Mickey Mouse was not Walt Disney’s first creation. And the famous Mouse was far from Disney’s first love. That devotion was reserved for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Disney’s career can be traced back to Kansas City. He got his start as an illustrator for several ad agencies but his big break came with the Kansas City Slide Company. It was there that he drew cartoons and art cards for advertisements shown on the screen before movies. That was back in 1920.
But Disney wanted more and it wasn’t long until he started his own company, the Laugh-O-gram studio. And that is where Disney, along with partner Ub Iwerks, created their first animated characters and started down the path that would forever change Disney’s life.
The crown jewel of the Laugh-O-gram productions were the Alice Comedies, a series of animated/live action films that got the attention of a California distributor and prompted his move to Los Angeles.
After the Alice comedies’ popularity waned Disney’s film distributor told him Universal studios wanted a cartoon series featuring a rabbit. Disney got the job. Along with Iwerks, Disney created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. That rabbit starred in a series of 26 animated black and white silent cartoons. But when Disney tried to use the rabbit’s popularity for a pay raise he was surprised to learn he didn’t own the rights to Oswald. He was devastated.
It was Disney’s wife Lillian who urged him to move on and create a new character that he would own. His doodling took the shape of a mouse and in many of the various stories Disney himself told the origin of that mouse dated back to his time in Kansas City. He said he had tamed a mouse that rummaged for food scraps in the wastebaskets at the old Laugh-O-gram studio. He had called the mouse Mortimor and Disney wanted his new creation to have that name too. Fortunately, his wife convinced him to call the mouse Mickey.
Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in 1928 in “Plane Crazy,” a story inspired by Charles Lindberg’s trans-Atlantic flight. But it was Disney’s third film starring Mickey, “Steamboat Willie,” that was the first to have a major distribution. And it was the first cartoon with synchronized sound giving voice to the characters and a musical score. “Steamboat Willie” made Mickey Mouse a star.
What happened to that lucky rabbit named Oswald? For decades he sat on a shelf in the Universal Studios archives. In 2006 the Disney Company, which owns ABC and ESPN worked out a deal with Universal, the owners of NBC. Disney traded sportscaster Al Michaels to Universal/NBC in exchange for the rights to lucky rabbit and the 26 Oswald films made by Walt Disney. Today Oswald joins Mickey and is featured on products sold in the Disney parks and Disney stores. But the star of the show remains the famous mouse named Mickey.
Here’s an important footnote. The Kansas City building that housed the Laugh-O-gram studios still exists. A group called Thank You Walt Disney saved it from the wrecking ball. It is being restored and one day the plan is for it to house a learning center for young animators and a recreation of the original Disney studio.