Backstage With The Original 'Mickey Mouse Club' Today, the Mickey Mouse Club is known for its perky, wholesome cast of Mouseketeers. But when Walt Disney first pitched the series more than 50 years ago, he was just looking for a way to finance Disneyland. Jennifer Armstrong looks at the history of the show in her new book, Why? Because We Still Like You.
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Backstage With The Original 'Mickey Mouse Club'

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Backstage With The Original 'Mickey Mouse Club'

Backstage With The Original 'Mickey Mouse Club'

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

"The Mickey Mouse Club," that iconic variety show, started out as a marketing ploy, a way to help finance and promote the building of a theme park, Disneyland. But it became a template, a series that changed children's television and has been revived, reformatted and re-imagined again and again since its initial run in the late 1950s.

Author Jennifer Armstrong has gone back and done an oral history of the phenomenon. Her book called "Why? Because We Still Like You," compiles interviews with many of the original Mouseketeers and others involved in the show's success. She'll join us in a minute. But we also want to hear from you. Who was your favorite original Mouseketeer?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mickey Mouse Club")

Mr. JIMMIE DODD (Host, "The Mickey Mouse Club"): (as himself) Roll call.

Ms. CHERYL HOLDRIDGE (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Cheryl.

Mr. BOBBY BURGESS (Mouseketeer): (as himself) Bobby.

Ms. ANNETTE FUNICELLO (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Annette.

Ms. KAREN PENDLETON (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Karen.

Mr. CUBBY O'BRIEN (Mouseketeer): (as himself) Cubby.

Ms. SHARON BAIRD (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Sharon.

Ms. DARLENE GILLESPIE (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Darlene.

Mr. TOMMY COLE (Mouseketeer): (as himself) Tommy.

Ms. DOREEN TRACEY (Mouseketeer): (as herself) Doreen.

Mr. ROY WILLIAMS (Mouseketeer): (as himself) Roy.

Mr. DODD: Jimmy.

LUDDEN: Again, who was your favorite? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We also asked you to send us pictures of you and your mouse ears, and many of you came through. There's a slideshow of some of those photos. There are some pretty cute ones. Again, npr.org/talk.

Jennifer Armstrong joins us now from our bureau in New York. The book is called "Why? Because We Still Like You." Welcome to the show.

Ms. JENNIFER ARMSTRONG (Author, "Why? Because We Still Like You"): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So as we said, this show was first really a marketing ploy. How did it come to be?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Disney needed some money, which I know is hard to believe these days, but it was true back then. He had very big dreams and never enough money to finance them. Disneyland was his biggest pet project. And he went to ABC, basically, looking for money and came up with a list of kind of, you know, oh, I don't know, maybe we could do a nature show, maybe we could do this or that. One of the ideas on the list was "The Mickey Mouse Club."

LUDDEN: Which was, as you suggested, just sort of off-the-cuff-back-of-the-envelope-type thing. He panicked at one point, like, oh, man, I haven't thought this out.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you really think about it, what they ended up doing was this unbelievable undertaking. I dont think they even knew what they were getting into. Twenty-four children, wrangling them for a daily television show that lasted an hour, I mean, that's insane.

I can't manage two, myself. But - and they - but they were smart about it. Apparently, they quickly put the parents in a separate room.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, that was very, very important. They had them maybe in there for a day or two of taping before they realized, you know? I mean, even the parents who weren't necessarily stagy parents, how can they not be constantly sort of trying to coach their child to the front, that sort of thing. The children were much better behaved and never did that themselves once they got the parents out of the picture. They gave them a room. They gave them a TV. They'd show movies in there sometimes. Sometimes they'd be knitting, you know, and the kids could go visit them at lunchtime.

LUDDEN: So was this show an instant success?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It absolutely was. It was amazingly successful right off the bat. I don't think Disney even fully realized what they were getting into with this. But it was very revolutionary, in the sense that it was the first show for children, featuring mainly children as the performers, you know? A lot of the stuff before was "Howdy Doody," that sort of thing, mainly featuring either puppets or, you know, adult hosts or both. This had two adult hosts, but it was predominantly children.

