The Show (Page 2)
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"I won't play down to children, and I won't patronize them"
|--- Walt Disney|
8. What Should It Look Like?
Bill Walsh and Hal Adelquist were assigned to create the show. They began brainstorming, with Walsh responsible
for producing a written report in late
January 1955, called The Mickey Mouse Club Children's TV Show: General Format Notes and Preliminary Structure. This multi-page document
contained eleven points that spelled out the essential characteristics of the show that would eventually make it onto the air. On only two
points, "Children" and "Cast", would the final product differ significantly, as the show's creators came to realize that this was really
just one point.
The Mickey Mouse Club was broken into quarter-hour blocks, each having its own material, independent of the rest of the show. This simplified the production schedule and continuity, as the individual segments could be filmed in any sequence then edited together to form a complete show. (Though Bill Walsh's report said this was undertaken to facilitate interchanging segments between shows for reruns, in practice this did not occur until the 1958-59 season.) It also would enable ABC to sell the more popular quarter-hour blocks for higher rates to sponsors.
Robert Kintner had envisioned the show as being a visual equivalent to the daily radio "strips" broadcast for kids. The eventual content instead mimicked the successful formula long offered by movie theaters: a newsreel, a cartoon, a musical comedy interlude, and a dramatic feature, though its by no means certain that the creators thought of it in those terms. Realizing that the Disney name would be synonymous with cartoons, Bill Walsh assigned one quarter-hour to a short from the studio vault, while suggesting the show's opening and closing be animated to give the illusion of more cartoons than were really present. Each day of the week was also to be devoted to a special theme, though Walsh cautioned against too mechanical a pattern in the show's presentation. Things should look like they are just happening, he advised.
Walt Disney gave the greenlight for the show to proceed along the lines Bill Walsh had indicated. He checked daily on progress, vetted cast selections, and issued inter-department memos to backup decisions already reached by Walsh and others, but the show did not bear his personal imprint in the way that earlier projects had done. He also gave strict orders that there must be one Disneyland-related skit per week. Bill Walsh and Hal Adelquist took this seriously, but could come up with only a dozen story ideas based around rides, guest stars, and projected features of the yet to be opened theme park. By late February 1955 they had completed basic storylines for the entire first season of one hundred shows.
On February 22, 1955, ABC and Disney jointly announced the Mickey Mouse Club would debut the following October 3rd. Their announcement said the one hour show would be broadcast weekdays at 5 pm, with content that would include entertainment and information, not just animated cartoons. What they couldn't talk about, because it hadn't been settled yet, was the cast.
The only national competition in that hourly time slot were two half-hour programs, The Pinky Lee Show and Howdy Doody. They were broadcast on NBC in major television markets; smaller cities might only carry one of them. Both featured adults as the main performers with on-camera studio audiences of anonymous small fry. Walsh and Adelquist soon realized they didn't want that format for the Mickey Mouse Club, but may have regarded with interest the popularity of teenager Molly Bee, whom Pinky Lee had hired to sing on his show.
"[Roberta] Shore remembers that all of the Mouseketeers had stage mothers in the classic sense of that term, "and my mother was right in there with them." When Disney shows were being filmed, the mothers would sit together to watch the day's shooting. "We were all underage, so we had to have a parent there," Shore said with a chuckle. "And they'd get mad if somebody else's kid got a close-up."
|--- Chris Hicks, Interview with Roberta Shore for Deseret News   (2010)|
9. The Merry Mouseketeers
The show's cast was originally projected to consist of four or more adults, including an MC, a bandleader, a magician, and a young lady, a setup
that seems derived from Howdy Doody. Children were likewise thought of in the same mode as other shows of the time,
as a transient audience of passive noisemakers, with an occasional bewildered victim pulled from the crowd for on-stage merriment. But this
conventional approach would be swept away by what now seems an obvious idea, that children themselves would constitute the majority of the
Neal Gabler's recent biography of Walt Disney says it was either Bill Walsh or Hal Adelquist who came up with the Mouseketeers, dispensing entirely with the live audience and most of the adult cast. A studio memo, dated March 23, 1955, contained the lines: "Call kids Mouseketeers - get costumes, sweaters, little hats. Audience not necessary, just kids." It was likely a joint decision. Hal Adelquist, whose early career at Disney included organizing company picnics for employee families, knew how quickly live events could get out of hand, while Bill Walsh had already shown a preference with the first Christmas specials for using professional children pretending to be a spontaneous, casual group.
