With his trademark smile and crackling energy, Bobby was the most recognizable male Mouseketeer. A Red Team member for all three seasons, he was not only an accomplished and original dancer, but was a good actor and singer as well.
Robert Wilkie Burgess was born to William E. Burgess and Janie Thompson in Long Beach, California. Bobby has one older brother, Bill, and two younger sisters, Betty and Barbara. Bobby's father was a meatcutter; the family had no prior show business connection. His first public performance occurred at a Masonic temple at age three or four, soon after starting dance lessons. Within a year he had acquired his first regular partner, Judy Lewis.
Bobby took lessons at Call's Fine Arts Center in Long Beach, learning ballet, ballroom, Latin, jazz dancing, and social standards. The well-organized chain of dance clubs founded by Derrell Call emphasized etiquette with dancing and relied heavily on parents' sponsorship and involvement. At age eight Bobby was paired up by the Call's instructors with seven year old Barbara Boylan from Lakewood, who would be his main dancing partner for the next eighteen years. Among other outside teachers, Bobby took specialized instruction in tap with Willie Covan, then dance director for MGM. He also sang alto, played the accordion, and studied Hawaiian folk dancing. He would later blend movements from this specialty with jazz dancing to create his own unique style for the Mickey Mouse Club.
By age thirteen Bobby had competed in fifty-four amateur contests, most of them on television: Spade Cooley, This is My Melody and others, winning a host of prizes. He also performed gratis at the Los Amigos and Sister Kenny Hospitals, both of which were devoted to polio victims. Charity events figured prominently into his performing schedule; though the Burgess family was Baptist, Bob danced at Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant benefits, and for more secular groups like the Shriner's and Lion's Clubs. When not performing Bobby attended Hughes Junior High School in Long Beach where he was an "A" student.
According to Disney sources, Bobby was a long-time veteran of amateur contests, but hadn't worked professionally. However, he did do some toothpaste commercials for The Ozzie and Harriet Show in the summer of 1954, and like Annette, had worked as a professional model for commercial photographers. His first audition for the Disney Studio though was for an acting job on the Spin & Marty serial. He didn't get the part, but while there he heard about the Mouseketeer auditions. It took four callbacks, but he got the job doing a barefoot dance to Rock Around the Clock.
Bobby was one of the two best male dancers on the show during its three year run, and consequently took part in just about every musical number. He did miss a few in the first season involving mainly Blue Team members, but in the later seasons he was ubiquitous. He was one of the oldest kids, by Mouseketeer standards a giant at just over six feet, and because he was willing to try anything the directors gave him more physical challenges than the other kids. That first year he jumped off a high wall while wearing a head-covering Humpty-Dumpty costume for Do-Mi-So, while in Cooking with Minnie Mouse he had to dance and roll backwards across a table. Next he was casually told he'd be riding a unicycle for a Circus Day show. With the help of circus performer Jim Sullivan he learned to do it, but could only ride forwards.
For dance numbers Bonni Kern was Bobby's usual partner during season one. He also did jitterbug routines with Sharon Baird, and served as the resident dance partner for talent winners like Diane Houle. But many of his performances were solo or with other guys: a cowboy jig to Pecos Bill, a jazzy hornpipe in A Whale of a Sailor with Lonnie Burr and Larry Larson. Living in far away Long Beach, Bobby was a bit isolated from the other kids on the show who lived closer in to Burbank. His mom had a daily one hour drive each way taking him to and from the studio.
Though he was popular with the producers, his fellow Mouseketeers had mixed feelings about him. Some were put off by his wide grin and positive outlook, which they felt must be phony. He drew more than his share of undeserved snipes from other mice, many long after the show ended. One first season dance partner even spit on him when he lifted her overhead during a dance number. He received a large amount of positive fan mail, had an all-female fan club in Compton, California, but he also had a few detractors in the viewing audience. His fixed smile and wide-swinging arm and leg movements during dance solos annoyed some who didn't appreciate that Bobby was the only Mouseketeer to develop a unique dance style.
