The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show


Bill Walsh                     (1913-1975)

The Producer

Bill Walsh was the pioneer who took the Disney Studio into the television age. He was probably Walt Disney's most trusted employee, and the one most closely attuned to what Walt wanted from the new medium of television, and later, live-action films. Bill was more than a producer; he was directly involved with the writing of many studio ventures.

Background

William Crozier Walsh was born September 30, 1913, in New York City, to a father from Canada and a mother from Ireland. As a teenager he went to live with his Aunt Agnes in Cincinnati. Her husband, William Newman, was a projectionist for movie theaters, and it may be that Bill Walsh got his first taste of the film business while helping his uncle. Walsh went to the University of Cincinnati on an athletic scholarship, but soon got involved with amateur theatricals and left before graduating.

He joined the writing staff of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay's touring theater company in the summer of 1933. They had hired him for $12 a week after being impressed with a freshman variety review he wrote and produced. Bill rewrote the couple's material for Broadway, where it played for five weeks. When the couple returned to Hollywood, Bill went too, only to find himself jobless after the couple divorced in early 1934. He tried reporting and writing a column for a local paper, then joined the Margaret Ettinger Publicity agency. By his own admission he wasn't much of a publicist, but did have one notable client, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

Diabetes kept Bill from military service in WWII, so he joined the Disney Studio in 1943, serving both in Publicity and the Story Department. He was assigned to write gags for the Mickey Mouse comic strip that ran daily in newspapers, a chore that he voluntarily kept on doing for twenty years. In 1946 he brought his former client, Edgar Bergen, to the studio to narrate Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Walt Disney initially viewed television as a means for exploiting his films, so his decision to choose a publicist to be in charge of the studio's first foray into the new medium made sense. One Hour in Wonderland, shown on Christmas Day in 1950, promoted the upcoming film Alice in Wonderland. Bill both wrote and produced the show, which featured his old client Edgar Bergen co-hosting with Walt Disney. He did the same the following Christmas with The Walt Disney Christmas Show. Both shows were judged a success, and when Roy Disney was able to convince ABC to fund the Disneyland amusement park in return for a television series, Bill Walsh was tapped to be producer for Disneyland.

After struggling for nine months to get one-hour of material on the air weekly, Bill thought he'd earned a vacation, only to be told in December 1954 that he was now also going to produce five hours a week, using kids! It was a measure of Walt's trust in Bill that he largely left him alone to develop the Mickey Mouse Club show, after assigning Hal Adelquist as his right-hand man. Walt was focusing all his energy and attention on the Disneyland park, and aside from final approval on hiring the cast, he had little to do with the show's actual production.

Contribution

Bill Walsh took Walt's handwritten notes on the proposed show, which hearkened back to the live Mickey Mouse Club's of the 1930's, and combined them with ABC President Robert Kintner's broadcasting requirements, spelled out in a letter written in December 1954. Bill wrote a formal report on the new show's format in January 1955 that, though it contained elements (mainly Walt's ideas) that would soon be abandoned, was recognizably the program that would hit the airwaves in October 1955.

It was Bill who devised the show's rotating theme days, and the division of each day's show into four fifteen-minute interchangeable segments. He also suggested using cartoons for only one of those segments, with an animated opening and closing each day to give the illusion of more cartoons. Bill also recognized early on that a live audience of kids would be impractical, let alone one that would participate in the action, but wisely let Walt Disney realize this for himself by mentioning some of the precautions taken by other children's shows. He also arranged to let Walt suggest Jimmie Dodd as host.

When Walt told Bill to look for ordinary kids to be the Mouseketeers, Bill dutifully did so, but he also phoned Burch Mann, whom he knew through his wife Nolie, a former dancer, and had her scout her own dance students and pass the word on to other dancing schools. Bill's surface acquiescence to Walt's dictums while covertly doing what was actually needed was a balancing act that few other high-level employees were ever able to carry out. He was careful never to infringe on Walt's prerogatives for hiring and firing decisions, and recognized when he could safely protect someone (Bob Amsberry) and when he couldn't (Hal Adelquist).

By February 1955 Bill and Hal Adelquist had written basic storylines for the first hundred shows, turning each completed one over to Roy Williams for punching up with visual gags. Bill also had attended the many Mouseketeer auditions, contributing his input to the selection of kids for Walt to approve, and again with Hal and Roy, helped Chuck Keehne come up with the Mouseketeer "ears". Bill Walsh concentrated on getting the serial stories lined up, letting Hal deal with recruiting the Circus Acts, Guest Stars, and Talent Winners. They jointly shared responsibility for the Mouseketeer segments, while Bill Park handled the Newsreel and Cartoon segments.

The color-coded teams the Mouseketeers were divided into was Bill's idea, as was putting all the parents and legal guardians into the auditorium away from the soundstage where performances were filmed. Bill Walsh had no favorites among the kids, but he knew his boss did, and saw that things happened accordingly. He was also the guy who recommended which kids to dismiss and which to keep during and between seasons. Unlike Walt, Bill was regularly present on the set and the kids were used to his presence, and seemingly comfortable with it.

Aftermath

As the Mickey Mouse Club went into reruns for the fourth season, Bill's efforts shifted to live-action films. He and his favored writer Lillie Hayward both had a go at a script for The Rainbow Road to Oz, but neither had imagination enough to make it work. Their type of pictures were The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Toby Tyler (1960), neither one very good, though the first made gobs of money. Throughout the sixties Bill Walsh continued to produce (and help write) some of Disney's most financially rewarding live-action comedies, though except for Mary Poppins (1964), these were generally low-quality, critically-panned movies that contributed to the sharp decline in the studio's reputation.

The Walshes and their two children became the Disney's constant traveling companions in the late fifties and early sixties. Walt and Bill were always focused on the next project during these trips, and had little in common other than they were both anglophiles and workaholics.

Bill didn't care for other people's kids much, which is perhaps why he could be so sanguine about the high turnover of Mouseketeers. He was smart, had a good sense of humor, but could also be gruff. He was often seen chomping down on a cigar. Though athletic by temperament, his smoking, diabetes, workload, and attendant stress shortened his life considerably; he died Jan 27, 1975, of cardiac arrest, at age 61. His widow Nolie remarried a year later to local KTLA anchorman Hal Fishman.

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