The Mickey Mouse Club which launched the careers of Britney, Christina, Justin, et al, was actually the third incarnation of the program. The original group of Mouseketeers made their TV debut 53 years ago this week, when they appeared on an ABC special on July 17, 1955, as a "teaser" to promote Walt Disney's newest brainchild that officially launched three months later. Those original shows have been syndicated and re-aired many times since, and even though the black-and-white images of chipper, beaming Mouse-eared kids magically transport us to a more innocent and uncomplicated time, the truth is that behind the scenes it was still Show Business with a capital B, and the youngsters were forced to grow up in a hurry.
1. The Original Kids Weren't that Cute
By the time the 90s version of the MMC was being cast, the producers were actively seeking poster-perfect kids whose smile would light up a room and make every parent wish that their own children were so aesthetically appealing. But when the producers of the original MMC launched their quest to find children for the cast, Walt Disney specifically instructed them not to hire professional "Shirley Temple types." He wanted "regular" kids that the audience could identify with "“ and who didn't come with domineering stage mothers. That ideology looked good on paper, but with only a few months' lead time, the producers had to resort to scouting local professional schools for kids who could sing and/or dance. This process led to one of the show's first stumbling blocks: Disney wanted a "gender balanced" cast, but it turned out that far more girls enrolled in tap and ballet school than boys did. As a result, a number of highly qualified girls were left on the sidelines while they watched boys who could barely fumble their way through a musical number land a spot in the all-important Roll Call. In the battle of testosterone over talent, there was one clear winner.
2. The Original Contracts weren't exactly fair
The kids who made the final cut were required to sign contracts that were somewhat exploitive compared to those of other kid actors of that era.
The Mouseketeers were each hired for one year at a time, at a flat rate of $185 per week, with 13-week options written into the contract. Translation: You and your attending parent had better mind your Ps and Qs, as you could be dropped at any time. (More than one Mouse was fired due to the behind-the-scenes badgering of an aggressive studio guardian.) In addition, the Mice were contractually bound to perform at any venue at the behest of the studio for no additional compensation. This included concerts at Disneyland, promotional photo shoots, visits to children's hospitals, and recording sessions for Mouseketeer-related albums, all of which were scheduled on the kids' "days off." To complain meant risking not getting your option picked up, as well as getting blacklisted as a "troublesome" child actor.
3. Walt Disney stopped Annette Funicello from changing her name
Annette Funicello was one of the last Mice hired, and the only one specifically chosen by Walt Disney himself. Annette had been a very shy child, so her mother enrolled her in various dance and modeling classes to help bring her out of her shell. Uncle Walt spotted her in a school production of Swan Lake and invited her to audition for the MMC. After she'd been hired, young Annette approached Mr. Disney and timidly said that she'd like to change her last name to something less ethnic (a common practice for actors at the time). Walt told her to keep her name; he predicted that once the audience heard it, they'd never forget it. Of course, he was right and Annette quickly became America's favorite Mouseketeer. Why? You tell me. I know what the first two items will be on the list of any male readers, but note that Doreen's nameplate was thrust even further forward than Annette's and she never achieved the same level of fame. So what was it about Annette? Since I always thought Cheryl was the prettiest Mouseketeer, I'd love to hear from Annette fans in order to better understand her appeal.
4. The Kids who Got Cut Fast
Some of the original Mouseketeers that were hired never made it past the promotional photo stage. Dallas Johann was fired after only two weeks because he cried whenever the cameras were focused on him. Paul Peterson lasted three weeks and then was dismissed when he punched a casting director in the stomach. (He later went on to star on The Donna Reed Show and later founded A Minor Consideration, an organization dedicated to upholding the rights and well-being of child actors.) Mickey Rooney, Jr., and his brother Timmy (who were probably hired more on the basis of their parentage than their talent) were canned after wreaking havoc in the studio's paint department. Nancy Abbate was one of the best dancers in the cast, but was let go early in the first season due to "parental misbehavior."
5. A word about the Mouse-kadults
Unleashing 24 kids at a time on a soundstage was a daunting prospect, so adult "wranglers" were added to the cast in an effort to keep order. Jimmie Dodd was the de facto leader of the Mice, and also the composer of the familiar "Mickey Mouse Club March." In fact, he'd originally been hired by the Disney studio for his ability to quickly dash off a tune about the most mundane topic (he was able to compose "The Pencil Song" upon request for his audition). Roy Williams had worked for Disney as an animator, but his adept ability to produce caricatures on the basis of offhand remark made him a "story man" "“ he was assigned to sit in on creative meetings and develop story boards on the fly. One day while the MMC was still in pre-production, Walt Disney said to Williams, "You're big and goofy-looking, you should big the Big Mooseketeer." Rather than being offended, Williams (who'd always remained loyal to Disney for giving him his first job) went to wardrobe and got fitted for his ears. Alvy Moore was the third adult hired; the producers planned for him to be the "Roving Mouseketeer," acting as the host for location pieces. However, it was eventually decided to use him as a voiceover talent only for those segments. Moore eventually gained fame as the hapless county agent Hank Kimball on Green Acres. Well, not exactly fame, but more like recognition. Maybe not recognition, exactly"¦
6. Where they Marched Forth
None of the original Mice ever achieved the level of fame of Britney or Christina, but some of them did work in the business after the MMC ended, and some are memorable simply for the hand Life dealt them. Annette Funicello, of course, went on to star in a series of Beach Party films and then was the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter. Bobby Burgess worked as a dancer and choreographer on the Lawrence Welk Show for many years. Sharon Baird was the person inside the Charlie the Owl costume on the long-running kids' series The New Zoo Revue. Tommy Cole became a professional makeup artist and won an Emmy Award for his work in 1979. Cubby O'Brien is a talented drummer who has worked with the Carpenters, the Carol Burnett Show and many Broadway productions. And Cheryl Holdridge made some TV appearances before marrying Lance Reventlow, the only son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. When he died in a plane crash in 1972, he left her a very wealthy widow.