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The Main Mouse : Let's 'Ear It for Paul Castle, a Little Guy Who for 25 Years Was Disneyland's Big Cheese

January 21, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

Hold on to your ears, Mouseketeers. In this, the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse's show business career, the man who was Disneyland's main mouse for a quarter century has broken his silence.

Meet the man in the mouse, Paul Castle, who shares with us the inside story on:

Why Disneyland wouldn't let Mickey talk, even to children.

How hot it got inside that mouse head.

Whether Annette was really as nice as could be.

Moreover, Castle exposes a shocking truth. Many of the Mickey Mouses these days are girls .

His fans probably never would have guessed that Mickey Mouse was a bald 4-foot, 6-inch, one-time amateur speed skater from Cleveland, now living in retirement in an Anaheim mobile home park, happily married to Pinocchio.

Indeed, the Magic Kingdom's official corporate position is that the character with the pointy nose and big ears actually is Mickey Mouse.

"We are not going to get into destroying the fantasy of our characters," explained Disneyland spokesman Bob Roth.

Actually, as many as 50 people may have donned the mouse costume and pranced around Disneyland since it opened in 1955. But Castle was The Big Cheese. From 1961 until his retirement in 1986, he was the Numero Uno Rodent. By the time he retired, Castle had peered through the eyes of Disneyland's mouse mask more than anyone before or since.

"I did over 15,000 parades leading the band . . . down the street at Disneyland," said Castle, who was born five years before Mickey debuted in the 1928 cartoon feature "Steamboat Willie."

Though he was nearly named Mortimer by Walt Disney and came to be known as "big ears" by Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse was voted in the late 1960s as one of the world's most recognized figures--even before Disneyland was cloned in Florida and Tokyo.

"I enjoyed being Mickey, of course. He's the most famous character in the world," said Castle, who, like the cartoon character, routinely punctuates his speech with tinny laughter like this: "Heh, heh, heh."

Castle and his wife, Alma, who wore a Pinocchio costume at Disneyland in the early 1960s, recently reminisced with a visitor, leafing through picture albums of Mickey posing with people he's met.

"My big thing was some of the celebrities," Castle said. "I met Muhammad Ali backstage at Disneyland one time. Well, I was in costume, primarily to take pictures with him.

"Here's a picture of Mayor (Richard) Daley of Chicago. We gave him a pass to come to Disneyland any time he wants. This is a fella who walked on the moon. Here's some Russian astronauts who came to visit. Here's Donald Duck, he's a good friend of mine.

"Here's a picture of Walt and me. They made a postcard out of this, with all the characters in the background. That was about '64 or '65. Here's another shot of me coming out of the castle, leading the band."

Alma suggested that her husband may have been "one of the most photographed persons in the world."

But in the entire collection of Mickey Mouse photos, Castle's cheery, cherub face is nowhere to be found. In the Land of Enchantment, it is strictly forbidden to photograph Mickey or any other cartoon characters in costume with their heads off.

Consequently, Castle may have been one of history's most anonymous famous figures.

"I didn't get any recognition," he lamented. "I met everyone from Hugh Hefner to Prince Rainier, but they never knew who I was."

Any regrets?

"Nooooo. I loved it," he offered without hesitation. Then, pausing to chortle, Castle added: "It's just that it was hot, you know, pretty hot and tiring sometimes."

Alma said that she once put a thermometer in her Pinocchio headpiece and that it registered 110 degrees.

Nevertheless, Castle said he "always thought it was great being inside Mickey. If you had all the characters in a row they (children) would all head for Mickey. No. 1 and he always will be. He started it all, you know."

Castle and the mouse seemed destined to come together.

"Listen to this," said Castle, launching into a perky recitation. "The (Disney) studio was formed one month before I was born. Mickey Mouse was started in 1928. I was 5 years old. I had a Mickey Mouse watch when I was about 5."

Raised in Cleveland, where he learned to ice skate on a baseball diamond that flooded during the winter, Castle became a mascot for the Cleveland Barons hockey team, "dressed like a bell hop. . . . "

At age 17 he left Cleveland for New York and in 1940 landed a job portraying a teddy bear in the ice skating show of another of his idols, figure skater Sonja Henie. He married Alma in 1947. In the 1950s he became a headline performer with the Ice Capades, known as the "Mighty Mite of the Ice."

"The Mighty Mite. M-M, isn't that funny?" said the man who became Mickey Mouse.

In 1960 Castle quit skating and came west, hoping to land a job at Disneyland. But it was not to be, at least not yet.

"I came out here hoping to go right into the (Disneyland) park. I wanted be a little clown. . . . I wanted to be out of character castings because I had been in it for 20 years."

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