Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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On one of those crumbling and yellowing pieces of newsprint in my collection, there is a column reportedly written by the famous radio comedians Amos and Andy themselves titled Amos’N’Andy, From Toothpaste to Soup: First Men of Radio Change Sponsors this Weekend from the L.A. Times of Saturday, January 1, 1938. The column, done as a humorous letter to “Norm,” details how the show is changing sponsors from Pepsodent toothpaste to Campbell Soup.

What does this have to do with Disney history? Well, the newspaper article that had been carefully cut out and scotch taped to a scrapbook page has a great photo I have never seen reprinted anywhere. It features actor Charles Correll (who played Amos) handing over their “lucky radio horseshoe” to a smiling Walt Disney who would take over their sponsor and radio slot with the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air while actor Freeman Gosden (who played Andy) looks on approvingly. In the picture are stuffed 3-foot tall Charlotte Clark made dolls of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

The caption to the picture reads: “Lucky New Year…Amos (left) and Andy (right) turn over their lucky radio horseshoe to Walt Disney (center). Disney is going to work for their former sponsor, while Amos’n’Andy continue on the air for a new boss. Mickey Mouse is pleased. Donald Duck is trying to look the same way, too.”

One of the many forgotten aspects of early Disney history was the short-lived (only 20 episodes) radio show, Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air produced by the Disney Studios in 1938 to showcase Mickey Mouse and his friends and to help promote the release of the animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

For the younger Disney fans in the audience, once upon a time radio was king. It was not just the home for music and countless talk show hosts. During the Golden Age of Radio, you could tune in the dial on your huge radio (that was actually a piece of living room furntiture) and hear programming of adventure, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, thrillers, as well as classical music concerts, Big Band remotes, farm reports, news and commentary, panel discussions, quiz shows, sidewalk interviews, sports broadcasts, talent shows, weather forecasts, and more.

The Golden Age of Radio lasted from the early 1920s until the invasion of television in the late 1950s. In the beginning, American radio network programs were presented almost exclusively live, since the national networks prohibited the airing of recorded programs until the late 1940s. As a result, prime-time shows would be performed twice for both coasts. However, some programs were recorded as they were broadcast during this period, typically for syndicated programs or for advertisers to have their own copy. Thankfully, the estate of Felix Mills, the musical director of the “Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air” donated all his original discs of the show to the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters.

Walt Disney and his animated friends were no strangers to radio. Walt (often doing the voice of Mickey Mouse and sometimes accompanied by Clarence Nash voicing Donald Duck) popped up on several radio shows during its Golden Age. I mentioned just some of those appearances in this previous column ("Sounds Like Walt," link).

In the summer of 1937, Lever Brothers (who made products like Rinso and Lifebuoy) were looking for a half-hour program to precede and build an audience for their Al Jolson’s Lifebuoy Show on CBS that was being massacred in the ratings by its competition on NBC, Jack Benny. Looking for additional funds and publicity for the almost completed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney hestiantly agreed in September to do an audition record for a weekly Disney radio show.

It was hoped that the show would air beginning on October 5, 1937. Written by comedy writer Ken Englund, the premise was that Mickey Mouse would host the half hour and present a weekly guest star (actor Leslie Howard was chosen as the first guest) but that Donald Duck would mess things up.

Deeply involved in the final months of making Snow White, Walt wouldn’t be available to do the voice of Mickey Mouse so actor J. Donald Wilson was selected. One newspaper at the time reported that it was “the first time anyone other than Walt Disney himself was allowed to speak for Mickey.” Clarence Nash, of course, did the voice of Donald Duck and the the musical chores were handled by Meredith “Music Man” Wilson.

Roy Disney flew to New York in September to close the deal but it fell apart because of a dispute over monetary terms. Some news stories including one in the Hollywood Reporter also hinted that “Disney is afraid [his characters] may sour on him if they [air] every week” and that Walt “refuses radio because he doesn’t think his Mickey Mouse and others would broadcast well.” Reportedly, at one time even Lucky Strike cigarettes tried to woo Walt into a weekly radio children’s show. Eventually, Lever Brothers decided to sponsor instead a dramatic program, the popular Big Town with Edward G. Robinson.

