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6 Little-known Secrets of the Mickey Mouse Club

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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

Picture 26.pngAnnette 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

Picture 32.pngSome 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

Picture 110.pngUnleashing 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.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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