The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show

The Show (Page 3)


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"Now, the funny thing is, I really thought I would actually get along better with Darlene Gillespie. She was the better entertainer. She had a charge. Annette was great, but Darlene, she was a powerhouse. "
--- Peter Tork (interview, 2001)

15. Mouseketeers and Serial Stars

It hadn't taken long for the producers to realize that cartoons and newsreels weren't what the kids were tuning in for; it was the dramatic serials and the Mouseketeers that pulled in the viewers and the fan mail. Curiously, with few exceptions, the young actors who played in the serials didn't benefit much from the popularity of their segment of the show. Inversely, individual Mouseketeers became very popular, while the material they performed had a lukewarm reception.

To a certain extent this dichotomy between serial actors and Mouseketeers popularity can be attributed to the latter playing themselves (and having their names on their shirts). First presented as an ensemble, by the start of second season filming studio press releases announced the show would now highlight the Mouseketeers' talents. However, few of them or the serial actors received print promotion as individuals.

The day after their television debut at Disneyland's opening, reporters were given access to the Mouseketeers between rehearsals. None of the journalists who wrote about this encounter singled out the twelve-year-old curly-haired brunette as a future star. But by mid-November 1955, six weeks after the show's debut broadcast, snippets began to appear in newspapers about the quantity of mail pouring into the studio for Annette Funicello.

Annette's growing popularity was a pleasant surprise to the producers, but also posed a challenge. Her venue as a Mouseketeer was musical variety; though she had the necessary skills, she was unimpressive as a lead performer. It was decided that her strength lay in dialogue, where her warm personality was most discernible, and thereafter she split her camera time between dramatic serial roles, narrating educational features, and the Mouseketeer background chorus. Off camera, she was in constant demand for personal appearances and interviews, attention that was both baffling and unwelcome to her, as was the hostile treatment by some of the students at her public school.

Nearly the opposite process occurred with Darlene Gillespie. Judged to be star material at the start of production, she was given her own serial and cast in a film project (a role later lost due to illness). Her opportunities for dramatic performances were limited after the first year, nevertheless her outsize talent in musical variety was what drove the Mouseketeer segment for all three seasons.

The contrast in appeal and personality between Darlene and Annette could not have been greater. Passive Annette, quiet and demure, was at her most appealing just looking winsome for the camera. Confident and assertive, Darlene was all about energy and motion, qualities that don't translate well to still images. (One wag has even suggested Annette and Darlene as representing the philosophical dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian). Yet its ironic that each girl starred in her own serial, the only ones with female leads.

Leads for most serials were played by male juveniles, with few female supporting roles. One guy dominated this niche, Tim Considine. A natural talent as an actor, his appeal crossed gender boundaries, and boys were no more jealous of him than girls were of Annette. Tim was a genuine teen star, inspiring crushes not only among the female viewers but also in the girls on the Disney lot. His Spin and Marty co-star David Stollery, a quiet lad who impressed Mouseketeers and serial actors alike, didn't generate near the fan mail that Tim did, nor surprisingly enough, did Tommy Kirk. The suppressed tension in Tommy's acting did draw critical notice though, and Walt Disney was obviously favoring him as the show wound down.

Kevin Corcoran was another personal favorite of Walt Disney, one who also had wide-spread appeal among viewers. His promotion from supporting player to serial star came quickly, and was all the more impressive for running counter to the trend of the show to emphasize teenagers over younger children.

Among the second-tier of supporting players, the most prominent were Doreen Tracey, Sammy Ogg, Bobby Burgess, and the team of Cubby and Karen. Doreen, who possessed something of Annette's charisma and Darlene's talent, somehow always wound up performing in the shadow of the two older girls. Sammy's brief popularity as comic sidekick in the serials waned as Kevin Corcoran's star rose. Bobby had some devoted followers for his positive energy and unique dancing, but like Darlene drew negative reactions from other viewers. Cubby O'Brien, a quick study who could handle any performing task thrown his way, was far more comfortable with the limelight than his shy partner, dancer Karen Pendleton, who despite inspiring crushes in a host of young boys was never quite at ease in show business.

