For most kids, the opportunity to be successful in show business is only a dream. For others, it becomes a fleeting reality that ends abruptly the moment they hit puberty. However, for Carl “Cubby” O’Brien, things worked out a little bit differently. A musical prodigy, Cubby O’Brien followed in his father’s footsteps and picked up a pair of drumsticks at age five. Within a few short years he began his career as a professional drummer and never, ever stopped. Cubby’s employers were not unknowns. They included legendary figures such as Spike Jones, Lawrence Welk, Ann Margaret, The Carpenters, Bernadette Peters and, most importantly, Walt Disney.
In 1955, Cubby made his biggest impact on pop culture when he put on a pair of mouse ears and endeared himself to an entire generation of kids on The Mickey Mouse Club. The smallest of the Mousketeer boys, Cubby was paired with Karen Pendleton as the programs “Meesketeers,” forming a memorable pint sized duo that became an instant favourite to the kids and parents watching from home. One of the most iconic of all the castmates that appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club, Cubby became one of the most merchandised of all the Mouseketeers, and after Annette, he received the most fan mail.Mostly from little girls who were developing their first childhood crushes, they weren’t yet sophisticated enough for older Mouseketeers like Lonnie, Tommy or Bobby. By the time that The Mickey Mouse Club ended in 1957, Cubby had not only received the exposure and show business training that allowed him to continue his career in music, but engraining his unusual moniker into the public consciousness, “Cubby,” forever in the memories of classic television fans.
Although it has been over fifty years since The Mickey Mouse Club ended, Cubby O’Brien has never stopped keeping tempo on his pop culture journey. Currently touring with Bernadette Peters, for whom he has drummed since the 1970’s, Cubby took some time out to talk to me about the various stages of his career. Through the decades Cubby has seen stars rise and fall and has witnessed triumph and tragedy. As a result, he has many very real stories to tell. A thoughtful gentleman with a realistic look at the entertainment world, Cubby’s stories are honest and genuine, lacking any hint of cynicism and ignoring the pathos which often accompanies a lifetime in show business. From sound stages to night clubs, to Vegas show rooms and Broadway orchestra pits, Cubby O’Brien has done it all. Not bad for the smallest Mousketeer of them all.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE PRESENTS
MEESKA MOOSKA MOUSKETEER:
A CONVERSATION WITH CUBBY O’BRIEN
I spoke to Cubby O’Brien in March 2011
Sam Tweedle: So let’s start with your moniker, “Cubby.” Do you still go by Cubby, or do you prefer Carl these days?
Cubby O’Brien: No, I still go by Cubby. My Mom gave me that nickname when I was just a few days old. The Mouseketeers solidified it.
Sam: So you have been drumming since you were five years old?
Cubby: I have. My Dad was a drummer and he started giving me lessons when I was about five. My Dad used to teach at a drum studio. It was a drum and music store actually, and what they did was put together a little Dixieland Band comprised of up and coming kids who were serious about playing. We did benefit concerts around Los Angeles and some producers saw me at one of those benefit shows and they invited me to go down and audition for The Mickey Mouse Club.
Sam: So you didn’t have to participate in the massive “cattle call?”
Cubby: I actually didn’t. When I went down, there were hundreds of kids in the room, but they invited me to participate.
Sam: How old were you at that time?
Cubby: I was eight.
Sam: Now was this something you actually wanted to be doing? Did you want to be in the entertainment industry at that young age?
Cubby: Well as I said, my Dad was a drummer so we had music around the house. There were drums and mirambas and all kinds of stuff out in the garage. We never parked cars in the garage because our music room was out there. I have two older brothers; one is ten years older and the other eleven years older and they both played music. By the time I was five, they were both in their teens. So there was always music around and I just kind of took to it.
Sam: Now I don’t want to state that there was a hierarchy in The Mickey Mouse Club, but you were always one of the most popular of all the kids on the show.
Cubby: I think that that’s true. I don’t know the exact reason, but Karen and I were very popular with the little kids. I did get the most fan mail of all the boys, and Annette got the most fan mail of all the girls but it really didn’t matter. The older kids liked Annette, Darlene, Doreen, Tommy, Lonnie and Bobby and the younger kids liked Sherry and Sharon and Karen and Cubby. There was something on the show for everybody in a way. Something for little kids. Something for teenagers, so it was that kind of thing.
