Why? Because We Still Like You

An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club(R)


By Jennifer Armstrong

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From the bestselling author of Sienfeldia, a behind-the-scenes history of the Mickey Mouse Club that is a treat for anyone who grew up with Walt Disney’s television classic.

Full of nostalgia, this book gives you the never before told story of how The Mickey Mouse Club paved the way for all that came after, from its humble beginnings as a marketing ploy, through its short but mesmerizing run, to the numerous resurrections that made it one of television’s first true cult hits–all through the recollections of those regular kids-turned-stars who made it a phenomenon.

It will reveal, for the first time ever, the stories of Annette, Darlene (and her famous rivalry with Annette), Cubby and Karen, Bobbie and the rest of the beloved cast. It will explore, through the reminiscences of former fans who grew up to be some of television’s finest minds, what made the show so special. Finally, it will examine why the formula the creators of the show invented is more relevant than ever, and whether we’ll ever see yet another Club for a new generation.

Take a trip down memory lane with the original Mickey Mouse Club cast and creators, through drama and unexpected fame, to see how an television institution came into being.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

Part 1


Chapter One


Lonnie Burr's blond hair would be just so: the sides slicked back, the top a forever-cresting wave rising above his smooth forehead and breaking along the back of his skull. And then, as usual, one of the paunchy Mickey Mouse Club producers would come along and flatten the twelve-year-old Mouseketeer's coif with one glunk of his black-winged beanie straight onto the top of his head, suctioning it to his cranium and cutting a line across his eyebrows as if, perhaps, his brain might come off with it if squeezed tightly enough. A guy could have the coolest hair in town, but no one would know about it if he wore his Mouseketeer cap according to regulation. This fact alone made many of the older, teenage boys among The Mickey Mouse Club's two dozen cast members hate those ears that would become such icons of the 1950s. Pompadours were the rage. The guys had to have their waves out. And producers' demands that they wear the stupid hats way down on their heads wrecked everything. "All the guys hated the ears," Lonnie says now. "They'd always want us to wear it like a monk."

The solution: the boys would act like they were going along with the producers' ridiculous rules until the last second before shooting started, then sneak the cap back two inches or so, just as cameras started to roll, pushing as much hair as possible forward with it to approximate a decent wave. After all, they'd spent most of their preparation time in the morning washing, drying, parting, combing, dovetailing, and applying a gooey wave-set product that would dry as hard as glue, just to do it all over again and again throughout the day as they sweated through their dance numbers. It was the dawn of the rock 'n' roll era, and hair was a priority. So time and again, Lonnie and castmates Bobby Burgess and Tommy Cole would be there on the Mouseketeer soundstage, fidgeting a fraction of a second before the scene, doffing their caps to liberate their waves just as cameras started to roll. "If you watch the show, you can see the different sizes of waves out front," Lonnie says. "All of us boys had full manes of hair, and they wanted none of it showing," Tommy says. "The girls all still looked pretty because they had these waves of hair flowing down, but they wanted to make the boys look like little bald people!"

Yet when the stage bells rang to signal the cameras were rolling and the director called for "action!" you'd never know the angst those ears were causing the boys. The faces beneath the hats would smile like that day was the best one of their young lives as they tapped, twirled, and sang their way through songs about everything from the importance of drinking milk to bicycle safety to cooking with Minnie Mouse. The millions of kids watching from home on the other side of the screen soaked it all in, oblivious to even the slightest hint that their favorite TV stars could be anything except cheerful. After all, the cast of Mouseketeers—known as "Mice" to those on the inside—were the most popular kids in the country, the envy of every kid growing up in the mid-1950s, privileged members of the fairy-tale-perfect Walt Disney family.

At five p.m. every weekday, just when homework had started to feel unbearable but dinner was still simmering on the stove, youthful fans would rush to the television sets their parents had just purchased, click the dial to ABC, and sing along from the opening "Mickey Mouse Club March" to the final "Alma Mater" sign-off. They'd delight in the four fifteen-minute segments of the daily show: the newsreel, the Mouseketeers' performance (which could include skits, dance numbers, circus acts, or performing guests, depending on the day), the Mickey Mouse cartoon, and the unfolding drama of serials such as The Adventures of Spin and Marty and The Hardy Boys. Though the Mouseketeers were only a portion of the show, they were the part the fans cared about: Loyal viewers wanted to belong to any club that included these kids who seemed to know how to do anything and everything.

