You'll pardon the Disney folks if they seem to have come down with an incurable case of Mickey Madness these days. After all, it isn't every day that a corporate symbol - and one of the most enduring, endearing symbols in the entire world - celebrates its 60th anniversary.
You know who we're talking about, don't you? Let's all sing it together: M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.It was 60 years ago that Mickey Mouse, the 20th century's lovable animated Everyman, was born in the fertile imagination of then-26-year-old Walt Disney. Since then he has appeared in 119 cartoons, three feature films, a comic strip, a television series or two, numerous books, toys, games and household products, and more shirts, socks, shoes, sweaters and jackets than you can shake a merchandising contract at.
Mickey Mouse won an honorary Oscar for Disney in 1932. His name was the code word used during World War II's D-day landings in Normandy, France. Since 1955 he has been the official host at Disneyland, and later, at Walt Disney World in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland.
But mostly, Mickey Mouse has spent the past six decades representing Walt Disney's entertainment empire.
"I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing," the late Disney used to say. "That it was all started by a mouse."
Disney's successors certainly haven't forgotten it. In fact, the Disney company's current big cheese, Michael Eisner, told revelers at Disneyland's official 60th anniversary celebration here last week that "every division of our company will be celebrating the anniversary this year." That includes:
- a "Birthday Bash" production and commemorative parade at Disneyland every day, with every child 11 and under entering the park through Aug. 21 receiving a special birthday gift;
- a three-acre Mickey's Birthdayland at Florida's Walt Disney World, with rides and attractions to celebrate the event;
- a hot-air balloon shaped like Mickey's head and called, appropriately, Ear Force One, which will criss-cross the country, arriving in Salt Lake City June 16;
- an aerial "birthday card," with more than 500 acres of corn and oats in Iowa planted in the shape of Mickey's head and designed to be seen by air travelers passing overhead at 30,000 feet;
- a made-for-TV movie about the original Mickey Mouse Club and a new series version of the Mouseketeers on The Disney Channel;
- a commemorative video cassette of Mickey Mouse highlights from Walt Disney Home Video;
- a commemorative album, and
- an entire line of commemorative clothing.
And you thought the Bicentennial was a big deal.
An interesting sidelight to all this is the simple fact that if it weren't for a stroke of bad luck, we might be celebrating an anniversary for a cartoon creature with long, pointy ears instead of the gently curved round ears we've grown to know and love.
You see, Mickey actually came into being in early 1928 on a train ride home to Los Angeles from New York, where a dejected Walt Disney had lost his first cartoon creation, Oswald the Rabbit, to skittish financial backers. Determined not to return to his new film studio without a character to build a future around, he used his travel time to sketch a sympathetic little mouse in red velvet pants, which he named Mortimer. But by the time the train pulled into the Los Angeles station, Disney's wife, Lillian, had convinced him that Mortimer sounded too pompous. The name was changed to Mickey, and an entertainment legend was born.
Which is not to say that the early going was easy. Disney produced two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons - "Plane Crazy" and "Gallopin' Gaucho" - that went unsold because of the film industry's new-found passion for "talkies." Sensing the end of the silent film era, Disney threw himself headlong into "Steamboat Willie," the first completely synchronized sound cartoon, which premiered Nov. 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York. It was an immediate sensation, prompting Disney to add sound to the earlier silent Mickey cartoons, with Disney himself providing Mickey's distinctive high-pitched voice.
Once it was clear there was an audience for Mickey's Chaplin-esque approach to cartoon life, Disney wasted no time in supplying the movie-going audience's growing appetite for Mickey Mouse adventures. Of Mickey's 119 cartoons, 102 were produced before 1940. During that time Mickey's animated short subjects introduced his fans to some of his friends - Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto, to name just a few - many of whom have gone on to become somewhat legendary in their own right.
Mickey has changed a little since those earliest on-screen days. Originally he was much more mischievous than he is now. He wore no shoes or gloves, something that was fixed as the Disney company earned enough money to expand the cartoon mouse's wardrobe. And his tail has gone from being worn outside his trousers, to being worn inside, to being out again.
But at least one thing has remained constant: He's always had only four fingers - easier to draw and less claw-like than five.
Something else has stayed with Mickey since those early days - an appealing, charismatic something that seems to take him from the world of make believe and gives him a real place in hearts all around the world.
What that "something" is, however, is a matter that even those closest to him can't exactly agree upon.
"He represents the Disney Company," said former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess during a recent visit to Salt Lake City. "When people see Mickey, they remember happy times at Disneyland, or great Disney movies or the Mickey Mouse Club. Mickey is happy memories for everyone."
"He's the spirit of Walt Disney," counters Sherry Alberoni, another former Mouseketeer. "He's like Charlie Brown. He's the child in all of us."
Eisner calls Mickey "the symbol of our company and one of the most important symbols in our country." And animator Ollie Johnston, one of the acclaimed "Mickey Men" whose artistic talents brought the character to loving life, said "he's sort of the symbol of what's good in the world."
But it was Walt Disney himself who probably best summed up the real meaning and purpose of Mickey Mouse.
"All we ever intended for him or expected of him was that he should continue to make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him," Disney said. "We didn't burden him with any social symbolism; we made him no mouthpiece for frustrations or harsh satire. Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter."
Which assignment he has been carrying out remarkably well for 60 years.