Sam: What do you think the magical element of The Mickey Mouse Club was that has been able to capture a special place in the hearts of people who see it?
Cubby: Well, for the people who saw it in the 50’s, and then the reruns in the 60’s, which are of the baby boomer age, they grew up with that show. Television was in its infancy and it was a major part of their growing up. They came home after school and they sat in front of the TV, and at five o’clock they watched The Mickey Mouse Club. That’s just what happened. But I also think that we weren’t the slick entertainers of today. We weren’t the Britney Spears and the Christina Aguileras with agents and all that kind of stuff. I think we were just like the kids next door and I think that kids could identify with us very easily and could go, “I could do that. I could be a Mouseketeer.” It was one of those things.
Sam: The Mickey Mouse Club had a very unique leader in Jimmie Dodd. What can you tell us about working with Jimmie?
Cubby: Well Jimmie Dodd was a very religious kind of man, and some of the things that he did on the show you could never do now. But he’d teach kids about morality without forcing it on them, or talking about any certain kind of religion. I think that stuck with a lot of people.
Sam: One thing that is becoming rarer to find are people who actually worked with Walt Disney, and I know you worked with him a number of times. What was Walt Disney like to be around?
Cubby: Well he wanted us to call him Uncle Walt, but it was very hard for a lot of us to do that. A lot of the older kids called him Mr. Disney out of respect. But he was like an Uncle in a way. He was down on the set all the time and he was very hands on with the show. When one of us had a birthday he would come down from his office with a big sheet cake and we’d stop filming for a half an hour and have a big party. I used to go and watch him do the intros to his show. It was quite a thing for an eight year old kid to watch Walt Disney.
Sam: At the time did you understand what kind of important cultural figure you were watching?
Cubby: Not fully. I had grown up waiting for the next cartoon movie to come out – Pinocchio or Bambi or whatever it was. So I knew Walt Disney. I knew who he was. For a little kid it was like being in a room with a big star.
Sam: What was it like for you to deal with Mousekemania? Was there a time that you couldn’t go out in public without being recognized?
Cubby: Kids used to call me at home. It was in the days that people could find your phone number easily and my mother would say, “Cubby, there’s some kid from Cincinnati that wants to talk to you.” It’d be some kid who found my number and called me. But my parents tried to keep me as normal as possible. I played Little League baseball at the park, I played with the neighborhood kids and I did all that stuff. I had horses too at the time, and me and my friends would take off on our horses and go riding. I had plenty of things to do other than The Mickey Mouse Club.
Sam: Didn’t you find it a little invasive when kids you didn’t know would call you on the phone out of the blue like that?
Cubby: Sometimes it was annoying because I was doing something else, or I wanted to go play with my neighbors. But I would try to answer their questions for a few minutes and then that was it.
Sam: On The Mickey Mouse Club you were paired up with Karen Pendleton, obviously because of your size. Did you two have a connection off camera as you did on camera?
Cabby: Yeah. We were like brother and sister. There was a natural connection there. We got along and played together. We did a lot of things together. But we never dated or anything. Sometimes when we do appearances or interviews we’ll be sitting together and someone will ask, “Did you two ever get married?” and we’ll answer, “Yeah, we did. Just not to each other.”
Sam: Obviously you did that show over fifty years ago. Is there a bond between the former Mouseketeers?
Cubby: Absolutely. Especially the ones who have stayed in touch and who have done things for Disney through the years. We’ve gone to weddings and funerals and barmitzvahs and all kinds of things. Tommy, Bobby, Sharon, Karen and Sherry have all stayed pretty close throughout the years.
Sam: Of course I am going to have to ask about Annette. When the show started shooting was there any indication that she would become the breakout star of the series?
Sam: What was it about Annette that made it all happen?
Cubby: I think it was the viewing audience that made it happen. I really do. I don’t think there was any preconceived decision that they were going to make her the star. I don’t think any of that happened. She just became popular. She was a teenager and teenage kids took to her. She was a very talented girl. She had a star quality about her. There was no doubt about it. But Darlene, I think, was really the most talented of all the Mouseketeers. Darlene could sing and dance and do impressions.
Sam: Well it might surprise you but as a kid I was a Darlene fan. I’m still a Darlene fan.
