The Mickey Mouse Club: FBI's Most Wanted

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“Indeed sorry to learn of passing of your husband and want to extend my heartfelt sympathy. I know words are most inadequate to ease your grief, but it is my hope that you will derive consolation from knowing that his outstanding contributions will be a lasting memorial to him. His dedication to the highest standards of moral values and his achievements will always stand as an inspiration to those who were privileged to know him. John Edgar Hoover. Director of Federal Bureau of Investigation.” —Western Union Telegram sent to Lillian Disney on December 15, 1966.

At the same moment that telegram was sent, Walt Disney was also officially deleted as an FBI SAC contact.

In an official memo to J. Edgar Hoover dated December 16, 1954, Los Angeles agent John Malone of the Los Angeles Field Division had recommended that Walt Disney be made a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Contact. Walt was approved for that role on January 12, 1955 by the Bureau.

According to the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs, that designation did not entail undercover, cloak and dagger spying. It was primarily an indication that the person was acceptable and reliable to be used as a source of information by FBI agents. If field agents needed information or advice about a particular industry or area of expertise, then a SAC Contact could supply that information or point them in the right direction without the FBI agents always starting from scratch.

While an honor, Walt’s status was not unique. For instance, at the same time Samuel Engel, who was a producer at 20th Century Fox and then current head of the Screen Producers’ Guild, was also a SAC Contact, as were many others. Walt was never paid for this work, nor is there any indication in any of the FBI documents of what information was ever requested or confirmed by Walt during his decade in this position, which struck me as odd since even the most insignificant things appear in the files.

That memo from Agent Malone on December 1954 included the following statements: “Because of Mr. Disney’s position as the foremost producer of cartoon films in the motion picture industry and his prominence and wide acquaintanceship in film production matters, it is believed that he can be of valuable assistance to this office and therefore it is my recommendation that he be approved as a SAC contact. Mr. Disney has volunteered representatives of this office complete access to the facilities of Disneyland for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes. No derogatory information concerning this individual appears in the files of this office.”

However, if you obtain a copy of those documents through the Freedom of Information Act (and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages dealing with Walt and the Disney Studio), there will be sections that are “redacted,” meaning that they are blacked out to make them unreadable.

This was done to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy (like when Lillian’s home address was redacted on the copy of the telegram Hoover sent), might expose the identity of a confidential source, or of course, might endanger National Security.

I only bring this up to indicate my puzzlement that, on the memo I am quoting, there is a large paragraph under the heading “Past Relations With Los Angeles Office” that has been redacted, which only sparks my curiosity since I couldn’t find anything significant in the dozens of pages in Walt’s files that I read before the memo—and certainly nothing that needed to be blacked out.

Of course, I always knew that Walt’s relationship with the FBI became strained around 1961 with the production of the live-action comedy, Moon Pilot that would have featured inept FBI agents. The FBI protested vehemently, even going so far as to threaten the studio with Public Law 670, a Federal statute that prevents the commercial exploitation of the name of the FBI or its use in any way that implies an endorsement by the Bureau.

To further aggravate things, Disney planned to make a film of the book “Undercover Cat” by Gordon Gordon, a former FBI agent who had challenges with the Bureau over the years because of his literary portrayals of FBI agents. The film was released as That Darn Cat (By the way, in the book, the name of the cat “D.C.” stood for “Damn Cat”.)

Disney did reassure the Los Angeles agents that “any portrayal of the FBI or its agents in this picture would be done in a dignified and efficient manner” but FBI documents from the time period kept emphasizing “just another instance where Gordon Gordon is trading on his former affiliation with the FBI to further his own personal motives. Certainly any production or book authored by Gordon is not going to do the Bureau any good.”

If Walt was in hot water, apparently, he started the pot boiling back in 1958 with The Mickey Mouse Club. In those days, highly popular Mickey Mouse Club was televised weekly over ABC at 5:30 p.m. PST.

One of the segments on the MMC was a short documentary-like newsreel segment, sometimes shot by independent companies. These were inexpensive to purchase or make and were popular with viewers according to surveys

In January 1956, a Disney Studios representative in Washington, D.C. named Jerry Sims, took a public tour of the FBI’s headquarters and thought it would make an interesting segment for the MMC. The senior agents at the FBI vetoed that request.

A year later, a new Disney representative in Washington, Hugo Johnson, pursued that request again. This time, a March 1, 1957 memo reveals that Johnson, along with MMC producer Bill Walsh, met with agent Malone in Los Angeles to once again pitch the idea of an FBI segment for the MMC.

