A New Mouse Voice In Townby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Over the years, many people have voiced the famous falsetto of Mickey Mouse.
J. Donald Wilson once did it on radio, as did Joe Twerp, who supplied the voice for 17 episodes of the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air in the 1930s. Comedian and writer Stan Freberg supplied the voice on a 1955 children’s record, Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party. Jack Wagner, the voice of Disneyland, often did Mickey’s voice for various theme park-related events like parades and announcements.
Allegedly, Carl Stalling and Clarence Nash pinch hit for Walt, as well, to cover a line or two. (That certainly doesn’t sound like Walt Disney singing “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo” in Mickey’s Follies in 1929. Could it be Stalling, who wrote the music?)
Les Perkins did the voice of Mickey in the 1987 television special Down and Out With Donald Duck as well as the DTV Valentine in 1986. Quinton Flynn did Mickey’s voice in some episodes of the 1999 television series Mickey Mouse Works.
That incomplete list doesn’t even include all the different foreign voice artists who supplied Mickey’s voice in German, Japanese, Italian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish and more over the decades.
However, for more than 80 long years, the Disney Company only officially recognized three incredibly talented professionals as providing the voice of the iconic Mickey. Mickey's creator Walt Disney spoke for the little fellow from 1928 to 1947, as well as reportedly supplying Mickey's voice for animated portions of the original Mickey Mouse Club television show in the mid-1950s. Disney sound effects genius Jimmy MacDonald took over the unique task from 1947 to 1977. Finally, the enthusiastic Wayne Allwine performed the famous vocalizations from 1977 to 2009.
With the sad passing of Wayne last May, the Disney Company needed someone to perform the honor of providing Mickey’s instantly recognizable voice. As Disney fans now know, that man was Bret Iwan. Iwan won the role after a Disney company-wide search where a relative submitted Iwan as a possibility. In a final audition, Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse and the widow of Wayne Allwine, helped in selecting Iwan.
Reportedly, out of respect for those who still mourned the loss of Allwine, Iwan kept a very low profile until recent curiosity by Disney fans revealed his identity. Reportedly, Disney will make the official announcement with the release of Epic Mickey (where a very talented voice artist with decades of experience will provide the voice for Oswald the Rabbit). During the last year, Iwan recorded Mickey’s dialogue for, among other things Disney On Ice: Celebrations!, the KINGDOM HEARTS: Birth by Sleep game, as well as Fisher-Price’s new Dance Star Mickey toy.
Iwan, who was born September 10, 1982, is a graduate of the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. He went into a career as an illustrator for Hallmark in Kansas City where he worked for five years.
Readers can hear Iwan as Mickey on an announcement (link):
A talented and humorous natural performer, Walt Disney was the very first person to supply voices for Disney animated cartoons, including using his theatrical skills to bring an extra dimension to Mickey's personality.
Walt's vocal characterization of Mickey is the only existing evidence of his remarkable acting ability, which was usually only witnessed by his artists at the lively story meetings held at the Disney Studios. Playful Walt would often ad-lib dialog for lovable Mickey in that well-known voice resulting in appreciative laughter from his listeners.
Walt told an interviewer, "He [Mickey Mouse] still speaks for me and I still speak for him. In Steamboat Willie (1928), in addition to speaking for Mickey, I also supplied a few sound effects for Minnie, his girlfriend" as well as the sarcastic sqwaking dialogue of Captain Pete's annoying parrot.
While Steamboat Willie has Mickey vocalizing his many feelings, the classic character's first words were not uttered until the film The Karnival Kid (1929). That historic moment showcased carnival hot dog vendor Mickey gleefully shouting "Hot dog! Hot dog!"
At one point, Walt felt his Midwestern twang and lack of professional acting experience might hamper Mickey Mouse's success, so he spent a week auditioning professional actors to take over the part. Despite Walt's impassioned coaching and the best efforts of these performers, no one was able to capture Mickey's intrepid optimism and pluck as deftly as Walt himself.
"I knew that I'd always be on the payroll so I did it," Walt would laugh. He told others that he preferred his unique vocal interpretation because "there is more pathos in it."
"Walt was Mickey and Mickey was Walt," said Disney Legend Les Clark. "Even Mickey's gestures were copied from Walt when he performed Mickey."
