Cruelty to an Animal

The Year in Mickey Mouses 75th birthday

Illustration by Bob AulIn November, America celebrated the 75th birthday of Mickey Mouse. In his long history, the world's most famous rodent has not always lived up to his squeaky-clean image. As the following timeline makes clear, over the decades Mickey has been involved in a host of unsavory activities and turned up in all sorts of surprising and sometimes scandalous places. Mickey Mouse is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pair of red shorts with yellow buttons.

Dec. 5, 1901:

Walter Elias Disney is born in Chicago to Elias and Flora Disney. October 1923:After young Walt has a few false starts in the animation business, he and brother Roy set up a studio in their uncle's Hollywood garage, with Walt as animator and Roy operating a used camera. March 1924: The Disney brothers' first cartoons appear in theaters. Their "Alice" pictures, featuring a live girl interacting with a cartoon world, meet with some success. One cartoon features dancing rats that foreshadow the early design of Mickey Mouse. June 1924: Walt and Roy are joined by Walt's old pal, artist Ub Iwerks. Soon Iwerks takes over most of the animation, and Disney's attention turns from drawing and toward the technical, story and business sides of the operation. June 1927: The Alice films have run their course, and Disney's studio devises a new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This month Oswald makes his debut in the short Poor Papaand is a hit. Although Iwerks almost certainly designed Oswald, Disney takes the credit. February 1928: Walt and his wife take a fateful train trip to New York to ask Walt's distributor, Charles Mintz, for more money. Mintz demands that Disney receive less per cartoon or risk losing both Oswald and the studio. It turns out Mintz not only owns the rights to Oswald, but that he's covertly hired away Disney's entire staff of animators (except for Iwerks) to make Oswald cartoons for him instead. Disney refuses Mintz's deal, and on the train ride home is inspired to create Mickey Mouse. Maybe. Accounts of Mickey's origins vary wildly. In some versions, Walt gets the idea from the sound of the train's whistle ("MOWWWWWSE!"). In others, Walt remembers a jaunty little mouse named Mortimer he'd kept as a pet in Kansas City. In some stories, Walt's wife suggests the name of Mickey, rejecting Mortimer as too sissy; in others, the name is taken from Mickey Rooney, whose mom Walt reportedly dated for a time. In still another account, after Walt returns from the train trip, he, Iwerks and Roy desperately brainstorm a new character to replace Oswald. In any case, it's almost certain that Mickey Mouse is first drawn by Iwerks and that Walt's main contribution to the creation of Mickey consists of little more that suggesting the basic idea of using a mouse as a character. And in some versions, it wasn't even Walt's idea to use a mouse. May 1928: Walt Disney's first short featuring Mickey Mouse, Plane Crazy, has a preview screening at a theater in Los Angeles. The silent cartoon is a parody of the Charles Lindbergh craze then sweeping the nation and has Mickey building an airplane in hopes of impressing Minnie. Once in the air, Mickey repeatedly attempts to kiss the uninterested Minnie, eventually becoming so forceful that a desperate Minnie leaps out of the plane. Perhaps distracted by a bad case of blue balls, Mickey loses control of the plane and it plummets. No distributors are interested in the film. Mid-1928: Disney forges ahead with another Mickey film, Gallopin' Gaucho; the short features Mickey as a cowboy riding an ostrich around South America, smoking, firing guns and getting into mischief. But seeing that silent films are dying out, Disney abandons Gaucho and sinks all of his cash into Steamboat Willie, the studio's first sound cartoon. (Contrary to myth, other filmmakers created sound cartoons before this one.) Nov. 18, 1928: Steamboat Willie opens at Colony Theater in New York. The cartoon features Mickey swinging a cat over his head by its tail, using a goose for a bagpipe by holding its body and yanking on its neck, and other spectacular acts of cruelty. Despite (or perhaps because of) such behavior, Mickey is a sensational hit. Disney soon goes back to add sound to Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, and offers them to theaters with Steamboat Willie as a package deal. Having learned his lesson with Oswald, Walt trademarks Mickey Mouse for use in motion pictures. July 1929: Mickey speaks his first words in The Karnival Kid. Minnie appears as a hairy-legged "shimmy dancer" and Mickey is a hotdog vender who cruelly presides over his sentient, barking hotdogs. At one point Mickey literally spanks a hot dog (don't ask). Walt provides Mickey's voice, and will continue to do so until 1946. Late 1929:Mickey Mouse's ever-increasing popularity spawns a national Mickey Mouse Club, which meets in local theaters every Saturday for an afternoon of cartoons and games. Several million Mouse Clubbers share a secret handshake, special member greeting, code of behavior, and even a special club song, "Minnie's Yoo Hoo." Audiences are distraught whenever there's no Mickey Mouse cartoon to accompany a film, and "What, no Mickey Mouse?" becomes a common expression and the name of a hit song. January 1930: Citing "artistic differences," Ub Iwerks informs Roy Disney that he wishes to leave the Disney Company. Disney buys Iwerks' 20 percent share of the company for $2,920, a pitiful fraction of its eventual worth. 1930: Roy Disney signs the first contract for the merchandising of Mickey and other Disney characters. And so it begins . . .September 1930:Mickey's dog, Pluto, makes his debut in the short The Chain Gang as one of a pair of bloodhounds out to capture Mickey, an escaped convict. We are never told what crime Mickey committed, but based on previous cartoons there are many possibilities: cruelty to animals, attempted rape, publicly spanking a hotdog . . . May 1931: After appearing in various roles in a few cartoons, Pluto finally appears in The Moose Hunt as Mickey's dog. Pluto's appearance in the Disney shorts will give rise to decades of questions as to why Pluto acts like a dog, but Mickey's pal Goofy, also a dog, does not. 1932: Walt Disney receives a special Academy Award for the creation of Mickey. 1933: During an interview with Film Pictorial, Walt Disney says, "In private life, Mickey is married to Minnie... What it really amounts to is that Minnie is, for screen purposes, his leading lady." Two years later, Disney has reversed his position on Mickey and Minnie's marital status. "There's no marriage in the land of make-believe," Walt says. "Mickey and Minnie must live happily ever after." March 1933: In the short Mickey's Mellerdrammer, Mickey and his pals stage Uncle Tom's Cabin with Mickey and Minnie in blackface. 1933: The Mickey Mouse wristwatch debuts. By the end of the year, nearly a million are sold. November 1934:The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is led by a 55-foot-high Mickey, proof that there's at least some truth to the urban legends about New York being overrun with giant rodents. The same year, Mickey gets his own entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. June 1934:Donald Duck debuts in The Wise Little Hen. The scrappy little duck's popularity will soon eclipse Mickey's, a source of some consternation to Walt, who strongly identifies with Mickey. David Smith, archives director for the Walt Disney Co., will later explain, "Often in that period, they would start a cartoon with Mickey and it wouldn't work and someone would say, 'Use Donald.' You didn't want to do naughty things with your corporate logo. He suddenly became sacrosanct." February 1935: The Band Concert, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in color, makes its debut. Donald is the comedian while Mickey plays straight man, establishing a pattern the pair will continue for the rest of their careers. Later the same year, the League of Nations presents Disney with a special award and calls Mickey "an international symbol of goodwill." 1936: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt writes to Walt: "My husband is one of the devotees of Mickey Mouse. Please believe that all of us are most grateful to you for many delightful evenings." 1936: On his deathbed, England's George V is asked which film he'd like to see. He replies, "Anything but that damned mouse." December 1937: Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels writes in his journal that Hitler is quite pleased about Goebbels' Christmas present to him: 18 Mickey Mouse films. "I hope that this treasure will bring [Hitler] much joy and relaxation," Goebbels writes. Although Mickey is enormously popular in Nazi Germany, a Nazi publication of the day has harsh words for the character: "Down with the Jewish trickery of the masses! Away with the vermin! Down with Mickey Mouse!" 