Paul Castle: The Man Inside the Mouseby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
“Don’t shoot the mouse,” intoned the Secret Service man in a firm, terse, monotone voice over the radio.
The Disney characters were standing in a line patiently awaiting a chance to meet the president. Impulsively, Mickey Mouse bounded forward with his arms outstretched when he saw the chief executive. The hidden sniper had been trained to react to any sudden, unexpected movement toward the president, but the crackling order over the radio stayed his trigger finger.
Inside the mouse was Paul Castle.
When Mickey Mouse pounded on the huge drum in the “Fantasy on Parade” down Disneyland’s Main Street for thousands of times, it was Paul Castle. When Mickey Mouse cavorted publicly at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, it was Paul Castle. When Mickey Mouse rode beside Walt Disney at the 1966 Rose Parade, it was Paul Castle. When Walt appeared in his final photo in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle with Mickey Mouse waving, it was Paul Castle. When Mickey Mouse received his star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, it was Paul Castle.
On April 23, 1965, Walt Disney, accompanied by Mickey Mouse, opened the Anaheim Stadium in California. Walt was given the first ball to throw out. He handed it to Mickey who threw it out to Goofy who was acting as catcher. That historic pitch was made by Paul Castle.
From 1961 to 1986, when he officially retired, Castle would refer to himself as the “Main Mickey” and it would be hard to argue with that designation. Of course, the Disney Company can not give official recognition to Paul for his 25 years of milestones in fur because Castle was not Mickey Mouse.
He might have assisted in the portrayal of Mickey Mouse. He might have been a “friend” of Mickey Mouse, but everyone knows that Mickey Mouse is real and, magically, can appear at the same time at Disney theme parks worldwide, as well as special events. No single talented performer is Mickey Mouse, although he has had a lot of help over the years.
Paul Castle is a name that may be unfamiliar to most Disney fans. He spent the last years of his life in a nice condo in Edmond, Okla., far from the attention of Disney fan conventions. Yet, he cast a very long shadow in Disney history, even though in actuality he was only 4 feet, 6 inches tall.
Paul E. Castle Senior was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in August 1923, the son of Richard and Anna Castle. He died peacefully in his sleep on January 23, 2010 after battling Alzheimer’s for two years and a final bout with pneumonia. He was 86 years old.
At the age of 7, Castle entered his first ice skating competition, which eventually led to him, many years later, becoming an ensemble skater with three-time Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie and her show. He eventually had a long career with Holiday on Ice and the Ice Capades. He amazed audiences as the world’s smallest barrel jumper—able to jump over 15 feet of obstacles like barrels or suitcases.
Castle also had a movie and television career. His first movie role was in Jungle Moon Men in 1955 with Johnny Weissmuller as a Jungle Jim character. In addition, Castle made good money standing in for children in movies and television shows like Dennis the Menace. (He later appeared in films like Under the Rainbow and One Hour Photo.)
In addition, Castle enjoyed flying and, despite his height, he obtained his pilot’s license and bought his own airplane.
His specialty in the Ice Capades was performing falls and rolls in animal character costumes. The rough-and-tumble activity often brought injury to his diminutive frame, including a fractured leg. Jumping through a hoop over eight circus wagons (22-inches high) and leaping over 15 feet of suitcases was a hallmark part of his act.
"It was wonderful," he said. "No two ways about it. It was fantastic. But nothing like working at Disneyland as Mickey Mouse, of course. That was my primary thing."
While performing, he met his wife Alma, whom he married in 1947. In 1950, they were skating together in the Ice Capades as two of Cinderella's mice in a Disney-themed segment.
The Ice Capades had started featuring Disney characters a year earlier in 1949 with a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs segment in which Castle also performed. For years, Ice Capades featured a Disney segment in their regular show. When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt borrowed the Disney costumes from the Ice Capades in order to have the Disney characters appear on opening day.
In my archives, I have a copy of the 1958 Ice Capades program and it lists the following description for Paul: "PAUL CASTLE…the mighty mite! Short but mighty, small but speedy. This in very few words describes the little man of the big show. Just a little over four feet in height, he is perfectly proportioned and his smooth, solid muscles stamp him as a miniature Hercules. Made a name for himself as the champion of the Silver Skates Derby. He actually jumps one foot higher than he is tall. Born in Cleveland, he is now a resident of Long Island, New York. Married, has one daughter."
On several occasions, according to Castle, Walt Disney himself had watched as he performed in the various Ice Capades productions.
"Walt Disney saw how good I did and knew I was an amateur character because I'd first met him when I did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [when the Ice Capades did a version in 1958, Castle is credited in the program as performing as Dopey]" said Castle, who, although eager to work for the Walt Disney Company, balked at the minimum-wage salary offered characters because he was making a nice sum of money already in the entertainment world.
