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The Myth of Mickey Rooney & Mickey Mouse

The Myth of Mickey Rooney & Mickey Mouse

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On Friday, May 21st, 2004, the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters had a luncheon honoring eighty-four year old screen legend Mickey Rooney. Who told some of his favorite anecdotes. Including this one that -- I believe -- first appeared in his 1991 autobiography, "Life is Too Short."

On lunch break while filming the "Mickey McGuire" comedies, five-year-old Rooney walked by an open office at Warner Bros. studios, poked his head in and introduced himself.

"'Who are you?' I asked the guy working there. 'My name is Walt Disney,' he said. 'Come over and sit on my lap.' So I went over and sat on his lap, and there was a mouse he had drawn. 'My gosh, that's a good-looking mouse, Mr. Disney.' 'It sure is, Mickey,' he said, and he stopped and looked into space for a minute. 'Mickey, Mickey,' he said. 'Tell me something, how would you like me to name this mouse after you?' And I said, 'I sure would like that, but right now I got to go and get a tuna sandwich.' And I jumped down."

"It's a true story," added Rooney.

No, it's not! On the Internet, there are several sites that repeat this story as fact and several sites that elaborate on it by claiming that one of the reasons Walt named his famous mouse "Mickey" was that he briefly dated Mickey Rooney's mother. That's not true either.

I have lived long enough to know that almost anything is possible and that I don't know everything and that there are always new things to be discovered, especially about Disney history. But let's look at the facts:

Mickey Mouse was created late in 1928. Mickey Rooney didn't even become Mickey Rooney until he officially changed his name in 1932. He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920 and that was his name in 1928.

Rooney got his big break in films at the age of six when he was cast in a series of several dozen comedy two-reelers beginning in 1927 named for the character "Mickey McGuire," a character from a popular comic strip known as the "Toonerville Trolley" by Fontaine Fox. In fact, at the time Rooney's mother supposedly wanted to change his name to "Mickey McGuire" to help publicize this live action series which was designed to compete with Hal Roach's successful "Our Gang" comedies. The Warner Brothers series was popular enough to span from the silents to the talkies with over forty "Mickey McGuire" comedies made between 1927-1933.

The character of Mickey "Himself" McGuire, a tough little gang kid with ragged clothes and an oversized derby hat, was a popular figure in the comic strip and spawned some equally popular toys as well. (A very young Billy Barty played Mickey McGuire's younger brother. Barty went on to a long career with many credits including voicing Figment the Dragon at the "Journey Into Imagination" pavilion at Epcot in later years.) In "Mickey's Thrill Hunters," the gang starts their own window washing business. In "Mickey's Race", Mickey enters the Toonerville Derby Day races with a mule. In "Mickey's Ape Man," the gang causes trouble at the local zoo after entering the Toonerville Tarzan look-alike contest. In "Mickey's Luck," the gang becomes volunteer Toonerville firemen and end up freeing all the live stock of the town pet store.

So there is the possibility that if Joe Yule Jr. had been introduced to Walt Disney in 1928, he would have been introduced as the star of the "Mickey McGuire" comedies which at that time would have been in production for almost a year.

So giving Rooney the benefit of the doubt, he would have been almost seven years old and not five as he claimed when he met Walt Disney at Walt's Warner Brothers' office and Joe Yule Jr. might have referred to himself as "Mickey" rather than his real name. Except Walt never had an office at Warner Brothers nor any connection with Warner Brothers. Not only did Disney have his own studio at this time but his "Alice" comedies and "Oswald the Lucky Rabbi"t cartoons were being distributed by Universal.

Speaking of Universal, one of the reasons that Walt was desperately creating Mickey Mouse in 1928 is that the character his studio was animating, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was firmly in the hands of Charles Mintz and Universal. Who had refused Walt's pleas for more money to further develop the series so Walt needed to develop a character that he owned in order to keep his studio in business.

With the success of the synchronized sound "Mickey Mouse" cartoons, Universal decided to give Oswald a voice as well. The director of the series, Walter Lantz, hired young Mickey Rooney to provide the voice for the animated star in 1929-1930.

Did Walt Disney date Mickey Rooney's mother? No. When Mickey Rooney was three (1923), his parents divorced and his mother took him to Kansas City, Missouri. But -- by the time they got there -- Walt had already left to seek his fortune in Hollywood. She very briefly came out to Hollywood in 1924 so Mickey could audition for the "Our Gang" comedies. But supposedly Hal Roach thought he was too "slick" and Mickey and his mother returned to Kansas City. They did not return until 1926.

Walt married Lillian Bounds in July 1925. Walt never seemed to have the interest nor the finances to casually date and -- for the most part -- seemed oblivious to any woman who might have been interested in dating him. In addition, he was so firmly focused on his work that he had little time for casual dating especially during this time period.

I think the final nail in the coffin for this urban legend is that Walt Disney himself loved telling stories and if there were any truth at all in this story connecting the creation of his mouse with a young Mickey Rooney, he would have loved to share it with reporters because it would have garnered publicity. In fact, it was Walt himself who implied to a reporter that Tinker Bell was inspired by the then-popular Marilyn Monroe, a falsehood that creator Marc Davis spent the remaining decades of his life refuting.

At the time Tinker Bell was being developed, Marilyn was a struggling actress but had not had a leading role nor had her infamous "Playboy" centerfold appeared. It is very apparent from Disney Studio records that the live action reference model, Margaret Kerry, was the source for Tinker Bell. Yet when "Peter Pan" premiered, Walt casually implied that the now popular Miss Monroe was the inspiration because it was a good story.

However, there are several legitimate connections between Mickey Rooney and Disney:

Among other Disney credits, Mickey Rooney was the voice of the adult Tod in the animated feature "The Fox and the Hound," the character of Lampie in "Pete's Dragon" and the voice of Sparky the Junkyard Dog in "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure." Not to mention an animated Mickey Rooney stirring up Donald Duck in "The Autograph Hound" (1939)

Tim Rooney and Mickey Rooney Jr. -- the sons of actor Mickey Rooney -- were cast as part of the original Mouseketeers hired for the 1955 season. They were released from their contract shortly after filming began after what has been referred to as an "unruly and mischievous foray into the Disney paint department".

So I wish Mr. Rooney would stop promulgating the myth that he inspired the naming of the mouse. He has many interesting real stories about his adventures in Hollywood to share. While it might be interesting to speculate whether the popularity of the "Mickey McGuire" character in films, comic strip and merchandising planted the "Mickey" name in the consciousness of Walt and his wife, Lillian, as a much more audience friendly name than "Mortimer," it is very apparent that it was not a chance meeting between Mickey Rooney and Walt Disney that gave the world a "Mickey".

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you'd like to learn even more about the recent Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters luncheon -- as well as read yet another variation on Mickey Rooney's story about how he supposedly inspired Walt Disney to rename Mortimer Mouse -- then JHM suggests that you head on over to animationnation.com , where that site's administrator -- Charles -- as well as (later) povonline's Mark Evanier recount their own impressions of this particular luncheon.

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