Birth of Disney Fandom Part One: The Mouse Club

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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When I wrote about how the term “Disney Historian” was born, I was surprised at how few Disney fans today realize how organized Disney fandom began. From a group of diverse collectors and fans, a community was created that thrives today on the Internet.

Names, dates, events, and more from those Dark Ages seem to have been lost and forgotten in the mists of time, especially since many of those early founders were quite mature in age, being adults with real jobs and families, at that time more than 30 years ago.

Of course, there were a few who were just tadpoles in their late teens and early 20s with more enthusiasm than knowledge who hopped on board, as well. One of the reasons I am so knowledgeable today in a variety of Disney areas was that I was one of those wide-eyed tadpoles struggling to participate and learn.

Just like today, Disney fandom was filled with personal agendas, hurtful rivalries, misinformation, and more. But, at the core, just like today, was a love of Disney and wanting to share that joy.

In 1968, Mickey Mouse’s 40th birthday sparked a nostalgia during troubled times for the innocence of a “lost America,” In particular, Mickey Mouse merchandise from the 1930s (including antique Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watches being worn prominently by hippies as a sign of protest) became highly collectible. This phenomenon was even given its own term, Disneyana, a variation of the word Americana.

By the time of Mickey’s 50th birthday a decade later, the collecting of Disneyana was commonplace with newspaper articles trumpeting the high prices being paid for this worthless junk like old toys and yellowing comic books by foolish adults. On January 9, 1976, a Disneyana shop had opened on Main Street at Disneyland to tap in to this new market.

However, except for a handful of high-end collectors with impressive collections (like Robert Lesser, Cecil Munsey, Bernie Shine and others), Disney fandom was disorganized without a focal point to connect with others who had similar interests. To help fill that void, fanzines (self-published magazines) and two organizations, The Mouse Club and The National Fantasy Fan Club, arose to satisfy that need.

Many of the procedures and traditions that Disney fandom takes for granted today actually began once upon a time….back in the 1980s.

The Mouse Club

In 1979, Ed Levin was working full-time in a motion picture film laboratory. He was 56. At the same time he was working with his wife, Elaine, running a memorabilia store called Nickelodeon that had existed at that time for roughly a decade on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif. One of the prime items the Levins searched for was early Mickey Mouse memorabilia for their own collections, as well as to sell.

Besides Nickelodeon, the big Disney collectors store in the Los Angeles area was Fantasies Come True, which opened in 1980 on Melrose Avenue and was owned by Bob Molinari. Molinari’s steadiest customer, he told the L.A. Times on December 19, 1983. was actress Carrie Fisher.

"When she comes in," said Molinari, "she just goes, 'I'll take that and that and that.' "

To try and connect with other Disneyana collectors, in October 1979 Levin proposed to create an informal group called The Mouse Club. The name was chosen to prevent any legal infringement or capitalization on the Disney name and the Disney legal department gave its approval for its use.

“When I thought about trying to get the Disney collectors together I figured five or six of us, like acorns, would be enough to grow into a nice tree. As of this date [December 1979], there are 26 of us charter members and we have 60 responses to our initial ad,” wrote Levin more than 30 years ago.

The mascot, created anonymously by animator Ward Kimball, featured Mickey Mouse with a huge paper bag over his head and body with just the bottom of his short pants, his tail and his instantly recognizable black legs and shoes visible. The eye hole cut outs in the bag were the familiar “pie-eyes” of the early Mickey.

Levin jokingly referred to the mascot as “The Unknown Mouse,” a reference to the “Unknown Comic”, a recurring gag contestant on the popular television show of the time, The Gong Show, who wore a paper sack over his head. Baseball hats, golf shirts, jackets, a watch and T-shirts were produced featuring the image of the mascot. The mascot did not appear until the second newsletter and was originally going to be called “The Unnamed Rodent.”

The bi-monthly newsletter, simply called “The Mouse Club,” first appeared with a January/February 1980 issue of four double-sided pages with a single staple in the upper-left-hand corner so that it could be folded in three into a legal sized envelope for mailing. Actually, the last page was blank so it was only seven typewritten pages. Yearly membership was $12.50. It went up to $17.50 within the first two years.

Part of the function of the newsletter was for Levin to locate items for his own collection, as well as run advertisements from others who were looking to sell or buy Disneyana. The rest of the newsletter was often filled with badly duplicated copies of articles and photos about Disney and collecting. News of the club spread in collector’s publications like the American Collector Antique Paper, Antique Trader, The Antique Mirror newspaper and others and membership rapidly increased.

