Tragic Details About The Original Mickey Mouse Club Cast

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All hail Mickey Mouse! The engaging cartoon mouse who began as Steamboat Willie in 1928 gained an amazing fan base in a short time. Walt Disney himself renamed him Mickey Mouse in 1929. Soon the Mickey Mouse Club, a theater club featuring special meetings and Mickey Mouse cartoons was all the rage, says D23. The club remained so popular that by 1955 Disney decided to debut the Mickey Mouse Club television show to help fund the fledgling Disneyland theme park in California. What made this epic kid's show so special? For one thing according to Groovy History, the five weekly episodes each featured a different theme for the day. The show also was ethnically diverse, its young teen stars from different backgrounds selected from playgrounds and other non-professional sources. They were, in essence, real American kids.

The original Mickey Mouse Club, led by adult Mouseketeers Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams, starred 39 different children with varying talents. Disney Fandom confirms that the show remained so popular that a series of revivals were staged in 1970 and again in 1989, producing such noted stars as Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake. But it took something special to be selected as a Mouseketeer for the Mickey Mouse Club, and not everyone made the cut. And not every Mouseketeer retained their cherubic image after leaving the show. Read on for stories of those original Mouseketeers whose lives were not so swell during or after the Mickey Mouse Club.

Dallas Johann suffered from stage fright

According to Walt Disney World Magic's forum, Dallas Johann was the first Mouseketeer hired for the Mickey Mouse Club. But the 13-year-old unfortunately suffered from terrible stage fright. Mental Floss says the boy "cried whenever the cameras were focused on him." Although stage fright among child actors is now recognized as a curable condition, there was no such help for Dallas in 1955. So although he was featured in the original promotional photos for the show, he was released just after filming began and never actually appeared on the show. To add insult to injury Dallas' older brother, John "Lee" Johann, replaced him. Discussion is light on the internet about Dallas Johann's condition, with most websites like Who's Alive Who's Dead simply explaining that he had stage fright or was too scared to work. As it turns out, all he really wanted to do was dance.

Yes, Dallas did eventually get over his issues and appeared in two Elvis Presley movies in 1964: Viva Las Vegas and Kissin' Cousins (as an uncredited dancer). Internet Broadway Database also lists him as a dancer in The Happy Time, Maggie Flynn, The Rothschilds and The Pajama Game during the 1960's and 70's. As recently as 2014, according to the Tryon Daily Bulletin, Dallas and his wife, photographer Susan Johann, judged a "Dirty Dancing" contest at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. Today, according to Dallas' Facebook page, he lives in North Carolina and continues to study theater.

The Rooney Brothers were fired for mischief

One would think that the sons of famed actor Mickey Rooney would be a huge pull for the fledgling Mickey Mouse Club. In fact, Rooney himself claimed that Mickey Mouse was even named for him after he met Walt Disney as a kid, says Iglu Cruise. There is no documentation to back up Rooney's boisterous claim, but it is a fact that Rooney's sons, Mickey Jr. and Tim, were hired for the Mickey Mouse Club based on their talents. The twosome were quite good at acting, dancing, and singing, according to the Internet Movie Database. The website also says the boys appeared on the show for "about a year," but contradicts itself by saying that Tim was hired but never appeared on the show. And both boys were gone by 1956. Why?

Several websites, including Who's Alive and Who's Dead, confirm that the young brothers were fired after "getting into mischief in the Disney paint department." More specifically, the boys were fooling around in the Ink and Paint Department, the very room where mostly women artists applied magnificent colors to Disney's cartoons and movies. Nobody was around when Mickey Jr. and Timmy snuck in and began switching the paint around by pouring it into the wrong-colored cans. They were immediately fired, and although each pursued other careers, their father became estranged from them. Claiming elder abuse by his family, Rooney Sr. left nothing to any of his eight children when he died in 2014

Paul Petersen was fired for throwing a punch

Nine-year-old Paul Petersen was another Mouseketeer who was fired after just three weeks with the Mickey Mouse Club show, says First for Women. In 2017, Paul told the Courier & Press that one day casting crew member Lee Travers teased the boy relentlessly, calling him "'mouse' which he knew I hated." Paul finally retaliated. "I said 'don't call me that, fatso,' and punched him in the stomach," he explained. At that moment, most unfortunately, Walt Disney himself was standing right there and witnessed the whole thing. Disney "called me in later that day and fired me," Paul said, adding, "I laugh about it all the time."

Paul went on to become a teen idol. His biggest role was as Jeff on The Donna Reed Show from 1958 to 1966, says Turner Classic Movies. But when the show ended, the young actor was at a loss as Hollywood turned its back on him and others like him. Paul was lucky; he had the wherewithal, according to the Tolucan Times, (per Web Archive) to continue pursuing his love of music. His debut album "Lollipops and Roses" premiered in 1962, says All Music. Most importantly, Paul Petersen founded A Minor Consideration, a support group that helps young actors establish boundaries in the workplace and gives them guidance for what happens after the footlights fade. He still appears in this YouTube interview where he explains why advocacy is important for child actors even today.

