He boarded the train in New York bound for Los Angeles, discouraged at how poorly his business meeting had gone. A cartoonist by trade, he had created a rabbit name Oswald, intending on making him the star of a short film, but he was short on financing. He had come to the Big Apple to ask for money from Universal, only to be turned down. He wanted to take his rabbit and run, but the corporation told him that they had sole rights to the rabbit. Reluctantly, he parted ways with the company and the character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Now he would have to start from scratch.
On the train west, he furiously started scribbling sketches for a new character. Should it be a horse? How about a cow? No, a mouse! He had cared for a pet mouse on his farm in the Midwest as a boy. Mice were cute animals that kids could relate to. Once he decided on the animal, he had to pick a name. Mortimer came to mind, but his wife told him that his choice was too pompous. So, he replaced it with the name Mickey, which his wife immediately liked. By the time the cartoonist and his wife disembarked the train in Los Angeles, he had a character for his new short film. He would be Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse took shape quickly. Walt Disney gave him red shorts with large buttons along with clown-like yellow shoes (although he would be black in white in the movie). Co-creator Ub Iwerks paid particular attention to detail as he helped with the animation for the upcoming film. He designed Mickey with three fingers rather than four, thinking that four would have made his hands "banana-like". Also, a fourth finger would have added thousands of dollars to the animation cost.
Disney's first short film "Steamboat Willie" debuted at the Colony Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1928. The first sound synchronized cartoon was so well received that Walt went on to make many more short films, which would be billed on the theatre marquee above the main feature.
In the coming years, Disney made 21 shorts including: Gallopin' Gaucho, Barn Dance, The Opry House, The Chain Gang and Mickey's Orphans. The 1930's was the heydey of the shorts and in 1932, Walt debuted his first colour film. Mickey Mouse took on several different roles including: a fireman, cowboy, inventor, detective, plumber and bandmaster. For certain roles he donned special clothes including a smart red jacket for the role of bandmaster. Walt Disney did the voice-overs for Mickey for several years.
In the meantime, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney collaborated to make several friends for Mickey; Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Pluti, Donald Duck, Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. Mickey became the star of his first feature length film, one of an eventual nine such movies.
World War II interrupted production at Disney where the cartoonist started putting out movies for the war effort. Mickey Mouse's image graced war bonds posters. His name also became a code for the Allied invasion on D-Day. It was also around this time that Walt relegated the role of Mickey's voice-overs to an employee, feeling he no longer had the time to devote to the job.
After the war, Walt returned to making fun movies. He also ventured into television in the 1950's, as Disney debuted a show in which children shouted "M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!" every week, sporting mouse ears on their heads. By 1955, Mickey became the host of an amusement park unlike any other. It was at Disneyland that Mickey's creator reminded everyone: "I only hope we don't lose sight of one thing -- that it was all started by a mouse."
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