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?