"The Mouse is dying in Philly."
---Comment overheard in ABC Headquarters, 1957

16. American Bandstand

The high-tide of the show had passed. Die-hard fans still watched it everyday, but the ratings trailed off from January 1957, and continued their decline as original programming ended for the second season in March 1957. Already familiar with the pattern from the first season, kids knew there would be only reruns until the following October.

While evaluating ratings for all shows broadcast on network-owned and affiliate stations, an ABC executive noticed a curious thing. A live local 90 minute program from WFIL in Philadelphia was pulling in fantastic ratings, even as the Mickey Mouse Club that followed it in the afternoon schedule was withering away. At first glance this show looked like any number of local jukebox programs around the country that played popular tunes for teenagers. A closer look revealed an extra-large studio floor where dozens of teenage couples could dance live on camera, and a youthful host who could draw out the sometimes shy teens in casual interviews between sets.

So why wasn't the Mickey Mouse Club benefiting in Philadelphia from this strong lead-in show? The answer lay in the live spontaneous atmosphere of American Bandstand, its camera emphasis on regular kids dancing, and in the music. Rock 'n roll, even the mild 1950's form, carried with it a host of edgy associations that were anathema to the family-friendly image the Disney Studio sought to portray. While the Disney Music Department could and did experiment with instrumental versions of bop, the lyrics stayed within the comfort zone of adult sensibilities for teenagers. The hour-long Mickey Mouse Club, with its kid-focused newsreel, Sooty puppet, old cartoons, circus performers, and moralizing Doddisms was not a draw for older teens, however much they might secretly enjoy the serials and the Mouseketeers.

Teens in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, after watching their South Philly contemporaries dance to the latest hits for an hour and a half, were disinclined to fit back into the adult comfort zone that was the Mickey Mouse Club. They turned off their sets at 5:00 pm, and as Walt Disney had foreseen, what the older kids did the younger ones did also.

The Mouseketeers, still popular as individuals, were now collectively regarded as passé. Annette may have received up to 6,000 letters in her peak month of popularity, but when American Bandstand went national on ABC in August 1957, some of the Bandstand regulars (the unpaid amateur equivalent to the Mouseketeers) started getting upwards of 20,000 pieces of mail monthly.

The viewing teenagers wanted to hear the latest music and see dance steps they could do themselves. The Disney Music Department was stuck in the swing era, and the professionally choreographed dancing skills of the Mouseketeers was something the kids at home knew they couldn't match. Watching Sweetshop Rock was as remote for them as watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; how the heck could they do that at the next school dance?

An even more important question was being asked at the network. Why should ABC keep subsidizing The Mickey Mouse Club, with its high production costs and declining ratings, when for minimal cost it was getting top ratings from Dick Clark's Philadelphia show?

"There simply isn't enough space, studio space, at Disney's any more to do an hour long show," one executive explained "We only have three stages and we are filming 30 half hours for Zorro and 24 hours for Disneyland. In addition, we've been making two motion picture, Old Yeller and The Light in the Forest. We had to cut somewhere and we felt we could best cut the Mickey Mouse Club without hurting it any."
--- Jon Bruce, "The Truth Behind the Rumors",TV-Radio Life Nov 16, 1957

17. The Third Season and Zorro

The third season started production in late March of 1957. For unknown reasons the Disney Studio decided to drop all but one of the very talented and charming second season replacement mice. Instead four new Mouseketeers, equally talented and appealing, had been chosen, with the gender gap that started in the previous season expanding as girls increasingly outnumbered boys.

While the Mickey Mouse Club maintained high ratings, the ABC network could recoup its investment by charging advertisers. But the faddish nature of the show, its extensive use of recycled content, and a landmark change in the teenage zeitgeist had lead to steadily declining ratings, resulting in a loss of sponsors. With any other production company the network's obvious response would be to lower the advertising rates charged sponsors. But even in the face of declining ratings the Disney Studio was reluctant to discount its product, a pattern of behavior it would again exhibit with syndication fees in the 1960's.