Nevertheless, there would be adult hosts, the mindset of the times being such that a viewing audience couldn't accept a program where grownups weren't in control. Two were selected almost immediately from crew members assigned to work on the show: one each from the Music and Story Departments. Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams, besides performing and writing many of the songs and gags used, would also lend their judgment to the casting of their young colleagues.
Walt Disney's advice to Bill Walsh on selecting the kids was both specific and impractical (see Cast section). The open audition that was held in April 1955 turned up a wide variety of kids: many talented, some charismatic, and a very few, both accomplished and appealing. As the five hundred kids who auditioned that first season were winnowed down to a few dozen, a more intensive evaluation process began in the studio during May 1955.
The kids were tested for singing and dancing skills, and given screen tests to judge camera appeal. They also had their academic transcripts scrutinized to evaluate the likelihood they would be able to juggle schoolwork and a career. About two-thirds of those who survived the initial auditions made the final cut, and became the original Mouseketeers, with nearly a third of them coming from a single dance studio, the University of Dance in Alhambra. The school's founder, Burch Mann Holtzman, would also become the show's first choreographer.
Mouseketeer recollections of the auditions and the month immediately following are quite diverse. While most recall their own winning audition performance, they are often hazy and even contradictory about who else was there, and what happened in the weeks following. What does seem likely, however and whenever they were selected, was the Mouseketeers were brought into the studio in several waves rather than all at once. The first kids modeled early versions of the Mouseketeer outfit; later kids were ordered to report directly to Western Costume for measuring for the final kit.
The Disney Studio had used children as far back as the animated Alice comedies of the 1920's, but this long history did not translate into much experience. Aside from Virginia Davis, the studio's coterie of juvenile stars had been limited over the past twenty years to just a handful of part-timers, including Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll, and Kathryn Beaumont. This inexperience was probably fortuitous, for the producers had no prior tolerance for long-standing Hollywood traditions on the prerogatives of stage parents, and isolated them in the studio auditorium. With their individual "coaches" and "cheerleaders" off the set, the kids were formed into teams, much like a school classroom or athletic league, a move that facilitated the ensemble approach of the first season, while providing a more normal peer environment for the Mouseketeers.
The Mouseketeers were not the only kids recruited for the show. Even before the open audition was held, casting directors Lee Traver and Jack Lavin had been auditioning professional actors, both adults and juveniles, for a variety of dramatic and educational serials. At least one of the boys who tried out for The Adventures of Spin and Marty also turned up at the Mouseketeer audition. Hal Adelquist oversaw the recruitment of amateur and professional specialty acts, some of whom had come to the notice of the producers during open auditions, for Talent Roundup Day.
"The Mickey Mouse Club was a Walt Disney production in name only."
|--- Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination   (2006)|
10. Putting It Together
The actual process of creating the show was at first a chaotic whirlwind of activity that went on from early May through to about the end of June
1955. Bill Walsh was quoted as saying that the staff discussed storylines in the morning, wrote songs during the day, then filmed the sequences
in the afternoon. From July through to the show's debut in October things became more orderly on the set, as the personnel stabilized,
the cast became aware of what was required from them, and the crew learned what to expect from each performer, even as the film editors were
becoming overwhelmed with the mass of material to be assembled into complete shows.
Walsh had enlisted the help of former studio employee Perce Pearce, who was then living in England. Pearce had produced the live-action Disney films made there starting with Treasure Island in 1950. Disney still had funds in the United Kingdom from its film profits that by then British law couldn't be moved out of the country. Pearce was asked to develop material for the show using those funds. He recruited Harry Corbett and his puppet Sooty, wrote storylines for the short educational serial English Correspondent and cast US "military brat" Dirk Metzger who would host it. Pearce died suddenly of a heart attack in London on July 4, 1955, and his tasks were picked up by others.
