She stops me every single time she sees me, whether I’m at the newspaper or out shopping or grabbing a bite to eat.
“Where is he today?” she always asks with a huge grin. She’s a longtime subscriber who attends most of our newspaper’s book club events and once heard me tell the story about how for almost two decades now, every day I wear something with either Mickey Mouse on it or some other Disney character.
But mostly it’s Mickey.
More than half the time, it’s my socks. You wouldn’t even believe how many pairs of Mickey Mouse socks I own. When I found out that former Spokesman-Review editor Gary Graham used to wear red socks to the newsroom everyday, I immediately bought a pair of red socks. With Mickey Mouse on them.
Sometimes, it’s cuff links or a tie or my watch or an undershirt. Or maybe it’s a ball cap or a coat or hoodie. Sometimes I carry a special coin, but that feels kinda like I’m cheating whenever I do it.
I even have Mickey Mouse shoes. Well, actually, I have multiple pairs of ’em – meaning I have even more in common with pre-school children than you probably initially thought after the first time you read something I had written in this newspaper.
Once people find out about my anthropomorphic, rodent-infused clothing obsession, the next question almost always is why I’d do something like that.
Well, that’s kind of a long story, but being that today is Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday and this column is running in our Sunday newspaper – which is easily our biggest paper of the week – we totally have the space. So strap on those Mickey ears you bought during your last vacation to Disneyland and let’s begin this little mouse tale.
Since I was in grade school, I’d always wanted to work at a newspaper. More specifically, I wanted to be a sportswriter.
When other Kansas kids were dreaming of being the next George Brett, I was dreaming of being the next Bob Hentzen or even the next William Allen White. One was my favorite sports columnist at the Topeka Capital-Journal and the other was the legendary editor of the Emporia Gazette, who was even a special correspondent for The Spokesman-Review at the 1908 Democratic National Convention.
My heroes were a little unconventional, to say the least. Even before the whole mouse thing.
As a third-grader, I loved both what newspapers currently were and what they used to be. History meant something to me.
By the time I got into newspapers after college in the 1990s, things were changing for our industry.
The internet was just starting to get people’s attention. And the people in charge of newspapers basically confused my enthusiasm and willingness to help out on the web with having actual digital skills.
With the help of some basic HTML books and very little oversight from management, I started doing things on the web. The problem was that there weren’t a lot of examples to look to for inspiration and guidance.
In many ways, running a newspaper hadn’t fundamentally changed in decades … if not a century. But there was no instruction manual for how to build a newspaper website back then – though there’s tangible evidence that more than 20 years after most newspapers launched internet editions, there still doesn’t appear to be one.
That’s where Walt Disney comes into play.
One of the newspapers I was working at back then sent me to an online newspaper conference in Orlando, Florida. I was a small-town kid who’d never really stayed in a hotel of the scale I was staying in at the Walt Disney World resort. And, of course, I went to the theme parks.
I was completely blown away. I couldn’t believe the creativity. I couldn’t believe the scale. I couldn’t believe you could charge that much for a Coke.
While I was there, I saw this picture of Walt standing in front of empty Florida swampland. Ghosted over the picture was an image of the Magic Kingdom’s castle. Underneath it was a quote from him that said, “It’s kind of fun the do the impossible.”
That resonated with me, though I wasn’t sure why. I’ve always been a glass-half-full kinda person, but there were a lot of times when it felt to me that trying to figure out a digital path forward for the newspapers I’d always adored was going to be impossible.
I decided to buy that picture of Walt before I left Disney World. I still can’t believe how much it cost. I had it framed and it has hung in every office I’ve ever had. Right by the door.
Before that moment in Orlando, I knew a little of the legend of Disney, especially with his ties to Kansas City, including how he took drawing classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. I knew about how he created animated cartoons called “Laugh-O-Grams” for local movie theaters in the Midwest.
As I started learning more and more about Walt Disney, warts and all, I began to admire his passionate persistence. I loved his belief in his ideas. And how he wasn’t afraid to dream big.
He was rejected hundreds and hundreds of times before his initial success. After massive successes, it would still take him years and years of planning and the persuasion of doubters before he could begin building Disneyland.
He had amazing career setbacks.
In the 1920s, Walt Disney created a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. If you’ve never seen Oswald before, he’s basically Mickey Mouse with longer ears. When Disney first produced the Oswald cartoons, they were distributed by Universal Studios.
By the time Walt Disney was ready to have his own studio distribute his cartoons, he realized he didn’t actually own Oswald. Universal did.
He was heartbroken. It also led to his most beloved creation, Mickey Mouse.
In an interesting sidenote, Oswald is now a part of one of the most interesting corporate side deals in media history. In 2006, Oswald returned to his roots when the Disney company essentially traded play-by-play announcer Al Michaels to Universal so that the famed sportscaster could call NBC’s Sunday Night Football games in exchange for the return of the lucky rabbit rights to the House of Mouse.
Do you believe in miracles?
But let’s get back to Walt.
Losing Oswald turned out to be one of his most important moments of inspiration.
Who would think that two smaller circles sitting directly on top of one larger circle would not only be so iconic, but so emotionally powerful?
From there, Walt would use Mickey in groundbreaking ways including, arguably, as the first cartoon character with a voice. And who was the voice of Mickey in that landmark moment? Disney, himself.
Then there was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We don’t think much about going to the movie theater now to spend a couple hours watching an animated movie, but back in 1937, it seemed like Walt’s nuttiest idea yet.
The world’s first full-length animated feature film was a massive success, both critically and commercially. Even today, it’s considered one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, and in 2008 it was named the greatest animated American film of all time.
By the time Disney wanted to create a theme park where a sleepy orange grove sat in Anaheim, California, Walt was more than used to trying to convince others that his ideas would work. When he finally opened his namesake park in 1955, the centerpiece was modeled after Snow White’s castle – a less-than-subtle reminder of where the money and credibility to build the park had initially come from.
Of course, now we know it as Sleeping Beauty Castle. Why?
Walt was creative, but he was no fool. He also was a master marketer. In 1957, visitors to Disneyland could walk through the castle to see several dioramas telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, the movie Disney would be releasing in 1959. It’s been Princess Aurora’s place ever since.
Sorry about that, Snow White. We all know who held the original mortgage.
The point of all of this is that Walt could see things that others simply couldn’t.
That’s what that photo of Walt standing in swampland meant to me, even if I couldn’t explain it that way the very first time I saw it.
Everyone else saw a plot of land that was worthless and out of the way. Not Walt.
He saw a castle from a cartoon that people would travel across the world to visit.
When you’re a young guy who loves newspapers and you’re being asked to build something no one has ever seen before, inspiration can come from odd places. For me, it was a mouse with a funny falsetto voice.
At some point, Walt’s ability to be so creative in the face of incredible odds meant enough to me that I started wearing something to honor that spirit every day.
Disney once said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”
Well, of course, on Mickey’s birthday, I won’t forget that. You won’t be able to forget it, either.
Walt Disney died in 1966, but the company started by him and his brother, Roy, is just as great at marketing as its founder was. Oswald’s younger brother might be turning 90 today, but we’re all going to see over the next year that he wears his age well.
In 2019, the Disney company is going to be celebrating him in very big ways. Just wait for all of the announcements.
More importantly, in case you’re wondering, today I’m wearing socks with the mouse on them and an old, comfortable Mickey sweatshirt. But in honor of his birthday, I’m thinking a new shirt might be in order.
If you see me out shopping today, you know what I’m looking for.
Happy Birthday, little buddy.