For live performances Bobby was partnered with Sharon, but the pairing looked a bit awkward on camera as he grew taller and she didn't. For later season shows then he was usually seen in numbers with Darlene, Doreen, or Annette. He also was able to arrange to have his non-Mouseketeer partner Barbara Boylan come on the show as a talent winner. One disappointment he shared with other male mice was never getting the chance to do dramatic acting on camera, though he did voice-dubbing work for the Danish-made serial Boys of the Western Sea.
As he grew older many viewers wrote to ask if Bobby was related to Jimmie Dodd. There was a faint resemblance, at least on monochrome TV screens. They even did two song and dance numbers together as a father-son routine for a third season show. Bobby was slated to play the Scarecrow in the projected Disney film The Rainbow Road to Oz, and did a Disneyland episode in which he and Doreen Tracey danced to some of the music written for the film. Along with Doreen, he was one of six Mouseketeers called back to the studio for an abortive fourth season of filming that ended in May 1958.
When the Mickey Mouse Club stopped filming Bobby returned to Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. As with other Mouseketeers this wasn't always a pleasant experience, but Bobby was too big to bully and simply shrugged off the occasional verbal heckling. Bobby and Barbara Boylan continued to dance together, winning local contests and entertaining at civic organization functions. They stayed active in the Call's organization, and were selected as the annual Gold Medal King and Queen for the group in March 1958. A small part in an episode of The Donna Reed Show in late 1958 is Bobby's only dramatic acting credit.
Bobby was one of the Mouseketeers chosen to go with Jimmie Dodd to Australia for a three-week promotional tour in May 1959 just after graduating from high school. Upon return from Australia he joined a road company of Oklahoma! for the summer, then went on to college at Long Beach State where he pledged Sigma Pi fraternity. He returned to Australia with the Mouseketeers in May 1960, and then the following spring with Barbara Boylan won a dance contest at the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica sponsored by Lawrence Welk.
The grand prize was an invitation to repeat their winning dance interpretation of the song Calcutta on The Lawrence Welk Show in April 1961. Welk was impressed by the couple's dancing and demeanor, and let Bobby convince him that he needed full-time dancers for his show. That same summer of 1961 saw Bobby reunited with Annette to film a special episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color called Disneyland After Dark, which would air in April 1962. Bobby and Barbara became regular performers on The Lawrence Welk Show with the 1961-62 television season. They were one of the show's main attractions, and like many a performing team before them left fans to speculate about their off-camera relationship.
Bobby and Barbara reprise their winning dance: 'Calcutta'
They remained dancing partners until the summer of 1967, when Barbara left show business after getting married. Bobby continued dancing on The Lawrence Welk Show with new partner Cissy King. In November 1968 he appeared with eleven other Mouseketeers on a televised celebration of Mickey Mouse's 40th Birthday. Any wisecracks from former colleagues about his current job could be deflected by telling them about the rental property he now owned in Long Beach, modestly styled the Bobby Burgess Apartments. The following year he appeared as a contestant on The Dating Game, where bachelorette Karen Pendleton picked him for her date after recognizing his voice.
On Valentine's Day 1971 Bobby married Kristie Ann Floren, daughter of his colleague Myron Floren, at a Lutheran Church with the Lennon Sisters and five Mouseketeers among the spectators. He continued dancing on The Lawrence Welk Show throughout the seventies, picking up his final regular partner Elaine Balden in 1979. The following year Bobby had a leading part in the Disney television production of the Mickey Mouse Club's 25th Anniversary, but his obligations to the Welk show prevented him from joining in the follow-up live performances at Disneyland until 1982. From the mid-eighties on Bobby and Sherry Alberoni did a number of promotional tours for Disney, traveling North America and Australia to promote the Disney Channel's revival of the original Mickey Mouse Club.
Since 1987 Bobby has run his own cotillion studio in Long Beach, which teaches both dancing and etiquette, hearkening back to the Call organization where he and Barbara Boylan received similar training as children. He and his wife Kristie have four grown children, some of whom have joined him in making light-hearted dance instruction videos. Bobby has taken part in every Mouseketeer Reunion show, including the 50th Anniversary in 2005, where he danced with Sharon Baird, and has appeared on several DVD retrospectives of the Mickey Mouse Club, The Lawrence Welk Show, and of his own career. He has written a light-hearted autobiography called Ears & Bubbles which was published in June 2014.