Cubby: Yeah. Darlene was great. It’s too bad she had such a bad taste in her mouth and that she can’t be with us, and contribute and enjoy being a Mousekteer. There was such a bad relationship between her and Annette and Disney. She thinks that Disney made her some kind of a promise and that they were going to make her a star or something, but whatever happened, Annette blossomed and there was nothing that could be done. It’s too bad that Darlene just couldn’t have gone on and done her own thing. She was a very talented girl. She didn’t need to be coddled by Disney. If she had wanted to be a star I think she could have gone on and been one.
Sam: Has anyone heard from Darlene or Annette in the last couple of years?
Cubby: No. I mean, Annette cannot converse. The only one who ever sees her is Sharon. Annette and Sharon were best girlfriends all of their lives, so Sharon goes and stays with Annette and her husband four or five times a year and stays for a couple of days at a time. Sharon knows what’s going on and lets us know how she is doing. But for us to call her, well, there’s no way we can. She can’t understand us and we can’t understand her. She can’t talk back. At the fiftieth anniversary show that we did out of Disneyland, her husband came to the show and he did call her and we all tried to say hello to her, and she made a sound as if she could understand who she was talking too, but that’s as good as it gets. That was five years ago and its worse now.
Sam: What was your opinion on the later incarnations of The Mickey Mouse Club?
Cubby: Sometimes somebody who doesn’t really know about The Mickey Mouse Club will say, “You were a Mousketeer?” and I’ll say, “Yeah” and they’ll ask, “with Britney Spears and all of those guys?” and I’ll say, “No no no. Way back in the 50’s. We were the ones that didn’t go to rehab.”
Sam: Does that happen to you a lot? Are people really that unaware about the history of The Mickey Mouse Club?
Cubby: Oh yeah. There are a lot of people that think that The Mickey Mouse Club started with that group.
Sam: That’s so bizarre, because in my mind those kids weren’t the real Mickey Mouse Club.
Cubby: No, it wasn’t and it still isn’t. It was a Mickey Mouse Club, but it wasn’t The Mickey Mouse Club.
Sam: They didn’t even wear mouse ears. If you’re not wearing mouse ears how can you call yourself a Mousekteer? Anyhow, right after you left The Mickey Mouse Club you went straight to The Lawrence Welk Show. Now looking at that show as part of my generation, The Lawrence Welk Show seems to be a surreal experience.
Cubby: (Laughs) I watch it every once in a while when I’m flipping through the channels and it’ll be on, and they never show the reruns that I was on. I can never figure that out. I was on in 1960 and 1961, and Bobby came on it right after I left, so Bobby and I were never on the show at the same time. I was on [Lawrence Welk] for two years, and we put together this little band [called] The Lawrence Welk Junior Orchestra. We did a half an hour of the Wednesday show for six months, but they discontinued that and [Welk] asked a few of us to stay on his big show. It was the Saturday night Dodge Show. I stayed on and I sang with Janet Lennon and I tap danced and played drums and I even conducted the orchestra. I did all kinds of things on the show for a couple of years. I enjoyed it very much.
Sam: Well, Lawrence Welk had the reputation of being a little square; but some of the talent on his show was second to none.
Cubby: Oh, some of the musicians in that band were some of the best musicians in Los Angeles and they went on to be studio musicians. Pete Fountain was in the band when I was on the show. It was an interesting thing, and kind of a natural thing for me to do because I got a chance to play the drums and the bongos and sing and dance and do the kinds of things that I was doing on The Mickey Mouse Club.
Sam: And right after Lawrence Welk you were playing with Spike Jones! That’s really cool!
Cubby: That was cool! The reason I left Lawrence Welk was because I wanted to play more drums and be in bands, and one of the trumpet players in the Welk band also left and he started this Las Vegas type lounge act and invited me to be a part of it. So we played around Los Angeles and would go to Las Vegas and Reno and play lounges and things like that. Well [through that] I got hooked up with Spike Jones. He saw me somewhere and he was putting together another band, his last one. I think he knew he was going to die so he wanted to put together something with his wife, Helen Greco, who was a singer. It was a very interesting band. There was a group in Vegas called The Goofers who were kind of a nightclub act. They came out on trapezes and played trombone, and they joined the band, as well as a couple of comedians and myself. It was quite an eclectic group of musicians playing this Spike Jones funny music. We traveled around and played Vegas and Tahoe and Reno and headlined in some of the lounges for a couple of years. It was a lot of fun.
