The Mickey Mouse Musicianby Wade Sampson, staff writer
One of the joys about writing this weekly column is that I occasionally hear from the offspring of people I have mentioned who worked for Disney at some point in their careers. These relatives may share a memory or two but were either too young or unaware of their parent’s work to offer more insight into the time that work was done for the Mouse.
There is not much information about the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air radio program that I wrote about earlier (link), and after years of research I’ve documented just about everything I knew about that show.
Several radio scholars that I talked to while working on my article commented that probably the best thing about that short-lived radio show was the inventive music created by Gordon “Felix” Mills. Imagine my surprise and delight when I was contacted by his daughter, Betsy Mills Goodspeed, who was articulate and enthusiastic about being interviewed. However, I got a much better present, because Betsy is an excellent writer (as well as a talented musician) and had immediate access to her father’s unpublished memoir, Between the Point of My Pencil and the Back of My Brain.
The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air was a musical-variety radio series (presumably for children), sponsored by Pepsodent and heard on NBC. It was broadcast from the Disney Little Theater on the RKO lot and there were 20 episodes from January 2 to May 15, 1938.
During the half-hour show, Mickey and his friends, including Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and Goofy, would travel through time and space—thanks to the Magic Mirror from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—and have adventures with everyone from Robin Hood to Cinderella to Old MacDonald. In addition to Felix’s orchestra, Donald Duck’s Webfoot Sextet was a gadget band playing non-instruments, such as cowbells, bottles, and an auto horn for comic effect.
“I don’t know whose idea the Duck’s band was, but my father collected (or invented) the instruments and made the arrangements, making the sound funnier as he explored the endless possibilities," Mills Goodspeed said. "The studio audience loved watching that happen! Spike Jones was a substitute drummer for Donald Duck's Webfoot Sextet and he was especially intrigued by the sound. This is no doubt why I was invited to tour with Spike 10 years later, playing Holiday for Strings on the harp while smoking a big black cigar. Traveling with the band was more fun than work, paid very well and set me up to choose my own jobs when I came home. Felix thought the opportunity was great, but cautioned me about the moral dangers of touring. (He wouldn’t let me audition for a scholarship to Julliard when I was 17 because I’d have to live in New York)."
Walt Disney was busy with the promotion of the just-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it is believed that he only agreed to let his famous characters go on the radio to promote the film. He hadn’t explored radio earlier because he thought they needed to be seen as well as heard.
“I remember Walt being very excited about doing the show, and I thought he believed his characters had to be seen because he planned the production as a children’s radio show. (He was constantly amazed by how much grown-ups loved and admired his work)," Mills Goodspeed wrote. "My father thought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the most marvelous film that was ever produced. As far as I know, he didn’t go to the Disney Studios to discuss the music for the radio show but went to Disney’s house, or Walt came to ours. Walt obviously believed that Felix was the best choice for the job, and Felix thought the radio program was a fantastic endeavor by all those who were involved. He felt highly honored to have been awarded the contract."
“I attended most rehearsals for my father’s shows from the time I was 12, as well as the performances, which aired live, of course. That was a vital part of my education—my music teachers only taught technique and repertoire—the musicianship was supplied by my father,” stated Betsy, who decades later found herself giving lessons on the Celtic harp to Walt Disney’s niece.
“She took about a dozen lessons. I had also taught George Gershwin’s niece and Jimmy Hendrix’ niece, which seemed a weird coincidence, especially since ‘Uncle Walt’ was the one who advised me not to bother becoming a movie star. He said, 'Get in on the ground floor of Tele-Vision.' When I asked, 'What’s that?' he said it was being invented in that ugly building up near the Griffith Observatory and the engineers would love to have a showbiz kid drop in to perform for the camera. So I was prepared for that historic happening and there were no technical surprises. Ever since then I’ve worn a Mickey Mouse watch, upgrading them as I made a comfortable living by doing TV.”
“There wasn’t a dry eye on stage or in the audience when the final Mickey Mouse show came to a close,” she added.
Describing her father’s calm acceptance, she adds, “He was a sensitive, unassuming man with a whimsical sense of humor. He enjoyed a fervent gratitude that he could live and breathe music plus a deep love of nature and an increasing concern about over-population and moral decadence. He wished there were more innocent creators like Walt Disney in the entertainment business…. Before he died he felt like he had fallen short of his goals. He regretted what he hadn’t achieved instead of realizing how much he had accomplished during his career. He was a fine moral example and an exceptional teacher, but he was shy about intimacy and only demonstrated goodness and productivity, leaving the heart-to-heart stuff to the sweet, dignified lady who was our mother.”