1939: A Mickey Mouse watch is sealed in a World's Fair time capsule buried in New York. Early 1940s: British children wear Mickey Mouse gas masks during German attacks. 1940: Mickey makes his feature debut in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of Disney's most wonderfully idiosyncratic feature, Fantasia. Mickey is redesigned for the film, with more rounded features and eyeballs with pupils instead of the black, button eyes seen in previous Disney films. Fantasia is a commercial failure, and this, along with the box-office failure of Pinocchio, Bambi and other Disney films, puts an end to the studio's era of rapid growth and experimentation. May-September 1941: Disney animators, members of the Screen Cartoonists Guild frustrated by Disney's capricious labor policies, stage a bitter strike at the studio. Within an hour of the strike's beginning, more than 1,000 picketers appear; one of the picket signs features an outraged Mickey carrying a sign reading DISNEY UNFAIR! FDR dispatches federal labor conciliator Stanley White to Hollywood to work out a settlement, and Disney finds himself making some unfortunate enemies, as the Printing Council and the Technicolor Corporation both refuse to work with Disney until he recognizes the Cartoonists Guild. By the time the strike finally ends, careers are ruined, friendships are damaged beyond repair, and Walt's conservatism becomes full-blown reactionary fervor. December 1941:America enters World War II. Disney suspends almost all commercial activity and begins cranking out propaganda cartoons and instructional films (including the infamous anti-VD shorts) for the U.S. government. Over the following months, Mickey appears on posters urging the purchase of war bonds. Disney produces military logos for free, saying he feels he owes it to the kids who grew up on Mickey Mouse. March 1942:In a short called "Symphony Hour," when Donald attempts to abandon his instrument in the middle of a concert, bandleader Mickey stops him by jabbing a revolver directly between Donald's eyes. June 1944: The Allied troops use Mickey's name as the code word for their D-Day mission. 1946: The last cartoon is made featuring Walt as the voice of Mickey. 1947: Mickey makes his second feature appearance in the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" sequence of the anthology picture Fun and Fancy Free. October 1947: When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) begins investigating communist infiltration in Hollywood, Walt Disney is one of the first to testify. He charges that the strike at his company was led by reds, and names four individuals. August 1948: Walt circulates a memo at the studio with ideas for an amusement park, which he calls Mickey Mouse Park. March 1949: The Soviet Union purges all Disney films, accusing Disney of trying to infiltrate Russia with propaganda. December 1950: The first Disney TV special, One Hour in Wonderland, airs on NBC. The program features Disney, Mickey and several other Disney cartoon characters in their TV debut. April 1953: The Simple Things debuts; it will be the last cartoon to star Mickey until 1983's Mickey's Christmas Carol. 1954: The FBI makes Walt Disney a "Special Agent in Charge Contact." July 1955: Disneyland's opening is broadcast as a live, 90-minute TV broadcast to an estimated audience of 90 million. VIP guests include Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., and Ronald Reagan is one of the show's hosts. Mickey is on the scene, cheerful grin firmly affixed. October 1955: The Mickey Mouse Club and the Mouseketeers debut on TV. The daily afternoon program is a smash hit with kids, and the annoyingly catchy theme song "(M- I-C! K-E-Y! M-O-U-S-E!") will be forever stuck in the head of anyone who hears it. Not necessarily in a good way. Annette Funicello is the most popular of the cast, and at her peak receives 6,000 fan letters a month. Mouseketeer caps soon become the rage, reportedly selling at a rate of 24,000 a day. November 1955: On Thanksgiving Day, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, a 75-minute extravaganza of strangeness, opens as the first major addition to Disneyland. Within a pink-and-white striped circus tent, Mousketeer kids from the TV show perform aerial feats (!) and act in comedy routines alongside clowns, chimps, a troop of elephants dyed a rainbow of colors, a horse that dances unsteadily on its hind legs, and heavily tranquilized lions, leopards, pumas and panthers. This theater of cruelty features Funicello and fellow Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr in a cage wearing "Pussy Cat Polka" cat suits, and for the show's finale the Mousketeers appear in toy soldier outfits for the March of the Toys. The show is a huge flop, and closes in January 1956. Half a century later, every single thing that ever happened in that tent would be illegal. 