The Mickey Rooney-Mickey Mouse Mythby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
To help promote the book of Disney stories that I wrote, “The Vault of Walt," I have been doing a lot of presentations for different groups from colleges to organizations to private parties about Disney history. In July, I will be at the NFFC/Disneyana convention in Anaheim and then, the following week, I will be speaking on July 23 at 3 p.m. at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco about Walt Disney and Outer Space. So any West Coast fans who want their books autographed or just see what I look like in person, there are two opportunities for you.
I have always enjoyed sharing information about Disney history. Before I was laid off from the Walt Disney World Resort, I did nearly 300 different presentations to various departments from Transportation to Imagineering to Disney Design Group to Feature Animation to Magic Kingdom Trainers and many more. The topics ranged from the difference between amusement parks and Disneyland to the silent cartoons made by Walt to the secrets of “Steamboat Willie” to the connection between Disney and New Orleans or just about anything else under the sun.
Yes, I love the sound of my own voice telling tales of Disney it seems. However, I spend just as much time trying to debunk the Disney Urban Myths that I refer to as “D.U.M.” things. No, Walt was not frozen. There is extensive documentation that he was cremated. No, Walt was not born in Spain. Read what I had to say about that D.U.M. thing here in an earlier column. No, Walt was not anti-Semitic, despite what shows like Family Guy insinuate.
As Diane Disney Miller told me when I was writing my book, “I do know that [Walt] had great respect for all faiths. Rabbi Edgar Magnin [of Congregation B’nai B’rith/Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who was considered the “Rabbi to the Stars”] refers to him as ‘my friend Walt Disney’ in his book titled 365 Vitamins For the Mind, or something like that. He was the B'nai B’rith Man of the Year for the Beverly Hills Chapter in 1955. My sister dated a Jewish boy for awhile with no objections from either of my parents. Jules and Doris Styne were good friends. Dad had so many very good Jewish friends, going back to his childhood.”
Diane’s statement is reinforced by many Jewish people who worked directly with Walt.
“As far as I’m concerned, there was no evidence of anti-Semitism,” said legendary Disney storyman and concept artist Joe Grant who was Jewish and saw Walt’s interaction with staff who were of the Jewish faith. “I think the whole idea should be put to rest and buried deep.”
Still, the D.U.M. thing persists despite all the evidence to the contrary. Sadly, with the passing of Walt in 1966, these D.U.M. things just seemed to multiply since Walt was not there to personally refute them.
Having interviewed a great many performers, Imagineers, animators and more over the years, I know that, as they got older, their memories were a little dimmer, especially when it came to the chronology of events. They were not purposely attempting to lie and probably actually believed what they told me, but I would have to carefully check the facts they shared before the interviews saw print.
Of course, sometimes they just wanted to tell a good story.
I remember in her later years that actress Judy Garland told many hilarious and outrageous anecdotes about working on The Wizard of Oz, especially tales of the Munchkins, when she was on various talk shows. Fortunately, Ozian researchers have debunked some of those more extreme recollections without undercutting their respect for Garland’s performance and talent.
Judy was often paired with another talented performer, Mickey Rooney, and it seems he likes to tell a good story as well for the press. Rooney has had a rich and colorful life filled with so many triumphs and so many interactions with many interesting people that it seems odd he would find it necessary to fabricate an event just for the sake of another good story.
Unfortunately, that is exactly the case when it comes to the naming of Mickey Mouse. Most Disney fans know that Walt originally intended to call his creation “Mortimer Mouse,” but at the urging of his wife, Lillian, the name was changed to the more friendly sounding “Mickey.” No one has ever challenged that story and Lillian even told her daughter, Diane, that it was true.
On Friday, May 21, 2004 (ironically 76 years to the day that the Mickey Mouse trademark was filed by Walt Disney in 1928), the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters had a luncheon honoring the then 84-year-old screen legend Mickey Rooney.
At the presentation, Rooney was talkative and funny and did honor to his reputation as a cinematic legend. He told many of his favorite anecdotes. Unfortunately, he also this following anecdote that, I believe, first appeared in his 1991 autobiography Life is Too Short:
“On lunch break while filming the "Mickey McGuire" comedies, 5-year-old Rooney walked by an open office at Warner Bros. studios, poked his head in and introduced himself.
"'Who are you?' I asked the guy working there.
'My name is Walt Disney,' he said. 'Come over and sit on my lap.'
“So I went over and sat on his lap, and there was a mouse he had drawn. 'My gosh, that's a good-looking mouse, Mr. Disney.'
'It sure is, Mickey,' he said, and he stopped and looked into space for a minute. 'Mickey, Mickey,' he said. 'Tell me something, how would you like me to name this mouse after you?' And I said, 'I sure would like that, but right now I got to go and get a tuna sandwich.' And I jumped down.”
"It's a true story," added Rooney as he regaled the crowd.
No, it's not a true story!
On the Internet, there are several sites that repeat this story as fact and several sites that elaborate on it by claiming that one of the reasons Walt named his famous mouse "Mickey" was that he briefly dated Mickey Rooney's mother. That's not true either. Sometimes Rooney claimed he was walking down the street and Walt called out to him to come in and look at his new character. Sometimes Rooney murmurs the word “Mickey” under his breath repeatedly and Walt gets a “thoughtful look”. Sometimes it is not even a tuna sandwich but a cheese sandwich. There are several variations but in all of them Rooney claims he was the inspiration for the name of Mickey Mouse.
