Mickey Mouse at the Oscars

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I've written before about Walt Disney and his many Oscars.

With Mickey Mouse's 85th birthday this month, I've had the Mouse on my mind, especially the oddball things that Mickey has done over the decades, including The Big Cheese being a presenter at the Academy Awards.

Mickey has presented Oscars in the Animated Short Subject category three times, and each time was to celebrate a memorable birthday.

Two of these clips can be accessed on YouTube, but, strangely, the most recent appearance in 2003 is notably absent anywhere on the Internet. Fortunately, I still have a VCR that works, so I can access some of my Disney treasures (like that appearance) that only exist on slowly deteriorating VHS tape. Of course, I am slowly deteriorating at the same rate, so things work out well.

Once again, I don't see that anyone else has covered these three appearances so I thought I might share what information I have.

At the 50th Academy Awards Ceremony, held in April 1978, Star Wars was a big winner with six wins out of 10 nominations. Two of the iconic characters from the film, the droids C3PO and R2D2, were on hand to present a special technical award related to the film.

When they finished, the orchestra played "The Mickey Mouse Club March" (the theme song from the original Mickey Mouse Club television show) and a costumed Mickey Mouse character in a tuxedo walked on stage, greeting the droids as they left the stage. The audience roared its applause.

After announcing that he was there to award the Oscar for best animated short (thanks to a live voice-over by Mickey's official voice at the time, Jimmy MacDonald, who was backstage), Mickey was joined on stage by singer/songwriter Paul Williams as co-presenter along with actress Jodie Foster.

Williams complimented Mickey on Steamboat Willie and joked that maybe he would get Mickey two more fingers for his 50th birthday being celebrated that year.

Williams said of Mickey: "He is forever young and he has kept us young."

Mickey then announced all the nominees. The winner was The Sand Castle.

In 1979, presenter Robin Williams handed an honorary Oscar to animator Walter Lantz for "doing strange and wonderful things with a laughing bird," Woody Woodpecker. Actually, the official designation was "for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world through his unique animated motion pictures" so he was not being honored like Walt had been for a particular character.

An animated Woody Woodpecker (with animation by legendary Warner Brothers animator Virgil Ross) ran across the stage to congratulate his producer (with his voice being done by Gracie Lantz, the wife of Walter).

That concept of combining animation and live action was a much-talked-about segment, but it was not attempted again for almost a decade.

In 1988, as part of his continuing year long 60th birthday celebration, Mickey Mouse appeared at the Academy Award ceremonies to present the Oscar for Best Animated Short to The Man Who Planted Trees.

An animated Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, and Minnie Mouse sat in the audience in the front row as comedian and host Chevy Chase introduced a compilation of film clips of "one of the most beloved cartoon stars of all time," Mickey Mouse, ending with a clip from the "Sorcerer Apprentice" sequence of Fantasia (1940).

At the end of the clip, an animated Sorcerer Mickey stepped off the screen and onto the stage where he was joined by an animated Donald Duck, who thought he was going to be the co-presenter.

Mickey had to gently tell his friend that the Academy had chosen a human for that role. Donald is then yanked off the stage by a hook and with a little Sorcerer Mickey magic finds himself bound up back in his front-row seat.

Disney historian Charles Solomon (and author of many fine Disney books) described the scene in the April 13, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times:

[Mickey] conjured up a giant package that burst to reveal Tom Selleck. The cartoon mouse exchanged banter with the live actor, walked across the stage and announced one of the nominees. The envelope flew out of his hand, turned circles in the air and landed on the lectern within Selleck's reach.

Although the Disney animation staff and telecast director Marty Pasetta began planning this surprise bit of technical legerdemain in early January, directing animators Mark Henn and Rob Minkoff and free-lance artist Nancy Beman had to create two minutes of animation in just three weeks—less than half the time the work would ordinarily take. The artists used still photographs of the stage and lectern as guides when they devised the cartoon action.

It's difficult enough to coordinate the movements of actors and cartoon characters in feature films, when all the footage has been shot in advance. The awards show was a live broadcast: The action on nine separate reels of animation had to be matched to Selleck's movements in real time. The two images were combined electronically by technicians in the control room.

