The Mickey Mouse Creation Myth

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Most of what we know about Disney is wrong. There were cartoons with sound and even synchronized sound before Steamboat Willie. There were even animated mice who looked a lot like the early Mickey Mouse that cavorted on theater screens years before Plane Crazy was made in 1928.

However, the one thing I thought I knew was how Mickey Mouse was created. After all, I heard Walt talk about it on his weekly television show and the story was repeated in reputable books and magazines.

I was wrong.

The exact details surrounding the actual creation of Mickey Mouse has always been a bit unclear, thanks to the fact that Walt Disney told an assortment of different versions over the years.

The most common legend is some variation on the following story:

Walt Disney went to New York to renew his contract and ask his film distributor, Charles Mintz, for more money to produce the second series of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons that had become very popular.

Mintz offered less money because he was setting up his own animation studio to produce the cartoons cheaper and using Walt's staff whom he had secretly hired away without Walt's knowledge. Only animator Ub Iwerks and two apprentice animators refused Mintz's tempting offer.

Walt had no recourse since he also learned that the character of Oswald and the cartoons were copyrighted by Universal Pictures. Walt did not own the character. Some versions of the story try to spin it so that the character was "stolen" from Walt, but the truth is that he never owned it in the first place, even though the Disney Studios designed the character, created the stories and animated them.

Walt telegraphed his brother Roy back in Hollywood that everything was fine and he would explain more when he arrived in Los Angeles.

He boarded the train to Los Angeles on March 13, 1928.

"So I had to get a new character," Walt told interviewer Tony Thomas in 1959. "And I was coming back after this meeting in New York, and Mrs. Disney was with me, and it was on the train—in those days, you know, it was three days over, three days from New York… well, I'd fooled around a lot with little mice, and they were always cute characters, and they hadn't been overdone in the picture field. They'd been used but never featured. So, well, I decided it would be a mouse… Well, that's how it came about… I had (his name) 'Mortimer' first and my wife shook her head, and then I tried 'Mickey' and she nodded the other way and that was it."

In the August 1955 issue of The American Magazine, Lillian Disney told interviewer Don Eddy:

"He (Walt) was a raging lion on the train coming home… All he could say, over and over, was that he'd never work for anyone again as long as he lived. He'd be his own boss… I was in a state of shock, scared to death. He read the script (for "Plane Crazy") to me but I couldn't focus on it. I was too upset. The only thing that got through to me was that horrible name, Mortimer.

"Horrible for a mouse, at least. (Lillian actually told Walt it was a "sissy" name at a time when "sissy" was used as a derogatory term for a certain group of people.) When I blew up, Walt calmed down. After a while, he asked quietly, 'What would you think of Mickey? Mickey Mouse?' I said it sounded better than 'Mortimer' and that's how Mickey was born."

Later, Walt would embellish the tale with the apocryphal story of him befriending a mouse in his Kansas City studio, sketching him, training him and then letting him go "in the best neighborhood I could find" before he made his trip to Hollywood to seek his fortune.

"[The train story] has been told so many times that you don't know what's true," remarked Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, in 1988 to author Bob Thomas. "The name part I'm sure of. I often heard my father and Walt say, 'Thank God we didn't name him Mortimer!'"

Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller told me that she believed her father did come up with the original Mickey Mouse sketch on the train ride.

"I knew my father and traveled with him and he always had to be busy doing something," she said. "He couldn't relax on a trip. Especially with the fate of his studio at stake, it just seems obvious to me that he played around with paper and pencil trying to come up with a solution like he usually did. He wouldn't have just sat there on the train worrying."

"I can't say just how the idea came," Walt told The American Magazine in the March 1931 issue. "We wanted another animal. We had had a cat; a mouse naturally came to mind. We felt that the public—especially children—like animals that are 'cute' and little. I think we were rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin ... a little fellow trying to do the best he could."

"Did I realize that I had hit upon an idea that would go round the world? Well, we always thought every new idea was a world-beater," he said. "And usually found out that it wasn't. We were enthusiastic over the idea of 'Mickey Mouse' but we had been just as enthusiastic over 'Alice.'"

The first Disney animated series was the "Alice Comedies," featuring a live-action little girl interacting with animated characters including a black cat named "Julius."

