The Mickey Mouse Club Circus: Big Top Big Flop Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I talked a little about the preparation for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland in November and December of 1955. In addition, I tried to explain the importance of some of the circus performers. In this installment, I will talk about the actual show, the Mouseketeers and some of the difficulties the show faced.

The Mouseketeers (and some of their moms) performed in a variety of roles, including clowns, costumed "wild" animals and aerialists, and they took part in the grand finale parade of toys.

Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess recalled:

"That was so much fun, we had a great time! My mom and Sharon's [Baird] mom were Chip and Dale. They got $6 per day for two shows. We got to ride elephants; we got to ride horses; we were in an aerial act. We dressed up as Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and they turned off the lights and we glowed in the dark as we swung the girls through the space. It was a blast. They even made some 3-D pictures of us (for View-Master reels).

"It wasn't a big success, but it was put on by the Ted DeWayne Circus, which was a professional circus troupe. They had camels, and zebras, a lion and tiger act, and elephants…it was a big deal. We had fun on that one. I was called a web setter for my part in the flying act. Mouseketeer Bonnie would climb to near the top of the tent on a rope, and I would twirl her around and around on a ladder.

"I do remember the calliope. That was a big part of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. We had a big circus parade right at the beginning. And we bought some circus wagons, at the same time. I think there were a few of the lions and tigers in the circus wagons in the parade. It went down Main Street to the big top tent."

Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr remembered having a less pleasant experience:

"I found that riding on an elephant's or camel's back was fun, but their long, tough hairs would poke through most costumes or clothes and hurt. And the camels sometimes spit at you.

Lonnie Burr and his fellow Mouseketeers would take some unpleasant rides on the animals during the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. Image (c) Lonnie Burr, 2016.

"Since our contract guaranteed 22 weeks of pay out of 26 for each six-month option, they made damn sure we were used all twenty-two weeks and all six days which gave rise to our performances in the [Mickey Mouse Club] circus. This venture was to make sure our pay was not wasted and to both enhance the Park and our own show for fans…Disney synergy in action.

"After the opening parade around the ring, we changed costumes and midway through the circus acts we did our insipid specialty. The girls struck various ballet poses on a suspended ladder which the boys carefully swung back and forth. Not very creative but nerve-racking since the girls could easily fall and be hurt badly. They would mount the ladders and then be pulled up to about 9 or 10 feet to do their routine.

"I heard Cubby and Karen did a small bit with one of the big cat acts but I don't remember seeing it. I have no idea what Roy did as a Strong Man other than appear in the parade. Jimmie did more as the ringmaster. The controlled tawdriness of the environment did not please me. It was like being around a lot of convicts without guards. The men and women were rough-edged and tough.

"One of the perks was that before the park opened we got to go on the rides for free and as much as we wanted. The cars on the Autopia always had to be warmed up in the morning so we would drive them around the track with the governors off."

The lifestyle of circus performers was vastly different than the behavior and attitude that Walt was expecting of Disneyland performers. Between performances, the circus folk would gamble, drink, walk around in various states of undress and curse strongly and often even with the young innocent Mouseketeers nearby.

The tent raising was held at Disneyland on November 11, 1955. with Walt and a dozen or so of the Mouseketeers. The candy cane-striped tent was a 150-foot top with the center ring 50 feet in diameter and, on either side, two 30-foot rings, so it was a three ring circus.

The red-and-white-striped tent was made of vinyl, not canvas. Disneyland promoted it as the largest striped tent ever made and it was advertised as being heated inside.

Next to it was a Menagerie Tent, where guests could visit the animals up close and that experience was included in the admission. The tent also served as a dressing room area for the Mouseketeers, since it was about 30 feet from the back flap of the main tent.

The total cost was $48,000 and the performance area could seat up to 2,500 guests on bleachers, but it was common that less than a quarter of the seats were filled. Some estimates put the attendance at even significantly less than that number, but that is still hundreds of Disneyland guests at each performance.

Hundreds of Disneyland guests would line up to attend the Mickey Mouse Club Circus.

When the filming for the first season of The Mickey Mouse Club was completed in early November, the Mouseketeers (including some who had already been let go) were sent to rehearse for the show. The Mouseketeer segments for the circus were staged by Hal Adelquist, who had apparently contacted some of the circus acts, like the Gil Gray Circus, personally as well.

Walt purchased nine authentic circus wagons from the Bradley & Kaye Amusement Park at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards in Los Angeles, that had been sitting there as a sort of a backdrop for the popular kiddie park.

David Bradley had purchased them in 1949-50 and they had previously been part of Ken Maynard's Diamond K Ranch Wild West Show.

Later, Walt purchased an additional five wagons that had been used in the Jimmie Wood Los Angeles-based circus that had fallen into disrepair and were in Venice, California.

Walt had the wagons carefully restored. For instance, the Swan Bandwagon had wood that had rotted in some places from being displayed outside in all sorts of weather over the years. A few carvings and panels were missing and had to be reconstructed using existing pieces as templates.

