The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show


Darlene Gillespie     (Apr 8, 1941)


The Hard-Luck Kid

Darlene was the early favorite with the show's crew, who were convinced she'd be a star, but circumstances forestalled this. An amateur performer at fourteen, she was a good dancer, was blessed with an extraordinary voice, was in Roll Call and the lead performer on the Red team for all three seasons on ABC.

Background

Darlene Faye Gillespie was born in Montreal, Canada. Her parents were Herbert Laurence Gillespie and Rean Tibeau, a former dance team under the name Aldare & Tibeau, who were originally from Saskatchewan. In October 1942 they took Darlene and her older sister Patricia to Los Angeles. There Larry found work at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, while Rean made a movie at Republic in 1945. Rean adopted the name Dorothy, and continued to have children: Larrian (child TV actress, now a retired doctor and author of health and diet books), Gina (also a child film and TV actress, now an attorney), Larry Jr (now a well-known jazz musician), and another boy.

At age ten Darlene was singing a solo in her church choir when her mother noticed many in the congregation had tears in their eyes. She decided that Darlene should have formal lessons, and took her to Glen Raikes, who would teach Darlene and her sisters for the next seven years.

Darlene had taken a few dance lessons around age five, but had then left it alone until she turned eleven. Her mother then enrolled her in Burch Mann's Alhambra studio. Darlene's dance lessons were funded by an avocado nursery Larry had, in which the whole family worked. Burch, who had been asked by the producers to help find kids, sent Darlene, Bonni Lou Kern, Mary Espinosa, and some others to the Mickey Mouse Club auditions. Darlene was hired on her first try, as much for singing Davy Crockett as for her dancing.

Performance

Darlene's was a precocious talent, one that peaked with her first year on the show. She appealed more to adults than to kids, but contrary to expectations, up to one-third of the audience turned out to be parents and other grown-ups. Her wide grin was nearly as famous as Bobby's, and with her braids and freckles she looked much younger than fourteen. Her dancing, like her singing, was top-notch, and she became the lead performer on the Red Team for all three filming seasons. The studio drove all the kids hard, and especially Darlene; that first season they worked her constantly. Serial director William Beaudine Sr chose her to star in Corky and White Shadow, mainly because of her immature look.

In October 1955, while the other kids were in the studio, Darlene was on location at Big Bear Lake, learning to ride a horse, and acting with a cast of mainly grown-ups. As soon as the serial ended, she worked for two months in the Disneyland Circus, then started pre-production on Westward Ho, the Wagons!, while also making personal appearences for publicity and cutting the first of many recordings for Disney.


Not surprisingly, Darlene's health suffered. She came down with pneumonia, and was bed-ridden for six weeks. The film role was lost to her friend Doreen Tracey, a long-time horseback rider. This first career set-back had an impact on Darlene. Though she shrugged it off in interviews, she now was more sparing with her wide open grin. As the second season started filming, she also was aware that she was no longer the favored child. Both Burch Mann, who had choreographed all the first season production numbers, and director Dik Darley, a firm Darlene partisan, were gone. Darlene still led most of the in-studio production numbers, but the serial roles went to Annette.



Darlene did get several scenes in Annette's first serial Adventure in Dairyland and new director Sid Miller seemed nearly as impressed with her talents as Dik Darley had been. She remained the second most popular Mouseketeer in terms of fan mail after Annette, with whom she maintained a friendly working relationship throughout the season. The two girls were often paired for personal appearances and gradually came to stand out from the other mice in publicity releases and media coverage. Besides leading most of the musical numbers for the second year, Darlene also shared a Talent Round-Up Day with her three sisters and had a show to herself with singing and celebrity impersonations in An Evening With Darlene.


As the third season filming started, Darlene's career seemed to be rebounding. She recorded an album for the Disney label in April 1957 called Darlene of the Teens. That summer, she was told she would appear in two serials: the third installment of Spin and Marty and one to be called Margaret in which she would co-star with Annette. Also, in August 1957, the live-action film The Rainbow Road to Oz, in which Darlene was to play the role of Dorothy, was announced. She and the other Mouseketeers did several quick numbers from this project on an episode of Disneyland called the "Fourth Anniversary Show" in September 1957.

Darlene starred in the New Adventures of Spin and Marty, but in October 1957 the other serial, which had been renamed Annette and Darlene, was re-titled again to just Annette, and re-cast with Judy Nugent instead of Darlene. While the serial was filming in November 1957, Darlene was packed off to Chicago on a one-woman publicity tour to promote the Mickey Mouse Club Magazine's second annual. This prompted some vitriolic letters by Darlene's fans that did her more harm than good. A columnist friendly to the studio accused the letter-writers of being part of an organized campaign, the unspoken assumption that it was instigated by Darlene. The studio explained the casting change by saying Darlene needed to rehearse for the upcoming movie, but by February 1958 it was clear the film project had been cancelled. Instead Darlene was kept busy doing recordings for Disney until her Mouseketeer contract option expired in May 1958.

