They are the icons of childhood and known among collectors as the Fab Five: Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Minnie and Pluto.
These characters, and many more, are the offspring of one of the most creative minds in 20th century entertainment: Walter Elias Disney.
Disney was born Dec. 5, 1901, and died Dec. 15, 1966. His influence spans nine decades and has grown into a global empire, with theme parks in California, Florida, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong.
Today, the collecting of Disney memorabilia, known as “Disneyana,” is big business and appeals to kids of all ages, ranging from rare and expensive vintage toys that only the wealthy can afford to modern-day trinkets and pins that are traded by school kids on the playground.
Since Disney collectibles have been produced in the millions since 1929 to the present day — and because they represent an ever-growing family of illustrated characters — their collectability continues to flourish.
It all began in 1928 with the debut of Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie” — the very first animated cartoon with synchronized sound. It featured Mickey Mouse as Willie, his girlfriend Minnie, Pete the steamboat captain and a host of musical animal characters.
Mickey was an instant success, and more cartoons and characters soon followed.
Mickey’s pet, Pluto the Pup, was introduced to the silver screen in 1930. It is interesting to note that Pluto didn’t speak or wear clothing, unlike Goofy, Mickey’s clumsy friend who came on the scene in 1932.
Donald Duck, with his sunny outlook and short temper, made his appearance dressed as a sailor in 1934.
Daisy Duck, Minnie’s best friend and Donald’s girlfriend, first appeared in 1940. (When Daisy is added to the “Fab Five“ by collectors of today, they are known as the “Sensational Six.”)
In 1929, Walt Disney Enterprises was formed to oversee the licensing and production of merchandise bearing the image of Mickey Mouse. The very first item produced was a child’s writing tablet.
The following year, stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls were introduced, and these were followed by a myriad of Mickey and Minnie toys.
By the mid-1930s, the comical cast of Disney characters had brightened the dark days of the Great Depression and numerous companies were licensed to produce Disney-themed items.
From hankies to hand-cranked toy projectors, wrist watches, jewelry, figurines, dolls, Halloween masks, party favors and more, all are highly collectible today.
‘SNOW WHITE’ SUCCESS
As Disney’s success in animation grew, he turned his attention to creating a full-length, color, feature film based on the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. When Hollywood learned of his plans, they dubbed the venture “Disney’s Folly” because the projected expense would be astronomical in the midst of the Great Depression.
Undaunted, the studio set to work. and after three years, with 750 artists working full time, the film was completed at a cost of $1.5 million.
In order to make the feature film, animation artists had to draw the images on cels: 10.5-by-12.5-inch sheets of thin, transparent celluloid plastic.
Each image was first hand drawn in ink, then a piece of glass was placed on top of it, and another cel was laid upon the glass, and the process was repeated with a slight alteration.
Artists worked from a storyboard, photographs and movies of live models so they could get animated character movement as lifelike as possible. Once all the images in a scene were drawn, they were hand-colored and then filmed in sequence, frame by frame, with a special camera.
When all was said and done, Disney artists drew in excess of 140,000 different animation cels for the film.
On Dec. 21, 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” made its debut and was a smash hit. The Technicolor film earned more than $8 million and garnered Walt Disney an Academy Award.
The Golden Age of Animation for Disney Studios had begun.
“Snow White” was followed by “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” in 1940, “Dumbo” in 1941 and “Bambi” in 1942. Animation ceased during World War II.
Then came “Cinderella” in 1950, “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951 and “Peter Pan” in 1953.
The studio carried on the cartoon series using the Sensational Six: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto.
MICKEY MOUSE CLUB
The Mickey Mouse Club actually formed in early 1930, with 60 theaters hosting club gatherings.
By 1932, the club was 1 million members strong and had spread abroad. Things changed, however, with the advent of television.
In 1955, ABC brought the “Mickey Mouse Club,” along with a cast of talented Mousketeers, into American homes. Soon, kids were wearing felt caps with mouse ears and singing along with the show’s opening and closing theme songs. The same week that premiered, the Sunday evening Disneyland Show was aired, with Tinkerbell as the opening mascot.
VISIT TO ADIRONDACKS
1955 was a big year for Disney, not just in television but on a larger scale with the opening of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif.
A side note of interest is that in the early 1950s, Disney traveled to the Adirondack Mountains to call upon an old friend and former employee, Arto Monaco of Upper Jay.
The purpose of the trip was to visit Santa’s Workshop, the nation’s first theme park, which Monaco had designed in the late 1940s.
Santa’s Workshop was a model worth emulating, and Disney used it as inspiration for Disneyland.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website www.celluloidforever.co.