The Mickey Mouse Club which launched the careers of Britney, Christina, Justin, et al, was actually the third incarnation of the program. The original group of Mouseketeers made their TV debut 53 years ago this week, when they appeared on an ABC special on July 17, 1955, as a "teaser" to promote Walt Disney's newest brainchild that officially launched three months later. Those original shows have been syndicated and re-aired many times since, and even though the black-and-white images of chipper, beaming Mouse-eared kids magically transport us to a more innocent and uncomplicated time, the truth is that behind the scenes it was still Show Business with a capital B, and the youngsters were forced to grow up in a hurry.
1. The Original Kids Weren't that Cute
By the time the 90s version of the MMC was being cast, the producers were actively seeking poster-perfect kids whose smile would light up a room and make every parent wish that their own children were so aesthetically appealing. But when the producers of the original MMC launched their quest to find children for the cast, Walt Disney specifically instructed them not to hire professional "Shirley Temple types." He wanted "regular" kids that the audience could identify with "“ and who didn't come with domineering stage mothers. That ideology looked good on paper, but with only a few months' lead time, the producers had to resort to scouting local professional schools for kids who could sing and/or dance. This process led to one of the show's first stumbling blocks: Disney wanted a "gender balanced" cast, but it turned out that far more girls enrolled in tap and ballet school than boys did. As a result, a number of highly qualified girls were left on the sidelines while they watched boys who could barely fumble their way through a musical number land a spot in the all-important Roll Call. In the battle of testosterone over talent, there was one clear winner.
2. The Original Contracts weren't exactly fair
The kids who made the final cut were required to sign contracts that were somewhat exploitive compared to those of other kid actors of that era.
The Mouseketeers were each hired for one year at a time, at a flat rate of $185 per week, with 13-week options written into the contract. Translation: You and your attending parent had better mind your Ps and Qs, as you could be dropped at any time. (More than one Mouse was fired due to the behind-the-scenes badgering of an aggressive studio guardian.) In addition, the Mice were contractually bound to perform at any venue at the behest of the studio for no additional compensation. This included concerts at Disneyland, promotional photo shoots, visits to children's hospitals, and recording sessions for Mouseketeer-related albums, all of which were scheduled on the kids' "days off." To complain meant risking not getting your option picked up, as well as getting blacklisted as a "troublesome" child actor.
3. Walt Disney stopped Annette Funicello from changing her name
4. The Kids who Got Cut Fast
5. A word about the Mouse-kadults
6. Where they Marched Forth
None of the original Mice ever achieved the level of fame of Britney or Christina, but some of them did work in the business after the MMC ended, and some are memorable simply for the hand Life dealt them. Annette Funicello, of course, went on to star in a series of Beach Party films and then was the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter. Bobby Burgess worked as a dancer and choreographer on the Lawrence Welk Show for many years. Sharon Baird was the person inside the Charlie the Owl costume on the long-running kids' series The New Zoo Revue. Tommy Cole became a professional makeup artist and won an Emmy Award for his work in 1979. Cubby O'Brien is a talented drummer who has worked with the Carpenters, the Carol Burnett Show and many Broadway productions. And Cheryl Holdridge made some TV appearances before marrying Lance Reventlow, the only son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. When he died in a plane crash in 1972, he left her a very wealthy widow.