Tales From the Mouseketeersby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I hope this will be a very happy New Year for all the readers of this column. Try to keep the magic of Walt alive by sharing stories.
When someone mentions the original television Mickey Mouse Club from the 1950s, images of youngsters in sweaters printed with their first names and wearing Mouse Ears immediately come to mind.
Then, some particular names from the more than three-dozen kids, who were original Mouseketeers, pop to mind, like Annette, Bobby, Karen and Cubby, Darlene and maybe one or two others. However, all of those children who got to be Mouseketeers have interesting stories and, in today's column, I am going to share some rarely heard stories from some of the lesser remembered Mouseketeers.
The original television Mickey Mouse Club debuted on October 3, 1955, at 5 p.m. on ABC and ran an hour. The second season also ran an hour. For the third season, in 1957–1958, the show was cut to a half-hour. For the fourth season, it remained a half-hour but only with edited reruns of the first two seasons and was last shown on September 1959.
The Mickey Mouse Club shows were rerun in half-hour blocks in syndication from 1962-1965 and were highly popular. These half-hour reruns show were syndicated again in 1975 and their success prompted the Disney Company to create The New Mickey Mouse Club television show, that was not as well loved.
When the Disney Channel premiered, the original Mickey Mouse Club proved once again to be an audience favorite, causing the Disney Company to try to revive the concept with The MMC, premiering in 1989 featuring the first Mouseketeers not to wear ears.
On Saturday, December 1, the World Chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club held a special dinner in Ballroom of the Americas B (where President Richard Nixon declared to the media "I am not a crook!") at the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort to raise money through silent and live auctions at the event for Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases (unlike most nonprofits, the fund has no paid staff, allowing the organization to operate at little cost and, per Annette's wishes, ensure nearly 100 percent of all donated funds are used for research purposes only).
The highlight of the evening was a panel discussion with four of the Mouseketeers who shared the stage with Annette on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show: Sherry Alberoni, Tommy Cole, Doreen Tracey and Johnny Crawford. Don Grady was scheduled to be part of the event but died earlier this year. I wrote about him soon after his death.
I did a short presentation about the history of the television Mickey Mouse Club and some "fun facts" about the four Mouseketeers who attended. Besides listening to them on the panel, I got to talk to some of them offstage, especially Doreen.
I wanted to know whatever happened to the book she was writing about her career, Confessions of a Mouseketeer, that was announced in the late 1990s. Apparently, the manuscript is complete but she wants to add two more chapters, covering things since her retirement from Warner Brothers a few years ago. She did have a deal with St. Martin's Press, but gave back all the advance money because she said that the copy editor assigned to her was making severe changes so that the manuscript was no longer in her "voice".
I also got to clear up a few of the "urban legends" surrounding her past. She did indeed get married a few months after turning 18, not 15 as Paul Petersen wrote in his book about the Mouseketeers, Walt, Mickey and Me (DELL 1977).
Tommy reminded me that "we were just kids so they didn't tell us a lot of things so when you ask us questions, we were there but might not have known what was happening".
They all got a good laugh from the audience when they introduced themselves as "Once a Mouseketeer, always a Mouseketeer. We are not old. We are ORIGINAL."
Here are some highlights of things they shared on and off stage:
Sherry Alberoni was brought on during the second season of the original Mickey Mouse Club. She was only 9 years old, making her one of the youngest cast members. She used the last name "Allen" because her agent thought her original last name was too ethnic. She had a little "puppy love" flirtation with Cubby. Later, when they were 19, they dated seriously and even put together an act. "We thought we were Louis Prima and Keely Smith," said Sherry with a laugh.
"The first time I met Mr. Disney was at the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955. I wasn't a Mouseketeer. I was a Bluebird and, for my charity work, I was a "Red Feather" girl for the Community Chest. As part of my prize, I was to help make an ice cream sundae for Walt on opening day as part of a photo opportunity to publicize the park. We worked so hard to put it together and as we stood there while photos were being taken it was so hot that it started to melt all down his blue suit. He never complained. He kept smiling. He was so gracious.