LUDDEN: Well, and not just children, but the part of the appeal was that they seemed to be such ordinary kids, like, if they could do it, you could do it.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, that was absolutely part of the appeal. The kids were a little more trained than maybe they led on. There were a lot of kids with some serious dance training and that sort of thing behind them.

LUDDEN: And one who could actually, what, play the trumpet while tap dancing?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. She's - there was one girl who did that for her audition. And Cubby O'Brien was a phenomenal drummer at a very, very young age, and that was kind of his appeal. He was, like, five years old. He was a little teeny thing and he played the drums amazingly. And that was the one person they had playing an instrument on the show, as well.

LUDDEN: Now, a lot of your book deals with the inner workings of the show as it, you know, gained in popularity. And one of the most beloved Mouseketeers was Annette, who turns out to be the only Mouseketeer handpicked by Uncle Walt, as Walt Disney was known.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. She is - I mean, if you talk about "The Mickey Mouse Club," you have to talk about Annette Funicello. She, by far, was the big breakout star. Almost immediately, she was getting more mail than, you know, the rest of the Mouseketeers combined. It was just kind of this amazing thing. And yes, Walt Disney did handpick her himself. He saw her in a dance recital and said, I really want that little girl to come audition for this show. And of course, she got a spot. And it really proved that Walt knew what he was doing when he got involved.

LUDDEN: Now, he was - you tell some funny anecdotes about Uncle Walt, about how he knew the Mouseketeers' names, although some Mouseketeers remember it differently.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Well, a couple of the Mouseketeers loved to tell a story about encountering Walt Disney while they were at the studio and him saying, hi, there, Tommy or, hi, there, Lonnie. And the Mouseketeer subsequently gets very excited, runs back and tells his or her parents, mommy, mommy, you know, Walt Disney knows my name. And of course, the joke of that story is that they wore their sweaters with their names across them in very big letters. So anyone passing them would actually know their name.

LUDDEN: Okay. Let's bring in a caller here. Judy(ph) is on the line from Laramie, Wyoming. Hi there.

JUDY (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Who's your favorite?

JUDY: Well, I like them all equally well. But when I heard your show begin, I just had to call in because my husband just loved Annette as a little boy. And he and his friends were going to get on a plane and go to California to see Annette. I mean, that was their plan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JUDY: And I just have always loved that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Is that something you hear a lot, Jennifer Armstrong?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you know, entire towns would sort of grind to a halt if they heard that Annette was coming to town. She wasn't always necessarily coming to town. This was a common rumor during that time. And kids would just lose their minds over her, especially, of course, little boys. It needs to be said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Okay, Judy. So you try not to be jealous there, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JUDY: Well, we've gone on a long time together, he and I, so I'm okay with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Thanks for your phone call.

JUDY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And Terry(ph) is in Appalachia, New York.

TERRY (Caller): Appalachian.

LUDDEN: Appalachian.

TERRY: Yes, we're west of Benton, south of Syracuse, right on the New York-PA border.

LUDDEN: Excellent.

TERRY: My favorite part - I mean, I love the whole "Mickey Mouse Club." I had ears, but I love the Spin and Marty segment that they did. And it was about a dude ranch and had the personal accounts of the kids and their horses. And I've always loved horses. Right now, I have two miniature horses, Moses(ph) and Valentino(ph). And I've always loved them. And that just really connected with me.

LUDDEN: Thanks for the phone call.

TERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

LUDDEN: Jennifer Armstrong, one of the sad things to read about here is, you know, you had all the kids who didn't - obviously had not idea what they were getting into because this was a new venture. But then, as they got used to the fame among their peers and all, there was this incredible revolving door. There were firings and firings and kids where out of there...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

LUDDEN: ...which some found really traumatic.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, of course you'd find it a little bit traumatic to get fired when you're eight or nine or 10 years old. I don't think that the Disney Company was, you know, trying to be mean or anything like that. And I think they did it in the nicest way possible.

