The Disney Company is really not celebrating Mickey Mouse's birthday this month. In fact, they haven’t for nearly a decade.
According to Chris Curtin of Synergy and Special Projects in a statement from 2003: "We particularly worry about this when it comes to children, whose understanding and appreciation of our characters can be undermined by suggesting they have real-world ages. As a company, we feel our characters are timeless and therefore don't mark the passage of time. We do, however, celebrate anniversaries of real-world events, as they can be effective marketing tools—especially with adult fans who like the idea that Disney has been around a long time."
Although the One Disney Initiative killed those theme park celebrations as well when it came to honoring milestones at individual parks.
So, that is why the Disney Company did not celebrate Mickey Mouse's 75th birthday in 2003, but in a smaller fashion celebrated "75 Years WITH Mickey." (How you can celebrate 75 years with someone but not acknowledge that they are at least 75 years old is beyond my poor powers of reasoning.)
To me, that is a shame. Of course, I have gotten to the age where I no longer celebrate my birthday even though I am decades younger than Mickey. This last August, I spent the day quietly by myself with about a half dozen short e-mails sending me best wishes but Mickey deserves so much more.
However, even though Mickey has had some amazing birthdays, I think that today, more than ever, he deserves even more to be celebrated. Why? Because we like him! I think people want to celebrate Mickey’s birthday because it reminds them of everything they love about Disney.
During the past decades, celebrating Mickey's birthday was a major event for the Disney Company and resulted in much publicity (and many different financial rewards for the company) and of course, the appreciation of many Disney fans.
As I have written before in the early days, Mickey did not have an official birthday and it was celebrated anytime from the end of September through the beginning of December. Basically, whenever there was a new Disney cartoon being released or to stage a birthday party event at a theater, which usually included the theater booking a program of several previously released Disney cartoons (with some appropriately new publicity art), Mickey’s birthday was celebrated.
Dave Smith established the Disney Archives in 1970 and with Mickey's Fiftieth birthday coming up in 1978, it was Dave who determined that the official date should be the premiere of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theater in New York.
After checking through correspondence, reviews from New York newspapers and finally finding a program from the Colony Theater listing the Mickey Mouse cartoon, it was determined that Mickey's official birthday would be November 18, 1928, because that was his official first appearance to the general public (that also makes it Minnie's official birthday as well although I guess ladies like her never celebrate their birthday).
For Mickey's 7th birthday a special song—a fox trot—was composed in honor of the birthday boy: "Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party" (“There's Minnie dressed in her Sunday best, and Donald Duck with his quack, quack, quack...”). It was recorded by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra.
Mickey's 8th birthday was also a big celebration, with theaters offering prizes for Disney costumes, coloring, and essay contests. The prizes? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck dolls from Charlotte Clark and her crew personally autographed by Walt Disney! Radio City Music Hall hosted a week-long salute by running three Disney cartoons as part of every show.
Over the years, in addition to birthday celebrations at theaters, the Disney Studios produced two animated shorts spotlighting Mickey Mouse's birthday that could be shown at these events. The first was in black and white and then as the Disney cartoons went to all color, there was a Technicolor version.
In "The Birthday Party" (January 7, 1931) directed by Bert Gillett, this black-and-white cartoon finds Mickey's friends (including Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow) surprising Mickey with the gift of an upright piano for his birthday. Mickey and Minnie sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" and there is some wild dancing. Lots of generic animal friends join in the celebration.
In "Mickey’s Birthday Party" (February 7, 1942), directed by Riley Thompson in beautiful Technicolor and featuring some classic Mickey animation by Fred Moore, Minnie and the gang throws a surprise birthday party for Mickey. This time, Mickey receives an organ instead of a piano, and there is a wild rhumba dance, and besides Horace and Clarabelle, Donald and Goofy (neither of whom existed at the time of the original 1931 short) join the festivities. This is the cartoon with Goofy struggling to bake a cake using "volcano heat" on the oven.
In 1953, Capitol Records produced a "record-reader" entitled "Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party" (DBX 3165) to celebrate Mickey's Silver Anniversary of being 25 years young. A "record-reader" was a two-record set accompanied by a storybook and some cue, like the sound of a bell or a horn, to let a child know when to turn the page so that the sounds on the record would match the story (in this case, Mickey Mouse coaxed Donald Duck to give the signal to turn the page).
