While walking around Disney World, my mother and I decided that we were going to get our very own set of monogrammed ears. My mother had been eyeing the Mickey’s and the Tigger’s but I wanted something different. I wanted Oswald ears. When I told my mother, she had a bit of a confused look. She had a vague idea of the character and who he was but she didn’t really know. My fiance Carl also didn’t have a clue so I proceeded to tell them this story about one of my all time favorite, sort-of, kind-of, Disney characters.
When Walt started his amazing career in Kansas City, Missouri, he was less than prepared for the business side of the world he was entering. After just seven silent cartoon shorts, his company went bankrupt. Hoping to salvage what was left, he created a group of “sing-a-long” shorts which combined live-action and animation. These were the Alice shorts, based on Alice in Wonderland. He sent them to M.J. Winkler, a film distributor. Her real name was Margaret Winkler and she had been Harry Warner’s secretary. Harry Warner as in, Warner Brothers. With his help, she went into distribution and at 28 years old, she signed Walt to produce The Alice Comedies.
In 1923, The Disney Brothers Studio was officially formed and The Alice Comedies entered production, starring an adorable six year old Virginia Davis. A total of 57 cartoons were made and the series did so well that both Walt and Roy were able to use the money to buy houses and live happily.
In 1925, Winkler married a man who many will consider the villain of this story. Charles Mintz was a businessman through and through. Winkler had a baby and retired while Mintz took over the company. Mintz was not the supportive caretaker that Winkler was and often criticized the Disney Brothers’ work and work ethic. Eventually, Mintz used the success of the Alice Comedies to sign a contract with Universal for an all new cartoon. The founder of Universal wanted nothing to do with cats, which seemed to be all anyone ever animated, and requested that the new character be a rabbit. P.D. Cochrane, head of the PR department at Universal gathered suggested names in a hat and drew one out to name the new character Oswald. This character was given to the Disney Brothers Studio to animate, and while the brothers didn’t see any of the proceeds from all the merch being created, they were happy to be doing something new.
I think it is important to pause here and reflect on an idea. If you ever ask someone who sort of knows who Oswald is, they’ll tell you that he was the original Mickey Mouse and was stolen from Walt Disney. But, see, that’s not true. Oswald was always owned by the company. To get a better idea of this, think about characters in the Marvel franchise. Stan Lee doesn’t own Spider-man, Marvel does. It’s the same idea here. Walt had no rights to Oswald in the first place. The real trick of the thing is that he didn’t see coming what happened not only to Oswald but his entire studio.
The final design of Oswald was done by a pretty important guy named Ub Iwerks. The design was approved and copyrighted by Universal. Production began. Over the next years, Oswald would be redesigned and retooled and the staff of the Disney Brothers would work their tails off to create the little cartoon. The trouble was that, while Walt was a workaholic and a stern man with what he demanded, his employees were not. They became slowly fed up with doing the majority of the work and seeing a minority of the profits. They were sick of long hours and not being appreciated.
By 1928, Oswald was doing quite well. Walt got on a plane and headed for New York City, ready to negotiate with Mintz for a higher salary and a bigger budget for the films. Mintz refused the demands and offered Walt a counter offer. A 20 percent cut in the budget. He also reminded Walt that Universal owned Oswald and should Walt refuse, his animators, who had back-stabbed Walt by signing contracts saying they would go on without him, would continue to animate Oswald under Universal without Walt. In short, he made the mistake of thinking that just because Walt wasn’t doing the drawing, he wasn’t important to the process.
Walt walked away from this deal. His entire staff, with the exception of Ub Iwerks, Les Clark and Johnny Canon, signed the deal. Walt boarded a train for L.A. He was still contracted for three Oswald cartoons which the company produced as quickly as possible. Iwerks, though, was kept secret and away from the other animators. He was working on something new. He was creating the very first cartoon starring Walt’s own character: Mickey Mouse.
In February 2006, Disney CEO Bob Iger made a trade with Universal. The trade was actually made to release Al Michaels, a sportscaster for ABC, from his contract so that he could go to NBC. NBC gave up a number of little things for the trade and one of those things just happened to be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The rights to the character and his original 26 shorts were now, for the first time, officially Disney’s.
As the tag lines for this read: Oswald was home.
It’s easy to look at the business side of all of this and hate Mintz and the rogue animators for what they did, but let’s think big picture. If not for these guys, there would be NO Mickey Mouse. Strength is triumph in the face of adversity and had Walt not gone through this, he might never have become the business man that we know today. There would be no Mickey Mouse club or House of Mouse or any of it! Oswald is a great character and such a pivotal point in Disney history, but bare in mind that without the craziness of Oswald and his animation, Disney would not be Disney as we know it. Next time you see those Oswald ears, you’ll appreciate them more than you ever did before.