Things You Probably Never Knew About Mickey Mouse

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Last week, I shared some out-of-the-ordinary stories about Mickey Mouse

As we celebrate Mickey Mouse's 90th this coming Sunday, some of the same old facts and stories about the beloved iconic cartoon character are being trotted out again. I thought MousePlanet readers might enjoy knowing some of the more obscure trivia about the Happiest Mouse on Earth.


This Disney School Bus lunchbox sold its 9 millionth unit in 1976.

Mickey's Birthday

When is Mickey's Mouse's birthday? That certainly seems like a simple, easy question especially since I am writing this column to help celebrate the event this Sunday, November 18, but it is actually much more complicated than people realize.

When did Mickey celebrate his third birthday? October 24, 1931. The Los Angeles Times at the time contacted the Disney Studios in Burbank to confirm that fact.

When did Mickey celebrate his fifth birthday? October 1, 1933. Walt told Film Pictorial magazine "that was the date on which his first picture was started so we have allowed him to claim this day as his birthday". Walt was incorrect as to the starting date of Mickey's first cartoon (Plane Crazy which was April 1928), as well as the starting date of Steamboat Willie (which was in August 1928) but Mickey's birthday was occasionally celebrated on October 1 for several years.

When was Mickey's lucky 7th birthday? When every available print of all Disney animated cartoons were in use across the country in theaters, cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson drew a special birthday-themed installment of the Mickey Mouse newspaper strip and Guy Lombardo and his orchestra recorded a special fox trot "Mickey Mouse's Birthday Trot": September 28, 1935.

Of course, those dates were all in the earliest years of the Mouse where things were in turmoil and Walt had a small staff and documentation was not as important. So, let's try an easier one. When was Mickey's 40th birthday in 1968? September 27, 1968.

Basically, for over forty years, Disney selected any date from mid-September to mid-November to celebrate Mickey's birthday in order to encourage theaters to rent Mickey Mouse cartoons for promotional birthday parties and to drive in hordes of children who were back in school to those theaters before the big Christmas holiday season.

Mickey's 40th was a huge success, unleashing a wave of unprecedented merchandising nostalgia for the original, pie-eyed Mickey. With even more elaborate plans for Mickey's 50th in 1978 and the hiring of Disney Archivist Dave Smith in June 1970, it became a priority to finally establish an official date that had some legitimate foundation in time for the big birthday.

Smith cleverly decided that the premiere of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theater in New York on November 18, 1928 was truly the first time that Mickey Mouse made his debut.

Of course, both Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho had had extremely limited one day theatrical appearances in single, local Los Angeles theaters to judge the audience's reaction and to try to find a distributor for the series but it was Steamboat Willie that made a huge hit nationwide, had an extended run and garnered tons of publicity.

So Mickey first celebrated his official birthday on November 18, 1978, thanks to Dave Smith and has continued to do so for the last 40 years. Of course, it is also Minnie's birthday—but it is rude to acknowledge a lady's age.

Cereal Mickey

In 1934, General Foods put Mickey Mouse on its Post Toasties cereal box, making Mickey Mouse the first licensed character to appear on a cereal box.

The boxes featured cutouts of the Disney characters and were an inexpensive way for children in the Great Depression to have a Mickey Mouse toy to play with after they finished eating the company's version of Corn Flakes.

Besides the figures, there were sometimes cut-out games like "Put the Bee on Donald," a variation of Pin the Tail on the Donkey where a bee with a sharp stinger had to be placed on Donald's rear end, cardboard medals of the Disney characters, connect the dots drawings and more.

Sometimes the cut-outs were directly related to a cartoon like The Steeple Chase (released September 1933). For Disney, it was great advertising to remind people to go to the local cinema to see the latest Mickey Mouse cartoon as well as for kids to re-create the cartoon adventures they had seen. Merchandising genius Kay Kamen arranged for this licensing arrangement.

That first year, General Foods paid Disney $1.5 million (more than $20 million today) for just one year to produce these boxes that cost families roughly $0.12 a box. That was more money than Disney was earning from its cartoons that same year.

There is even a photo of a child's bedroom where the parents had insulated the thin walls with unfolded Post Toasties' boxes so that the kid could see pictures of Mickey Mouse. General Foods continued renewing the contract through 1941.

Lunch Box Mickey

The most successful school lunchbox ever was the Disney School Bus (done in tin with a dome lid) first produced by Aladdin in 1961 and released for many years.

It sold its 9 millionth unit in 1976 and is considered the world's best-selling lunch box so it is not considered "rare" except in great condition and with the thermos. The designer was Disney Legend Al Konetzni.

Mickey and Pluto stand beside a yellow school bus filled with Disney characters including Pinocchio, Dumbo, Morty and Ferdy, Dopey, Brer Rabbit and good old Goofy behind the steering wheel. In excellent condition, an original sells for over five hundred dollars. Well-used boxes sell for considerably less. Originally, it sold for $2.69.

"Hallmark made a miniature of it to hang on a Christmas tree," smiled Konetzni when I talked with him in 2003. "From 1953 through 1980, I worked for Disney. I was hired as an 'Idea Man' to come up with children's toys and games, and I always felt honored to be called an 'Idea Man' for Disney."

Konetzni was a marketing account executive, coordinating Disney licensing with such industry giants as General Electric (for the Mickey Mouse night light); Lever Brothers (for the Mickey Mouse toothbrush); and Bradley Time and Elgin (for Mickey Mouse watches and clocks, among others). He was also responsible for the development and licensing of the now-collectible Pez Mickey and Donald candy dispensers and Donald Duck pencil sharpener.