Initially, correspondence indicates that the Bureau preferred an hour-long show about the history of science in law enforcement on the more prestigious Disneyland television show on Wednesday night, following the format of previous shows on atomic energy and aviation that combined animation and live-action to tell the history of the subject. Using that same combination of animation and live-action, the program would trace law enforcement practices from the Dark Ages through the establishment of the FBI’s laboratory in 1932, that would be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 1957.

Walsh informed the FBI that Walt “is interested in filming the show on the FBI, but feels that a production on the Laboratory would be impossible at this time because of the amount of work which would be involved, and the limited time available between now and the Laboratory anniversary.”

Walsh pointed out that it took more than a year and a half to produce “Our Friend the Atom and that “this type of film is usually not profitable for the Disney company” but Walt “likes to do films of this type occasionally as a public service.”

A month later, Walt brought up the subject again with Malone in Los Angeles. A memo from Malone again met with disapproval from the senior agents.

Johnson continued to pursue the request through a friend of his, Louis Nichols, the assistant to the director. Nichols recommended to Hoover’s protégé, associate director Clyde Tolson, that the Bureau should cooperate with the Disney Studio. Tolson finally agreed after some prodding.

The fact that segments for the MMC could be produced quickly ,and that the Disney Studio was so eager to feature the FBI, were the deciding factors to agree to proceed with the project so that the FBI Laboratory anniversary could be widely publicized.

The Washington series for the MMC would feature young Dirk Metzger in Washington, D.C. Four parts dealt with the FBI, two parts on Congress, three parts on the making of money and two parts on the White House. These were each edited down to 10 minute shorts.

From the script for that first episode:

EXTERIOR DAY—Dirk Metzger against backdrop of Washington, D.C. with Capitol Building in foreground, as seen through window. Desk in foreground. OPEN Close Up on window, pull back to find Dirk in Medium Shot partially facing backdrop. He speaks before turning. FADE IN.

“Washington, D.C. Quite a place! Believe me! I’m Dirk Metzger. Maybe some of you will remember me as a Mickey Mouse Club foreign correspondent from a couple of years ago. Well, Walt Disney has now assigned me to cover Washington…not from the tourist angle, as we just saw…but Washington from the inside. What goes on behind those big doors? As a Mickey Mouse Club reporter I did a little exploring, and for the next two weeks, I’m going to show you what I saw…where I went…what I did. Follow me!”

Friday, January 24, 1958. Dirk was photographed with J. Edgar Hoover on May 15, 1957 by Hugo Johnson using a handheld camera and one light in a matter of minutes in the Director’s outer office. After that meeting, Dirk goes right to Quantico and there is a sequence with firearms training.

Monday, January 27, 1958, Dirk visited the FBI Identification Division.

Tuesday, January 28, 1958, Dirk visited Quantico for a crime scene search, followed by a visit to the Laboratory to see the examination of evidence.

Wednesday, January 29, 1958, Dirk followed up the Tuesday episode with more time in the Laboratory.

In 1958, Dirk Metzger was 14 years old and a freshman at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. His filming would take place in the afternoons after school in several establishing shots and then during the day the rest of the scene was shot around him.

He was going to an American school in England three years earlier when his father, Marine Colonel Louis Metzger was stationed in London. From the seventh grade class of 28 boys, Dirk was picked by the Walt Disney Studios to make 20 15-minute travelogues for the MMC.

One of the MMC newsreel segments in the first and second seasons featured Metzger as a correspondent in England. (There were also Italian, Mexican, Danish and Japanese correspondents.)

For a year and a half, Dirk spent his weekends being filmed in and around London as he visited secret tunnels of a pirate’s cover, took a lesson in roof thatching, watched wild ponies in the west of England and talked to what he remembered as a “grizzly sheepherder with a mouthful of teeth. But the most fun was riding a canal boat from Manchester to London.”

Dirk was asked to continue and stay in England and make more segments when his family returned to the United States, but he declined saying, “London is an adult town. America is better in every way.” Robbie Serpell replaced him.

However, when Disney decided to do a series based in Washington, D.C., they were delighted Dirk was living in Arlington. For the series, Dirk got to meet President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and other government officials as he visited various Washington landmarks.

“I waited a couple of weeks in the president’s outer office,” Dirk told a newspaper reporter in April 1958, “Then the president talked to me for eight minutes instead of two. He asked me quite a few questions like what does my family do. The president was really terrific and so nice—nothing but the best. He told me about his Bureau of the Budget. I wasn’t too interested in that. He also said two of his grandchildren watched the Mickey Mouse show.”

Dirk was flown out for two weeks to Hollywood to record his commentary. The FBI liked the fact that Dirk was a Boy Scout.

