MICKEY MOUSE, Walt Disney's most famous character, made his screen debut on November 18, 1928, as star of the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Since his debut, Mickey Mouse has become an international personality whose success laid the financial foundation upon which Walt Disney built his creative organization. Besides being the personification of everything Disney, Mickey Mouse has become one of the most universal symbols of the Twentieth Century.
Mickey Mouse was born in Walt Disney's imagination early in 1928 on a train ride from New York to Los Angeles. Walt was returning with his wife from a business meeting at which his cartoon creation, Oswald the Rabbit, had been wrestled from him by his financial backers. Only 26 at the time and with an active cartoon studio in Hollywood, Walt had gone east to arrange for a new contract and more money to improve the quality of his Oswald pictures. The moneymen declined, and since the character was copyrighted under their name, they took control of it. " . . . So I was all alone and had nothing," Walt recalled later. " Mrs. Disney and I were coming back from New York on the train and I had to have something I could tell them. I've lost Oswald so, I had this mouse in the back of my head because a mouse is sort of a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody's frightened of a mouse including myself" Walt spent the return train ride conjuring up a little mouse in red velvet pants and named him " Mortimer," but by the time the train screeched into the terminal station in Los Angeles, the new dream mouse had been rechristened. Walt's wife, Lillian, thought the name " Mortimer" was too pompous and suggested " Mickey." A star was born!
Upon returning to his studio, Walt and his head animator, Ub Iwerks, immediately began work on the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. The enthusiasm with which his small staff completed the project faded when no distributor wanted to buy the film. Refusing to give in, Walt forged into production on another silent Mickey Mouse cartoon, Gallopin'Gaucho. However, late in 1927, Warner Brothers ushered in the talkies with The Jazz Singer, staffing Al Jolson. This soon signaled the end of silent films so, in 1928, Walt dropped everything to begin a third Mickey Mouse cartoon, this one in sound: Steamboat Willie.
To record the sound track, Walt had to take his film to New York, since no one on the West Coast was equipped to do it. Walt sank everything he had into the film. When finally completed, Walt screened it for the New York exhibitors. The manager at the Colony Theatre liked the eager young producer and decided to take a chance on his film. Steamboat Willie scored an overwhelming success, and Walt soon became the talk of the nation. Buoyed by the artistic and popular success of Steamboat Willie, Disney added sound to the first two cartoons and was able to offer exhibitors a package of three shorts. As with all of Mickey Mouse's pictures through World War II, Walt himself supplied the voice. Then in 1946, when Walt became too busy to continue, Jim Macdonald, veteran Disney sound and vocal effects man, tookover. ( Jim Macdonald continued to provide the voice of Mickey Mouse for nearly thirty years, until he retired in 1974. Following his retirement, Wayne Allwine was selected to perform the voice of Mickey Mouse. Wayne has provided Mickey Mouse's vocal characterizations in his most recent screen appearances ).
Mickey Mouse's skyrocket to fame didn't take long. His cartoons became so popular that people would first ask ticket takers if they were " running a Mickey" before they would purchase admission. Soon, theaters were displaying posters that read " Mickey Mouse playing today!" It was not uncommon for patrons to sit through a feature twice to see him again. The thirties was Mickey Mouse's golden age 87 cartoon shorts starring the multi-talented mouse were produced by Walt Disney during that decade. He played everything from fireman to giant killer, cowboy to inventor, detective to plumber. Technically and artistically Mickey Mouse cartoons were far superior to other contemporary cartoons and gave life to an entire family of animated characters: Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck, Peg-Leg Pete, and many others.
The artistic success of the animators was honored in 1932 when an Oscar was presented to Walt Disney for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse's popularity spawned a Mickey Mouse Club in 1929 which met every Saturday for an afternoon of cartoons and games in local theaters. The several million Mouse Clubbers had a secret handshake, special member greeting, code of behavior, and even a special club song, " Minnie's Yoo Hoo" . The peak of Mickey Mouse's golden decade was his starring role as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in the feature Fantasia (1940), a major artistic innovation. It interpreted music in colors, shapes, movement, and story. The animation techniques were years ahead of their time and have never been matched. Fantasia also introduced stereophonic sound to theaters, an element not employed by other studios until more than a decade later.
With the advent of World War II, the Disney Studio suspended nearly all commercial activity and concentrated on aiding the war effort with training films, goodwill tours, and designing of posters and armed forces insignia. Mickey Mouse played his part by appearing on insignia and posters urging national security and the purchase of war bonds. And, incredibly, the password of the Allied forces on D-Day, June 6,1944, was " Mickey Mouse." Following the war, Mickey Mouse returned to making cartoons and appeared in his second feature, Fun and Fancv Free (1947), in which he co-starred with Goofy and Donald Duck in a new version of " Jack and the Beanstalk," titled appropriately " Mickey and the Beanstalk."
Through the forties and early fifties, Mickey Mouse made fewer cartoons, giving ground to Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto, who were more flexible as characters. Mickey Mouse's evolution into a Disney symbol made it increasingly more difficult to create story situations for him. If he lost his temper or did anything sneaky, fans would write in insisting that Mickey Mouse just wouldn't do that. After the success of the Disneyland television show in 1954, Disney agreed the next year to create an afternoon program for ABC. He gave them The Mickey Mouse Club, which became the most successful children's show ever. In 1977, The New Mickey Mouse Club, featuring 12 new Mouseketeers, debuted on television, and a third generation of Mouseketeers hit the airwaves in 1989 when The Mickey Mouse Club debuted as a series on The Disney Channel with shows airing on weekday afternoons.
Mickey Mouse moved to Disneyland in 1955 to become chief host of the theme park, welcoming millions of visitors annually, shaking hands, posing for pictures, and leading the big parades on national holidays. In 1971, he helped open the Walt Disney World Resort in 1983 he donned a kimono for the dedication of Tokyo Disneyland and in 1992, he sported a beret for the opening of what is now called Disneyland Paris. His other activities include public appearance tours around the world for The Walt Disney Company.
Mickey Mouse has been saluted at three of the Disney theme parks by having " lands" created in his honor. Mickey's Birthdayland (now Mickey's Starland) opened on November 18, 1988, in the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World to honor Mickey Mouse on his 60th birthday. Mickey's Toontown opened in 1993 in Disneyland, then in 1996 at Tokyo Disneyland and now serves as home to Mickey Mouse and all of his cartoon friends.
After all these years, the cultists are beginning to understand why the Mickey Mouse of the thirties was so popular. He was a little guy born out of the depression who satirized people's foibles and taught them to laugh. Most importantly, he was a character who dreamed big, and his dreams were universal.
One of the finest tributes to Mickey Mouse was given by Walt Disney himself when, on his first television show as he surveyed Disneyland, Walt said, " I hope we never lose sight of one fact... that this was all started by a Mouse."