After The Mickey Mouse Club premiered on October 3, 1955, the kiddie shows airing in its time slot on the other networks moved out of its way, and for good reason: Walt Disney was a force to be reckoned with when it came to programming to families at that time, and the master had outdone himself once again. The Mickey Mouse Club brought glitzy production values and true entertainment to its child audiences, which it took seriously. The Mouseketeers may have accounted for only a quarter of the hourlong broadcast, but the real secret ingredient was the youthful cast. Raved Los Angeles Times critic Walter Ames the day of the show's debut, "Any one of these children could be a star in his or her own right."

More than ten million children watched the first season of The Mickey Mouse Club, and two million Mouse ears sold in the show's first three months, proving that kids mattered in this new mass-communication-driven world. The Mickey Mouse Club demonstrated that a group of ordinary children could put on a crowd-pleasing show and that kids their age would tune in en masse to watch it. The series spoke straight to the prepubescent crowd at a pivotal time in their lives, when they were primed to fixate on anything they felt was just for them. The Mickey Mouse Club made a generation of kids feel like they belonged to their own elite group, a feeling that would lodge itself in their hearts and make them remember Mouseketeers Annette, Tommy, Darlene, Cubby, Karen, Lonnie, Sherry, Doreen, and the rest of the gang for the rest of their lives.

The kids glued to their TV sets every evening for The Mickey Mouse Club could rattle off the five theme days easier than they could recite the Pledge of Allegiance: Monday's Fun with Music, Tuesday's Guest Star Day, Wednesday's Anything Can Happen, Thursday's Circus Day, Friday's Talent Round-Up. They knew the nine most popular Mouseketeers by name as they sounded off in Roll Call: Annette! Tommy! Darlene! Bobby! Doreen! Cubby! Karen! Lonnie! Sharon! And having a favorite Mouseketeer was as important as having a best friend. A four-year-old girl watching in California might idolize Doreen for her wide-eyed beauty. A twelve-year-old boy in Illinois might covet famed Mouseketeer sweetheart Annette Funicello so much that he'd spend most of his viewing time grumbling with jealousy that guys like Lonnie and Bobby got to be so near the dark-haired goddess. A five-year-old boy in Maryland might see host Jimmie Dodd playing the guitar and make one of his own out of a cardboard box and rubber bands. Moms would encourage it all, happy to have the kids settled down for an hour and even happier that they were watching those pleasant Mouseketeers sing such nice songs.

With The Mickey Mouse Club, kids could be part of the action. Fans could sign up to be official members of the Club, call themselves Mouseketeers in good standing—and even show proof if they sent in for a membership card. Belonging felt as essential as joining the Boy or Girl Scouts, complete with hats and theme songs. Viewers might even get a shot at appearing on Talent Round-Up Day—which featured "real" kids playing the trumpet, twirling the baton, performing magic, or any number of special skills—at mass auditions held at department stores throughout the country. They could play Club records, carry a Club lunchbox, strum a toy Club guitar. In short, The Mickey Mouse Club would extend into kids' everyday lives far beyond its five p.m. time slot.

The Mickey Mouse Club audience may have felt included in the larger sense of Club membership, but viewers still wished more than anything that they could be among the real, televised Mouseketeers—even future blockbuster auteur John Hughes. The director spent his formative years watching The Mickey Mouse Club, and the envy he felt for its stars became a major force behind his drive for success. "I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, those obnoxious, spoiled Mouseketeers you just wanted to beat the tar out of," groused the man behind box-office megahits such as National Lampoon's Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone in a 1994 interview. "They could do anything! Disneyland after hours? Whatever you want! They'd wear these horse things, and they'd give away giant Tootsie Rolls. My grandmother was diabetic; there was a fear of sugar in my house. I wanted one of those goddamn Tootsie Rolls, I wanted to dance with that horse for a while, I wanted to go to Disneyland. I never got there as a kid and knew I never would."

However maddening it felt, back in the '50s, every kid wanted to be a Mouseketeer. This book tells the behind-the-scenes story of what that was like—how The Mickey Mouse Club changed both the worlds of those kids beneath the iconic caps and the entertainment landscape at large. It explores how the series paved the way for all that came after—from its humble beginnings as a marketing ploy for Disneyland through its short but mesmerizing run to the numerous resurrections that cemented its place in the hearts of several generations—all through the recollections of those who made it a phenomenon. It reveals how a group of regular kids—from the Los Angeles suburbs and the projects, from plugged-in Hollywood families and working-class immigrant parents—lived often-regular lives despite the hot glare of the spotlight. First crushes, cool-kid cliques, heartbreaking rejections, and homecoming queens—or at least a girl named Annette Funicello who looked just like one—were as much a part of their lives as promotional tours, Disneyland appearances, dance routines, lights, cameras, and action.

