Books About The Mickey Mouse Club
An American Original
by Bob Thomas
Hyperion, New York 1994 (orig pub Simon and Schuster 1976)
379 Pages, Photos, Sources, Index
Bob Thomas was hand-picked by then Disney studio head Ron Miller, husband of Diane Disney Miller, to write this biography. Bob had interviewed Walt Disney on several occasions, and had already written a children's book called Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies (1968). This project was initiated when the studio was at it's creative nadir. Looking back at Walt's life and triumphs was perhaps a way of linking the lackluster management of the seventies with the creative vision and risk-taking dynamism of the studio founder.
Both the original and the 1994 Hyperion publication (hurriedly re-issued to counter Marc Eliot's unauthorized Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, published the year before) are copyright to the Walt Disney Company, not to the author. This then, is the official Disney version of Walt's life, at least as viewed from the 1970's. The author, in his forward to the Hyperion edition, candidly acknowledges his complicity in concealing the adoption of Sharon Disney (who passed away in 1993) in the original edition.
The author has written a narrative biography, in which the subject's life is presented in a smooth chronological sequence, making it a quick and enjoyable book to read. There are no alternative interpretations of events or motivations to ponder, everything is already pre-evaluated for the reader and presented as fact. Thomas does not shy away from delicate subjects, particularly those already made public by Richard Schickel in The Disney Version (1968), but he minimizes their impact by briefly mentioning them, then quickly moving on to other topics. For instance, the abusive nature of Elias Disney, Walt's father, is reduced to a single mild anecdote, while the difficulty Walt and Lillian Disney had in conceiving a child is described only in a passing reference to their taking up horseback riding.
The major cataclysmic event of Walt's professional life, the cartoonist's strike of 1941, is also quickly passed over, in six pages, with the author painting Herb Sorrell as a villain and Art Babbit (whom he does not name) as an ungrateful wretch. Thomas also implies that the Federation of Screen Cartoonists was not a company union, when it really was. The author admits that Disney received bad advice on dealing with the situation, but echos Walt's assertion that left-wing agitators and Communists were behind the strike. He does, however, treat Elias Disney's own lifelong Socialist allegiance sympathetically. The author concludes with an astounding statement, that Walt Disney felt no bitterness towards the strikers, except the unnamed Art Babbitt.
The book's style is anecdotal, it's goal to paint a caricature of Walt Disney as a regular guy, a mixture of foibles and strengths, neither elitist nor complex. This portrait is meant to replace the "Uncle Walt" image of the primetime television show, already weakened by Schickel's revelations of a vindictive temper and moody gruffness that kept studio employees on edge. That it is successful is largely due to exchanges such as those related by studio nurse Hazel George, whom the author praises in his forward as a serendipitous source.
He [Walt] once remarked to Hazel, "After I die, I would hate to look down at this studio and find everything in a mess."   "What makes you think you won't be using a periscope?" she asked. "Smartass," he muttered.
With the initial planning of Disneyland, the book leaves the studio behind and never really returns, save for Mary Poppins (1964). The theme park's development, opening, and continual renewal, are the climax of the story, with the inclusion of Walt Disney's increasing number of accolades and minor projects like Cal-Arts. The author certainly knew who signed his paychecks; Disney's son-in-law Ron Miller is given as much space as Ub Iwerks, and far more than folks like Ken Anderson, Bill Walsh, Joe Fowler, or Marvin Davis. (Bonnie Lynn Fields recently summarized Ron Miller as the guy who worked his way up from the mailroom to holding the stopwatch that timed Mouseketeer lunch breaks and recreation periods.)
The Mickey Mouse Club rates three pages in this treatment, though the references are scattered over several chapters. The author does a good job on it; he doesn't try to claim undue credit for Walt Disney in the show's creation, and he reports an illuminating statement, that Walt wanted to pitch the show at the twelve year old level, rather than at the age range of three to fourteen given in publicity releases. Thomas makes only one error, that the second season was more successful than the first (the Nielson ratings actually went into a nose dive around March 1957), and he gives what would become the standard explanation for the show's demise.
"Despite its immense popularity, The Mickey Mouse Club ran into trouble. ABC claimed it couldn't find enough sponsors who wanted to appeal to the juvenile audience, and the show was cut to a half-hour, then discontinued. It had been a brave experiment, an attempt to present important programming to the young television audience; never again would it be done in commercial television. What killed the The Mickey Mouse Club? Walt Disney hinted that it was greed; he believed the network's overloading of commercials caused the viewers to lose interest."