1963 Syndication sales pitch courtesy of Bill Cotter
After its original network run on ABC finished in September 1959, the Mickey Mouse Club was released to syndication. From 1962-65, and again in 1975-76, the show was offered on annual subscription in a repackaged format, until it found its final television home with the advent of the Disney Channel in 1983.
From its inception the Mickey Mouse Club had been designed with an eye to subsequent reuse. The interchangeable quarter-hour segments were meant to be reshuffled between shows for reruns according to producer Bill Walsh's original report on the show's proposed format. Film being an inelastic medium, this reshuffling wasn't attempted until the fourth season (1958-59). For that last year of broadcasting on ABC, Disney editors recut material from the hour-long shows of the first two seasons into a half-hour, using a four short segment pattern dictated by the removal of serial episodes to a separate program called Adventure Time.
The 1959 lawsuits between ABC and Disney over Zorro and the Mickey Mouse Club had been settled through arbitration in 1960. By the terms of that agreement the latter show could not be broadcast again until 1961. Walt Disney found that none of the networks was interested in re-broadcasting old episodes of his children's show, while he himself had no inclination to make a new version of something that had never really interested him. Nevertheless, seeing a chance to recoup the money spent in making it he had the Disney Studio staff investigate syndication.
Syndication involved selling the show not once to a network, but multiple times to a broad array of independent stations and network affiliates. That there was demand for the show among the public was clear from letters coming into the studio. What was less certain was whether enough stations would commit to justify the cost of producing a syndicated version. For a show to succeed in syndication it needed at least one hundred episodes. The Mickey Mouse Club had triple this number, but the majority of material was in hour-long format. Marketing studies of children's shows suggested a half-hour would have broader appeal.
The existing half-hour episodes from the fourth season all lacked one or other of the show's two essential strengths: the dramatic serials and Mouseketeer sequences. The half-hour third season shows were suitable from the standpoint of serials, but were weak in Mouseketeer material. So a significant effort in time and money would be required for the film editors to produce new half-hour shows out of the first two seasons.
Once the decision to syndicate was made, the Disney publicity machine was cranked up to start promoting the show again. Early rumors reaching Mouseketeers in late 1961 led some to tell fan magazines they thought the show might be coming back. After the nature of the revival became apparent, a few mice were enlisted along with Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams to make personal appearences on behalf of the syndication effort. Jimmie traveled to two dozen cities in the east and midwest drumming up business.
First Syndicated Season 1962-63
For syndication the film editors returned to the format used during the third season, of two long and one short segments, the latter being usually nothing more than a quick Doddism and Alma Mater. Where the 1958-59 season had re-used mainly first season material with only about one third from the second year, the first year of syndication reversed that pattern. Skits, guest stars, and circus acts from 1956-57 dominated; as in 1958-59 no third season shows were used. Newsreels were largely dropped as being dated. Cartoons were used several days a week, an increase over the original third and fourth season pattern. Serials were divided evenly between season one (The Adventures of Spin and Marty, Corky and White Shadow) and season two (The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure, Boys of the Western Sea).
One hundred fifteen television stations signed up to re-broadcast the Mickey Mouse Club, despite the very stiff price demanded by the Disney Studio. What they received was the right to exhibit 130 half-hour shows, with limited reruns, for a one year period starting September 3, 1962. This was a far greater number of stations, with a much wider geographic coverage, than had ever been achieved on ABC. The coverage was so widespread that some lucky kids found they could watch the show on two different channels from overlapping markets; and if they were really lucky the shows would come on at different times. Most stations scheduled the show for the late afternoon time period in which it had first appeared, usually from 4:00 to 6:00 pm, but odd starting times (e.g. 5:15 pm in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and 4:25 pm in Pittsburgh) were not unknown.
To give the show a contemporary update a few stations in larger markets resorted to locally-produced segments featuring an adult host, usually in Mouseketeer costume, to supplement the Disney-provided material. Jimmie Dodd went on publicity tours to some of these stations, appearing on camera with the local host and conferring a sense of legitimacy to them. Many fans who encountered the show for the first time as youngsters in these early syndicated seasons would long after confuse the local segments with the original show. Often the locally produced material replaced portions of the syndicated show, keeping the runtime at thirty minutes, but a few stations extended it to thirty-five, forty or even forty-five minutes.