Their story involves too-tight sweaters, multimillion-dollar corporate risks, and spin the bottle. Along the way, idols were born, dreams were crushed, and a heck of a lot of felt beanies with plastic ears on them were sold. This book was written without authorization from the Walt Disney Company, so it presents as balanced a picture of Mousekelife as possible, from the Mice who embrace their childhood fame to those who wish they'd never called themselves Mice. It will tell of where they all ended up, even if they hardly lived Disney fairy tales: Some landed on the squeaky-clean variety program The Lawrence Welk Show, others in nude photo layouts; some starred in beach movies, others came out of the closet in Rolling Stone; some went to therapy, others went to jail.

In certain parts of the story, legend has likely overtaken memory. All we can do now is tell things the way the Mice who can still share their recollections recount them more than fifty years later, even if those memories have been marred or reshaped by time. Who knows? Perhaps the myths—the way the raw material of reality has settled into the grooves of the Mouseketeer legacy—have their own unique value.

In any case, their legend began in dance classes across Southern California, where future Mice were tapping their way through after-school instruction—some put there by stage parents hoping it would lead to a big break, others by harried parents looking for their own break from their hyperactive youngsters. It began at kiddie ballets and band performances, amateur contests and accordion recitals—events that would only be the beginning of something much bigger. To make this new kind of television show, the kind filled with young stars every kid in America would want to be, casting would be key. And Walt Disney was about to bring his magic touch to the lives of more than two dozen unsuspecting little unknowns.

Chapter Two

From Dance Class to the Disney Lot

Doreen Tracey sat behind the desk at the Rainbow Studio, her huge green eyes blank with boredom, a state the little firebrand didn't tolerate well. She'd just turned twelve, old enough now to help out at her parents' dance-class business, but manning the phone while her dad was next door playing cards with buddies wasn't her idea of thrilling. Then came the call that changed that. The one from a man named Jack Lanvin. "I'm a casting director at Disney Studios," he announced. "I'd like to get some of your best kids from the school there out to audition for a new show."

All of a sudden a mischievous smile and sparkling eyes were competing for attention on her moon-shaped countenance. Her killer showbiz instinct—passed down from Mom and Dad, the onetime international dance team Tracey and Hay—kicked in. Without a doubt she could call herself one of the best dancers at the studio. Maybe not the best, but… "Oh, I know a little girl who would be just perfect for your auditions," she told him.

Her father agreed to take her to try out, despite his reservations about allowing his daughter to get mixed up in a long-term show-business job beyond the fleeting roles she'd already done against his better judgment (one uncredited part in 1953's Betty Grable musical The Farmer Takes a Wife and an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour). Those were the sorts of accidental detours into Hollywood life that have always been known to just happen to kids growing up in Los Angeles. But now that she wanted to try out for a Walt Disney venture, he couldn't much argue against his daughter's audition ambitions. "My father didn't want me to audition, but it seemed a little schizophrenic of him to say when you're in the business of a dance studio where the best in the business come to rehearse," Doreen says now. "So he let me."

Doreen wanted to keep the audition a secret from the rest of the studio, but that her father wouldn't allow. To her chagrin, he posted the information for all of his students to see. She wondered if her meager professional experience was enough. Like any kid trying out for a team she desperately wanted to make, she didn't want to invite still more competition.

Soon, however, she had far more competition to worry about than a couple dozen kids from her dad's dance studio, as she learned when she found herself crammed into the Disney Studios commissary with hundreds of other hopefuls on a muggy spring day in 1955, breathing in rank kid sweat. Dressed in a Little Bo Peep–style hoop skirt, all frilly innocence, she was preparing to tear into a plaintive ballad by Patti Page. (What she didn't have in glitzy credits she made up for with an ironic sense of humor.) She eyed her rivals as they milled about her, practicing their steps and warming up their voices for their parents and dance teachers. There was a cluster of kids from retired ballerina Burch Mann's studio up in Alhambra, just north of Los Angeles; a tiny boy named Cubby O'Brien who could flip his sticks while playing some serious drum solos; and a sleepy-eyed teenage guy named Tommy Cole dressed in full mariachi gear and lugging an accordion; among others.

Much of what Doreen saw around the waiting area intimidated her, a rare feeling for the born performer. She felt at home around Hollywood; her parents were showbiz vets who had worked up a vaudeville act together and had since retired from dancing to open a club called Slappy Maxie's on Wilshire Boulevard as well as the Rainbow Studio, where kids took tap, ballet, and jazz alongside celebrities such as Debbie Reynolds. Doreen usually had so much natural confidence that she was often picked to be the center of attention in any given group number at the studio, to ham it up, deliver the joke, play the lead, serve as the ringmaster in the circus. (She had even literally served as the ringmaster in an all-girls circus once.) But now she couldn't stop thinking, I'm not as good a tap dancer as these guys. I'm in trouble.

