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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 November, 2003, 08:16 GMT
Mickey Mouse: 21st Century icon

By Darren Waters
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Mickey Mouse celebrates his 75th anniversary on Tuesday with plans afoot to ensure that the famous rodent retains his global fame.

Mickey is one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century and if Disney has its way he will be among the greatest icons of this century too.

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie in 1928
Mickey began life as Mortimer
He is the figure head of a global commercial empire and, in the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, an "ambassador of goodwill and a peacemaker who speaks the universal language of friendship".

To coincide with the anniversary, Disney is embarking on a year of celebrations in the United States and across the world.

Seventy five statues of Mickey are being made in the US and will tour worldwide.

To chime with celebrations, Disney is working to re-invigorate the Mickey Mouse brand to ensure that its corporate symbol remains one of the most identifiable in the world.

His origins are humble - he first appeared as a scrawny and cheeky rodent in the 1928 short Steamboat Willie, with a voice provided by his creator, Walt Disney.


He was born out of adversity - created by Disney on a train ride from New York to Los Angeles after financiers backing his cartoon studio had taken his creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from him.

His master's voice
I hope we never lose sight of one thing: that it all started with a mouse
Walt Disney
Disney recalled: "I had this mouse in the back of my head ... because a mouse is sort of a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody's frightened of a mouse ... including myself."

Disney wanted to call him Mortimer but his wife felt the name was too pompous and suggested Mickey instead.

The first two Mickey cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, failed to find buyers but once sound arrived in cinemas, Disney embarked on Steamboat Willie.

The film was an instant hit and the success created the foundations for the Walt Disney empire.

But ironically, Mickey Mouse has played a passive role in the creative output of Disney over the last 50 years.

Official greeter

Between 1953 and 1983 Mickey did not appear in any form, and since then has appeared just 10 times, often in little more than a cameo role.

Mickey Mouse timeline
1928 Mickey Mouse is created
1929 First Mickey Mouse club set up, in California
1932 Walt Disney receives honorary Oscar
1933 First Mickey Mouse watch made
1935 Mickey appears in colour for first time
1940 Fantasia is released
1955 Disneyland opens in California
1977 Wayne Allwine becomes third and current voice of Mickey
1978 Mickey receives Hollywood Walk of Fame star
1983 Mickey returns to cinemas after 30-year absence in Christmas Carol
1989 Mickey Mouse club TV programme starts - later hosted by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera
2004 Mickey's Twice Upon Christmas to be released in cinemas
But he remains the public face of the Disney giant, and the official greeter of all visitors to the Walt Disney theme parks around the world.

And there are big plans to ensure that the most famous mouse in the world keeps his celebrity status.

"Mickey is able to adapt to anything that comes up," said Dave Smith, Disney's archive director.

"He will be up at the top for at least the next 25 years," he added.

To ensure that, Disney has hired figures from global branding giant Nike to spearhead the Mickey Mouse thrust.

Andy Mooney, who runs Disney merchandising, makes no bones about the importance of Mickey Mouse.

"This is our swoosh," he said recently in an interview, referring to Nike's instantly recognisable "tick" logo.

New clothing lines and fashion accessories featuring Mickey have sprung up, and a new film featuring the mouse will be released next year.


In something of a gamble, the new film has been made using computer graphics technology.

In the age of the video game, it is no certainty that audiences will take to the high-tec Mickey.

Mickey Mouse
Mickey is reborn for the 21st Century
Yet the renewed interest in Mickey Mouse is merely a return to the merchandising and marketing roots of Walt Disney.

In the early 1930s, Mickey Mouse clubs offered children games and prizes in an effort to ensure their loyalty to the company.

By the mid-1940s the Disney name was selling about $100m worth of merchandising goods a year.

Walt Disney once said: "I hope we never lose sight of one thing: that it all started with a mouse."

Clearly, the Disney corporation is working hard to ensure that no-one ever forgets that.

But there is another reason why Disney will be pushing Mickey ferociously in the coming years.

In 2023, the copyright for Mickey's image expires - and anyone will be entitled to use the famous image freely.

It was due to expire this year, but frantic lobbying by Disney led to a change in the law.

If Disney continue to make money out of Mickey, then expect more of the same in 20 years time.

Mickey Mouse celebrates 75th year
18 Nov 03  |  Entertainment
Mickey Mouse artwork on sale
14 Nov 02  |  Entertainment
First Mickey picture fails to sell
22 May 01  |  Entertainment

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