Listing the shows that followed the Disney program, she reports that her father was proudest of being asked to underscore George Gershwin’s eulogy at the anniversary concert five years after his death. Paul Whiteman conducted the symphony orchestra, and he had told the producers that Felix Mills could compose "in the style of Gershwin," without using familiar melodies that would trigger sentiment or distract the audience from the eulogy. The assignment was also due to the versatility Felix had displayed on the Disney show and Studebaker Strings, which was all music, with the conductor-arranger as the only star.
Her family donated Felix’s transcriptions to the Pacific Pioneers Broadcasters, which included the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air.
She writes, “Pacific Pioneers Broadcasters required 25 years of broadcasting experience, and I was a pioneer of TV, having appeared on three-inch screens. My husband qualified because he had been a deejay in Honolulu, then a cameraman at Channel Thirteen and at CBS–until Red Skelton asked him to design and head up his TV facility. Rupert talked my father into being our guest at a PPB luncheon, and when Felix was introduced from the podium there was a stunned, almost reverent silence, followed by a standing ovation. People may have assumed that he was dead, because he had virtually dropped out of sight, and they rushed over to greet him. Afterward, he said he had no idea that those people would remember him, and that it was the best day of his life…. We turned his transcriptions over to the Pacific Pioneers archives after his passing in 1985, hoping that his music would be shared. The family is thrilled that this is finally happening through the miracle of the Net.”
This week I turn over the rest of this column to Betsy Mills Goodspeed. She has been generous and gracious, not only allowing me to interview her, but she also submitted an informative and delightful piece about her very talented father. In so doing, she supplies a missing gap in Disney history by describing Felix Mills’ contribution to the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air. I know that my readers will enjoy her offering as much as I did when I read it; so here’s Betsy:
Gordon "Felix" Mills wrote in his memoirs:
"All through 1936 and ’37 we had been hearing about the development of a new Walt Disney radio show that was predicted to be absolutely tops. Every well-known conductor in the country had his hat in the ring. (People like Andre Kostelanetz, Meredith Willson, Harry Salznick, and Gordon Jenkins.) I was not among the well known, but the phone rang one morning and I was asked, 'How would you like to be on the new Walt Disney Show?'
"I laughed. 'Are you kidding?'
“'Nope. Ted Ausborn, Dick Creedin and I sold Walt on the idea that you’re the only guy who can handle it.' The caller was Stuart Buchannan, who had starred in Omar Khayyam, and he was now on the production staff at Disney Studios. But it appeared that I was locked out because the Disney show would air on Sunday afternoon and I was committed to Silver Theatre at that time on a rival network.
"Fortunately the producer [Glenhall Taylor] realized what a fantastic break that would be for me and offered to replace me with the understanding that I could come back if the Mouse folded.
"The night before my appointment I couldn’t sleep. At breakfast in the Paramount commissary a young actor I hardly knew came to the table and told me, 'I know where you’re going, and you can ask for anything you want and you’ll get it.
"I took his word for it, and there was no quibbling. Now I believe in miracles."
Those who were familiar with Felix Mills’ talents were not surprised that he was offered that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His marvelous imagination and ability to include humor in his orchestrations were better known than he realized, even if his devotees were unaware of his lifetime preparation for that plum.
His 70-page memoir, Between the Point of my Pencil and the Back of my Brain, revealed that he was born for the job. His father was a Colorado circuit judge whose hobby was building and inventing musical instruments, and although Gordon (who was later dubbed "Felix") aspired to be an oil painter, he realized that his natural talent for music would pay the rent.
His first ongoing job was at Elitche’s Gardens in Denver. Learning that the band was looking for a banjo player, he joined the musician’s union and tuned a banjo like a ukulele. Gordon married Thelma at 19, and when he became a father he gave up the notion of being a starving artist.
Professional musicians began to migrate to New York or Hollywood in order to live in the center of the entertainment industry, and Gordon’s first job was at a Los Angeles cafeteria that employed an orchestra. It was at about this time that Gordon earned his nickname. He had a habit of walking in circles with his hands behind his back whenever he was faced with a problem. A member of the band said, “He looks like Felix the Cat,” and the name stuck. He liked the rhythm of the name and thought it had a more professional ring.
Felix’s first weekly radio show was Felix Mills and His Soothing Sax. Chandu, the Magician was next. [When Fox made a movie of Chandu he sold the music for a $100 and his agent got $40,000.]
