forces of geek, Writing

M-I-C… See That Exit? K-E-Y… Why? Because You’re Fired!

Mouseketeer Roll Call!

Bobby!
Annette!
Sharon!
Lonnie!
Cubby!
Mary Danella Espinoza…?

* insert sound of record scratching here *

For three seasons, The Mickey Mouse Club entertained America’s youth five days a week with dances, songs, special guests and more. The Mousketeers were kids that everyone could relate to, kids that seemed unpretentious and nice, kids that were approachable if run into on the street.

“Everyone who wants to keep their job next week smile on the count of three. 1-2-3!”

 

Back before the child performer factory of today that spits out a Zack and Cody or a Miley Cyrus with every turn of its gears, the Disney talent scouts held open auditions for a children’s variety show.

Kids (professionally-trained and those that only danced at family gatherings) were given an equal chance to become a Mouseketeer.

In all, 24 kids (and a grand total of 39 over the course of three seasons) were given a chance to don the silly hat with ears, a hat that would quickly become an icon of the 1950’s.

Because the show was broadcast five days a week, producers split the Mousketeers into three teams: red, white and blue.

While one team filmed, another would rehearse, while the third was in school—everyone on equal footing.  That was the original idea, at least, but it quickly became apparent that the show had its breakout stars, its second-tier performers and its inevitable expendables.

On Wednesdays, Walt enjoyed pitting two Mousketeers against one another in an arena. Two mice enter, one mouse leaves.

 

For some kids, this meant stardom.

For others, it meant being overshadowed and relegated to obscurity.

Mary Danella Espinoza was the closest thing to ethnic diversity the MMC ever had.

A trained dancer and natural acrobat, Mary was among the first Mousketeers to perform during the opening of Disneyland, broadcast live in July of 1955.

For the first season, Mary was featured in dance numbers with such guest stars as comedian Hank Penny and Helene Stanley (the woman who modeled for Cinderella. Does that make her a CILF?)

Mary Espinoza

 

In a 2005 interview with Russell Kishi, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the show, Mary Espinoza spoke of the confusion she felt at being let go after season one, “It was very difficult for a long time, and I asked myself  ‘Why?’ and took to blaming myself… I had bought a house for my parents with my salary from the show.”

Hispanic, Gypsy, what’s the difference, right?

 

She used her earnings to buy her family a home, for god’s sake.

And they let her go.

Annette Funicello infamously used her earnings to later fund the Viet Cong.

It’s true!*

*It’s not actually true.

Now attending MMC reunions to warm receptions, Mary has embraced her Mouseketeer history.

In September 2008, the Disneyland Hispanic Employees Association (which exists, apparently) honored Mary for being the first Hispanic female child on an American television series.

While Mary was fortunate enough to be a Mouseketeer for an entire season, others weren’t as fortunate.  Not even kids who were part of a famous lineage.  If nothing else, Tim and Mickey Jr. are proof that women actually had sex with Mickey Rooney.

By choice!

They’re also proof that some Mouseketeers came and went without anyone taking much notice.

Mickey Jr. was cast for reasons nobody understands to this very day. With no professional performing credits and no apparent interest in being on television (or ever smiling, for that matter), Mickey Jr. still got a job as a Mouseketeer.

Hollywood nepotism? If that were true, then Candice Bergen, who also auditioned, would have given Annette a run for her money.

Mickey Jr. looks on in awe as even a puppet demonstrates how to smile.

 

Younger brother Tim Rooney had more of an interest in performing. With his father’s looks (poor bastard) and a talent for being cute (?), Tim took part in a few sketches, but, like his brother, never proved to be a formidable dancer. Since the MMC had a lot of dance numbers, having non-dancers seemed counter-intuitive.

Nope, not adopted, Tim. Sorry.

 

Ultimately, both were let go after only a few months.

Mickey Jr., a musician, has spent his life performing in a variety of bands (including one band named Song that put out an album titled, of all things, Album) and continues to perform gospel tunes for other Born-Again Christians.

Tim pursued acting for many years with moderate success waxing and waning throughout his career.

Sadly, Tim passed away in 2006 after a battling a muscular disorder. And, presumably, continuing to look like Mickey Rooney.

The Rooney boys weren’t the only Mouseketeers to be let go—many were, and for many different reasons.

The first Mousketeers hired, Dallas Johann, was also the first to be let go.

A talented dancer, Dallas proved a capable performer in the few sketches he was showcased in.

However, when given the chance to talk or sing on camera, Dallas cried. Painfully shy and suffering from a slight speech impediment, Dallas was too full of self-doubt to survive the show. Already juggling their share of child performers and stage parents, the producers may have seen Dallas as someone who required a more hands-on approach than they could provide.

Dallas Johann, before the tears.

 

Later, overcoming his impediment and gaining the confidence he lacked, Dallas had a happy career as a performer, appearing in several motion pictures, including as a Chimneysweep in Mary Poppins. On television, Dallas was the chosen on-camera dance partner for Ann-Margret and Julie Andrews.

Today, he lives a quiet life in North Carolina.

Paul Petersen, a young, sweet Ray Liotta-type.

 

Finally, Paul Petersen may not have been the first fired, but he was the one hired and fired the quickest. In what was just a handful of weeks, Paul Petersen was embraced then pushed away by MMC producers. He took part in opening day ceremonies at Disneyland and was on maybe two MMC sketches before having his mouse ears revoked.

Petersen did have the distinction of being fired by none other than Walt Disney himself.

Was it because Walt respected the boy so much and was heartbroken about the decision of letting him go?

No, Walt fired the 10-year old for punching a casting director. Despite the fact that he was wearing a MMC costume, Petersen apparently felt the casting director referred to him as “mouse” one time too many.

“Howdy, Mr. Boag. My name’s Paul and I’ll tear off your &%$*ing head, #$&@ down your throat and &%$@ the living *#&% out of your $%&@# family if you call me ‘mouse’ even once. Got it?”

 

Petersen went on the bigger fame as a teen idol and star of TV’s The Donna Reed Show. He now runs a foundation for former child entertainers called A Minor Consideration.

Childhood, for most, is a mixture of fun and personal growth, but it is also a time when we learn the truth about the world and the sometimes-harsh realities of life. For most of these kids, their meteoric dream come true was bookended with an equally fast lesson that good things have a habit of disappearing.

But does something that disappears really ever go away? Even if you were a Mouseketeer for three weeks, you were still (are?) a Mouseketeer.

Like Mary Espinoza, though, we can hope that the pain and confusion suffered as a child can be reconciled later in life, in order to once again embrace that magical feeling of donning a silly hat with ears and proudly saying your name during Roll Call.

The survivors.