November 1928 was both the worst and best month Walt Disney ever had. Disney was in New York City when he discovered his most popular character, Oswald the Rabbit, got ripped off by his cartoon distributor, Charles Mintz. Mintz had asked Disney to create a character to compete against the silent film cartoon character Felix the Cat, so Oswald was born. The straight-eared rabbit became a hit when the cartoons started playing in theaters prior to the silent-movie featured film.
Disney had actually gone to NYC to negotiate a bigger budget from Mintz in hopes of blazing new trails in the growing cartoon industry. This is when he was informed he no longer held any rights to his character, Oswald. Copywriting had never entered his mind. To make a bad day worse, Mintz had also stolen most of Disney’s animators.
On the train ride back to L.A., probably to take his mind off of what had just happened, Disney began sketching a new character. He needed something anyway. He drew a mouse with big round ears and a wide toothy smile. Liking what he had drawn, he gave it a name. Mortimer Mouse. His wife Lillian who had made the trip with him suggested something a bit more fun and livelier. Something like… let’s see now… Mickey! They had no idea what had just been created. Mickey’s official birthday is November 18. Not to worry. He still gets around pretty well for an old guy of 89.
After wisely copywriting his new character, one of Disney’s faithful who hadn’t bailed on him, Ubbe Iwerks, began creating cartoons featuring Mickey. Also in 1928, wasting no time, Mickey’s first two cartoons were released, and they included sound. People loved the little guy. Needing to add more characters, Donald Duck came on board in Disney’s first Technicolor release called “The Band Concert”. Pluto and Goofy entered the scene shortly thereafter. In 1930 Disney landed a syndicated deal and Mickey Mouse became a cartoon strip in every Sunday newspaper in America. Around 1943 Oswald the Rabbit took a nosedive, and in 2006, Disney reacquired rights to the character just because they could.
Around 1940 Mickey began losing some of his immense popularity when Warner Brothers came out with “Looney Tunes,” and Paramount starting pushing “Popeye” on viewers. Disney fought back by releasing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” which was received so well it led to the release of the full-length movie, “Fantasia”. Though the movie was not a box office smash like they had hoped, it at least led to Mickey once again gaining popularity. Surprisingly, the character of Donald Duck was actually more popular than Mickey at the time.
In 1941 Disney tried again with the release of a second full feature film starring Mickey and Pluto. The movie, “Lend a Paw”, did the trick as Mickey Mouse once again skyrocketed to the top of the animated heap. This is also the movie that won the mouse his first academy award. Mickey holds the distinct honor of being the only animated character to ever receive this award.
When televisions started becoming standard household objects in the 1950’s, a whole new set of problems erupted. Hanna-Barbera jumped into the scene early with cartoons made for television such as Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound. It took Disney a few years to catch up but they did it in a huge way in 1955 by taking a different avenue of approach with “The Mickey Mouse Club” which starred real live kids wearing mouse ears. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello went on to have outstanding careers and Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to have been hand selected by Walt Disney himself. The show was a huge success which led to the opening of Disneyland that same year.
This may come as quite a surprise to some. Mickey Mouse’s brand awareness is higher than Santa Clause at 97%. Mickey brings in an estimated $5.8 billion dollars annually which is 40% of Disney’s consumer products revenue. As an interesting note, every standing US President except Lyndon B. Johnson has had their photo taken with Mickey.
Twenty years ago Disney hit a snag which was later solved. When the copyright for Mickey Mouse was about to expire, Congress passed an extension of US copyrights known as both the Sonny Bono Copyright Act and the Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension. Mickey Mouse was the force behind the legislation as Disney executives scrambled to keep the rights to their most famous character. Disney attorneys still spend $1 million dollars a year lobbying Congress to retain the rights which are set to expire again in 2028. But Disney also owns Mickey as a registered trademark so even if the copyright does expire there will be a long drawn out battle over the legal use of the character.
You have to imagine on that good/bad November day in 1928 if Mr. Disney could even remotely foresee how the black and white mouse sketch he was holding would one day be responsible for building the solid foundation for what is now an empire. All he wanted was a few bucks to make cartoons better.
In the years to come, regardless of what greedy TV executives attempt shoving down the throats of its viewers, there is no doubt Mickey Mouse will continue being the cute little guy America and the rest of the world has come to love, and he will continue to top the charts as the beloved animated character he has always been.
So there’s a brief history of how Mickey came to be. There have been many more character births between the birth of Mickey and now. Disney keeps popping ’em out. Whether a person is old or young, everyone can certainly agree, we all grew up on Disney in some form or fashion.
It’s a comfort to know the current Disney executives take the same pride as their founder by only presenting the very best to be found, and continually making magical things even better.
Still, I have to ask. Mortimer? Good thing Walt’s wife was on that train with him.