The Walt Disney Company is really going all out for Mickey
Mouse's 88th birthday. Over the next four weeks, they will be
sending this beloved character / corporate symbol around the globe. Where (I'm
quoting from the official press release now) Mickey will be making " ... surprise
appearances at iconic, real-world locations" where the Mouse will then interact
with his many " ... fans and friends."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
Mind you, all of these around-the-world, spontaneous
interactions will be captured on camera and then edited into a music video.
Which will debut on November 18th, the date that The Walt Disney
Company recognizes as Mickey's official birthday.
"And how did November 18th (or - if we're being really
specific here - November 18, 1928) come to be recognized as the Mouse's
official birthday?," you ask. Well, that's the day that "Steamboat Willie"
(i.e., The first Mickey Mouse short to be released theatrically. More to the
point, "Steamboat Willie" was the first-ever cartoon with synchronized sound) premiered
at NYC's Colony Theatre.
Just to be clear here: "Steamboat Willie" wasn't the first
Mickey Mouse cartoon to be produced. It was actually proceeded by two previous
shorts, "Plane Crazy" and "The Gallopin' Gaucho." But those earlier Mickey
Mouse cartoons had originally been produced as silent films and had failed to
find a distributor. It was only after Walt & Ub Iwerks - inspired by the
enormous success of Hollywood's first "talkie," "The Jazz Singer" (which first began
wowing audiences back in October of 1927) was enjoying at the box office - decided
to make a cartoon where Mickey talked that the Mouse then had a clear path to
"And how did Disney & Iwerks actually go about creating
the first-ever cartoon with synchronized sound?," you query. That's always been
something of a mystery. Until just recently, I mean. Which is when the first
four pages of the scenario that Walt & Ub wrote for "Steamboat Willie" back
on May 19, 1928 suddenly surfaced among the items that S/R Laboratories would
be putting up for bid as part of their Fall 2016 animation art auction.
As you look over these yellowed pages (which Ub's son David
has authenticated), you're taken back to an extremely pivotal moment in Disney
Company history. Just listen to how Walt describes the project that he, his
brother Roy & Ub were about to begin working on:
This will be our first "sound" Mickey, and the first of
many. The whole feeling should be MUSIC & MOVEMENT, its very important for
the motion to be as fluid as possible and to be naturally worked into the story
Image courtesy of S/R
And please try to come up with a "Voice" for MICKEY we are
all contributing to this part of the project so keep your ears open.
Ironically, if you watch "Steamboat Willie" today, you
eventually realize that Walt, Ub & Roy just weren't able to come up with a
voice for Mickey that they could all then agree upon. Which is why - over the
course of this 7 minute & 42 second-long short - the Mouse whistles,
laughs, sighs, squeaks, squawks, grunts and blows raspberries. But he never actually
So how did a vital part of Disney Company history wind up in
the hands of a private collector? Given that the first draft of "Steamboat
Willie" features a line that says:
DO NOT TAKE SENARIO OUT OF THE STUDIO.
More to the point, that - as part of Walt & Ub's orders
to the rest of the creative team at Disney Bros. Studios who'd be working on
this short - there's a section where they tell the crew that ...
... you must not let anyone known that we are making a "Talkie
Cartoon" so keep this to your selfs and do not take any materials home with
So one has to wonder - given that Walt himself recognized
how important the "Steamboat Willie" scenario was back in May of 1928 - how four
pages of the first draft for this project somehow made it off the Lot.
In Disney's lifetime, Walt always kept this Mickey-related
material close by him. In a story that Ron Stark (i.e., the Director of S/R
Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center) shares in their Fall 2016
catalog, back when he was a teenager in the early 1960s, Randy Nesen was lucky
enough to score a job working at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which meant
that Nesen was then able to roam the Burbank Lot most weekends as well as over his
Now to hear Ron tell this story, Randy's job often took him
to Walt's office. And Nesen recalled that Disney kept some early "Steamboat
Willie" -related drawings & papers in a cubby of his office.
"And why would Walt keep such obviously-important-to-the-history-of-the-Disney-Company
papers out in the open like that?," you ask. Well, as Walt once so famously
said at the start of one of the early episodes of ABC's "Disneyland" television
series, " ... I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing: That it was
started by a mouse." So maybe keeping
this "Steamboat Willie" material out in plain sight was Walt's way of always keeping
Sadly, Disney died on December 15, 1966. And just a few days
later, Nesen was recruited to be part of the team that was tasked with cleaning
& then closing up the Old Mousetro's office following his passing. And as
Ron recounts, Randy couldn't help but notice that Walt's "Steamboat Willie"
papers were now no longer in the cubby where they'd previously been displayed.
Now jump ahead to 1981. Which is when a yet-to-be-named
animation fan noticed four yellowed pages among (I'm again quoting from S/R
Labs' Fall 2016 catalog here) " ... a diverse collection of animation art and
other materials" that had come up for sale that Summer. Could this document
actually be what it appeared to be? With the hope that he stumbled upon the
film find of the century, that animation fan first purchased those pages and
then spent the next 35 years trying to authenticate them.
Which brings us back to 2016. Where - thanks to the wonders
of YouTube - we can actually watch "Steamboat Willie" as we read this 88
year-old first draft. Which suggests that the first-ever cartoon with
synchronized sound start off by ...
Iris out from steam whistle to full shot of steamboat
chugging down the river in time with the music. Smoke from the stack is also in
time with the title Music. Background should just be simple rolling hills and
the odd building. Forground should take in the riverbank and parts of the levy.
And how do we know that this was actually the first draft of
'Steamboat Willie' ?," you ask. Because these four pages feature a scene that
was ultimately dropped from the production:
Cows and other animals should be in the forground and look
up and wave as the steamboat chugs by.
If you'd like to try and get your hands of this piece of
cinematic history, S/R Laboratories' Fall 2016 animation art auction officially
gets underway tomorrow at 10 a.m. PT and then runs until (again, I'm quoting
from the official catalog here) " ... top bids have been reached and all lots are
closed" on October 25th.
In closing, I have to say that this biannual auctions that
Ron Stark sets up are always eagerly anticipated by animation history buffs.
Largely because of the flat-out amazing pieces that often come up for bid. Take
- for example - this African marionette that was once supposed to have performed
with Pinocchio in that 1940 Walt Disney Animation Studios release.
Thankfully someone at the Studio eventually thought better
of including this rather un-PC character in that film's "I Got No Strings" production
number. Which is why this African marionette wound up on the cutting room floor
prior to "Pinocchio" 's theatrical release.
But this hand-inked cel - along with that first draft of "Steamboat
Willie" - are just two of the 198 items that will soon be coming up for bid in
S/R Labs Fall 2016 animation art auction. Which is the 58th auction
held over the course of this conversation center's 40-year history.
This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, October 23, 2016