The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show

Road Trips: Annette's 50th Anniversary Ears

"Road Trips" will be an irregular series of articles on contemporary visits to places and events of interest to fans of the original Mickey Mouse Club. For this initial entry Chief Mousekereporter Randall Nakashima takes us on a visit to photograph some ears designed for (but never worn by) Annette Funicello for the 50th Anniversary celebration of Disneyland and the Mickey Mouse Club show.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace

Annette’s 50th Anniversary Ears are on display at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California. The Ears are autographed by the Mouseketeers appearing at the 50th Anniversary Show at Disneyland. Annette, it turns out, was a country music fan, and a regular at the Crystal Palace when Buck was still playing.

About two months ago, a friend sent us a photograph of the Ears in their display case, prompting me to call the Palace about photographs and a story. I was directed to Jim Shaw who was Buck’s right hand man in his construction of the Palace, and also one of his sidemen on piano with the Buckaroos.

The Palace itself is a mixed-use dinner theater and entertainment venue with full capacity seating for over 500 when the tables are removed in favor of chairs. Built in 1996, it is designed to look like an old western town on the inside and outside. It was part of Buck’s dream to have an upscale venue for his own band and other acts, far from the honky-tonks he played in his youth.

Although Jim remembered Annette, he told me that he never got to know her all that well, as she mostly socialized with Buck, as would be expected with a guest celebrity. Buck passed away in 2006.

Annette’s 50th Anniversary Ears are displayed among a number of Buck’s guitars, stage outfits and memorabilia. There is a photograph of Annette at the Palace, another with her and Buck, yet another with Shelley Fabares, and a drawing of her as a Mouseketeer

Jim was kind enough to remove the Ears from the display case and allow me to examine and photograph them up close.

The Ears are signed by Mouseketeers Cheryl, Karen, Cubby, Sharon, Doreen, Bobby, Tommy, Sherry, Mary Espinosa and Don Grady. I don’t know if they consider it a formality or a title, but all of the Mice sign as “Mouseketeer Cheryl,” Karen, Cubby, etc., or in some cases, simply shortened to “Mouse.” Physically, the Ears are something of a disappointment: they appear to be the stock, generic anniversary ears that could be bought at Disneyland. In fact, “Disneyland Resort” is part of the embroidered “50” emblem. The ears themselves appear to be made of a gold colored plastic material and are a far cry from the custom fitted, wired ears of the originals. That being said, they photograph well.

If any readers in Southern California would like to view the Ears and have an interest in Country Music, or need a way to spend a weekend, a show and dinner at the Crystal Palace might be time well spent.

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant

The surprise of the day came before the Crystal Palace when I stopped for lunch prior to my 2:00 appointment. I went to a Basque restaurant about six blocks from the Palace, and by sheer luck, I had stumbled upon Annette’s favorite Bakersfield restaurant.

I was talking to the woman tending bar in the lounge (that’s another story) about what I was doing in Bakersfield in the 110-degree heat, and she responded that this was Annette’s favorite restaurant and that she and her husband, Glen Holt, were regulars for dinner and family occasions. She referred me to the hostess, Stephanie Duhart, who in turn referred me to her uncle, Benji.

Bernard “Benji” Arduain is the owner and original chef of the restaurant. Benji is a white-haired man in his 70’s. He has been in operation since 1986 and originally started in a building closer to downtown. Annette had been a customer since he was in his old location. He called her “my beautiful girl,” and said she would always come visit him in his kitchen when he was cooking and would never think of leaving without saying goodbye.

For anyone unfamiliar with a Basque restaurant, guests are traditionally served family-style at long tables with everyone passing the serving dishes across the table. Modernly, family service is offered only if ordered by all the guests at an individual table, with traditional service reserved for private parties, events or occasions. Basque entrees are very homey, and are usually served with soup, salad, wine and cheese.

I can see how family-style seating and service would appeal to Annette, used to large Italian family gatherings with meals being the focal point for conversation. Benji told me that Annette would come in frequently with her husband, and sometimes her children and relatives, and on occasion reserve a table for twelve or more for family seating. She was particularly fond of pickled tongue Basquaise. (Not bad if you don’t see it being made.)

Benji recalled that Annette and Glen had a small ranch north of town and raised horses. He remembered Annette as being extremely sweet, genuine and a pleasure to be with. There is a photo of Annette and Benji autographed by Annette on the restaurant’s Facebook page. I would estimate it to be around thirty years old. Benji said there were other photos but he returned them to Glen as memories of the times they had together. He suggested I contact Glen, who was very approachable, to see them and ask more questions. (However, I think I’ll pass. You can only take the Mickey Mouse Club so far.)

Unfortunately, one thing that both the restaurant staff and Jim Shaw agreed upon was Annette’s gradual decline. She began to have problems walking, then speaking, then eventually she had to be carried inside. It got to the point at Benji’s where Annette couldn’t come inside the restaurant and they would pick up food to go.

Nevertheless, it was part of Annette’s character that she would want to see Benji every time she came to the restaurant, even if he had to walk outside to the car. Similarly, at the Palace, she would acknowledge the well-wishers in the audience, even though Glen had to wave her arm for her at the end. Annette felt a need to be with people rather than shutting herself off—especially from those with whom she had developed friendships.

At the End of the Day

Annette’s decline was pretty grim, it is true. I think I prefer to remember her through the blue haze of a black & white television as opposed to the glaring detail of High Definition. I do the same with all the Mouseketeers.

Viewing a life in its entirety, Annette’s illness was just one part of her life as a performer, mother, family member and friend—in all of which she excelled. Even people with a passing exposure to Annette could tell she was a wonderful person: good natured, caring, and without pretense.

So now I wonder why I drove for three hours in one hundred-plus degree heat to learn what I already knew. The Mouseketeers have told us what Annette was like for years. She was the most popular Mouse for a reason. Remembering back to the ‘50’s, my mom and I watched the show to see her.

After my road trip, I looked back at some of her Mouseketeer photos and noticed something: aside from her striking coloration and physical attractiveness, Annette radiated niceness. The concept has almost become a pejorative modernly, but Annette made people feel that they were all right with her, whoever they were. And people wanted to know her because she was nice. She made them feel comfortable.

From my perspective as an adult, Annette is not my favorite Mouseketeer, ironically, because of her popularity. I’m currently trying to rediscover the “lost episodes” because I feel the other Mice deserve more recognition. I think she would feel the same. Maybe I am trying to channel her niceness and graciousness.

Or maybe it’s the heat.

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