The first-season girl with the red hair was primarily a dancer, ballet and tap, and seldom appeared by herself. She was a Red Team member, featuring in the roll call every day for the first season of the show, and took part in most of the early musical numbers. Her most prominent solo was as the drum majorette for the Circus Day opening. She later ran her own dance studio in Southern California for twenty-five years.
Nancy Lee Abbate was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Tom and Dora Abbate. The younger of two children, her parents seemed to have encouraged her to develop her talents from an early age. Her main instructor was Louis da Pron whom she regarded quite highly. At his studio she learned dancing along with her future colleagues Lonnie, Sharon, and Mary Sartori. Besides her dancing, she could also play piano, and had been acting in films since she was eight. Her first role was a dancing part in Love is Better Than Ever, made in 1950 but not released until 1952.
The Farmer Takes A Wife
She next appeared in the Betty Grable musical, The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953), which also had Doreen Tracey. Just prior to the Mickey Mouse Club, she was in the Martin and Lewis comedy, Artists and Models (1955), with Sharon Baird
Artists & Models
Nancy also did lots of television work, appearing on episodes of The Ray Bolger Show, The Stu Erwin Show, The Jack Benny Show, and The Donald O'Connor Show in the early to mid-fifties. As with Sharon Baird and Lonnie Burr, Nancy took a severe pay cut when she started working at the Disney Studio. However, the work was steady, and Nancy, now thirteen, was at the age when jobs for child performers became scarce. Nancy encouraged Mary Sartori to come tryout with her for the audition, and both girls made the cut.
Nancy was very photogenic and had strong dancing skills which put her into the forefront of performers when the earliest segments were filmed during May and early June 1955. She appeared in Old Betsy, Animals and Clowns, Pussy Cat Polka, and Sho-Jo-Ji prior to the Red Team being formed. She was included with the first string unit when it came together in late June 1955, appearing in all five daily Roll Call segments. Director Dik Darley made extensive use of her with Annette, Doreen, and Darlene for framing close-in camera shots for Talent Roundup Daywinners. He also employed this quartet for Cooking With Minnie Mouse, a long ballet-swing piece with Bobby Burgess that ranks as one of the best first season numbers.
Like the other performers Nancy took her turn wearing animal costumes. She rode a "pony" for Talent Round-up Day, and during the opening for Anything Can Happen Day rode two different "elephants" and was stuck in a donkey costume for roll call (very bipartisan of Disney). The donkey costume was actually supposed to have been worn by Mike Smith; when he objected to his face being covered on-camera, Nancy volunteered to switch costumes with him. Anything Can Happen Day was also the venue for one of Nancy's best dance numbers, a fast 1920's flapper piece with Sharon for Variations on a Very Familiar Theme.
Nancy's singing ability is less certain, for she never seemed to solo, but often took part in group singing. Her acting was good, and she particularly displayed a flair for facial expressions in reaction shots. According to Nancy, it was her decision to quit the show at the end of first season filming. The MMC Circus at Disneyland was going to have the Mouseketeer girls do an aerial ballet; Nancy took one look at the rings and ropes then begged her mother to let her quit. They went to the studio personnel office the next day and broke the contract.
Nancy appeared in Courage of Black Beauty (1957) (which starred Johnny Crawford), but after that left television and film work behind for a great number of years. Bobby Davis, who owned a Hollywood area studio and put out records of instrumental music for dancers, selected Nancy as the model for his record for tap dancers. It was accompanied by a photo booklet in which fifteen year old Nancy, billed as Miss C.A.M. Records of 1957, demonstrated tap moves step-by-step.
Nancy moved to Las Vegas and married James Caldwell, a few months after turning seventeen, but lost her husband shortly afterwards in a auto-train collision, while pregnant with their son. After the baby was born she went to work at Caesar's Palace as a cocktail waitress because she realized, as she told a later interviewer, that at 5'1" she was too short to be a showgirl.
She attended the 20th Anniversary reunion at Disneyland, and supplied a photo and update for Keith Keller's 1975 Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook, but didn't take part in the televised 25th Anniversary show. Later, after moving back to Southern California, she opened her own dance studio in northern San Diego County, a business that she ran for twenty-five years.
She occasionally makes appearances with other Mouseketeers at Disney-related events, and in 2005 was asked by the NFFC to re-stage the original Disneyland debut of the Mouseketeers, using kids from her dance studio, for the 50th anniversary celebration.
For many years Nancy supported her late mother, and then as he grew ill her adult son, through the dance studio. After he passed away in 2007 she decided to close the studio and resume performing. She teamed up with tap-dancer Estee Cooper in a nightclub revue called "The Two Bits", which Nancy produces, choreographs, and directs.
The duo performed their act on television's America's Got Talent during 2012, making the second round of competition. Nancy also had some solo bits in the 2013 film 3 Geezers. She continues to teach dancing every week while actively bowling in two leagues.