Mickey Mouse celebrates his sixtieth birthday on 18th November. He grants a rare interview to Brian Sibley.
He stands beside the pool, looking rather taller than I had imagined and casually dressed in slacks and a sports shirt with a Betty Boop motif. “Hi, there!” he calls in a sharp Brooklyn accent that takes me somewhat by surprise. As I walk to meet him, he extends a white-gloved hand in welcome and gives me a broad, beaming smile. That famous Mickey Mouse smile. He grasps my hand with a firm grip and I can’t help noticing that he wears a Ronald Reagan wrist-watch.
“Come over to the yard, and I’ll fix you a drink,” he smiles and leads the way across a neatly manicured lawn to an Italianate patio behind the imposing pseudo-gothic villa that, mysteriously, has never been listed in The Starland Guide to Hollywood. Motioning me to sit in one of the white cane loungers that are dotted around beneath the palm trees, he goes to the drinks-trolley.
“Too early for a Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” he asks. I have to confess that I’ve never heard of the drink. He gives me a faintly patronizing smile and begins emptying the contents of various bottles into a cocktail-shaker. “They invented it for me at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, back in 1940,” he explains and pours out a large glass of vivid lilac-coloured liquid and hands it to me.
I take a sip and experience a sensation not dissimilar to a heavy blow on the back of the head. “Helluva kick, hasn’t it?” Incapable of reply, I catch my breath and loosen my tie. “Have to watch them though,” he adds, “I introduced Goofy to them and ever since it’s been like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend over at his place. Tragic!” Sadly shaking his head, he tops up my glass. “I suppose you’ll be wanting the usual sixtieth-birthday interview?” he asks, and I glimpse a hint of boredom behind the smile. Not waiting for a reply, he opens a can of Coke and goes on: “I bet I can even guess what questions you’re going to ask! ‘How does it feel to have been a star for six decades? What’s the formula for your success? Have you a recipe for a happy life?’ etc., etc.”
Undaunted, I open my notebook. Perhaps we might start with his first great movie? “You really want to talk about Steamboat Willie?” he asks. “God, that was a terrible picture! It was a rip-off of a Buster Keaton movie if I remember tightly; and when I wasn’t steering the paddle-steamer up-stream – which I did with a kind of reckless abandon – I was improvising a musical revue in the hold, using live animals for instruments! It’s a wonder the Animal League didn’t try to get it banned! If I’d been rather more established, I’d have told Walt just how crass and vulgar I thought it was. But the fact is, I needed the break. I’d probably have never got started at all if there hadn’t been some kind of dispute going on at the Disney Studio. I never knew all the ins and outs of it, but there was this guy called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who was making pictures for Walt at the time. They were pretty crude really and no sound, of course. But Oswald got to be a bit of a star and began having run-ins with the Boss. The upshot was he quit and went to work for Walter Lantz – you know, the fellow with the woodpecker – and that made way for me.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “I wonder what happened to Oswald?”
Shrugging off the thought, he offers me a dish of Mickey Mouse jelly- shapes. I refuse. “Hideous, aren’t they? Still, I get free supplies for doing an endorsement. Sometimes I think I’ve sold out too much to Disney, I mean, you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve done for money. Do you know, in 1938, I was even advertising Latexeen Baby Pants – ‘The most comfortable I’ve ever worn, says Mickey Mouse!’ Isn’t that gross? I’ve never been proud though, probably because I can still remember what it was like to go barefoot and hungry. But the money I’ve made for people, and not just Disney either. Look at all those Mickey Mouse watches: it’s said that Macy’s sold 11,000 in just one day! You name it, I’ve appeared on it – breakfast cereal cartons, milk bottles, toffee-wrappers (I read somewhere that a guy in your country sold 150 tons of Mickey Mouse toffee in a week – that’s one hell-of-a-lot of toffee!) And I once posed for a Cartier pin, studded with real diamonds they tell me. I didn’t get one, just a few dollars sitting- fee. Still, my philosophy is ‘Be grateful for what you can get!’ Besides, this Beverly Hills lifestyle doesn’t come cheap you know, and – contrary to what you might think – Disney have never been very good payers.
I express some surprise at this; after all, surely they owe their success to Mickey? “Oh, yeah, I know that now, but back in 1928 when I signed the contract, I didn’t think much more ahead than wondering where the next meal was coming from! I’m not complaining. I had a lot of fun. But I worked damn hard too. We did long hours in those days. And we did all our own stunts! When I look back, I don’t know how I didn’t end up in Forest Lawn! In one picture I’d be fighting fires, in the next I’d be hunting big game – with real big game! I remember in one of my earliest pictures, Plane Crazy, I was supposed to be imitating Charles Lindbergh, who’d just made the first solo flight from New York to Paris. True I only had to fly round the farmyard set on the Disney backlot, but the plane turned out to be a real death-trap built out of old orange- crates and powered by a tightly-wound sausage-dog! Even Lindy would have had his work cut out flying that! Yes, Sir, Mountain-climbing, whaling, trapping, ghost-busting; you name it, I did it!”