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A New Book Complicates Kansas City's Relationship With Walt Disney And His Mouse

Public domain
Kansas Citian Ub Iwerks drew this cartoon in 1934 after his relationship with Walt Disney dissolved.

Everything about Walt Disney is legendary, especially in his hometown of Kansas City where a mythology has grown up around the young ad man who created the world’s most-beloved character.

But, what does anyone really know about that mouse?

"How can the most popular fictional character in the world be someone that no one knows anything about?" author Jeff Ryan asked Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann.

The New Jersey-based author of "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America" said Disney was not part of his upbringing. His new book "A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten and How Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt," takes a step back and looks at Disney's story with the eyes of a Disney outsider.

Credit Scott Annunziatta
Jeff Ryan, author of 'A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten and How Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt.'

Ryan's research was extensive, but he was not allowed into the Disney vault. Instead, he found an authorized but unpublished Disney biography written by Richard Hubler. Ryan located one of only two copies, kept at Boston University.

What we do know: At a Kansas City ad agency, Disney met another Kansas Citian named Ub Iwerks (pronounced Oob Eyewerks). They became close friends and, after they were both laid off, went into business together with the aim of syndicating a comic strip.

Ryan described Disney as the "spark plug" in the relationship, while Iwerks was "the engine." Both were talented animators, but Disney had a grand vision and an ability to drive a project that his friend did not.

The two moved to Los Angeles and, for Universal Studios, created a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When they lost the rights to Oswald in 1928, the two again set out on their own. They wanted to create another animal character that could compete with Oswald.

Ryan said they cycled through many animals before Iwerks hit on the idea of a mouse. All of those animals later showed up in the first Mickey Mouse movie, "Plane Crazy," in 1928.

"There's a cow, there's a horse, there's a turkey that wanders by. Ub was very economical. All those characters he designed, he put to use right away. He drew every single frame," Ryan said.

Though Iwerks invented and drew the first Mickey Mouse, it was Disney who conceived of syncing sound to their animations. This bit of innovation made the movie "Steamboat Willie" possible: It was Mickey Mouse's second film, but the first with sound — and the one that audiences couldn't get enough of (and still can't).

Credit Wikimedia Commons
This 1927 Mickey Mouse poster, drawn by Ub Iwerks is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice.

The sudden success of "Steamboat Willie" pressured the artists in a way that their friendship could not withstand. Within a year, they parted ways.

Disney hired more artists and Iwerks nearly drove himself into the ground trying to outdo his old friend.

Iwerks created massive amounts of material on his own, Ryan said, "but it never sang to people the way Walt Disney’s animation did. Walt was able to replace Ub with other great animators who could stand on his shoulders, but Ub could never replace Walt."

Iwerks sold his 20 percent share in Disney for $3,000. Ryan said if he'd kept it, it would now be worth $32 billion.

Though many people aren't familiar with Iwerks, Ryan said he has a large and still-developing cult following. In 2017 a Canadian company, StudioMDHR, released an award-winning video game called "Cuphead" mostly based on Iwerks' 1930s animation.

As Disney's friendship with Iwerks receded into the past, Disney developed an origin story about Mickey, creating a mythology that extended well beyond its Kansas City epicenter and well beyond the bounds of any relationship.

When asked about Mickey's provenance, Ryan said, Disney couldn't bring himself to say that the idea was not his. Through the years, the story grew and changed.

"First he invented it on the train going to Los Angeles. Then his wife helped. Then there was a flashback scene involving mice that he kept as pets. Then there was a pen pal where he drew Mickey Mouse to a little girl that he was friends with. The story just got bigger and bigger," Ryan said.

But, he added, Disney always told the story with a wink.

Listen to Jeff Ryan's conversation with KCUR's Gina Kaufmann here.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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