The Mickey Mouse Club Circus: Big Top Big Flop: Part Oneby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Many writers that I respect have written about the Mickey Mouse Club Circus.
However, despite their wonderful efforts, I always felt that they were all just briefly touching on a much larger, much more intriguing story. I always wanted to know more than what they covered in their articles.
In addition, I have some limited background as a "mud show" circus performer when I lived in Los Angeles, and I felt that the circus acts were often being slighted because the writers did not realize how significant they were in the circus community.
So here is my attempt to shed some light on what some consider to be one of Walt's biggest "flops" with some new information that does not appear in those other articles.
"Here comes the circus
Everyone loves the circus
And that includes the Merry Mouseketeers!"
When the original Mickey Mouse Club premiered on television on October 3, 1955, for the first two seasons, every Thursday was "Circus Day". These shows proved to be the most expensive and difficult to produce and so were eliminated for the third season.
Generally, the show featured authentic adult performers from various circuses who were sometimes accompanied by trained animals.
These entertainers included The Chaudets (magicians), The Sullivans (unicycle act), Robbins and Bono (clowns), Bert Nagle (big cats), The Black Brothers (clowns), Paula and Paulette (trampoline), The Boginos (acrobats), Nicky Francis (clown), The Marcellis (tumblers), The Allen Bears (animal act), Gentry's Elephants (animal act), and The George Wong Troupe (acrobats).
Also appearing were some acts that were featured in the Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland in late 1955: Ted DeWayne Troupe (acrobats) on October 6, 1955 and February 2, 1956; Professor Keller and His Feline Fantastics on October 27, 1955; and Musical Horse Serenado on December 22, 1955.
The Mickey Mouse Club Circus opened at Disneyland, near the area where the Matterhorn Bobsleds is located today, on November 24 (Thanksgivng Day), 1955, giving three 75-minute performances every weekday (the longest live-action show in Disneyland history to this day) and four on the weekends, including Christmas Day and New Year's Day, for roughly the next six weeks.
During the week, shows were at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. On weekends, the shows were offered at noon, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
General admission was $0.50, but there was also a reserved section of seats that could be purchased for $1.
The circus was part of the "Christmas Festival at Disneyland," that also included church and school choral groups from "all over the West" performing in the Christmas Bowl, and "thousands of lights and marvelous festive decorations of every conceivable kind" making Disneyland "a glittering fairyland of fun and thrills". There were Dickens carolers on Main Street and a Christmas tree on the Mark Twain Steamboat.
Of course, there was a daily circus parade down Main Street, as well, but in keeping with the Christmas theme, it included the three wise men and their camels.
The show closed January 8, 1956 for a number of reasons, including poor attendance, the expense, and the fact that guests did not come to Disneyland to see a circus that required a separate admission.
"Walter Knott warned us about the weeks before Christmas. He said that the public seemed to forget at that same time each year that there was a Knott's Berry Farm," wrote Disney Legend Van France in his book Window on Main Street (1991). "Well, we didn't want the public to forget Disneyland, so Walt came up with an idea for changing that pattern of visitors."
After Disneyland opened in July 1955 and proved to be such a popular success, Walt Disney was flooded with many offers for new things or to sell him odd items. Showman R.E. Anderson approached Walt about the idea of doing a Wild West Show in Frontierland.
Walt liked the idea of a live show, but decided it would be fun to do a circus and to tie it in to promote the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. Walt had always loved the "mud show" circuses (a small traveling circus that would set up in a vacant field for a few days and if it rained, the ground turned to mud), since he first saw one as a young boy in Marceline, Missouri. Walt had even told a few people that his dream was to run a circus some day.
A job number (3325) was opened on September 9, 1955, where expenses could be charged. The number was closed out on January 25, 1956 with no further charges accepted.
At a meeting on October 4, 1955 to formalize a concept with Imagineers Dick Irvine, Bruce Bushman, George Whitney, and a few others, Walt stated that the circus would go through Christmas and then, early in 1956, it would be reconfigured into a new theme, The Mickey Mouse Club Wild West and Wild Animal Show.
Under Walt's supervision, these Imagineers actually storyboarded the circus show and oversaw the design of signage and midway booths where, among other things, guests could purchase peanuts, snow cones, cotton candy, hot dogs, and more, just like at the circuses Walt remembered.
"How [Walt] loved [The Mickey Mouse Club Circus]!" Disney Legend Joe Fowler told journalist Bob Thomas. "And it was a damned good circus, too! But, the problems!"
"For me, and for some others, it was a wonderful experience," said Disney Legend Van France. "I was working in the White House [backstage administration building], which became the headquarters for the performers. I found out how people could get 'sawdust in the veins'. If I had been a kid, I might have joined the group."
France would dress up and walk around in the character parade because they needed people. Some of the mothers of the Mouseketeers did so. as well.
