Who’s the Leader of the Club?

When we boomers ran home after school and turned on the TV, we knew all the lyrics to the opening song of one of our favorite TV shows, and it was all about M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E! Of the many TV shows associated with early boomer times, The Mickey Mouse Club is among those remembered with great fondness.

Walt Disney opened his California Disneyland theme park on July 17, 1955. As a way of gaining further exposure for the park, he conceived of The Mickey Mouse Club as a companion TV show, to air alongside Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. This time, however, the show would be designed for kids, and to be broadcast in an after-school time slot. The first show aired on ABC on October 3, 1955. Right from the start, merchandising was a big part of the show’s branding. Like Davy Crockett before it, The Mickey Mouse Club gave us our own “club hat” to don when the show appeared on our TV screens. Can anyone — to this day — think about Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club without the ubiquitous mouse-eared hat?

In the beginning, Walt asked that the kids on the show be regular kids instead of professional entertainers and actors; that idea was quickly shelved, and the first cast of Mouseketeers was formed. Among the first batch of talented kids who would perform on the show was Annette Funicello. Born in 1942, she fit the profile Disney was looking for: under the age of fourteen and exhibiting a talent for singing and dancing. She was already a veteran performer, and quickly became a favorite of Walt Disney. Under contract with Walt, she went on to appear in numerous Disney films and TV shows such as Zorro, then starred in a series of “beach” movies in the 1960s with Frankie Avalon. She even released hit songs. In the mid-70s, she became the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter. Her career was underway at age 10, but skyrocketed due to her appearances on The Mickey Mouse Club.

Reruns of the show, and half-hour edited versions of the original show, were broadcast in the early 1960s.

Annette was one of the prime child stars of The Mickey Mouse Club. As such, she was part of the Red Team, which got the most air time. (The show created Red, White and Blue teams.) White and Blue Mouseketeers didn’t get to appear in the famous roll call segment, but rather attended live location appearances and filled roles in the filmed serials created for the show. Among the Mouseketeers in the second string were Don Grady, who later went on the star in the popular My Three Sons TV series; Tim Considine, a regular actor in Disney movies for years; and Johnny Crawford, who became a TV star in his own right on The Rifleman with Chuck Conners.

The Mickey Mouse Club was conceived as a variety show for kids. It had song and dance routines performed by the Mouseketeers, serials, news and a cartoon. Of course, Mickey Mouse was featured prominently in every episode. At the end of each show, the theme song was slowed down and once again, we could sing along at home: Now it’s time to say good-bye, to all our com-pan-y. M-I-C … see you real soon! K-E-Y … why? because we like you! M-O-U-S-E!

After being cancelled in 1959 due to budgetary and contract issues with ABC, The show was revived in the 1970s with a more diverse cast of Mouseketeers. Among the child stars from that incarnation who went on to greater fame was Lisa Whelchel, who later starred in The Facts of Life. Though not a Mouseketeer, Kurt Russell was signed to a long-term contract in 1960 by Walt Disney himself. He was considered the top star of Disney films through the 1970s. It is part of the Disney legend that Russell’s name was the last thing Disney wrote before he died.

The show proved to be the launching pad for the greatest number of child actors when it was revived once again in the 1990s. By this time, the format had been altered to more resemble Saturday Night Live than the original variety show theme. But what is most remembered from that era are the Mouseketeers who have became household names: Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Britney Spears, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of boomer-era Mouseketeers.

There aren’t many shows that can stake their nostalgic claim for three generations of kids. The Mickey Mouse Club will forever cast a round-eared shadow on children’s TV for years to come.

What is your recollection of The Mickey Mouse Club, boomers?

One thought on “Who’s the Leader of the Club?”

  1. my favourite memories of the mickey mouse club, beyond the screening of old cartoons, are of the live action serials that they showed, namely “the hardy boys.”

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