Three cameras were used from the start, a relatively new technique for television filming, previously done only on a few high-budget shows. While multiple cameras were a necessity for live television, prerecorded shows were usually done with a single lens, to reduce costs. For the The Mickey Mouse Club, having more than one camera minimized the number of setups needed, a vital necessity due to the time constraints involved with child performers. It reduced pressure on the director and stage crew, since one of the cameras was bound have a usable shot for each scene filmed.
Using multiple cameras, however, required an overall flat lighting scheme for the set. It was also expensive and increased the amount of film the editors had to examine, even while obviating the need for retakes. This was particularly important when shooting guest stars, circus acts, and talent winners, who were only on the lot for a few days time.
The earliest scenes filmed appear to have been some Fun With Music Day numbers (Animals and Clowns, Old Betsy, and Pussycat Polka), probably shot in late May 1955. The kids were not yet divided into color-coded teams, and their initial groups were of more or less equal size and importance. Parents were still allowed on the set at this point, helping contribute to the confusion. By June Bill Walsh had ordered all parents and legal guardians confined to the studio auditorium, while the Mouseketeer groups were reorganized into color-coded teams. The six-member Blue and White teams were to be used for scenes needing only a small number of kids. The Red Team with twelve kids was set up for scenes requiring a large number of Mouseketeers.
For the first season, all music was performed live on the set during filming, using studio musicians. (For later seasons, music was mainly provided through sound track mixing after the performance). Disney was the last studio to maintain its own Music Department. The department head was Robert Jackman, later succeeded by Buddy Baker. Baker did an amazing amount of work for every episode of the Mickey Mouse Club, creating individual arrangements of music for each guest star, circus act, and talent winner, as well as orchestrating the Mouseketeer skits. For the serials, the show drew on the musical talents of William Lava, a freelancer who worked off and on for Disney during the fifties.
"The show is both entertaining and enlightening, done with as much taste and care as any adult program. But the commercials! They're enough to drive you nuts. Not only are there three every 15 minutes. The station also sneaks in three more every 15 minutes at the station break. The Disney people are just as upset as the public. Walt apparently didn't foresee the excesses of the network; he vows that next year he'll have some control over such matters."
|---AP News Item, Comeback Star of Year is Mickey Mouse, Dec 3, 1955|
11. Debut and Reaction
The Mouseketeers first debut on television came July 17, 1955, with the Disneyland opening day ABC special. This was a live broadcast, fortunately kinescoped so it can be seen today. The kids paraded through the streets of Disneyland, then headed to the little open air theater (long gone) between Frontierland and Fantasyland where they performed for the TV cameras. The program's hosts were a little uncertain as to who they were, but the kids' dancing, Bonni Kern's front flip, and the iconic roll call of all the mice (which wouldn't happen again for twenty-five years) made a big impression on viewing children.
According to some residents of Southern California, the Mouseketeers appeared on one or more local television shows between July and October of 1955, again performing their dances and roll call. It seems likely the mice also started their Disneyland appearances at this time, and perhaps also their brief live performances at schools and other local venues, though evidence for all these surmises is lacking.
The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on the ABC network at 5:00 pm, October 3rd, 1955. It was supposed to come on at the same time of day in
every time zone, but Midwestern stations as was their practice ran it an hour earlier. It was a smash
from the start, with only a few dissenting opinions. Most prominent among these was the New York Times reviewer, Jack Gould, who decried the
commercials as excessive and ridiculed the Friendly Farmers number as "animal noises". He was correct on both counts, but the majority
opinion looked beyond the minor flaws and irritants to recognize the show's revolutionary approach to children's programming.
