Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me?
In 1929, the Fox Dome Theater in Ocean Park, California, set up the first “Mickey Mouse Club.” It was a real club where kids attended Saturday meetings where Mickey Mouse cartoons were shown, credos were recited and bands entertained. Soon there were hundreds of Mickey Mouse Clubs associated with theaters across the country. By 1932, the clubs boasted more than a million members nationwide. But by 1935, managing the clubs had become too much work for the studio, and eventually they were all disbanded.
Twenty-four years later, Walt Disney ventured into television with his weekly series “Disneyland.” The hour-long program gave viewers a sneak preview of the development and construction of the new Anaheim theme park. Creating “Disneyland” the series was one part of the agreement that was made with ABC in order to help finance Disneyland. Next, Walt decided to create a TV series for kids called “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
The Disney creative team outlined early ideas for the show in 1953 with specific notes from Walt. Explaining his foray into children’s television, Walt said, “We feel that a child’s world is a happy world, free from so many bothersome problems. We would like to make that world a happier one still, and this we will attempt to do with ‘The Mickey Mouse Club.'” Nearly two years in development, the show debuted on October 3, 1955, and instantly won the undivided attention of America’s children from coast to coast. The show’s stars, or “Mouseketeers,”—Annette, Tommy, Darlene, Lonnie, Sharon, Sherry, Doreen, Bobby, Cubby, Karen, Dennis, Cheryl and their adult leaders Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams—became overnight celebrities.
From the initial phases of the project it had always been Disney’s intent to create a different kind of television show for children, one that not only entertained, but educated as well. The only programs on the air at that time geared to the young set were locally produced shows on slim budgets with little imagination. “The Mickey Mouse Club” would be different. “I won’t play down to children, and I won’t patronize them.” Walt promised. Combining entertainment and education would be the show’s greatest contribution to the world of television.
The growth and development of children was the focus of nearly every aspect of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” though the “education” was disguised within the format of the show. Jiminy Cricket taught millions of kids to spell “encyclopedia” and to seek out the wonders within its pages. “The Mickey Mouse Club” Newsreels showcased youngsters from around the world involved in a variety of activities from sports to volunteerism. There were features on safety and health as well as visits to faraway places with young foreign correspondents. Jimmie Dodd gave children “Words to Live By” while Big “Mooseketeer” Roy Williams thought them how to draw. And, of course, there were serialized stories such as “Spin and Marty,” “Annette,” “The Hardy Boys,” the daily cartoons and the Mouseketeers to entertain.
Walt’s keen insight into the world of the child was apparent in the selection of the kids who would don the mouse ears. Disney entrusted Bill Walsh to get the new series off the ground, including the casting of its stars. “I remember Walt saying, ‘Don’t get me those kids with the tightly curled hairdoos—tap dancers—get me children who look like they’re having fun. Then later we can teach them to tap dance or sing or whatever.’ He suggested that if we went to ordinary schools and watched the kids at recess, pretty soon we’d find there would be one we should watch—whether he was doing anything or not—because that would be the one we’d be interested in. And that would be the kid we’d want for the show. So we used this technique and we found Annette and Darlene and Cubby and the bunch.”
Walt was right on target. Although several of the original group who populated the first season of the show had some professional experience, most were non-show biz kids who were recruited from local dancing schools. They were the kind of children that the audience could relate to. They were natural and made the kids at home feel like they too could put on their mouse ears and join their friends on TV. From the thousands of fan letters that poured into Walt Disney Productions following the debut of the show, it seemed like every kid in America wanted to be a mouseketeer.
“Our Mouseketeers are likable youngsters of whom we are very proud,” Walt said. “Their job is to sing, dance and generally regale the home audience with entertainment. They will have guest stars, personalities, circus and novelty acts. But they will make it their special business to introduce youthful talent from every part of the world. We feel there is a strong secondary value here—in that watching the Mouseketeers and their guests in action—boys and girls in homes throughout the land will feel impelled to discover and develop their own talents, whatever they may be.”
“The Mickey Mouse Club” aired from 1955 to 1959 in its original run. Although intensely involved in numerous motion picture and theme park activities at the time in addition to his television projects, Walt somehow managed to always keep a sharp eye on the show. The Mouseketeers today often recall his visiting the set, standing in the back of the soundstage and quietly observing the goings on. “I remember his soft presence on the set,” recalled Sharon Baird, “he would just stop by from time to time and watch.”
Each show followed a similar sequence, allowing for some variety each episode. There was typically a newsreel segment, followed by a rotating spot, highlighting the talented cast of the show. There was “Fun with Music Day,” “Guest Star Day,” “Anything Can Happen Day,” “Circus Day,” and “Talent Round-Up Day.” Next up was a live-action serial that ranged from “Corky and the White Shadow” to “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” and “The Hardy Boys.” Each episode ended with Mousekartoon Time featuring a classic cartoon from the Disney vaults.
While “The Mickey Mouse Club” enjoyed great success, its demise was ill fated, tied to a now-ironic dispute between Walt Disney Productions and ABC-TV over the amount of commercials used on the show. Walt believed the network overloaded it with advertising to generate more revenue, which caused viewers to lose interest. Unfortunately, the network dictated commercial time allowance and Walt had no control over the situation. The series that captured the imagination of children across the country was cancelled. The final episode aired on September 25, 1959.
In the 1960s, and indeed throughout the four decades it first appeared on television, “The Mickey Mouse Club” continued to entertain and enrich the lives of children around the world in syndication. In 1977, in an attempt to appeal to contemporary kids, a new “Mickey Mouse Club” series made its debut with twelve new Mouseketeers—most notably Lisa Whelchel who would go on to star on “The Facts of Life” on NBC.
And in 1989, the “All-New Mickey Mouse Club,” or MMC, appeared on the Disney Channel. The new iteration focused less on Mickey Mouse and targeted an older age group, and, for the first time, the Mouseketeers no longer wore mouse ears. A number of the Mouseketeers would go on to much larger success in music and acting, including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell.
In 1956, at the height of the success of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” thousands of letters poured into the Disney fan mail department each week, many of them addressed not to the Mouseketeers, but to Walt himself. According to a 1956 ABC press release, the letter Walt appreciated most of all was one that speaks for a generation of kids who were devoted fans of the club. The letter stated, simply and eloquently, “Dear Walt Disney, I love you very much.”
As recently as the mid 1990s, the original “Mickey Mouse Club” aired on the Disney Channel and was still popular, even in black and white with no slick special effects. The foundation and values that Walt Disney incorporated into the show over sixty years ago, continue to endure.
Now it’s time to say goodbye to all our company,
see you real soon,
why? Because we like you.
To celebrate our favorite club, Main Street Art Corner proudly presents two special prints featuring everyone’s favorite ears.