The Rifleman's son showed all in The Naked Ape

Johnny Crawford, son of renowned television editor Robert Crawford, became a Mouseketeer at age nine, says MeTV. Within a year, however, the talented actor had moved on and appeared in shows like Crossroads, The Lone Ranger, The Loretta Young Show, Sheriff of Cochise, and Whirlybirds. Today, Johnny Crawford is best remembered as Mark, the son of rancher Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) in The Rifleman. The Life and Times of Hollywood says Johnny and Chuck Connors made for a "remarkable on-screen father-son chemistry" that is still admired by fans. But Mark McCain's innocence came a bit undone when Johnny appeared nude in the 1973 movie, The Naked Ape. Fox News called The Naked Ape a "quasi-porn flick." 

Produced by Hugh Hefner and co-starring Victoria Principal the film, according to Internet Movie Database, starred Johnny Crawford as the ape who appears on a road trip being taken by some insecure teens who meet a couple of girls on the way. Unabashed by Disney and critics who were shocked, Johnny also made news as the first man to appear completely nude in Playboy magazine—and then went on to found the Johnny Crawford Orchestra and other projects. 

As of 2020, Johnny was unfortunately suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and having trouble meeting his medical bills. None other than his friend, fellow former Mouseketeer Paul Petersen, set up a GoFundMe campaign to help. "You are all proving to be wonderful friends of Johnny's," Paul says on the site.

Doreen Tracy also appeared in the buff

According to Trend Chasers, London-born Doreen Tracy was among the original Mouseketeers and was so good she appeared in the Walt Disney film Westward Ho, the Wagons! in 1956. She also appeared on The Donna Reed Show before embarking on a tour of performances for the military during the Vietnam War. Fellow Mouseketeer Tommy Cole later told The Sun that Doreen was affectionately nicknamed "Our Dodo" by the Mickey Mouse Club cast, and "always had a smile on her face." Unfortunately, the self-proclaimed "black sheep of Disney" was still on company time when she posed nude in 1976. The images of Doreen appeared in the December issue of Gallery magazine, wherein the actress wore nothing but her mouse ears from the Mickey Mouse Club. "Mouseketeer in the Nude," read the headline on the cover, "Little Doreen Grows Up."

After the magazine came out, Disney naturally took umbrage and fired Doreen Tracy over the photos. But in her 2001 autobiography Confessions of a Mouseketeer according to John Pincus is Crying, Doreen openly expressed her regret at posing for the photos. "You get caught up in your own ego, not paying attention, not seeing the full repercussions," she later explained. That was enough for Disney, which welcomed the performer back with open arms and even invited her to appear in a Mouseketeer reunion in 2015. The reunion was Doreen's last public appearance on television; in 2018, according to Find a Grave, she died after a two-year fight against cancer.

Karen Pendleton was paralyzed by an accident

Little Karen Pendleton was just 9-years-old when she got the job as Mouseketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club show, according to the New York Times. Although her father was a movie set designer, says Internet Movie Database, Karen herself had no experience in acting. She did, however, know how to tap dance. "I got the giggles," she said of her audition. Yet she was a hit on the show, often introducing cartoons for viewers to watch. And her talents were genuine, leading to roles in Disney's Westward Ho, the Wagons! and The Magical World of Disney in 1956. 

When Karen's contract expired in 1959, Disney tried to keep her on—but her father decided it was best to decline the offer. Back in the real world, the girl was teased by her classmates. "They'd say to me, 'Wiggle your ears and we'll give you some cheese,' she later revealed, "but it was worth it." Laughing Place confirms that Karen Pendleton went on to finish high school, married, and gave birth to her only child, daughter Staci, in 1973. Ten years later, unfortunately, Karen was divorced when she was in an auto accident which paralyzed her from the waist down. "She had some hard times," said Disney historian Lorraine Santoli, but Karen went on to earn her Bachelor and Masters degrees and also became an advocate for disabled people and abused women. She also appeared at several Mouseketeer reunions before she died in 2019.

Billie Jean Beanblossom was robbed—at Disneyland

WDW Magic explains that Billie Jean Beanblossom's specialty was dancing when she was hired for The Mickey Mouse Club. She only appeared for one season according to Disney Fandom, and Lloyd's Beware the Blog says that Billie Jean mostly served as a dancer in the background. But although she remained out the limelight even after leaving the show (save for a stint on The Muppet Show in 1974), those who might not have remembered Billie Jean's Mouseketeer days were certainly made aware of her in 1995 when she (as Billie Jean Matay), her children, and her grandchildren were robbed at gunpoint in Disneyland's own parking lot. The gunman, who was never caught, robbed the group of $1,650 plus their credit cards and identification before fleeing.