Unfortunately, a few of the wagons that Walt purchased were in such an extreme state of deterioration that they were simply used for parts for some of the other wagons. Walt wisely saved everything that he could off all of the wagons.

Walt's intent was to use the wagons as part of the circus parade down Main Street and then to have them fill out and decorate the Mickey Mouse Club Circus area.

The Dragon Calliope, long a staple of circuses, was a fabrication at a cost of $50,000 utilizing the 20 whistle steam calliope from one of the Bradley and Kaye collection. The Disney Dragon Calliope was based on a Marcus Illions wagon and adorned with pieces from other wagons Walt had purchased, so it looked completely authentic.

The Disneyland News of November 10, 1955, detailed the rich history of the various wagons, some dating back to the 1880s or earlier. A publicity photo from the same time period shows Walt supervising the restoration work at the Disney Studio.

"Researchers, artists, designers, special craftsmen and wagon builders were enlisted by Walt in his dream for authenticity in their rebuilding. Circus historians and 'old-timers' were brought in as consultants," stated the program for the Mickey Mouse Club Circus.

The wagons were featured prominently in Walt's live-action feature film Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus (1960).

For the MGM feature film Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), Walt loaned 12 of the reconstructed wagons. Other wagons for that film were supplied by Louie Goebel, one of the best known importers of wild animals in the United States, who owned the famous zoo, Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, California.

Later, in 1962, Walt would donate most of the Disney restored wagons to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they are taken care of and are displayed to this day. In 1962, Baraboo High School honored Walt with a ceremony and presentation of a certificate of gratitude.

In 1966, Walt also sent up two calliopes along with 17 crates of carvings that had been rescued from the wagons.

The Dragon Calliope was kept and used in the Disneyland Park and Walt Disney World Resort parades. It was eventually converted from steam to a 15-horsepower air-driven instrument operated by 40 six-volt batteries. However, a set of additional dragon carvings that had been rescued in the original restoration effort made it up to the museum.

The rare printed program from the Mickey Mouse Club Circus had the face of Bob-O the clown (Bob Amsberry) on the front cover and featured this introduction from Walt:

"Everyone loves a circus and I'm no exception. I've been fascinated by the clowns and the animals, the music and the excitement ever since I worked in one of these wonderful shows for a few days as a youngster.

"While we've had a number of circus themes in our pictures through the years—you will remember Dumbo as an example—we've never had a real honest to goodness live circus until now. It seemed to us that Disneyland was just the right spot for one.

"We are happy to present, in their first personal appearance, the Mouseketeers from the Mickey Mouse Club television show. And in the show, you will also see the old circus wagons we have collected—interesting show rigs which have rolled all over America and which are now restored to their original state.

"I hope the Mickey Mouse Club Circus will add many pleasant memories to your visit to Disneyland. My best wishes to every one of you.

Walt Disney"

The opening day parade had Walt Disney and actor Fess Parker, well known at the time for his portrayal of Davy Crockett on the weekly Disney television show and attired accordingly, riding two of Walt's polo ponies down Main Street. Because the horse was so small and Parker so tall, his legs could not comfortably fit in the stirrups and so hung down the side of the saddle.

They were followed by several horse-drawn wagons, a band, elephants, clowns, and more.

In the Carl Hagenback Split Cage wagon that had been built in 1905, there was a wooden partition in the center to separate the animals. There was a tiger on one side and a panther on the other. The tiger managed to wedge its paw around the partition and the panther chewed it off.

"My boys tackled the panther with two-by-fours to get him off," Joe Fowler recalled. "By the time we finished, we destroyed $15,000 worth of cats."

The official souvenir program listed the following acts:

On Parade

George Keller and His Feline Fantastics

Clowns and Follow the Leader

The Mouseketeers in an Aerial Ballet

Animal Varieties

Kinko the Clown

The Camels and the Llamas

The Ted DeWayne Troupe

The Clowns and the Mouseketeers

Serenado, the Musical Horse

The Baby Elephants (featuring the world's only twins)

The March of the Clowns

Flying Trapeze Number

March of the Toys from "Babes in Toyland"

With a Christmas Tree Finale

The show began with an introduction from ringmaster Jimmie Dodd, a fanfare and the circus parade featuring the various performers and animals coming inside the big top and circling around and exiting.

For the Grand Finale, Dodd proclaimed: "It is a time when even the toys seem to come to life. Walt Disney, from his realm of fantasy, presents the March of the Toys."

Billed as the Santa Claus Parade, Mouseketeers dressed up as toys, animals and characters from nursery rhymes marching to the music of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland mixed with some Disney cartoon characters using costumes from the Ice Capades. Annette Funicello was dressed as Snow White. Other Mouseketeers moved robotically as toy soldiers.

After that parade, the music changed to "When You Wish Upon A Star" as "The Magic Christmas Tree: 40 feet in 10 seconds -- most spectacular and mystifying circus finale in the history of the Big Top" took place. A white fabric tree rose up from the ground to a shining star at the top of the tent.

