For better and for worse, Walt Disney (1901–1966) implanted his creations more profoundly and pervasively in the national psyche than has any other figure in the history of American popular culture. When the young cartoonist—a product of the worn-down midwestern petite bourgeoisie and of wearisome childhood toil—had his first popular character, Oswald the Rabbit, stolen from him by his film distributor, in 1928, he quickly, in desperation, created a new protagonist: Mickey Mouse. By the early 1930s, a million audiences were watching Mickey Mouse cartoons each year. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, The Mouse’s image adorned more than forty items, from diamond bracelets to blackboards, bringing in $35 million in domestic sales alone. A year earlier, Disney had released Three Little Pigs, an eight-minute cartoon that was universally regarded as a populist parable of the Depression. It entranced the country; FDR quoted it; dozens of articles dissected it. Its theme song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” became, along with “Happy Days Are Here Again,” an anthem of the decade. And of course, this was just the beginning. To millions of Americans, a truculent Donald Duck symbolized the good fight against the Axis (“Der Fuehrer’s Face,” the hit song to Disney’s most popular cartoon, was the wartime counterpart to “Big Bad Wolf”).
Disney then gave the postwar generation its deepest common cultural experiences. The releases of Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mary Poppins, and 101 Dalmatians—and the rereleases of Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Dumbo (probably Disney Studio’s finest feature)—were among the most universally and vividly experienced childhood events of the American middle class. The Mickey Mouse Club helped raise the children of the 1950s (and supplied Boomers with their own anthem). The broadcasts, on the television show Disneyland, of Davy Crockett (the first miniseries) spurred the biggest kids’ fad of the decade—the “coonskin” cap (10 million of which were sold) became the central element of the middle- class boy’s uniform. The show’s later iteration, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, was probably the most significant factor in making color television a fixture in suburban living rooms and helped assuage the peculiar melancholy of the school year’s Sunday nights. Within eleven years of Disneyland’s opening, in 1955, the theme park’s apparently intoxicating blend of nostalgia and futurism, of order, artificiality, and spotlessness, had, according to one assessment, lured roughly a quarter of the country’s population. In the year of Disney’s death, an estimated 240 million people worldwide watched a Disney movie, 100 million saw a Disney television show every week, and 80 million read a Disney book or magazine. To be a mainstream American in the American Century was to inhabit Walt Disney’s world.