Aware of the trouble the second season was encountering with sponsor disillusionment and escalating production costs, the Disney Studio made an effort to rework the Mickey Mouse Club, not so much in response to the show's problems, but to free up studio resources for production of a new half-hour television show.

Zorro was the final television series Walt Disney authorized in his lifetime, and the first motivated wholly by his interest in the subject matter. Unlike Disneyland, which was initiated by the need to finance and promote the theme park, or the Mickey Mouse Club, chosen by Goldenson and Kintner to stake ABC's first entry into daytime programming and agreed to by Walt Disney only for funding to complete the park, Zorro was intended purely as entertainment and would be largely free of the Disney self-referentialism that characterized the other two series.

Walt Disney had been trying since 1952 to find a way to bring the Zorro stories to television, and his personal interest in the project was reflected in the large budget and high quality of the finished product (despite the unrealistic depiction of Spanish California). Westerns were all the rage on television, and Leonard Goldenson was as anxious as Walt Disney for Zorro to debut on ABC. However, studio logistics were maxed out with six hours per week of television production as well as two live-action films. Something had to give, and from the point of view of both Disney and ABC that something was the Mickey Mouse Club.

Contrast the permanent sets for Zorro on the Disney backlot (they would also double as an Irish village for Darby O'Gill and the Little People), which had started being built two years before, and the attention to background details that marked the western series, with the minimal staging and reduced cast and creative team allotted to the Mickey Mouse Club's third season, and it's immediately apparent where Walt Disney's attention was centered. He was so inattentive to the latter program, that he allowed a lapse in animation quality for the revised Thursday opening to go out over the airwaves, something that would have been unthinkable in earlier years.

Walt Disney and his producers made the decision to cut the Mickey Mouse Club down to a half-hour, essentially reducing it to just the Serial and Mouseketeer segments, with only one cartoon a week. Circus Day was dropped, while guest stars and newsreels became infrequent, the latter being hosted and narrated by Mouseketeers to enhance their appeal. The show's writing staff was cut in half, and Mouseketeer numbers from the first season were recycled to fill out the production schedule.

So skimpy was the amount of new Mouseketeer material produced this season that filming was completed by July 1957, freeing up the mice to be used in the serials as a cost saving measure (their contracts obligated them to do so without additional compensation). As with the previous year, the serial budget was largely expended on the latest installment of Spin and Marty. Reflecting the new budget consciousness the short Hardy Boys sequel was filmed on the cheap, while the British made Clint and Mac serial was commissioned to take advantage of lower production costs and frozen Disney funds in the UK.

The studio acknowledged Annette's popularity by turning Anything Can Happen Day into Annette Day. She introduced, hosted, and narrated just about every feature shown that day of the week. Her role in the serials and Mouseketeer numbers also expanded (to the extent that her modest talents allowed), but her salary was increased only minimally, to about $230 a week. During the production of the serial that bore her name, Annette's two male co-stars would each earn nearly three times her weekly salary.

The measures adopted by the studio may have disappointed many fans of the older format, but the half-hour Mickey Mouse Club halted the ratings decline when the third season began broadcasting in October 1957. It may have helped that ABC's program schedule had the now national American Bandstand at 3:00 pm, instead of its original 3:30 pm start time, ensuring a half-hour local buffer between its close and the 5:00 pm start time of the Mickey Mouse Club. The latter show's market share remained constant during the season, at about the same depressed level at which the second season had finished. The format adopted this season would set the pattern for subsequent syndication and Disney Channel showings of the Mickey Mouse Club.

