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First draft of Disney's "Steamboat Willie" scenario coming up for bid in S/R Lab's next animation art auction

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First draft of Disney's "Steamboat Willie" scenario coming up for bid in S/R Lab's next animation art auction

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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 success.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"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 and "gags."

Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories

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 talks.

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:


Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories

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 you.

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.

Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories

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 summer vacation.

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 Mickey front-of-mind.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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.

Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories

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.

Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories

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

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