"When I did become a Mouseketeer, it was the first day or so and I was walking down the street at the Disney Studio and Walt saw me and smiled and waved, 'Hey, Mouseketeer Sherry!" I was so touched. Mr. Disney knows me and I gushed to my mom. She told me, 'Look down at your sweater". And, of course, there was my name printed on my sweater. Tommy told me he had a similar experience.
"There were so many rules and laws about how many hours we had to have of school or be on the set or for a break. I remember because of them we had to be out of there by 6 o'clock. It was a magical time. My family didn't need my paycheck so I didn't feel any pressure. I think some young performers today get into trouble because of lack of parental guidance.
"I would say that the way Jimmie Dodd and Bobby Burgess were on TV was exactly the same as they were in real life. I don't think I can always say that of the others.
"I have a swimming pool in the shape of Mickey's head. Speaking of swimming, I remember that Roy Williams had this beautiful backyard pool that was done up in luau décor like tiki torches. He would have swim parties there and have us all over like it was a family birthday party.
"Roy was incredible. In the studio cafeteria there would be these paper placemats with scalloped edges and while we were eating, Roy would walk by and draw cartoons on them. I think I may have saved some they were so good.
"For most of us, this was just another show. Today, we realize how blessed we were but in those days, it was a job and we knew it would end and we would have to audition for another job.
"I remember we were at Disneyland for the 25th celebration of the show in 1980 and were on this float. At one point it stopped and I looked down and there was a guy standing on the curb and he said, 'The original Mouseketeers? I thought you were all dead."
Tommy Cole was a Mouseketeer for all three seasons. He auditioned playing an accordion and once he got the job, he never picked up an accordion again. He was the primary male singer but he was not a dancer so he had to take lessons and "even the girls helped teach me steps."
"Walt was gentle with us and always so gracious. That is the memory of him that sticks out so vividly for me. One time on the set, he was standing where I could see him and I was trying to read some narration off of a TelePrompter. I had little if any experience with the TelePrompter and they were moving it too fast, so I was having difficulty and I could see him out of the corner of my eye. So I whispered to an assistant if it would be possible to ask him to move out of my eye line. He did whisper to Walt and Walt smiled and gave me a thumbs up and left. The next day, some public relations guy at the studio sent out a press release "Mouseketeer throws Walt off the set." I didn't think that was funny.
"We considered it work. It was a job, not playtime. The studio was very good at time management and they divided us up into different groups so one group would be rehearsing while the other was in school or wardrobe fittings or whatever. That first year I did have a crush on Darlene, but, by the second year, I don't remember any crushes because we were all like brothers and sisters. Other Mouseketeers covered for us if we forgot a dance step or a line. That still happens today. I think we were all pretty grounded as kids.
"Jimmie [Dodd] was sincere and real. Those Doddisms you hear on the show. That was him. Not fake at all. He had thick red hair and he was in his 40s when he did the show, but he looked younger than he was. I remember when we celebrated his birthday on the set there was no mention of the year, of how old he was.
"Roy Williams was a little risqué but nothing really bad. He would tell jokes that were a little off-color. He was the fastest artist I ever saw. You could draw a little squiggle and, in seconds, he had turned it into a cartoon. Sometimes I thought he had pool parties at his house just to see the girls in bathing suits.
"Nobody seems to talk about Bob Amsberry, but he was there for the first two seasons and then tragically died in a car crash. I really liked him. He was great with us kids and very talented. He would play all these different parts. I remember doing songs with him.
"When we were at Disneyland performing in the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, we would warm up the Autopia cars in the morning and they didn't have governors so we would rev them up to like 30 miles per hour. We crashed a couple and they finally stopped us from doing it.
"For the circus, I was in tights just like Peter Pan, with the hat and everything. I would spin Sharon on a rope high in the air. Bobby would spin Bonnie. One time Bonnie Kern accidentally kicked Bobby in the mouth during the spin and he bit her toe.
"We rode the teacups….me, a friend who was a football player and two girls. One of the girls got sick and threw up but because we were spinning, we got nothing on us. It all went over the other cups.
"When we were at Disneyland in the early days, we sometimes went to school in Walt's apartment.
"Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett, was very gracious. I visited him at his winery but obviously, he had a better financial deal than us mice. He tried to get me to invest in a winery. He thought we were all rich and that we had some percentage of the sales from the ears and such. That definitely was not the case. We got a straight salary and that wasn't much. To invest in the winery, I would have had to mortgage everything I owned plus all my savings and I still would have only met the down payment.
"I got thrown off the Disney Studio lot after the show was over. I still had friends there so I would go to visit and the security guards would let me in and I would visit, but they warned me that the sound stages were now off limits and closed sets and not to go in there. One time I saw Annette and she was filming something and she waved at me and pulled me into a soundstage to see her perform. I was only in there minutes and they pulled me back out and threw me off the lot.
"Over the years, I threw a lot of memorabilia away like watches. I still have one china cabinet with some items."
Doreen Tracey was also a Mouseketeer for all three seasons and was always one of my favorite since she was the "naughty" Mouseketeer. She was answering phones at her dad's dance studio when the call came in asking if they had any children who might be suitable to audition for the Mickey Mouse Club. "I know the perfect little girl," replied Doreen but her dad later insisted that all the kids at the studio should have the opportunity to audition. She became very good friends with Annette and Cheryl.
"I remember when I was hired I was so excited because I loved Donald Duck and one of the first things we got to do was to do that weekly Disneyland television episode with Donald Duck. ("A Day in the Life of Donald Duck," February 1956) The first time I was ever in Walt's office, he told me 'We have you here because you like Donald Duck but always remember you work for Mickey Mouse.' I remember that Bobby and I went to Western Costume to try on all sorts of costumes to try and figure out what the Mouseketeers might wear. I remember clearly that when Lonnie and Sharon first walked on to the set, they had so much previous professional experience, they came off like superstars.
"Johnny's [Crawford] grandmother would pick me up to go to the studio. I remember getting irritated because he loved the music of the 1930s and 1940s and would always have it on the car radio and singing along. I would tell him to shut up.
"While Tommy said we were like brothers and sisters and helped each other, we all still had a competitive spirit and I think that helped the show.
"I still have some items left from that time, mostly personal pictures of Annette and Cheryl.
"During the Vietnam War, I had a stage act and I was over there entertaining in 1968-1969. In the audience would be all these G.I.s with backpacks and they would stand up and sing the Mickey Mouse Club March when I came on stage. I wanted to be seen as this hip rock and rock singer who did comedy impressions and here they are all singing that song with smiles on their faces."
Johnny Crawford was only a Mouseketeer during the first season and then went on to bigger recognition as the son of Chuck Connors' character for five seasons on the television show The Rifleman. He auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club with a fencing act he did with his older brother. Johnny could sing a little so he was cast. He clearly remembers seeing Doreen Tracey audition singing the Patti Page hit Cross Over the Bridge.
"The first time I met Walt Disney in person we were in the restroom. He was very gracious. The first time, my grandmother and I drove on the Disney lot I was very excited because I loved Davy Crockett so much. I was always interested in Westerns. I was so impressed and intimidated by the talent of the other Mouseketeers.
"At the time, I had also auditioned for a very small part in the movie Bus Stop but I didn't get it. If I had, I wouldn't have been a Mouseketeer. I couldn't decide at that age whether I wanted to be Donald O'Connor or Gary Cooper.
"One of the Mickey Mouse Club items I still have is a gun holster with the emblem on it. It is coming off because I was always practicing my quick draw.
"I loved working there at the studio. We would stand in line at the cafeteria. My Grandma would always get in line early and save me a spot so when I came running in, she would usher me in to a spot in front of her, right in the front of the line. One time, she did that and the person standing in front of me was Walt Disney. He waited in line just like everyone else.
"I loved Roy Williams. One day he brought his new car to the studio and it had push button windows and we all thought that was cool.
"When we were performing in the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, we all stayed a little hotel near the park. It was the only place anyone could stay as I remember. Karen and I would get into mischief at the studio and at the park and that is all I am going to say about that."
In two years, 2015, it will be the 60th anniversary of the show. Want to know more about the original Mickey Mouse Club? There are some terrific books out there as well as a terrific website.
See you real soon! Why? Because I like you!