The first ever Mouse Club convention was held at the Jolly Roger Inn in Anaheim, California, from August 18-20, 1982. It was scheduled on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to accommodate members attending (or selling) at the Glendale All-American Antique and Toy Show held that weekend in the Glendale Civic Auditorium. The Glendale show was California’s largest antique toy and advertising show and was held twice a year.

The planning meeting had happened roughly a year earlier on June 28, 1981, at the Levins’ home in Sherman Oaks on a Southern California day that hit 110 F. There was even a flea market sale going on in the backyard that was cut short because of the heat. In attendance were Ward Kimball and Dave Smith, who gave everyone there much encouragement and both continued to do as long as the organization existed.

More 250 members from more than 15 states attended (including members from France and Japan) that first August 1982 convention. Dave Smith opened up the Archives for two special free tours for the members. Disney Legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston gave a 90 minute talk about their just-released book Disney Animation—The Illusion of Life.

Clarence “Ducky” Nash did a spontaneous 20-minute routine with his Donald Duck puppet and got a standing ovation from the group. He was a superstar at the autograph event with cameras flashing, excited fans pointing and more. The 77-year-old sat down to sign autographs. Shy two year old Elyssa Xavier’s eyes were wide as saucers as she watched him. When he spotted her, Nash smiled and in Donald Duck’s voice happily said “Hello, toots!” She buried her rosy cheeks in her tiny hands, then looked up with a smile and gave Nash a kiss.

Ward Kimball gave a talk on the evolution of Mickey Mouse, even doing some sketches showing the physical changes over the decades in Mickey.

“Something’s happened to the Mouse through the middle years. You know, he started out without shoes or gloves. Then he got red pants. His face got rounder. They added eyebrows, and now most youngsters know him as a cute youngster with a bowtie, of all things. He’s become a sissy!” Kimball said with a laugh.

Disney marketing vice-president Robert King was there to tell the press that while the company supported, although did not officially endorse, Levin’s efforts, Disney was “too busy with new products to be promoting antiques originally manufactured by outside companies. The closest the company comes to promoting nostalgia is re-releasing Disney classic films.”

Levin told local reporters, “We’re not in it for profit. It’s a labor of love. If you don’t love this stuff, forget it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, stay away from this. It’s for people knowledgeable of Disneyana.”

The event was closed to the public because it was only for serious collectors and Levin said even then it was getting harder and harder to find the memorabilia. He changed the name of the group to “The Mouse Club…for collectors of Disneyana” to try to distance the group from the general public. Many members were outraged at even the suggestion of opening the dealer’s room for just one day to the general public who they felt couldn’t appreciate the value (sentimental, historical and monetary) of the items like a true collector.

One of the unique things about the convention was “room hopping” where members opened up their hotel rooms for other members to come in and admire their collection (often displayed on the bed and floor) or to buy and sell items.

The second annual convention was held August 17-19, 1983, at the Jolly Roger Inn. The Disney Channel came to tape the event and the Disney Channel Magazine directed readers on how to join the club since it was the only game in town for Disney collectors. George Hood showed his “History of Disneyland” slide show. The autograph session included Wayne Allwine, Clarence Nash, Bill Justice, Ward Kimball, Adrianna Caselloti, Sherri Alberoni (an original Mouseketeer), Floyd Gottfredson, Bob Moore and Cecil Munsey (author of the book Disneyana).

Dave Smith once again opened the Archives for two tours. Animator and director Bob Clampett showed his own slides of the Disney Hyperion Studio and talked about how he designed the first Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse doll, even showing his personal one saved from his youth.

Alberoni talked about being hired as a Mousekeeter. Caselloti sang a selection of songs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Kimball showed the film Plausible Impossible. He showed up despite having been recently bitten by a poisonous spider and enduring unpleasant medical care.

At the convention, it was announced there would be no convention in 1984 because the city of Los Angeles would be hosting the Olympic Games that summer. (The trading of pins at the Olympic games would spark the idea of creating inexpensive Disney pins to trade. Up until that time, Disney fans primarily collected buttons that Disney produced for special occasions.)

Shortly after starting The Mouse Club, Levin underwent several cancer surgeries and, with his children grown and out of the house, he was looking to take life a little easier. He said he had spent six months in the planning and organization of the second convention since he hadn’t learned how to delegate work to volunteer committees. So, in the summer of 1984, he began transitioning the running of the organization and the publishing of the newsletter to Kim and Julie McEuen.

The McEuens, of San Jose, California, had honeymooned at Disneyland. They started holding informal Mouse Club meetings at their home. With two young daughters of their own, their meetings were always family friendly. Julie said she began collecting Disney memorabilia in the late 1970s after painting murals of Disney characters on the walls of her two daughters' bedrooms. The McEuens assisted in the conventions and were eager to expand the organization. Starting January 1985, they were officially in charge.

