Thinking back upon my lifetime, which I do quite often lately, I find myself wondering what my contribution to humanity, if any, might have been. Did destiny decree that my existence on this planet would serve a purpose? Reminiscing on my long life, just one accomplishment of consequence jumps out at me: a little bit of Disney History, known only to yours truly, the fact that I singlehandedly reanimated Classic Mickey. By reanimated, I don’t mean in the Disney sense. I use the word “reanimate” in the context of the H.P. Lovecraft story, “Herbert West, Reanimator,” in which the title character awakens beings that have been a long time dead, and brings them back to life again.
When I was born, in late September of 1937 Classic Mickey was in the last years of his heyday. And, because I was just a baby, I failed to even notice him. Nor did I pay any attention, when in 1939, Mickey Mouse, as Ub Iwerks and Disney first created him, turned pink, lost his tummy, tail, and pie-cut eyes, and this once exquisite masterpiece of graphic imagery began his descent into oblivion. That was the year, in which this once perfect exercise in geometric symmetry was pushed aside, to be replaced by an artlessly updated shadow of the mouse he used to be. Therefore, it was a new more realistic Mickey that appeared in what was intended to be the pinnacle of his career, Fantasia.
This Technicolor triumph of the Art of Animation featured Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a role that Disney believed would be the mouse’s finest hour. And, so it was, but only, momentarily. For Mickey's short role in this monumental movie turned out to be his swansong. His Apprenticeship, and his Super Star career, came to an end, with one mighty smack of the Sorcerer’s broom, on his now tailless derriere. And what was left of Mickey Mouse scurried off, into an era of suspended animation, during which he sleepwalked through the Second World War, in a virtual state of hibernation. And if the Disney organization had got its way, the timeless masterpiece of exquisite imagery that I refer to, here, as Classic Mickey would still be gone, today.
All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
The following pages will tell the story of how, through a series of events, some, of which I am convinced were preordained by destiny, a child, born in the obscurity of Berkeley Michigan, grew up to rescue Classic Mickey.
When I first ventured forth, into the Golden Age of Comic Characters to rediscover the timeless image of Classic Mickey. I was incredulous to find that a graphic symbol of such magnitude that ruled supreme, in the Golden Age of toys and movies, could disappear so completely. Throughout the magic ten year period, from his birth, late in 1928, until his gradual demise in 1939, artists, in the form of toy designers, doll makers, and illustrators, the world over, tried their hand at interpreting and reinterpreting Mickey, and all these well intentioned attempts to portray him, failed to destroy that perfect image. The endless variations they created, accidentally, or on purpose, is what makes collecting Classic Mickey so fascinating. Only the Disney Organization had the power to completely destroy Classic Mickey, and, ten years after he was born, they did!
Thirty years later, after a Disney obsessed childhood that was remarkably free of any glimpse of Classic Mickey, I set out to dig up his scattered remains, and bring him back to life again.
The popular image of Classic Mickey Mouse, as he looked when Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney created him, is everywhere, these days. We see his likeness adorning an endless variety of merchandise, in gift shops, toy stores, and on ebay. As I write this, there are 410,870 Mickey Mouse Items listed for sale, today, on eBay. I just looked the number up. And the vast majority of these display the now familiar Classic 1930s pie-eyed Mickey. One has only to look up Mickey Mouse on Google to discover a thousand images of Mickey Mouse, in every variation, from the original Classic Mickey, to the slickly styled computerized look of modern Mickey Mouse, today. The screen capture, below, is just a random segment of one of many endless Google pages that seemingly go on forever. For anybody seeing these, it must be hard to believe that Classic Mickey’s iconic image was nowhere to be seen, for thirty four years, from 1939, until 1973. And the typical compilation of imagery you see, below, might never have existed, if it wasn't for yours truly.