There is perhaps no part of Walt Disney’s legacy more ingrained into the American psyche, sans Mickey himself, than the Mickey Mouse Club. This ground-breaking children’s variety show was conceived by Walt and produced by Walt Disney Productions. The original series ran for four years on the ABC television network from 1955 until 1959. Millions of baby boomers (and their parents) were glued to their sets, with Mickey Mouse Ears on while the Mouseketeers (and in some cases, “Meeseketeers and one big “Mooseketeer”) entertained them with music, cartoons, comedy, newsreels and talent skits. And leading the Mouseketeers were the hosts, Head Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd and his helper, big Mooseketeer Roy Williams.
The show was not just about entertainment, it was sort of a kid’s manual, showing children how to overcome many challenges they might face by common sense, or seeking out advice of their elders. Mickey Mouse himself appeared in every episode in special opening and closing segments made for the show and in classic cartoons, and new ones animated for the show. And Walt himself voiced Mickey in both the vintage and new shorts, even though he stopped voicing Mickey in 1947.
But before we go further, a nostalgic trip back in time is called for. The Mickey Mouse Club in the ‘50s was not the first Mickey Mouse Club. Right after Steamboat Willie bowed on November 18, 1928, Mickey quickly became a national hero for kids. His popularity grew in leaps and bounds. Movie houses of the day noticed huge increases in patronage whenever a Mickey Mouse short preceded the main movie. One man, the manager of the Fox Dome Theater in Ocean Park California, Harry W. Woodin was the first to see this trend, and soon he sponsored a “Mickey Mouse Club” in his theater. Matinees were for kids, and he showed Mickey Mouse cartoons, planned activities, membership buttons and cards were made, and the kids loved it. The first meeting was on January 11, 1930, at noon. It was a resounding success and by 1932 there were over 800 clubs around the country, with more members than the boy and girl scouts combined. They elected officers, conducted talent contests and even had a Mickey Mouse creed recited before each meeting… I will be a square shooter in my home, in school, on the playgrounds, where-ever I may be. I will be truthful and honorable and strive, always to make myself a better and more useful little citizen. I will respect my elders and help the aged, the helpless and children smaller than myself. In short, I will be a good American! And this was all without the Disney Company’s involvement.
The story of the Mickey Mouse Club is deeply entwined with the then third smallest TV station, ABC and Disneyland Park. The Club was Disney’s second undertaking in a TV series, the first; the Walt Disney Anthology series. Walt used both series to help fund Disneyland Park. The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC on October 3, 1955, but the Mouseketeers bowed to the world on July 17 during the opening ceremonies for Disneyland. Walt turned over the Mickey Mouse Club project over to producer Bill Walsh. And Walsh developed it into a children’s variety show. The plan was to have a cast of talented kids for the target audience of three to fourteen. A cast of kids were needed, so Walsh asked Walt what type of kids are we looking for. Walt gave the guidelines… “I don’t want to go to any of those professional schools. I don’t want those kids that tap-dance or blow trumpets while they’re tap-dancing or skip rope or have curly hair like Shirley Temple or nutty mothers. I just want ordinary kids.” Walt wanted performers that ordinary kids could relate to. He continued… “Go to a school and watch the kids at recess. Watch what happens to you. You’ll notice that you’re watching one kid. Not any of the other kids, but sooner or later your gaze will always go back to this one kid. That kid has star quality.” Bill asked what if the kids had no skills; Walt replied that the studio would train them.
But those mandates were not to be followed. With casting beginning in March of 1955 and filming to start by May for the show’s unveiling in October, it was painfully evident that any kids casted for the show had to have some professional talent in the arts. Twenty eight kids were chosen for the first season, and most had some professional training. There were kids selected that were somewhat talented, and the first season was a kind of amateur talent contest.