"It was no easy matter to get color into such an unnatural, limited voice, but Walt managed,' said award-winning author Bob Thomas, who wrote a popular biography of Walt Disney. "No one else could capture the gulping, ingenuous, half-brave quality. Walt's depiction of Mickey was so accurate, so inspired, that animators wished they could capture the Disney facial expressions and movements to help them with animating Mickey."
A famous clip of Mickey Mouse that is constantly used is the one where a frightened Mickey as a hunter is overshadowed by a growling, threatening bear and tries to calm the situation by nervously stuttering: "Well, I'm, uh, Mickey Mouse. You know? Mickey Mouse? I hope you've heard of me, I hope."
There is a wonderful story behind that short little clip of dialog when Aanimator Frank Thomas finally convinced Walt to be filmed for a short sequence. he was needed to help the animators, who were having challenges coming up with appropriate actions for surprised hunter Mickey as he confronted an angry bear in the animated short The Pointer (1939).
"Walt didn't want to be in front of a camera when he was doing the voice of Mickey Mouse," Thomas recalled. "Finally, he told me 'if you're way back in the booth over there and I can't see you, well, I guess so.' When he recorded the voice he couldn't help but feel like Mickey and he added all these little gestures that were spontaneous with him. At one point, he put out his hand like this [to indicate that Mickey was 3 feet tall], it was the only time we knew how big Walt thought Mickey was.”
While that memorable piece of live-action film no longer exists, a little more than a decade ago, film was discovered in the dusty Disney vaults of Walt and voice artist Billy Bletcher (also known for the gruff tones of the Big Bad Wolf) doing several takes for a sequence of Mickey Mouse being interrogated by the villainous Pete on a train for Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940). The film records Walt professionally performing the flustery falsetto and shy giggle for multiple takes of the dialog. (It’s also fun to see Walt’s lips moving as he reads silently to himself Bletcher’s lines.)
It was almost impossible to imagine anyone else supplying the distinctive dialog for Walt's alter ego. However, as the Disney Studio expanded, it became harder and harder for busy Walt to schedule time to go to the soundstage to record the vocal tracks as sound effects man Jimmy Macdonald remembered.
In 1934, Jimmy Macdonald was playing drums and percussion in a jazz band that was used by the Disney Studios to record music for a Mickey Mouse short. After the recording was over, Walt Disney was so impressed with Macdonald's versatility that he hired MacDonald to form a sound effects department for the Disney Studio.
Macdonald invented many of the Disney sound effects himself building the necessary contraptions in his home workshop. He built more than 500 different devices from scratch.
"I was never onstage very much when Walt was doing Mickey. He might come down while I was doing effects, and they suddenly needed some Mickey (dialog), and maybe it was the only time he had," Macdonald said.
Often animators would be delayed in their work because they didn't have Walt's voice track to animate, but the executive was becoming busier and busier with the many responsibilities at the popular animation studio. In addition, Walt’s chain smoking was giving his Mickey voice a harshness not appropriate for the young character and requiring more takes to capture just the right tone.
Macdonald remembered, "Being on staff, you were asked to do bits of everything. For instance, on Cinderella , I did the two mice, Jaq and Gus. It was something that I'd never tried before; we just thought we’d try it because I was on staff, and if I could do it, it would save having to pay actors to come in. Storyman Winston Hibler had written a lot of strange jargon—he called it 'mouse latin,' an unintelligible language. The one mouse we had to speed up a bit, and the other one we slowed down. When that was cut into a rough cut, and shown to the people here, everybody loved the picture, and they loved the mice."
Jimmy was also the voice of another mouse, the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland (1951) for which he recorded his voice at double speed and then played it back.
While he invented the voices for those mice, he inherited the most important mouse voice for the Big Cheese himself when Walt finally was too overwhelmed with other work.
Walt originally recorded the dialog for Mickey for Mickey and the Beanstalk in May 1940 but production on the film was continually delayed for five years and the story frequently rewritten during that time requiring Walt to return over the years to the sound stage to record the new lines.
Jimmy Macdonald remembered how he got the opportunity of a lifetime: " When I started doing Mickey's voice we were doing Mickey and the Beanstalk (a segment from Fun and Fancy Free 1947), and the animators and the director in charge of the sequences that needed Walt's voice on Mickey approached him and said, 'Walt, we need you on the stage; we want to go ahead with this.' He said, ''I'm too busy, I just can't do it. Call Jim up here.'"
