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My Life as a Mouse
                                                                   
by Lonnie Burr                                    


1980, 2015,2016 by Lonnie Burr
 
 
      I wrote the following  front page article in 1980 shortly after the 25th Anniversary TV Special for "The Mickey Mouse Club" on which I was the second writer and one of the Mouseketeer hosts and our live performances at Disneyland which I wrote, co-choreographed and co-directed.
      

It was published in a Los Angeles paper and another in Santa Barbara. I have updated it succinctly at the end.

 

    

Twenty-five years ago I was accidentally thrust into the position of being a sort of hero of my life. As a child, becoming part of a myth occasions awe and, after a long period as an adult spent disdaining that awe, I have come to regard the status with awe once again.
    That I should actually be a hero of my own life or a hero to others is problematic at best. Yet the fact remains that I am a hero of sorts. 

Like young Copperfield, I came to my heroism purely by chance.

At twelve I hated being described as "cherubin" in this 1955 Disney shot.

I was one of the four males, of thirty-nine Mouseketeers over the years we filmed, to last the entirety of the original "Mickey Mouse Club" and to become, as a result, a part of TV history.
      As we passed the midpoint of the 20th Century,  television and sundry other factors had begun to change our myths and heroes to things smaller than life as opposed to things larger  than life. Uncle Milty supplanted Clark Gable while Howdy Doody did in King Kong and King Lear. I was one of these smaller than life heroes. Whether I someday scale the Matterhorn or win my Pulitzer, I shall always be known as a Mouseketeer; that is the way the obituary will begin.  I have come to learn in my thirties that that is not such a bad thing.
    I did not always feel this way.
    The Mouseketeers and the show they starred in was a phenomenon that astounded almost everyone, including the canny creator Walter Elias Disney. Uncle Walt desperately needed funds to finance his overextended pet project - a venture that seemed dubious to most and was dubbed "Walt's Folly" - DISNEYLAND.  In 1954 the DISNEYLAND television show premiered successfully on ABC and led to the network and Disney entering into a contract of "mutual assistance", meaning the needed completion money for the Park was forthcoming if there was a daytime, five days a week, kids show for ABC.
    "THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB" premiered on October 3, 1955 and was an instantaneous and startling hit. Even though  there are individuals at the Disney Studio who, to this day, aver that the show never moved out of the red! Originally broadcast for an hour a day a through 1957, the series was reduced to a half-hour from 1957-59 before it was canceled. It returned in reruns, in a half hour format twice: 1962-65 and 1975-77 [SEE ADDENDA]. 
    The episodes, all shot in black and white with a one camera set-up, cost approximately $14 million (by Disney's estimate),  were translated  into 5 languages and played in 18 countries, including the longest run in Australia for 12 years. At least one child (Annette Funicello) was canonized just as Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple had been before her as "America's Sweetheart" and the core group of nine that lasted the entire filming of the series had been raised from the level of being child stars to being a part of a recognizable pop culture entity. The names echo:  Karen, Cubby, Tommy, Darlene, Sharon, Bobby, Doreen, Lonnie and Annette.
    This dated, black and white show, airing again in the mid-70s,  was immediately accepted with enthusiasm despite the naive quality of the production elements and the production itself. People vividly remembered the show when the Mouseketeers joined Tom Snyder on "The Tomorrow Show". It was the most highly rated hour for Tom and the rerun of the segment was the second highest rated show.
    This gave rise to a second version.  "The New Mickey Mouse Club" premiered Jan 17, 1977 but  it had a short life. There were now African American Mouseketeers, as opposed to just guest stars, which was good, but the rock and disco music thumping, color in a Fauvist brilliance and trick photography and gimmicks seemed to detract from the original show's charm. The show absconded on December 1, 1978. In all fairness, it must be noted that the first MMC was not well received critically either, it merely was successful.
    That is the history of the two MMCs. But what I am addressing myself to here is less concerned with the success or failure of  a particular TV show and its sequel and more concerned with what that original show was and is, what it reflected and reflects. "The Mickey Mouse Club", like a Frank Capra movie, manifested some simple, basic realities inherent in our society. Coupled with the meteoric rise and proliferation of television, it was almost sure to become revered.

