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Wednesdays with Wade: Walt Disney reflects on Mickey Mouse's career

Wednesdays with Wade: Walt Disney reflects on Mickey Mouse's career

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I've uncovered some great stories to share in the next few weeks as a direct result of last week's vacation. But today, I would like to talk about Disney books and Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.

We seem to be in store for a new flood of Disney related books and I was reminded of that when I picked up a remaindered copy of "The Wonderful World of Disney," an interesting book that came out in 2004 from Disney Press (when you open the cover, it plays "It's A Small World"). The book includes reprints of the children's book adaptations of Disney films like "The Shaggy Dog,""Darby O'Gill,""Old Yeller," "Pollyana" and several others. In addition, the book reprints without captions seventeen color pages from "Good Housekeeping" that appeared during the Forties to publicize Disney cartoons.

David Gerstein, well known for his historical writing about animation (check out his Oswald the Rabbit research at www.cartoonresearch.com or his Felix the Cat website), is putting together a special book for Gemstone Publishing to come out in a couple of months entitled "Mickey and the Gang -- Classic Stories in Verse". While it is not a dynamic title, the book will reprint all the "Good Housekeeping" pages along with Gerstein's research and commentary on the cartoons represented including the ones that were never made including one slated to be directed by Frank Tashlin.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, check out Jim Korkis's three part series in the jimhillmedia archives. I know Jim sent David a copy of his article for him to use in the research of this forthcoming book.

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In addition, at the San Diego Comic Con, Dark Horse Publishing announced that at the beginning of next year, they would reprint Roald Dahl's very first book that has never been reprinted, "The Gremlins". This is the book that was to serve as the inspiration for a never made Disney animated feature and the book is filled with artwork by Disney artists, primarily Bill Justice who was instrumental in the creation of the gremlin character designs. The book cover is forgotten work by Mary Blair. The editor assigned to the book has said he wants the book to be filled with "extras" so it is like a DVD version. I hope he contacts Jim Korkis or Paul Anderson to use Jim's definitive article on "The Gremlins" that was supposed to have appeared years ago in the long delayed World War II issue of the Disney historical magazine, "Persistence of Vision." Everyone who has read the extensive article, including myself, has been impressed with the depth of research Jim did (including correspondence with Dahl) to unravel what happened to the project.

Kathy Merlock Jackson is working on a book to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in January 2006 entitled "Walt Disney--Conversations". Jackson is also the author of "Walt Disney: A Bio-Bbliography" published by Greenwood Press in 1993. At the time she was Associate Professor Communications at Virginia Weseleyan College, Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. Chapter Three was devoted to "Disney On Disney." That chapter contained transcriptions of some interviews Walt had done including one for the University of the Air in 1948.

The University of the Air radio series is little known even by Old Time Radio enthusiasts today. It spanned four years (1944-1948) and presented adaptations of the world's great novels sort of like an audio version of "Classics Illustrated." Some colleges even offered college credit for listening and a companion book to the series was available. For example, during the broadcast of "The Red Badge of Courage," there is a message from the University of Louisville that they were using the broadcasts as part of its program of study. The broadcast of "Free" (July 9, 1948) includes a short message from the Dean of the University of Chicago. The shows were produced by the NBC University of the Air, in Chicago. Episodes were only thirty minutes long so some novels were multi-part adaptations running up to six weeks.

In 1948, the series was re-titled "NBC University Theater" and production was moved to Hollywood. These adaptations were, for the most part, 60 minutes long and apparently there were short interviews as well. I suspect Walt's interview was late in 1948 as part of "NBC University Theater's" production of "Alice in Wonderland" that according to my research was unrelated to Walt's work on the title. Of course, Walt was also doing the interview to publicize Mickey's twentieth birthday which was celebrated anytime between September and December depending on the release date of whatever Fall Disney film or cartoon was being released. It was Dave Smith who finally made Mickey's birthday officially his appearance at the Colony Theater.

