Once upon a time, Mickey Mouse never had a birthday. Or, to be more precise, Mickey Mouse never had a specific date for his birthday.
Mickey's fifth birthday was celebrated on September 30, 1933 with a Hollywood testimonial party where the speakers included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Will Rogers.
Yet, in Film Pictorial magazine dated September 1933, Walt Disney himself is quoted as saying, "Mickey Mouse will be five years old on Sunday. He was born on October 1, 1928. That was the date on which his first picture was started so we have allowed him to claim this day as his birthday." (Actually, Ub Iwerks had animated a test scene from Steamboat Willie as early as July 1928 so that Walt could practice synchronizing the sound to the scene.)
Mickey's seventh birthday was celebrated on September 28, 1935 and movie theaters were encouraged to book entire programs of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons as part of the celebration. In fact, every print of every available Disney animated cartoon was in use during this particular celebration. The theater celebration included birthday cake, costume parties and, at some theaters, free admission for anyone dressed as a Disney cartoon character. A special birthday song, "Mickey Mouse's Birthday Party", was composed for the occasion and recorded by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra.
Mickey's 40th birthday was officially celebrated on October 28, 1968.
Generally, the Disney Studios selected any date from September through December as Mickey Mouse's birthday primarily as a merchandising tool to encourage theaters to rent Mickey Mouse cartoons and to do special promotions. For Mickey's eighth birthday, Radio City Music Hall hosted a week-long salute showing three Disney cartoons as part of every show.
The Disney Studios even produced two animated shorts, "The Birthday Party" in 1931 and "Mickey's Birthday Party" in 1942, to be used as the centerpiece for a collection of Disney cartoons to be shown in theaters.
However, as Mickey's 50th birthday started to approach, it became more important to have a specific date. The celebration was to be a major, year-long event with special merchandise, exhibits and screenings as well as a 57-city cross-country Amtrak train tour with animator Ward Kimball. Disney Archivist Dave Smith determined through a program from the Colony Theater in New York that Mickey's first truly public appearance was in Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928 and for the 50th birthday that became the official birthday.
"The Walt Disney Company is now reaching a point in its history where there are many significant anniversaries to celebrate, and the company has come to realize that these celebrations can be very useful marketing tools," Dave Smith shared with Disney historian Jim Fanning in 1988. (The same year that Walt Disney World built Mickey's Birthdayland to honor Mickey's 60th birthday.)
Of the Fab Five, only Mickey, Minnie and Donald Duck have official birthdays. Pluto and Goofy evolved through several cartoons so it is difficult to credit a particular cartoon with the emergence of those two cartoon superstars.
I wanted to do something special for Mickey's birthday this year and so I dug through my archives and came across an essay by Walt Disney talking about Mickey Mouse that has never been reprinted. In includes one of my favorite new quotes about Mickey from Walt: "Mickey could never be a rat."
In 1940, the editors of Modern Screen magazine decided to publish an annual magazine specifically for movie fans, Who's Who in Hollywood. It was a Who's Who of all the superstar actors, featured actors, supporting players, starlets, etc. that looked very much like a high school yearbook with a small photo of each performer and a short biographical paragraph of their credits. After two successful issues, the paper-rationing of World War II curtailed further issues until 1948.
The 1948 edition (Vol. 1, No. 3 April-June 1948) was 202 pages long and published by Dell Publishing Company and edited by Al Delacorte, assisted by Shirley Frohlich and Beverly Linet. The cover proclaimed that the magazine contained a thousand biographies and over 20,000 inside facts. Scattered throughout the magazines were several short articles by entertainment personalities like Ronald Reagan, Jean Hersholt, and Dore Schary offering some insights into the world of the motion picture.
Included in that issue was an essay credited to Walt Disney where he waxed nostalgic over Mickey Mouse.
What Mickey Means To Me
by Walt Disney
Mickey Mouse to me is a symbol of independence. He was a means to an end. He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when the business fortunes of my brother, Roy, and myself were at lowest ebb.
Born of necessity, the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry, provided the means for expanding our organization to the present dimensions and for extending the medium of cartoon animation toward new entertainment levels.