Shortly afterward, as mentioned earlier in this article, Pepsodent (thanks to a guarantee of a budget of somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 weekly and some other concessions) lured Walt into committing to doing a radio show to fill the gap left by Amos and Andy on NBC on Sunday afternoon. (Amos and Andy at this time actually ran six times a week.) Walt probably agreed because the show coincided with the release of Snow White and he saw it (just as he later did with television) as an opportunity to publicize his latest film.

The original option was for 13 weeks with Walt doing the voice of Mickey Mouse until a suitable replacement could be found. Despite what it says at other sources, Walt only did Mickey’s voice for the first three weeks. From the fourth show on, the voice of Mickey was comedian Joe Twerp whose comedy relied on being an excitable, stuttering person who confuses words. He had been considered for the role of Doc, a similar personality, in Walt Disney's Snow White but Roy Atwell was chosen to supply the voice instead.

The writers for the show were Bill Demling (who had supplied material for big name radio comedians like Ed Wynn and Joe E. Brown) and Eddie Holden ( a radio actor who supplied the voice of the giant in the Mickey Mouse short The Brave Little Tailor and did incidental voices in Dumbo and Bambi).

Music direction was by Gordon “Felix” Mills, one of radio's most active orchestra leaders of era who directed 33 musicians for the show. Six of those musicians also performed as Donald Duck’s wacky novelty “gadget” band, the Webfoot Sextet, who used cowbells, bottles, a meat grinder, auto horn, a Bob Bums-style bazooka, and a "syrup-cruet hurdy gurdy." Amazingly all of this cacophony sounded pretty good and funny.

There was a 12-voice female choir (who had four members who specialized in bird whistling so they also performed as Minnie Mouse’s Woodland Bird Choir) and an eight-voice male choir. The opening theme song for the show was the still popular Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? and the closing theme was Heigh Ho from Snow White.

Broadcast from a theater studio on the RKO lot (remember that RKO was releasing the Disney animated films), Joe Twerp did the voice of Mickey Mouse. Minnie Mouse was performed by Thelma Boardman who would later supply Minnie’s voice in the some of the Disney cartoons of the 1940s. Pinto Colvig had left the Disney Studio by the time the show started so the role of Goofy was done by Stuart Buchanan, who was the official “casting director” at the Disney Studios and had supplied the voice of the huntsman in Snow White. Donald Duck was voiced by Clarence Nash and Clara Cluck was Florence Gill. Both of them had performed the same roles in the Disney animated cartoons.

The announcer was John “Bud” Hiestand (who appeared in many movies in 1938 as a radio announcer besides his regular radio announcing). In addition, he also supplied the voice of the Magic Mirror, which was the primarily form of transportation that allowed Mickey and the gang to journey through time and space to meet everyone from Long John Silver to Mother Goose to Robin Hood. While the Disney version of Snow White showed up on at least two episodes (and in one episode Walt danced with Snow White), the gang also got to visit Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty almost two decades before those films were made.

Incidentally, on some of the later shows, Walt was too busy to attend rehearsals and performance so Hiestand had to impersonate Walt himself when the script called for an appearance. In addition, Glanville Heisch, the creator of the popular radio show the Cinnamon Bear and Hiestand brother-in-law, was on board as a writer and director on the show. His skill at writing verse and songs is evident in the Disney radio program.

There were other voices on the show as well supplied by popular performers including Billy Bletcher (the voice of Black Pete in the cartoons who popped up as Old King Cole and Judge Owl in the show), Hans Conreid (still many years from voicing Captain Hook who did a comical turn as the Pied Piper), Bea Benaderet (portraying Miriam the Mermaid in the kingdom of King Neptune), Walter Tetley, and many others including Mel Blanc.

Mel Blanc? The voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and countless other cartoon characters who always told the story that the only voice he did for Disney was the voice of Gideon the Cat in Pinocchio and it was later cut out except for a hiccup? (Or course, Blanc also supplied the voice for the Audio-Animatronics Cousin Orville in the “Carousel of Progress” as well.)

Yes, the then 29-year-old Blanc was a regular on the show portraying a variety of characters as well as one of his earliest continuing characters, a man who gets so excited that he starts hiccuping so violently that he can’t stop. Perhaps this performance gave Walt the idea to use him in the production of  Pinocchio that was in development at that time.

