STORM LAKE, Iowa -- A labor of love encompassing 3.5 years, thousands of miles in travel, and dozens of students comes to fruition as Buena Vista University premiers a documentary March 28 in Anderson Auditorium on campus. A second screening in southern California follows on March 30.
“Growing Magic: The Mickey Mouse Cornfield Story” is a 60-minute documentary written and produced by BVU digital media students under the direction of Jerry Johnson, assistant professor of digital media and avowed Walt Disney fanatic.
The 8 p.m. documentary shows how a 520-acre “card” for Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday generated international news and acclaim for the Walt Disney Company and hundreds of northern Iowa residents that made it happen.
The idea to plant crops in the summer of 1988 in a way in which a silhouette of Mickey Mouse could be seen by airline travelers was the brainchild of Jack Lindquist, then-vice president of publicity for Disneyland. “Jack would fly between Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and he’d often go over Texas and see oil field circles below. If three circles were grouped together, it would look like Mickey,” Johnson says.
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. 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 crop lands in north-central Iowa. Boehlje directed them to his uncle, Walter Boehlje, who owned land near tiny Dougherty in Cerro Gordo County.
“The fact the landowner’s name was Walter got the attention of Schaaf,” Johnson says.
Schaaf met with the Pitzenberger family, whose members farmed Walter Boehlje’s land. The Pitzenbergers introduced their dog, Lady, to Schaaf, who, again, marveled at the parallel, seeing as how Walt Disney had a dog named Lady, the inspiration for “Lady and the Tramp.”
The Pitzenbergers were commissioned by the Walt Disney Company to turn a cornfield into the shape of Mickey Mouse in the summer of 1988, a summer in which most of Iowa, except for this region, was beset by heat and drought.
“That field had ‘Walt’s weather’ and it didn’t dry up until after Disney Days, a special promotion honoring Mickey and his special birthday card, were completed in August,” Johnson says.
The planting of corn and oats followed a blueprint provided by a Disney artist and a surveying crew. By July, 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 the Mickey Mouse coming to life in an Iowa cornfield.
The effort culminated with a Disney Days festival on a steamy weekend in August, a party with appearances by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. An estimated 20,000 people swarmed tiny Sheffield, Iowa, for the gala.
Following the press attention and festival that summer, the field resumed its normal course and was harvested by the Pitzenbergers, with assistance from Mickey Mouse, no less, leaving behind only memories of the famous birthday card. That is, until four years ago when Johnson began preparing for a Disney cruise and, with a little help from Jodie Morin, BVU library director, learned of a 1988 Iowa connection to Mickey Mouse.
Johnson eventually met Judy Pitzenberger, who, along with husband Ted, shot VHS video of the events that summer. Johnson took several BVU Digital Media students to Sheffield to gauge the interest of producing a documentary. Students resoundingly voted to proceed in an effort that received a green light from the Walt Disney Company.
Students Chelsey (Goetz) Schmidt and Zach Schmidt began working on the documentary, then graduated in 2016, well before it was finished. When Johnson traveled to California last year to film interviews, the Schmidts, who work and reside there, assisted.
Troy Lindquist, son of Jack Lindquist, who died in 2017, will speak at 7 p.m. at the March 28 BVU documentary premiere, offering his insight as a former marketing official at Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. The Iowa project is said to be his father’s greatest marketing coup. The program also features a 30-minute panel discussion involving Lindquist, Johnson, Ted Pitzenberger and Olivia Wieseler, a BVU junior who wrote the documentary.
At the March 30 screening in the Hilbert Museum of Art at Chapman University in Orange, California, Wieseler will be joined by three additional BVU students in a panel discussion: Mason McGrew, editor; Zach Hess, production; and Jordyn Daggs Olson, publicist.
A third screening unfolds at 2 p.m. April 7 at Sukup Manufacturing in Sheffield, home base for this project in 1988.
“I hope to do other screenings in places like, for example, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, Missouri,” Johnson says. “Current students are already developing campaigns for us to show this at various Disney-ana conventions.”
If there is a lesson in all this for Johnson and his students, it goes beyond the real-world experience they’ve earned in researching, interviewing, editing, mixing sound and more. It’s a lesson sown in the power of a unique idea, delivered and promoted. The cornfield creation that landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s “largest field mouse” produced a bounty in free press for the Walt Disney Company. And now, with a documentary, it remains news of note, more than three decades after its harvest.
Tim Gallagher, a former longtime reporter for the Sioux City Journal, is assistant director of communications at Buena Vista University.