Bringing Forth The Mouse

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Powers agreed to let Disney supervise the recording session. He engaged a conductor, Carl Edwardi, the bandleader at the Capitol Theatre; he hired the musicians; and lie handled all the details, including the price—$210 per hour for the thirty-member orchestra, plus fees for four sound-effects men and for the technicians. The first session went badly. The bass player’s low notes kept blowing tubes, and Disney himself, while doing the Mickey Mouse voice (as he was always to do), blew another when he coughed into an open mike. Worst of all, Edwardi flatly refused to key his beat to the Hashes on the screen, no doubt reasoning that a man of his reputation ought to be able to conduct, without the aid of childish prompting devices, a score consisting of “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Annie Laurie,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” After three hours and some $1,200 in costs, they still had nothing usable on the track. Powers, who had promised to pay all excess costs should Edwardi not live tip to his reputation, then declared that his offer did not include the musicians’ salaries—it was to cover only the cost of the sound equipment and the film. Disney had no choice but to wire his brother for more money. To raise it, Roy Disney sold, among other things, Walt’s Moon cabriolet, an automobile with red and green running lights, of which Walt was particularly fond. At the next session Edwardi agreed to try following the flashes on the screen and Disney cut the orchestra almost in half (dispensing with the bothersome string bass, among other instruments) and dismissed two of the sound-effects men, taking over some of their functions himself. This time, everything worked out as planned, and within days Disney was making the rounds of the New York distributors, trying to get someone to handle Steamboat Willie for him.

It was a disappointing business. In that year of the great sound crisis a man with a cartoon short subject, even one with an artful sound track on it, did not have high priority. The tendency was to stall Disney and to look at his product, if at all, only after screening more commercially promising projects. Disney re-called peeping out through projection-booth windows on the rare occasions when his work was given a showing, trying to gauge the viewers’ reactions.

At one of these screenings, a character who was even more legendary than Powers happened to be present, and it was he who sensed the possible exploitation value of Disney’s film. His name was Harry Reichenbach, and, as a press agent, he had previously promoted an utterly ordinary piece of kitsch called September Morn into a scandal of international proportions. At this time he was managing the Colony Theatre in New York, and he asked permission to book Steamboat Willie as an added attraction. Disney was hesitant, fearing that with the New York cream skimmed oft, he would have an even more difficult time persuading a national distributor to take the film. Reichenbach argued, however, that this was a special film demanding special treatment. He offered Disney a two-week run beginning September 19, 1928, and Disney talked him into paying $500 a week for the privilege.

The strategy worked. Reichenbach got the press to attend and to write stories about his added attraction, and Disney spent a good deal of time at the Colony listening to the laughter of audiences responding to the first genuinely artistic use of sound film. After the run at the Colony, Willie , moved to S. L. Rothafel’s two-year-old Roxy Theatre. Now the distributors started coming to Disney, asking him what he wanted to do and what they could do to help him. They got only part of the answer they were hoping for: yes, he did want to go on making Mickey Mouse cartoons; no, he did not want to sell them the films outright. In fact, he insisted on retaining complete control of his product. Again it appeared that he had reached an impasse.

It was Pat Powers who rescued him. He was looking for markets and promotion for his Cinephone device. More important, he sensed in the mouse a highly profitable item to distribute. In return for ten per cent of the gross, Powers offered to distribute the Mickey Mouse films through the system of independent, or “state’s-rights,” bookers. This was one of the simplest and oldest methods of film distribution.

The system had several disadvantages. The most obvious was that it took three sizable slices off the top of the gross—one each for the theatre owner, the state’s-rights man, and the national distributor—before any profit dribbled back to the original producer. Worse, the state’s-rights distributors usually did not have access to the very best theatrical outlets. Some of these were owned outright by the large production and distribution companies, and many more of them were locked into exclusive agreements with the major firms. And the final problem, with film and money changing hands so often, was that there were just that many more opportunities to cheat the original producer.

Despite all these disadvantages, Disney had no real choice if he wished to retain control of his product, and apparently Powers’ distribution offer was gratefully received by a man tired of worrying over money and deals at a moment when he sensed that he had, for the first time, a real hit. Disney’s main purpose at this point was to exploit his sudden advantage, to get more films made and before the public. He seemed to sense that it was more and better cartoons rather than large immediate returns that would ultimately establish the name of Walt Disney.