Sometimes a smalltown legend takes on a life of its own. Such is the case with one small town's claim to be the birthplace of Walt Disney icon Mickey Mouse.
The town's children learn this legend early in school and by the time they graduate from the local high school they are truly indoctrinated into believing that the famous Disney mouse traces its roots to a small out-of-business toy company in the south-central Pennsylvania borough of Middletown.
The proof, they say, rests in the Middletown Area Historical Society's museum in the Liberty House on North Catherine Street. The museum is open by appointment and during the society's meetings on the fourth Monday of each month from 7-9 pm. In the museum collection are a dozen of the toys which they say support their claim, as well as copies of patents dating back to 1926.
The Performo Toy Company employed 25 local workers and created a variety of popular toys, including 'Micky Mouse' which was a black and white mouse. A patent for this 'animal toy' was obtained by company president Torrence Dietz on 17 August, 1926. The toy was so popular that the production of company's other toys was limited to allow for more production of Micky Mouse.
Animation pioneer Walt Disney created the Mickey Mouse cartoon as a silent feature titled 'Plane Crazy' in May 1928. Work began in July 1928 on a sound feature for Mickey Mouse, and in November 'Steamboat Willie' was released to massive acclaim.
Prior to that, Disney had been working with Universal Pictures, producing Oswald the Rabbit cartoons. With the success of the Oswald cartoons, Disney travelled to New York City to meet Universal's Charles Mintz to seek a pay rise. Mintz however proposed reducing Disney's cut per cartoon and Disney refused to work for less money.
Middletown historians claim that Disney either saw the Performo Toy Company's 'Micky Mouse' toy on his travels or on the train ride home. Some even go so far as to speculate that Dietz met and spoke with Disney on the train.
Micky v Mickey
Performo's Micky Mouse and Disney's Mickey Mouse coexisted from 1928 to 1931. By 1931, Disney's brother Roy was put in charge of marketing Mickey Mouse merchandise including a toy version of the cartoon mouse using the same distributor as Performo's Micky Mouse.
It is unclear what happened next, but local legends suggest that Disney sued Performo and broke the company. In any event, the Middletown toy company closed its doors in 1935.
All that remains are a few artefacts in the historical society museum and a wonderful story about one small Pennsylvania town's claim to greatness.