But the robbery wasn't the worst part according to Billie Jean. Snopes says the former Mouseketeer alleged that Disneyland's security staff not only refused to help following the robbery, but also held her group "against their will" for questioning over several hours. Most disturbing was that her grandchildren were traumatized when they saw Disney characters removing "parts of their costumes" (read: their heads) in front of them. Billie Jean sued, according to Deseret, charging that the kids were exposed "to the reality that the Disney characters were, in fact, make-believe." The trial was eventually dismissed by the judge who believed what the children saw was "unimportant." And Billie Jean eventually forgave Disneyland, appearing for a reunion in 2015, says Internet Movie Database

Darlene Gillespie's checkered path

The Canadian-born Darlene Gillespie appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club for three seasons according to Internet Movie Database. She also became a United States citizen in 1956. But Little Things claims that Darlene was soon in competition with fellow Mouseketeer Annette Funicello as the show's favorite girl. Although Annette won out with her own illustrious career, Darlene did go on to appear in several television shows—notably National Velvet and Dr. Kildare in 1962. She also released some albums for Disney as well as her own country music record under the name of Darlene Valentine, says Disney Fandom. But Darlene's life also became fraught with complications, beginning with two divorces in 1968 and 1983 (her third husband, Jerry Joseph Fraschilla, died in 2008).

Then, in 1998, Darlene was convicted on 12 counts of "counts of conspiracy, securities fraud, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and perjury." She was sentenced the following year to two years in prison, reported the Los Angeles Times. Darlene doggedly maintained her innocence despite being charged for perjury. She firmly told reporters, "I believe with all my heart that at the end of the day I will be vindicated." But the singer also spent three months in prison for check fraud and butted heads in court with Disney over "compensation," says Woman's World. She was able to settle out of court, but in 2005 was again accused of mail fraud. As of 2011, she was a retired nurse living quietly in California.

Dennis Day was a victim of murder

Dennis Day, according to Disney Fandom, appeared on the Mickey Mouse Club show for two years, as well as a special Disney episode. After that he dropped off into obscurity. After pairing up with his partner, Ernest Caswell in about 1974 (per USA Today) and appearing as a guest on a 1980 Mouseketeer reunion show, Dennis relocated to Oregon, says Oregon Live. There, says Find a Grave, he worked for the local Living History Centre, performed in Renaissance fairs and, with Ernest, developed a successful line of wine jams and jellies. 

Most unfortunately, things took a terrible turn in July of 2018. According to Fox News, Dennis was reported missing by Ernest, who was suffering from dementia. Police had no clues, although another Oregon Live report confirmed that Dennis had recently called the police because his live-in handyman, Daniel Burda, had become violent. 

Police advised Dennis to evict Burda; while questioning the handyman later, they also noticed "obvious battle wounds" on his hands and arms but did nothing. And when police were called again because of a "horrific smell" coming from Dennis' home, they searched the house and even inadvertently walked over the man's body under a pile of clothes without finding him. Another nine months would go by before Dennis was finally found and Burda admitted to killing the former Mouseketeer. Two women, Wanda Garcia and Lori Declusin, also were eventually arrested after being found with Dennis Day's car and jewelry, according to Deadline

Where are the surviving Mouseketeers today?

Although the surviving performers have continued to appear in public, there have only been two official reunions for Disney's original Mouseketeers. The first one in 1980, says Disney Fandom, featured 31 of the original 39 Mouseketeers in a television special. Singer Paul Williams hosted the show, which included song and dance numbers by noted Mouseketeer Annette Funicello (who died in 2013) and the others. A special series of film montages also portrayed Mouseketeers Bobby Burgess, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O'Brien, and Sharon Baird performing alongside "their younger selves." It was noted that the performers still "really play well off each other." The show remains available on YouTube. In 2015, according to Roger Ebert, a second reunion was held on the last day of the D23 Expo in California. 

The 2015 reunion was hosted by Lorraine Santoli, author of The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book. Seven remaining Mouseketeers (Sherry Alberoni, Sharon Baird, Bobby Burgess, Tommy Cole, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O'Brien, and Doreen Tracey) were in attendance. Writer Doug Marsh applauded the party as a wonderful get-together as the performers talked about how they got on The Mickey Mouse Club, what it was like to be on the show and how being a Mouseketeer affected their lives later on. Of course there were a few songs too, and special guests that made the day extra special. Will there be another Mouseketeer reunion? With eight Mouseketeers surviving (per Who's Alive and Who's Dead), it's certainly possible.