The Mickey Mouse Club Circus was not a slapped-together, poorly done entertainment, but featured many legendary circus performers at the peak of their abilities. So the failure of the circus was not connected in any way to the value of the show being presented.
Ted DeWayne was brought in to coordinate the circus acts. DeWayne was much beloved and respected by the circus community and was responsible for helping many performers over the years. He was a performer himself known for his extraordinary skill on the teeterboard.
The DeWayne Brothers Circus was owned and operated by Ted DeWayne, and its main quarters were in North Hollywood, despite the stiff regulations that governed circuses in the Los Angeles area. The color scheme for the trucks was blue and white with a prominent logo.
There was a two-ring tent that was 70-foot round with two 30-foot rings, alternating performances from one ring to the other and sometimes performing between the two rings.
The circus included eight ponies; an elephant (Bimbo Jr., who at county fairs, would water ski on 15-foot long, 3-foot wide and one-foot thick skis) who appeared at the Mickey Mouse Club circus as well as on television shows; llamas; a bear; a kangaroo; three monkeys; and several performers.
The troupe included Mike Foster and Ben Myers (trampoline and tight wire), Cecil ("Peanuts") Kestler and Todd LeRoy (clowns who did the Atomic Hair Grower act and revolving ladder), Paula Dell and Bobbie DeWayne (Web act and teeterboard), and Bill Maynard (Elephant trainer).
Generally, they would tour California during the season, but sometimes went to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Reno, Nevada.
For the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, the troupe included Jerry DeWayne, Cliff Mosley, Reggie Armour, and Mel and Ba Workmeister, as well.
Also appearing was Fay Alexander (who was billed when he worked with Ted over the years as the "DeWayne Brothers"), one of the few flying trapeze artists to master the triple somersault.
In doing the triple, an aerialist catapults off a swinging trapeze, doubles up into three dizzying, pinwheel-like spins and snaps out into the arms of an upside-down acrobat, called the catcher. According to circus legend, the triple has killed more performers than all other aerial acts combined. It definitely damaged the shoulders because of the force of the capture.
In an article on Mr. Alexander in True magazine in April 1953, Bill Ballantine wrote that the next four men and one woman to try the triple after Alexander had mastered it had died.
Alexander stunt doubled for actor Cornel Wilde in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), actor Tony Curtis in the movie Trapeze (1956), actor Gilbert Roland in The Big Circus (1959), as well as doubling for both Doris Day and Martha Raye in Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), among appearances in many other circus films. He was 30 years old when he performed at the Mickey Mouse Club Circus.
The infrastructure and additional expertise for the circus was supplied by the Gil Gray Circus, owned and operated by Guy Gilbert Gray (1904–1989). John Herriott was contracted to present the Painted Pachyderms, each dyed a different distinctive solid color, like red, from the Gil Gray Circus.
John Milton Herriott (1931-2015) was a highly respected equestrian, animal trainer and circus owner, third-generation of one of the few truly American circus dynasties. When he died, he was lauded as the last true ringmaster, since originally ringmasters were not just a speaker, but also usually did a horse act.
The cover of the Viewmaster reel for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus Visits Disneyland features a very young Mouseketeer Karen sitting on top of an elephant. The colorfully costumed gentleman standing next to her was Herriott.
Two View-Master packs were produced for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. The more common yellow cover version with Karen was available everywhere (Packet 856). There were three reels for a total of 21 pictures.
There was a special much rarer edition produced just for sale inside Disneyland that had an orange cover and three clowns from the circus on the front. It has different photos from the more common edition and sometimes similar images were shot at a different angle. It also had three reels labelled D856 with the "D" signifying it was exclusive to Disneyland.
In addition, Tru-Vue also produced three 3-D film strip cards (D-20, D-21, D22) featuring Mouseketeers performing in circus stunts and, in some cases, dressed in animal costumes. The company had been purchased in 1951 by Sawyer's, the manufacturer of View-Master, because Tru-Vue had an exclusive contract with Disney. Both View-Master and Tru-Vue products were manufactured into the 1960s by Sawyer's.
The very first act that was signed for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was professor George Keller. He spent thirty years as a college professor teaching visual arts at the Bloomsburg State Teachers College in Pennsylvania.
In 1932, Keller's friend, knowing his love of animals, shipped him a mountain lion and dared him to train it. He did and acquired other big cats. Beginning in 1937, he exhibited his growing collection of trained big cats and turned them into an act.
Starting with local fairs and picnics, he expanded to carnivals and circuses during his time off from teaching, like summer vacations. Following his final academic year of 1949-50, he made it his full-time work.
In 1959 and 1960 he performed in Madison Square Garden with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He also appeared in the circus film Trapeze, among many other credits.
It was while performing on tour with the Polack Brothers Circus in 1955 that Keller was spotted by two men from the Disney Studios who convinced him to film a segment for the upcoming television Mickey Mouse Club show on his one day off, June 29. On that day, he also met Walt Disney and talked to him about displaying his animals at Disneyland.
