Question for you – what do Annette Funicello, Haley Mills, Kurt Russell, Jodie Foster, Lisa Whelchel, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timerberlake, and Lindsey Lohan all have in common? Well, all ten of them were either discovered, or had huge career boosts, as the result of working in Walt Disney productions. In fact, the Walt Disney Company has been responsible for discovering and cultivating some of the world’s biggest and brightest members of our pop culture journey from when they were still young kids. However, for every child star that made it big out of the Disney Company another dozen failed. The ones that failed ended having nothing to show for it but a few dusty screen credits and a fist full of musty memories and broken dreams of stardom.
This couldn’t have been truer for Darlene Gillespie. One of the most popular Mousketeers in the original “Mickey Mouse Club” that ran from 1955 to 1958, Darlene Gillespie rivalled Annette Funicello for the most popular girl on the show. A multi talented, pretty little girl with the big smile and a voice that could have put her right in with the McGuire Sisters, Darlene had stars in her eyes and felt that fame was surely hers. It had to be! Walt Disney himself favoured her greatly and promised the little girl that she was going to be a star. However, although ambitious and driven, a series of misfortunate set backs, studio politics, and casting decisions prevented Darlene from the stardom she desired. In the end what emerged was a troubled woman with shattered dreams and a lust for the fame and fortune that was never hers. This desire to have what she couldn’t attain would lead her into legal trouble with the Disney Company and eventually a string of run-ins with the law that put Darlene Gillespie behind bars. However, Darlene’s troubles were not the typical type of “child star gone bad” tales that we see in the media everyday. They were the product of a love affair with the wrong man and the greed that could only come from a woman who felt that Mr. Disney had turned his back on her. Yet, although Darlene publicly claimed that Walt Disney gave up on her and didn’t come through with the promises he made her, the evidence shows a different story. Darlene Gillespie was being primed by the Disney Company for stardom! Walt Disney gave her multiple chances. So, it has to be asked just what went wrong, and how did Darlene Gillespie become the most notorious of the original Mousketeers? Come as we look at the tragic story of a little girl with talent as big as her smile, but whose shattered dreams led her down a dark path of greed and crime as we look at the life of one of the 1950′s most promising child stars who fell through the cracks.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PROFILES
WALT DISNEY’S BAD SEED
Stories of child stars gone bad are nothing new on the pop culture landscape. It’s not even that rare of a thing when it comes to Walt Disney productions. In fact, Bobby Driscoll, Hollywood’s first child star gone bad, was a Disney kid starring in “Song of the South”, “Treasure Island”, and provided the voice of Peter Pan. However, unlike most of the child stars whose trouble started when they disappeared due to the fact that they were cast because they were cute instead of talented, Darlene Gillespie was a different story. Darlene Gillespie wasn’t a child star that coasted on her cuteness. Darlene had drive, ambition, and talent. She had real talent. Big talent. The type of talent that, during an audition of hundreds of hopefuls, attracted the attention of Walt Disney himself. He immediately signed her to a contract and gave her a promise as big as her talent. Walt Disney told Darlene that she was going to be a star – a big star. However, it was this promise which began the path that lead Darlene down one of the darker trails upon the pop culture journey.
When Darlene Gillespie was interviewed in 1976 as part of a Mousketeer reunion on “The Mike Douglas Show,” Darlene told Douglas that she had no dreams of stardom as a child and merely stumbled into the auditions during a tour of the Disney Studios and auditioned on a whim by singing her favourite song – the very popular theme to Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett.” It’s a charming story which sounds like most stories of accidental stardom, but like all myth building stories, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Darlene Gillespie was part of a show business family and from as early as the age of ten she was thrown into the world of entertainment with her mother putting her into both voice and dance lessons. From a young age there was the expectation that Darlene would be a star, and that expectation of stardom became her reality.
Born in Montreal, Darlene was the oldest daughter of the famed dance team of Larry Gillespie and Rean Tibeau. In the early 1940s the Gillespie family relocated from Canada to Los Angeles where Larry worked at an aircraft company while Rean pursued a career in show business. However, when Rean realized that her career was just not coming together, she turned her attention into making her children stars instead. Obvious attention was put upon the oldest child, Darlene. Energetic, beautiful, and charming, Darlene was blessed naturally with a strong singing voice and, at age eleven, was sent to dance lessons under choreographer Burch Mann. This was the beginning of her journey into stardom as Ms. Mann was contacted by “Mickey Mouse Club” producer Bill Walsh to help him find some kids for the new afternoon kids show that Walt Disney was developing. Ms. Mann rounded up a number of her star pupils and sent them on the audition. Out of her pupils three were hired by Walt Disney for “The Mickey Mouse Club” – Bonnie Lou Kernn, Mary Espinosa, and, of course, Darlene Gillespie. It was during this audition that Darlene met Walt Disney and, in turn, was hired on only a single audition. For the record, her audition piece really was the theme for Davy Crockett. Obviously that was the only true part of the story Darlene would tell Mike Douglas decades later.