Donald's voice was done by Clarence Nash and Goofy's voice was done by Pinto Colvig, who even though he had left the Disney Studio, was connected with Capitol Records as he was the then-current voice of Bozo the Clown, who appeared on several "record-readers." Colvig also re-created the voice of Practical Pig on the album. Jimmy MacDonald gave voice to Cinderella's mice, Jaq and Gus Gus, as well as supplying the barks for Pluto (who does a "soft paw" dance rather than soft shoe for Mickey's celebration).
And of course, the voice of Mickey Mouse was provided by... Stan Freberg. Yes, satirist Stan Freberg, who was also well-known in the industry for his cartoon voice work (especially for Warner Brothers) did Mickey's voice, which sounded like Mickey Mouse with a cold, since Freberg wasn't able to reach the right falsetto range for the famous mouse. Among other voices, Freberg also did a killer imitation on the record of Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter and Jerry Colonna's March Hare.
Back in 1996, Stan told me, "Walt Disney was always the voice of Mickey, when he was alive, but when he was too busy, his sound effects wizard Jimmy MacDonald did it. Once, when Capitol Records was recording a children's album called Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party and both Walt and Jimmy were busy, Walt asked me to record Mickey's voice: (imitating the falsetto) 'Hi, Minnie, hi Pluto, Happy Birthday! Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha!'"
Since Jimmy MacDonald was there at the recording session, it is more likely that Stan wanted to do Mickey's voice and Walt and Jimmy graciously allowed him to do so. It is an odd album with an eclectic mix of characters like the Three Little Pigs, B'rer Rabbit, B'rer Fox, B'rer Bear, Dumbo, Thumper, Bambi, Joe Carioca, Cinderella, Alice, the White Rabbit, Peter Pan (and the infamous crocodile even stops chasing Captain Hook long enough to sing "Never Smile at a Crocodile," which was a song written for the animated feature Peter Pan but never sung in the finished film), and many more.
In September 1953, DELL Comics even printed a special 100-page comic book "giant" entitled Mickey Mouse Birthday Party with Dick Moores drawing a cover of Mickey Mouse by a birthday cake where the candles were actually Disney characters. The interior included reprints from several DELL Four Color issues (#181, #27 and #79), as well as some reformatted Mickey Mouse comic strips from 1941 by Gottfredson and Bill Wright.
Mickey's Silver Anniversary in 1953 was also the first time that Imagineer John Hench painted a "formal birthday portrait" for Mickey. Hench also painted the official Mickey Mouse portraits for Mickey's 50th (1978) and 60th (1988) and 75th birthdays (2003). (Walt Disney Art Classics, the art and collectibles division of The Walt Disney Company, commissioned Hench to render Mickey in an official portrait commemorating his 70th birthday. The portrait was published as a limited edition print in December of 1998 and was an instant sell-out.)
Mickey's 50th birthday was a year-long celebration in 1978 and generated not only an official "Happy Birthday, Mickey" logo but a variety of commemorative merchandise. There were retrospective screenings of Mickey's cartoons at several venues from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art to the American Film Institute to the Chicago Film Festival.
Animator Ward Kimball accompanied Mickey on a special Amtrak train for a 57-city tour. The tour ended at the Broadway Theater (formerly the Colony Theater, where "Steamboat Willie" premiered), where a plaque designating the theater as the official birthplace of Mickey Mouse was installed.
Seven huge scrapbooks in the Disney Archives are filled with newspaper clippings from the year-long event. In addition, Mickey received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, making him the first cartoon character to ever receive a star. People were singing a specially written song, "The Whole World Wants to Wish You Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse."
Disney also saluted Mickey's birthday on television. Mickey Mouse Anniversary Show (12/22/68) had Dean Jones hosting Mickey's 40th birthday along with the original Mouseketeers. Mickey’s 50th (November 19, 1978) had celebrities like Johnny Carson and Jonathan Winters honoring Walt's mouse, and Mickey’s 60th (November 13, 1988) had Mickey fooling with a sorcerer's hat and disappearing, forcing Roger Rabbit to try and find him, while "news reporter" John Ritter offered commentary and updates.
In fact, Mickey's 60th birthday surpassed Mickey's 50th. From Summer 1988 through Spring 1990, as the Walt Disney World railroad trains steamed toward their newest train station just past Fantasyland, guests would have heard:
"We're rolling, we're rolling on the Express!
We're rolling on Mickey's Birthdayland Express!
We're going off to Mickey's Birthdayland!
And we're so glad that you could come along and join the gang!
We'll have a whole lot of fun! (laughs)
[Chip & Dale]
So come on everyone!
We've got a big surprise for Mickey Mouse!
It's all aboard the express bound for Birthdayland!
We have a date with Mickey Mouse's Birthdayland!