This was followed by Jimmie Dodd and the Mouseketeers ringing bells and leading the crowd in a rendition of the song "Jingle Bells" and other Christmas carols as Santa and his sleigh arrived and went around the rings.

The official production credits listed in the program were:

Produced by Walt Disney

Staged by Hal Adelquist and Roy Williams [Williams supplied some of the gag ideas]

Art Direction by Bruce Bushman

Production Manager: Ben Chapman

Musical Director: Tommy Walker

Ringmaster: Jimmie Dodd

Wardrobe: Chuck Keehne [who had done the costumes for the Mickey Mouse Club TV show and made the first sets of Mouseketeer ears from Roy Williams' design]

Additional Costumes Courtesy of Ice Capades [These were the same Disney character costumes borrowed for the July 17 Dateline: Disneyland special.]

As Van France remembered:

"On opening night, the female trapeze artist lost her brassiere while flying through the air with the greatest of ease. (Fowler remembered that she split her tights instead of losing her top. Basically it was a "wardrobe malfunction" with the embarrassed woman having difficulty getting back down to the ground while trying to preserve her modesty. Walt thought it was great fun.)

"The llamas would not only spit but would also attempt to escape down Main Street.

"The lions in professor Keller's famous lion act had been de-clawed and tranquilized. The professor's greatest fear was that one of them would go to sleep and fall on him. Although almost any circus is usually a good draw, this was a very expensive learning experience, losing an estimated $375,000."

Fowler was sitting with Walt when one of his staff came up to him and said, "Joe, the llamas have escaped!" They were on the railroad track heading toward the Main Street train station.

"So I excused myself," Fowler remembered. "We captured the llamas at the Main Street train station."

The Winter 1956 issue of the Mickey Mouse Club Magazine had the following blurb:


"Featured by a magnificent parade, a complete variety show by the Mouseketeers, a thrilling animal headliner, clown antics and a whirl of other exciting acts under the biggest striped tent in the world, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus made a great hit with the thousands of Disneyland visitors who saw it during the Thanksgiving through Christmas holiday season.

"It also gave happy promise of many other special events at Disneyland in the coming months. The idea for a real children's circus had long been in Walt Disney's mind. It got extra impetus from the popularity of Circus Day on the Mickey Mouse Club television program.

"The Mouseketeers gave a fine performance, and a thrilling highlight in the arena was the control of 30 savage cats in a cage by George Keller. Ted de Wayne was the ringmaster. Circus wagons used in the parade of Disney characters are famous relics collected from all parts of America."

Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan who was working at the park in 1955 remembered:

"Yeah, we did a Mickey Mouse Club circus when we first opened, where Liberty Street was going to go. Walt wanted to have more for folks to do, because we didn't have all that many things in the beginning, so he put in a circus. He loved circuses anyway.

"The animal trainer was an absolute character and he had some strange people working with him. He really loved his animals, I mean, he really loved them. It was a good circus, though. It was small but that's what the boss wanted."

"If I never see a circus again, it'll be twice too soon!" Fowler said. "I want to tell you, running that Park was simple compared to running that damn circus. You'll excuse my language. The circus played to tents that were never more than a quarter full. That was the one time we learned this lesson: people come to see Disneyland.

"I can remember Dick Irvine's children coming down and Dick saying, 'You're going to see a circus'. The kids would say, 'We don't want to see the circus. We want to see Mickey Mouse!'" Fowler said. "Walt loved that circus but he finally gave in and said, 'I've got to get that circus out of here, because I need it over at the Studio to make a picture'. And we all said, 'Thank God!'"

The souvenir program book stated: "This was all brought about because one man, as a boy, stood on the curb of a small town Main Street each spring and witnessed a circus parade and who had a justifiable yearning to someday 'have a circus' – a real, old-time circus."

After the circus ended and the tents were pulled down, the site was cleared to make way for the Junior Autopia attraction.

The Junior Autopia opened July 23, 1956 covering the area occupied by the Mickey Mouse Club Circus and more. It was designed to alleviate some of the huge lines for the original Autopia in Tomorrowland, although the track was smaller.

The vehicles looked and drove the same as those at the Tomorrowland Autopia, but wooden extension blocks were placed on the foot pedals and booster seats added to accommodate smaller drivers who had been unable to drive on the original. The track was only one car wide which helped reduce accidents unlike the double-wide lane of the one in Tomorrowland.

Some of the circus wagons still stood in the background to "fill out" the view the first two years the attraction was open before being moved to the Disney Studio for the filming of Toby Tyler.

The new version became an instant hit, as well, and was expanded and re-opened January 1959 as the Fantasyland Autopia. Later it would be combined with the Tomorrowland Autopia track.

So that is the story of the infamous Mickey Mouse Club Circus. Even with everything I discovered in my research, I am certain there is much more to be uncovered about this interesting bit of Disney history.