When the contract ended after 13 weeks, Pepsodent did renew the show for the remaining seven weeks of that season, but then the show quietly disappeared as so many other radio shows did that didn’t capture the imagination of its audience.

As always, Walt had been right. He had been quoted as saying before the show even premiered that, “I don’t think this show will work. You have to see the characters to fully appreciate them. “

Contemporary critics agreed. Aaron Stein of the “New York Post” wrote: “All the strength, the vigor and logic of the Disney films lies in the pictures. The voices, the music and the sounds are usually funny and effective, but they register only as sound effects which point up the pictures. On the air they offered only disembodied sound effects. Only in so far as the sound calls to mind a vision of one of the Donald Duck frenzies or of Mickey’s dapper contours is it at all entertaining. Unfortunately, the sound is not very strongly evocative.”

Let’s take a brief look at the final 22 page, half hour episode from May 15, 1938 where Mickey and the gang try to save Old MacDonald’s farm. After all, as it was pointed out in the script, Old MacDonald HAD a farm so how did he lose it and can the Disney characters help him save it?

Old MacDonald was voiced by Cliff Arquette, who may be best remembered today for his character of Charley Weaver (the old man with the little round glasses, squashed hat, baggy pants and suspenders from Mount Idy who would read a letter from his mama) who often popped up on “Hollywood Squares —or for the fact that he is the grandfather of actors Patricia, Rosanna, and David Arquette.

The farmer’s daughter was voiced by Blanc, who did his hiccupping bit to help reveal why she never married in almost 30 years. The villain, Squire Perkins, who is foreclosing the mortgage on the farm, was voiced by Bletcher.

The show begins with Hiestand announcing “The Pepsodent Company presents Mickey Mouse!” (The show was never referred to as “The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air”.)

After some banter between Mickey, Donald, Goofy and band leader Felix Mills, Hiestand does a commercial for Pepsodent which is constantly being interrupted by Donald Duck urging listeners to try either the toothpaste or tooth powder themselves especially since Pepsodent is packed with “Irium” that helps brush away stubborn surface stains on teeth.

Goofy sings “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and it turns out that Goofy and Donald have found the old farmer himself. When asked how he lost his farm, he replies it is a “long story” but that basically Squire Perkins had a mortgage on the place and foreclosed. “I often think, if I had that one day to live over again, I might have been able to save the old homestead,” sighs Old MacDonald who reveals that he had a daughter who was “half an orphan” since her mother died.

The idea of a “real genuine farmer’s daughter” excites both Goofy and Donald and the decision is made to call the Magic Mirror so they can all go back to the day that the villain foreclosed on the farm 30 years ago.

When they journey to the past, Old MacDonald introduces them to his daughter, Priscilly, who is milking the cows and singing Whistle While You Milk that includes the phrase: “When trouble troubles you, don’t cry and go ‘boo-hoo’ (Cow goes “Moo”), Remember that the teensty pigs are rooting just for you—hoooo-hoo, so whistle while you milk.”

Old MacDonald explains that her name is Lucinda Arabella Priscilla “but folks jest call her Silly." While Mickey and Minnie explore the farm with Old MacDonald, Goofy and Donald try to comfort Priscilly who is so upset about the foreclosure that she is crying against a cow. Donald’s Webfoot Sextet plays a raucous version of Let Me Call You Sweetheart to cheer her up.

Priscilly asks if Donald is a traveling salesman because “you see, my father once told me to look out for traveling salesmen and so I’ve been looking out for one ever since (giggle).” Then Goofy and Donald find one of the reasons that Priscilly never married. She gets so excited that she starts hiccupping out of control. Priscilly thinks it must be the heat making her do it because she feels very warm.

Donald replies: “Oh year? Phooey. You’re not so hot, sister! (running away when Mickey returns) Is she terrible! Fooey! Lemme out o’ here! Lemme out o’ here!” And Goofy adds: “Out o’ my way, Duck! Here I go—hurry up, Donald!”

Before they can leave, they are stopped by Mickey who informs them that Old MacDonald has trained all his animals how to sing and they do, led by Clara Cluck who somehow must have come along, as well.