"We were there because we would not act our age but would act like professional adults and we were there because on a TV screen we looked ok. We weren't there because we were of the royal line of David. We just came to think we were because since we are all basically monkeys, we are easily tricked and deluded and capable of being stupid, and when you are working with grown adult creative people and technicians who are relying on you and you are relying on them, you come to think you are older than you are. The monkeys outside the gates, however, thought we really had mystical powers, and that we could transfer them to those outside the gates, because monkeys prefer magic to effort or honesty. I couldn't give them the magic, I didn't have it."
--- JJ Solari,   (2007)

18. Rainbow Road to Nowhere

There is a certain paradox to Mouseketeer popularity. As the studio focused more and more attention on the most popular of the dwindling number of mice, the ensemble bonds of the group which had been its strongest appeal to viewers began to weaken. The reduced creative team for the third season crafted shows built around single Mouseketeers, which while entertaining and appealing to particular fans, were less popular with the audience as a whole. Then too, relying on a small coterie of aging mice meant there could be no replenishment of the group with younger blood. Despite some very talented youngsters joining the show, the glass ceiling between Red Team and Blue Team remained.

With Walt Disney focused on Zorro and the theme park, someone came up with the idea of using the Mouseketeers for a film project involving the studio's Oz properties. The project was conceived as a musical, with the initial script written by Dorothy Cooper and songs provided by Sid Miller, Tom Adair, and Buddy Baker. The storyline would involve Dorothy Gale's return to Oz. It would draw on several of the fourteen Oz books for which the studio had film rights for situations and characters, such as the Patchwork Girl and Princess Ozma. Never mind that movie musicals were fast dying out at all the other film studios, The Rainbow Road to Oz was given a greenlight with announcements appearing in print starting July 1957.

The songs and overall storyline were developed far enough to allow for preliminary staging of several numbers in July 1957, to be shown on Disneyland that September. However, the final script remained a problem. Bill Walsh assigned Lillie Hayward to revise it, then had a go at it himself. Director Sid Miller recounted many years later the scene as Bill Walsh took the script into Walt Disney's office for approval. Walsh emerged, white-faced and shaking, and told Miller that Disney had yelled and thrown the script against the wall. There were other problems as well.

As a Mouseketeer musical, the project was dependent on Darlene Gillespie playing the lead, in a role that required top-notch singing to survive comparison with Judy Garland's Dorothy. At the same time, it was essential for box office success that the popular Annette Funicello be involved as well. Mouseketeer musical numbers for the third season had all been completed by mid-July 1957, and the two girls were now working on The New Adventures of Spin and Marty, to be followed by another joint collaboration in a serial with the working title of Annette and Darlene.

The emphasis on individual popularity that weakened the group camaraderie of the Mouseketeers was now causing major fault lines to appear. Though what happened and when is unknown, the end result is not in doubt. Darlene was dropped from the final serial, which was renamed to just Annette. This was done at such a late date that the introduction to each episode of the serial still retained a static long-shot of the high school where a fourth star's credit was obviously meant to go.

Mindful of how weakly Westward Ho, the Wagons! had performed without Annette as a draw for the kids; displeased by the heavily revised script for Rainbow and the bickering families of his two top mice; and all too aware his musical star's fans were making personal attacks against him for dropping her from the serial, Walt Disney seems to have reached a decision towards the end of 1957, not just about the film, but about the Mickey Mouse Club itself. It had never really interested him, it was a money-loser, a source of personnel headaches, a lightening rod for financial disputes with the network and sponsors, and a distraction from projects on which he really wanted to work.

"I still don't know precisely why the Mickey Mouse Club ended when it did."
--- Annette Funicello, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes   (1994)

19. Now It's Time To Say Goodbye

Its perhaps simplistic to offer a single reason for what was a complex business decision, but the inescapable conclusion is that Walt Disney didn't want to do the show anymore. It had served its purpose, and its continued production was a logistical and financial drain on studio resources and a source of personal irritation, taking time away from projects that actually interested him.

Perhaps it was for the best. Innovative in the first year, smoothly professional in its second, by the third season the show was running out of creative steam. This was only partly due to budget and resource constraints. It was also a result of the show's strategic reorientation towards older kids and the inability (or unwillingness) of the studio to devise material that would actually attract them.

