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Mickey Mouse’s Birth Was One of Desperation

It (the success of Mickey Mouse) may mean the beginning of a big organization out of our little dump. --Walt Disney, in a letter to his brother Roy, 1928.

Mickey Mouse, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year, may be the most famous cartoon character in the world and the symbol of a Fortune 500 company, but his origins were as humble as anything in a Horatio Alger novel.

Paula Sigman, assistant archivist with the Walt Disney Corp., described Mickey’s less than genteel birth in a speech to the National Fantasy Fan Club, an organization of about 150 Disneyana fans and collectors convened at the Inn at the Park in Anaheim this week.

Walt Disney had been making films starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for several months when, in 1928, distributor Charles Mintz took away the rights to the character. Walt and his partners, Ub Iwerks and Roy O. Disney (Walt’s older brother, the father of Roy E. Disney, the head of the studio’s animation department) had to create a new character and devised Mickey. The studio faced hard times during his development.

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“We have the company ledgers from those days in Roy’s hand,” Sigman said. “Walt took cuts in salary from $100 a week to $75 to $10 and even to nothing some weeks. But he continued to pay Ub at least $90 a week to keep animating the first three Mickey shorts: ‘Plane Crazy,’ ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ and ‘Steamboat Willie.’ ”

“Plane Crazy” and “Gallopin’ Gaucho” were made as silents, but Walt Disney made the bold decision to release “Steamboat Willie” as a sound cartoon. It premiered Nov. 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York, and its success helped to transform the modest Disney Brothers studio into “a big organization.”

For the collectors gathered in Anaheim, one of the most important results of that success was the creation of Mickey Mouse merchandise and other Disneyana. But the marketing of Mickey also began very modestly. Although Disney was perpetually short of cash in the late ‘20s, he explored the commercial potential of his new character slowly--and often at the behest of others. Still, Mickey Mouse’s popularity quickly created a market for products bearing his likeness.

In the fall of 1929, an unidentified man offered Disney $300 for permission to put Mickey on school tablets for children. The next year, Charlotte Clark had her 14-year-old nephew, Bob Clampett (the future Warner Bros. cartoon director), design the first Mickey Mouse doll. The Disney brothers were delighted with Clark’s prototype and gave her permission to begin production. She soon found herself flooded with orders.

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In mid-1933, the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Co. issued the first Mickey Mouse wrist watch at $2.98--and sold 2.5 million of them in two years. (As part of a special promotion, Macy’s sold more than 11,000 of them in a single day.) The sale of 253,000 Mickey Mouse handcars, a tin toy that sold for $1, helped to save Lionel Corp. from bankruptcy in 1934. The income from these and other products helped finance the Disney cartoons, since Walt often spent more on a film than it could earn in its initial release.

Today, an original watch in good running condition sells for between $300 and $400; the handcar for between $175 and $450. The Charlotte Clark dolls run between $300 and $500, depending on their size and condition. All three are ranked among the most highly prized Disney products.

“It’s impossible to single out one item as the most desirable Mickey Mouse collectible, as each collector has a different orientation,” Sigman explained. “Although it’s neither the rarest nor the most expensive item, the original Mickey Mouse watch is very much sought after, even by non-collectors. Tin toys have almost a life of their own, as many people collect them as such. The desirability of a fine tin toy and a Mickey product make the handcar almost irresistible.”

According to Sigman, it’s also impossible to estimate just how many different products have featured Mickey during the last 60 years. He now appears on about 7,500 different items, excluding publications, which makes him the most widely reproduced character in the world.

Whether today’s toys, figurines, buttons and other Disney merchandise will someday prove as valuable as the original watches and dolls remains to be seen. But speculators, collectors and fans will have the opportunity to purchase a variety of old and new Disneyana at the National Fantasy Fan Club’s sale Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Inn at the Park, 1855 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim.

Other convention activities since Wednesday--which have been limited to the organization’s membership--have included lectures on such Disney-related topics as the plans for EuroDisneyland and the adventures of the new Mickey Mouse balloon, Ear Force One. Members have also been buying and trading merchandise among themselves, and bidding in a silent auction on Disney merchandise ranging from a 1944 War Bond certificate to a “Captain Eo” premiere weekend T-shirt.


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