The Main Mouse : Let's 'Ear It for Paul Castle, a Little Guy Who for 25 Years Was Disneyland's Big Cheese

Times Staff Writer

Hold on to your ears, Mouseketeers. In this, the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse's show business career, the man who was Disneyland's main mouse for a quarter century has broken his silence.

Meet the man in the mouse, Paul Castle, who shares with us the inside story on:

Why Disneyland wouldn't let Mickey talk, even to children.

How hot it got inside that mouse head.

Whether Annette was really as nice as could be.

Moreover, Castle exposes a shocking truth. Many of the Mickey Mouses these days are girls .

His fans probably never would have guessed that Mickey Mouse was a bald 4-foot, 6-inch, one-time amateur speed skater from Cleveland, now living in retirement in an Anaheim mobile home park, happily married to Pinocchio.

Indeed, the Magic Kingdom's official corporate position is that the character with the pointy nose and big ears actually is Mickey Mouse.

"We are not going to get into destroying the fantasy of our characters," explained Disneyland spokesman Bob Roth.

Actually, as many as 50 people may have donned the mouse costume and pranced around Disneyland since it opened in 1955. But Castle was The Big Cheese. From 1961 until his retirement in 1986, he was the Numero Uno Rodent. By the time he retired, Castle had peered through the eyes of Disneyland's mouse mask more than anyone before or since.

"I did over 15,000 parades leading the band . . . down the street at Disneyland," said Castle, who was born five years before Mickey debuted in the 1928 cartoon feature "Steamboat Willie."

Though he was nearly named Mortimer by Walt Disney and came to be known as "big ears" by Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse was voted in the late 1960s as one of the world's most recognized figures--even before Disneyland was cloned in Florida and Tokyo.

"I enjoyed being Mickey, of course. He's the most famous character in the world," said Castle, who, like the cartoon character, routinely punctuates his speech with tinny laughter like this: "Heh, heh, heh."

Castle and his wife, Alma, who wore a Pinocchio costume at Disneyland in the early 1960s, recently reminisced with a visitor, leafing through picture albums of Mickey posing with people he's met.

"My big thing was some of the celebrities," Castle said. "I met Muhammad Ali backstage at Disneyland one time. Well, I was in costume, primarily to take pictures with him.

"Here's a picture of Mayor (Richard) Daley of Chicago. We gave him a pass to come to Disneyland any time he wants. This is a fella who walked on the moon. Here's some Russian astronauts who came to visit. Here's Donald Duck, he's a good friend of mine.

"Here's a picture of Walt and me. They made a postcard out of this, with all the characters in the background. That was about '64 or '65. Here's another shot of me coming out of the castle, leading the band."

Alma suggested that her husband may have been "one of the most photographed persons in the world."

But in the entire collection of Mickey Mouse photos, Castle's cheery, cherub face is nowhere to be found. In the Land of Enchantment, it is strictly forbidden to photograph Mickey or any other cartoon characters in costume with their heads off.

Consequently, Castle may have been one of history's most anonymous famous figures.

"I didn't get any recognition," he lamented. "I met everyone from Hugh Hefner to Prince Rainier, but they never knew who I was."

Any regrets?

"Nooooo. I loved it," he offered without hesitation. Then, pausing to chortle, Castle added: "It's just that it was hot, you know, pretty hot and tiring sometimes."

Alma said that she once put a thermometer in her Pinocchio headpiece and that it registered 110 degrees.

Nevertheless, Castle said he "always thought it was great being inside Mickey. If you had all the characters in a row they (children) would all head for Mickey. No. 1 and he always will be. He started it all, you know."

Castle and the mouse seemed destined to come together.

"Listen to this," said Castle, launching into a perky recitation. "The (Disney) studio was formed one month before I was born. Mickey Mouse was started in 1928. I was 5 years old. I had a Mickey Mouse watch when I was about 5."

Raised in Cleveland, where he learned to ice skate on a baseball diamond that flooded during the winter, Castle became a mascot for the Cleveland Barons hockey team, "dressed like a bell hop. . . . "

At age 17 he left Cleveland for New York and in 1940 landed a job portraying a teddy bear in the ice skating show of another of his idols, figure skater Sonja Henie. He married Alma in 1947. In the 1950s he became a headline performer with the Ice Capades, known as the "Mighty Mite of the Ice."

"The Mighty Mite. M-M, isn't that funny?" said the man who became Mickey Mouse.

In 1960 Castle quit skating and came west, hoping to land a job at Disneyland. But it was not to be, at least not yet.