Now, at age fourteen Darlene was a tad bit older than the rest of the kids that were hired for “The Mickey Mouse Club” and it was believed that Darlene was going to act as the Club’s head girl. She would be the girl that other girls would look up to and, perhaps, see as a big sister. A favorite of the producers, Darlene was being primed for stardom, and even participated in some of the earliest screen tests for the show.
However, as fast as she had been discovered, her first obstacle came between her and fame before the cameras were even turned on. Near the end of his search for children Walt Disney spotted twelve year old Annette Funicello dancing in a production of Swan Lake. Finding out that her modeling and dance career was levelling off, Disney immediately got Annette to sign an exclusive contact with the Walt Disney Company and pop culture history was created. Annette, of course, would become “The Mickey Mouse Club’s” biggest icon, an early sex symbol for an entire generation of little boys and, hands down, the most famous Mousketeer in Walt Disney productions. Yet, when “The Mickey Mouse Club” aired in 1955 nobody knew how popular Annette was going to be. Within time, Annette’s popularity would prove to be an ongoing thorn in Darlene Gillespie’s side. You just couldn’t have two pretty and talented girls on a single set! Although it appeared that there were no rivalries on “The Mickey Mouse Club” set, as years went by the often one sided rivalry between Annette and Darlene would become very evident to anyone who read between the lines, and would eventually damage Darlene’s reputation and career.
However, before Annette-mania took flight a lot of focus was put on Darlene in the first season. Popular with “The Mickey Mouse Club” crew, as well as the parents of the audience, Darlene received a good percentage of the musical numbers and became the head dancer as well (although this may not be a shock considering the choreographer hired for the first season of the show was Darlene’s own dance instructor Burch Mann). Furthermore, backing up Walt Disney’s promise that she was star quality, Darlene was chosen by William Baudine Sr. to be the star of “The Mickey Mouse Club’s” very first “spin off” serial, “Corky and the White Shadow.” Now, for those unfamiliar with “The Mickey Mouse Club”, the “serial” was a series of fifteen minute live action programs that were featured at the end of “The Mickey Mouse Club”. In the same tradition of the Saturday morning movie serials, each episode ended with a cliffhanger. The serials took a life of their own and often became even more popular than “The Mickey Mouse Club” itself. As a result, a lot of production and money were put into the serials and inclusion in a serial was a pretty big deal for a Mousketeer. Thus, to be the star of the first serial was a huge testament for the faith that the Disney Company had in Darlene Gillespie. However, as we’ll see, the hunger for those serial roles would go on to be her downfall as well.
Now, “Corky and the White Shadow” was not the story of a downs syndrome basketball player. Featuring Darlene, television icon Buddy Ebsen, and a white German Sheppard named Chinnok, ”Corky and the White Shadow” was kind of a cross between “Veronica Mars” and “The Littlest Hobo”, but set in the old west. Darlene played the title character Corky, the daughter of a widowed sheriff, played by Ebsen, who, with the help of her super intelligent white German Sheppard, Shadow, helped her father track down a pair of bank robbers over eighteen cliff hanging episodes. Although “Corky and the White Shadow” never received a second series, the serial remained a favourite amongst viewers and spun itself off in album recordings and even a comic book series. After the production wrapped up for “Corky and the White Shadow,” Darlene was back on “The Mickey Mouse Club” set, and, as a result of her popular performance in “Corky”, Darlene was cast for Disney’s next live action film “Westward Ho! The Wagons!” staring Fess Parker, Sebastian Cabot, and what would be tragic actor George Reeves’ final production. Unfortunately, the first major setback in Darlene’s career happened. Although already in preproduction, due to being overworked, Darlene was stricken with pneumonia. Obviously drive and ambition came with a price. Bed ridden for six weeks, her part was relinquished to fellow Mousketeer Doreen Tracy. Although the film wasn’t a giant success, the loss of the part had a giant impact on Darlene’s psyche. When Darlene returned to “The Mickey Mouse Club” set she came back with a lot more edge, which led to an almost cut throat competitiveness from her towards the other Mousketeers. Things were never quite the same for Darlene again but they were about to get worse as the second season of “The Mickey Mouse Club” began filming and it was getting pretty obvious that Annette-mania was on the rise.