The audience in the Shrine Auditorium saw Selleck talking to an empty space on the stage and to Mickey on the monitors.

Selleck was familiar to audiences for his role in the popular television series Magnum P.I., but the previous year he had starred in the successful Touchstone film Three Men and a Baby.

For the 1989 Oscar ceremonies, comedian Robin Williams appeared with a Mickey Mouse ear headpiece and white mouse gloves to present a special award for technical achievement to animator Richard Williams.

An animated Snow White in a white gown popped up at the Oscars in 1993 to present the animated short subject category that was won by Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase.

"Frankly, it's about time," Snow White said with a smile. "I'm not getting any younger, you know [giggles and fluffs hair] but on the other hand, I am not getting any older either. So here I am presenting the award for Best Achievement in Animated Short Films. And as you all know, I've got more than a little experience with short subjects."

Obviously, there were several animated versions filmed of announcing the final winner and, unfortunately, Snow White froze briefly in mid-sentence before the announcement so the right version could be played at the appropriate moment.

There was a small controversy that even though the original voice of Snow White, Adrianna Caselotti, was available, Disney decided to go with another voice artist for the princess.

An agitated 77-year-old Caselotti told the Los Angeles Times newspaper on April 4, 1993: "If Walt were alive he never would have permitted anything like this to happen. I don't know why this was done… they just got some girl to do it."

A Disney spokeswoman replied: "We opted to use one of our other Snow White voices."

Many of the movie star appearances on an Academy Awards show are designed to provide publicity for upcoming movies. In Snow White's case, Disney planned on re-releasing the movie during that summer. In addition, the Oscar show's theme in 1993 was "Oscar Salutes Women and the Movies" in recognition of the "Year of the Woman" so Snow White seemed an obvious choice having won an Oscar 55 years earlier.

"We fully intend for Caselotti to be involved with the publicity when Snow White is reissued," the Disney spokeswoman added.

Caselotti said after the snub, she didn't know if she wanted to participate. She groused that "I was paid a total of $970 to sing the role. And I get no residuals." (Caselotti did relent and participate.)

The voice was Mary Kay Bergman who in 1995, claimed she did not know about the Disney duplicity of replacing Caselotti's voice. Bergman had just finishing taping the singing voice of Snow White for an extra feature on a new special feature enhanced DVD version of the film and assumed that Caselotti had turned down the opportunity for whatever reason.

"Adriana was cringing, and I know she was livid, and I don't blame her. I felt so bad for her because that's not the way it should be. In fact, I consider Adriana to be the definitive Snow White," said Bergman in 1995.

In 1995, an animated Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were animated presenters.

In 2003, Mickey made one more appearance at the Oscar ceremonies to celebrate his 75th birthday, presenting in the shorts category with actress Jennifer Garner. The animated shorts winner that year was The ChubbChubbs!

At the time, Walt Disney Imagineering was developing a "digital puppetry" process that it would introduce at Epcot in 2004 in the Turtle Talk With Crush attraction. A hidden puppeteer performs and voices a digitally animated 3D character.

For this Oscar presentation, a CGI Mickey was created using the same technology. Backstage, a performer utilized an electronic rig to manipulate the image of Mickey that audiences saw on their television screen in "real time."

Host Steve Martin introduced Garner and said that "she is sharing the stage with one of the most beloved black actors in the history of cinema, Mickey Mouse."

Mickey entered from the opposite side of the stage in a black tuxedo and white tie. He searched through his suit for the list of nominees and found his parking stub and an envelope with a ring.

"Very funny, Frodo," said Mickey, making reference to the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers that was nominated for several Oscars that year.

Mickey also made a joke about being unable to read a name, asking actor Jack Nicholson sitting in the front row for help. It was in reference to the film About Schmidt, where Nicholson's character was unable to correctly pronounce the name of a young Tanzanian boy. Nicholson was nominated that year for Best Actor for that role.

Garner suggested that Mickey read the nominees from the TelePrompTer so, like many real actors on award shows who are asked to read from a TelePrompTer, Mickey put on a pair of glasses with black frames.

After the winner was announced, the camera cut back to Mickey who stood there smiling and applauding.