There had been plenty of mice in the "Alice Comedies" and even the "Oswald the Rabbit" cartoons. The Aesop's Fables animated series produced by the Van Beuren cartoon studio that Walt originally set as his standard to meet in animation had cartoon mice, including a pair named Milton and Rita that were later redesigned to more closely resemble Mickey and Minnie, like being several feet tall and wearing clothes.

The Disney Studios later sued Milton and Rita out of existence after three appearances in their new design.

In 1926, Walt drew a birthday card for his father, Elias, that featured three black mice without gloves or shoes that looked a lot like an early version of Mickey Mouse, but skinnier and with a longer snout.

When Walt moved into the new Hyperion Studio, animator Hugh Harman drew a publicity poster of cartoon mice around a photo of Walt Disney. Disney Legend Ub Iwerks in an interview before he died mentioned how that poster stood out for him.

While Walt may have thought of a mouse character and a possible storyline on that three day train trip, it is more likely that once he arrived in Los Angeles, he spent time with his brother, his wife and Ub Iwerks coming up with the character.

Otto Messmer, the animator of Felix the Cat, told animation historian John Culhane that "Walt designed a mouse but it wasn't any good. He was long and skinny."

Flipping through humor magazines like Life and Judge, according to Iwerks, they ran across the drawings of cartoonist Clifton Meek that had some cute mice. In fact, the sheet of paper with the earliest drawings by Iwerks of what Mickey would look like features in the upper-left-hand corner what has been called the "Little Lord Fauntleroy" Mickey attired in a similar fashion to the Meek mice with a frilly white shirt and black knickers.

Essentially, Mickey Mouse was a "mouse-ified" version of Oswald the Rabbit (designed by Iwerks originally) with mouse ears replacing rabbit ears and a mouse tail replacing the small rabbit tail. Even the shorts remained the same.

"Pear shaped body, ball on top, couple of thin legs. You gave it long ears and it was a rabbit," said Iwerks to author John Culhane. "Short ears, it was a cat. Ears hanging down, a dog… With an elongated nose, it became a mouse,"

Iwerks later told his sons who asked if he had any resentment that he didn't get enough credit for designing Mickey Mouse, "It was what Walt did with Mickey that was important, not who created him."

"Ub Iwerks was responsible for the drawing of Mickey, but it was Walt Disney who supplied the soul," stated Disney Legend Frank Thomas, one of Walt's fabled "Nine Old Men." "The way Mickey reacted to his predicaments, how he tried to extricate himself from a situation he could not control, never giving up and eventually finding a solution. That was all Walt."

In a 1959 interview with writer David Griffiths, Walt talked about the creation of Mickey and it seems to support the fact that after he got off the train the character was truly created.

"We had to create a new character in a hurry to survive. And find a market for it," Walt said. "We canvassed all the animal characters we thought suitable for the movie fable fashion of the time. All the good ones—the ones that would have instant appeal and would be comparatively easy to draw—seemed to have been pre-empted by the other companies in the cartoon animal field. Finally, a mouse was suggested, debated and put on the drawing boards as the best bet. That was Mickey."

As mentioned previously, the story of Walt Disney being inspired by a real mouse during his days as a young artist in Kansas City to create the character of Mickey Mouse on a train trip from New York to Los Angeles has become part of the mythology and is still told and re-told today.

While modern research has debunked some of the specifics of the legend, there is still the distinct possibility that Walt might have done some rough sketches on the train and may have considered a mouse as a replacement for Oswald the Rabbit. However, that version of the mouse was not the Mickey we think of today as the earliest Mickey Mouse.

Here are some of the variations of the legend that Walt shared with reporters in the earliest years of Mickey Mouse's popularity.

As you read them, remember that often these were only told once and that Walt was quite a storyteller. Walt knew the value of publicity and how a short anecdote could capture the hearts and imagination of people.

W.T. Maxwell, Daily Sketch, 1938

"While riding in the upper berth of the train taking Walt from New York to Hollywood, Walt heard "the continuous but slight creaking of the woodwork in his compartment sounded like a million mice in conference. The idea made him laugh and in that split second Mickey Mouse was born."