Anyway, for those awaiting the Jackson book and don't have a copy of "Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography" :

"The Story of Mickey Mouse"
By Walt Disney

The following was broadcast on University of the Air, 1948

WALT: Mickey Mouse to me is the symbol of independence. He was a means to an end. He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad twenty years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when the business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner. Born of necessity, the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry. He provided the means for expanding our organization to its present dimensions and for extending the medium of cartoon animation toward new entertainment levels. Mickey enabled me to go ahead and do the things I had in mind and the things I foresaw as a natural trend of film fantasy. He spelled production liberation for us.

His first actual screen appearance was at the old Colony Theater in New York in "Steamboat Willie" with its sound effects and cautious speech. His current appearance is in our new musical fantasy feature, combining live and animated action, "Fun and Fancy Free." In between, he has appeared in more pictures than any flesh and blood star. He was the first cartoon character to express personality and to be constantly kept in character. I thought of him from the first as a distinct individual not just a cartoon type or symbol going through comedy routine. I kept him away from stock symbols and situations. We exposed him in close-ups. Instead of speeding the cartoons, as was then the fashion, we were not afraid to slow down the tempo and let Mickey emote. We allowed audiences to get acquainted with him. To recognize him as a personage, motivated by character instead of situations.

Quite consciously, I had been preparing Mickey and his screen pals for the advent of sound. I'd made quite a few silent pictures prior to "Steamboat Willie." It may seem a curious thing that even those in early films with their explanatory balloons, I had thought of them in terms of sound and speech and dreamed of the day when the voice would be synchronized with the silent action. But I felt sure it was coming. Our tempo and rhythm and general animation technique were already being adjusted so that sound could fit in readily when it came.

As early as 1923, I was doing song films. I seldom thought out our silent product without some musical complement. I used to talk to the organist in the theater on arrangements before a film was shown. I even had a gadget which insured a crude kind of synchronization between the organ music and the picture action.

In 1925, I had an animated cat in one of our silents direct the orchestra in the pit from the screen. While this was all preliminary to sound and film, it was preparatory background and equipment for that first Mickey Mouse talkie and the subsequent swift evolvement of sound.

Of course, sound had a very considerable effect on our treatment of Mickey Mouse. It gave his character a new dimension. It rounded him into complete life-likeness. And it carried us into a new phase of his development. Mickey had reached the state where we had to be very careful about what we permitted him to do. He'd become a hero in the eyes of his audiences, especially the youngsters. Mickey could do no wrong. I could never attribute any meanness or callous traits to him. We kept him loveable although ludicrous in his blundering heroics. And that's the way he's remained despite any outside influences. He's grown into a consistent, predictable character to whom we could assign only the kind of role and antics which were correct for his reputation.

Naturally, I am pleased with his continued popularity here and abroad; with the esteem he has won as an entertainment name among youngsters and grownups; with the honors he's brought our studio; with the high compliment bestowed when his name was the password for the invasion of France and with his selection for insignia by scores of fighting units during the war years. These are tributes beyond all words of appreciation.

In a business way, as I've indicated, Mickey meant almost incalculable things to my brother Roy, and to me, as we went through our ups and downs towards founding our present organization with its Burbank Studio, its extensive personnel, and its continuous picture schedules. At this turning point in our career, already referred to, I need just such a fresh cartoon personality to sell a projected series of short subjects which, after failing to get over my ideas with another cartoon venture in New York, I proposed a new series. I felt I had to rely on a sustained character appeal rather than on the merit of each separate issue.

Mickey fitted the deed exactly. He brought in the money which saved the day. He paved the way for a more elaborate screen venture. He enabled us to explore our medium and to evolve the technical advances which were to appear in our first feature length animation fantasy, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and successively in other features, like "Bambi," "Dumbo," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "The Three Caballeros," "Saludos Amigos," "Make Mine Music," "Song of the South" and so up to our latest and current production "Fun and Fancy Free."

