Why? Because We Still Like YouAn Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club(R)
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2010 Armstrong, Jennifer
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780446545952
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.