The First Mickey Mouse Conventionby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
This Thanksgiving week, I am thankful for friends and family and all the many undeserved blessings that have been gifted to me over the decades. I am thankful that MousePlanet has provided me this forum for many years to share a variety of stories about Disney history. I am thankful to those of you who have been kind enough to let me know you've enjoyed these columns.
When Steamboat Willie premiered in November 1928, a star was born. Movie theaters noticed a huge increase in attendance whenever a new Mickey Mouse short was shown.
Less, than a year later, in September 1929, Harry W. Woodin, manager of the Fox Dome Theater in Ocean Park, Calif., approached Walt Disney with the idea of a theater-sponsored club for boys and girls that would be centered on Mickey Mouse. He felt that such a club would encourage attendance at his theater. Roy O. Disney believed that, like character merchandise, the club would help promote the cartoons with little or no investment from the Disney Studio.
That original Mickey Mouse Club chapter was so instantly successful within its first months of existence that Roy asked Woodin to quit his job and work for the Disney Studios organizing similar clubs throughout the country. By January 1930, Woodin was on board as the general manager of the theater Mickey Mouse Clubs.
Because Woodin had to travel almost constantly to help organize new clubs and maintain the ones in existence, Roy assigned his own personal secretary, Lucille Allen Benedict, as Woodin's assistant.
Woodin defined the two primary functions of the club: First, "to provide an easily arranged and inexpensive method of getting and holding the patronage of youngsters" at theaters especially since the Great Depression had just started, and second, "through inspirational, patriotic, and character building activities related to the Club, to aid children in learning good citizenship."
Woodin created a manual for theaters, developed a semimonthly newsletter (sent out to theaters on the first and 15th of each month) and arranged for Mickey Mouse Clubs to be able to purchase from the Disney Studios at a minimal price items like Membership Cards, Membership Applications, buttons, promotional artwork, and even a short film of Mickey singing the song, "Minnie's Yoo Hoo."
To help offset these costs (the cost of a one year Mickey Mouse Club license and the bimonthly bulletin was $25 but the extras like posters, cards, buttons, balloons, masks, books, etc. generally ran the total cost up to $100), the sponsoring theater partnered with local merchants.
The Disney Studios did provide these extra items at cost to help support the project and to control the quality of the material. (Two color membership cards were $3.50 for 500 or the bargain price of $4.50 for a 1,000. Theaters could buy the "Minnie's Yoo Hoo" sing-a-long for $16.50. Membership buttons were $15 for 1,000. Membership applications were $1.25 for 1,000.)
In addition, these participating merchants provided perks including local bakeries donating a free birthday cake each Saturday for Mickey Mouse Club children who had celebrated a birthday during the previous week, local florists sending a small bouquet of flowers to sick club members, and department stores that gave inexpensive toys as prizes for contests at the weekly meetings.
All these businesses had their names flashed on the movie screen, posted in the theater lobby, and printed in the newspaper and on posters. The famous orange and black window card identified these stores as an "Official Mickey Mouse Store" and, of course, the owners through their free gifts encouraged the youngsters and their parents to make more expensive purchases.
Basically, participation as a sponsor of the club allowed merchants to gain a loyal customer base during difficult economic times. Eventually, in each city almost all the businesses in town, including the bank, shoe stores, the jeweler, stationery shops, and others hopped on board as the clubs grew.
Local Parent-Teacher Associations and schools were also supporters with kids getting high marks in school given special membership cards with special privileges. Charitable, patriotic, civic and church organizations backed the club because it offered wholesome juvenile activities and helped children to learn good citizenship.
Membership in the Mickey Mouse Club was free, but children had to pay usually a dime to get into the theater each Saturday for the weekly two-hour matinee meeting.
Each meeting followed a strict ritual like an adult fraternal order. There were elected officers, included a Chief Mickey Mouse, Chief Minnie Mouse, two Sergeants-at-Arms, a Song Leader, a Color Bearer and more. The creed was recited and members participated in the "Mickey Mouse Club" yell, the official song, watching and critiquing the latest Mickey Mouse cartoon short, viewing a chapter of an exciting movie serial, entering contests, and enjoying appearances by guest celebrities or performers.