There was no denying that the show was packed with commercials; the cost of producing such a high-quality product had to be recouped somehow. Most children's shows of the time were low budget affairs, capable of surviving with just one or two commercial sponsors. The Mickey Mouse Club, however, had dozens of products advertised throughout the week, a measure of its expected popularity. Still, commercials for the Mickey Mouse Club drew more attention than other shows because parents, who usually turned on the set and left the room while their progeny watched kiddie programs, were actually sitting down and watching this one along with their children.
For its first three months of broadcasting the Mickey Mouse Club maintained an astounding 48.7 share of the viewing audience. It not only dominated the swingtime period market, it was the highest rated television show for all of daytime as well. A large measure of that success must be attributed to the dramatic serial The Adventures of Spin and Marty, perhaps the single most popular feature on the show and certainly one of the best remembered.
It was not just a family program; with television ownership having penetrated only fifty percent of American homes by 1955, those fortunate kids whose home had a TV set found their neighborhood popularity soared around 5pm every weekday. (Darlene Gillespie recalled years later her family first watched television thru the fortuitously-placed back screen door of a neighbor's home, only getting their own set after Darlene started appearing on the show). The Mickey Mouse Club debuted at a unique time in the development of television in the United States, at a point where home viewership was widespread but not universal. This afforded the show an aura of comparative value among its juvenile watchers, ensuring a nostalgic rememberence that later children's programs in times of more saturated coverage would never again achieve.
Not everyone in North America could see this show. ABC's network coverage, based on dedicated private telephone lines, was so weak that Disney was forced to print 16mm copies of the 35mm masters, and ship them directly to many independent stations and ABC affiliates. These prints were often shown a week or more after the network broadcast, and in later years some of them would find their way into the hands of private collectors. But where ever the show did reach, it dominated the competition, driving Pinky Lee off the air and sending Howdy Doody fleeing towards a friendlier Saturday morning time slot.
Why the changes? In later years studio veterans would suggest to author Jerry Bowles that because Walt Disney had so little to do with the show, he resented its popularity and took his frustrations out on Hal Adelquist. This could be; a no-show in the first season, Walt Disney made sure to appear on-camera several times during the second, to put his personal stamp on it. But a more strategic explanation suggests the changes were driven by a shift in emphasis towards teenagers. Where the show initially sought to cover a range of kids from ages three to fourteen as ABC had requested, it now focused on twelve and above.
This age shift was no idle whim of Walt Disney, but rather was part of a general refocusing that included the studio's live-action films and promotional advertising for the theme park. The master marketeer had grasped that the baby boom, coupled with a long period of economic prosperity, heralded the arrival of teenagers as a customer-base separate and distinct from children. Where children typically had little money of their own, and must rely on persuading adults to do their purchasing, teenagers had both disposable income and some independence to travel short distances to spend it.
The shift in target audience, driven by Walt Disney's reasoning that if the older kids are watching the younger ones will also, carried some inherent dangers. There was little competition among sponsors at that time for the teenage market. While the show still dominated its time slot, ABC began having trouble finding advertisers interested in appealing to older kids. Then too, the flip side of courting teenagers was the fickleness of their collective taste and the disdain that they would evince for anything perceived as childish or outmoded.
Though his goal was prescient, Walt Disney's personal inclinations and the talents of his writers and composers couldn't encompass the creative shift that would have been necessary to really appeal to older teenagers. Their ideal for a television show was already airing locally on an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, and a year later would have a disastrous effect on local ratings for the Mickey Mouse Club.
"Having grown up rather poor financially, and as a latch key kid, the Mickey Mouse Club was my best friend. I remember pretending that different cast members were my 'brothers and sisters'. I literally had no other kids around to play with until I was older. Getting home from school, I knew all was right with the world. Mickey Mouse and all my friends were there to meet me... I was never alone."
|--- S. A. from Cincinnati|
12. The Appeal
So what was the appeal of this show, that it could so captivate its audience? There was of course the "fad factor" that propelled the show to dizzying ratings in its first six months. Television shows for kids were rare enough that any new program would draw a mass response, at least for a little while. The Disney brand intensified this initial reaction, yet there remained something more to this new show that allowed it to escape the inevitable fall once the fad wore off. The essential factor seems to have been the child-to-child interaction that formed the basis for both the Mouseketeer and Serial segments, and the ease with which the viewer could imagine themselves as one of this gang.