After the concert, Abner the hired hand (also voiced by Twerp) comes and lets the group know that Perkins is coming but it takes forever to do so because he is so excited he keeps messing up the words: “Dister Mock Manold—Moster Dick Minald—Dooster Mack Monald—Hey, boss—come quick!”

Old MacDonald pleads with Perkins not to foreclose for the sake of his little daughter. Perkins mistakes Minnie Mouse for the farmer’s daughter and being quite taken with her cuteness suggests a compromise: “Give me your daughter’s hand in marriage and I’ll tear up the mortgage!”

MacDonald has Perkins put it in writing and then tears up the mortgage and calls in his real daughter. Perkins is appalled at the real hiccupping daughter and as she grabs him, Perkins finally offers MacDonald $1,000 to tear up the contract. MacDonald agrees and Perkins leaves while over apple cider, everyone else sings parodies of public domain songs.

At one point MacDonald sings to his daughter: “And you’re nobody’s sweetheart now. You can’t get a man no how. Piano legs—banjo eyes—You’ll never win no beauty prize so harness yourself to a plough because you’re nobody’s sweetheart now” followed by the stage direction that the entire cast laughs!

To the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”, Minnie sings “Mickey, Mickey, I’ve been thinking that his daughter won’t look glum If she only starts in using Pepsodent with Irium!” again with the stage direction that the entire cast laughs!

This abuse of Priscilly goes on for seven choruses but apparently that is more than enough fun because the Magic Mirror appears and announces to Mickey: “Master, your time is up I fear. Return at once or dwell forever here!”

Mickey and the gang return to the present (with Donald and Goofy telling the farmer to hang on to his daughter so she doesn’t follow them) and have some fun with the announcer before he does the closing commercial. Apparently, it is time for summer vacation and Mickey says: “I haven’t time to think about it. I’ve been so busy with this radio program and making movies for Walt Disney and…”

The Magic Mirror suggests: “Perhaps I can help. At my command, I’ll take you all to Vacation Land.”

Mickey: “Gee, Mirror, that’ll be swell. Come on, gang---Vacation Land!”

With the tune Heigh Ho playing the background, the announcer says: “And so with Mickey and the Gang headed for Vacation Land we bring to a close the last program in the present series, brought to you by the Pepsodent Company. This program has come to you from the Disney Little Theatre on the RKO lot. The orchestra and musical arrangements were under the direction of Felix Mills. Heard on this program were Some Day My Prince Will Come and Heigh Ho from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. John Hiestand speaking for the Pepsodent Company. This is the National Broadcasting Company.”

And so ended the 20-episode adventures of Mickey and the gang during the Golden Age of Radio. Obviously, Walt was distracted by his attention to Snow White to devote his storytelling skill and his famous attention to detail and innovation to the show but it remains an interesting if little known footnote in the history of Disney.

Here is the list of all 20 episodes of The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air:

January 2, 1938: Robin Hood
January 9, 1938: Snow White Day
January 16, 1938: Donald Duck’s Band
January 23, 1938: The River Boat
January 30, 1938: Ali Baba
February 6, 1938: South of the Border
February 13, 1938: Mother Goose and Old King Cole
February 20, 1938: The Gypsy Band
February 27, 1938: Cinderella
March 6, 1938: King Neptune
March 13, 1938: The Pied Piper
March 20, 1938: Sleeping Beauty
March 27, 1938: Ancient China (with a guest appearance by Snow White!)
April 3, 1938: Mother Goose and the Old Woman in a Shoe
April 10, 1938: Long John Silver
April 17, 1938: King Arthur
April 24, 1938: Who Killed Cock Robin?
May 1, 1938: Cowboy Show
May 8, 1938: William Tell
May 15, 1938: Old MacDonald

You can listen to seven of these shows including “Old MacDonald” at this link.

Some of the information in this article was only available thanks to previous research done a decade ago by voice artist extraordinaire and internationally recognized authority on old time radio voices, Keith Scott, who once used some of my animation research for his excellent and highly recommended book looking into the world of Jay Ward and friends, The Moose That Roared (St. Martins Press, 2000).