The Chief Mickey Mouse would lead the members in the Club Creed, printed on the back of every membership card:
"I will be a squareshooter in my home, in school, on the playgrounds, wherever 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!"
Then all the Club members would respond with the Mickey Mouse Club Pledge:
"Mickey Mice do not swear, smoke, cheat or lie." This was usually followed by singing a verse of "America" as an American flag was brought on stage.
It is assumed that the British clubs omitted the "American" references, but there is no documentation I have found to confirm either way. The Mickey Mouse Club Creed was similar to other oaths in other clubs, especially those involving those related to popular cowboy movie stars.
Mickey Mice were also instructed on how to brush their teeth, wash behind their ears and make their own beds.
At its peak in 1932, the Mickey Mouse Club had more than one million members in the United States or as the Motion Picture Herald put it in its October 1, 1932, issue: "memberships approximate that of the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts combined." At that time, there were more than 800 clubs in America with sometimes 1,000 members in each.
The Mickey Mouse Clubs were popular in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well. The first British club was founded in 1933 at Darlington's Arcade Cinema and, within four years, there were more than 400 British Mickey Mouse Clubs. In December 1937, The New York Times Magazine reported that there was even a Mickey Mouse Club in Singapore and implied that Mickey was taking over the world.
By mid-1933, the Disney Studios began to withdraw its support, finding that the concept had gotten too unwieldy to support, especially since there had been some controversies and backlash, including a growing resentment toward Disney films from other theaters who didn't have a club.
The Disney support did not stop immediately, but, by 1935, no new clubs were being licensed by the studio. It was the hope that they would just fade away.
Even though the Disney Studios pulled away its support, some clubs continued for years. The most famous example was Sonny Shepherd, who managed the Biltmore Theater in Miami, Fla. His first meeting was attended by 300 children and within three months, the membership shot up to 1,500. Shepherd was able to keep his club successful right up to the mid-1950s when the Mickey Mouse Club television show premiered.
In 1931, Roy Disney told an entertainment newspaper that there were 375 licensed Mickey Mouse Clubs in existence, and he believed an equal number of unlicensed ones. Regional conventions of Mickey Mouse Club members were held periodically.
The very first one took place in June 1931 in Milwaukee, Wisc.
(Some of the information about the convention came from here, where Steve Thompson, who is an amazingly good guy, printed some excerpts from the Saturday June 20, 1931, issue of the trade magazine Motion Picture Daily.)
More than 4,000 children from 30 Wisconsin cities attended the event.
At 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday, the convention opened at the Fox Theater's Wisconsin movie theater with a performance of the 40-minute long Fanchon and Marco's Mickey Mouse Idea.
Fanchon Simon and her brother Marco Wolf (who removed an extra "F" from his last name so it would be bigger on a marquee) in Los Angeles produced a series of live stage shows that toured the country and were performed in major movie theaters before the feature film. The Fanchon & Marco stage shows were called "Ideas," like the "Beach Idea," "Contrasts Idea," "Saxophobia Idea," and "Syncopation Idea."
These were fairly elaborate and lavish shows with singers, dancers, specialty acts like acrobats and jugglers, and more. Variety in 1929 declared that the Fanchon and Marco shows were "the standard by which stage shows are judged."
The Mickey Mouse Idea had premiered in Los Angeles just a few months earlier on March 12, 1931. A costumed Mickey Mouse (portrayed by Toots Novelle) performed in several sketches, including being the conductor of the Silly Symphony Ballet with outrageous costumed animals, skeletons and flowers. There were also specialty acts, as well as the California Sunshine Girls (who became the Fanchonettes). The Fanchonettes consisted of 48 beautiful young women on stage at one time, all performing some incredible dances and stunts in perfect unison.
