MMC Talent Winner: Patti Lee
The first rounds of the auditions were conducted at a district level, using department stores and other merchants as sponsors, and local folks with Disney-hired talent scouts as judges. The hordes of kids who tried out were eventually winnowed down to a handful of the most talented and photogenic youngsters, who competed against each other on a local television special. Like most such programs in 1956 this was broadcast live, putting a lot of pressure on the young performers.
"Paul's father, Sanford Hertz was my vocal coach from the time I was four, this is how I know him and his family. (Connie Francis was a student at Hertz Studios too). Ray Eckert was introduced when the contest was taking place. There were three thousand applicants all trying to win. Out of that group ten were picked to appear on the TV special and three were chosen. I suppose we wanted to go to Disneyland more than the others. I was a seasoned TV regular on a show out of New York every Sunday morning for five years called Horn and Hardarts Children's Hour so I was not camera shy. We were not paid so I was considered an amateur until Disney. After the win I did much more as a professional entertainer until I became a teenager and wanted nothing to do with show business."
The final selection of regional winners was supposed to be made by Jimmie Dodd (whom everybody knew) and Hal Adelquist (whom nobody knew) but the vagaries of travel and the show's shooting schedule meant they weren't always available. When that situation occurred the results sometimes would take a while as Disney scouts and the local sponsors tried to decide. This is evidently what happened in Newark, where Patti nearly missed out on the trip to California for the sake of a family vacation.
"When the contest was held they took a long time to decide who the winners were and my father was ready to go on vacation. We vacationed in the Catskill Mountains of New York that summer and had no phone or regularly delivered newspaper so they were not aware that there was a thirteen state alarm out looking for me."
By the time Disney agents got around to notifying Patti Lee of her good fortune they discovered the Chrznowski's were "on vacation somewhere in upstate New York" according to neighbors. The Disney folks asked ABC to broadcast an alert for the girl through its New York affiliates, and local papers quickly picked up the story. While in Kingston, NY the family finally got the word.
"My dad happened to go to the supermarket and saw my picture on the front page of some newspaper with a caption that said Eight year old Patti may miss big trip. We were packed up and headed back to New Jersey that evening."
Patti Lee, Paul Hertz, Ray Eckert and their parents were flown out to California by the Disney Studio. The flight took fourteen hours in a prop, commercial jet travel still being a few years away. After the first enchantment of flight wore off, the discomforts of coast to coast air travel in the propeller age came home to Patti.
"We didn't have the service of today. There was no first class, food distributed, or an in flight movie to watch. I clearly remember the stop we made in Las Vegas. I was starving but my mom started playing the slot machines in the airport and I wasn't sure I was going to eat. I never knew a soggy hot dog could taste so good."
At the Burbank Studio
The regional auditions were staggered so that winners from different parts of the country arrived at the studio on different weeks.
"When we were sent to California for the filming we didn't have to attend school, the segment was shot in the summer. I believe we were there for 10 days. In that time period each of us did the filming and were guests at Disneyland.
For Patti's number, the Disney folks had her do a song that dates back to 1917. Somewhat surprisingly, the cowboy hat, ears and scroll that winners received on camera were props, and not the ones they were to keep.
"The song they chose for me was Smiles. I suppose it was apple pie and ice cream for the producers (image of Disney). I clearly remember the male Mouseketeers sitting on some sort of studio fencing. They introduced me by saying each letter of the word "S M I L E, smile cause here comes Patti Lee"! I had the heaviest crush on Lonnie and had trouble maintaining my composure every time he was anywhere in my sight. I'm sure he was totally unaware because I was a little girl and he was approaching his teens.
"I was not given any lines to say or dance steps, it was more about them congratulating the winner and presenting that person with their golden mouse ears, cowboy hat and certificate. I never received the gifts as promised. I imagine they were lost in the overwhelming horde of winners coming to California."
Though she missed out on going to the schoolhouse trailer with the Mouseketeers, Patti seems to have happy memories of being around them for the days of filming. She even had them sign her autograph book, which she still has today, but minus one important signature.
"For whatever reason even though I was standing right in front of the man himself, I could not get the words out to ask Walt Disney for his autograph. He was amazing and he really loved kids. I still giggle at the fact the kids could run all over the studio lot but the parents were guests in a building and could not leave."
The Perils of Celebrity
Patti Lee's performance wouldn't air until February 22, 1957, when she and Ray Eckert were featured on the same Friday show. But even before she appeared on a national broadcast the downside of such exposure was brought home to her.
"There were a few sour grapes upon my return, another regular on The Children's Hour also made it to the finals but didn't win the trip.....have you any idea what an eight year old feels like when the parent of that child snubs them? Not to mention I was not the one that picked the winners!"
Patti's entertainment career continued after the Mickey Mouse Club. She began getting paid gigs and even indulged her creative side.
"At the ripe old age of ten I wrote a rock song that was put on Roulette Records. My best friend and I were hanging out one summer afternoon and I made up this song about a boy who was really mean to his girlfriend, left her for another then tried to get her back. My friend Margie was a little older than me and in truth the song was composed from the crushing relationship of a twelve year old. It was the boy who dumped her then tried to get her back that inspired me. We sang it together and were on Bandstand in Philly (we were the first performers to dance with the regulars that came there every day)and Allen Fried's Big Beat in the city. Roulette Records scheduled us to do Fried's Christmas show. That entailed two shows a day for six days, and the Christmas Eve show. Margie's parents would not let her perform Christmas Eve..... Roulette pulled the record because of that decision."
|You can still find the record they cut in the Roulette Records discography as R 4111 from 1958 by "Patti & Margie". The songs are listed as the standard Sentimental Journey backed with their own composition No No Baby .||
No No Baby
As she grew older Patti began to take charge of her own life, which she decided was not going to include performing.
"MMC wasn't the direct reason for disillusionment with show business, the public was responsible. When you're a child and happen to be a little different neighborhood parents might compare their child to your accomplishments, in front of that child. The child in turn can become cruel towards you and make your life a living hell unless you either pop them in the nose or ignore the ignorance. What the neighborhood kids didn't realize was I had to do schoolwork and homework, then practice for at least an hour every day, (that would be one hour each of singing, dancing and piano) then possibly go to one of the schools related to the profession for coaching and if I had a job (modeling, singing or acting) I missed the day of school which I had to make up all the work for that day. It was much more than what the normal child was doing at that time in their life. I just got tired of being a whipping post.
"As far as resentment towards my folks, yeah I felt some but when I made the decision not to be a part of that industry they didn't guilt or hassle me. My mother was disappointed and at first refused to accept my decision. I secretly think she wanted to be a superstar but realized she didn't have what it took to achieve what she wanted unless it was through me. This is why she pushed. She finally stopped looking like someone died and life went on in our household. My dad was great about it. I leveled with him, explaining how mean some can be, he was very understanding."
Patti and her husband Kevin Smith have an unusual family business. Kevin designs and builds medieval siege engines of all type and sizes, which the couple hawk at Renaissance Fairs and from their website. Her husband claims Patti is a mean shot with a miniature catapult and a marshmallow projectile. And despite her teenage resolution, Patti has recently gone back to performing.
"I play Mother Goose at Renaissance Festivals all over the country. The original Mother Goose, Nancy Townsand, passed away last year from a long suffering illness. We were good friends and her husband, Alan asked if I would pick up the hat. It doesn't have ears but the fit is good."