Season two of “The Mickey Mouse Club” had Darlene struggling in a one sided tug-of-war for top girl with Annette Funicello. Over the summer, due to audience input and heaps of fan mail, it was pretty obvious that Annette Funicello was the icon of the show and, as we all know, Walt Disney was a man of business and knew a good opportunity when he saw it. As a result much more focus was put on Annette Funicello. Annette became the star of multiple serials, including worming her way into the second instalment of the popular “Spin and Marty” serial. Studio politics, as well as the voice of the masses were making Annette a star, and Darlene was being forced to take a back seat. Making things worse for Darlene’s situation was that her two main supporters in the Disney camp (Birch Mann and director Dik Darley) had left the series. However, it has been speculated that as a result of her damaged ego and her hunger for fame Darlene had began to gain a bit of a bad reputation for being difficult to work with while Annette, who was not only charming and pretty but, by all accounts, a genuinely nice kid, was the kind of girl that directors dreamed to work with. A big indication that this was true was when Mickey Mouse Club leader Jimmy Dodd began to bring the Mousketeers on the road but he didn’t take Darlene with him despite the fact that she was still one of the most popular Mousketeers! Furthermore, while Mousketeers were doing advertisements and other personal appearances, Darlene never participated. It just seemed like nobody was interested in working with her. Now, you don’t just go from starring in your own serial to sitting alone in the shadows. It can be assumed that bitterness was forming within this talented little girl and that the casting directors saw it.
However, Disney hadn’t exactly given up on her yet. Sure, more attention was being put on Annette but Darlene was still getting opportunities to shine in the spotlight! Darlene was still the leader of the majority of the musical numbers on “The Mickey Mouse Club”, and when “Spin and Marty” started its third serial Darlene was added to the cast as Annette’s counterpart. Darlene even had the opportunity to record her own album on Walt Disney records called “Darlene of the Teens,” and in 1957 Darlene was cast by Disney to play Dorothy in a pilot for a Wizard of Oz television series he was planning called “Rainbow Road to Oz.” Although the series never made it past an airing on “The Wonderful World of Disney,” a plum part of Dorothy in a Wizard of Oz production produced by Walt Disney is a pretty nice deal. These are not the kind of solo opportunities that are given to a kid that the Disney Company had given up on. Darlene’s potential was still being recognized by Walt Disney. However, when you’re looking the gift horse in the mouth, you gotta make sure not to anger it. Darlene just didn’t know how not to do that. Despite the fact that she was given all these opportunities it seemed that one kept eating away at her - Annette Funicello was a bigger star.
Darlene’s jealousy and growing dissatisfaction became stronger when it was announced that she was going to be starring in a season three serial called “Margaret” in which she was going to play a country girl who moved to the city and had to adapt to high society without compromising her own sense of self. However, as the result of the success of Annette and Darlene’s roles in the third “Spin and Marty” serial it was decided that Annette would be cast in the lead role, while Darlene would play her city cousin Jet. Renamed “Annette and Darlene,” the serial would be kind of a country mouse/city mouse story with Darlene being the aggressive city girl that learns from Annette’s kindness. Obviously a little bit of typecasting was going on in the rewrite. However, within months of the rewrite Darlene was dropped from the production and the serial was finally renamed simply “Annette” and Darlene’s part was recast with Judy Nugent in the role. It has been suggested that Darlene was dropped from the cast because of her issues with sharing billing with Annette on what she deemed to be “her” serial. The official statement by the Disney Company was that they were saving Darlene for a bigger film project. Evidence shows that that film project was none other than the lead role in what would become the highly successful feature film “Pollyanna.” However, a letter campaign by Darlene Gillespie fans was organized as the result of her getting dropped from the “Margaret” serial which, in a horrible twist of fate, was reported by the Los Angeles Examiner as being organized by none other than Darlene herself as an attempt to regain the studio’s attention away from Annette and back to her. It will probably never be proved as to whether or not Darlene had pulled this stunt but the accusation put a giant wedge between her and her employers. But, wheter Darlene was behind the campaign or not, it was too late anyhow. The third season was the last for “The Mickey Mouse Club”; Darlene’s contract ran out later that year in 1958 and she never worked for the Disney Company again. “Pollyanna” was eventually made with Hayley Mills, making her a star. Finally, as the ultimate dose of salt in the wounds, the only Mousketeer that Disney resigned was Annette Funicello. Darlene’s shot at stardom had come and now it had gone.
