In 1955 ABC TV and Walt Disney unleashed a group of small dynamos of talent wearing funny hats on the unsuspecting public – the now legendary Mouseketeers, stars of the hit after school show The Mickey Mouse Club that dominated kiddie television ratings for three seasons and started a legacy of the Disney company buying the souls of talented children for decades to come. Now, over fifty years later, the mighty Mouseketeers are senior citizens, and the memories of the program seem to be fading from the pop culture radar faster then first generation copies of The Song of the South. A television phenomenon too important and groundbreaking to allow to fade into oblivion, entertainment journalist Jennifer Armstrong has collected the true confessionals of a number of the Mouseketeers to create a vivid and compelling document in her new book Why? Because We Still Like You: An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club. By collecting the stories of key Mouseketeers Lonnie Burr, Tommy Cole, Doreen Tracey, Cubby O’Brien, Karen Pendelton and Bobby Burgess, as well as a few of the other Mouseketeers that had a far shorter lifespan on the show, Armstrong puts together what could be one of the first accurate tellings of the true Mickey Mouse Club experience.
Why? Because We Still Like You is not the first book written about The Mickey Mouse Club, but it is drastically different from others that have come before it. First, Armstrong is not, in any way, affiliated with the Walt Disney Company, thus she is allowed to tell the story as it was told to her without the higher ups editing and white washing the book in an attempt to maintain an illusion of unrealistic harmony in Mousekehistory. Furthermore, Armstrong is of a different generation of the kids who grew up on The Mickey Mouse Club, thus is not looking for nostalgia as much as she is looking for the story, both good and bad, behind the experiences of the kids who put on Mouse ears and sweaters with their names written across their chests.
Saying this, Why? Because We Still Like You is not a book full of scandal. It is not a tell all full of sex, drugs and bad behavior. For the most part, the Mouseketeers all behaved themselves and, for the exception of one tragic Mouse, kept their noses clean before, during and after The Mickey Mouse Club. However, for the first time the Mouseketeers are able to officially tell stories that have only been told before in rumors and whispers over the decades. For the first time Armstrong collects confessionals of Darlene and Annette’s rivalry, Lonnie’s suicide attempt, the bitter sting of rejection by Mouseketeer rejects after being replaced on the show, Jimmy Dodd’s final days, Annette and Lonnie’s relationship, alienation from the Disney company after the cancellation of the show, Doreen’s post-club antics, Annette’s flirtation with an older crew member, the overall disdain for the “mouse ears,” and many other tales that would have never been told in a book authorized by the Disney Company. One of the most compelling stories is the story of forgotten Mickey Mouse Club member Dallas Johann, who was let go from the show early in the first season due to his paralyzing fear of the camera. Erased from previous Mickey Mouse history books, Dallas is able to tell his story in his own words for the very first time. However, my personal favorite story is still the confessional of future teen idol Paul Peterson who was fired from the show before the first episode even aired for punching the casting director in the stomach and calling him “Fatso” in front of Walt Disney himself. Told many times, that story never ever gets old! Another of the surprising, but charming, stories told for the first time is some of the bawdy humor of Mooseketeer Roy Williams, who Mouseketeers confess gave many of them their first sips of liquor while on the road.
Of course, due to her declining health, the most famous Mouseketeer of them all, Annette Funicello, was unable to participate in Armstrong’s book, but Armstrong makes use of Annette’s 1994 autobiography A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, allowing Annette’s personal voice be heard and linking it back to the memories of the participating Mouseketeers. Not surprisingly, the Mouseketeers give nothing but glowing love to Annette within Armstrong’s book. Famous for her professionalism and kindness, Annette is truly loved now as much as she was then. On the other side of the spectrum, Mouseketeer bad girl Darlene Gillespie also does not participate in the book. Although no real reason was given for the exception that she “was unreachable for comment after being out of touch with her former co-stars” her voice is sadly missed. The most troubled of the former Mouseketeers, Darlene is well known for her bitterness and resentment towards her Mickey Mouse Club days, and has had been in trouble with the law in recent decades, including spending time in prison. It is a shame that Darlene did not participate as it would not only have put a different spin on many of the stories, and provided a ‘devils advocate” type perspective on the club. Also, perhaps for the first time Darlene could have told her story as she saw it. Yet, despite her torrid history, many of the participating Mouseketeers, not blind to her bad behavior and rivalry with Annette, still admit that she was without a doubt the most talented Mouse on The Mickey Mouse Club and still speak warmly of her.
Of course a book on The Mickey Mouse Club would not be complete without memories of Uncle Walt himself. A figure that becomes more enigmatic as time passes due to Walt Disney Studio’s successful attempt to erase the man out of his own company, making his name a “brand” instead of an individual, stories and memories of Walt Disney are becoming rare. However, the Mouseketeers themselves only had a fleeting relationship with Walt Disney, and he was as enigmatic to them as he is to us today. Yet, their collected memories, although only like shards of unconnected glass, offer an interesting insight to the animation mogul, his company and his morally strict, yet often impersonal and cold, business practices.
Finally Armstrong attempts to link The Mickey Mouse Club to Disney’s phenomenal array of young talent today, tying it in to Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron and the third wave of Mickey Mouse Club kids, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. Her attempts to do this is rushed and possibly slightly weak, but the former Mouseketeers’ commentaries of the new generation of young talent, and especially the Disney Company’s attempts to revive The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1970’s and 1990’s is very interesting.
Other reviews for Why? Because We Still Like You criticizes Armstrong’s book for not going as far as it could have. In a book looking for the nostalgia or history of the entire Mickey Mouse Club phenomena this is probably true. However, for Armstrong’s purposes of allowing the people who made up the original, and the best, Mickey Mouse Club, she provides the best telling of the Mouseketeer experience ever published. Personally, the book reawoke my own interest in The Mickey Mouse Club, giving me a desire not only to write some of my own Mickey Mouse Club articles that might fill in the gaps in places that Armstrong did not go, but also a desire to interview a Mouseketeer of my own. If there is any Mouseketeers out there who want to tell their story again, and get a feature article at PCA devoted to them, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, all we have is Jennifer Armstrong’s fantastic book.
Click here to order your own copy of Why? Because We Still Like You by Jennifer Armstrong