Mickey Mouse

Icons of the Century

The Nation magazine once termed the Walt Disney Co. “A national entertainment state,” but in fact it’s a global empire, with holdings in theme parks, pro sports franchises, cruise lines, film studios, music labels, legit theaters, publishing and video outlets, billboards, Internet sites and retail stores. Its 20 TV stations reach 25% of American households and it controls the largest radio network in the U.S. Its estimated capacity for generating $200 billion worth of buying influence is probably conservative, and its influence on children’s culture — in converting fun, innocence, purity and nostalgia into a brand name and commercial experience — is incalculable. As a company, it owns one of the top 50 economies in the world.

“I hope that we never lose sight of one thing,” said founder Walt Disney. “It was all started by a mouse.”

And a canny mouse Mickey has been, wilier than any entrepreneur, more durable than any head of state, many of whom have made the pilgrimage to Disneyland for a photo op with one of the best-known images in the world. Mickey’s unerasable grin is so quintessentially American in its blatant happiness that no less an apocalyptic figure than Adolf Hitler declared him an enemy of the state. It might even be said that Mickey has eclipsed the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol, now that national symbols have been crowded by corporate logos.

How did he do it? By greeting us as a merry equal in the one impressionable, unguarded place we’ve all shared — our childhood.

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