His first actual screen appearance was in 1928 at the old Colony Theater in New York in Steamboat Willie, with its sound effects and cautious "speech". Since then, he has appeared in more pictures than any flesh-and-blood star. He was the first cartoon character to stress personality and to be consistently kept in character.
I thought of him from the first as a distinct individual, not just a cartoon type or symbol going through comedy routines. I kept him away from stock symbols and situations. We exposed him to close-ups. Instead of speeding the cartoons as was then the fashion, we were not afraid to slow down the tempo and let Mickey emote.
Mickey soon searched the stage where we had to be very careful about what we permitted him to do.
Mickey could never be a rat.
He had become a hero in the eyes of his audiences, especially the youngsters. Mickey could do no wrong. I could never attribute any meanness or callow traits to him. We kept him lovable although ludicrous in the blundering heroics. And that's the way he remained, despite any outside influences.
Naturally, I am pleased with his continued popularity, here and abroad, with the esteem he has won as an entertainment name, among youngsters and grownups. With the honors he has brought our studio. With the high compliment bestowed when his name was the password for the invasion of France, and with his selection for insignia by scores of fighting units during the war years. These are tributes beyond all words of appreciation.
In his immediate and continuously successful appeal to all kinds of audiences, Mickey first subsidized our Silly Symphony series. From there he sustained other ventures, plugging along as our bread-and-butter hero. He was the studio prodigy and pet. And we treated him accordingly.
Mickey still speaks in my own falsetto-pitched voice, as he has from the first. In the early days, I did the voice of most of the other characters too. It was not financially feasible to hire people for such assignments. In Steamboat Willie, in addition to speaking for Mickey, I also supplied a few sound effects for Minnie, his girl friend, and for the parrot.
For Mickey's first picture, I planned to go all out on sound. And those plans came very near spelling a major disaster for us.
To launch our picture impressively, I had hired a full New York orchestra with a famous director to do the recording. The musicians were to cost $10 an hour. I thought 15 men would be enough. But the director insisted on having 30 pieces. Because I was awed by him, I was finally persuaded to take the 30. The upshot was that I had to borrow on my auto and Roy and I had to mortgage our homes as well to cover the cost of that first synchronization for Steamboat Willie. And when it was finished, the thing wasn't in sync. We had to do it all over again!
What I wanted most of all, I didn't get: a bull-fiddle for the bass. The recording room was so small that the orchestra could hardly be jammed into it. The bull-fiddle blasted so loudly it ruined the other sound and kept blowing out the lamps.
A sad thing, I thought at the time, to launch our Mickey without benefit of a bull-fiddle in so precarious a world of new possibilities and increased competitions.
But he survived and thrived and set the pace in his entertainment field. The cost of his vehicles increased from the bare $1,200 for Steamboat Willie to seven figures for Fun and Fancy Free.
I often find myself surprised at what has been said about our redoubtable little Mickey, who was never really a mouse, not yet wholly a manalthough always recognizably human.
Psycho-analysts have probed him. Wise men have pondered him. Columnists have kidded him. Admirers have saluted him. The League of Nations gave him a special medal as a symbol of international good will. Hitler was infuriated by him and thunderingly forbade his people to wear the then popular Mickey Mouse lapel button in place of the Swastika.
But all we ever intended for him was that he should make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him.
And it is certainly gratifying that the public which first welcomed him two decades ago, as well as their children, have not permitted us, even if we had wished so to do, to change him in any manner or degree other than a few minor revisions of his physical appearance.
In a sense, he was never young. In the same sense, he never grows old in our eyes. All we can do is to give him things to overcome in his own rather stubborn way in his cartoon universe.
There is much nostalgia for me in these reflections.
The life and ventures of Mickey Mouse have been closely bound up with my own personal and professional life. It is understandable that I should have sentimental attachment for the little personage who played so big a part in the course of Disney Productions and who has been so happily accepted as an amusing friend wherever films are shown around the world.
(Send an email to Wade Sampson)
Wade Sampson 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. Wade 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.