You may or may not have heard that quote. If you are a Disney fan as I am I suspect you have. I happen to be wearing a shirt with that quote as I write this. Walt Disney did say that and it is true but is it really the whole truth?
It all depends on what you use as the starting point in time. Mickey Mouse is the character that allowed Walt and Roy Disney to jump start the Walt Disney Company in 1928 and is still one of the most recognizable corporate icons in existence today. Practically everyone has heard of Mickey Mouse and that speaks to the impact that Walt Disney has made in our culture and our world today.
There is no doubt about that. However, if you backtrack just a little from that point in time, there is another story that many may not know. To borrow a phrase from Paul Harvey, here is “the rest of the story.”
The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was a partnership started by Roy and Walt Disney in 1923. They created cartoons but to get those cartoons distributed to an audience where they could be seen, and produce income, they had to work with other companies, such as Universal Studios. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit was a character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and several Oswald cartoons were produced in 1927 and 1928. Oswald was the first character that also generated merchandising income for the company with an Oswald candy bar, stencil set, and pinback button.
They were producing the cartoons ahead of schedule, one every 16 days when the contract only required one every three weeks. As he was always striving to produce a better product the cost of the Oswald cartoons was increasing and his current contract to produce the cartoons would be ending soon Walt and his wife, Lillian, traveled to New York to talk with Disney’s distributor at Universal, Charles Mintz, about the new contract.
Negotiations did not go well
During these meetings he learned that Mintz was in the process of hiring his animators, was offering a reduction in the price currently being paid for the cartoons and ultimately wanted to take over the Disney company and have Walt and Roy work for him. He had believed that Walt, since he was not actually doing the animation any more, was expendable. Walt tried to negotiate a new contract with another distributor but learned since he did not own the rights to Oswald he could not take him to a new distributor. So, as he and Lillian left New York for the long train ride back to California, he had no character to draw when his current contract ended, only a few employees left, who had not deserted him for Universal, and a very uncertain future.
As he left New York in March 1928 Walt Disney had made a vow to himself to never work for anyone again and in the future he would have complete control over his work, which, in his line of work was his characters. His problem was he had no character he could call his own. He was 23 years old, recently married, July 13, 1925, and without a job for the most part, and had been deserted by what he had thought were loyal employees.
What happened next changed the world(s) as we know it.
There are different versions of the story of how Mickey Mouse came to be Mickey Mouse. The most common is that during the cross country train ride west, Walt, trying to create a new character, began drawing a mouse. When Lillian saw the sketches she asked him what he was going to name it and he said Mortimer. While working in Kansas City he had caught several mice in the animation studio there and had one that would even run around on his drawing table that he fed and had given the name Mortimer. She did not like that name and suggested Mickey.
Ub Iwerks was one of the animators that stuck with the Disneys and would become the animator for Mickey Mouse. He drew more than 700 drawing per day working on the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. This also had to be done in secret since the animators leaving were still there finishing their contracts for the Oswald cartoons.
Mickey Mouse made his debut in Plane Crazy on May 15, 1928, less than two months after the meeting in New York and the defection of his animators.
The rest, as they say, is history. Walt Disney had learned from his experience with Oswald and Universal and would not make those mistakes again. He did control all rights to Mickey Mouse and he parlayed that into a merchandising success that was as innovative as it was successful and still is today. We have in the past and still do enjoy in that success. See Disney…Is It Worth The Cost if you want to know more about that.
What would you do?
What do you do when you face a failure or roadblock in your life or career? Do you throw your hands up in despair and hold your own pity party? Walt Disney was able to take this major setback and, at the ripe young age of 23, employ his vision and perseverance to create what is arguably the most recognizable character and franchise in the world. Most of us will not duplicate that feat but we can learn from his experience and apply it in our own lives. His ‘never give up’ spirit propelled him to the next leg of his journey in his career and that did literally change the world and is still changing people’s lives today. This was just one hurdle he faced in building the company many of us love today.
Walt Disney express his thoughts on failures and setbacks seem applicable here to me.
“It is good to have a failure while you’re young because it teaches you so much. For one thing it makes you aware that such a thing can happen to anybody, and once you’ve lived through the worst, you’re never quite as vulnerable afterward.”
“You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
I believe we do learn best from our own mistakes and failures but if we can also learn from someone else’s experiences that can help us move down the path toward our goals too. It might help us to avoid a few hurdles and might also save a tooth or two.
Oswald is back home now
As a postscript to the Oswald dilemma, although he did not live to see it, the Walt Disney Company did acquire the licensing rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 2006 in a deal with NBC that included a trade for Al Michaels to be able to do sports broadcasting on NBC. That seems fitting to me and just to show my support I bought my first Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cap this week.
I hope you enjoyed the Disney history and the life lesson we all need from time to time to never give up, regardless of the circumstances.
Until next time…as Mickey would say, “See ya real soon! heh heh”
Until next time…
Originally posted on Peculiar Perspective on 7/7/2013