However, Walt wanted a small Mickey beating a long drumstick on top of a huge drum for a new Disneyland parade, so an acceptable salary was negotiated with Castle.
“Fantasy On Parade” premiered December 18, 1965. There were even special tickets distributed for that special Saturday 8 p.m. debut with Walt in attendance. The parade ran through the holiday season 1976 when it was retired, but was brought back in 1980.
"I did over 15,000 parades leading the band … down the street at Disneyland," Castle said. "I enjoyed being Mickey, of course. He's the most famous character in the world.”
"I was the main mouse," he said. "We did everything. Walt Disney gave me the ball and we opened the Angels stadium. [Paul kept the ball as a keepsake.] He was a wonderful man, a wonderful, wonderful man. He was the greatest."
Paul was always a little star struck and kept a scrapbook of his encounters with celebrities.
"I met Muhammad Ali backstage at Disneyland one time," he said. "Well, I was in costume, primarily to take pictures with him.”
During the 25 years Paul worked at Disneyland, there were at least 50 other performers who assisted in the portrayal of Mickey Mouse. However, Paul really was the "main mouse" and was the official greeter at Disneyland's entrance. He was also known as the "small Mickey." (Paul's wife Alma also assisted in the portrayal of Mickey when Paul was on tour.)
"Walt said, 'Alma, you're pretty good. You can fit in Paul's costume, can't you?' And I said, 'Yeah, pretty close.' So I got in the costume and he said, 'Good, you'll be my Pinocchio,'" laughed Alma, who assisted in the portrayal of Pinocchio for four summers. (In the earlier costumes, it was discovered that women had greater stamina inside them than men.)
Alma, like Paul, remembered Walt Disney as a "wonderful person" and she was especially impressed that he knew both Paul and herself by their first names.
"He would come up to you and he'd look in the costume and say, 'Alma, is that you?' And I'd say, 'Yes, Walt.' He would then say, 'Where's Paul?' and I'd say 'On Main Street, Walt.' Everyone would call him 'Walt,"" she remembered.
One time Alma was standing backstage during the filming of “Babes in Toyland” and watched a machine being blown up.
"I said, 'Oh, my goodness! Look at all that money going up.' And Walt said, 'All $50,000 worth.' And I turned around and said, 'Oh, Mr. Disney.' And he said, 'Just call me Walt.'"
Paul Castle’s Ice Capades experience came in handy when the holiday special Christmas at Disney aired in 1976 with host Art Carney. On Main Street they laid 2-foot square tiles on the asphalt street from the Market House to Town Square. They then sprayed them repeatedly with silicone to make them more suitable for skating. Using the same foam they use on airport runways, the sidewalks were foamed to resemble snow. Of course plastic chips thrown in front of a huge fan added to the illusion of a snow storm. One of the highlights of the special was Castle costumed as Mickey skating down Main Street.
As their niece Heather Lear remembers:
“Uncle Paul and Aunt Alma would visit her brothers (my grandfather and Great Uncle John) on many occasions (they also lived in Florida for a short while as well). They took me to Disney and Epcot a few times when they visited. I remember the longest time we were the same height, but than I started to tower over him as I got older.
“He had the mouth of a sailor, but he was a lot of fun. I remember one New Year's Eve, he had brought a mini-cannon with him and placed it on my grandmother’s bench outside. He proceeded to put Palm Tree Seeds in it with a fire cracker and accidentally shot it at his brother-in-law’s car which caused a few small dents. I thought it was hilarious. He did, too, but we had to run back inside as if nothing happened. I miss him.”
Abby Disney, the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, recalled this following memorable experience when she was a child:
"Just outside the employee's parking lot, there was a little cafeteria outside for the employees. I looked over and saw Mickey having a cup of coffee with Snow White. His head was on the table and he was smoking a big cigar. He was very short and old and had this gravelly deep voice. He came over to my grandmother and gave her a big hug. 'Edna! Edna! Glad to see ya!' That's how I remember Mickey Mouse; he's emblazoned on my brain that way."
Yep, that was Paul Castle again.
What was the favorite memory of the bald, cigar smoking, sometimes foul-spoken 4-foot 6-inch tall man who stared through the eyes of Mickey more times than anyone else before or since—and might be one of the most photographed persons in the world and yet completely unknown?
It was the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1966, where Walt was the grand marshall. For three hours, it was just Paul Castle as Mickey Mouse with a smiling Walt Disney about a year before Walt’s death.
He told a reporter, “Of all the things I've done in my lifetime, that [moment] to me was my biggest day. Just Walt and me, January 1, 1966.”
There is a blog devoted to Paul Castle (link).