When she was a young girl, Russi Taylor and her family visited Disneyland, where she had a close and remarkable encounter with Walt Disney himself.
"It was night time and we had just gotten off of the Mark Twain boat ride. There was a man sitting on the bench. We went past him to get popcorn."
Taylor, who was a big fan of Disney's TV series, knew the man sitting alone was Disney, but her mother didn't believe her. "She said, 'Honey, it couldn't be.'" So her mother walked over and asked him if he was Uncle Walt. He told her he was. "My mother sat down and they started talking."
Taylor quickly "squished" herself between her mother and Disney. "The sweetest thing of all is at one point he said, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' I said, 'I want to work for you.'"
They don't call it the Magic Kingdom for nothing.
Taylor indeed has been working for Walt Disney studios for decades — in fact, she was named a Disney Legend in 2008. For the past 28 years, she's been the voice of Mickey Mouse's loyal girlfriend, Minnie Mouse, as well as such Mouse House characters as Huey, Louie and Dewey, Fauna and Duchess. She's also voiced various roles on "The Simpsons" (Martin Prince, Sherri and Teri and Uter) and other characters, including Strawberry Shortcake, Baby Gonzo and even Duchess the Cat in the 1995 blockbuster "Babe."
And just as Minnie and Mickey fell in love, so did Taylor and Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey Mouse. They were married for 18 years until his death in 2009.
Taylor is currently playing the sweet, stylish, fun-loving heroine in the Disney Channel award-winning animated series "Mickey Mouse." The five-minute shorts hearken back to the slapstick impishness of the Mickey and Minnie shorts of the 1930s. Chris Diamantopoulos is the voice of Mickey for the show.
Over lunch at the Disney lot in Burbank, the 70-year-old Taylor is as effusive as her reel-life animated alter-ego. She greets a reporter not with a handshake but a huge hug and proffers a box of delicious caramels. She possesses a sweetly girlish voice and loves to laugh.
"I don't know anybody in the world who is as lucky as I am," said Taylor, who has a splash of pink in her whitish-blond hair. "I work with the best people."
Her co-workers return the feeling.
"Russi has the tendency to get the giggles," said Bill Farmer, a longtime friend who is the voices of Goofy and Pluto. "When she starts laughing sometimes it's very difficult for her to stop. It is a blast.
"She embodies Minnie. What she adds is a large part of her personality to the character."
Noted Paul Rudish, the executive producer and supervising director of "Mickey Mouse," "She's super fun when she's in the booth cracking jokes and jumping into all sorts of different characters."
Taylor, born in Massachusetts, came here in the 1970s — "I was married [at the time] to a very nice young man and got into a really good [voice] workshop. The next thing I knew I was working."
One of her first jobs was the voice of Ted and Georgette's baby on the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Many people have voiced Minnie over the years (Disney himself was the first), including Marcellite Garner from 1929 to '39 and Ruth Clifford from 1942 to '52.
Taylor noted that Minnie's speaking had been limited. Then around 1985, Disney started auditioning for a show called "Totally Minnie," she said, which made Minnie a more fully developed character. She not only landed the role of Minnie but met the love of her life.
"Wayne was coming out of a session as Mickey for 'Totally Minnie.' We met in the hallway. We just blended really well."
Though some people at Disney and the voice-acting community knew they were married, "we kept it quiet. We didn't want it to be about Mickey and Minnie being married. It was about Wayne and Russi being married. We had the best time. We laughed a lot. We were always singing. We always had music in the house."
Taylor believes that "if you are going to be a character for the long-term you can't just imitate, you have to bring yourself to it. Wayne said we have to bring ourselves in the characters in a way [that], when we do the characters, we become more like the characters. "
Rudish has been taking full advantage of Taylor's puckish sense of humor for "Mickey Mouse" and "has been asking her to push the character a little bit. She will even push things further than we asked for and we end up having a lot of fun and experimenting. She is ready to play."
Though they didn't always record together as Mickey and Minnie, Taylor and Allwine would always go to each other's recording sessions. So returning to the recording booth after his death was extremely hard for her.
"The first very session, I had an awful time," said Taylor, adding that she always hears his voice when she's recording Minnie.
"Every time I had to address Mickey, I couldn't get it out," she recalled. "The guys I was working with were wonderful. They said, 'OK, Russi, why don't we skip those lines? We will just do Minnie's.'"