American sculptor Ernest Trova once said, "For the sheer power of the graphics, Mickey Mouse is rivaled only by the Coca-Cola trademark and the swastika."
Disney would agree.
The company, now a $20.7-billion entertainment conglomerate after its corporate marriage to Capital Cities/ABC Inc., is represented almost everywhere by the onetime sorcerer's apprentice. Not a bad gig for a cartoon character who began life 67 years ago as a steamboat captain.
But he is Mickey, after all: the mouse, the myth.
Oh, he had plenty of competition rising to his lofty status. A feisty duck named Donald hit the scene in 1934 and went on to star in more cartoons than Mickey. Goofy made his debut in 1932 and soon became a favorite underdog, often stealing the show in cartoons he stumbled into. Mickey's even had to compete with his girlfriend, Minnie.
But Mickey bested them all.
Was it his trademark smile? His endearing voice? His bright eyes? Or was it the ears?
It's probably a little of everything, but endurance seems to be the key. If nothing else, Mickey has proven in his 67 years to possess undying likability, marketability and just plain durability.
However, these days his job isn't quite as simple as spreading joy. Mickey has the dual responsibility of being the icon of a huge corporate entity in the global entertainment economy while also reminding us of the quality that Disney executives want us all to think about when we hear the word \o7 Disney.\f7
In other words, Mickey must emphasize more the Magic than the Kingdom.
"He plays an extremely important role for the company's image," says Bob Kuperman, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based advertising company Chiat/Day. "Mickey is this graphic, visual symbol that people immediately identify with entertainment and amusement. It doesn't matter if it's someone in Italy or Czechoslovakia or wherever, people know who Mickey is, and Disney knows this. I don't think they're worried about overusing him or using him in the wrong ways--that's almost impossible."
Gone are the days when "Mickey Mouse" is a synonym for second-rate or small-time. Mickey was caricatured in the media as a sort of fat-cat business mogul--J.D. Rockefeller in a mouse suit--following the Walt Disney Co.'s merger with Capital Cities. But Disney executives still see him as Walt's little friend.
"Mickey is at the heart of this company, and always has been," says Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and vice-chairman of the Disney board of directors. "No matter how the company changes, that remains true."
Many people assume Mickey became an icon because he was Walt's first character. Truth is, Walt created many characters during the early 1920s before the mighty mouse: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Julius the Cat and Peg Leg Pete.
But the mouse was Walt's first success. Following a series of setbacks in the late '20s, Disney's company was on the brink of bankruptcy. So Walt brainstormed, and with help from wife Lillian and his star animator, Ub Iwerks, they created Mickey in the summer of 1928. Lillian gave him the name--Walt wanted Mortimer. Iwerks helped design the simple image: round ears, round head, three fingers and a thumb.
But Walt provided the key to Mickey's success: an actual personality.
"So many cartoon producers up to that point would take bits of slapstick comedy, slap them together, and that was their cartoon--there was no personality," says David Smith, Disney's archive director. "Here was a cartoon character, for the first time, that everyone could identify with. He was this everyday character struggling against the woes of the world, and people saw themselves in him. That was a first."
David Smith is the guy to see if you want to know anything about the Mouse. Sitting in his office at Disney, archivist Smith is surrounded by memorabilia and virtually everything ever written on the Magic Kingdom.
"Steamboat Willie" debuted at the Colony Theater in New York City on Nov. 18, 1928, the date now considered the birthday of one Mickey Mouse. It actually wasn't his first cartoon, though. There were two previous silent shorts, "Plane Crazy" and "Gallopin' Gaucho," but since they followed the sound-barrier-breaking "The Jazz Singer" by only months, Walt couldn't sell them. (Sound was later added to the two cartoons after "Steamboat Willie" came out).
So the public saw "Steamboat Willie" first. And that was all it took.
"Mickey became a sensation almost immediately," Smith says. The Mouse emerged as a symbol for the company in the early '30s, when he began appearing on company letterhead and was used in the sign over the first Disney studios on Hyperion Avenue. "Almost immediately, Mickey was how people recognized Walt's company," he says. "And they were no fools, they saw the marketability of the character."