Of course there had to be someone heading up and guiding all the Mouseketeers and none did it better than Head Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd. He was a multitalented individual, Composer, songwriter, actor, singer, guitarist and conductor. His career started in 1933 and he became active in Television in 1952 and got the role of MC of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. He was originally hired by Disney as a music writer. Dodd is most famous for writing and composing the “Mickey Mouse March” for the show. He was a perfect host. He was the same person in real life as the Head Mouseketeer. He was decent, caring and deeply religious, and very much concerned for children and their welfare. All of the original Mouseketeers loved him, a love that was reciprocated, and all continue to speak well of him to this day. On the show, Jimmy composed and sang his songs on his Mouse-guitar and his songs always contained positive messages for kids. His provided leadership on and off the screen, his short segments on making the right, moral choices became known as “Doddisms” He famous line at the end of the show, “Why? Because we like you!” is still remembered by millions of baby boomers. Sadly, Jimmy passed away on November 10th, 1964.
Jimmy’s assistant host was big Roy Williams, known at the “Mooseketeer” Roy was hired by Walt in 1930 as an artist and later, story man. He had an amazing comic and artistic talent and sense of humor. Walt called him in one day and said… ‘Say, you’re fat and funny looking. I’m going to put you on the Mickey Mouse Club and call you the Big Mooseketeer!” And with that, for the next four years, became an instant hit with the kids. He is also credited with suggesting the Mickey Mouse ears and helping designing them.
Many of the Mouseketeers became household names. The most famous was Annette Funicello, who the only Mouseketeer was personally picked by Walt himself. Other favorites were Chubby O’Brian, Karen Pendleton (Both called “Meeseketeers” at first because they were so young) Doreen and Darleen. The club was famous for the Mouseketeer Roll call at the beginning of the show where the kids would introduce themselves to the audience. The cast for the 1956 season was… Annette Funicello, Karen Pendleton, Cubby O’Brien, Sherry Alberoni, Dennis Day, Charley Laney, Sharon Baird, Darlene Gillespie, Jay-Jay Solari Tommy Cole, Cheryl Holdridge, Larry Larsen, Eileen Diamond, Lonnie Burr, Margene Storey, Doreen Tracey and, Bobby Burgess. They were known as the most popular “Red Team” The remaining members of the Blue and White teams had some famous individuals…Don Grady of “My Three Sons” “Johnny Crawford” from the Rifleman, and Mickey Rooney Jr. Some of the thousands that interviewed that never made it were Candice Bergen and singer-songwriter, Paul Williams.
The show ran an hour each weekday in the ’55 and ’56 seasons, 5pm to 6pm, and half-hour segments in the ’57 season. The show’s final ’58 season contained repeats from the first two seasons, but cut into half-hours lengths. The show was still popular, but ABC decided to cancel it after the fourth season. There were many factors, mainly the Studios did not make profit margins from the merchandise, the many commercials need to fund the show, and many sponsors did not want educational programs for children.
After cancellation, many of the original cast made tours of Australia in ’59 and ’60 where the show was very popular. Still, the audience demand was high and the Mickey Mouse club went into syndicated half-hour reruns starting in the fall of 1962, with strong ratings. In 1975 demand was high from the Baby Boomers; the show again went into syndicated reruns from January 20, 1975, until January 14, 1977. The last airing of the 1950’s show was on the Disney Channel’s “Vault Disney” from 1997 to September 2002.
The Mickey Mouse Club had several revival shows. In 1970’s it was the “New Mickey Mouse Club” debuting on January 17, 1977 and was cancelled by June of the same year. The Disney Channel began broadcasting in 1989; they completed a new revival of the club geared toward modern-day audiences. The show ran 6 seasons, ending in 1995.
The revivals never did hold up to the original series. There was just something simple and nostalgic about the show. The 1950’s were a halcyon time, with no computers, cell phones or video games. Those were the days of families dining together, and doing things together. The messages and wholesomeness that the original Mickey Mouse Club conveyed just cannot seem to be duplicated in today’s high-tech, computerized world. It harkens back to a time when life, for many was just a measure slower and more gratifying!