The Looming Tube

     Television was not an untested medium in 1955 but its overwhelming effects were still being discovered. It took the 1960 Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon for us to comprehend that this thing, TV, was a force that went beyond our simple assessments. We began to realize the enormity of the medium, the depths and heights television is capable of, whether positively or negatively.

   The "Mice" and their club came along at the right time. Children had been on TV since  the outset. I had a regular role on the 1949-50 "The Ruggles" show. There were child actors around. Local shows offered kids an opportunity to be seen in a more natural environment than afforded by playing a role in a sitcom and, nationally, kids were being purely themselves in Howdy Doody's "Peanut Gallery". 
    What was unique about the MMC was that the children were obviously talented  but they were not yet sophisticated, not too slick. Better, they grew, metamorphosed, matured before your very eyes. Not one of the kids was Barishnykov, Pavarotti, nor Sir Laurence Olivier. They were all regular kids who made mistakes; given the rigors of filming the show and the technical backwardness of the emerging medium, the faux pas were sometimes captured on film.
   Ergo, they were easy to identify with, easy to like. They were members of the family, much closer than a "global community".


  
1955 - Left to right: Lonnie, Annette, Darlene, Cubby, Johnny  (later on "The  Rifleman") Crawford. Background:  Big Mooseketeer Roy, Don Underhill , Mary Lynn Satori & Bonnie Kern. Note: there were two Dons and two Bonnies and two Marys on the show!

    The series was innocuous but it was not merely entertainment. It foreshadowed the didacticism of "Sesame Street" and shows of that kidney. The MMC was not comprised of just cartoons, the Mouseketeers singing and dancing and spooning out homilies with Jimmy and the ingenuous soap operas for kids like "Spin and Marty", "Annette" and the puerile sleuthing of "The Hardy Boys".
    No. The show also had newsreels and mini-documentaries, albeit somewhat primitive, that were geared to the young. These showed and explained Christmas in Japan,  early and current [1950s] Native Americans, the customs of children growing up in Siam and various forms of wildlife in nature. Who from this era does not recall learning how to spell ENCYCLOPEDIA from Jiminy Cricket?
    The show, thus, was rounded in a way that other kid's series were not. The material mirrored the middle-class values the majority of Americans believed in during the Fifties. BUT  there werre black kids, Jewish kids, Hispanic kids which no other show had done before us. There were critics of the MMC; they found it maudlin. These critics were not children. The creators of "Sesame Street" have said that our show, particularly the didactic, teaching segments, influenced them greatly. 
    But, can anyone ever take a sort of daily marathon of "Omnibus" or later "Sunday Morning"?
    Much of television then and now is pap. I agree that "Omnibus" was a wonderful show from which I still recall ideas and images that will never leave me. But I could no longer watch that excellent show every day than I could read Joyce every day or go to a football game every day.  Not everything on television need be, nor can be, "Omnibus". 
    Even with the flaws of "The Mickey Mouse Club", it was an efficacious, innovative, entertaining and learning experience that struck a common chord, which made it easy to be assimilated into our culture and Walt invited EVERYONE to be a Mouseketeer and, if you watched and sang along, YOU WERE. Perhaps the late 70s rehashed MMC had to do with changes in the format or the slickness of the new kids. Perhaps, though, it had to do with our own loss of innocence as a people and as a nation. Maybe our ethos had changed so that we could no longer capture the imagination of succeeding generations.
    What, after all, does being a Mouseketeer mean?