And a lot of the kids didn't really feel the effect until later. You know, they didn't really realize how traumatic it was for them until they looked back on it later. And to sort of, like you said, have all of this attention and adulation of your classmates, and then go back to school not a Mouseketeer anymore and live a regular life is an incredible change for a little person.

LUDDEN: Let's get another listener. Linda(ph) in - what is that town, in Colorado?

LINDA (Caller): Longmont.

LUDDEN: Oh, right, Longmont, Colorado. Go right ahead.

LINDA: Hi there. I just wondered if anybody else has noticed the exact resemblance of Vanessa Hudgens, the new little Disney gal, to Annette? They look exactly alike.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, they really, really do. I think she definitely set a mold for Disney.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDA: All right. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you for that. And again, you can see a slideshow of some our listeners who sent their own pictures in mouse ears in. Some of them are old, when they're little tots, and there are several generations, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Multiple generations of Mouseketeers. Let's see, Jennifer Armstrong, you follow the show's success and you kind of update how it, you know, went through the decades, trying to be revived now and then. And you follow the Mouseketeers. Some of the where-are-they-nows are quite sad.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, that's - I guess that's the way life is. You know, if you look at the arc of people's lives over decades, especially people who were child stars, you know, people deal with it different ways. Some people really, really thrived afterwards, used it to their advantage, had no trouble.

Cubby O'Brien went on to drum for decades and decades and had a great career. But yeah, some other people really did struggle, not unlike the kids who got fired, even just losing that job after being on the air for three years and then making that transition from child star to adult star, that constantly plagues anyone who's a child star. I think we've seen many, many people really struggle with that transition. And some of the Mouseketeers did, too.

You know, Lonnie Burr talked a lot about his trouble with making the transition. He really wanted to stay in acting, but it was really hard to get taken seriously. Everybody just wanted to talk to him about being a Mouseketeer. Doreen Tracey struggled with it. In her own way, she went off and did some nude photo layouts for men's magazine.

LUDDEN: Not with the ears on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMSTRONG: She actually did have ears on.

LUDDEN: Oh, oh, no.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: She is a real - she's one of my favorite. She is a real spitfire. And she just, you know, she owns it. And she was like, yeah, I just -at the time, you know, I think she just wanted to sort of get rid of that image. And then when Disney sort of wasn't too thrilled when she did it the first time, she did it a second time just to kind of, you know, be a little bit of a rebel, but she made up with Disney later.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me remind listeners, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Jennifer, do they have contracts against that sort of thing now?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: You know, I don't think that they can own you for life. So I think you can go off and do whatever you want eventually. Usually there's a morals clause in your contract when you're with them, which is not unusual for anyone, you know, for any company...

LUDDEN: All right.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...in Hollywood.

LUDDEN: Let's get a couple more calls in here. Sam(ph) is in Jacksonville, Florida. Go right ahead.

SAM (Caller): I had it figured out when I was a kid that all my buddies were in love with Annette. And so I was going to let them fight over Annette, and I was going to go after Darlene. But I have been saddened by what's happened in her life, too. But that was my plan. It was my plan all along. Let them fight for Annette and I'll take Darlene.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thank you, Sam. And, yeah, tell us what happened to Darlene.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. She seems to have a bit - have had a bit of trouble, too. A little bit later in life, she had some legal issues. I - some of them so complicated I can't begin to explain them, but having to do with SEC probes and that sort of thing. And she was also, unfortunately, convicted of shoplifting in Southern California about 10 years ago or so.

So it has been pretty sad. I, unfortunately, didn't get to talk to her. I wasn't able to track her down. But it really - it is too bad because she is, by far, there is no one who was part of "The Mickey Mouse Club" who does not say she was the most talented of the Mouseketeers. She had an amazing, amazing voice.

