"I was 9 or 10 when I started piano lessons with the Sabback School of Music in Charleston. Mr. Thompson was the piano teacher there, and the group appeared on local stages, radio, and TV across the state."
The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show
The Charleston PianoCade
For the Mickey Mouse Club's coming second season (1956-57) a National Talent Roundup Search was launched to find talented kids around the country. However, the producers continued to select professional and semi-professional performers and groups as well.
One of these latter was from Charleston, South Carolina, the only talent winners from the South. The PianoCade, led by Mr. E. S. Thompson, featured sixteen spinets (each manned by two players) and from one to three grand pianos for performances.
The PianoCade first appeared on national television on The Ed Sullivan Show from New York City.
"Our Piano orchestra had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Christmas show, December 25, 1955, playing a selection of Christmas favorites. Mr. Disney watched our performance, and along with others in Hollywood, sent telegrams of congratulations and indicated interest in having us appear on the Mickey Mouse Club."
Rather than have the whole group out at once, the MMC producers asked for an advance party to come to California for preliminary arrangements. As the PianoCade group was not part of the National Talent Roundup contest and had no sponsor, they didn't travel by airplane like other talent winners.
"Sometime between the Ed Sullivan show and MMC, Mr. Thompson left Sabback's and took most of the PianoCade kids with him. In the summer of 1956, I and nine other boys in the group traveled to Burbank, California to meet Mr. Disney and the Mouseketeers in preparation to having the entire group there for the filming later that summer. We drove in two cars from Charleston to Burbank. It was a great trip as none of the boys had ever been across country before and I suspect Mr. Thompson and the other driver hadn't either as we took a very scenic and roundabout route."
The trip was made in the days before interstate highways were built; Phil says he retains vivid memories of most of the places they visited along the way.
Phil was just shy of twelve when he made the trip out west to Burbank. One of the youngest guys in the group, he seems to have made a good impression on Walt Disney.
"I got to meet Mr. Disney in his office where he asked me about my life in Charleston, my hobbies, and particularly if I could ride a horse. Well I was southern born and raised, and naturally I rode and I seemed to delight him with tales of my daring-do on horseback."
Phil confesses that he had a terrible crush on Darlene at the time, so his second day at the studio was a real treat.
"The next day, Annette, Doreen, and Darlene insisted that I have lunch with them in the studio cafeteria, while other Mouseketeers ate with the rest of the guys. Annette and Doreen were puzzled about how they were going to get 35 pianos on the small MMC stage, and when we met for the first time, they just had to know how we did it. I explained that we used spinet pianos arranged back to back on two levels and in a semi-circle."
The PianoCade had thirty-five performers, but the kids sat two to each spinet, so there were only seventeen pianos on stage. Though ten boys had made the first trip, the group that was eventually filmed had just six boys (including Phil) and twenty-six girls.
"We certainly had more boys in the 'Cade. In some of our concerts, Spencer Gant (the best pianist), Edward Bunch, and I would man three grand pianos in front of the spinets as the featured pianists. I don't know why the other guys didn't make the cut, but our teacher and leader, Mr. E.S. Thompson would have ensured that only the best would be allowed to perform. He was a hard taskmaster and if one wasn't up to his standards at the final rehearsal, one didn't perform on stage."
The second trip from Charleston to Burbank with the whole PianoCade in August 1956 was made by bus on the southern route. The group always rented pianos locally or used donated instruments in their touring performances, the logistics of moving up to twenty pianos around the country being too much to contemplate. Producer Bill Walsh had been unable to arrange matching spinets for the filmed performance, which Phil says was usually the case for their tours.
"The little girl and I were selected by Bill Walsh to come down and be presented with our ears and hat. I never received my ears and hat, even after several letters from my mother to Bill Walsh. When the show was aired, the "ear and hat" presentation had been cut. I don't know why as I believe we were the only ones to have that happen to them. Maybe it was a time issue."
Throughout the spring and summer of 1956 publicity snippets in newspapers reported the Mickey Mouse Club's producers were planning a new serial to be called Young Davy Crockett, which would star Kentucky native Tommy Kirk. They were apparently looking to cast other southern kids for this project that never got made.
"On our second trip to Burbank, I found out that Mr. Disney was looking at one of the girls in our group and me to play in current serials under production. Unfortunately, that never materialized, but I'll always remember how real and unassuming all the kids were and the short time I got to spend with them."
Though he enjoyed doing the Mickey Mouse Club, Phil found a couple of years later that the demands of playing music with the PianoCade outweighed his interest in continuing to perform.
"I should add here that in all of our performances, we played from memory - without sheet music - as that was one of Mr. Thompson's requirements of us. Sometime between 13 and 14 we had a scheduled Christmas show in which we were required to memorize the entire Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite. My heart was no longer in performing (and the 5 hours/day practice that I required to learn and memorize the music) and had developed other interest as most boys my age are wont to do. Therefore, I quit the group and piano lessons. I did play for my church throughout my teen years until I went off to college. I have not continued my music in adulthood much to my regret. "
Phil would love to hear from other members of the PianoCade who might interested in reliving their shared experiences.