When her time came to face The Mickey Mouse Club's producers, she put her worries about the other kids out of her head, took a deep breath, and focused on her audition act, which she'd come up with herself. She knew it was good—it had killed when she performed it during a Rainbow Studio recital. She may not have danced or sung better than everyone else, but she was good at both; and the one thing she did have over others was personality. She reminded herself she also had a father who owned a dance studio that could help the Disney people recruit more talent. That had to count for something. In her pantaloons and skirt, she put on her serious face and ripped into Page's account of a wayward soul. By the time she got to the chorus, the producers' smiles were turning into admiring chuckles. "It was quite funny, and it got a lot of laughs," she recalls. "The minute I saw their expressions, I knew I got the job. You can just tell, you know?"

Doreen would be one of twenty-eight kids in whom Disney executives would spot a glint of star potential in the course of auditioning hundreds of kids culled from local dance classes, recitals, and the like. Amateur contest veteran Bobby Burgess would drive up from Long Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles, looking to break into acting in a serial called Spin and Marty. Singer Tommy Cole would hope his voice outweighed his lack of dancing skills. Sharon Baird and Lonnie Burr would come with résumés already weighty with experience, while Karen Pendleton would show up having never even been on a Hollywood set. All of them would find a place in the sprawling cast of Disney's chancy new TV venture, The Mickey Mouse Club.

Among the other future Mice whom Doreen eyed in the crowded commissary that day was Mary Espinosa, the kind of kid-next-door viewers could relate to. She was less of a showbiz kid than Doreen, though she did always have stars in her eyes. She felt like she just kept lucking into a performing career despite living in a place where most people couldn't afford a television, much less find themselves starring on it. She'd spent the previous few years crammed into an apartment at the Hansen Dam housing projects in the San Fernando Valley with her parents and six siblings—three older than her, three younger. A classic middle child, she craved attention, and she landed in dance class because of her parents' desperation to channel some of her hyperactivity into anything that would calm her down.

Ten years old at the time of her audition, she'd been studying dance since she was five and had landed a few previous TV jobs by chance. She ended up at auditions because the kid she'd carpooled with to dance class was always trying out for things, and she tagged along. When her friend would try out, the casting directors would often see Mary hovering nearby and ask if she'd like to audition, too. So at eight, she'd found herself in a small part on The Loretta Young Show. "I was a Girl Scout for one day and I got twenty-five dollars," she says. "So I had a résumé when they came around looking for the Mouseketeers. It was just enough to show I could take direction and someone had liked me enough to pay me."

Now here she was again, at an audition by happenstance. Her dance teacher, Burch Mann, had been hired to choreograph for The Mickey Mouse Club. So Mann had brought a handful of her students to the tryouts, including Mary. And when the hopeful faced her Disney judges, she did so without a twinge of nerves—maybe because it felt just like her regular dance class, maybe because she felt it was meant to be. Mary had spotted an article about the Mickey Mouse Club auditions in her mom's Reader's Digest and, having relished her Loretta Young experience, had grown determined to be on the show. She knew she'd found her destiny when she saw that headline trumpeting, NEW CHILDREN'S SHOW! She showed it to her mother and told her, "I'm going to be on that."

Mann stood on the sidelines while Mary and some other girls from her class did a tap number they knew well. Piece of cake, just like any other dance-class day. Then one of the men at the table asked Mary to step forward and sing, and she belted out her favorite pop song, "Tweedlee Dee" without a care. "After that, they said I was in the first cut," she remembers. "That didn't mean much to me, but it meant a lot to my mom. It didn't matter as much to me because I just knew I was going to be on it. I don't know why I knew, I just did."

Carl "Cubby" O'Brien came to the same open casting call with a different talent: drumming. The tiny, eight-year-old suburban kid had learned his instrument from his dad, well-known pro drummer Haskell "Hack" O'Brien—and his skill made him a novelty among the Mouseketeer wannabes. "I started banging on everything in the house and my father decided I should take lessons," Cubby recalls. "After a few years I was getting pretty good. My grade school, Glenwood Elementary, was across the street from where we lived, and he asked the principal if he could come get me at lunchtime and take me home for a half-hour drum practice every day." Cubby joined the all-kiddie Roger Babcock Dixieland Band, a group made up of students from the studio where his dad taught. The Disney recruiters had spotted Cubby early in their scouting process, when he and the band played at a Christmas benefit—a show he'd almost missed due to a 103-degree fever. The scouts reported back to Walt Disney about the pint-sized group, and the boss then later caught the act on The Ray Bolger Show and requested that Cubby, its youngest member, audition for The Mickey Mouse Club. "I was flipping the sticks and playing drum solos," Cubby says, explaining his particular appeal. "I was eight but I looked like I was five or six."