Sam: You worked with a number of acts that came out of Vegas. Was this your introduction to working with people like Ann Margaret?
Cubby: Well I had been doing things in Los Angeles like putting people’s acts together and working with piano players. Ann Margaret was just coming on the scene. She had just done Bye Bye Birdie and they were putting together her first night club act. I worked with this choreographer who was going to be helping to put her show together. He asked if I would get involved, so I met her and went to a couple of the rehearsals, and [Ann] asked me to go to Lake Tahoe with her for the opening of this new act. I worked with her for about a year.
Sam: I find it interesting that you were working as a drummer in the 1960’s, and you were still in your twenties, but you got yourself entangled in the lounge scene instead of the rock scene that was very vivid in Los Angeles at the time. Was the rock industry unappealing to you?
Cubby: I don’t know. The people that I was surrounded by were into the show business industry. It’s kind of like that in New York. There are so many different cultures of drummers. There is a whole culture of gay women drummers, jazz drummers that don’t do Broadway, and then there is a whole culture of musicians that only do Broadway. There are just little cliques of people and you get into that one thing, and it just keeps snowballing. People keep recommending you and so often you stay in the same genre. I did do Hair in 1969. I was the musical director at the Aquarius Theater, but once again, that’s a Broadway show. Of course I was with “The Carpenters”, which you can’t really call a rock band, but they were more contemporary.
Sam: Now how did you go from working with Ann Margaret to The Carpenters?
Cubby: Ann Margaret helped me very much because she was signed to do a series of TV specials for NBC at the same time that I was working for her. [NBC] hired a band to do these shows, and Ann Margaret said, “No, Cubby O’Brien is my drummer and I want him to do these shows. I don’t care who you hired.” Well they had hired this guy named Shelly Mann who was a great jazz player in Los Angeles. So they ended up letting me do the shows, but they had to let Shelly do the pre-recorded music. I ended up meeting a conductor that was very big in Los Angeles and he started using me on movie calls and I met movie studio people and all of a sudden I was doing Jim Nabors’ show. But the drummer who was doing The Carol Burnett Show wasn’t getting along with the musical director, and we kind of switched. That drummer came over and did Jim Nabors, and I left Jim Nabors and went over and did The Carol Burnett Show. They were both at CBS and Carol and Jim knew each other and they just switched drummers. So it was on The Carol Burnett Show where I met Bernadette Peters and The Carpenters. It was all because of Ann Margaret sticking up for me and telling them that she wanted me to do her shows.
Sam: Well it just sounds like a giant stream of networking.
Sam: So with The Carpenters, you just toured with them because Karen Carpenter provided the drums on all the recordings.
Cubby: Well, when The Carpenters did The Carol Burnett Show, we were about to go on hiatus. Their manager came up to me and asked if I would be going on the road with them for the summer. They were trying to get Karen away from the drums and get her out front singing. They didn’t want her behind the drums with the microphone in her mouth. But Karen didn’t want to and she liked being the drummer. I said yes and I learned the show. They didn’t have any sheet music, so I walked around with the tapes for a couple of weeks and Karen helped me learn the songs. For six months we played together and I played the whole show. I did all the drum licks that she played. Richard wanted all the live stuff to sound exactly like it did on the tape. Whatever the new single was, we had to learn it exactly like it was recorded. So Karen and I played the same drum riffs over and over, and eventually they got her away from the drums and I began doing the rest of it. We did this big thing for Strike Up the Band where Karen would play and I would play and we did a big drum solo together, but I was the drummer from 1973 on.
Sam: The Carpenters are so beloved by their fans, but in retrospect there seems to be a real sense of sadness about them. Was there a sense of tragedy at the time that you were touring with them?
