Mickey Mouse, the iconic mascot of the Walt Disney Company (and famed monarch/magician in Kingdom Hearts), has been around for so long that the character was first set to enter public domain in 1984, and it’s taken extensive revisions of the law to keep him in-house for Disney up until now. But did you know the original Mickey was an actual, factual mouse?
First, some background. Before incorporating The Walt Disney Company, Walt and his friend Ub Iwerks founded Laugh-O-Gram Studio. Their first project was a series of short films loosely inspired by Alice in Wonderland, which were an innovative mix of animation and live action. (Child actor Virginia Davis played Alice, interacting with animated characters.) The “Alice Comedies” series was a hit, and Laugh-O-Gram was asked to animate some work-for-hire shorts for Universal Pictures.
Disney and Iwerks created the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, making more than two dozen fully animated films with the character. But Walt had a falling out with Universal, which held the rights to the character and threatened to box Walt out and make Oswald movies without him. Instead, Disney and Iwerks left the distributor, starting fresh and looking for a new character to make a splash.
In the brainstorming phase, Iwerks drew a bunch of different animals, but none of them did it for ol’ Walt. (Future Disney legacy characters like Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, and Flip the Frog were spawned in this brainstorming session.)
But it was a real mouse (or a bunch of them) who ended up sparking the idea for Mickey. At Laugh-O-Gram Studio’s less-than-pristine office in Kansas City, there were apparently many mice. Apparently (and perhaps apocryphally), one of them was especially tame, and a favorite of Walt’s. (Some sources say Disney adopted the mouse, but that part is also up for debate.) What we do know for sure is an artist named Hugh Harman who worked with Walt and Iwerks sketched mice around a photo of Walt, and Iwerks and Disney took that illustration and ran with it as an idea. That original sketch is unfortunately lost to time, as far as we can tell, but you can find some old concept art of Mickey circa 1928 from the Walt Disney Family Museum.
According to Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography, Harman’s doodling spawned “Mortimer Mouse,” a great mouse with a not-so-great name. Walt’s wife Lillian correctly told him “Mortimer” was terrible (she reportedly said it sounded “pompous”) and suggested “Mickey” instead. The rest, dear readers, from the first shorts in 1928 to the modern House of Mouse Empire, is history.
So next time you see Mickey Mouse — as part of a logo, in a movie, in a new series of contemporary shorts or a revived lost short, in a video game, in real life at a park, or in any of the millions of other possible scenarios in which you might encounter Mickey Mouse iconography in the 21st century, remember: It all started with actual furry little rodents.