By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
DES MOINES – Nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair, where larger-than-life attractions capture fairgoers’ imagination. The enchantment extended to the Youth Inn this year, where fairgoers could watch a new documentary film recalling how a 520-acre “card” planted in a northern Iowa cornfield in 1988 for Mickey Mouse’s birthday generated international news and acclaim for the Walt Disney Company.
It also turned Iowa into the cultural center of the country-if only for awhile that year.
“I think there was a little Disney magic there,” said Judy Pitzenberger, who is featured in the film, along with her family.
The story of how the Pitzenbergers’ cornfield became a star attraction in the summer of 1988 is portrayed in the 60-minute documentary “Growing Magic: The Mickey Mouse Cornfield Story,” which debuted March 28, 2019. The film was written and produced by Buena Vista University (BVU) digital media students. The project encompassed 3.5 years, thousands of miles in travel and dozens of students who were guided by Jerry Johnson, a BVU assistant professor of digital media and avowed Walt Disney fanatic.
Creating a new view of Iowa at 30,000 feet
The film recalls how Disney’s “master of fun” came up with the idea to plant a cornfield-sized birthday card to celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday. He was Jack Lindquist, then-vice president of publicity for Disneyland, and he was thinking outside the box long before anyone had ever heard that term.
“When Jack would fly between Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, he would see the oil field circles below in Texas,” Johnson said. “He figured if three circles were grouped together, the design would look like Mickey.”
Lindquist asked Disney pilots if they knew what the most flown-over region of the continental U.S. was at that time. They reported it was over north-central Iowa and southern Minnesota. As the idea for a Mickey Mouse cornfield took shape, more people at Disney got inspired and began to envision the possibilities of air travelers experiencing a new view of Disney’s most iconic character from 30,000 feet above the Midwest.
Lindquist and Mimi Schaaf, special events coordinator for the Walt Disney Company, contacted Dr. Mike Boehlje of Iowa State University Extension in Ames as they inquired about fields in north-central Iowa. Boehlje directed them to his uncle, Walter Boehlje, who owned land near the tiny town of Dougherty in Cerro Gordo County.
“The fact the landowner’s name was Walter got Mimi Schaaf’s attention,” Johnson said.
Schaaf met with the Pitzenberger family, who farmed Walter Boehlje’s land. The Pitzenbergers introduced their dog, Lady, to Schaaf. She marveled again at another parallel, since Walt Disney had dog named, Lady, the inspiration for “Lady and the Tramp.”
“The Pitzenbergers were so hospitable and welcoming,” said Schaaf, who is featured in the film. “I felt like I was with family.”
The Walt Disney Company commissioned the Pitzenbergers to turn a cornfield into the shape of Mickey Mouse in the summer of 1988. The planting of corn and oats in mid-April 1988 followed a blueprint provided by a Disney artist and a surveying crew. The design covered 540 acres, including 240 acres of corn to create Mickey’s shape and 300 acres of oats planted around it to accent the design. Even the Disney copyright symbol had to be included in the design.
By July 1988, crop-dusting pilots could see the image emerging. News spread fast, leading to a front-page story by USA Today and coverage in the Chicago Tribune, Associated Press and more. Pilots reportedly diverted flight tracks by a few miles to give airline passengers a glimpse at “Kernel” Mickey Mouse coming to life in an Iowa cornfield. Even Michael Eisner, then-CEO of the Walt Disney Company, flew over Iowa to see the spectacle for himself.
“It was like the Field of Dreams,” the “Growing Magic” film said. “If you build it, they will come.”
Creating a new view of Iowa at 30,000 feet
This unique opportunity brought some much-needed joy and magic to the Midwest at a time when rural Iowa really needed it. The scars of the 1980s Farm Crisis were still fresh in 1988. The depopulation of rural Iowa wasn’t slowing down. The summer of 1988 also triggered weather woes, as some parts of the state experienced a terrible drought.
“The Mickey Mouse cornfield had ‘Walt’s weather,’ however, and it didn’t dry up until after Disney Days were held in early August to honor Mickey and his special birthday card,” Johnson said.
The Disney Days festival was held in Sheffield on a hot, humid weekend in August 1988, with appearances by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. An estimated 20,000 people swarmed the small town on August 6-7 for this one-of-a-kind gala.
Following all the press attention at the festival that summer, the Pitzenbergers harvested the cornfield that fall with assistance from Mickey Mouse, who returned to Iowa to watch the harvest. The magical story lives on, thanks to the “Growing Magic” documentary.
If there is a lesson in all this for Johnson and his students, it goes beyond the real-world experience they gained creating the film. It’s the story of the power of a unique idea, delivered and promoted effectively. The Mickey Mouse cornfield creation landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s “largest field mouse,” which produced a wealth of free publicity for the Walt Disney Company.
As for Iowa, the Mickey Mouse extravaganza showed how a larger-than-life idea not only has the power to enchant people, but it can bring out the best in them, as evidenced by the way north Iowa’s small towns pulled together during that summer of 1988 to make Disney Days such a success.
So far, the “Growing Magic” film has been shown at a variety of venues beyond the Iowa State Fair, including BVU, Sukup Manufacturing in Sheffield, Fonda and other locations. Johnson welcomes the opportunity to offer the film at more venues in Iowa and beyond.
“I hope to do other screenings in places like, for example, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, Missouri,” said Johnson, who added that BVU students are developing campaigns to show the film at various Disney-ana conventions.
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