The Mouseketeers

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The Mouseketeers

The "Mouseketeers" were an assortment of variously gifted, mostly non-professional California kids selected by Walt Disney as the core around which the Mickey Mouse Club, Disney's second network television venture (after Disneyland), was produced. The pervasively popular show quickly became one of the major crazes of the mid-1950s, and the "Merry Mouseketeers," sporting black beanies topped with round mouse ears, became enduring icons of a newly affluent, post-war America. The original show, begun in 1955, was syndicated from 1962 to 1965, again in 1972, and in an abridged format on the Disney Channel in 1983. Two up-dated (and very politically correct) versions appeared in 1977 and 1989, but it was the Cold War Mickey Mouse Club and its Mouseketeers that achieved true cultural immortality during its relatively brief but massively assimilated run in the 1950s. The show's popularity was unprecedented in its time, and its nostalgic appeal and cultural impact continued to exert a fascination that was still evident 40 years later.

Disney's Mickey Mouse Club premiered on ABC on October 3, 1955, and ran until September 25, 1959 (though the original seasons of newly produced, non-rerun shows concluded on March 28, 1958). The show was actually a recycling of the popular live Mouse Clubs that had flourished in movie theaters between 1929 and 1933. The TV manifestation proved equally successful with 1950s youngsters, although adults and critics were heard to voice some essentially unheeded reservations. MMC was aired Monday through Friday between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. and was divided into four ritualistic segments. After a daily animated lead-in from the Mouse himself, the first quarter presented newsreels on global subjects of interest to children, a series of safety/health films or a similarly instructive feature moderated by Jiminy Cricket (Disney's personable insect character from the 1939 film Pinocchio).

Segment two showcased the Mouseketeers in a different setting each day. Monday was "Fun with Music," and Tuesday brought on various "Guest Stars," mostly culled from the fringes of the entertainment world, who ranged from Cliff Edwards and Judy Canova to Donna Atwood of the Ice Capades. Wednesday aspired to provide some element of surprise with "Anything Can Happen Day," and Thursday was "Circus Day," while Friday's "Talent Roundup"—the Mouse Club version of amateur hour—saw the Mouseketeers rounding up and bringing in new talent who, after their 15 minutes of TV fame, appeared either breathlessly elated or visibly embarrassed at being made "Honorary Mouseketeers" and forced to don the show's signature mouse ears.

The 5:30-6:00 slot contained the show's most viable segments, the well-produced serials and first television airings of the Disney animated shorts. The serial segment was made up of miscellaneous multi-episode features. Some were documentaries (such as "What I Want To Be" and "Animal Autobiographies"), but what most viewers remembered from this part of the show were the dramatic serials. These included "Spin and Marty" (which inspired several sequels), "Clint and Mac," and "Annette," the latter a 20-episode adolescent melodrama about a sweetly naive farm girl (the immediately popular Annette Funicello), who struggles to gain acceptance among more sophisticated urban teens. "Spin and Marty," a saga about a boys' ranch, the Triple-R, featured Tim Considine and David Stollery in the title roles, together with Harry Carey, Jr., veteran of many a John Ford Westerns, as a cowboy camp counselor. Disney teen star Tommy Kirk also got his start in the serials, co-starring with Considine in two re-makes of the Hardy Boys detective stories. The show's climactic segment, "Meeseka, Mooseka, Mouseketeer, Mousekartoon Time now is here," was probably the most eagerly awaited by fans of Disney's animated characters. This daily spot, drawn from Disney's large library of cartoons from 1928 to the early 1950s, provided the first historic and rather surprising glimpses of the original rubber-hose Mickey Mouse and the early Donald Duck that contemporary youngsters, accustomed to the venerable characters' more modern manifestations, never experienced.

The Mouseketeers themselves (all identified by first name only) were divided into two groups: the "Red Team" of the top ten most showcased performers and the larger although second-string "Blue Team." Of the select "Reds" Annette Funicello achieved the most Club -era adulation and post-Mouse success. Funicello enjoyed a brief recording and screen career (starring in the popular American International Pictures Beach Party films) before retiring into domestic life. In 1987 she returned, with AIP co-star Frankie Avalon, in the film Back to the Beach, a sharp satire that made frequent references to their mutual pop culture histories. Of the boys, Bobby (Bobby Burgess) became a dancing fixture on the Lawrence Welk Show. The adult regulars on MMC were Jimmie Dodd, who moderated and wrote many of the songs, and Roy Williams, a Disney artist who spoke on the show only through his caricatures and quick-sketch drawings.

While the basic content of the quarter-hour episodes varied from day to day, the ritual aspects of the Mickey Mouse Club were still only slightly less formal and repetitious than a Lutheran church service. The first two segments kicked off with musical sequences ("Today is Tuesday, you know what that means….") which went on at length and were repeated week after week. Between these "stock footage" lead-ins and the frequent commercial breaks (which intruded even upon the short cartoons), each day's new material, and thus, the show's production budget, was kept to a minimum. And while it did have its instructional aspects Mickey Mouse Club was not educational in the sense of later shows such as Sesame Street. MMC rather concerned itself with providing clean-cut, positive, and somewhat idealized role models (albeit mostly for white, middle-class children), while energetically promoting morality, socialization, and the sugar-coated indoctrination of children into a burgeoning consumer society. It followed that the show, along with the prime-time Disneyland, was also among the first to fully exploit the merchandising potential of television and while parents and critics occasionally carped about its hard-sell tactics, this had little impact on the program's popularity.

By its second season MMC had captured an audience of over 12 million children and seven million adults, a record for television up to that time. Along with Davy Crockett coonskin caps, mouse ears became one of Disney's best-selling merchandising ploys of the era, and the show inspired a plethora of other spin-offs, and even its own magazine offering stories and photos on the Mouseketeers and other Disney subjects while further plugging merchandising items from the show. References to MMC and its ostensibly more innocent era have continued to pop up in disparate cultural venues, ranging from the novels of John Updike to the film of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and by 1998, at least three books devoted to the show had been published, providing various answers to the burning question: "Whatever happened to the Mouseketeers?"

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Bowles, Jerry. Forever Hold Your Banner High! The Story of the Mickey Mouse Club and What Happened to the Mouseketeers. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1976.

Keller, Keith. The Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1975.

Munsey, Cecil. Disneyana. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1974.

Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston/New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

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The Mouseketeers

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