"I came out here hoping to go right into the (Disneyland) park. I wanted be a little clown. . . . I wanted to be out of character castings because I had been in it for 20 years."

Castle ended up working in Hollywood for a year, sometimes as a stand-in for diminutive stars, including Jay North of the "Dennis the Menace Show."

Then, in 1961, fate took a hand. Disneyland planned to use a 13-foot, 7-inch diameter drum, the largest in the world, in its "Fantasy on Parade."

"They needed a small person to ride on the big drum to make the drum look bigger," Castle recalled. "That's how I was hired . . . to do Mickey Mouse.

"In the early days we had to work all the holidays and special occasions and in later years we got other Mickeys . . . and they started letting me off on weekends.

"I didn't work nights very often. I was a day mouse. Heh, heh, heh.

"Many, many people did Minnie (Mouse). In those days characters were not full-time operations. There were only four or five of us who were full time.

"Jimmy Payton and myself were the two smallest people. He's about 4-10 and he's still doing it (portraying Mickey Mouse). A real nice little guy. But he's No. 2. I was No. 1, heh, heh, heh. He did a lot of the night work. Ha, ha."

In 1978 for Mickey Mouse's 50th anniversary, the mouse costume was altered, adding big shoes, big hands, a big belly and plastic eyes.

"They wanted to send the costume around the country," Castle recalled. "I couldn't be everywhere. So they made a costume that would fit everybody, say from 5 feet under. But I'm only 4-foot-6 . . . It was actually too big for me.

"They started using girls in the costume.

"They manufactured these big plastic bubbles that fit around our middles and I couldn't bend . . . You couldn't shake hands, you couldn't sign autographs, you couldn't do anything. In one shot they just killed me. That's what I thought about it.

"The corporation wanted a change and the bigwigs voted it in."

Nevertheless, Castle holds no grudges.

"The millions of parades and things I did and the millions of people I shook hands with and all the happiness that goes with it far overshadows anything (negative) I could feel.

"I did it so many years and I just felt like I was Mickey. And I didn't want to be anything else, just Mickey.

"Everybody was my friend. I got along good with everybody. I had a couple run-ins over the years, pushed one supervisor up against the wall. . . . Of course, it wasn't my fault. I just lost my temper.

"Once in a while you get poked in the nose or kicked in the leg. There's always one or two kids who is a little wise kid, you know. They'd say, 'Aw, you're not really Mickey' and poke you in the stomach. You know how they are. Older kids, 10-, 11-year-olds."

It was during the mid-1970s that they made Mickey Mouse shut up.

"I talked for 10 or 15 years to the people, to the little kids, you know. . . . The little kids didn't like it if you didn't talk to them.

"But somewhere during the course of those years they (Disneyland administrators) decided I didn't sound like Mickey so I shouldn't talk. And if I couldn't talk, then nobody else in costumes could talk. So, consequently nobody talks now. None of the characters talk."

Castle conceded that when he did speak in costume it wasn't quite with the voice cartoon lovers had grown to love.

"My voice wasn't as high pitched as the falsetto voice. I couldn't do it. I tried."

Laying aside his photo album, the 64-year-old Castle took a deep breath and gave it one more gallant effort: "Hey, boys and girls. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Wanna join my club?

"Heh, heh, heh. Nothing like Mickey," he judged.

Actually, the inflection was good, and the glint in the eye terrific. But Castle was right. He sounded more like Rocky the Flying Squirrel than Mickey Mouse.

The Happiest Place on Earth attracts more than its share of the most heartbreaking people of all, dying children. Over the years, Mickey was there to greet them.

"They always brought the sick kids . . . from all over the country," Castle said with a shake of his head. "They wanted to see Disneyland. It was like their last wish. And when they saw Mickey, they would beam, no matter how sick they were. It was one happy moment."

Alma recalled that in her brief stint as Pinocchio she too lighted up the faces of youngsters visiting the park as a "last wish come true."

"I think a lot of the characters now . . . would probably do the same thing that I did," Alma said. "They'd probably cry inside the mask."

But at the Magic Kingdom, for Mickey Mouse and the millions who delighted in him, smiles always dry the tears.

"It was so wonderful to bring so much happiness to kids over those years," Castle said. "That's what made the job so enjoyable. That's why I stayed on so many years. I just sort of found a home. It was like it was made for me. After all, for 20 years I had done animal characters . . . and then ending up as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland was just great. It worked out perfect."

One last thing. About Annette, Mickey says she was just as nice as could be.

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