July 6, 2007 at 1:00 am

Neal Rubin

Prodigal mouse returns: Pilfered icon back at mall after 50-year trip

Norm's buddy Dan had no great need for a 5-inch-long bronze mouse, but they were teenage boys, a condition you will understand if you've ever had or been one. Give them a choice between doing something stupid and doing nothing at all, and stupid was probably going to win.

One kick, heel-first. Two. Maybe a third. The tiny piece of a very large artwork broke free, Norm says -- and as it tumbled to the ground, it began a 50-year journey that will finally end this week when I carefully drive it home to Eastland Center.

The mouse Dan booted from its soldered moorings in August 1957 was no ordinary intricately detailed bronze rodent. Noted sculptor Marshall Fredericks of Birmingham had cast it and anchored it to the paw of a 9-foot-long reclining limestone lion, and "The Lion and Mouse" was the showpiece of what was then a brand-new mall in Harper Woods.

Over the past five decades, the hollow-bodied mouse has lived in various houses on the east side of Detroit, on a mantel in Ypsilanti and in upstate New York. Most recently it's been in Norm's spare dresser drawer in Rochester Hills, next to some cufflinks, outmoded tie clips and his 25-year pin from DaimlerChrysler AG.

The 1-pound mouse "has been weighing on my conscience," says Norm, a dark-haired 67-year-old. He's treated it well -- "I couldn't bring myself to put it in the basement." -- but for probably 20 years, he's known he needed to set it free.

He wanted to preserve his anonymity, much as he's doing by not using his last name here.

At the same time, he wanted to make sure the mouse didn't get lost in a post office or shunted to the corner of a shopping mall storage room. So finally, he talked to someone who knows someone who knows me, and in short order, a small box with a bronze mouse in it was tucked under my arm like a football.

Mouse quickly became icon

If this helps establish how many eons ago 1957 was, Eastland was celebrating its debut by throwing a square dance. Norm and Dan could no more square dance than they could do the minuet, but they broke out their Levi's and button-down shirts and rolled up from Bishop Street, just across from Grosse Pointe, in Dan's 1950 Chrysler.

Late in the evening, Dan decided to liberate the mouse. "I didn't know what he was doing at first," Norm says, but he's not passing the buck: "Once I caught on, I thought it was great."

The mouse, 4 1/2 inches tall as it sits on its haunches and 5 inches from toes to tailtip, was too big to fit in Dan's pocket. He cupped it in his hand as they sidled toward the parking lot. There was no door to sidle toward; Eastland wouldn't become enclosed until 1974.

Norm says the mouse quickly became a neighborhood icon: "We passed it around like the Stanley Cup." Dan was a year older than Norm, and when he left for college, Norm became the mouse's primary caregiver.

Norm left the east side, too, and kept the mouse on the mantel of his apartment in Ypsilanti. Married in 1963, he found that Sue did not envision a bronze mouse as part of her household décor, and it was dispatched to his dresser while he traveled the management track with Chrysler's Mopar division.

Dan became a schoolteacher and died about 10 years ago, Norm says, and Norm retired in 2001. Meantime, at Eastland, people kept stealing Marshall Fredericks' mice.

'Everybody loves the mouse'

Fredericks had cast six of them originally, figuring some might wander off. With each disappearance -- back then, they were valued at $160 apiece -- the mall came up with a sturdier mounting.

For Theft No. 3 in 1961, someone took repeated turns with a hacksaw between rounds by a night watchman and cut through a metal connecting rod. Mouse No. 4 was attached with an inch-thick steel shaft sunk into 3 inches of cement; five years later, a vandal sawed off its little head.

The current mouse, which is either No. 6 or a recasting, seems relatively safe. The mall has been enclosed, and kids can no longer crawl all over the sculpture. It's roped off near Olga's Kitchen at the valet parking entrance.

"Everybody loves the mouse," says Eastland marketing manager Pam Lightbody, who used to be one of the kids climbing the lion's curly mane. "It's not going anywhere anymore."

At least, she hopes not. The mall hasn't had a spare for years. Now it'll have an extra, well-seasoned one but only lightly displayed.

"I love that we're getting our mouse back," Lightbody says. As part of the center's 50th anniversary celebration, it will be put on exhibit near the Grand Court.

Norm says he'll probably pay a visit -- and he hopes for the mouse's sake that the display case will be double-locked. You know how rambunctious those young boys can be.

You can reach Neal Rubin at (313) 222-1874 or nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com.

The 5-inch-long bronze mouse from "The Lion and Mouse" sculpture in ... (Detroit News file photo)
With a 9-foot-long reclining limestone lion, "The Lion and Mouse" was the ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Birmingham sculptor Marshall Fredericks is shown with his "The Lion and ... (Detroit News file photo)
More Neal Rubin