By Robert Heide
MICKEY FOR PRESIDENT:
On November 18, 1928, the black and white Walt Disney “talking” cartoon Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater in New York. Although there had been other cartoon stars that preceded Mickey, such as Felix “the Cat,” it was the Mouse who took the spotlight back then and forevermore. Mickey squeaked, whistled, danced and, yes, spoke as amazed audiences roared with laughter, applause, and cheers. The high-pitched voice of Mickey was provided by Disney himself and, following Steamboat, Mickey went on to star in 120 animated shorts. Somewhat modeled after Charlie Chaplin, the Mouse was immediately an international sensation, as was his gal pal Minnie who tagged along for the ride. In this year of 2018 there will be Mickey parades and continuous celebrations at Disney World, Disneyland, and all the other Disney Parks around the world. During the writing of three books written for the Disney Company, Disneyana—Classic Collectibles 1928-1958, The Mickey Mouse Watch—From the Beginning of Time, and Mickey’s official biography Mickey Mouse, The Evolution, The Legend, The Phenomenon!, co-author John Gilman and I would often joke about the notion that in the near future an animated image of Mickey Mouse would show up on our computers saying to all of us, in his usual high-pitched-happy-squeaky-falsetto voice, something like “Hi folks! We’re going to war.” The idea is: who would dare to criticize or go against a President Mickey? The lyrics for one particular Mickey Mouse song, entitled What! No Mickey Mouse? What Kind of a Party is This? (written by Irving Caesar in 1932 to coincide with Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign—whose main political theme song was Happy Days are Here Again) suggested that Mickey could be our next president. The lyrics included these lines: “Vote for Mickey Mouse and make him our next President. Your lions roar, your tigers snore, I’ve heard them roar and snore before, but Mickey Mouse makes me laugh and how. To Congress he is sure to say, meow, meow, okay, okay, how dry I am, have one on me. And then he’ll cry, give me my ax, I’ll cut your tax. He’ll show us what can be done when he’s in Washington.”
When working on our first book on Mickey, we soon discovered that it was going to be a study of the merchandising of an unimaginable variety of products that ultimately provided Walt Disney’s film company all the money it needed for its creative projects—including the artful Silly Symphony sound cartoons, some of which won Academy Awards, and the later full-length animated feature films like Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. There were watches and clocks, Mickey and Minnie and Snow White dolls, boxed games, storybooks, Big Little Books, coloring and comic books, painted bisque figurines, film and slide projectors, sleds and ice skates, roller skates, pencil boxes, lunchboxes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, clothing, hats, sweaters, scarves, shoes, litho-on-tin wind-up toys, and other toys galore. There were also images of Mickey Mouse featured on Post Toasties cereal boxes, which children were encouraged to cut out and make toys of, as well as hard candies, chocolate bars, bread, jam, milk, soda, cookie jars, and even cookies in the shape of Mickey or Minnie Mouse. Herman “Kay” Kamen, the merchandising genius behind all of this, was contracted by Walt Disney and his brother Roy in 1933 to become the sole licensing representative of the Disney company (Kamen’s cut, after the first several thousand dollars, was 50 percent), and in that first year—considered by many historians as the worst year of the Great Depression—Kamen saved several businesses from going bankrupt, including the Ingersoll Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut, which he licensed to put the image of Mickey Mouse on its surplus World War I watches. Likewise, the Lionel Toy Train Corporation (which had one of its factories in my hometown of Irvington, New Jersey) also avoided bankruptcy by signing up with Kamen’s company to create and manufacture a wind-up railroad handcar which had Mickey and Minnie figures pumping away in a see-saw motion as the car ran down a track. During the 1934 Christmas season this sold like hotcakes for only a dollar. When a table-top Mickey Mouse radio, made by the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation of New York, was introduced it became a must-have item for American families who could also listen to a Mickey Mouse program on-the-air. Later, other Disney characters joined the Kamen sales parade—including Donald and Daisy Duck, Pluto the Pup, Goofy, the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, Clara Cluck, the wise Little Hen, Clarabelle the Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Ferdinand the Bull, Elmer Elephant, Toby Tortoise, Snow White and all seven Dwarfs, and countless others.
Ted Hake, of Hake’s Americana and Collectibles auction house (https://www.hakes.com/), the premier source since 1967 for pop culture collectibles, recently sold a pair of mint condition large size 1930s cloth-stuffed Mickey and Minnie dolls for a world record price of $151,534. Mel Birnkrant’s spectacular collection of pre-war Disneyana (http://melbirnkrant.com), the subject of a hilarious and highly entertaining Kenneth Anger film entitled Mouse Heaven, is artfully assembled in an upstate 19th-century schoolhouse where he also resides with his wife Eunice. Recently, he told me that sometimes he wishes he could wave a wand and make everything worthless; he also said that he was so familiar with Mickey Mouse that he would not be surprised if he saw him in the flesh for real. Now that Mickey is 90 one may ask, “Will he make it to 100?” But think again, Mickey is forever ageless.
Robert Heide’s most recently published book, entitled Robert Heide 25 Plays, is available at Three Lives Bookstore, Drama Bookshop, the Whitney Museum, and on Amazon. His co-authored books with John Gilman are also available on Amazon.