A Brief History of Disney Character Costumes

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The first professional appearance of Mickey Mouse as a costumed character was probably the 1931 Fanchon and Marco traveling stage show, Mickey Mouse Idea that premiered March 12, 1931 in Los Angeles. Popular vaudeville performer "Toots" Novelle was the man inside the mouse.

The next Disney-related public appearance by a costumed Mickey and Minnie was in 1937 at the premiere for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Carthay Circle Theater and the images of those Disney characters shocked Disney Legend Bill Justice.

"They must have been an afterthought, because they weren't anything close to the model sheets," he remembered.

In some ways, they resembled enlarged versions of the famous early Charlotte Clark stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls.

However, whoever made the costumes did not understand the concept that "pie-eyes" (the black oval eye with a white pie shaped slice removed) was to indicate the reflection of light on the eye so it was easier to see where the character was looking.

Those "pie slices" need to point in the same direction. On the costumes, they pointed in opposite directions so the character looked cross-eyed so it is doubtful that anyone at the Disney studio had any direct influence on the costumes.

The first consistent appearances of Mickey and the gang in costume began with the opening of Disneyland.

Host Art Linkletter. during the broadcast of Dateline: Disneyland on July 17, 1955 described the first parade down Main Street: "Dumbo, Pluto and Donald Duck and all the other characters are from the Walt Disney costumes created for John Harris' Ice Capades, which is on tour with Peter Pan right now around the United States."

Skater Donna Atwood portrayed the role of Peter Pan, following in the stage tradition of a mature woman playing the young boy who never grew up. The Peter Pan Ice Capades show was actually for 1956.

You can see a short clip here of that Peter Pan show.

Ice Capades did not feature any Disney number in its 1955 show, which may be why the costumes were available for Walt Disney to borrow for his grand opening of Disneyland. It is also suspected that some Ice Capades performers might have been in those Disney costumes for the ABC broadcast.

In 1949, Ice Capades, a touring ice skating show produced by John H. Harris, partnered with the Disney Studio to showcase a lengthy segment in each year's show that would feature Disney characters.

That first show featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who appeared on the back of the program book. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved so popular that it was occasionally revived like for the 1954 and 1959 shows.

That partnership of having a Disney segment in the Ice Capades show lasted through 1966 with the segments ranging from short adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella to a salute to Disneyland itself in 1957 with improved Mickey and Minnie costumes.

Walt attended the Ice Capades productions, watching the Disney-inspired segments closely.

However, the costumes were designed to provide flexibility for the skater so they followed the contours of the person's body and not necessarily the proportions of the animated character.

In addition, they had to be designed to allow the greatest visibility, which explains the horrid teeth on Mickey Mouse on Disneyland's opening day, since the mesh between the spiky chompers was necessary for peripheral vision.

These costumes were meant, like most theatrical costumes, to be viewed briefly at a distance under proper lighting, not inspected up close by a Disneyland guest.

"The walk-arounds were not originally intended to be an on-going feature of Disneyland," wrote Disney Legend John Hench. "These first walk-arounds were very clearly costumed actors portraying the characters [not the characters themselves]."

However, the guests' enthusiasm even for these oddly proportioned and sometimes grotesque figures persuaded Walt that the characters needed to become a permanent part of Disneyland.

It was impractical for Disneyland to keep borrowing those costumes, so the Disney Studio Costume Shop tried to make their own based on the Ice Capades examples, but trying to improve the appearance. These newer versions turned out to be extraordinarily heavy, awkward and, at times, unprofessional with flashes of real skin like an arm or neck being common.

The earliest costumes for the Three Little Pigs characters were made with rebar and weighed more than 70 pounds. The Seven Dwarfs performers looked through mesh in their hats and their arms hung limply at their sides so they could not shake hands or sign an autograph.

"Mickey's transformation from 2-D to 3-D worlds was natural, except for the design, of course," Hench said. "It is actually astonishing that Mickey held his identity. Making him a real, live character represented a violent shift that violated the head-to-body proportions [of the 2-D character].

"After a time, we made our own costumes for the walk-around characters," he said. "Of course, we got better at it as we went along. For example, we found smaller people [to wear the costumes] who didn't distort the image so much. The first characters weren't that great, I guess."

"Because height ranges for the characters had not been established, Mickey was sometimes over 6 feet tall!" said Ron Logan, former executive vice president of Walt Disney Entertainment. "In the fall of 1961 that all changed through the contributions of Bill Justice and John Hench who brought a higher quality design and consistency to the characters."

"At Walt's personal request, a new Mickey Mouse costume was designed by John Hench. Walt wanted to cast a smaller performer as Mickey and standardize the performer's height in costume. Paul Castle (who had performed in the Ice Capades as Mickey and other Disney characters like Dopey for years) was personally selected by Walt to perform the role."

"When Disneyland opened, we needed characters to meet the public regularly," remembered Disney Legend Bill Justice. "Everything had to be re-designed to more accurately represent the characters and stand up to the rigors of every day use among the guests."

"Walt told me, 'Other places can have thrill rides and bands and trains. Only we have our characters.' The costumed characters were very important to Walt," Justice said. "He said, 'Bill, always remember we don't want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind they've got to be as comfortable as possible. Try to get the lightest weight materials and the most ventilation as possible'. The first concern was always safety and the second was accuracy."

"To create the walk-arounds, we have to choose those physical features that convey a character's essential identity," wrote Hench in his book Designing Disney (Disney Editions 2003). "The essential characteristics that best identify the animated film Mickey and Minnie are their large heads and ears…since no human body has the exact proportions that the animated characters have onscreen, we had to find the right degree of exaggeration that would make the walk-around heads large enough to establish the character's identity while relating well to their body size."