In his immediate and continuously successful appeal to all kinds of audiences, Mickey first subsidized our first Silly Symphony Series. From there he sustained other ventures, plugging along as our bread and butter hero. He was a studio prodigy and pet and we treated him accordingly. In due time, we gave Mickey that contrasting, temperamental sidekick, Donald Duck. Then Pluto the naive, credulous hound came along. We used to play these three together in the same picture. Later, we divided them into separate vehicles. Mickey, Donald and Pluto. These meant fewer pictures for each. And, of course, Mickey appeared less often. But you'll see him again in his most harassing in "Mickey and the Beanstalk," an escapade from "Fun and Fancy Free". Prior to this, his top performance was in "Fantasia," as the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

In the early days, I did the voice of most of our characters. It wasn't financially feasible to hire people for such assignments. In "Steamboat Willie", in addition to speaking for Mickey, I also supplied a few sound effects for Minnie, his girl friend, and for the parrot. For Mickey's first picture, I planned to go all out on sound. And those plans came very near spelling a major disaster for us. To launch our picture impressively, I had hired a full New York orchestra with a famous director to do the recording. The musicians were to cost $10 an hour. I thought fifteen men would be enough but the director insisted on having thirty men. Because I was awed by him, I was finally persuaded to take the thirty.

The upshot was that I had to borrow on my automobile and Roy and I had to mortgage our homes as well to cover the cost of the first synchronization of Steamboat Willie. And when it was finished, the picture wouldn't synchronize with the sound. And we had to do it all over after the orchestra leader had reluctantly consented to follow the mechanics that we had prepared at the studio. What I wanted most of all I didn't get: a bull fiddle for the base. The recording room was so small that the orchestra could hardly be jammed into it. The bull fiddle blasted so loud it ruined the other sound and depth blowing out all of the recording lamps. A sad thing, I thought at the time, to launch our Mickey without benefit of bull fiddle in so precarious a world of new possibilities and increased competition.

But he survived and thrived and set the pace in his entertainment field. The cost of his first vehicles ranged from... a bare $1,200 for "Steamboat Willie" to seven figures for "Fun and Fancy Free" in which he shared prominence with Donald, Goofy, Jiminy Cricket and several new cartoon creations, and with Edgar Bergen and his pals, Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and also Dinah Shore and our own little starlet, Luana Patten.

I often find myself surprised at what has been said about our redoubtable little Mickey who was never really a mouse nor yet wholly a man, although always recognizably human, I hope. The psychoanalysts have probed him. Wise men of critical inclination have pondered him. Columnists have kidded him. Admirers have saluted him in extraordinary terms. The League of Nations gave him a special medal as a symbol of international good will. Hitler was infuriated by him... and thunderingly forbade his people to wear the then-popular Mickey Mouse lapel button in place of the swastika. The little fellow's grin was too infectious for Nazism.

But all we ever intended for him and expected of him was that he should continue to make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him. 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. And it is certainly gratifying that the public which first welcomed him two decades ago, as well as their children, have not permitted us, even if we had wished to, to change him in any manner or degree, other than a few minor revisions of his physical appearance. In a sense he was never young. In the same sense, he never grows old in our eyes. All we can do is give him things to overcome in his own, rather stubborn way, in his cartoon universe.

There is much nostalgia for me in these reflections. The life and ventures of Mickey Mouse have been closely bound up with my own personal and professional life. It is understandable that I should have sentimental attachment for the little personage who played so big a part in the course of Disney productions and has been so happily accepted as an amusing friend wherever films are show around the world. He still speaks for me and I still speak for him.

Mickey, I think on this occasion you should say something to all our friends who are listening around the world.

MICKEY: O.K. Well... uh.... Happy Birthday, everybody.

WALT: No, no, Mickey. You don't understand. It's your birthday. This is your 20th birthday.

MICKEY: Oh... gosh... well, I'll be seein' ya.

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