 Growing Young

     I recently had an epiphany, quite by chance, on what I believe to be the essence of being a Mouseketeer. For the first time, the whole concept became comprehensible. I had tried analyzing it for years, posing thesis and antithesis, but, in the end, it was only synthesis that worked.
    Being a Mouseketeer, or identifying with being a Mouseketeer, has to do with recapturing elements of our social structure that are rapidly disappearing or have become only  vestiges, memories. These elements are: connection, belonging, family.
    As a youngster, I was a rebel sometimes with and sometimes without a cause. I followed my star (James Dean) assured that truth, ideals and insight would prevail. When I found that truth, ideals and insight are frequently like Plato's shadows on the wall and that they do not necessarily prevail, I was shaken and became cynical. I found the show I was a part of childish. After all, I turned twelve in 1955, had been dating for four years and kissed and went steady with Annette our first season!  My precocity had caught up to my pubescence and I would no longer allow myself to be a child in the inevitable furor of rushing to adulthood. It took some later lucidity, thought and maturation in order for me to allow myself to regain my childhood. Before this inference I would have also been a naysayer about the MMC.
    But I was wrong.
    I had had conflicting ideas about my experiences on the Disney series for all the years subsequent to my involvement. My  youthful progression from cynicism to nihilism left me with some harsh emotions about the show, even though this has always been a minority viewpoint. 
    The catalyst for my epiphany, my realization of how I had blocked things that the fans could see, was a live show at Disneyland in 1980.  Cubby, Sharon, Tommy and I joined Mickey and other characters and some kids from the 70s MMC to perform on the Tomorrow Land Stage. The coalescence of we four disparate adults is one part of the meaning of  "The Mickey Mouse Club" and the Mouseketeers.
    Having gone our own ways with only some social contact for twenty-five years, we seemed, Tommy, Cubby, Sharon and I,  part of a closely knit family, in some ways closer than many families. It would seem that not all of Tolstoy's happy families are alike; ours is, indeed, unique.
     The melding of the four of us was intuitive and overwhelming in its ease. The comment was heard that we worked as a unit onstage, which was not the case with the younger kids who had come from working together for over two years. It was inexplicable, almost archetypal, like formally realizing your were  a part of some mystical gestalt or a mini unconscious collective.
     The audience observed this phenomenon and seemed mesmerized. The kids reacted, naturally, at first to Mickey and friends in character costumes and the kids who had been on the tube more recently, but as time passed, they came our way.
    What was astounding to me was the enthusiastic reaction of the older spectators, the ones who had been there in the 50s  while growing up, the ones who now may have used their children  as an excuse to recall their youth without embarrassment. Let's face it. No one over the age of 16 wants to admit that they are excited about seeing the Mouseketeers, now do they?
    It would seem they do. 
    These people in their 30s and 40s, some 50s and 60s, remembering the show as a "babysitter", would begin unfazed, aloof , but long before the singing of the Alma Mater - "M-I-C, see you real soon, K-E-Y, Why? Because we LIKE you!" - they were enveloped, some to tears.
    It occurred to me that somehow the Mouseketeers, all of us in our 30s, all more capable of what we had done twenty-five years ago, somehow communicated to these other adults that aging is not the disgusting, moribund, dismal thing that we are all taught it is by ad agencies and their accomplices, the young.
   I also believe that the adult audience sensed a feeling of wholesomeness, of innocence that was Rousseauistic and yet innately American. In a jaded age following Nam and Watergate,  they had been jolted into remembering the American Dream, or at least an aspect of it. That dream may have its faults as all dreams have lapses in logic, jumps of reality, but it is still a dream, a leap of faith and that in itself is no small accomplishment in 1980.

    We may have passed the age of dreaming, the age of the American Dream - whether the apparently guileless, unworkable dream that we were taught in school texts in the 50s and had not all its bases in fact, nor the sneering, satirical dream of Albee's one act play - but we have not passed the age of needing dreams. We need them more than ever now.
    The Mouseketeers and "The Mickey Mouse Club",  however accidentally, have come to symbolize innocence. At least for many people the ORIGINAL Mouseketeers were the children in our American Eden, when World War II and the Korean "conflict" were behind us, when Fords sold for less than $2,000 and "everyone" could own a home, raise a family and, maybe, be President. 
                      

1957 -  Left to right - Preparing for a road trip to the Oregon Rose Parade appearance:  Bobby, Sharon,  Cheryl, Jimmie, Annette and me. (Even though no longer an "item", I usually  managed to stay close to Annie.)

     In these hurly-burly times of supra-sophistication, in these times chockablock with decadence, confusion and anomie, in these certainly not the best of times, innocence in any form takes on a meaning it never had for us as a people before.
    Having left the garden for the dazzle of the world, Mouseketeer Candide and I have come to learn that you can return home, that even weeding has its allure, its meaning, its joys.

ADDENDA 2015

 

Four of us original Mouseketeers performed at the 50th opening of Disneyland on July 17, 2005, which was the first time the Mouseketeers were on TV in 1955. On October 3rd, 2005 over 10 of us also appeared at Walt's first Park in Anaheim, CA for the anniversary of the television premiere of our series on the same date in 1955. 

