Mouseketeer Don Grady's Final Interviewby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Early last year, Didier Ghez (editor of the Walt’s People series of interviews) and I were interviewing Don Grady by email. Grady said that he preferred to do it that way rather than by phone because of his schedule and because he wanted time to think about his answers.
That request was not uncommon. Some of the people I have interviewed over the years prefer being interviewed by e-mail because they have difficulty hearing over the phone or want to take time to research their answers or just want to be careful about how they respond.
However, despite Grady’s enthusiasm in his e-mail communications about wanting to be interviewed, he was slow in responding and there would be long gaps between sending answers to follow up questions to previous answers.
Didier and I have both learned to be patient in such situations but every few months to gently prod again since the request may have slipped under the radar. Several months ago, Grady wrote that he was sorry but that he would be unable to complete the interview. He gave no reason.
Since he was to be a guest of honor at a special banquet for the Orlando World Chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club in December 2012—along with other former Mouseketeers like Tommy, Doreen, Sherry and Cubby—it was arranged that I would do the rest of the interview in person with him at the event.
Don Grady died June 27, 2012, at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer, so that interview will never be completed.
However, the first part of the interview about his time as a Mouseketeer was finished and I have edited it here. The rest of the interview would have covered his other work for Disney, from special events over the years to the original music he composed for several Disney projects—including three original "Princess" albums.
Born in San Diego, California, on June 8,1944, Don Grady (born Don Agrati) grew up in Lafayette, California, and was selected in 1957 as a Mouseketeer on the third season of the original Mickey Mouse Club television show. After the show, Grady appeared in several television shows, eventually becoming one of the leads in the popular and long running My Three Sons.
However, his real love was music and he left a thriving acting career to concentrate on that passion. Among many credits, he created the theme song for The Phil Donahue Show; and became the music director for George Lucas Live, a three-hour arena event in which he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.
He returned to his Disney roots in 2001, composing music for many Disney special projects, including supplemental material for 30 Disney DVDs like the Special Platinum Edition editions of The Emperor's New Groove, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Jungle Book.
Other Disney highlights were a new Winnie the Pooh theme, songs for Disney's Magic English, scoring game animations, and the first original Princess songs in 50 years: The Princess Tea Party Album and The Princess Christmas Album co-written with multi-platinum lyricist Marty Panzer. The Princess Birthday Party Album will be released soon.
Grady was always gracious and enthusiastic in his e-mail communication and I regret I will be unable to meet him in person this coming December to finish the interview and to thank him for all his contributions to Disney history.
Jim Korkis: What was it about the Mickey Mouse Club that you enjoyed before you became a part of it?
Don Grady: The Mice, what else? I loved watching the mice sing and dance, something I’d been doing since I was 5 years old.
JK: How did you get the chance to audition for the MMC?
DG: My dance teacher, Pearl Kay, knew about the audition. She sent me and my dance partner, Terry Hooper, to the Cow Palace in San Francisco for the cattle call. Yes, it was a cattle call at the Cow Palace! There were over 500 kids auditioning…it was the most kid performers I’d ever seen. Terry and I were 12 years old and we did a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers song and dance, don’t remember which one…maybe it was S’Wonderful. I also did a few solo things, played a few musical instruments and did an impersonation of Johnny Ray’s song Cry. They picked two of the 500. Me and a boy named Buster. What are the odds? I feel very fortunate about it.
JK: What was the audition like?
DG: I remember seeing Walt sitting there with a few others, Sidney Miller was one, director of the MMC. He was Donald O’Connor’s side kick. I wasn’t so interested in Walt; I was concentrating on my performance. But when half a dozen of the mice came through the room, including Annette, I couldn’t believe it! To see them in person was amazing.
Walt went over to Buster and his dad and complimented them on a great audition. He only glanced over at my mother and me and said “Thank you.” We all thought Buster was a shoe-in. It turns out Buster was a foil. They were interested in me but wanted to make sure I could handle someone else getting the recognition…since I would be coming into the already-famous Mice club. We found this out later through the casting director.
JK: How often did Walt visit the set?
DG: He rarely came by. I remember seeing him maybe three times. Always kind, relaxed. He never seemed like the busy man he was. We called him “Uncle Walt” and he didn’t seem to mind.
JK: Reportedly the girls in the show thought you were cute?
DG: The first time I knew I was really welcomed in the Club was when several of the girls came over to me. One of them was Annette and she kissed me on the forehead. This is the kind of thing you never forget! I remember where on the set I was standing. She said something to me, but I can’t recall what it was…I was just basking in the kiss. But I had a crush on Mouse Karen.
She was very quiet and reserved. I didn’t want to say anything to her because, like the rest of the nation, I thought she and Cubby were an item. When Cubby told me Karen wasn’t his girlfriend, that my interest in her was OK with him, I started to talk with her more and eventually she warmed up. My God, we were only 12. Eventually, we held hands! That was a big deal then! After the talent shows at Disneyland, Karen and I would go over to Tom Sawyer Island and conveniently get lost till the park closed and they swept us out. Great fun!