LUDDEN: Well, all right. Doug is on the line in Murphys, California. Hi, Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. I worked at Disneyland in the entertainment division, mostly with the Dapper Dans, the barbershop quartet, for 30 years. In the transition period between the first group and the second group, we worked a lot with people like Annette Funicello and Bob Burgess, later a fraternity brother of mine. And also you mentioned Darlene Gillespie, just - she was phenomenal. And we would bring - have these reunion parties that we would be part of and host. Lonnie was there and Darlene would come in, and this girl just blew us away.

LUDDEN: So, Doug, what - did you - do you keep in touch with a lot of them?

DOUG: Not really, because I retired. When I retired from the park about 10 years ago and moved up here to Northern California and don't - I don't see them much at all. But Bob and I keep communications going. And the second group was the interesting one because we were totally involved with them. The ones that they brought in - they tried to get in, like, Lisa Whelchel replace Annette and so forth. And I'd always remember the Mouse-ka-mommies(ph) in the Disneyland cafeteria holding court.

LUDDEN: The Mouse-ka-mommies.

DOUG: It was fun to watch them and say, I don't want to be a part of them at all. But we had some wonderful experiences with all of them that we met. We did five shows ourselves with Annette in later years.

LUDDEN: What's your favorite story, Doug, from those years?

DOUG: My favorite story with Annette is the first time that I ever met her I thought, first of all, she was kind of an ice princess. And it took a little while to warm her up. But when we did, she just became one of these wonderful charming people that said when we're doing things, you know, I'm really not the dancer you think I am, and I'm going to try my best to keep up with you. And I thought, my gosh, all I could do is do the time step. But she was just wonderful to work with.

LUDDEN: All right. Doug, thanks for that call. Jennifer Armstrong...

DOUG: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Armstrong, you write about the Mouse-ka-mommies.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, I do. I mean, those were the people they had to sequester over in that room. But, you know, the kids really loved having their parents around, too, and talk a lot about each other's parents. They became a real family.

LUDDEN: You've argued that the formula for the show is actually even more relevant now in the age of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Why do you think that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think they really set the mold for what was eventually to become this unbelievable business that we see today of child stars. If you'll notice, you really didn't have as many in the intervening decades. I don't think they had really perfected the way to make these kids stars until now, but this was really what set in motion that pattern that they're now using today to just sort of churn out these amazingly talented, huge star kids that you hear about all the time.

LUDDEN: Just a minute left, was there anything that most surprised you as you're doing this research?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think what most surprised me - and, I mean, I don't know if this is exactly a surprise but I just - they're such wonderful people. All of the Mouseketeers that I talked to were just so wonderful to talk to and so wise from all of their time, you know, in Hollywood and their struggles.

LUDDEN: You know what, we do have one last quick call. Redonna(ph) in Waterloo, Iowa. Go right ahead.

REDONNA (Caller): Yes, Redonna.

LUDDEN: Redonna.

REDONNA: And thank you for taking my call. But in the late '50s, that was one of the bright spots of our day, because I'm African-American and my mom always had us in tap and everything. And our - my favorite and my sister's and all my little neighbors - we were the only ones on the street with a TV. We would wait to see Annette Funicello and it's because she was the closest person that we thought looked like us.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

REDONNA: And so we related to her and we thought she was singing to us and dancing. And it was - it's kind of sad because we weren't recognized in those days on TV. And children need people that look like them.

LUDDEN: Well, thank you so much for - thank you for sharing that memory.

REDONNA: Yes. Thank you. Goodbye.

LUDDEN: And I believe we have to leave it there. Jennifer Armstrong's book is called "Why? Because We Still Like You." She joined us from New York. Thank you so much.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And you can go to our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION and check out that gallery of TALK OF THE NATION listeners proudly sporting their mouse ears. Thanks to Claire O'Neill and Sarah Hentle(ph) for putting it together.

I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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