Now, just because you got dropped from “The Mickey Mouse Club” didn’t mean career death. After the Club folded other Mousketeers were finding success in show business. Bobby Burgess became a staple on “The Lawrence Welk Show”, Johnny Crawford got hired onto “The Rifleman”, Paul Peterson was on “The Donna Reed Show” and was a big teen idol, and Don Grady was one of the sons on “My Three Sons” while other members of the cast were making appearances on all kinds of television programs. However, Darlene seemed to have a far harder struggle in staying in the spotlight. While she wasn’t necessarily blacklisted, the accusation by the Examiner stayed in the minds of casting directors and Darlene had trouble getting work afterwards. She tried a number of night club acts, made a few television appearances, and even lowered herself to staying alive doing car commercials. Yet by the end of the 1960s Darlene realized that she may have to leave show business behind. As a result Darlene studied to become a nurse Getting a job at Los Angeles’ Valley Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room, it has been said that Darlene developed an even colder and cynical outlook. Called “Nurse Mouse” behind her back, Darlene would become hostile towards people who brought up her Mousketeer career. This was very evident in the 1970′s when Darlene tried to resurrect her career as a country singer. Renaming herself Darlene Valentine she would, of course, get asked by interviewers about her time with the Disney Company in which Darlene would become rather jaded and cynical about the whole affair stating that Disney had used her and spit her out. There was really no love between her and her old employers. It was clear that Darlene had nothing but bottled up anger and resentment. Her career as a country artist dried up nearly as quickly as it had began, but Darlene would make headlines again over a decade later when she brought her anger towards the Disney Company to a head and, in 1990, attempted to sue her former employers. Claiming that she had been cheated out of thousands of dollars, she accused Disney of making approximately ten million dollars from the show and felt that she was owed royalties. However, Darlene went a step further and added that she was suing because Walt Disney didn’t come through in his promise to make her a star. Obviously, what Darlene’s real issue was not royalties but a lifetime of hurt feelings that her big shot didn’t pay off. Darlene’s failed dreams of stardom had obviously scarred her in ways that nobody could have ever imagined. Yet, evidence was brought forth that Walt Disney productions hardly made any profit at all on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which had a lot to do with the show’s eventual cancellation. In fact, Walt Disney himself had sued ABC television in 1959 over lost profits from “The Mickey Mouse Club.” As a result of this revelation Darlene’s case had no credibility.
However, Darlene’s situation would worsen. You see, while most child stars find their criminal activities motivated by narcotics, Darlene’s drug was a con man convicted multiple times named Jerry Fraschilla who she became romantically involved with around the same time as she was suing the Disney Company. Six years after the case folded, Darlene and Fraschilla were arrested for shoplifting four men’s shirts from a department store. The couple got off with a minor sentence of community work and probation, but that was just the first of a string of run-ins with the law. Throughout the 90′s Darlene would participate in a series of fraud schemes that were masterminded by Fraschilla. In 1998 the couple was arrested and accused of committing conspiracy, securities fraud, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and perjury. Fraschilla was accused of twenty-one accounts of fraud, while Darlene was tried as his accessory to the crime. In an attempt to take advantage of the Fifth Amendment, Darlene and Fraschilla were married in December 1998 but both were convicted. Darlene got two years in prison, but was released after only 18 months due to good behaviour. Yet Darlene and Fraschilla were back in court in 2005 for defrauding a law firm of $317,000 by placing a false class-action lawsuit claim. Thus far, a resolution has not been made over this crime.
So what can be said about the Darlene Gillespie story? Well, this is not the typical story of the Hollywood failure. This is not the usual spectacle of a fallen star. No, Darlene Gillespie’s story is an unnoticed Hollywood tragedy. How does a kid with so much talent, ambition and a man like Walt Disney in her corner find her way into the arms of a con man and a fraud conviction? And are Darlene’s bitter claims that Walt Disney turned his back on her a likely reason? Well, the facts show that Disney gave her a shot. He gave her more shots than most kids ever receive. However, ambition, bitterness, rivalry and jealousy prevented Darlene from reaping the rewards of the Disney dream. I find it interesting that much of Darlene’s legal issues revolve around large masses of money; the type of money that a major celebrity would receive. I have no doubt that a big part of her participation in these schemes is a direct result of her broken dreams of stardom. It’s almost as if she believed that money could fix the hole in her heart which fame was supposed to reside, by paying for the type of lifestyle that stardom would have brought her. However, in the end, greed took the place of ambition and crime took the place of talent.
Darlene Gillespie should not be seen as the typical child star gone bad freak show. Darlene Gillespie is a tragedy. She was far more talented than the average child star that wanders onto the stage. She shouldn’t have faded into the pop culture void. Yet, when Fraschilla was the mastermind behind the crimes, it was Darlene who made the headlines because of who she used to be and what she used to represent. The media loves the story of the fallen child star. Now, for the rest of her life, Darlene Gillespie will be remembered as Walt Disney’s bad seed and not as the pretty little girl with a voice and talent as big as her smile. That fact is the biggest tragedy of all.