The Running Encyclopedia
Originally the two men named him Mortimer. Disney’s wife Lilly didn’t like the name. At her suggestion, the new character became Mickey. He made his first appearances in the early summer of 1928 before test audiences. The viewers were underwhelmed. Nevertheless, Disney and Iwerks forged ahead. For Steamboat Willie, they added a soundtrack that was synchronized to the on-screen action—something that had never been done with cartoons.
It was a brilliant move. Sound films had debuted just the previous year, and moviegoers loved them. From its very first screening, Steamboat Willie was a huge hit.
It opens with Mickey piloting a river steamboat. Pete, the real captain, appears and kicks Mickey out of the wheelhouse. Mickey loads livestock during a brief stop, then helps Minnie Mouse board the boat after it has left the dock. The two of them play the song “Turkey in the Straw” using animals and objects strewn about the deck as musical instruments. The captain is angry at Mickey for wasting time and orders him to peel potatoes instead. A parrot makes fun of Mickey, who throws a potato at him and knocks him overboard. The cartoon ends with Mickey laughing at the sound of the parrot’s struggles in the water.
Disney and Iwerks worked feverishly to take advantage of Steamboat Willie’s success with a succession of additional Mickey Mouse cartoons. It became the nation’s most popular cartoon series. Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse were both on their way to becoming American icons.