Walt Disney and his wife were travelling from New York to Los Angeles. The 26 year-old’s creation Oswald the Rabbit had just been wrested from him by his financial backers. Walt didn’t have much to look forward to at that time. He had the idea of a mouse at the back of his mind because he felt it was a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody was afraid of a mouse, including Disney.
The rest of the ride was spent conjuring images of a little mouse in red velvet pants. He was named ‘Mortimer’ but by the time the train halted in Los Angeles, the new dream mouse was rechristened ‘Mickey’. Lillian, Disney’s wife, felt that Mortimer sounded too pompous.
A star was born Once back in his studio, Walt and his head animator, Ub Iwerks immediately began work in the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. The enthusiasm with which his staff completed the project faded when no distributor bought the film.
Still, Walt forged into production on another silent Mickey Mouse cartoon, Gallopin’ Gaucho. However, in 1927, Warner Brothers ushered in the talkies with The Jazz Singer. This signalled the end of silent films so, in 1928, Walt dropped everything to begin a third Mickey Mouse cartoon, this one in sound: Steamboat Willie.
To record the sound track, Walt had to take his film to New York, since no one on the West Coast was equipped to do it. Walt sank everything he had into the film. When completed, Walt screened it for the New York exhibitors. Steamboat Willie scored an overwhelming success, and Walt soon became the toast of the United States.
As with all of Mickey Mouse’s pictures through World War II, Walt himself supplied the voice. By 1946, when he got busy to continue, Jim Macdonald, veteran Disney sound and vocal effects man, took over. In those days, people would first ask ticket takers if they were “running a Mickey” before they bought tickets. Cinema halls would display posters that read “Mickey Mouse playing today!” The 1930s was Mickey Mouse’s golden age when 87 cartoon shorts were produced by Walt Disney during that decade.
One of the finest tributes to Mickey Mouse was given by Walt Disney himself when, on his first television show as he surveyed Disneyland, Walt said, “I hope we never lose sight of the one fact… that it was all started by a mouse.”