The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show


Sidney Miller     (1916-2004)

Director, Songwriter, Performer

Sid Miller came to the Mickey Mouse Club with over twenty years experience as a performer, lyricist, director, and writer. He would reshape the program into a slicker, more professional show during his two seasons as principal director of the Mouseketeer segments.

Background

Sydney L. Miller was born October 22, 1916, at Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. His parents were Carl and Bessie Miller, immigrants from eastern Poland, whose families had brought them to the United States as teenagers. Sydney had two older sisters, Sarah and Florence. Their father was a moderately successful tailor, who owned a house and shop, but in 1930 he sold both and took the family out west to Los Angeles.

Miller's first role in film was an uncredited part as Maurice Levy in Penrod and Sam (1931), directed by William Beaudine. The following year Sydney Miller had uncredited roles in five films, then in 1933 made eight pictures, including his first screen credits. For the latter, he changed the spelling of his name to "Sidney", which he then used throughout his life. His ethnic features meant stereotyping as a young Jewish guy, alternately gifted or annoying or just one of the crowd. It cannot have been an easy experience, but times were hard, and any acting job was welcome. Sid developed a thick skin and a brash, assertive manner to get parts, a combination successful for that time and place.

Sid's big break came playing opposite Mickey Rooney in Boy's Town (1938). Two pumped-up overeager guys like them ought to have clashed, but they became friends, with Sid joining Rooney's entourage. Sid worked as a lyricist for Rooney's song compositions, such as Have a Heart, Cuban Swing, and Oceans Apart, recorded by Judy Garland. Sid Miller had bit parts and crew positions in many of Rooney's films (Babes in Arms, Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, Strike Up the Band, Life Begins for Andy Hardy, Babes on Broadway) through the early 1940's.

After Rooney joined the US Army, Sid Miller continued acting in pictures. He also became more involved in songwriting, and his credits from the mid-1940's were as much for composing as for bit parts. He worked in radio during 1947-48, then began writing and directing early television variety shows. Sid Miller also wrote material for nightclub acts, some of which he performed with partner Donald O'Connor. When O'Connor began hosting episodes of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, Sid Miller joined the show's team as well. He both performed and wrote songs for this show, and would later bring several other creative folks from it to The Mickey Mouse Club.

During the 1954-55 television season, The Donald O'Connor Show featured O'Connor and Miller as a songwriting team. The duo actually did write many of the numbers they performed on camera, but the show didn't return for a second season. Sid Miller thereafter joined the Disney Studio.

Contribution

Despite it's initial success, Walt Disney decided in late 1955 that the thrust of the Mouseketeer and Serial segments should be redirected from children to young teenagers. This was not a change limited to The Mickey Mouse Club; it would also become apparent in the selection of live-action film projects (e.g. The Light in the Forest, Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Tonka) stemming from this time. It was a perceptive appreciation on the part of the master marketeer of the coming importance of the teenage audience, as distinct from children and adults.

The particulars of how Sid Miller came to The Mickey Mouse Club in late 1955 aren't known to me, but his ability to compose, direct, write, and perform musical variety was probably the key. Anyone who could do the job of four guys while drawing one pay packet was likely to appeal to the studio. Walt Disney evidently decided that Sid Miller was just the fellow he needed to carry out his proposed changes, for he gave him a great deal of control over the show's day-to-day direction. Sid Miller recommended hiring writers Larry Orenstein and Ray Brenner, and choreographer Tom Mahoney, to help revamp the show's look.

Miller himself teamed up with writer Tom Adair to create new content. Along with Orenstein and Brenner, they turned the Mouseketeer segments into complete skits, with several musical numbers and connecting dialogue, discarding the standalone song format of the first season. The overall result was to make Fun With Music Day look like a cut-down version of the adult musical variety shows then current on evening television. It would eventually prove a mixed blessing, giving Walt Disney what he asked for, but not what the teenagers really wanted.

Two misconceptions about Sid Miller's impact on the show have spread over the years. The first is that he was responsible for getting the parents and legal guardians off the set. A 1956 interview with TV Guide made it clear that he had found this situation already in place. Bill Walsh had put the policy in effect about one month after production began in 1955. The second is that Sid Miller had some empathetic bond with the Mouseketeers through his own background. Sid Miller was a self-motivated performer, who started acting when he was fourteen. He was not a typical child actor, pushed into it at an early age by a stage parent, and his directing style was an unpleasant surprise to kids who had grown used to Dik Darley's soft-spoken manner.

Sid Miller was inclined to react strongly to performance mistakes or inattention. He was particularly severe with those who came to the set unprepared, likely a very rare occurrence among the Mouseketeers. He was less demanding of the younger kids, but the weaker performers among the teenagers came in for some hard scrutiny. But on the flip side, he assigned parts in skits based on talent, giving a few Blue Team members exposure in musical numbers that they might not have otherwise had.

He himself remained very much a performer at heart, doing a cameo for Adventure in Dairyland and taking over a whole show as a guest star. He posed extensively for publicity stills with the Mouseketeers and talent winners, and even turned around and waved to the still photographers snapping continuity shots for the property department. Always the entertainer, he often had the younger kids laughing during multiple re-takes, as he got down on his knees and beat the floor in mock frustration, pleading with them to get the next shot right.

In October 1956 trade papers reported Sid Miller was the proposed director for a remake of Babes in Toyland, to start production at Disney during 1957. This was one of two live-action musical projects that Walt Disney was considering. As it was, the other proposal, The Rainbow Road to Oz, was given the green light first, and announced publicly in the summer of 1957. Sid Miller was assigned to co-write songs with Tom Adair and Buddy Baker, and directed the project's only visible manifestation, a half-hour preview shown during an episode of Disneyland in September 1957. But the film project died a quiet death a few months later, by which time Sidney Miller had left Disney.

Aftermath

When Red Skeleton's son died of leukemia in May 1958, Sid volunteered, along with Donald O'Connor and several others, to fill in at the last moment for the star of the then live show. It was the top-rated program on television, and the replacements, going in with just two days notice, could expect a critical reception for their unrehearsed efforts, but the trouper in Sid Miller thrived on such a challenge.

In November 1958, Sid Miller directed Lou Costello's last film, The Secret Bride of Candy Rock. He directed episodes of many television programs in the 1960's (My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Get Smart), and a couple of low-budget comedy films, of which Get Yourself a College Girl (1964) was soundly panned as idiocy in the New York Times. Sid played small parts in many films and television shows after 1970, but no longer directed, or wrote songs or skits. Even the performing jobs became rarer and the intervals between them longer, and many of his later credits are voice work for animation.

Shortly before joining Disney, Sid Miller had married Iris Burton (Burstein), a former Broadway dancer who had turned to making television commercials. She helped write at least one song for the show. They had one child, Barry Miller, born in early 1958, who is now an actor himself. The couple divorced in the early 1960's. (Iris later started her own talent agency representing juvenile performers). Sid Miller married actress Dorothy Green in 1967; she is sometimes mistakenly credited as Barry Miller's mother. His spouse at the time of his death was June Rohrlick-Miller, whom he had married ten years before. Sid Miller died January 10, 2004, in Los Angeles, of Parkinson's Disease.

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