1959: The Mickey Mouse Club is cancelled. September 1959: Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, on a visit to the United States, is outraged when he is not allowed into Disneyland for security reasons. 1958: Walt selects Florida as the location for what will later become Walt Disney World. 1960s:Mickey is featured as a blandly grinning American icon in the work of such pop artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Claus Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. November 1966: Walt is diagnosed with lung cancer. He has a lung removed, but is told he nonetheless has only six months to live. Dec. 15, 1966: Walt Disney passes away at 9:30 a.m. Rumors persist for decades that he has himself (or at least his head) cryogenically frozen. October 1971:Following the July publication of Air Pirates Funnies #1, Walt Disney Productions files a complaint against the Air Pirates hippie artist troupe, accusing them of copyright infringement, trademark infringement, unfair competition, intentional interference with business, and trade disparagement, along with perverting Mickey Mouse's "image of innocent delight." In a satirical attempt to destroy Disney's "corporate seizure of the American narrative," the Air Pirates have created comics featuring a (very) thinly disguised Mickey and company toting guns, taking drugs and having sex. The most famous panel depicts Mickey lamenting, "The whole world thinks I'm cute. Why won't anybody fuck me?" The landmark case will drag on until 1979 and will go all the way to the California Supreme Court. Eventually the parties will settle out of court; the Air Pirates admit no guilt, but agree never to draw the Disney characters again. Ironically enough, in the '80s one of the Air Pirates, Bobby London, will work for a time in Disney's marketing department. 1971: Mickey appears at the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort. 1972: Mickey Rat, another scabrous underground comics parody of Mickey, makes his debut. The character will continue for years and prove quite popular among skuzzy burnout types, eventually giving his name to a long-lived heavy metal band. 1973: George Reiger, age 18, gets a tattoo of Mickey on his forearm. Over the following decades, Reiger, the self-proclaimed biggest Disney fan in the world, will get his entire torso covered in hundreds of Disney tattoos, sometimes as many as five or six in a day. Mickey is the most common image, on his own dozens of times and hidden in other images hundreds of times. January 1977: The New Mickey Mouse Club premieres, but lasts only one season. Lisa Whelchel (who will go on to star as Blair on The Facts of Life) is among the new Mouseketeers. November 1978: Mickey celebrates his 50th birthday in a 90-minute television special featuring Gerald Ford, Billy Graham, Lawrence Welk, Willie Nelson, Gene Kelly, Roy Rogers, Jodie Foster, Goldie Hawn, Eva Gabor and Burt Reynolds. 1979: Mickey Mouse Disco hits record stores. The cover parodies Saturday Night Fever and features Mickey in full Travolta attire. The album eventually goes multiplatinum. 1982:New-wave band Sparks records the album Angst in My Pants, featuring an oddball single, "Mickey Mouse." The chorus: "Yes, my name is Mickey Mouse/To my right is Minnie Mouse/And we own a little place in Disneyland, California." 1983: The punk band the Subhumans releases the album The Day the Country Died, featuring the single "Mickey Mouse Is Dead." Sample lyric: "Mickey Mouse is dead/They shot him through the head/With ignorance and scorn/They believed in something new." 1983: Wearing a kimono, Mickey presides over the opening of Tokyo Disneyland. April 1984: Mickey makes an unlikely cameo on the cover of Iron Maiden's Powerslave album, appearing in the hieroglyphics of an enormous temple dedicated to the band's corpse-mascot, Eddie. Mid-'80s: "Furry" fetishists begin showing up at sci-fi conventions costumed as anthropomorphic cartoon animals, with Disney characters being a particular favorite. Trekkies are scandalized by public scenes of heavy petting between couples dressed like Mickey and Minnie. "Furverts" will eventually hold their own conventions and will begin to attract the jaded attentions of the mainstream media in the late '90s. 1987: In