, Pluto, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, led the Disney studio into the stratosphere of American pop culture.

In fact, some historians and scholars believe Walt Disney invented pop culture.

One thing he did invent in a big, big way was the amusement/theme park—Disneyland and Disney World. Throw in Resort Hotels by the dozens for good measure. And, according to the website, Yesterland.com, Disneyland also had, yes, you guessed it, a tobacco shop on its Main Street.

The street was built to reflect America in the early 1900s, thus a tobacco shop that sold tobacco, including pipe tobacco, and something else very special: Walt Disney pipes.

"The Tobacco Shop opened in 1955 as one of the original shops on Disneyland’s Main Street. It was located between the Magic Shop and the Main Street Cinema on the east side of Main Street. The Tobacco Shop closed permanently in 1991," according to the website.

And since the tobacco shop was around in the 1950s, Disneyland patrons happily walked about smoking cigarettes, cigars and even their pipes.

That does not happen today. In fact, there are no tobacco shops in the theme parks today, despite the presence of the traditional cigar store Indian.

No cigarettes or tobaccos are sold anywhere in the parks—except in hotel gift shops—and outdoor smoking is severely limited, according to Yesterland.com.

In addition, on the PipesMagazine.com forum board, you will find not only a discussion of Disney pipes, but also actual photos of a beautiful billiard stamped with the "Walt Disney World" logo with famed mouse in the center of the design.

You don’t have to be told twice that a Walt Disney World mouse stamped billiard would be highly collectible today.

Just ask Brian Levine, National Sales Manager at Brigham USA, Charlotte, N.C. He possesses probably the finest Disney pipe collection (see sidebar) extant. What began as a whim has turned into a passion and a show-stopping assortment that has been featured at the Chicago Pipe Show as well as in P&T Magazine.

The Disney Pipes and Tobaccos Collection of Brian Levine

Brian Levine might not look like your typical pipe collector. He may not even sound like your idea of a pipe collector. But he owns one of the more unique pipe collections in the nation, maybe the only one with a mouse stamped on the shank.

Levine entered the cigar and pipe world around the end of 2000. It was then that he began to notice that some pipes were not all equal: some were worth putting into a collection and smoking, some should be collected and not smoked, and some needed to be collected just because they struck a fancy.

The latter is how Levine came to begin his Disney World pipe collection.

And, oh, yes, Disney is practically in Levine’s DNA.

Let’s back up a bit for a little Levine history.

Having grown up in southern California, Levine says he and his family were Disneyland fans "from birth. I grew up going to Disneyland."

He even worked for Disneyland while he was in college getting a degree in "ordering beer by the pitcher. The two things I learned in college are that beer is cheaper by the pitcher and you brown-nose the professors to get by."

Everything he learned about business, Levine says, he learned while working at Disneyland as a train conductor and other odd jobs as a "cast member," which is the way the strait-laced Walt Disney wanted his workers to be known.

Anyone familiar with Brian Levine today knows him as the current national Sales Manager at Brigham USA in Charlotte, N.C. He is also the former General Manager of Smokingpipes.com, former director of the RTDA, former specialty products manager at Villiger Stokkebye International, and formerly with Altadis USA and Alfred Dunhill.

Somewhere around 2002 or ’03, Levine spied a specialty pipe at Walt Disney World. It had Mickey Mouse in the pipe stamp.

"These were kind of cute," Levine says in his usual humorous approach to life. "I’d always loved the Disney stuff and these were fun. They were just basket pipes."

So began the Levine Disney pipe collection.

"I couldn’t afford all the Danish handmades, all those straight grains made by a fellow with 14 vowels in his name."

His modest collection was running about $5 per pipe at the time.

Then, Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine took notice. P&T Editor Chuck Stanion wrote a four-page feature story with photos on the Levine "Disney Pipe Collection."