Walt Disney's dilemma was how to get ABC to agree to end the Mickey Mouse Club without jeopardizing the renewal of Zorro. (There was no such concern for the anthology series, which was tied to ABC's investment in Disneyland). His solution was to halt new production and show re-packaged material for the fourth season, using as a justification the network's complaints about escalating production costs. Has anything like this ever been done before or since with a television show? Where the production company offers only reruns for an entire season, ensuring the disenchantment of viewers and broadcaster?

Just when that decision was made, and how long it took to secure ABC's agreement, is uncertain. The options for each of the three Disney shows were usually renewed during January for the following autumn, and appeared on the proposed ABC fall schedule by April. Three Mouseketeers, on tour of New England during February 1958, told reporters they were worried about the show's future as "the contracts hadn't been signed yet." Six Mouseketeers were called back to the studio in early April 1958, and kept busy for an unknown number of weeks. It seems unlikely this would have occurred if the rerun decision had already been made and network approval given by this time.

By May 19, 1958, Roy Disney was able to announce that ABC had signed renewals for all three Disney shows when he released the corporation's quarterly earnings results. ABC must have only reluctantly agreed to the rerun decision. The original contract gave Disney complete control over the show's content; for once lawyer Goldenson would have found himself legally bound. Though Disneyland (to be renamed Walt Disney Presents for the coming season) had fallen out of the top twenty-five in the ratings, Zorro was doing very well, and Goldenson was perhaps disinclined to start a major war with Disney at this time.

While the reruns saved the network the expense associated with producing new episodes, ABC was still required to pay Disney for each minute of sponsor advertising broadcast on the Mickey Mouse Club. Sponsors were now very hard to find as the show started broadcasting its fourth season in October 1958. The rating share immediately plunged by over thirty percent from the already low third season levels. The network found it so hard to find sponsors it was forced to fill out the commercial time slots with promos for other ABC television programs.

"The only reason we'd taken a position in Disneyland was to get them into television, but the Disneys had turned out to be terrible business partners. Disneyland had become enormously successful, but Disney kept plowing his profits back into park expansion."
--- Leonard Goldenson, Beating the Odds   (1991)

20. Disney versus ABC

ABC and Disney again could not reach agreement on the annual renewals in January 1959. Complicating the negotiations was an offer from NBC, now headed by Robert Kintner. Gleefully playing the spoiler, he offered to broadcast Walt Disney Presents in color on NBC for much more than ABC was paying. Walt and Roy Disney brought this offer to Leonard Goldenson, who declined to match it. Disney then proposed a new agreement for Zorro alone, with no mention of The Mickey Mouse Club.

ABC responded by publishing a new fall schedule in early April 1959 that excluded not only the Mickey Mouse Club, but Zorro as well, which was still doing very well in the ratings. The time slot formerly occupied by the Mickey Mouse Club was returned to local programming, while The Donna Reed Show was moved to Zorro's Thursday evening time period. ABC's new Fall schedule was replete with programs from movie studios that had followed Disney's lead into television, including a half-dozen lookalike westerns and detective shows from Warner Brothers. Disney's importance to ABC's bottom-line had diminished with each new season since 1954-55, and Goldenson was now willing to butt heads.

Walt Disney was probably ok with the cancellation of The Mickey Mouse Club, though of course he didn't say so in public. In effect this was the end he had aimed at with the rerun strategy, though since it now was a moneymaker he might have been just as satisfied to leave it in reruns another season. The idea that he might be contemplating switching new production on it to another network is hard to believe when his actions since 1956 all pointed to a lack of interest. Syndication of the existing episodes was the only future he foresaw for it (though even his vision could not have predicted another fifty years of daily showings). For the sake of negotions with the network though, the Disney brothers maintained a semblance of concern for the show's fate, in order to have a concession to yield.