Walt later told another interviewer that the continuous rhythm of the sound of the wheels and whistle slowly blowing on the train seemed to repeat the word "mouse" over and over. Neither of these stories are true but are another wonderful example of Walt's inventive storytelling.

Photoplay, June 1932

"Legend has it that [Walt] Disney, broke and discouraged, was sitting on a park bench wondering where the next coffee and cakes were coming from. He laughed at the funny antics of a mouse scurrying about a nearby trash can. 'If that critter made me laugh,' reasoned Walt, 'he might do the same for the world!' And he certainly has!"

This was recounted in a story in that tosses in another odd and untrue story about the creation of Mickey Mouse. This variation of the story does not appear anywhere else.

From the Athens (Georgia) Banner Herald, December 26, 1933

"It was Disney's brother's daughter, aged 6, who was chiefly responsible for 'Mickey"… Six years ago Disney had a $5 a month studio over a garage where he sat at night and watched the antics of a pair of mice. After weeks of patient persuasion, he tamed them so that they would climb upon his drawing board. There they sat up and nibbled bits of cheese in their paws or even ate from his hand.

"As he watched them, he occasionally wrote letters to his niece. The letters described the activities of the mice and sometimes were illustrated with drawings of them doing funny, fantastic human things."

Walt never had a studio above a garage. Walt's niece (the daughter of his older brother, Herbert) would have been 11years old, a significant age difference. More importantly, "six years ago" in 1927, Walt was living and working in Hollywood not Kansas City. These letters were never discussed in any other article or surfaced during Walt's lifetime. This is yet another bit of hokum on the creation of Mickey Mouse.

Psychology magazine, November 1933

"[In Kansas City, Walt] made the acquaintance of Mickey. One evening as he was bending over his drawing board, two little mice scampered across his table. Amused at their capers, he began to make friends with them. And presently they were serving as his models. For hours they would sit on his drawing board, while he worked, combing their whiskers and licking their chops in true mouse fashion. And Walt would weave them into human situations and make them tell funny human stories."

Again, this story is not true. Sometimes Walt would say it was an entire family of mice that he captured and tamed.

Often, he would say that it was just one mouse that he made a prisoner in an overturned office wire waste basket and eventually training the mouse (by hitting it on the nose with the eraser on the end of his pencil) to stay inside a large circle he drew on a sheet of paper at the top of his drawing board.

When Walt decided to go to California, he supposedly took the mouse to a vacant lot "in the best neighborhood" he could find to release it.

"The mouse that had played on the drawing board didn't seem to want to go. He stood around looking at me. I had to stamp my foot on the pavement and yell at him to make him beat it. That's the last I ever saw of him," Walt said.

I am especially fond of the version where Walt said the mouse looked "mournfully" at him before scampering away, making Walt feel awful.

None of these stories were literally true but Walt loved embellishing the story of the creation of Mickey Mouse. The story of Mickey's birth on a train ride from New York became so polished by repetition over the years that it overshadowed any other variation and became as much an often retold myth as young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and confessing the truth to his father.

Even today, people still insist that the story Walt told about being inspired by a real mouse and using that memory on the train to create Mickey Mouse is the gospel truth.

"A magazine writer recently dismissed the story of the (real Kansas City) mouse which inspired Mickey as a myth. But Walt Disney spent one whole morning telling it to me and he insisted it was true." John C. Moffitt wrote in the Providence Bulletin newspaper in April 1934 in response to the February 1934 article in Cosmopolitan magazine that stated "fiction has it that a mouse roamed Walt's workroom; that the two became friendly, and the Mickey Mouse originated in this room. It is a nice story, but false. As a matter of fact, Mickey Mouse's papa is not overly fond of mice. He jumps out of their way, and doesn't go looking for them."

From my experience in animation, I know that the creation of a character is not a spur of the moment burst of inspiration, but is usually a lengthy process of development with many false starts to come up with a design of a character and then further refine that design and personality.

However, Walt's story about the birth of Mickey is a great one and one that everyone loves. I am certainly willing to give Walt the benefit of the doubt that on the train ride back from New York, he played around with the idea of a mouse character that he considered naming "Mortimer" but the tidy myth he told the world was an interesting mixture of actual truth and fanciful imagining.

Whatever the real story of Mickey's birth, I am very grateful for it and sincerely wish him the happiest of birthdays in November.