Levine "blames" Stanion for running up the price on his $5 basket pipe collection. After the P&T story appeared in the Fall 2005 edition of P&T, it seems that everybody wanted a Disney pipe for their collection.

"After the story the collection got some exposure, won a couple of awards and my Disney pipe collection became one of the first educational displays at the Chicago Pipe Show.

"Then the price went through the roof. I had been buying pipes on eBay. Six weeks after the story, I couldn’t afford the pipes anymore."

The Disney collection fad lasted for about three years, says Levine, before things got back to normal and within the range of his pocketbook again.

At the time of the beginning of his collection, Disney theme parks sported tobacco shops on "Main Street." There were even pipes with the Disney logo and famous mouse, along with Disney tobacco.

It was also a time when smokers not only purchased pipes, private label Disney cigars, tobacco, cigarettes, Disney bulk tobacco, they could even light up in any of the Disney establishments, and walk while smoking along Main Street without being accosted.

The collection sparked more research by Levine. He discovered that some of the so-called "basket pipes" were actually shapes manufactured by some of the biggest names in pipes: GBD, Comoy, Charatan, Parker, Sasieni, Edwards Algerian briar, Ropp cherrywood, and Barling.

Two of the most important pieces of the collection are the sandblast black billiard with a white Mickey Mouse logo inlaid in the stem and a can of unopened tobacco dating probably from the 1960s. The tobacco says "Disneyland Special Blend."

Levine says Disney is a good species indicator of what has happened to tobacco in the U.S.

The last tobacco shop was located in the Disneyland (California) property in 1991. By 1993, all tobacco stores in Disneyworld (Florida) were gone. The only place one could get a tobacco product then was behind the counters in Disney resort hotel gift shops.

By then, a Disney visitor had to find one of the open-air designated smoking area, which were far apart and few in number.

"Disney went from promoting and a purveyor of tobacco products, to closing its shops and putting the products behind the counter," Levine says.

"Within about a 15-year period, you went from being able to buy a product to not being able to freely use the product even in outdoor places. It just reminds me of the political corrective nature of the ideals in the world at the time."

"The sign used to say ‘Main Street Tobacconist.’ Some 15 years later, they don’t even sell the product. Not even (book) matches."

The Levine Disney collection now has 55 briar pipes, in addition to some "pipe" toys like bubble-blowing pipes for kids. The collection also includes several tobacco tins, some foil pouches, a box of Disney cigarettes, and some cigar boxes.

In addition, Levine has a handful of pipe and tobacco accessories that contain the Disney price tag on the reverse side.

A few of the cans of tobacco sport the Disney castle logo, some have street lamps and horseless carriage on Main Street.

And then there is the 14-ounce "Walt Disney World Fruit Cake Smoking Tobacco." Levine describes it as that "wet, slick, gooey" tobacco.

"The crown jewel of my collection is the original purchase orders and matching invoices for Disneyland requesting pipes from the S. M. Frank Co., for shipments of Kaywoodie and Yellowbowls to Disneyland."

The invoices are from the late 1960s, Levine says. The invoices are something no other collector has.

Levine says he even smokes one of the Disney pipes occasionally, "when I get the urge for a new pipe, or I clean up one of the dirty ones and smoke it for a while."

Disney, Levine says, followed the model of what happened to pipes and pipe smoking in the U.S.

"In the 1920s, when he couldn’t afford it, he smoked a pipe. In the ’30s as he started to gain a little more money, he smoked a pipe and cigarettes.

"Then by the time World War II came along, it was all cigarettes when he was making a lot of money. I think that is similar to the evolution of pipe smokers."

Levine says he continues to collect Disney pipes "when I can get them at the right money and something is unique to my collection."

He continues to enjoy the history behind and research into his early purchases, and feeling lucky to have collected some of his favorites at the right time and at the right price.

After all, it isn’t every day you can buy a briar billiard with a white mouse looking up at you.

Brian Levine smoking one of his Disney pipes on Main St. at the Magic Kingdom in 2004.