"They said, 'Walt wants to see you,' and I thought, 'What have I done now?' He said, 'Have you ever tried to do Mickey?' I said, 'No, Walt.' You wouldn't try to do that, because it was always Walt's voice; there was no reason ever to try it. So he said, 'Do it. Just say something.' So I said (in Mickey's voice), 'Hi, Walt, how are you?' You know, Mickey always had that little identifiable giggle."
A test recording was done of Macdonald trying to match the vocal track Walt had done five years earlier. They were compared and Walt was pleased that Macdonald had captured Mickey's spirit and limited vocal range.
Macdonald recalled that "Walt said, 'That's fine.' He told the directors, 'Have Jim do it, in the future. He can do it fine.' But, he told me, 'Don't let them give you long speeches. Because you have that falsetto, and you have a couple of inches of area for inflection, and it'd be terrible to have a long speech in falsetto voice. You don't have much room for inflection; you're already up there. And if you get too low, you start to yodel, and yodel right out of it.' So it was always best, he said, to have short speeches."
Macdonald smiled when he remembered that "One day I was doing something and Walt came on the dialog stage. As he turned to leave, he turned around to the fellow at the soundboard and said, 'Hey, don't forget I do Mickey's voice, too.'"
In fact, in the mid-1950s, Walt stepped in and recorded Mickey's voice for the daily introductions on the Mickey Mouse Club television show—almost a decade after he had officially stopped doing the voice.
After he was given the incredible honor, Macdonald only performed Mickey's voice in less than a dozen cartoons for movie theaters before the final theatrically released Mickey Mouse short, The Simple Things (1953). Macdonald had to convey the more sedate fatherly tones of a mature, suburban Mickey in cartoons like Mickey and the Seal (1948) and Pluto's Christmas Tree (1952). Fortunately, there were many other opportunities, including the Disney television shows, commercials, records, and special projects that required Macdonald's skills to speak for Mickey. However, he always felt his main job was running the sound effects department.
Just a few months before Walt Disney died in 1966, 20 year old Wayne Allwine was hired for a job in the mail room at The Walt Disney Studios. From there, he worked briefly in Wardrobe, then moved to Audio Post Production and eventually began a seven-and-a-half year apprenticeship under Macdonald, where he won awards for his sound effects editing. Wayne sometimes referred to himself as the "Sorcerer's Apprentice."
When Macdonald decided to retire in 1976, the Disney Studios searched for a replacement to provide Mickey's voice. Allwine was sent to an open audition for Mickey's voice after another actor failed to show up.
Besides working with Macdonald for so many years, Allwine had strong memories in his mind of the voice of Mickey from the original Mickey Mouse Club television show that he watched avidly as a youngster. He easily got the part and made his vocal debut on The New Mickey Mouse Club (1977-1978), and provided Mickey's voice for Disney theme parks, movies, television specials, records, and video games for over three decades.
"Just remember, kid," Jimmy Macdonald told Allwine with a smile, "you're only filling in for the boss."
Allwine's premiere theatrical vocal appearance as Mickey Mouse was in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), the first new Mickey Mouse animated cartoon released to movie theaters in 30 years. Allwine not only had to recreate Mickey's distinctive voice, but also to convey Mickey's acting skills as Bob Crachit, the browbeaten clerk of the stingy Mr. Scrooge. Over the years, Allwine continued to expand Mickey's dramatic repertoire by singing in The Prince and the Pauper (1990) and performing as an enormous monster in Runaway Brain (1995).
During the last decade, Allwine was heard constantly as Mickey in everything from new cartoon shorts for television series Mickey Mouse Works (1999) and Disney's House of Mouse (2001) to popular video games like the KINGDOM HEARTS series that began in 2002.
Wayne Allwine died on May 18, 2009. The last Disney product to feature his voice work, KINGDOM HEARTS 358/2 Days, has a dedication to his memory.
"Mickey is an actor and he's capable of doing whatever he's given to do—provided it's kept in context of what Mickey would and wouldn't do," Allwine said. "Walt always has been very much alive in Mickey Mouse and we try to direct him more toward Walt's version of Mickey who was an actor, forever young and forever optimistic. Mickey is Walt's. I'm just filling in for the boss, too. Mickey's the star. I get to take this wonderful American icon and keep it alive until the next Mickey comes along.”
For a new generation, the voice has been handed over to Bert Iwan and the tradition continues.