Another show was Omar Khayyam, with the music inspired by Chandu. [Stuart Buchannan, who later recommended Felix for the Disney show, played Omar.] Felix wrote and conducted music for Strange as it Seems, The Adventures of Black and Blue, Hollywood Hotel, and the Gilmore Circus—for which the band was given classy uniforms and played at the race track—sending a runner to make bets.
Felix occasionally supplied music for two or three shows a week, and he balanced his workload by purchasing a thirty-two foot sailboat and collecting a few trophies for his expertise at the helm. This also provided quality family time with his wife Thelma and their three children, George, Mack, and Betsy.
Felix was providing the arrangements for Eddie Cantor’s radio show when he was offered the Disney show. Afraid of losing him, Eddie gave Felix an expensive leather golf bag of Bobby Jones clubs to reinforce their friendship.
Felix wrote, ‘Eddie was one of the nicest guys I ever worked for, and my staff continued to do his arrangements…. The Disney show opened on January 2nd and I was in heaven with a fine 35-piece orchestra, a 15-voice chorus, a quartet of whistlers and the Disney characters plus the most unique talent in radio, Mel Blanc.
"I rented a suite of five rooms across from Paramount Studios where we were doing the Disney show," he said. "There was a private office where I worked, a room for assistants, another for copyists, a library and an exercise room. The exercise was Ping-Pong.
"Twelve to fifteen minutes of music had to be written for each half-hour show, and we called it our weekly opera. It took three weeks to put the first show together and after that it was still a killer, but it was fun," he said. "The writers worked two weeks ahead and after each show Glen Heisch [the producer] and I went to the Brown Derby for dinner to discuss the music, working until the wee small hours. I counted Glen’s beers one night: 17.
"Donald Duck had a band consisting of his six nephews and 75 cents worth of junk. The sextet was actually four drummers banging on tuned bottles, cowbells, wood blocks, tin horns, slide whistles and rattles. There was also a clarinet with a trombone mouthpiece and a trombone with a rubber hose replacing the bell.
:I called in a young drummer from the Cantor show when one of our drummers had the flu, and for several weeks he hung around at rehearsals. [His name was Spike Jones.] The show lasted for 20 weeks, and glowing letters of appreciation promised that I would be the musical director for the sponsor’s next show. But when I learned that the music would be incidental and the band would be cut to 26 members I turned down the job. It was just a comedy with a guy from New York I had never heard of—a kid named Bob Hope.
"Spike asked what I was going to do with the Duck’s music and I said, 'I’ll never use it again; do you want it?”'Soon the City Slickers appeared on the scene playing a wild arrangement of Cocktails for Two."
In addition to Silver Theatre, Felix provided music for several radio shows during the years that followed, such as Sherlock Holmes, Abbott and Costello, The Charles Boyer Show, and The Man Called X.
Instead of renting a smaller studio he bought a hilltop across from the HOLLYWOODLAND sign so his studio could be on the same property. He liked to remind the family that our new home was a gift from a mouse.
During the Red Inquisition of the 1950s, Felix was leading the band for Burns and Allen. When his musicians refused to swear that they had never been members of the Communist party, Felix agreed that the order was downright unconstitutional. He had worked with most of them for years, and when George Burns said he’d have to fire anyone who disobeyed the order, Felix quit and the band walked out with him.
Deciding not to conduct small backstage bands for TV sitcoms, Felix designed and built a 26-foot trailer with the help of an expert and Thelma, so he could pursue his interest in photography and ‘become a bum in style.’
He wasn’t bitter about his early retirement; he was simply burned out because of having written so much music. Traveling for a year or two to find his perfect retreat, he designed and built a homey cabin overlooking Morro Bay, aided by his sons and son-in-law.
Later, he added a music room and learned to operate an eight-track recorder so he could create new arrangements of popular classics, using synthesized instruments.
Clarence Nash (voice of Donald Duck) was a guest at Morro Bay and letters came from friends like Meredith Willson. When the family talked "Pappy" into writing his memoirs he recalled a stainless steel icebox he had built that was filled with material that might help him get organized. It was in the attic and he discovered that there were three scrapbooks and a couple of large grocery sacks filled with photos and news clippings. Some of the brittle, yellowed clippings had stuck together and had to be carefully separated.
He wrote, "I started making notes and sorting. Soon I was just reading—hoisted back to those glory years… The Glory Years are in the past, but so nice to look back on. I could hardly believe that Gordon Mills in Morro Bay was the same guy as Felix Mills in Hollywood…Maybe he isn’t, because in the pictures I see of Felix, he has hair."
In closing: Those who would like to see Felix Mills in person presenting a one-man show in 1980 can click (link).