What is certainly one of the first and could well be the first Mickey Mouse movie poster ever sold at auction on November 29th for $101,575, far exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $20,000 – $40,000. Even though it doesn’t mention Steamboat Willie, the animated short where Mickey first debuted on screens nationwide, this 27″ by 41″ one sheet could very well have been used to publicize the mouse that would soon roar.
Celebrity Pictures, the first distributor of Mickey Mouse films, was a low-rent outfit. So much so that they probably didn’t even make posters publicizing individual films, but rather used a single stock image advertising the new “sound cartoon” starring Mickey Mouse, “the world’s funniest cartoon character.” From November of 1928 through December of 1929, Celebrity Pictures distributed twelve Mickey Mouse cartoons. There are no other posters from this period known to exist. The one that just sold at auction is the only one, which explains the price.
Steamboat Willie was not the first Mickey Mouse picture made. That honor belongs to Plane Crazy, a silent short that was screen tested on May 15, 1928, but which was unable to find a distributor. Walt Disney and his collaborator, pioneering animator Ub Iwerks, followed Plane Crazy with another silent Mickey picture, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which suffered the same fate. It was sound that allowed Mickey to finally break through. Film producer Pat Powers sold Disney his Powers Cinephone recording system, a blatant ripoff of the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system which Powers had invested in and then cloned when he couldn’t buy it out. Iwerks, who was something of a genius, modified the Cinephone system, adding a click-track to aid in synchronization, and put it to use in Steamboat Willie. Powers then offered to distribute the film via his production company Celebrity Pictures.
After the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney went back and added sound to the first two Mickey Mouse pictures so Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho did finally get their day on the silver screen. Celebrity Pictures distributed them along with nine other new Mickey shorts that were made for sound in the first place.
The Celebrity-Disney relationship was short-lived. Disney thought Powers was hogging profits he was promised in the distribution deal. Powers responded by poaching Iwerks who quit Disney in January of 1930 and inked a deal with Powers to create his own animation studio for twice the money he had been making as Disney’s lead animator. Disney secured a major new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. All the surviving posters from the early days of Mickey Mouse date to the Columbia era, except for this one surviving example of the Celebrity stock poster.
The poster was once part of the collection of photographer Steve Schapiro, who is famous for his photojournalism capturing the culture and upheaval of the 60s from the young Andy Warhol to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last days to hippies at Haight-Ashbury. His pictures from the great film sets of the 70s like The Godfather and Taxi Driver are modern classics. He published his movie poster collection in 1979’s The Movie Poster Book. The Celebrity Pictures Mickey Mouse poster is on page 66.
California collector Crowell Havens Beech bought it from Schapiro 25 years ago. When he died in 2008, his daughter and widow could not find the Mickey poster. They knew he had once had it because Heritage Auctions’ Grey Smith, with whom they were working on selling the collection, had seen it in Beech’s home years before. They figured it was lost. It turns out that Beech had hidden it in his house. A handyman who was doing repair work on the house after storms in 2011 found the poster and stole it. He sold it to a New York dealer who advertised it for sale. Smith saw the sale notice and seriously doubted a miraculous second Celebrity Pictures Mickey Mouse poster had suddenly appeared on the market when the only one known to exist was missing.
Smith notified Beech’s daughter Tracy Beech Leighton and she called the art dealer. He told her who had sold him the poster and she recognizes the name as that of the guy who had worked on their home repairing damage from a falling tree a few months before. The dealer returned the poster to the family and they shipped it straight to Heritage Auctions where it was kept safe in their vault until the sale ten days ago. “Mickey had an adventure,” is how Tracy Beech Leighton puts it.