“This young man makes an exceptionally fine appearance and is the son of a Marine Corps Colonel assigned here to the Fiscal Section of U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters. Metzger is not a professional actor and he has greatly impressed the Bureau personnel with whom he has come in contact during the course of films shot at Quantico last week” stated a memo from May 15, 1957. (In that same memo, it was revealed that the FBI investigated Dirk’s father and found nothing negative.)

However, his fame did bring him some teasing at school. As he told a reporter, “I didn’t advertise too much. Sometimes I sort of get it in the face. There’s always some Mickey Mouse show viewer at school who yells ‘Hey, you forgot your ears!’”

The FBI reviewed the initial rough cut footage and composed a memo on October 22, 1957 of 22 things they wanted changed in the four episodes. Some were as elaborate as “the scene of the Agent firing two revolvers simultaneously and breaking the clay targets does not show the targets themselves breaking. This footage is available, and it is felt that if the scene is used at all, it should show the Agent’s bullets breaking the clay targets” to simple phrase changes like “in line 3 of the narration, the word ‘department’ should be deleted and the word ‘division’ inserted.”

A follow up memo from October 28, 1957, “The contents of the memorandum regarding the above captioned program were discussed in detail with Mr. William Park, News Reel Editor and Mr. Douglas Duitsman, News Reel Staff Writer, who composed the script for the film by Special Agent John Cashel at Disney Productions, on October 25, 1957. The changes suggested were reviewed and made in the film script. Both Disney executives indicated that any subsequent changes which might be desired by the Bureau in connection with this program would be readily undertaken. It was their opinion that no retakes of scenes will be necessary in order to accomplish the suggested changes.”

While all of this correspondence sounds fairly positive, the problems began when the Bureau was shown the scripts and rough unedited film, but not the finished films that they felt they needed to see and approve before release. A series of memos to Disney expressed concern that the Bureau had not seen the final cut.

Walt wasn’t comfortable with others having final approval, a situation that would be revisited with Mary Poppins and P. L. Travers.

The situation escalated to the level of Hoover himself who wanted confirmation (which he received) that the Disney Studios had agreed that the Bureau needed to see the films for clearance before airing on television.

A memo from January 23, 1958 (one day before the broadcast) included the statement: “Obviously, the mishandling on the part of the Disney Studios and failure to live up to their agreement will be taken into consideration when future approaches are made to the Bureau by this outfit.”

Apparently, Disney was to supply to the Washington Bureau the completed films no later than Monday, January 20, several days before the announced airing. The Bureau protested the situation with Disney’s Washington representative, Hugo Johnson, who was also upset and shared his recent communications with the Disney Studios in Burbank urging them to send the films.

An official FBI memo from Friday morning January 24 indicated “Apparently our protest with Disney Studios took effect. Hugo Johnson, local manager Disney Studios, advised at 9:45 a.m. this morning that he was en route to the airport where he would pick up the film and would have it back to us no later than 10:45 a.m. this morning. We have arranged an immediate viewing of the film.”

After all that turmoil, the FBI saw nothing at all objectionable in the films. A letter from Hoover on January 30, 1958 included the statement: “I thought that the whole series was exceptionally fine in that it gave very young people an excellent concept of the operations of the FBI.”

Hoover even sent a note of praise to Dirk Metzger as did President Eisenhower.

However, a bond of unspoken trust had been strained and some at the agency felt angry at the perceived snub and on a later memo there is a scribbled comment by Tolson “no further cooperation”.

Nearly two years later, the Bureau, which routinely monitored several publications that focused on Hollywood discovered in a Hedda Hopper column that Disney was going to make a movie called Moon Pilot. Warning flags went up instantly. Early reports that the film would feature an “ineffectual” FBI agent body guarding the Air Force pilot who saw something odd in outer space during a space flight once again brought a flood of memos and clippings to add to Walt’s FBI files.

Walt had no intention or desire to ridicule the FBI, but was just using his story sense to include the time honored device of having a bumbling representative of authority unable to thwart the hero of the story.

However, even though Walt changed the organization to the “Federal Security Agency," film reviewers weren’t fooled. The review of the film in the Washington Daily News on April 26, 1962 said, “Air Force brass are mutton-heads, and the FBI is an ineffectual as the DAR.”

Whatever became of the boy wonder Dirk Metzger?

Dirk became a Marine Corps officer after growing up, then went to law school and is still a practicing attorney. If you click on this link, and then scroll down, you'll see a recent photo of him beside his capsule profile and see that one of his skills is conflict management. It is a skill that was needed more than half a decade earlier when both Hoover and Disney struggled for the ultimate control of the situation.

It’s time for somebody to interview Metzger about his brief experience at Disney in the 1950s. I suspect he might have a perspective than some of the more familiar stories.