We'll have a whole lot of fun!
So come on everyone!
We've got a big surprise for Mickey Mouse!
We've got a big surprise for Mickey!
A birthday bash for Mickey!
Big surprise for Mickey Mouse!
We're rolling, we're rolling on the Express!"
This train station originally opened in 1988 as Mickey's Birthdayland Station. Featuring a covered waiting platform, the open-air station provided guests easy access to the new land, Mickey's Birthdayland, celebrating Mickey Mouse's 60th birthday (the station was renamed Mickey's Starland Station in 1990, and Mickey's Toontown Fair Station in 1996, in keeping with the new names for this area of the park.)
Mickey's Birthdayland was the first new "land" added to Walt Disney World since its opening, and was built in less than a year as a temporary location to meet Mickey Mouse and his friends and get autographs. The area was themed as if it was part of Duckburg, with small store front facades hiding the colored tents. A show took place there as well, with Mickey as the unsuspecting guest of honor at his very own surprise party.
A 68-page slick magazine (Mickey is Sixty) with a special edition "cel" of Mickey as the Sorcerer's Apprentice was published with excerpts from this magazine appearing in Time, Life, People, and more (and how many readers found the bottom of the page where, instead of printing “Mickey is Sixty,” someone cleverly sneaked in “Mickey is Sexy”—much to the embarassment of the Disney Company?).
Ear Force One (a hot air balloon in the shape of Mickey's head) toured the United States.
The Disney Company planted a 520-acre cornfield in Sheffield, Iowa in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. The concept was that when the field was seen from an airplane overhead it would look like a birthday card for Mickey from Minnie. (This idea was the brainchild of Jack Linquist who was then Disney creative marketing vice president.) Again, a special Mickey Mouse birthday logo was created, as was a flood of nicely done commemorative merchandise honoring both the classic Mickey and the modern Mickey.
On November 18, 2003, in a private ceremony, Michael Eisner unveiled for the media 75 Mickey Mouse statues that each stood six feet tall and weighed 700 pounds. They were designed by a mix of celebrities including Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Ben Affleck, Susan Lucci, and others. Those who participated in the design created the Mickey Mouse statues to fit one of six themes: heritage, adventure, magic and fantasy, fun and laughter, friendship, and the future.
The statues were displayed at various locations on Walt Disney World property through April 2004 and then travelled to 12 U.S. cities on an 18-month tour sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. After the tour, the statues were auctioned off with the proceeds benefiting a charity of each artist's choice. The program was called "Celebrate Mickey: 75 InspEARations."
Mickey stopped having birthday parties that year because he was “ageless,” or more accurately, was not of the appropriate age for the Disney Company.
So what? No celebration of Mickey Mouse? What kind of a birthday party is that?
Which reminds me of some of the lyrics, especially in this election year, of Irving Caesar’s popular 1932 song, “What? No Mickey Mouse?” Caesar also wrote such popular tunes as "Just a Gigolo," and "Ten Cents a Dance":
What? No Mickey Mouse? What kind of a party is this?
So where’s that tricky mouse?
That slicky, wacki, wicki, bolsheviki Mickey Mouse?
Vote, ladies and gentlemen! Vote for Mickey Mouse!
And make him our next president!
And then he’ll cry, “Give me the facts.
Give me my axe; I’ll cut your tax!”
He’ll show us all what can be done when he’s in Washington!
So, let’s give the good ol’ White House
To that tricky, wacki, wicki, bolsheviki Mickey Mouse.
There have always been rumors that Disney hates the "graying of the Mouse" (the aging of its top executives who have been vigorously encouraged to leave the Disney Company during the last decade or more), and poor Mickey Mouse seems like he may be the latest victim. Hopefully, the weak treatment of Mickey's birthday will be readjusted next year in time for his 85th.
Since 2006, Janet Esteves of Celebration, Florida has held the Guinness World Records book honor of the largest documented Mickey Mouse memorbilia collection in the world.
In 2006, it was 2,100 items and this year the collection is 4,127 items that fills her 1,900-square-foot condo. Esteves actually estimates her collection at nearly 6,000 items, but many of them were packed away and unavailable for the final count. There are no Mickeys in the master suite and none in her husband’s office (because his office is filled with his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea memoribilia).
By the way, Guinness World Records North America receives on average 1,000 claims per week from people looking to establish or break records, and only about four percent of those are successful attempts.
I think Mrs. Esteves will be celebrating Mickey’s birthday this month, and so should you. Next week, I will continue celebrating his birthday with some things you never knew about Steamboat Willie.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.