Tokyo, Herb Ritts snaps his famous photograph of Madonna in bed, topless, cross-eyed and wearing Mouseketeer ears. This was back when the idea of Madonna doing such a thing was sexy instead of scary. Nov. 18, 1988:Mickey's Birthdayland (now Mickey's Starland) is opened at Walt Disney World to honor Mickey Mouse on his 60th birthday. April 24, 1989: The All New Mickey Mouse Club debuts on the Disney Channel. Over the run of the show, the Mouseketeers will include not just Britney Spears, but Christina Aguilera, Felicity's Keri Russell and Justin Timberlake. At the exact moment the first episode begins transmission, all humanity feels a shiver of profound dread as a great evil is loosed upon the world. 1991: The Journal of the American Medical Association publishes a study on logo recognition in children aged 3 to 6. The study concludes that Mickey Mouse and Joe Camel are equally well known to toddlers. 1992: A beret-clad Mickey visits the opening of Euro Disney, which will later be rechristened Disneyland Paris. One of the leading French newspapers, Le Matin, warns that the new park will "deform generations of French children." 1993: Disney acquires Miramax Films. This takes places shortly after Miramax has hit it big with the dark, gender-bending thriller/romance The Crying Game. Conservatives predictably raise an appalling fuss, claiming that Disney is associating itself with peddlers of transgender smut, while late-night TV comics respond with gags to the effect that Minnie is actually Mickey in drag, etc. 1993: Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (who will go on to become a distressingly famous couple) first meet when they make their debuts on The All New Mickey Mouse Club, singing and dancing while wearing Mouseketeer ears. 1993: Mickey's Toontown opens at Disneyland, featuring the life-sized "homes" of Mickey and other Disney cartoon stars. Mid-'90s: Surreal Disney gear—including three-fingered, giant Mickey Mouse gloves and fuzzy pink Mouseketeer ears—becomes a staple at raves. Circa 1995: As the Disney Co. enjoys unprecedented success with features like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King, the company faces increasingly harsh criticism from both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives claim that Disney films follow a gay-friendly, secular agenda, while liberals assail the company for cultural imperialism and appalling labor practices. Both sides agree that Disney sucks, but fiercely disagree about precisely why. June 1995: The All New Mickey Mouse Club is canceled. A grateful nation heaves a sigh of relief. Britney, Justin, et al., become has-beens overnight, and begin plotting their awful vengeance upon the world. Circa 1996: Disney fans launch websites where they report sightings of "hidden Mickeys," images of Mickey Mouse subtly worked into the background at Disney theme parks and hotels, in Disney cartoons and in live-action TV shows and films produced by Disney or Disney subsidiaries like ABC. Apparently we've been slipped a Mickey in such unlikely places as Home Improvement and Armageddon. For more hidden Mickeys than any sane person could possibly care about, visit www.hiddenmickeys.org. 1996: Feds raid a garment factory in El Monte and discover dozens of Thai immigrants living under slave-labor conditions as they crank out children's clothing bearing images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. Circa 1997: Performance artist Reverend Bill and other members of the Church of Stop Shopping begin visiting Disney Stores in New York and telling shoppers "Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist." During one sit-in at the Times Square Disney Store, police handcuff Bill to the giant, stuffed Mickey Mouse he uses as a prop. Spring 1997: The Screen Actors Guild files a grievance against Disney, saying Eisner's company has never paid the original Mouseketeers more than $100 million in residuals and other fees owed for the constant reuse of Mickey Mouse Club episodes. May 1997: In New York's Times Square, outraged Disney/ABC employees, dressed as Mickey, Minnie and other Disney characters, assemble to protest the company's labor practices. August 1997: A 130-foot Mickey crop circle appears in Vernham Dean, Hampshire, England. (See the picture at www.greatdreams.com/crop/mickey_mouse.htm.) March 1998: Scientists produce a major scientific find at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, when they drill into ancient ice (some of it 400,000 years old) and discover in their samples a microworld of ancient fungi, algae, and bacteria. One of the samples shows a hazy but unmistakably familiar silhouette. 