For some, the abiding attraction was the illusion that the Mouseketeers were a group of close friends who hung out together. It was a performance of course, a working camaraderie that ended with each daily wrap and the close of the season's filming. Nevertheless it invited juvenile viewers to be part of a friendly in-crowd, where everyone was talented, good-looking (more or less), and above all inclusive. No rejection here, no bullying or catty remarks, just turn on the dial and hey presto!...instant peer group. For kids isolated either geographically or socially from others their age (and who isn't, at one time or another?) this was a powerful lure.
The Mickey Mouse Club also heralded a shakeup in the realm of popular cultural idols. For many young viewers the Mouseketeers and serial actors provided their first experience of a romantic crush for someone near their own age. Annette, Tim Considine, and others on the show would quickly supplant adult movie stars and recording artists as the heart-throbs for older kids and younger teens. With Annette the appeal even transcended gender, her "everygirl" image arousing an intense desire among young viewers of both sexes to be her friend.
Fan Mail for the Mickey Mouse Club
The Walt Disney Studios placed a great emphasis on fan mail, which was carefully sorted and counted, with results distributed weekly and monthly for executive review. A common theory of the time, subscribed to by many TV show producers, was that each fan letter represented a certain number of additional viewers who didn't write. The table below on the left represents total fan mail received monthly for the show's four year run, while that on the right breaks down a typical week's mail by recipient.
There was an unexpectedly large adult audience for the show as well. ABC and Disney had anticipated a certain amount of viewers would be "captive" moms, forced to watch along with their young children. But the show's quality, particularly in presenting musical variety, combined with the innate charm of the youthful performers helped ensure adults would constitute up to a third of the audience. A certain amount of this adult viewership should probably also be attributed to the nature of the Disney universe, the forerunner of a phenomena so manifest today in which anything with the label "Disney" has a built-in audience.
"Annette took time out from a dancing routine to sit down and sip orange juice. She's still receiving more fan mail than anyone except Jimmy Dodd and she's a little embarrassed about it. She didn't want to talk about it around the others. She likes the attention, but there's one thing she'd rather not do and that's sign autographs. "I hate it" she says, perhaps out of shyness."
|--- Steven H. Scheulr, Newspaper item: Mouseketeers Work While Others Play   (Sept 3, 1957)|
13. Going On the Road
From the start, Walt Disney had envisioned that talented kids appearing on the show would have the opportunity to appear on Disneyland,
at Disneyland, and on the road in some sort of updated vaudeville tour. This would turn out to be a major part of the Mousekeeters and top serial actor's employment.
The Mouseketeers made their first appearance on the anthology show in February 1956 with the episode entitled A Day in the Life of Donald Duck, which mixed live-action with animation. Filmed earlier in 1955, the kids were presented as a gang, with only a lucky few getting brief close-up lines. It was a far cry from their second and final appearance during the third season, which highlighted the performing skills of individual mice. Aside from these two episodes, and Disneyland's opening day special, the Mouseketeers didn't perform on other commercial programs, but did make appearances on national television for benefit shows for a variety of charitable causes.
Personal appearances started with Disneyland's opening day, continued after the show ceased filming, and even after it went off the air. The majority of Mouseketeer appearances occurred in the Los Angeles area, at elementary schools, hospitals, department stores, charity events, and of course, at Disneyland. Multiple engagements per day were common. The Red Team Mouseketeers had a standard routine running about twenty-five minutes during which five or six quick song and dances would be performed as solos or duets. Smaller numbers of Mouseketeers, usually two or three of the most popular kids, would make non-performing personal appearances, which often included autograph signing sessions.
