Boomers Celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 90th Anniversary

Mickey Mouse became part of the cultural landscape a couple of decades before the Baby Boom, which is marked this week with the character’s 90th anniversary. Though Mickey the character and the cartoon appeared years before the Baby Boom, it played an integral part in the Boomer Experience. In the early days of television, old Mickey Mouse cartoons were viewed by boomers for the first time. As they grew old enough for their parents to take them to movie theaters, boomers experienced Mickey cartoons on the big screen, perhaps for the first time, in color. There is no mistake, though, that the true connection boomers developed toward Mickey Mouse was through the black & white TV that sat in their living rooms.

Boomers watched the evolution of Mickey Mouse from the early days of Steamboat Willie (1928) to the body changes in the character of the 1930s, and on to the 1940s, where Mickey acquired the basic shape that most boomers recall. At one point or another, every boomer saw Fantasia, which featured Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The movie was released in 1940, but boomers continued to view it decades later. Mister Boomer recalls college-aged boomers going to see the film in the ’60s and ’70s, while under the influence of mind-altering substances. (Mister B was not among that group.)

After his movie success of the 1940s, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories appeared in 1953, and Mickey was center stage once again. The series of comic books included many of boomers’ favorite Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Chip ‘n Dale, Pluto and a host of others. By the mid-50s, Walt Disney Comics were the best selling comics on the market, claiming sales of three million per month.

Walt Disney, ever the marketer, wanted a way to generate interest for the opening of his theme park, Disneyland, which was scheduled to open in 1955. He came up with a TV show called Walt Disney’s Disneyland (1954-58) that helped to finance the park. The show included cartoons and short segments, and introduced boomers to the Mouseketeers. In addition, it was Mickey Mouse’s job to relay regular updates on the park’s construction progress, and what kids could expect to experience when the amusement park opened. Toward this end, Walt carried on conversations with Mickey on screen, one of the first combinations of live action and animation broadcast on TV. Walt Disney’s Disneyland went on to become Walt Disney Presents (1958-61), Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961-69) and The Wonderful World of Disney (1969-79). All featured roughly the same format, which was an attempt to make a variety show for kids. And all featured Mickey Mouse.

Though boomers were familiar with the mouse at an early age, it can be argued that boomers got on a first-name basis with Mickey with the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-59). There was not a boomer anywhere who could not sing the show’s opening song: Who’s the leader of the club/That’s made for you and me/M-i-c-k-e-y, M-o-u-s-e. The show introduced boomers to Annette Funicello as one of the Mouseketeers. She would go on to star in many Disney films, most notably her seven beach movies of the 1960s (see: Who’s the Leader of the Club?)

Mickey Mouse merchandise was available as far back as 1933, but most boomers who had Mickey merchandise started with Mouseketeer ears. When Disneyland opened in 1955, the ears became a symbol of the theme park, and a valued souvenir for boomers.

Mickey Mouse was never Mister B’s favorite among Disney’s cast of characters. Neither he nor his siblings had mouse ears or any Mickey Mouse merchandise, though they did have some of the comic books and watched The Mickey Mouse Club on a daily basis, right after school. It wasn’t until 1970, when his family drove to California for a cousin’s wedding, that he went to Disneyland. As a late teen, he didn’t find the place very interesting, and discovered that the worst earworm in the history of earworms could very likely be It’s A Small World. Fortunately, no costumed Mickeys approached the family. This wasn’t the ’50s, man, and Mickey just wasn’t that cool. In fact, the very name “Mickey Mouse” became synonymous with poorly-made merchandise or half-baked plans that were destined for failure.

Despite all the history that surrounded the wholesome bubble of Disney’s world, Mickey Mouse has survived to the ripe old age of 90.

What memories of Mickey Mouse do you have, boomers?

Boomers Needed Manual Dexterity

While Mister Boomer was conversing with a 40-year old coworker recently, she mentioned how she had learned to type on a manual typewriter. One of the things she recalled was how difficult it had been to press a typewriter key with her pinkie fingers. Eventually she did learn, and now years later, is happy for the experience. It struck Mister B that there were many things in our boomer years that required manual dexterity and physical hand strength. Practically every “modern” thing we had still required finger and hand movement, from rotary phone dials to turning TV knobs, manual typewriters to manual steering on cars. The push-button world had begun for us, but most boomers would live a good portion of their lives turning, grabbing and twisting things that were otherwise designed to make our lives easier and better.

