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Remembering Ub Iwerks, The Father Of Mickey Mouse

NOEL KING, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, an animator named Ub Iwerks died. He was never a household name, but he is responsible for some of Disney's greatest special effects, and he designed Mickey Mouse. Mackenzie Martin of member station KCUR tells his story on the podcast A People's History Of Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED KCUR PODCAST)

MACKENZIE MARTIN, BYLINE: When you think about Mickey Mouse, one name comes to mind, Walt Disney. But here's the thing - Walt Disney didn't create Mickey Mouse alone. It was actually his best friend, Ub Iwerks, who designed the iconic cartoon in 1928.

JEFF RYAN: Mickey is basically the child of two dads.

MARTIN: Jeff Ryan is the author of "A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten, And Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt."

RYAN: He was the person who was doing most of the behind-the-scenes work, and when Walt was taking credit, Ub was the one who was denied credit.

MARTIN: It's not like Walt Disney wasn't integral to the success of Mickey Mouse. He certainly was. In addition to defining Mickey's personality, he literally voiced the character for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALT DISNEY: (As Mickey Mouse) He'll hear you.

MARTIN: But that doesn't erase the fact that for decades, the collaboration between Iwerks and Disney was mostly kept a secret.

RYAN: I think a lot of that has to do with the way that Disney over the years has controlled the Mickey Mouse narrative. They want people to think that Walt was responsible for more than he was actually responsible for.

MARTIN: The two first met as teens in 1919 at a commercial arts studio in Kansas City, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Though at the time, Ryan says Disney was going by the name Walter Dis (ph). It was actually Iwerks who was like, just go by Walt Disney. Together, the two friends taught themselves animation and embarked on a series of rather ill-conceived and failed business concepts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Their first venture was as commercial artists. It lasted a month. Then in 1922, Disney and Iwerks opened their first animation studio.

BUTCH RIGBY: They were 21 years old, and they recruited these 18-year-olds with an ad in the paper that said, if you'd like to draw cartoons, come to the Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

MARTIN: Butch Rigby is the chairman of the Kansas City nonprofit that's currently restoring the old Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

RIGBY: Ub Iwerks is equally as important here. He was a partner in that company, and I think this building is the story of Ub Iwerks as much as Walt Disney.

MARTIN: When the Laugh-O-Gram Studio eventually went bankrupt, Disney took a train out to Hollywood. But not very much time had passed before he was begging Iwerks to come out too. He couldn't make his cartoons' success without him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that was where, in 1928, Ub Iwerks single-handedly animated "Plane Crazy," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. After a record 700 drawings a day, Iwerks did in two weeks something that would have taken other animators months.

RIGBY: You know, Ub was quiet but a genius, and I mean literally a genius. And Walt recognized that.

MARTIN: In addition to being an extremely efficient and talented animator, Iwerks was able to solve literally any technical problem that was thrown his way. Disney, on the other hand, was an incredible storyteller. His characters were charming and lovable, and he knew how to get the best out of other people.

RYAN: And when you put Walt and Ub together, they were able to do just about anything.

MARTIN: In his 30-year career at Disney, Ub Iwerks went on to develop some of Disney's greatest special effects. We can thank him for iconic scenes in "Mary Poppins" and "Sleeping Beauty," in addition to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." But he only started getting proper credit for his contributions to the world of animation after his death, when his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks, made a documentary about him after realizing that what she read in animation history books didn't match up with the stories she had heard from her family growing up.

LESLIE IWERKS: I just wanted to clear that history, and I really wanted to also tell the story of Ub's contributions to Mickey Mouse.

MARTIN: In the end, the story of Mickey Mouse is a good reminder that everything is a team effort. Behind every powerful mouse, there might be a Walt, but behind every Walt, there's probably at least one Ub. For NPR News, I'm Mackenzie Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN BERNIE'S "WHAT! NO MICKEY MOUSE?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.