Mickey Mouse has been in nine animated shorts nominated for an Academy Award:

  • Mickey's Orphans (1932)
  • Building a Building (1933)
  • Brave Little Tailor (1938)
  • The Pointer (1939)
  • Lend a Paw (1941)
  • Squatter's Rights (1946)
  • Mickey and the Seal (1948)
  • Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
  • Runaway Brain (1995)

Lend a Paw was the only short to win an Oscar.

Walt Disney received a special Oscar from the Academy for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Actor Charlie Chaplin was originally supposed to present the statuette, but had decided to stay home. This moment was a milestone in Oscar history since it was the first year that one man was given two awards at the same ceremony (Walt won an Oscar for Flowers and Trees) and only the second time a special Oscar had been awarded. (The first special award was to Chaplin.)

No other animator ever received a special Oscar for the creation of a particular animated character.

I wish these Oscar appearances could be compiled on a Blu-Ray but I know that the rights issues are so complicated that it will not happen legally.

And while I am wishing, I am going to get a bit greedy and hope that Blu-Ray also includes two other oddball Mickey Mouse films:

From 1989, I'd love a good copy of Michael and Mickey directed by Jerry Rees.

Mickey, done in CGI animation, walks into then Disney CEO Michael Eisner's office (where it is revealed that while Michael wears a Mickey Mouse wristwatch, Mickey wears a Michael Eisner wristwatch) to remind him they need to go to the screening room. As they walk down the hall, both live (like the evil queen from Snow White) and animated characters (like Roger Rabbit) stream out of offices and conference rooms to join the procession. In the screening room, the demon Chernabog sits in front of them and must be reminded that there are people behind him who want to see the screen.

The short was made at the Disney Studio in Burbank to introduce a "Coming Attractions" Disney movie reel at the end of the Backstage Tour at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida. It was shown in the Walt Disney Theater. Robert Zemeckis, who had just finished Who Framed Roger Rabbit, was hired to direct, but illness forced Disney to replace him. The animation was done by Mark Kausler (who, I believe did most of the Mickey Mouse animation), Steve Moore, Bruce W. Smith, David Spafford, and Frans Vischer. This two-minute clip was later shown as the opening of the television special: Best of Disney—50 Years of Magic (1991) and that's where I got my slowly decaying copy on videotape.

From 1991, I'd like a copy of Mickey's Big Break, directed by Rob Minkoff.

In this five-minute live-action film originally made for use at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, a costumed Mickey Mouse struggles as an actor until he gets his big audition for Walt Disney (who is portrayed by Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney) in the final moments of the film, which includes cameos by many celebrities, such as Mel Brooks, Ed Begley Jr., Angela Lansbury, and Dom DeLuise.

The film was made in 1991 as the prologue for a guest "screen test" attraction but never used. In December 1994, it was shown at the Main Street Cinema in Magic Kingdom, where it played until the Cinema closed in 1998. The film is sometimes called Mickey's Audition. The big yellow banner outside the Main Street Cinema read "World Premiere. Mickey's Big Break. The discovery of Hollywood's most animated star!" The banner was 31 inches tall and 11 feet wide.

I guess that is greedy to want good copies of those goodies and I don't mean to open a Pandora's Box where readers will comment that they would like a copy of the film that runs at the end of One Man's Dream (so would I) or a complete set of the Disney Family Album series (which will unfortunately never happen since the Disney Company misplaced all the signed talent release contracts that MICA gave them and it would be too expensive to go back and re-negoiate with the estates of performers like Buddy Ebsen and Annette Funicello to get the rights to use their images and voices). Or all those 1950s television commercials where Clarence "Ducky" Nash does the voice of Mickey Mouse. Or the second Disney Christmas television show. Or all that behind-the-scenes live-action footage of the Opening Day of Disneyland shot by Margaret (Tinker Bell) Kerry's late husband, Dick Brown.

That's the problem with knowing a few things, you know the things you would love to have. I am still looking for a copy of Roy (Big Mooseketeer) Williams' limited-edition autobiography. I know there are at least two physical copies out there that people had in their hands at one time and there may be one hiding in the Disney Archives, perhaps miscataloged.

Oh well, wouldn't it be nice to have Mickey Mouse pop up on the Oscars in the next few months to celebrate his 85th birthday year?