John Lee Johann was born December 23, 1942 in Madison, Wisconsin to John Johann and Athilla Mary McCune. In 1944, the family moved to Los Angeles, California. John's father was a chemical engineer with Richfield Oil, where he among other things, worked on the Alaska pipeline. His mother became an executive secretary to the CEO of Bray Oil.
John showed an early interest in performing when he put on puppet shows for the younger neighborhood children. His lifelong interest in the arts (dance, theatre, poetry) came from his mother who was active in community theatre productions. John was also interested in sports including roller and ice skating, gymnastics, swimming, and baseball. In 1955, he made an all-star squad in Little League. He also enjoyed quieter pursuits including chess, building models, and baking.
John had no professional experience before becoming a mouseketeer. He studied dancing with Burch Mann
who was hired by Disney to be the choreographer for the show. Along with several of her students and his brother, John auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club. He was not hired at that time, but his younger brother Dallas
made the cut. Dallas, however, was hampered by his shyness in front of the cameras and was dismissed after just a few weeks. John was then hired as his replacement. He used his middle name "Lee" as there was already a mouseketeer called "Johnny"
. This was the only time in his life that he would be called by his middle name.
There has been written speculation that John was hired to placate his family after Dallas was let go. However, the Disney staff had no problem dismissing other mouseketeers during the show. It could be that the staff, wanting to quickly replace Dallas, consulted the list of possibilities made from the auditions and chose John because he had done well at the auditions and because the shows choreographer (John's dance teacher) was familiar with his ability and his personality.
For the most part, John had a background, supporting role on the show. He was often used in an ensemble - clogging with the others on "Roy at the Dike"; dancing in the background in "I Wanna Be a Fireman" or watching Sharon and Bobby dance during "Mousegetar Music Lesson".
He was also used with other mice in the short introductions to Guest Star Day performers - riding a tricycle with Billie
in one and dancing with Dennis
in another. In a beach scene introduction to the Bell Sisters, he lies "asleep" in the sand in the front of the scene while the other mice do a number of beach-type activities behind him. He was also an audience member in watching performers such as Cliff Edwards.
John agrees that he didn't do much on the show. He told author Jennifer Armstrong (Why? Because I Still Like You?
) that the other children had more experience. He also missed some opportunities. He told author Jerry Bowles (Forever Hold Your Banner High
) that one day Hack O'Brien (Cubby's
father) offered to give him a drumming lesson and assured him that he would have enough time to make his call on the set. When John got to the set, he found that his part had been given to Cubby.
But John did have a few opportunities to shine. He did a short dance with Tommy
as part of the performance at the opening of Disneyland. In "(Let's Have) Fun With Music", he did a short mambo with Mary Sartori
- and in "What Am I? #2" John (along with a few other mice) had a small speaking part giving clues to Bronson
He also was used for some widely distributed color publicity photos that were used on record albums, one with Jimmie
, Dennis and Mark that was made into a jigsaw puzzle, and one that was used for the cover of a Viewmaster set - a group shot where John was front and center.
Like the other mouseketeers, John made appearances at Disneyland including performing in the circus there.
John's performance is hard to assess because, like the other replacements, he was mostly used in background roles. However, as the first replacement mouseketeer, he faced additional challenges. As the teams had not yet been finalized, there was no automatic slot for him (Ronnie
took the team slots vacated by Paul
). Therefore, John did not have the stability of being on a team or having a defined role. In addition, John did not have the advantage of the 23 other mice hired before him. They had been working for weeks, giving the director an opportunity to observe their skills and personalities. Finally, the mouseketeer John replaced - Dalllas - had performance problems. No decision had been made as to where to place Dallas, and thus there was no specific spot for John. The staff just didn't know how to use him..
John was not a professional. He was a child placed in a difficult situation. He told author Jennifer Armstrong that he missed dancing with his brother. (Ronnie felt the same about his brothers). John also told author Armstrong that he felt underused, and that he himself was not pleased with his performance. He recalled a time when he could not figure out what the director wanted. John wanted to be perfect, and he couldn't be.
But in actuality, John performed well. For example, in "I Wanna Be a Fireman", John's work might not be noticed as he is in the back of the group (next to Annette). But if you focus on John, he is fun to watch. He gives an engaging performance. Later in the same episode, he appears as the 4th person behind the tiger. He has good stage presence and good facial expressions for the camera.
As there were 24 mouseketeers, there was not a way to showcase them all equally, and perhaps there had never been the intention to do so. But in any production, the background performers have to perform well for the entire show to go smoothly. John was able to handle this ensemble role well, and professionally.
After leaving the MMC, John graduated from West Covina High School, where he was on the speech team and the basketball team, then became a drama major at Los Angeles State College and later studied at the City College of New York.
John and Dallas formed a brother act and performed at West Covina, and in recitals at the country fair. John continued to take lessons from Burch Mann, and joined her Ballet America professional troupe, later known as the American Folk Ballet.
John appeared in two Elvis films - "Viva Las Vegas" and "Kissin' Cousins", and also in "Hootenanny Hoot", "Mary Poppins" and "Patsy".
He was in the off-Broadway production "Autumn's Here" in 1966, and the musical "Here's Where I belong" in 1968. He was the stage manager and understudy in "70 Girls 70" in 1971. Later in 1971, he replaced Kurt Peterson as "Young Ben" in "Follies". Kurt remembers John's kindness in letting Kurt replace him for the last performance of this show in New York so that Kurt could play this character one more time.
At some point John left an active role in professional theater to become a substance abuse counselor and then a drug treatment coordinator in New York. He has continued working in community theatre and giving poetry readings.
Recently, John and his wife have moved to Las Vegas.
- - - Profile by Marcia Eaton