JK: What was it was like being the “plug in” Mouse for Talent Round Up Day?
DG: It was great. I got to play various musical instruments and sing with different accents. One time I’d be a Japanese emissary, and another a Mexican balladeer. I remember the lyric: “You put accent on the wrong syllable, that’s how you sing calypso.”
JK: What was a typical day like as a Mouseketeer?
DG: [From] 9 a.m.-5 p.m. with three hours of school in the trailer. You were constantly being pulled out of school [to my heart’s content] to learn a new number, get a wardrobe fitting, or shoot a scene. On Saturdays we’d do several live performance shows at Disneyland, preceded by marching down Main Street with the Main Street Band. An incredible thrill for a 12-year-old.
JK: Who were some of the adults you worked with that stood out in your memory?
DG: Bill Walsh was a warm and funny man. Sidney Miller was a no nonsense director. I was always directed by him. He chased Mouseketeer Lynn around the set one time with a lighted cigarette because Lynn wasn’t following directions. He was at the Cow Palace. He’s the one who started all this for me. Roy Williams dive bombed Uncle Walt on the golf course with his private plane and almost lost his job. He liked to take a few nips (of alcohol). He was not kid-friendly, believe it or not. Jimmie Dodd was totally kid-friendly. A wonderful person, creative…and died too young. Personable. Everybody loved Jimmie. Why? Because we liked him.
JK: Did you get to keep your sweatshirt and ears when the show was cancelled?
DG: There’s always been this rumor that we got to keep our sweatshirt and ears. I don’t know about the other Mice, but I didn’t get mine. The wardrobe department was obsessive about collecting the ears, always reminding us how expensive they were. So they at least could’ve given me the sweatshirt!
JK: How did you find out that the Mickey Mouse Club was cancelled?
DG: I don’t remember the show ending. I did a bit part on “Spin and Marty” and that kept me busy. Disney casting picked me and Lynn Ready to do bit parts on “Spin and Marty”. I loved all the location shots, the horses, the catered food, the outdoors. It was the setting for the many westerns I would later do. Being a Mouse didn’t help me get the following acting jobs…that was a different arena. But of course, being a Mouse put me in the town where I could go out for acting jobs.
JK: You worked with Tim Considine on the Spin and Marty serial for the Mickey Mouse Club and also on the My Three Sons television series. What was Tim like?
DG: I admired Tim a lot. He was confident and cocky. He spoke his mind, and spoke back to the “adults,” something my childhood hadn’t seen. He was real, and a good actor. Several years into Sons and his focus shifted…he wanted out of acting, and into something, I don’t think he knew what. He had the courage to break out, something I would do in my late 20s to pursue music. He taught me to race go-karts, and we did Kung Fu together. There was some rivalry when we were on Sons…why not? We were brothers. We got in a fight once, and a week later the writers put it into a script. Mike and Rob get into it.
JK: Also on My Three Sons was Fred MacMurray. What was he like?
DG: Fred was rather shy actually, and he lived up to his reputation as being a little stingy with his money. He tells this Disneyland story: He used to play great “heavy” roles, until he played the heavy in the movie The Apartment. He was at Disneyland with his wife, June, and twin daughters when a woman came up to him and said, “I used to take my family to see your movies, until we saw you in The Apartment. You were a horrible person in that movie.” At that point, the woman actually swung her purse at Fred. That was the last heavy he ever played. I know he enjoyed doing the “Flubber” movies, but Fred didn’t talk much, unless it was about fly fishing.
JK: Did anyone at school make fun of you for being a Mouseketeer?
DG: When the Mouseketeers were cancelled I was put into a public junior high. The kids started calling me “Mouse.” I was short for my age, and sensitive, and I was constantly getting into fights. My parents switched me to another school. One day I walked into the cafeteria and the whole room broke out singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. I was ready for it this time. I flashed the room a big smile. They broke out in applause. I had a great time at that school.
JK: You met your wife, Ginny, at Disneyland. (He married Virginia "Ginny" Lewsader in 1985 and they had two children.)
DG: Ginny was a Kid of the Kingdom (a live, singing, dancing show performed at Disneyland). We were both cast in a show to promote DTV, a new Disney cartoon idea based on the music videos that MTV was popularizing. She played the part of one of the newer, younger Mouseketeers, and I was, of course, the older, original Mouseketeer (Ginny’s 13 years younger than I).
The gag was we have this dance competition, the younger Mice doing the moon walk, etc., and the older Mice (Mouse Sharon and me) doing the jitterbug…and the older Mice outlast the younger ones. I got the gig because Sharon’s partner, Mouseketeer Bobby, was on a Lawrence Welk tour. So once again, I was a fill in.
On our first date, Ginny and I went up to the Griffith Park Observatory, and outside on the cement walk we had our own competition trading time steps, a tap-dancing term. I was a little better…or, she let me win. After three dates Disney sent her to perform for six months in Tokyo Disneyland. We wrote letters back and forth, getting to know each other without the physical complications. It was a wonderful courtship. That’s when I fell in love with her.