Walt had grander ideas and Keller left the Polack Brothers Circus on November 20, 1955, after an engagement in Springfield, Illinois, and headed to Anaheim for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. Walt had suggested that Keller wear a black hairpiece so he looked younger and more dashing and Keller did so for the rest of his career. Before then, he wore a brimmed captain's cap in the ring that hid his baldness.
A Disneyland promotional release stated, "One of the most unusual performances, according to Walt Disney, will be that of George Keller, who walks into a cage of wild animals without a gun, whip, chair or other defensive apparatus. 'I think Keller hypnotizes the beasts,' Walt said. 'He's really amazing!'"
Keller's girlfriend Ginny Lowery, who would soon become his wife, worked at the Disneyland Hotel answering phones and letters primarily informing guests that there were no vacancies yet because it was so small in 1955.
Decades later, she would donate to the Disney Archives color film footage taken of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus.
When the Mickey Mouse Club Circus ended, Walt signed Keller to a new contract. Opening February 19, 1956, Keller's act reverted to its original name, Keller's Jungle Killers, and continued to be performed under the Big Top.
For the performances for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, the act was given the gentler name of Professor George Keller and His Feline Fantastics to make it more family friendly.
A flyer given to guests announced: "Prof. Keller's Jungle Killers. An exciting and educational experience with 13 of the world's most deadly Killers!"
The contract had been open-ended but, on March 27, it was extended through Labor Day, concluding September 7. It now cost $0.25 cents (or a "B" ticket) to see the act. Keller performed four shows a day with no days off.
He was eventually relocated to a smaller canvas tent near the Red Wagon Inn, as the land needed to be prepared for the Junior Autopia attraction, and the bigger tent would be stored and re-assigned to the forthcoming Holidayland area.
According to the back of a 1956 Disneyland postcard featuring Keller: "George J. Keller, a former college professor turned wild-animal trainer, demonstrates for the first time the unarmed subjugation of a group of African Lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, jaguars, black panthers and a cheetah."
Additional performers at the circus included two six-pony drills in the end rings; Chief Shooting Star; Beatrice Dante and Charlie the Chimp; Nolly Tate with his balancing white dog, Pal; Bergs seals and Reynolds seals (in the end rings as well); and Hazel King's horses from her liberty drill of Roman marching horses also appeared.
I have never seen a complete listing of all the acts, but one account even includes a mention of an ostrich. Owen Pope's signature act performed at rodeos was restaged with a small pumpkin coach drawn by six Shetland ponies that raced into the tent. On that opening night, Joe Fowler noticed that one of the coach wheels had caught in one of the diagonal posts that held up the tent and pulled it out but, apparently, no damage was done.
Kinko the Clown was also referred to as "The Human Pretzel" and he would make his entrance inside "the world's smallest car," 31 inches high and 41 inches long. On the side door, it said "Squat Car" as a parody of "Squad Car." Billy Burke was the "Boss Clown" coordinating all the different clown acts.
Possibly because of the ABC connection with the park, Charles M. Runyon, who as "Chucko the Birthday Clown" was a popular Los Angeles children's TV show host on the local KABC-TV Channel 7 (the same station airing the Mickey Mouse Club) from 1955 to 1963, apparently also appeared, and is visible in photos on the View-Master reels.
Adolph Del Bosq performed with his daughter Clara (who styled the act) to present the talented horse Serenado. The feather-plumed horse would dance to music and played musical tunes (including the "Ballad of Davy Crockett") by nudging with his head on different vertically hanging strings of sleigh bells tuned to different notes.
The bells were later given to John Herriott who was very close to the family and occasionally filled in as the handler. Herriott recalled that the horse was "high strung" and he jokingly referred to the animal as "Tornado".
Of course, the show also featured "The Mouseketeers in Person!" with Jimmie Dodd attired as a ringmaster and Roy Williams as a strong man, just as they appeared on the Thursday Circus Day episodes of the television show.
Prominently featured from the TV show as well was Bob-O the Clown, performed by the talented Bob Amsberry, who did a variety of character roles on the series, such as an elderly soda jerk. Like the other clowns, between shows, Bob-O would wander through the park and talk to the guests trying to spark attendance at the performances.
Younger guests often recognized him immediately and there are a number of photos of Bob-O posing with guests in various areas of the park, but primarily Fantasyland.
Originally hired as a songwriter, he was dismissed from the show during the third season, despite being liked by the kids and the adults, for still unknown reasons. A few months after his dismissal from Disney, he was killed in an automobile accident in November 1957, in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 29.
Next time, a detailed description of the actual show in which the Mouseketeer girls were dressed as Tinker Bell and the boys as Peter Pan and performed a limited aerial act 10 or more feet off the ground; the creation of the Junior Autopia; the story behind the circus wagons and another film besides Toby Tyler (1960) that prominently featured them; memories of people who saw the show; and maybe a few surprises.