HISTORY's Moments in Media: Happy Birthday, Mickey!

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The world's most famous mouse — and, ultimately, what's now one of the world's biggest media and entertainment companies — was born 91 years ago this month.

That's when Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse film featuring synchronized sound, premiered at New York City's Colony Theater and promptly became an enormous hit. Within months, Walt Disney Studios produced a stream of animated shorts starring Mickey and Disney started marketing the character with his own line of merchandise. These shorts were played before feature films and fans would check before buying tickets that their movies would be preceded by a Mickey short. Within another year or two, young fans were joining the Mickey Mouse Club, too.

Mickey wasn't Walt Disney's first successful character. That honor belongs to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which his studio created for Universal Pictures. When Disney asked for more money, Universal hired away nearly all his animators and retained the rights to the character. On the long train ride back to Hollywood from New York after the ill-fated meeting, Disney dreamed up a mouse to replace the rabbit. One loyal animator who remained with him, Ub Iwerks, drew the new cartoon.

Our rodent hero was initially called Mortimer Mouse; it's generally agreed that Walt's wife, Lillian, disliked the name and suggested Mickey instead. The name would live on, though, when a competitor for Minnie's heart was introduced in Mickey's Rival in 1936.

Mickey spoke for the first time in 1929's The Karnival Kid, and the first color Mickey appeared in 1935's The Band Concert. The first Disney theme park, Disneyland, opened in 1955 in Southern California. The Mickey Mouse Clubpremiered on television that year, as well. Mickey had helped to launch an entertainment giant.

Disney and Iwerks made several Mickey shorts before Steamboat Willie. First came Plane Crazy, a Charles Lindbergh spoof, and then The Gallopin' Gaucho. But Disney wasn't able to interest a distributor based on those films. The first movie with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer, had been released the previous fall to much attention and acclaim. Disney realized that if he could bring that new technology to cartoons, he'd have a hit. He accomplished both with Steamboat Willie.

Movies with synchronized sound were new. And no one had made a cartoon that way before, so no one was sure what one should sound like. One of Disney's animators came up with the idea of creating a chart to map sound effects and music to specific moments in the animation. To test their ideas, the animators played the film for an audience of their wives — jobs outside the home were mostly reserved for men then — while playing songs on a harmonica and generating simple sound effects from behind the movie screen. The wives were impressed.

The first recording session, held in New York where there were sound facilities, didn't go well. The conductor and his 17-piece orchestra couldn't keep time with the film. Two weeks later, with a bouncing ball added to the film to help mark time, things went much better. A month or so later came the triumphant premiere.

Walt Disney's visionary business acumen, even more than his animation skills, allowed Walt Disney Studios to grow. First came non-Mickey features such as Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then live-action films and TV shows. Then more theme parks and a television network. Then cable networks and so much more. Mickey himself appears in movies fairly irregularly these days, but he's still ranked as one of the most recognizable figures in the world.

As Disney once famously said, "I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse." Ninety-one years later, we haven't.

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