Disney's television show "The Mickey Mouse Club," which began in 1955 and ended in 1996, remains one of the most iconic children's programs in TV history, with cast members ranging from Annette Funicello to Ryan Gosling. Jennifer Armstrong, author of the new book "Why? Because We Still Like You: An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club," talks about the club's lasting influence on American culture, Walt Disney's involvement, and which former Mouseketeers she has crushes on.
Why should we still care about the 1950s Mouseketeers anyway? And if it was only on for three years, why does everyone still know what it was?
We should care mainly because they were the first generation of what's now a billion-dollar business that has taken over much of our pop culture -- Disney-bred child stars. These were the first Britney Spearses, Lindsay Lohans, Miley Cyruses, Selena Gomezes. What they went through -- being famous so young, then struggling to live their Mouseketeerdom down for the rest of their lives -- informs what these kids go through today. Granted, it was on a much smaller scale -- though the fact that a lot of them still struggled to get over their early fame only shows how much worse this paparazzi-fueled generation is going to have it. I worry for Miley and Selena and the rest.
The reasons we still remember the Mouseketeers even today lie partly in the complexities of TV syndication and the fact that Disney kept repackaging and rerunning the show for years after its demise -- making it, incidentally, that much harder for those kids to live down their Mouse images. But the simpler answer is two-fold: those ears, and that song. ("Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C ..." It's now stuck in your head if you know the song at all. Sorry.)
How did The Mickey Mouse Club influence pop culture (besides the obvious, like the song and the ears)?
It definitely endured as the quintessential symbol of the smiling, everything's-perfect 1950s. Those kids worked hard, lined up in military formations, wore uniforms, and took orders. They were designed to demonstrate obedience and order, not to stand out. Some of them couldn't help it, though, and became breakout stars at the time, like Cubby O'Brien and Sharon Baird and Lonnie Burr. And one became an icon of teen stardom: Annette Funicello.
But their influence went much further than that: They were the first to prove that kids love watching shows starring kids, which is the basis for both Disney Channel and Nickelodeon now. "High School Musical" basically owes it all to the Mouseketeers, for better or worse.
What is the relationship between this Mickey Mouse Club and the one in the '90s that included Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera?
It's the same thing, in theory -- with 35 years between them. Disney kept the original going in repackaged versions through the '60s without actually hiring any new Mouseketeers, then tried a new Mickey Mouse Club in the '70s (with a cast that included "The Facts of Life"'s Lisa Whelchel), but it was a bust. The Disney Channel started in the '80s as a pay channel, but it was slow going for a while -- until the company decided to revive The Mickey Mouse Club, which was quite a success. It was even more of a success in retrospect, however, when Britney, Christina, and Justin, not to mention Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell, became huge stars after getting their first break as Mouseketeers.
What was the Mouseketeers' relationship to Walt Disney himself?
There are hugely conflicting stories about this, which are recounted in detail in the book, but it seems that basically they didn't have much of one. Walt Disney was a very busy man during the mid-'50s when this was happening -- he was at the top of his game in terms of movie production, he was hosting a show called Disneyland (the one that included the super-famous Davy Crockett serial), and he was launching his dream project, the California theme park called Disneyland. In fact, The Mickey Mouse Club was conceived as a way to get park funding from the ABC television network, but besides that, Walt didn't care much about it. That is, except for one key ingredient of it: He hand-picked Annette for the Mouseketeers and supported her career afterwards as well. The overwhelming amount of fan mail she got proved he had something of an eye for talent.
Annette Funicello was a much bigger star than any of the other kids on the show -- how did that play out behind the scenes? And how do her costars feel about her now?
Generally, her costars claim to have loved her from the start -- and there's little evidence to the contrary. You will never hear more genuinely nice words spoken about a person, in fact. Unfortunately, she's been struggling with multiple sclerosis for decades, and isn't able to do interviews anymore. There were, however, some minor petty backstage skirmishes involving mascara.
Who was your favorite former Mouseketeer?
I could never choose one, but I will say this: Annette sounds like a dream, but I think if I had been a kid in the '50s, Doreen Tracey would've been my idol -- she's gorgeous and has this irresistibly mischievous glint that has been borne out in her life story: She did not one, but two, nude photo layouts in the '70s to stick it to Disney (though she later made up with the company); she worked for Frank Zappa and toured Vietnam with a rock band. She's still vibrant and hilarious. And I think I would've had a crush on Lonnie Burr, who's super-intellectual and has a killer vocabulary.
So...uh, any auxiliary lotharios for whom you would have cultivated romantic, if quixotic, idealizations?
I also get a little swoony for Tim Considine and David Stollery, who played Spin and Marty in the "Adventures of Spin and Marty" serials -- they were huge teen heartthrobs at the time, but left the business to become huge successes in other fields. Tim's now an automotive writer and David is a big car-design guy; in fact, they stayed in touch and Tim writes about David from time to time. It's one of my favorite full-circle stories in the book -- they originally met at an audition by sharing toy cars. How cute is that?