Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for
Best Article in the Category of “Cultural History”
Best Use of a Featured Image
Mickey Mouse is a symbol of laughter and joy to many, but to Walt Disney, the character was a symbol of perseverance and hard work. Mickey Mouse is one of the most popular cartoon character known across the globe. He is the face of one of the biggest companies that exist today, The Walt Disney Company. A well-known quote from Walt Disney himself is “If you can dream it, you can do it. Remember that this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse.”1
Walter “Walt” Disney had a dream of what he wanted to accomplish in his life, and he did not let anything or anyone stop him from achieving that goal. Walt Disney was a self-taught cartoonist. When he was sixteen years old, he joined the Red Cross during World War I.2 At first he wanted to join the navy, but was denied due to his young age. Disney joined the Red Cross and was stationed in France to be an ambulance driver, but by the time he arrived in France, the war was coming to an end. When he finally arrived, he worked as a driver serving doughnuts and ice cream to the patients of various hospitals. It was here where he started to develop his artistic skills. He would draw cartoons for the vehicles, cartoons for the posters, and cartoons for Life Magazine. Disney drew when and where he could. Drawing cartoons was a great way for him to enter into a whole new world. He served for about one year before he returned to the States on September 22, 1919.3 Being overseas had really changed Disney’s life forever, and he did cherish those memories in France.
The next several years of Walt Disney’s life were harsh, but through it all, he developed a true passion for animation. He began working at a commercial art studio as an apprentice. He was laid off from his apprenticeship about a month later. Though he had a setback, Disney claimed: “I was 18 years old when I actually started out on my career.”4 He decided to create his own business with a colleague named Ubbe “Ub” Iwerks. The company’s name was Iwerks–Disney. They needed a space to work, but had little income to put together to get a proper space. The only space that they could afford was in an unused bathroom in the headquarters of the National Restaurant Association in Kansas City. The secretary that worked at the headquarters made a deal with Disney that the company would allow them the office space and an allowance of $10 a week if Walt and Ub would agree do the artwork for Restaurant News, the publication that was linked to the National Restaurant Association. They agreed, and Ub and Walt began working on ideas on top of their “office desks,” which was the toilet and some sinks. Disney and Iwerks were able to get a few extra jobs to save up for a proper office space. It was hard for the two to keep the office space, so Disney and Ub were forced to move on from the business.5 A job soon became available at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, so Disney decided to take the opportunity to work there. Here Disney realized his desire to do animation. He began to develop advertisements for different local movie theaters. Disney borrowed a book on animation from the local library and became fascinated by what he was reading. He became an expert and ended up suggesting improvements to the company that he was working for. Disney’s boss was impressed by his new skills and allowed him to borrow an old camera. Iwerk came to work for the company after Disney recommended him, so the dynamite duo was back together. They were both nineteen years old at the time. Disney created his first film called Laugh-O-gram, which was named after a local theater. While still working his daytime job at the advertisement company, Disney worked on and produced one Laugh-O-Gram film per week. With the money that he was making from his day job, he rented a studio where he bought new equipment for the films, but he ended up going bankrupt. The bankruptcy ended up motivating Disney to pack his bags and, at the age of twenty-one, move to Los Angeles with a dream and $40 in his wallet.6
With a vision, hard work, and time, Walt Disney was starting to get his feet wet in the animation world, but little did he know that something major was about to happen. A New York distributor from Universal Pictures decided to invest in one of Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams. While doing short movies, he started to create a new character that he hoped would be a hit. The character’s name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This character became popular, and Universal Pictures started to receive major profits from it. One day, Disney was asked to go to a meeting at the company headquarters in New York. In that one meeting Disney lost everything. The sketches, designs, workers, and movies all belonged to Universal, and they wanted to start paying Disney a lower salary than before. Disney knew that he was worth more, so he refused the offer and was fired along with his longtime friend Ub Iwerks. Now at the age of twenty-seven, Disney was again forced to start over. The heartbroken Disney and Iwerks sat on the train ride back from New York full of pain and hurt. But out of this train ride came the face of the future Disney empire, Mickey Mouse. Both Disney and Iwerks started designing Mickey Mouse on the train ride together, and after several long nights, they finally completed the new character. They used Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as the foundation and added improvements to the character. For example, they made the ears of Mickey more circular and rounder and less like rabbit ears. They wanted Mickey Mouse to be shorter and chubbier like a mouse. At first, they named the character Mortimer, but after a suggestion from Disney’s wife, the character’s name became Mickey Mouse. While the initial design of Mickey Mouse was intimidating, it was not until a new animator, Fred Moore, gave Mickey Mouse a cuter appearance that the signature look most people know as Mickey Mouse came about. He added white gloves, a smaller nose, pupils, and other features. In 1935, Mickey Mouse was designed with color and the company began to use Technicolor for the Mickey Mouse movies.7 This was very advanced for the time, and many critics claimed that it was beautifully constructed. Mickey Mouse became an instant hit. With Disney being the voice of the character, audiences grew to love the cute mouse and his wild adventures.
With the major success of Mickey Mouse, the Disney empire began to grow. Disney started to produce movies, as many as twelve per year. One of Disney’s first major hits was his first feature film of 1937, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. It took four years of production and it cost a little over $2 million. But that was money well spent, because it brought in about $7 million.8 The combination of this and other blockbusters led to Disney having enough money to open a theme park called Disneyland. In 1955, Disneyland was opened in Anaheim, California, and was one of Disney’s last visions for the company. Throughout the theme park, the signature ears of Mickey Mouse could be found, which also became an iconic headband sold throughout the world. In addition to the theme park, Disney started the Mickey Mouse Club, which was a television variety show, starting in 1955, starring a number of young Mousekateers, including the future movie star Annette Funicello. In addition to the Mickey Mouse Club, Disney began airing The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades on ABC. Disney was fifty-four years old at that time. A few years later, Disney had a new idea to create an even better and larger theme park in Florida. Unfortunately, Walt Disney died at the age of sixty-five before he could see the final product of his Disneyworld. He died of lung cancer, probably due to the amount of smoking he had done since he was a teen. His brother was the one who continued Disney’s plans, and the new theme park was opened in 1971. The park was named Walt Disney World after the late Walt Disney.9
The story of the creation of Mickey Mouse is a story that everyone can learn from. Disney worked many years to reach his dreams, and he did not let anything or anyone stop him. Through all the up and downs, Disney knew that he was onto something great and pushed for that greatness to come true. That is why Mickey Mouse is not only a symbol of laughter but also a symbol of endurance.
- Walt Disney Company Quotable Quotes, Good Reads. ↵
- Encyclopedia Britannica, February 2017, s.v. “The Walt Disney Company.” ↵
- Nicholas Lemesh, “From the Archives- Walt Disney, World War 1 Driver,” American Red Cross (September 2015): 1. ↵
- Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 3. ↵
- Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 8-11. ↵
- Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 79. ↵
- Clarie Suddath, “Mickey Mouse,” Time (November 2008): 1. ↵
- Neal Gabler, “Walt Disney, a Visionary Who Was Crazy Like A Mouse,” The New York Times, (September 2015): 1. ↵
- “Walt Disney,” Biography.com., (August 2017). ↵