How Oswald the Lucky Rabbit returned to The Walt Disney Company

Walt Disney once famously said that when it came to the creation of The Walt Disney Company—which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year—he hoped that audiences wouldn’t “lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”

But it’s important that we don’t lose sight that a lucky rabbit also helped Disney get its start.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit—who first appeared in Trolley Troubles 96 years ago on Tuesday—was one of the first creations of Walt Disney after he opened his animation studio in 1923. From 1927 to 1928, Walt Disney and his team produced many popular Oswald cartoons for Universal Pictures that helped Walt and his early studio get on its feet.

“Although the Disney brothers made their mark on Hollywood’s animation industry with the Alice Comedies, Oswald was truly Disney’s first break-out cartoon star,” Rebecca Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, said. “He was very popular with audiences and allowed Walt to create a unique character that was charming, lovable, a bit naughty, and truly appealed to audiences.”

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Walt Disney’s first break-out cartoon star.

Walt unfortunately discovered on a trip to New York to renew his contract for Oswald that the character was the property of Universal. He returned to Hollywood devastated and in need of a new character that he would completely own. This led Walt to a new character that would go on to become one of the most beloved icons in pop culture: Mickey Mouse.

But Oswald’s story doesn’t end there.

Disney CEO Bob Iger crafted an agreement with NBCUniversal in 2006 that would bring Oswald back to The Walt Disney Company. Iger—knowing how important Oswald was to the Disney family and the company’s legacy—traded the contract of sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC for the rights to the character.

Oswald has made up for lost time since his return. On Tuesday, he popped up at Disney’s headquarters in Burbank and the company’s offices in New York to celebrate the anniversary of his creation and take photos with employees.

Disney CEO Bob Iger crafted an agreement that brought Oswald back to Disney.

He’s also appeared in video games and merchandising, and to celebrate Disney100, Oswald starred in a special one-minute animated short called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit—his first one at the company in 95 years.

“As the forerunner to Mickey Mouse and an important part of Walt Disney’s creative legacy, the fun and mischievous Oswald is back where he belongs, at the home of his creator and among the stable of beloved characters created by Walt himself,” Iger said in 2006 after bringing Oswald back to the company.

Cline noted that “Walt felt the loss of Oswald deeply in 1928 and would have been absolutely thrilled to have Oswald back home in the fold.”

“He is just as popular with Disney fans today, and probably even more so than he was in the 1920s,” she said.