Many experiments were made in those early years to capture an acceptable Mickey Mouse costumed character.

At one time, the head was enlarged to the same size as the body to try and achieve a cartoonish smallness. Mickey had been wearing regular sized black shoes so another attempt gave him large yellow shoes and a huge red bowtie to suggest a smaller character. He was given long black pants and sleeves to hide his skinny mouse legs and arms but still suggest them.

While Mickey was given white gloves, they were standard gloves but with the last two fingers sewn together to give the impression of three fingers and a thumb.

"People's perception of Mickey Mouse is the one they see at [Disneyland]. That's the one they meet with their children. He's got long pants. He's got extra eyebrows….more like the stuffed dolls they sell [than how he ever appeared in any cartoon]," said Disney Legend Ward Kimball.

In the early to mid-1960s, there was a core group of 10 to 12 full-time character performers supervised by Marvin Marker and they performed sets at Disneyland five days a week (since Disneyland was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays). In addition, there were 40 part-time performers who worked on weekends, holidays and evenings.

The character training and supervision was informal at best.

"In the early years, the characters walked around Disneyland freely, greeting guests and posing for pictures," stated Ron Logan, former executive vice president of Walt Disney Entertainment. "There was no schedule shared with the guests so there was no guarantee that the guests might see them. It was all serendipity."

In 1967, Bob Jani was hired as director of Entertainment and, soon after, Bob Phelps joined the staff from Western Costume Company as director of Costuming. Phelps introduced such improvements as poles on which to put the character heads so they would not be damaged by moisture and dirt on the ground.

In the later 1960s, Jack Muhs directed some re-designs of character costumes. In 1971, Alex Goldstab and Fred Duffy were re-located from Disneyland to Walt Disney World to establish a Disney Character Department and hired more than 200 character performers.

Experimenting continued on the costumes but were usually unsuccessful. An attempt to install air-conditioning or a fan inside the costume merely added greatly to the weight of the costume and its awkwardness. Another attempt to include a tape recorder with pre-recorded phrases didn't anticipate the challenge of the wrong response being the next one ready to be played and that many guests came from foreign countries where they had heard Mickey speak fluently in their own language.

In 2010, an interactive Mickey Mouse head was introduced to the Disney theme parks where Mickey blinked his eyes, moved his mouth and eventually in 2013 talked with guests as part of the "Living Character Initiative."

If Disney character costumes all started with an ice skating show, then that tradition is maintained today by more than 30 years of Disney on Ice shows.

One of my jobs at Walt Disney World was that at least once a year, I had to drive down to Sarasota, Florida where the skaters for Disney on Ice practiced.

In a series of three separate seminars in one day, I covered the overall history and philosophy of the Disney Company, the history of Disney character costuming, and the importance of character integrity (why certain characters cannot interact because they are different "worlds," the impact of characters on people, etc.)

Many of the skaters came from foreign countries and were unfamiliar with the basics of Disney history and the characters.

In the process, I also learned a lot about the Feld organization.

In 1970, Kenneth Feld joined the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey organization as a co-producer, learned the craft of production, took over after his father Irvin's death on September 6, 1984, and looked for new opportunities for expansion.

Irvin Feld had taken over the failing Ice Follies (a longtime competitor to the Ice Capades) in 1980. The Ice Follies audience was elderly, and Kenneth Feld had an idea to reinvent it by making it kid- and family-friendly.

After being turned away by Muppets creator Jim Henson because Feld had fired a friend of Henson's, Feld approached the Disney Company who initially weren't interested.

Disney had just finished a series of Disney on Parade arena shows that began in 1969, saracastically referred to as "Disney on Wood," that had failed to generate any significant profit.

However, Feld was persistent and arrangements were finally made so there would be a touring show of Disney characters.

Walt Disney's World On Ice premiered July 14, 1981, at a New Jersey arena and was an instant hit. That first show featured 60 skaters and four acrobats, and was a huge success.

In 1986, Disney On Ice premiered its first international tour in Japan with "Happy Birthday Donald Duck." Today, there are five North American and two international touring spectaculars that showcase almost 400 skaters in more than 2,000 performances each year. Each group does a different show.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people see a Disney On Ice show during a year.

Jerry Bilik, vice president of Creative Development for Disney On Ice is who recalled the first Disney On Ice production more than 30 years ago that was supposed to focus on "a parade of Disney characters."

To give the show an interesting storyline, Bilik created the premise that Pinocchio gets lost in Disneyland, and Geppetto goes looking for him, meeting various characters along the way.

"It's not Hamlet, but it worked," he said.

That production was the first time an ice show "even thought of continuity," Bilik says. "Before that, we were doing Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice. We were really bored."

Bilik says the success of "Disney on Ice" productions is due not only to the sets and storylines that create a mood and theme, but to the skaters who make the show come alive.

Unlike a typical ice revue, skaters in a Disney show often are required to act out the parts they are skating, he says, in addition to performing stunts and routines on the ice.

"The skaters are very self-motivated," Bilik said. "When they have to act, they embrace it. They feel it's a challenge. We can develop all the technical aspects of the show, but it's the skaters' skills that keep us going. They're not out there coasting; they're giving their all. The real show is not what we design but rather the crew and cast's performance."

The shows are truly in keeping with Walt Disney's philosophy of "family entertainment" where an entire family can share the experience and enjoy it on different levels.

They are also one of the best examples of how Disney costumed characters have expanded beyond the controlled environment of the Disney theme parks to impact the general public.