When he retired, he and his wife moved to Sarasota, Florida where he hooked up with Ringling Brothers and developed merchandise for Disney on Ice shows.

"Mickey always makes me smile," said Konetzni the last time I saw him.

Mickey and The Oscar

Mickey's theatrical cartoon shorts were nominated 10 times for an Academy Award

  • Mickey's Orphans (1931)
  • 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)
  • Get a Horse! (2013)

The only Mickey cartoon to win an Oscar was Lend A Paw, a Technicolor remake of the earlier black-and-white Mickey cartoon Mickey's Pal Pluto (1933) about Pluto saving a kitten from drowning and then getting jealous of Mickey's attention to the little ball of fur.

Walt Disney was given a special Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse in 1932. Some press reports claimed that the award signified the "first non-human to win an Oscar" even though the Oscar was for Walt not Mickey. It was only the second time a special Oscar was presented. The first was given to Charlie Chaplin who was scheduled to present the award to Walt but missed the ceremony entirely.

Mickey has presented Oscars in the Animated Short Subject category three times (1978, 1988, 2003) over the decades and each appearance was tied to one of his birthday celebrations (50th, 60th, 75th).

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

As the orchestra played "The Mickey Mouse Club March," 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 (thanks to a live voice-over by Jimmy MacDonald who was backstage) that he was there to award the Oscar for best animated short, 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.

Ten years later in 1988, as part of his continuing 60th birthday celebration, Mickey Mouse appeared at the Academy Award ceremonies to present the Oscar for Best Animated Short: 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's Apprentice" sequence of Fantasia.

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 fowl 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.

Historian Charles Solomon 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 freelance 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 Disney film Three Men and a Baby.

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

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" 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 actress Jennifer 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.

From Mouse to Duck

While Mickey Mouse was very popular and beloved, once Donald Duck arrived, he became people's favorite because of his feisty personality. He was especially popular in foreign countries.

Walt said in the 1950s:

"You might say Donald speaks a universal language. That is, no one can understand what he says in any language but the whole world laughs at him.

"I like Donald because he's easy to work with. You can get Donald in almost any situation and have a story.

"He can yell at his nephews that he could kill them for scribbling up the living room walls—just as any mother would—then soften a few minutes later and cry like a baby because he thinks they're burned up in the stove. The duck's allowed to have a temper. Mickey isn't. And the tempo of the times demands more violence—but not from Mickey."

Ironically, Donald always felt jealous and that Mickey was his rival to beat.

After all, even his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie preferred to watch the Mickey Mouse Club on television and wear mouse ears than watch "Unca Donald's" movies. That hilarious bit was in the weekly Disney television episode "At Home With Donald Duck" that aired November 21, 1956.

In fact, it was the opening credits for the Mickey Mouse Club that first established that Donald wanted the spotlight from Mickey, something that never happened in any of the theatrical cartoons where he worked together with Mickey. However, after that time, it became part of the Disney canon that Donald felt a rivalry with Mickey, something that was never reciprocated by the Mouse.

Sometimes animation projects developed for Mickey got hijacked by the foul fowl.

In an interview in a 1949 issue of Collier's magazine, Walt Disney stated, "Mickey's decline was due to his heroic nature. He grew into such a legend that we couldn't gag around with him. He acquired as many taboos as a Western hero—no smoking, no drinking, no violence."

Jimmy MacDonald, who provided the voice for Mickey for almost four decades, recalled, "I remember when Walt was in a story meeting one time and they were showing him the storyboards and reading the dialogue. He was smiling and everybody thought, 'Oh, this is great. If Walt was smiling, then it was going over well'. But when he was through, he said, 'No, we're not going to make it'. And they couldn't understand why. Then he said, 'I don't want Mickey put into those situations."

Animator and director Jack Hannah stated, "I remember many stories were started with Mickey but as soon as they started to rough the Mouse up, Walt would come up and say, 'Well, that's more of a Donald Duck story' so they'd turn around and make it a Donald Duck story."

One classic example of a Mickey story being transformed into a Donald story was Yukon Mickey a 1930s un-produced short that was partially storyboarded with Mickey Mouse as a Canadian Mountie but was completely re-boarded with Donald Duck in the part. Neither version was made.

In a story meeting on February 21, 1938, Walt Disney said:

"This picture might be suited better for the Duck as you would be able to use more personality with the Duck in spots than you would with Mickey. The expression and the voice of the Duck would help it. It is a natural for the Duck to get in a situation like this -- and the audience likes to see the Duck get it."

In 1948, Walt stated:

"It's tough to come up with new ideas for Mickey, to keep him fresh and at the same time in character. The Duck's a lot easier. You can do anything with him.

"I have always kind of compared Mickey to Harold Lloyd—he has to have situations (or) he isn't funny. I'd rather not make Mickey (films) if we don't get the right idea for him. These things with the Duck are always funny, but if you try to pull those with Mickey, it just seems like someone trying to be funny."

 

Comments

  1. By ralfrick

    "n fact, it was the opening credits for the Mickey Mouse Club that first established that Donald wanted the spotlight from Mickey, something that never happened in any of the theatrical cartoons where he worked together with Mickey"

    I'd argue that it happened with The Band Concert in 1935.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by ralfrick View Post
    "n fact, it was the opening credits for the Mickey Mouse Club that first established that Donald wanted the spotlight from Mickey, something that never happened in any of the theatrical cartoons where he worked together with Mickey"

    I'd argue that it happened with The Band Concert in 1935.

    I think that is certainly a fair point but my impression is not that Donald wanted to steal the attention from Mickey but just to be part of the band but there is certainly conflict between the two characters.

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