Disney Tobacciana Collection Facebook Fan Page


From reading Walt Disney’s biography, it isn’t crystal clear just how big of a pipe smoker he was. It is absolutely clear that he was a heavy cigarette smoker.

Many of his former employees recall hearing the coughing Walt coming down one of the studio halls. He was something of a snappy critter, a demanding workaholic who did not mince words.

Hearing the raspy cough, workers knew to be on the lookout for the prowling Walt.

Also, at one point in the career of Mickey Mouse, Walt served as the high-pitched voice of the famed animated character. That changed over the years because of Walt’s heavy cigarette smoking habit.

The type of tobacco Walt Disney smoked in his pipes is not easily discerned, either. However, in one bio, his artist buddies, always full of pranks, would shave off some pieces of rubber from their art erasers and sprinkle the shavings into Walt’s pipe tobacco pouch.

More than likely, Walt favored pipe tobacco that closely resembled the combinations found in his cigarette brands, which would have been perhaps a blend of burley, Virginia bright leaf and Turkish.

It is also highly likely that pipes played an important role in the great animator’s ability to handle all the stress that arose from his megalithic entertainment empire.

When he died in 1966—attributed to acute circulatory collapse after recent surgery for removal of a lung tumor—the wide flung Disney entertainment enterprises were bringing in an estimated $100-million a year.

At the time of his death, Walt Disney was supervising the then new Disneyworld in Florida, a ski resort in Sequoia National Forest and the renovation of the 10-year-old Disneyland at Anaheim.

The Disney motion-picture studio was churning out six new productions and several television shows.

The Los Angeles Times obit called Disney "Aesop with a magic brush."

The New York Times said Disney was singular in genius and talent:

"From his fertile imagination and industrious factory of drawing boards, Walt Elias Disney fashioned the most popular movie stars ever to come from Hollywood and created one of the most fantastic entertainment empires in history."

"In return for the happiness he supplied, the world lavished wealth and tributes upon him. He was probably the only man in Hollywood to have been praised by both the American Legion and the Soviet Union."

"Where any other Hollywood producer would have been happy to get one Academy Award—the highest honor in American movies—Mr. Disney smashed all records by accumulating 29 Oscars."

"David Low, the late British political cartoonist, called him ‘the most significant figure in graphic arts since Leonardo.’

"Mr. Disney went from seven-minute animated cartoons to become the first man to mix animation with live action, and he pioneered in making feature-length cartoons. His nature films were almost as popular as his cartoons, and eventually he expanded into feature-length movies using only live actors."

The Disney legacy, of course, continues like the juggernaut Walt constructed from the humblest of beginnings.

Walt Disney’s dreams, like a "bolt out of the blue," rode in on a dream star that shines as brightly today as it did the first day of his life.


Fred Brown is a Retired Senior writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel and was a working journalist for 46 years before retiring in 2008. He lives in Knoxville, TN., where he continues to freelance.

7 Responses

  • Great article. Sounds like Walt should have stuck with pipes instead of the cigs. I knew about the Disney tobacco store, but I had no idea a collection like Levine’s was out there. Fantastic stuff. You know, the irony is that Disney branded cigars, pipes, etc would probably sell like gangbusters today, but they’d never do it for the backlash by the anti groups.

  • Thanks for the history, another example of the role of pipes and tobacco in recent history.

  • Just a wonderful article. As child growing up in the 50’s I can tell you that watching the Walt Disney Show on Sunday evening was something the whole family enjoyed. Walt’s television personality was just magnetic.The Mickey Mouse Club was mandatory viewing for us kids. Walt died while I was in basic training. A number of us had to have some quiet time to cope with the loss.
    Despite the love most of felt for Walt he had a dark side that would be viewed with strong disapproval today.
    The sidebar shows us that Brian Levine just marches to a different drummer. He is just a most pleasant person to be around.