I’ve told this story a hundred times. I write about it in The Wisdom of Walt in “Chapter 3: Listening to Your ‘Walter’ Ego.” I talk about it on stage in my keynote presentations. It is a core Disney story that you may or may not know.
It’s the story of Mickey Mouse.
It’s the story of how the world’s most popular, and profitable, cartoon character came to be created. Walt Disney reminded us, repeatedly, that we should never lose sight of the fact that it all started with a mouse.
Except that it didn’t.
It started with a rabbit. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
In 1923, after going bankrupt with his first studio,
Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt boarded a train bound for California with $40, a single suitcase, and a one-way ticket. Once he was in California, Walt joined forces with his older brother, Roy, and together they formed The Disney Brother Studio. Eventually, Walt created his first successful cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
By 1928, Oswald was so successful that Walt boarded another train. This time headed to New York City with his wife, Lilly. Walt wanted to sit down with his distributor, Universal, and he was looking for a bigger and better contract.
In that meeting, Walt was reminded that when he signed the distribution deal, he signed away the rights to Oswald as well. He also learned that while he and Lilly had been busy in The Big Apple, others had been busy in Southern California hiring away the very animators who had helped make Oswald so successful. Walt didn’t walk out of that meeting with a bigger and better contract. No, Walt walked out with nothing….
Walt Disney was staring bankruptcy in the face all over again.
However, on the train ride home, he remembered a little character who had kept him company during those dark days in Kansas City. Walt pulled out a pad of paper, sketched out the first story, and showed it to Lilly. “Honey, what do you think of this guy?”
“Why, Walt, he’s cute! What are you going to name him?”
“Well, I’m thinking of naming him…Mortimer.”
“Oh, no, Walt! That name is much too heavy. Why don’t you go with Mickey instead?”
So, it was in that moment, that moment of desperation, that the world’s most popular, and profitable, cartoon character was born.
In this current crisis, I keep going back to this story over and over again. Why? Because I don’t know how our current story is going to end. In times of uncertainty, it is good to go back to the familiar. Walt Disney was familiar with failure. Yet he kept moving his story forward.
You can, too. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit teaches us that how the story ends is all about choice:
In my last post “The Next Right Thing,” I wrote about how Walt Disney, against great odds, survived both The Spanish Flu and World War I. Imagine if Walt had survived neither. Imagine a world without Walt Disney. Imagine a world without Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse made his debut, via “Steamboat Willie,” on November 18, 1928. He was an overnight sensation. It was also the eve of the Great Depression. Less than a year later, the stock market crashed. It would take more than a dozen years, and another world war, before the U.S. and world economy would start to recover. In between, it was Mickey Mouse and his indomitable spirit that kept folks going. Everybody was short on money, but somehow, everyone still found a nickel to see the latest Mickey cartoon short and started buying Mickey Mouse watches in 1933, the height of the Great Depression.
Today, we need Mickey more than ever. We need his indomitable spirit to carry us through this crisis, like he carried us through the Great Depression. We need his touch, even if it’s only a “high-four” instead of a “high-five.” And we need his floral, unmasked smile greeting us at the front of the Magic Kingdoms.
Why? To remind us that in our own troubled times this story can end well, too. To reassure us that “everything will be OK”. To point us toward the light at the end of the tunnels, and the Castle at the end of the Street.
Now I need you. I want to hear your story. Leave a comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) about how you are pivoting. How are you innovating and how you are being resourceful.
Let’s keep this moving forward!