A graphic designer in Kansas City, Missouri, is cashing in on Steamboat Willie’s trek into the public domain in a very inspiring way–by taking inspiration from the visionary genius of the man behind the legendary mouse and honoring him like never before.
In late 2021, Disney fans became keenly aware of an important date looming in the future: January 1, 2024. That’s the day that Disney would finally, once-and-for-all, lose its copyright to Walt Disney’s very first iteration of Mickey Mouse, called Steamboat Willie.
Originally created by Walt Disney in 1928, the very first version of Mickey Mouse starred in three animated shorts that year: Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, and Steamboat Willie. But it was the third animated short that made animation history by being the first-ever cartoon to feature animation with synchronized music and sounds.
Copyright Expiration Loomed in the 1980s
In the 1980s, when Disney’s copyright to the steamboat captain Mickey was approaching its expiration date, Disney lobbied Congress in the hopes of being granted a copyright extension and succeeded. But 95 years after the little mouse was first created, there was no hope of extending those rights yet again.
On January 1 of this year, it became apparent that many had been lying in wait for the main mouse, as the first days following Disney’s copyright expiration were full of announcements about a new horror video game and a new horror film, each featuring Steamboat Willie as their main character.
But one creator immediately jumped on the public domain status of Mickey for a completely different reason–to honor Walt Disney and his history in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Thank You Walt Disney Organization
The Thank You Walt Disney non-profit organization is based in Missouri and exists to preserve Walt Disney’s history in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as to provide a place for art and animation study, while encouraging individuality among artists.
One of the organization’s main focuses is the building that housed Walt Disney’s very first studio–the Laugh-o-Gram Studio–which was located on the second floor of the McConahay Building in Kansas City, at 1127 East 31st Street.
Walt Disney’s Laugh-o-Gram Studio
The studio operated in that location from June 28, 1921, to October 16, 1923. And if that date in October looks familiar, it’s because October 16, 1923 is the day The Walt Disney Company was officially begun, more than 100 years ago.
During the dawn of animation, many of the earliest pioneers of animation called Laugh-o-Gram their home, each one brought to the studio by Walt Disney himself. Inside the building, Mickey Mouse was first brought to animated life by Disney and his partner and animator Ub Iwerks.
The president of the Thank You Walt Disney organization, Dan Viets, says there’s a reason the public immediately welcomed Walt Disney’s little mouse into their hearts.
“The public immediately embraced Mickey Mouse because it was the first cartoon to successfully synchonize the action on the screen with sound effects and music,” explained Dan Viets, president of the Thank You Walt Disney organization. “It is very important. The foundation of The Walt Disney Company is the Laugh-o-Gram building.”
Because Walt’s first studio was located in the town, Kansas City, Missouri is often referred to as “the cradle of The Walt Disney Company.” And many of the more than 508,000 residents of Kansas City today are Disney fans–many of whom are well-versed in the Disney history that’s so vibrant in their town.
Bringing Mickey Mouse Back “Home”
“We had to bring it home to Kansas City, right where it started,” explained graphic artist Joe Brynds, who is part-owner of a company whose name also has ties to a major Disney franchise–Pirates of the Caribbean.
The company, called Commandeer Brand, specializes in “alternative apparel” with a Kansas City twist, and after January 1, when Disney’s copyright on Steamboat Willie expired, Brynds knew he needed to give Mickey a proper send-off–or perhaps a “welcome back home.”
“The spirit of our company is one of adventure–one that Walt would certainly identify with,” Brynds said.
Brynds designed a shirt featuring Steamboat Willie at the wheel of his boat. The designs includes the words “Kansas City, Home of the Mouse.” The shirt design is available on short-sleeved t-shirts and long-sleeved sweatshirts, and both adult and youth sizes are available.
Kansas City residents are proud of the Walt Disney history in their city and are working hard to preserve it. (And at least the project isn’t a Mickey-themed horror flick!)
To view the t-shirt on Commandeer Brand’s website or to purchase Steamboat Willie apparel, visit the company website by clicking here.