It was headline news on November 18, 1928 – the debut of a groundbreaking new animated feature film created by the young genius Walt Disney, “Steamboat Willie” was the first animated film distributed by Disney but also was the first animated film to have synchronized sound and a post-production soundtrack from the young Disney Studios.
The title of “Steamboat Willie” was used to parody a silent film comedy called “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” starring the remarkable Buster Keaton. In Keaton’s comedy he plays a college student, William Canfield, who travels down the Mississippi River with his father (played by Scottish character actor Ernest Torrence) who is the captain of an old paddlewheel steamboat.
Some mistakenly believe that “Steamboat Willie” was the first film starring that romantic film duo Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In fact, the pair of lovable mice had appeared earlier in 1928 in a screen test preview of “Plane Crazy”.
Disney historians believe that Walt was eager to produce a cartoon feature with sound after he had viewed the success of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. That release by Warner Brothers, featured the singing talents of Al Jolson and is credited with the revolution in the film industry from silent films to the “talkies”.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, young Walt moved with his family to a farm in Marceline, Illinois, at the age of four. A naturally talented artist, Walt spent much of his youth drawing and dreaming.
As a young man, he also was a member of the Masonic youth organization, the Order of DeMolay. Disney was a member of the “mother chapter” of DeMolay founded by “Dad” Frank S. Land. Land started the fraternal organization to develop leadership skills in young men and knew young Walt to be a boy with “potential”.
Walt Disney joined DeMolay in March of 1920 at the age of 19 but by that time, he’d already showed himself to be a young man on the move toward success. Disney was an energetic and restless teenager who dreamed of using his creativity to find success outside the small farming community. He had dropped out of high school at 15 and took a job selling candy, gum and magazines on the train which ran from Kansas City to Chicago. Too young to join the armed forces as his older brothers had during World War l, At just 16 years old, Walt used his artistic talents to alter a passport application to show he was 17 years old, the minimum age to become an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in France. Disney was shipped out and spent a year driving ambulances and escorting military officers outside Paris. He also spent free time honing his drawing skills. He decorated vehicles with cartoon characters, designed posters for the Red Cross and submitted cartoons depicting the war efforts to U.S. magazines back home.
Disney returned to the States in September of 1919 and set his sights on a career as an artist working as an illustrator in the Penmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City. The studio also had hired another young artist, Ub Iwerks who soon became fast friends with Walt Disney. It was a turning point for both men who soon decided to move to Los Angeles.
Iwerks’ cartooning talents were essential to early ventures in the animation business in Hollywood at Disney’s fledging Laugh-O-Gram animation studio. Iwerks was the chief animator for Disney’s company and developed the character of Oswald the Rabbit and later would do most of the animation for Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” and the character of Mickey Mouse in many Disney cartoons.
The landmark cartoon “Steamboat Willie” debuted at the Colony Theater in New York City on November 18, 1928 – a date later known as Mickey Mouse’s birthday. The film was an instant classic and the new sound technology thrilled audiences who couldn’t wait to see more of the lovable mouse and his adorable girlfriend.
The Grace Dee May Museum has a unique collection of Disneyana – treasured collectibles which delight children and adults who are fans of the incredible genius of Walt Disney.