An Origin Story

There’s an elephant in the room masquerading as a mouse. A mouse who has taken on the world: an ambassador of mass culture, an all too easy symbol for the menace of the Corporation, for cultural imperialism. Heady stuff for a mouse who happened to have been conceived in an act of desperation.

Every morning, twenty-one-year-old Walt Disney would walk into his Kansas City Laugh-O-gram Studio, which he had opened that year in 1922, and start to work. He would sketch ideas for single-reel cartoons and live action films, and direct his staff of talented friends, including Ub Iwerks, later to be considered as “the greatest animator of his time.”

And every morning, in the trash basket, he would find a tiny field mouse. He decided to keep three of them in a cage on his desk; he considered them pets. He had been a farm boy after all. And as he struggled to keep his studio afloat, he often ate very little—his brother Roy remembered, Disney was ‘skinny as a rail’—but would always find an extra morsel for the mice, feeding them with his fingers. He would train one of the mice to run back and forth. He would draw another mouse in different poses while he sat still on his drawing board, giving a member of his staff a fright. “I’ll never forget the scream [she] gave,” Disney said.

After Laugh-O-gram went belly-up, barely into its second year; after Disney moved to Hollywood and founded with Roy in 1923 the Disney Brothers Studio, hiring many of his pals from Laugh-O-gram; and after the film distributor, for whom he had been creating a cartoon series, betrayed him, stealing both his animators (who had become resentful of their old friend’s new-found imperiousness) and his profitable cartoon character, a rabbit named Oswald, Disney knew he needed a new venture as well as a new character. He knew he needed to turn one out fast. So as soon as he and his wife Lillian boarded the train to return to California from New York and that disastrous March meeting in 1928 during which Disney learned he had no rights to Oswald, he began tossing around ideas about cats and kittens, “this and that,” and Lillian, according to Lillian later, interrupted and said, “Well, a mouse is awful cute.”

But as with so much in America, the myths in particular can be bigger—especially when it comes to Disney. And Mrs. Disney had told a tale. To the contrary it wasn’t until Disney was back in L.A. that anything was determined. He and Roy and Ub Iwerks—one of the three animators who had remained loyal—got together daily and frantically leafed through magazines, looking for the perfect star. The men finally found inspiration in the mouse of the early cartoonist Clifton Meeks; they admired the small rodent’s big round ears. Disney tried to draw Mickey but made him long and scrawny, not good it seems for animation; he handed him over to Iwerks who ‘redesigned’ him. It was Iwerks who gave Mickey his figure, which he described, “pear-shaped, ball on top, couple of thin legs.”[1] He put The Mouse in motion.

Lillian would also go on to say the stories of Disney and the mice in Kansas City were “apocryphal.” But consider this: Disney had actually been using mice in his films since 1925; he gave them cameo appearances in his comedies. He had them pose with him for a publicity poster, and he had a lifelong passion for Aesop’s mice. And this: in 1923 moving from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Disney carried with him one of the mice. En route he stopped and freed him. Disney wrote, “When I looked back he was still sitting there in the field watching me with a sad, disappointed look in his eyes.”

Mickey Mouse was born on the 18th of November, 1928.

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[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, 2006.

Sources: Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, 2007; Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original, 1994; www.thankyouwaltdisney.org.

(Image: Sketch (detail) Mickey Mouse, circa 1928; The Walt Disney Family Museum.)


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