I have lived long enough to know that almost anything is possible and that I don't know everything and that there are always new things to be discovered, especially about Disney history.
But let's look at the facts:
Mickey Mouse was created late in 1928. Mickey Rooney didn't even become Mickey Rooney until he officially changed his name in 1932. He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920 and that was his name in 1928.
Rooney got his big break in films at the age of 6 when he was cast as the lead in a series of several dozen comedy two-reelers beginning in 1927 named for the character "Mickey McGuire," a character from a popular comic strip known as the "Toonerville Trolley" by Fontaine Fox. In fact, this live action series was designed to compete with Hal Roach's successful Our Gang comedies. The Warner Brothers series was popular enough to span from the silents to the talkies with over forty "Mickey McGuire" comedies made between 1927-1933.
The character of Mickey "Himself" McGuire, a tough little gang kid with ragged clothes and an oversized derby hat, was a popular figure in the comic strip and spawned some equally popular toys as well. In Mickey's Thrill Hunters, the gang starts their own window-washing business. In Mickey's Race, Mickey enters the Toonerville Derby Day races with a mule. In Mickey's Luck, the gang becomes volunteer Toonerville firemen and end up freeing all the livestock of the town pet store.
So there is the possibility that if Joe Yule Jr. had been introduced to Walt Disney in 1928, he would have been introduced as the star of the "Mickey McGuire" comedies which at that time would have been in production for almost a year.
So giving Rooney the benefit of the doubt, he would have been almost 7 years old and not 5 as he claimed when he met Walt Disney at Walt's Warner Brothers' office—and Joe Yule Jr. might have referred to himself as "Mickey" rather than his real name. Except Walt never had an office at Warner Brothers nor any connection with Warner Brothers. Not only did Disney have his own studio on Hyperion at this time but his "Alice" comedies and "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons were distributed by Universal.
Speaking of Universal, one of the reasons that Walt was desperately creating Mickey Mouse in 1928 is that Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was firmly in the hands of Charles Mintz and Universal and had been taken away from him along with just about all his animators.
With the success of the synchronized sound "Mickey Mouse" cartoons, Universal decided to give Oswald a voice as well. The director of the series, Walter Lantz, hired young Mickey Rooney to provide the voice for the animated star in 1929-1930. So did Rooney confuse the two Walters and the two characters?
Did Walt Disney date Mickey Rooney's mother? No. When Mickey Rooney was three (1923), his parents divorced and his mother took him to Kansas City, Missouri. But—by the time they got there—Walt had already left to seek his fortune in Hollywood. She very briefly came out to Hollywood in 1924 so Mickey could audition for the Our Gang comedies. But, supposedly, Hal Roach thought he was too "slick" and Mickey and his mother returned to Kansas City almost immediately. They did not return until 1926.
Walt married Lillian Bounds in July 1925. Walt never seemed to have the interest nor the finances to casually date and—for the most part—seemed oblivious to any woman who might have been interested in dating him. In addition, he was so firmly focused on his work that he had little time for casual dating especially during this time period. Once he started his studio in Hollywood in 1923, there is no evidence that he dated anyone until he started seeing Lillian.
I think the final nail in the coffin for this urban legend is that Walt Disney himself loved telling stories and if there were any truth at all in this story connecting the creation of his mouse with a young Mickey Rooney, he would have loved to share it with reporters because it would have garnered publicity. In fact, it was Walt himself who implied to a reporter that Tinker Bell was inspired by the then-popular Marilyn Monroe, a falsehood that creator Marc Davis spent the remaining decades of his life refuting.
At the time Tinker Bell was being developed, Marilyn was a struggling actress but had not had a leading role nor had her infamous "Playboy" centerfold appeared. It is very apparent from Disney Studio records that the live action reference model, Margaret Kerry, was the source for Tinker Bell. Yet when Peter Pan premiered, Walt casually implied that the now popular Miss Monroe was the inspiration because it was a good story.
However, there are several legitimate connections between Mickey Rooney and Disney:
Among other Disney credits, Mickey Rooney was the voice of the adult Tod in the animated feature The Fox and the Hound, the character of Lampie in Pete's Dragon and the voice of Sparky the Junkyard Dog in Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure. Not to mention an animated Mickey Rooney stirring up Donald Duck in the animated short, The Autograph Hound (1939).
Tim Rooney and Mickey Rooney Jr.—the sons of actor Mickey Rooney—were cast as part of the original Mouseketeers hired for the 1955 season. They were released from their contract shortly after filming began after what has been referred to as an "unruly and mischievous foray into the Disney paint department."
So I wish Mr. Rooney would stop promulgating the myth that he inspired the naming of the mouse. He has many interesting real stories about his adventures in Hollywood to share. While it might be interesting to speculate whether the popularity of the "Mickey McGuire" character in films, comic strip and merchandising planted the "Mickey" name in the consciousness of Walt and his wife, Lillian, as a much more audience friendly name than "Mortimer," it is very apparent that it was not a chance meeting between Mickey Rooney and Walt Disney that gave the world a "Mickey."