Mickey Mouse Was Originally Based on a Real Mouse!

Mickey Mouse, the Walt Disney Company’s popular mascot (famed monarch/magician in Kingdom Hearts), has been around for so long that the figure was set to become public domain in 1984, and it’s required major amendments to the legislation to keep him in-house for Disney until today.

But did you realize the original Mickey was a real mouse?

First, some context. Walt and his pal Ub Iwerks launched Laugh-O-Gram Studio before forming The Walt Disney Company.

Their first effort was a series of short films loosely based on Alice in Wonderland that featured a unique blend of animation and live-action.

(Virginia Davis, a child actor, played Alice, who interacted with animated characters.) After the success of the “Alice Comedies” series, Laugh-O-Gram was invited to animate three work-for-hire shorts for Universal Pictures.

Disney and Ub Iwerks created the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who appeared in almost two dozen fully animated films. However, Walt had a falling out with Universal, who owned the character and threatened to box Walt out and create Oswald films without him.

Instead, Disney and Iwerks left the distributor, starting again and searching for a new character to build a name for themselves. Iwerks drew a variety of creatures during the brainstorming process, but none of them worked for old Walt.

(This brainstorming session gave birth to future Disney legacy characters such as Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, and Flip the Frog.)

But it was a genuine mouse (or a swarm of them) who came up with the concept for Mickey. There were supposedly many mice in Laugh-O-Gram Studio’s less-than-perfect Kansas City office.

Apparently (and possibly apocryphally), one of them was very gentle and a favorite of Walt’s. (Some accounts claim that Disney invented the mouse, but this is also debatable.)

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What we do know for certain is that an artist named Hugh Harman, who collaborated with Walt and Iwerks, drew mice around a photograph of Walt, and Iwerks and Disney grabbed that drawing and ran with it as an idea.

As far as we know, the original artwork has been lost to time, although the Walt Disney Family Museum has some vintage concept art of Mickey from 1928.

According to Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney book, Harman’s doodling gave birth to “Mortimer Mouse,” a great mouse with a bad name.

Lillian, Walt’s wife, accurately advised him that “Mortimer” was bad (she reportedly stated name sounded “pompous”) and suggested “Mickey” instead.

The rest, dear readers, is history, from the earliest shorts in 1928 to the contemporary House of Mouse Empire.

So the 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 ways you might encounter Mickey Mouse iconography in the twenty-first century — remember: It all started with actual furry little rodents.

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