Today, Saturday November 18, 2017, marks the 89th birthday of the character who put Walt Disney on the map, Mickey Mouse! Since his world debut in November of 1928, Mickey has become one of the world’s biggest global pop culture icons.
We here at the No Midnight Podcast wanted to take some time to celebrate the history and legacy of our very favorite cartoon pal.
For centuries, Animals have played a central role in our storytelling. But it’s only since the dawn of the 20th century that our culture has told its favorite stories with so-called “funny animals”, who talk and act like humans. Anthropomorphic animals began making the jump to the silver screen in the early 1920s. At that time, the animated landscape was ruled by Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat, who had premiered in the silent film “Feline Follies” in 1919.
Walt Disney had first tried his hand at an animated creature eight years later, when he and his longtime creative partner Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a big hit in 1927, but in the midst of a contentious contract dispute, he became the intellectual property of Universal Studios, and Walt had to return to the drawing board. Iwerks created dozens of sketches of everything from cats to frogs to cows. Finally, he took the same basic design he had used for Oswald, made a few tweaks, and came up with a mouse. Walt knew they were on to something big. He named his new pal Mortimer Mouse. I think we can all be thankful that his wife Lillian convinced him to go with Mickey instead.
But designing Mickey, and naming him, was the easy part. Now came the challenge; to find a distribution company who was willing to take the chance on bringing him into theaters. The first two shorts he created were Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy, in the spring of 1928. Both were silent and failed to impress test audiences. They were also working on Steamboat Willie, but the pressure was starting to build. The studio hadn’t had a big hit since they lost Oswald, and Walt had a hard time justifying the expense of a third feature when no one was interested in his first two. Suddenly, it hit him. He would create the first animated short with a fully synchronized soundtrack.
The idea presented not only a big creative challenge, but a financial one as well. “Talkies”, or films with sound, had been in existence for less than a year, starting with Al Jolson‘s “Jazz Singer” in 1927.
Not many critics were convinced that Talkies were a financially viable artform. But Walt had been an animator for nearly a decade, and he had only modest success to show for it. He needed to make a big bold move to become a household name.
Steamboat Willie would premiere on November 18, 1928, ahead of the movie Gang War.
It was a smash hit. For the first time ever, an animated short was far more popular than the feature film that came after it. The world couldn’t get enough of Mickey Mouse, and Walt’s animators were set loose to create a huge slate of Mickey shorts. Starting in 1929, a new Mickey short was released, on average, every 6 weeks. Notably, Mickey was always animated with only four fingers. Walt claimed that it was a financial decision. Each 6 and a half minute Mickey cartoon required 45,000 individual drawings to complete. Walt said that not having to draw an extra finger on each cell saved the studio millions of dollars a year. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a good story!
Karnival Kid, released in spring of 1929, featured Mickey talking for the first time; his first ever lines of spoken dialogue were “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!”. The first ever voice of Mickey Mouse was…Walt himself! Walt would voice Mickey, as well as his girlfriend Minnie, from 1929 all the way until 1947.
Mickey also inspired a universe of merchandise. In the late 20s and early 30s, America couldn’t get enough. Candy, coloring books, watering cans, umbrellas, Halloween costumes… it seemed like there wasn’t a thing in the world that wasn’t made better when you put Mickey Mouse‘s face on it. The iconic Mickey Mouse wristwatch, which featured Mickey pointing out the time to you, became the best selling timepiece in the world, and is even one of the more popular watch faces on the modern day Apple Watch.
Starting in 1930, Mickey Mouse clubs began springing up in towns and cities all over the country. They met in local theaters to sing songs and watch short films about their favorite cartoon critter. Their roles eventually grew to over 1 million members.
Mickey’s popularity hit a whole new level in 1940, when he appeared in the epic concert feature, Fantasia. He starred in the film’s third sequence, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, based on an 18th century German poem. Left alone in his mentor’s workshop, Mickey dons a sorcerer’s cap and creates an army of mops, which come to life and do his chores for him.
While much of Fantasia was ethereal, abstract, and polarizing to audiences, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was pure Disney magic, by far the most popular piece in the film. It was featured again in the sequel, Fantasia 2000, the only sequence to be carried over from the 1940 original. Aside from his trademark red shorts and yellow shoes, Mickey’s sorcerer’s robe and pointed hat is his most iconic outfit. In fact, it’s featured in the official logo for Walt Disney Imagineering, and it’s an integral part of their most popular nighttime spectacular, Fantasmic. The message is clear; if Mickey’s wearing his sorcerer’s robe, get ready for some top-notch Disney imagination.
Beginning in 1955, The Mickey Mouse Club spawned a children’s variety show that ran every weekday evening on ABC. You’d be hard pressed to find a baby boomer who can’t sing “The Mickey Mouse March” in their sleep. The show ended in 1959, but was revived in the 70s, 80s, early 90s, and again in the 2000s as “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
And of course, the opening of Disneyland in 1955 gave kids and their parents the opportunity they had been seeking for nearly 30 years; the chance to meet their favorite Disney characters in person, including Mickey! You can always find him throughout the parks, dressed in theme with the land or the season.
Even though he’s been somewhat eclipsed by Disney characters like Aladdin, Buzz and Woody, Peter Pan, and the ever-expanding team of Disney princesses, Mickey always has been, and always will be, the poster child for all things Disney.
The future looks bright for Mickey, too. For the first time in the 62 year history of the parks, he’ll soon have his very own ride. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, part of a multi-year expansion of Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Today, the Walt Disney Studio is one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, owning twelve theme parks around the globe, ABC, Star Wars, Marvel, and much much more. Before Mickey came along, it was just two brothers working in a tiny room in a realtors office in Los Angeles. Or, as Walt himself said…
Thanks for joining us in celebrating our favorite cartoon pal as he turns 89 years old! We’re excited for Mickey’s future as he approaches the big 9-0.
From all of us here at the No Midnight Podcast channel, happy birthday, Mickey!