After rerunning in the '60s and '70's, in 1983 The Disney Channel came online and reran our original black and white films for six years. We were replaced in 1989 with the third version of the MMC after the 2nd short lived version in the '70s, and this "EARLESS" version lasted until 1995. That same year our original black & white films started up again on "Vault Disney". That run concluded, under some fan protest, on September 9, 2002. The MMC has now run in six decades and two centuries!

Previously we ran in 25+ countries and were translated into 5 languages. A fan informed me  that we ran in RUSSIA in the 1980s and  1990s! Our longest runs were in Australia for 12 years, Russia for 10+  and France for 7, all of them longer than our original 3 seasons and a 4th of reruns in the U.S. in the '50s. In Russia our English remained but the subtitles were in Cyrillic and that helped teach a lot of Russian kids how to speak our language.

The 40th & 50th Anniversaries of our series on October 3rd was celebrated with our live show, autographs, a parade and other events at our old stomping grounds: DISNEYLAND and we also did a show at WDW for our 40th.

At Disneyland's opening in July, 1955 we appeared in a parade and performed a song and dance, including roll call - the ONLY one in which ALL the Mouseketeers participated as opposed to just the 'A' team on TV.  We did our number live in front of the the Mickey Mouse Club Theatre in Fantasyland, now known as the Fantasyland Theatre. Our October, 1955 premiere was the same day as Captain Kangaroo, and was an hour long with four segments, becoming a half hour with two segments a day for the third year of production and the fourth year of reruns. All the reruns have been just thirty minutes.

Ten video cassettes of the original shows were released in the early 90s. In December 2004, as part of the Disney Treasures series, a two disc DVD was released containing the entire first week, minus commercials, of The Mickey Mouse Club (the five one hour shows that ran from October 3-8, 1955), a color version of our first TV appearance at Disneyland before our series debuted, and Leonard Maltin's introductions and interviews with me and five other Mice from the first day of the MMC, filmed outside on the Disney Studios studio lot and inside Stage 1, NOW the Annette Funicello Stage, where we shot most of the segments of the show; behind us was the original curtain we used in 1955. There is a smashing tribute to Jimmie on the first disc. In mid-2005 some of the video cassettes released in the early '90s were re-released as DVDs. Spin & Marty and The Annette Series are now on DVD, too.

 2015 UPDATE:

Disney now owns ABC (as well as ESPN, ESPN2 and much of the western world). Jimmie, Roy and character man Bob Amsberry are deceased as are eight of the original 39 “Mice”: Mike Smith in the early 80s, Charley Laney in the 90s, Tim Rooney, Mickey's son, in 2006. 2009 began sadly with the demise of Mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge; Don Grady and Bonnie Lynn Field left us in 2012, Annie on April 8, 2013 and first season Mouseketeer Dickie, Dick Dodd, on November 30, 2013. The eldest Mouse, Larry Larson, turns 75 this year and the youngest, Bronson Scott, will be 67, a year younger than Karen and Cubby! I remain 39 along with my late acquaintance Jack Benny!!!

The 2014 update of my memoir, THE ACCIDENTAL MOUSEKETEER, with an additional chapter of updates and happenings, is now available in two formats: paper, signed specifically to you, from this website -- see Special Offers -- or, for those embracing the electronic age, as an ebook at http://themeparkpress.com/accidental-mouseketeer. The book was originally published in 2010 as Confessions of an Accidental Mouseketeer. For the true collector, a few copies of the 2010 publication are still available at Special Offers.

An update from 2000 of my definitive book on comedy teams will be published this year and titled GREAT COMEDY TEAMS: 1898 - 2015. 

Hard times hit us all but the amazing fact, given the problems and notoriety of most child stars, is that only one female of the original thirty-nine Mouseketeers from the '50s has was convicted of felonies and appeared in the tabloids before and during her incarceration.

That is not the very best of all possible worlds, Mouseketeers, but it is much better than most.  At least, that is what Mouseketeer Voltaire told me.

Lonnie

 

1980, 2015,2016 by Lonnie Burr

NO, I am STILL not bald. I shave my head.

WELCOME!

Anything Can Happen Page 

MY SCRAPBOOK
BEFORE & 
AFTER MMC
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