Producers had first considered Cubby a possible onetime guest for Talent Round-Up Day, the show's theme day that would spotlight young performers, but then they saw a little blond girl from North Hollywood named Karen Pendleton and thought the two could make a cute matched set. The eight-year-old girl barely had more training than any average Mickey Mouse Club viewer might. She did, however, have some dance background and had ended up at the open audition with her dance teacher, Elaine Troy, and three other fellow students. "I took dancing lessons, and my dancing teacher had a friend who worked at Warner Brothers who saw it in Variety that there were auditions at Disney," she says. "So she took four of us. I had no idea what I was doing, but I would do anything a person of authority would tell me to do."

The youngest of three children, like Cubby, Karen excelled most at doing as she was told. She did just that during her audition, unaware anything out of the ordinary was even going on—to her, it could've been just another dance class. Though her father worked as a set builder, she'd had no show-business experience. She'd never even competed in an amateur contest or visited a professional set in her life. Her inexperience played to her advantage: Producers fell for her fresh innocence. And the show's adult host, Jimmie Dodd, was even more enchanted once he recognized her from a Sunday-school class at his church, the First Presbyterian Church of North Hollywood. She recognized him, too, which set her more at ease as she sang for the panel. Next thing she knew, Disney executives were calling her mother and telling her that her youngest daughter needed a work permit so she could report to the studio for duty.

Disney executives hoped Cubby would serve as Karen's male counterpart. "It just sort of evolved because we were the two smallest," Karen says. "They just thought we would look neat together," Cubby says. "I was a drummer—I didn't dance or sing—but when they thought of us together, they said, 'Can you start taking tap-dance lessons?' Luckily I picked it up real quick—because of the drums, I had rhythm, and as a little kid, you just absorb that stuff."

As for singing, Cubby squeaked by on his meager skills. At his final callback audition for Disney a few weeks after the open call, Jimmie asked the tiny boy if he could sing. Cubby, who'd thought he was all set once he'd learned to dance, replied, "I don't know."

Jimmie prodded: "Well, can you sing 'Happy Birthday'?" Cubby nodded and belted out the childhood-party staple, proving at least that he could carry a tune adequately. Producers sighed with relief. Besides loving the novelty of his instrumental talent paired with his tiny frame and the idea of matching him with the adorable Karen, they also thought his name—a nickname his mom gave him at birth because she thought he looked like a bear cub—couldn't be more perfect for Mouseketeerdom. He was in.

Bobby Burgess was as gifted a dancer as Cubby was a drummer, but when he first arrived at the mass audition from fifty miles away in Long Beach, he hadn't planned to show producers even one step. The lanky thirteen-year-old had won dozens of amateur talent contests, his extraordinary tapping and jitterbugging scoring him an impractical number of odd prizes. "I won four aquariums," he says, "and a bike. And washing machines. And watches."

But for this audition, he was planning to try his hand at acting instead, reading for a role on the in-the-works serial The Adventures of Spin and Marty, a short drama segment about two kids on a ranch that would run as a separate part of The Mickey Mouse Club. The story of the Triple R Ranch summer camp—which would consist of twenty-five episodes of about ten minutes each—was auditioning young actors so it could go into production at the same time as the Mouseketeer portion of the series, with its tryouts attracting almost as many young hopefuls as the Mouseketeer open call.

Bobby walked in ready to project confidence and charm as the laid-back Spin Evans, but the suited men to whom he thought he'd be reading quickly dimmed Bobby's permanent grin: "That part's already been cast," they told him. "But why don't you head across the way to the Mouseketeer auditions instead?"

Always up for anything, Bobby crammed into the commissary with the hundreds of other Mickey Mouse Club


On Sale
Oct 29, 2010
Page Count
256 pages

Jennifer Armstrong

About the Author

Jennifer Armstrong is a feature writer for Entertainment Weekly. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, Fox News Channel, and ABC, and her writing has been featured in Salon, MTV.com, Glamour, Budget Travel, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She also co-founded and continues to run SirensMag.com, an alternative online women’s magazine. Her essays have appeared in the anthologies Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings, and Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest.

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