Aftermath

Darlene was apparently still bound under her recording contract to Disney, until possibly as late as January 1959, when the songs she recorded for Sleeping Beauty were released on an LP. This contract had tied up her most valuable performing asset, her voice, lessening her value to any other production company that might be interested in hiring her. She signed a new recording contract with Decca in July 1959, releasing two 45's on its Coral label in 1959-60.

The first, now quite rare, had two rock songs Cobbler, Cobbler / Boom Patty Boom, the second had a ballad and a polka: I Loved, I Laughed, I Cried / Ring the Bell, Beat the Drum, the latter with her younger sisters as backup.

Darlene graduated from the Catholic girls high school, Providence, in Burbank, in June 1959, and spent the next several years as a soloist with the First California Ballet company based in Pasadena. She didn't go on the Australia tours organized by Jimmie Dodd, nor did she do personal appearances for Disney on an ad hoc basis like the other Mouseketeers, with whom she appeared to have no contact. She occasionally acted as legal guardian for sister Gina on the set of her television series Law of the Plainsman, and worked up a musical comedy nightclub act with both younger sisters.

She had a minor career resurgence in 1962 starting with a local Ford car commercial in which she played Alice in Wonderland. She acted in a Hollywood area stage production, and did guest appearances on two TV shows, National Velvet and Dr. Kildare. She and her sisters also cut a song for Western Airlines, Wait'll You See What I Saw in Seattle, celebrating its jet service to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.

During this time she also attended Valley Junior College, and, like her older sister, eventually became a nurse. Working at Valley Presbyterian Hospital's emergency room for several years led her to develop a protective surface cynicism. She disliked being called "Nurse Mouse" by her co-workers, and resented well-intentioned queries on why she never became a big star. But her fellow nurses thought highly enough of her work to vote her an annual honor in 1969.

In August 1968 Darlene married Phillip Gammon, a gasoline retailer from Illinois. Later that fall she appeared with eleven other former Mouseketeers on the Wonderful World of Color for a special episode celebrating Mickey Mouse's 40th birthday. In the early seventies Phil Gammon tried to restart Darlene's singing career by forming a record company called Alva. She recorded a number of country songs under the name Darlene Valentine, which were released on 45 rpm's starting in 1973: April Is The Month For Loving / Grass Grows Round My Feet (Alva 111) and Touch And Go / Both Feet On The Ground (Alva 113).

Most of the Mouseketeers reunited in 1980 for a television special celebrating the Mickey Mouse Club's twenty-fifth anniversary. Darlene joined her former colleagues in singing and dancing, and a few years later would also take part in the live performances at Disneyland. Bobby Burgess recently told an interviewer how impressed he was with the forty-something Darlene's ability to take Sharon Baird's place when the latter left to do a film. She allowed the male chorus dancers to do all the overhead lifts and throws they had performed with the shorter and lighter Sharon he recalled.

Darlene and Phillip Gammon had two children together, but divorced by 1983. On July 31st of that year Darlene married Donald MacDavid. They separated after a year and divorced in 1986. When Karen Pendleton was paralyzed in a 1983 auto accident Darlene came to her aid. Having spent nearly twenty years as a surgical nurse, Darlene was able to offer practical assistance and medical advice to help Karen deal with her injury. Karen told author Jennifer Armstrong she was deeply grateful for Darlene's help and comfort. The two women also formed a close friendship that unfortunately did not survive Darlene's later estrangement from her former colleagues.

Beginning sometime in the late eighties Darlene began a long legal campaign against Disney (and later the Screen Actor's Guild) for compensation she felt was owed her. The issues involved royalties and residual payments for sales of recordings and reruns of the Mickey Mouse Club in syndication and on the Disney Channel, and cited the unfairness of the original Disney contracts for minors and what Darlene said were unfulfilled promises by Walt Disney to promote her as a star performer. The legal wrangling would go on for years. The financial necessity for winning her claims became of paramount importance for Darlene when she injured her back in a fall and could no longer spend hours standing over an operating table, ending her medical career. The battle with Disney also took a toll on her relations with other Mouseketeers.

Into every life there comes at some point a malign influence that must be resisted or overcome. For some, it is an internal demon; for others like Darlene, it walked on two legs. Around 1991 Darlene hooked up with Jerry Fraschilla, who increased her distance from the other mice and eventually led her into committing a string of criminal actions. They were charged with shoplifting from a department store in 1996, then a year later were indicted for a check-kiting scheme. Fraschilla pled guilty and served 18 months. The couple married in January 1998 for visitation rights. Darlene herself was convicted in December 1998, receiving a sentence of two years in March 1999, of which she served three months before being released. In November 2005 they were again indicted on federal charges, this time for fraud in the settlement of a class-action lawsuit. That complaint was resolved without major penalty to Darlene, who was widowed in late 2008.

Darlene's long legal struggle with Disney was eventually resolved with an unspecified settlement. She is now retired in Ventura County, California, and though she no longer does Disney appearances or MMC reunions is always happy to hear from fans of her Mouseketeer days. She maintains an active social life with friends and family, and is especially proud of her twin grandchildren.

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