1999: When Nelson Mandela urges South Africans to vote for the African National Congress, he refers contemptuously to the opposing parties as "Mickey Mouse" parties. 1999:Disney feels Mickey is underutilized as a marketing tool (!) and marketing exec Andy Mooney, formerly of Nike, is brought aboard to find new ways to make Mickey hip. Mooney compares Mickey to the Nike logo, saying, "This is our swoosh." Over the next few years, Mooney will employ the product-placement techniques he honed at Nike, and Mickey will turn up in some very surprising places. After Sarah Jessica Parker wears a Mickey T-shirt during a racy Sex in the Cityscene, Hollywood's trendy Fred Segal clothing boutique reports that it has sold 60 of the shirts (at 43 bucks each) by the following Tuesday. Lenny Kravitz, Jennifer Aniston and J-Lo are all photographed in Mickey shirts. In June 2003, Disney pays a graffiti artist named Mear (whose most recent work was an anti-war mural) to spray-paint a 1930s-style Mickey Mouse comic strip on the side of a Sunset Boulevard building. December 1999: Mickey appears in the odious Pomp and Circumstance sequence of the odious Fantasia pseudo-sequel, Fantasia 2000. February 2001: In an ingenious, insidious ploy to market Disney products to a new generation, Disney subsidiary ABC launches the Saturday morning show The House of Mouse, in which Mickey is the emcee at a nightclub where an audience of characters from every Disney cartoon ever made watches Disney cartoons. Essentially an infomercial for the Disney oeuvre, the program will spawn a soundtrack album, books and several straight-to-video movies. May 2001: London's Daily Express reports that teenage thugs have been repeatedly attacking actors dressed like Disney characters at Disneyland Paris. The thugs reportedly regard parts of the character costumes as trophies, and Mickey has lost his ears and Minnie's dress has been ripped off. 2002: With Mickey's copyright due to expire, Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) steps in to help his pals at Disney and pushes through a sweeping change in copyright laws that extends Mickey's copyright for another 20 years. November 2002: A restorer working on a 14th-century fresco in a Maltese church uncovers a familiar face: Mickey Mouse. "This fresco proves that Mickey Mouse is a true Austrian and was not born in Hollywood," Siggi Neuschitzer, head of Malta's tourism office, told the Austrian press. "The similarity is so astounding that Disney could lose its worldwide copyright." Art historian Eduard Mahlknecht conjectures that the Mickey-like figure is, of all things, a pregnant weasel. (In the Middle Ages people believed that weasels carried their young in their ears; people in the Middle Ages could be really stupid sometimes.) February 2003: Anti-war protesters in Buenos Aires leave behind graffiti depicting President Bush as Mickey Mouse. February 2003:Outside Ozzy Osbourne's Beverly Hills mansion, shock rocker Marilyn Manson and modernist Viennese artist Gottfried Helnwein premiere two paintings that will be used as the artwork for Manson's album The Golden Age of Grotesque. The creepy images depict a heavily made-up Manson wearing Mouseketeer ears. July 2003: While interviewing the fashion editor of People about the renewed popularity of Mickey Mouse fashions, NBC's Today Show host Katie Couric asks, "Is it true that Mickey is the new black?" Nov. 18, 2003: The world celebrates Mickey's 75th birthday. The company erects 75 6-foot-tall, 700-pound, completely terrifying statues of the famous mouse at Walt Disney World. In April 2004, they will begin a tour around the country. 2004: A Mickey postage stamp is unveiled. Nov. 18, 2018: As a ruined America bitterly contemplates its former glory, Mickey celebrates his 100th birthday with an all-star, direct-to-cerebellum event featuring the Olsen twins, Dakota Kutcher-Moore, Lourdes Ciccone, Carrot Top, Marilyn Monroe Clone No. 3567, the cryogenically preserved head of Elton John, and, live via satellite straight from the ninth circle of hell, Satan himself. Nov. 18, 2918: Mickey celebrates his 1,000th birthday. Our scuttling, crablike descendents build a mighty, 400-foot-high statue honoring their grinning rodent god, and millions gather around to croak out their most sacred hymn: Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? . . .
 
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