The show only toured for one year, but Fanchon and Marco produced several other Mickey Mouse stage shows. In place of the Midget Village at the California Pacific Exposition in San Diego in 1936, vaudeville impresarios Fanchon and Marco managed a Mickey Mouse Circus. Midgets had full-size elephants as playmates and dinner guests.
At the first Mickey Mouse convention, beginning at 11:30 a.m., there was a parade starting from the Milwaukee Auditorium and passing through the business district. Floats representing various businesses, organizations sponsoring the clubs and seven children's bands (including the Boy Scout drum and bugle corps, the Girl Kiltie band of Milwaukee, West Allis High School band, and the Hales Corner band) did not let the rain dampen their enthusiasm.
More than 300 ushers and personnel from 14 Fox theaters lined the streets to help control the event.
Milwaukee merchants decorated their windows and counters with displays of Mickey Mouse, highlighting objects for sale in their stores. The convention expenses were taken care of by local merchants. In Milwaukee in 1931, there were 10 Mickey Mouse Clubs sponsored by nine merchants and having a total membership of more than 20,000 children.
At 1 p.m., an informal banquet for delegates selected from each club in Wisconsin was held at the Hotel Schroder. Immediately after the banquet, the boy delegates unanimously elected Art Zirler Jr., 11, as their Chief Mickey Mouse. Members of the Minnie Mouse division elected Eunice Schneeberger, 13, as their Chief Minnie Mouse.
Appleton, Wisconsin, was selected for the next state convention.
At the theater and the banquet were local dignitaries like Dr. J.P. Koehler (city health commissioner), Mrs. W.D. Isham (president of the Milwaukee Parent and Teachers Association), Mrs. Dorothy Enderis (superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools), Sam McKilhop (director of the Milwaukee Public Library) and Disney representatives W.H. Peters and Eddie Vaugh who had helped organize Mickey Mouse Clubs.
Publicity included a special Mickey Mouse section in the Friday edition of the Wisconsin News and the Saturday morning edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel. A $100 contest was conducted in cooperation with the two newspapers with these special sections. The object of the contest was to color the pictures appearing in each section.
The first prize was $50 in cash, second prize was$25, third, fourth and fifth and sixth places were awarded $5 each. In addition, 3,000 free tickets to a Mickey Mouse show in the contestant's neighborhood theater were awarded the winners.
While there were many desirable aspects to the concept of the Mickey Mouse Club, there were also unseen disadvantages.
In a letter written December 4, 1935, to a theater manager in St. Louis requesting information, Lucille Allen Benedict wrote:
"We found that granting exclusive rights to any theater to call its junior matinee a Mickey Mouse Club in the long run caused us more trouble than it did good in the way of publicity. After all, all of the theaters are our potential customers, because if they don't buy one year, they may the next.
"We ran into all kinds of difficulties and controversies over the Clubs and finally decided to do away with any connection with them. A great many theaters are still running such clubs, but they are doing so entirely on their own, and without help or references from us.
"The success of each Club has always depended upon the resourcefulness of the theater manager, at any rate, and no matter how many suggestions we gave them from this end, the manager had to put it over in the long run.
"We also found that in the cases where the Club wasn't especially successful, the Managers felt 'Mickey Mouse' was responsible and developed a resentment against the product in general."
Even after the dissolution of these clubs, some of the promotional material, like masks and balloons, were still available to all movie theaters from RKO, the studio distributing the Mickey Mouse cartoons, to help bring young people into the theater to see Mickey Mouse.
I've been fascinated by the original Mickey Mouse Club for quite some time now (I wrote a bit about it on my own blog in 2008). Truth be told, I find that whole era of film interesting, both the films themselves and the theatrical culture. I would love to see a true 1930's style theatrical loop, from newsreels and Mickey Mouse cartoon to a serial episode, Roy Rogers B-movie and headliner. The idea of a fraternal club at a theatre is provocative (the best I get are points towards a free movie whenever I use my credit card >_<). Being old school, black-and-white Mickey Mouse makes it that much better.
I never heard anything about how the club came to an end though, so thanks for bringing that to light. Great article!