They scheduled the third convention for August 21-23, 1985, at the new and much larger Emerald Hotel in Anaheim near Disneyland. More than 400 members would attend. Julie McEuen told the L.A. Times that she and her husband didn’t "want the convention to become a toy show. We want to bring in people who enjoy what Walt did, and who enjoy the magic behind Disneyland."

Speakers included Bill Justice (who also drew sketches and amused the audience with comments like “I think Grumpy was grumpy because he had the biggest nose to draw” and “When I used to take a break at the studios between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., I would go upstairs and practice drawing”), Tony Baxter, Ken Anderson, Herb Ryman, Ward Kimball, Lonnie Burr, Tommy Cole, Will Ryan, and John Hench.

Disney Legend Ken Anderson began his presentation by saying “I have enjoyed so much being here and meeting so many people who I feel a close bond and kinship with. Every one of you who I have met, I have enjoyed your requests to sign an autograph or to make a little drawing because we are all kind of cemented together by a bond that is commonly shared…a love for the spirit of Walt Disney. It is the spirit of the up-beat, the happy, the good things that make everyone feel better, and that has been the feeling that I have received from this conference. Everybody here seems to be motivated by that same spirit, and I am delighted that I have been asked to stand here to share with you a few thoughts.”

Anderson was a good friend of the club and slightly re-designed the Unknown Mouse mascot by having gloved hands and black arms pop out from the side of paper bag. His interpretation graced the cover of the newsletter from September 1986 until the end of the club in 1993.

Beginning in 1988, the Mouse Club started a “Minnie” Mouse Club Disneyana Collector’s one day Show and Sale in March that would be open to the general public. The first one was held Saturday March 5, 1988, at the Emerald Hotel. Yearly fee for membership increased to $22 that year, as well.

Disney Legend Herb Ryman wrote to the McEuens: “I’ll not be able to express my very deep emotional response to the entire pageant which you orchestrated with such efficiency, sincerity and warm affection. The entire gathering was such an overwhelming forceful statement of the enormous significance of the life, the work and the dreams of Walt Disney…which has embraced the men, women and children of our whole earth.”

The McEuens also redesigned the January 1985 newsletter so it was now more a booklet with a one solid color front and back cover and side stapling. They printed 1,500 copies of their first issue and all those copies were gone by the publication of the next newsletter in March.

Each bi-monthly newsletter still contained pages of want ads (now labelled “Want Disney” ads) and for sale ads. Delta Airlines SKY magazine featured an article mentioning the organization in its January 1985 issue and that increased membership significantly across the country.

The final Mouse Club newsletter was No. 69 with information about the the last Mouse Club convention to be held at the Disneyland Hotel September 9-13, 1992. It was the 10th anniversary of Mouse Club conventions.

I don’t know the reason for the disappearance of the Mouse Club, although I can speculate. Other Nostalgia and Collectibles show and sales increased and featured Disneyana items. In 1992, the Disney Company began its own series of Disneyana conventions. By 1992, a rival organization, the National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC), had grown very strong and was also holding its own Disneyana conventions and mid-year Show and Sales.

The Mouse Club was being run just by the McEuens and obviously the time and money involved grew larger and larger over the years.

Without the Mouse Club, Disneyana collecting would have remained primarily in the hands of just a few Disney enthusiasts, some Disney legends would never have gotten recognition while they were alive nor the opportunity to share some of their stories and other Disney fans might not have been inspired to do even more to expand Disney fandom, building on the foundation begun by Ed and Elaine Levin and the McEuens. The Mouse Club was not just a collector’s organization but inspired early Disney scholarship as members wanted to learn the stories behind some of the items in their collections, Disneyland and the animated films.

The Mouse Club had many members who went on to greater recognition in the Disney community over the years like Bruce and Linda Cervon, Stacia Martin, David Lesjak, Dana Gabbard and so many more. I was an original member of The Mouse Club and have a complete collection of the newsletters and attended most of the conventions. There are still people I run into at other Disney events today who were also members.

Coming Up: "The Birth of Disney Fandom Part Two: The National Fantasy Fan Club." The early history of the NFFC, a group of Mouse Club members who created their own organization, how they helped build Disney fandom as we know it today and how the organization survived to this day. In addition, I will discuss the very first Disney Company-produced Disneyana convention in 1992.

 

Comments

  1. By averagecuppajoe

    How amazing!! I really wish I'd been there. D23 came along the same time I left California for England. Bad timing all around. I look forward to the next chapter!

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