They were upset, however, with the failure to come to terms with ABC over renewing Zorro, and doubly so when they found out the network was going to challenge any attempt to sell that series to another network. ABC's contract with Disney gave it first refusal of any new series created by the latter, but it was unclear what rights, if any, it retained over shows once shown. On July 1, 1959, Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in federal court against ABC. The suit charged the broadcaster with illegally trying to keep Zorro and The Mickey Mouse Club off the air in the coming fall, and asked the court to abrogate the existing agreement between Disney and ABC. The network responded the same day with a public statement accusing the studio of trying to escape its legal obligations.

The lawsuit did not affect Walt Disney Presents, which was scheduled to return on ABC that fall. The argument went to arbitration, which in early June 1960 was finally settled in Disney's favor, though in truth it was a draw. Zorro, the original cause of the dispute, stayed off the air while The Mickey Mouse Club could not be released to syndication for another two years. By that time Disney had exercised its option to buy out ABC's remaining interest in the theme park, and switched the primetime anthology series to NBC, the original contract with ABC now having expired.

"I feel I should apologize for growing up, because people all over the world still expect me to be twelve."
--- Darlene Gillespie (Newspaper interview, 1974)

21. Australia: A Final Frenzy

The last performances of the original Mickey Mouse Club may arguably be said to have occurred in the Antipodes. Television came much later to Australia than North America, with the first stations starting broadcasting only in the mid-fifties. By 1957-58 television coverage was still largely confined to the southeastern coastal cities, when a consortium of Australian television stations bought rights from the Disney Studio to broadcast the show's first season Down Under. A year later either Disney or local promoter Bill Watson got the idea to bring the Mouseketeers to Australia to publicize the show. Watson signed up Australian companies like the State Savings Bank of Victoria and Qantas to underwrite some of the expenses and provide services.

The Disney Studio got ahold of Jimmie Dodd and arranged for studio personnel to help him craft a new show for a small number of performers. The studio, promoter, and Jimmie came to terms about the tour itinerary, use of club logos, costumes (supplied by Palmers, an Australian clothing company), and songs. The studio would not make Annette available, but Jimmie and Disney casting agents contacted various former Red Team members to see who was interested, and eventually six kids committed to the project. (At least one Red Team member turned them down). Jimmie and Ruth Dodd were assigned temporary legal guardianship for the Mouseketeers, though several parents accompanied the tour. The group departed Los Angeles for Australia on a Pan Am jet in early May 1959, with a layover in Hawaii.

Surprised at the changes in the Mouseketeers (the Aussies were then watching the 1956-57 shows), ten thousand fans nevertheless welcomed their idols with deafening enthusiasm. The frenzy that greeted their arrival at Sydney Airport surpassed anything the kids had seen before. Police and security were hard put to contain the crowds and get the Mouseketeers safely off the tarmac and into the waiting cars. It was sadly ironic that their hour of greatest triumph came a year after they were dropped and the show stopped filming. The tour lasted three weeks and covered several of the larger cities. All the mice received favorable reviews in the local newspapers, and both Tommy Cole and Bobby Burgess were able to turn their popularity into additional Australian gigs after the tour finished.

The Mouseketeer tour returned the following year in May 1960, but with a weaker cast. Instead of star performers Sharon Baird and Doreen Tracey, the tour now had Cheryl Holdridge, a beautiful girl but simply not a viable soloist, and Roberta Shore, whose connection with the Mouseketeers would have been tenuous at best in the minds of Australians. This second tour didn't arouse the hysteria of the previous year, and indeed actually led to a minor scandal in the local press over Cheryl's dalliance with Australian singer Lucky Starr, who was also on the touring company's program (see photo at left).

There would be no more joint performances by the Mouseketeers and Jimmie Dodd after these tours, though Jimmie, alone or with one or two mice, would make solo personal appearances up to summer 1964. Groups of Mouseketeers would get together for televised reunions in 1968 and 1980, and a few would perform live on stage at Disneyland and on television for daily talk shows during the early 1980's, but the original Mickey Mouse Club had ended with the 1960 tour of Australia.

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