Mister B recalls becoming a big fan of science fiction books at an early age. He enjoyed reading about the future, and trying to imagine what it would be like. On many occasions, he would stare at his hand and try to envision what human hands might look like in a future where push buttons would replace the need for dials, knobs and levers. In Mister B’s imaginary evolution, it seemed logical that the small flaps of skin he could see stretched between his fingers would grow as the need for separate fingers dissipated. He’d look at his hand and see webbing between the fingers, much like he’d seen on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It remains to be seen if evolution will take that path and change our physiology, and it certainly won’t be happening in our lifetimes. Yet the fundamental way we used our hands and fingers is ever-changing, especially now at the advent of devices controlled by voice commands. Take a look at what was once commonplace, and now all but relegated to the archives of history:

Electrric typewriters existed as far back as the the 1920s, with the first one arguably invented in the early 1900s. History tells us it didn’t catch on that quickly because electricity wasn’t widespread until the late 1920s, much like internet access is still uneven in some parts of the country today. By then the Great Depression took hold. As a result of three decades of manual typewriters, units could be found in thrift shops at affordable prices, and passed down through family members right up to the boomer years. Mister B, like so many boomers, made their way through high school and college using the manual, hard-to-press keys and hand-operated carriage return. Mister B’s family typewriter was a 1929 Underwood. Nonetheless, Mister B never learned how to type, so he continues to pen these posts with the hunt-and-peck method. Brother Boomer has possession of that typewriter to this day. Mister B’s family did not own an electric typewriter at any point, even after his mother became a keypunch operator. Mister B recalls seeing electric typewriters in stores in the late sixties and early seventies.

Power steering on cars was an option on luxury cars in the 1930s, so only the wealthy could afford it. The steering wheels of cars were designed to be larger, to assist in the task of turning the wheels. Advancements in gears in the 1940s helped a little, but it was still tough to fully turn a car, pulling hand over hand on a 20-inch diameter wheel. In contrast, the steering wheels on today’s vehicles are 14- or 15-inches in diameter. By the 1960s, power steering became an option on all American-made cars. Boomers were in the market for cheap cars, though, so power steering wasn’t going to be in the cards. Mister Boomer’s father did not own a car with power steering until 1970. It took until Mister B bought his first new car in 1977 before he had power steering.

As with many “modern appliances” in Mister Boomer’s house, somewhere around the late 1960s the electric can opener came in by way of a prize for a golf or bowling banquet. His father was on a bowling team in the fall and winter, and a golf team in the spring and summer. Mister B didn’t care much for the device, though his sister liked it a lot. She was younger, and it was much easier for her to open cans of Spaghetti-Os and Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni with the electric can opener. She was plopping them into pots and warming them for herself by age eight. Mister Boomer continued to use the manual, hand-crank can opener, and still does to this day — unless it’s a can with a pop-top. He hates those, too, because they are harder for a senior Mister B to open sometimes than turning a can opener around a lid.

There are many more things we twisted, turned and grabbed in our boomer years, in order to adjust, open or control the devices that defined our modern age, such as the aforementioned rotary phone dials and TV knobs. How about screwdrivers? Power screwdrivers have supplanted hand-held tools in most cases. Stereo levers and dials? Most music is streamed these days off the internet. At most a slide of a finger on a screen can turn the volume up or down, or a voice command can do the task literally without lifting a finger.

Some boomers marvel at the speed of which their grandchildren can text on their smartphones, using just their thumbs. While that “skill” may be similar to boomers’ typing on a manual typewriter, automatic word suggestions entering as they type makes the message appear all the faster. Soon typing will be unnecessary for this function, as already voice-interpreted messages are possible on a number of devices.

Yes, boomers have seen the evolution of these devices, and built strong hands and upper body strength along the way. As our parents saw more time-saving devices enter their post-war world, we aging boomers can look forward to a lot of automated assistance in our old age. Sitting in the comfort of our own recliners, soon we’ll be able to say, “Hey Siri-Alexa-Cortana-Google-Portal (or whatever comes next), open a can of Beefaroni and warm it for me, OK?”

What memories of manual dexterity come to mind for you, boomers?