Cubby: Not a sense of tragedy, but there was a sense that Karen was too thin, but anorexia was not in the forefront and they didn’t talk about it much and people didn’t know a lot about it. We didn’t really know what was going on with her. It happened when she got out in front. Bob Mackie started making clothes for her. She started liking the way she looked and she started thinking, “Man, I’ve got to get thinner.” When I joined the band she wasn’t fat but she was chunky. She had some meat on her, but she wasn’t fat. She had a girly figure. Also, it was a control issue. Richard was the controller of the orchestra and he wrote the music and he told her what to sing and told us what the studio sessions were going to be like. Her mother was very strong in the family. She was the boss. I think Karen felt that she didn’t have any control over anything, and eating was one thing that she could control. That’s basically what happened, but we knew that something was going on. We didn’t know how serious it was going to be. She was very good at hiding it. Just like today, people with anorexia will wear layers of clothes so you can’t tell.
Sam: You were with “The Carpenters” a long time. Did you get to know Karen and Richard well?
Cubby: Oh sure. Karen and I had a special bond because we were both drummers. Richard’s always been a little bit aloof. A little strained in his relationships. He doesn’t talk to anybody in the group. A couple of people, including myself, have tried to reach out to him and say, “Let’s get together,” but there isn’t any response.
Sam: Richard seems to have fallen off of the cultural radar completely.
Cubby: Well he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.
Sam: You’re currently working with Bernadette Peters. You’ve been with her for a long time now.
Cubby: Yeah. I met her in about 1969 on The Carol Burnett Show, and we worked together in the 70’s off and on when I was with The Carpenters. When I was with The Carpenters we had down time and we got paid weekly whether we worked or not. But there were times where we didn’t work for a month or six weeks and a date with Bernadette would come up and I would always call Richard and say, “Richard, since we’re not working would you mind if I went to Lake Tahoe with Bernadette for a week?” and he would always say, “No, I don’t care. Do what you want to do.” So I worked with her occasionally, and then in the 80’s I began to work with her a lot. Now we’ve been together for a long time. I do all of Bernadette’s symphony stuff. I did two Broadway shows with her; Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. I also did The Producers, Chicago and West Side Story. I’ve done quite a bit of Broadway.
Sam: So you’ve been drumming non-stop since you were a child. Is there anything else that you would have rather done? Or is this what you always wanted to do?
Cubby: I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. If it had turned out that I wasn’t a drummer, I might have been a veterinarian. I like animals and horses, but I’ve never done anything else. I’ve never had a job at a restaurant or worked at a gas station or a convenience store or whatever. Even as a teenager I was already working. At sixteen I was in Vegas with Spike Jones so I never did that kind of thing.
Sam: Now although you have had an amazing career throughout the decades, the public is probably always going to think of you as a former child star. What do you feel the difference between your childhood experiences in show business, especially the music industry, was like compared to what goes on today?
Cubby: I don’t think it was quite as serious as it is today. The money, the admiration, the spotlight and the stardom – it’s totally different now I think. When you look back at the child stars of the 50’s and 60’s, like The Mouseketeers and Jerry Mathers and Johnny Crawford and Don Grady – it’s totally different now. The media blows everything up. You can’t make a move today without being in some paper or tabloid. Things get better and better as you go along. These people today are just fantastic entertainers. Christina Aguilera is a great singer. She can sing jazz. I saw that movie that she did with Cher – Burlesque and she was fantastic in that movie. It’s a different era. It’s a different kind of show business. As I said, I started in the 1950’s when television was just starting. It was a totally different thing. There wasn’t rock n’ roll yet. The black influence in music and the Motown sound didn’t exist. Everything has been affected in all kinds of different ways. Show business has evolved into a completely different thing.
Few people are as lucky as Cubby O’Brien when it comes to their careers. It often takes a lifetime before people begin to realize what they are meant to do in this world, and then another lifetime to build a successful career around it. But for Cubby, the path clear from the moment he started picked up his first pair of drumsticks. He knew exactly what to do with the talent that he was born with, and as a result, has had a successful career doing what he has always loved.
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: I would like to give a special thanks to Jennifer Armstrong, author of Why? Because We Still Like You: An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club, for arranging my interview with Cubby O’Brien. You can order her excellent book here, and check out her web-site at http://jennifermarmstrong.com/.
I’d also like to thank Cubby’s wife, Holly, for acting as a liason between Cybby and I. Thank you for helping me reach Cubby so he could share his amazing career with my readers. Visit http://cubbyobrien.com/ for more of Cubby’s story.
Many of the photos used for this article are the property of Cubby O’Brien and were used by permission.