Overnight trips seem to have been rarer, though the exact number cannot be estimated. These ranged from two day jaunts up the coast to Portland, Oregon with six Mouseketeers, to two week excursions with the full Red team to the Midwest or East Coast. Whether long or short, the trips carried a large support staff for the mice, including parents, teachers or welfare workers, casting director, accompanist, publicity man, and the adult leaders. The most expensive "road trip" was a simple drive down the road to Anaheim for the month and a half long Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland. From late November 1955 to early January 1956, all the mice (and some moms) performed two forty-five minute shows daily, along with professional circus acts, many of whom also appeared on the television show.
What did all this have to do with the television show, and more importantly, who was paying for it? While Disney was footing the immediate bill, and the circus was presumably financed out of Disneyland admissions, there may have been some suspicion in the minds of ABC executives that money paid up front for production of the television show was being used to finance publicity tours that were as much about promoting the theme park as they were about the Mickey Mouse Club. After all, this was the secret to Disney's strategic success, that all elements of the Disney universe reinforced each other.
"Walt Disney loved young children--- I don't think he loved teenagers quite so much."
|---Leonard Goldenson, Beating the Odds   (1991)|
14. Second Season Production
During March and early April 1956 principal photography for the film Westward Ho, the Wagons! was completed. This film, slated for release the following December, starred Fess Parker, and featured four Mouseketeers and two actors from Spin and Marty. With the film wrapped up, production of the Mickey Mouse Club's second season could now begin. From the view point of those making it, things couldn't have looked more promising. Ratings for the first season still being broadcast had declined a bit since the debut, particularly as reruns kicked in during the spring, but there was an ever-increasing volume of fan mail and media attention focused on the show and its young stars. Though the participants didn't realize it, this was the highwater mark for the show's popularity.
The truth was that even as the theme park became financially self-sustaining and then profitable, the Mickey Mouse Club was bleeding money. Per episode production costs rose twenty-five percent for the second season, despite a reduction in the number of Mouseketeers from twenty-four to seventeen. The budget busters were the dramatic serials: nearly one-third of the shows operating costs that season went for just two serials, Further Adventures of Spin and Marty and The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure. They were unquestionably the most popular features of the show that year, but to make up for their expense the studio was forced to acquire two old movies and chop them up to fill out the serial schedule. Neither of these films nor the shorter educational serials made that year proved at all popular.
Adding to the show's cost was a dedicated writing staff hired just for the Mickey Mouse Club. They took over skit and song writing chores from the producers and Disney Story and Music Departments, though the latter still contributed some tunes. The unionized technical crafts had also won substantial increases in pay, though this added cost was minimized to some extent by replacing the live orchestra on the set with sound mixing.
The producers also cut some expenses by going to a single camera filming team for the second season, a cost savings made possible by a cast that on average was older and more professional than the first season. According to film editor Mike Hoey, this was also done because Walt Disney reportedly disliked the flat lighting scheme necessary for multiple cameras. Having just one camera filming the action allowed the crew to use a number of special lighting effects for the second and third season.
As location shooting in Wisconsin for Adventure in Dairyland began in June 1956, the Mickey Mouse Club's first season broadcasts, now in reruns, were still high in the ratings but had lost considerable market share. NBC had counter-programmed with I Married Joan, an older filmed series. It won the time slot in large urban areas with high concentrations of adults and low numbers of children. To a small extent the Disney Studio helped out ABC by replacing some newsreel clips in reruns with newer ones.
Publicity releases made sure to emphasize to newspaper readers that the new season of the Mickey Mouse Club was going to highlight the talents of individual Mouseketeers. The Mouseketeers were made available for interviews, and small profile pieces began appearing in magazines for Annette, Darlene, and a few others. Publicity for the coming season kicked up in August 1956, with a highly visible live performance by the Mouseketeers at the Hollywood Bowl, and presidential election convention newsreel reporting by Judy Harriet and Tommy Kirk.
Filming for the new serials wrapped up in September, but Mouseketeer filming was still going on in early October 1956, even as the second season of the Mickey Mouse Club was premiering on television. Ratings held up well in the first three months of the new season, buoyed by The Hardy Boys and Spin and Marty serials. But when these two draws had finished their initial run, the ratings went into a steady decline throughout the winter and spring of 1957, prompting re-evaluations of the show at both the studio and the network.
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