Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Tracking down Mickey Mouse's arrival in Ottawa

It may not surprise you to learn that I'm not so much a fan of modern-day cartoons. Or most of what is on TV really. I prefer the vintage stuff, the original stuff. It's not just the entertainment value of the cartoons themselves. It's the history behind it. The incredible amount of time and effort put into their production. Nowadays a cartoon can be made in minutes using an app downloaded to a phone. But back in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a considerable amount of work to make a cartoon. 

I have a deep appreciation for the early Mickey Mouse cartoons. Most would probably think that they are just boring little clips made for kids. But in fact, the early productions of Mickey Mouse animations have a wider appeal. They were actually presented to adults as much as kids back when they first came out. Audiences would have marveled at the work of Walt Disney and his studio when these cartoons first came to the masses. Animation was still in its infancy, black and white only, and the synchronization of the cartoons to sound, let alone to speech and song, was still in early development.

When 'Steamboat Willie' was released in 1928, it was a game-changer in the world of animation. It led to Mickey skyrocketing to becoming the most well-known cartoon figure of all time, and Disney right there as the most famous animator. 

For those who have never seen any of the early Mickey cartoons, I strongly urge you to take an hour out of your day and watch these classic pieces:

1. Here is Mickey's first ever appearance in 'Plane Crazy' from May of 1928, which apparently originally was an undistributed test screening, before being later released after Mickey's initial success: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCZPzHg0h80
2. Here is the important 'Steamboat Willie' from November of 1928: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4
3. Mickey's Orphans from 1931 which was the first Oscar nomination for Mickey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2S1eJFRM5Q
4. The Barn Dance from 1929 is really funny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0BUnhc_Xzo
5. Perhaps my favourite, also from 1929, a lesser known and massively underappreciated cartoon, 'The Haunted House': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hoThry5WsY

I have three kids under the age of 10, and as often as I can, when we're watching TV together, I'll put on these great vintage cartoons, and they love them!

Of course so much is written about the history of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse that I won't bother getting into the depths of the history in this article. The point of putting this little column together was my attempt at digging up the history of when Mickey made his first appearance here in Ottawa, and even specifically right here in Kitchissippi. Not an easy task, and not one that has a definite for sure answer. But I think I've done pretty well below in finding the best possible answer. 

Certainly his first appearance in the States has been documented, as a quick check on Google and Wikipedia confirms it was in New York City on November 18th, 1928. Sure enough, a glance through the NYC newspapers of the day shows that 'Steamboat Willie' was first shown at the Colony Theatre on 53rd Street at noon on that very day. I was fortunate to find an ad from that same day advertising it's opening:

New York Daily News
November 18, 1928

And this is a pretty cool ad from a month later, advertising the showing in Brooklyn, New York:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1928.

This incidentally was the first mention of Walt Disney in any American newspaper, coming just four years prior:

Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. June 29, 1924.

So back to Ottawa. It appears no theatre in Ottawa screened any of the Mickey Mouse cartoons until 1930. The earliest evidence I can find of Mickey in Ottawa is a week-long engagement starting March 29th, 1930 at both the Regent and Imperial Theatres, as an opening clip to the presentation of a film 'The Vagabond King'. The article below makes brief mention of a "Mickey Mouse" cartoon at the very end, while the theatre's ad for the week does not even mention it:

Ottawa Citizen, March 31, 1930

Ottawa Citizen, March 31, 1930

The Imperial  Theatre was of course what is now Barrymore's today, on Bank Street at Gilmour. The Regent Theatre was located on Bank Street on the northwest corner of Sparks, where the big glass Bank of Canada building now stands. It was open from 1916 until 1972. Ironically, the final film shown in the theatre (pictured below) was Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp'.

The Regent was for many years the favourite spot of Ottawa youth to view cartoons and movies geared towards kids, and was always first to show the Disney full-length productions such as Fantasia, Snow White and Cinderella.

After March, the floodgates seemed to open, as the theatres in Ottawa scrambled to add Mickey to their playlists. The Francais Theatre on Dalhousie Street and the B.F. Keith Theatre on Bank Street (better known by it's future name, the Capitol) advertised Mickey in May:

Ottawa Citizen, May 2, 1930.

Ottawa Citizen, May 13, 1930

And again, Mickey re-appeared at the Regent when 'Steamboat Willie' was advertised as beginning the following day, Saturday June 14th, 1930.

Ottawa Journal, June 13, 1930.

'Plane Crazy' was then brought in to the Regent and Imperial in July in this cool ad:

Ottawa Citizen, July 25, 1930

By the mid-1930s, Mickey was the feature at some theatres, notably the Capitol and Regent. 

Ottawa Journal, April 4, 1934.

Prior to 1934, the only theatre in the west end was the old Columbia/Nola Theatre on Wellington across from the St. Francois D'Assise Church. Going through the old ads, it appears they did not show any Disney cartoons until 1936. I'm not sure why that would be the case, perhaps they weren't allowed, if other theatre owned regional rights or something. So it appear that for the first few years, fans of Mickey Mouse in Hintonburg and on out to Westboro and beyond had no choice but to travel in to downtown Ottawa to view the cartoons.

Finally in September of 1936, the first evidence of Mickey in Kitchissippi can be found with an ad for the Columbia Theatre noting that Mickey would be shown along with a double-feature of "Klondike Annie" and "Oregon Trail". 

Ottawa Citizen, September 19, 1936

The Victoria Theater opened in 1934, the Westboro in 1941 and the Elmdale not until 1947. So this may well have actually been the first time Mickey was shown in the west end!

Hope you enjoyed this random bit of Mickey Mouse history! Happy New Year!