Disney began producing its own live fifteen minute supplementary segment beginning January 14, 1963. This featured voice artist Ginny Tyler at the Mickey Mouse Club headquarters in Disneyland. Ginny's background and vocal talents were reminiscent of Bob Amsberry, while her looks were evocative of Annette. She hosted the show, told stories, and was joined from time to time by Jimmie Dodd, Roy Williams, Disney Studio and Disneyland employees, and young park visitors selected by Walt Disney. Though made with Disney's cooperation and support, Ginny's performance was seen only on KTTV Channel 11 in Southern California. For Disney it was a marvellous way to get free airtime advertising the theme park. For Ginny it was a demanding twelve-month gig that ended December 1963, but it brought her a lasting though geographically limited renown as the Disneyland Storyteller, and much later a Disney Legends award.
Second Syndicated Season 1963-64
For this season the studio simply re-released the original third year (1957-58) episodes in the same order as they were first broadcast. Already a half-hour in length, these shows required very little in the way of preparation before syndication. The studio saved a bundle on film editing, but unfortunately didn't pass the savings on to potential buyers. There were again rumblings in the marketplace about the cost, especially in light of the lack of new material. With the half-hour syndicated format the sheer amount of recycled content built into the show stood out much more. This was particuarly apparent in the original third season episodes, with their standard daily Roll Call and Alma Mater.
Despite the ratings gain most stations achieved the previous year with the Mickey Mouse Club, many station managers had guessed it might be a passing fancy. The stiff price demanded by Disney was too much for a recycled kids show, especially in the marginal time slot during which it aired. The season began Sept 4, 1963; this time only 88 stations signed up to broadcast the show. Cost had driven many stations in small markets away, but other factors were involved. The high degree of repetitiveness in the show's content and lack of new footage meant a drop in viewing audience after the first few months. Also, the tipping point towards home ownership of color television sets had arrived; monochrome shows, no matter how popular, would not survive much longer.
As this season drew into spring 1964, Walt Disney and his staff became convinced that new material must be provided with the reruns if the show was to remain viable for syndication. Its appeal had worn thin; most local hosts (including Ginny Tyler) had been dropped, and one station even had the gall to schedule the Mickey Mouse Club at 9 o'clock in the morning, opposite Romper Room. The hard-won lessons of the show's earlier years were ignored however, and instead of using Mousekeeters to attract the kids the studio went with adult performers for the coming year.
Third Syndicated Season 1964-65
When the Disney Studio decided to offer a third syndicated season, to counter criticism and enhance the show's appeal for buyers it added new content. Many episodes now had only half their running time from the original show, the rest being filled out with new performances. The new cast members, all adults, were Julius Sumner Miller (Professor Wonderful), illusionist Bob Towner (Mavelous Marvin), and the comedy team of Skiles and Henderson (Hub and Bub). Jimmie Dodd also returned for brief introductions to these new features, his last on camera performances before falling ill in August 1964.
Introduced by an hourlong premiere on August 30, 1964, with the season debuting September 6th, all of the new film had actually been made earlier in the summer. Professor Wonderful's "Fun with Science" demonstrations were mainly done at the Disney studio, though a few were performed outdoors at the theme park. Marvelous Marvin's much smaller number of skits were supposed to take place at the Mickey Mouse Club World Headquarters in Disneyland, but were probably made in part at the studio. The sequences with Hub and Bub were shot on location at Disneyland, as were some new guest star sequences with Wally Boag, Monty Montana, and the Brooks Sisters.
According to Disney historian Bill Cotter all of these new performances were shot with video cameras, then transferred to film using the kinoscope process. This saved the cost of film editing at the expense of picture quality, one reason these episodes were locked away in the archives after the season ended and never shown again. The lack of editing also meant performance goofs stayed in the end product, such as when the Professor's experiments went awry.
Julius Sumner Miller (1909-1987) was physics professor at El Camino College in Torrence, CA for twenty-two years. Disney first employed him as technical advisor on The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. He had a recurring guest spot demonstrating physics principles on The Steve Allen Show, and had done three earlier television shows of his own on CBS: Great Moments in Science, Science and Its Magic, and Why Is It So?
Miller was a workaholic showman in and out of the classroom, who never took a vacation and gave only a dozen "A's" in thirty years of teaching. Disney had high hopes for him. He made forty Fun With Science features at the studio, of which 22 were broadcast. He also recorded three LP albums of his lectures on Great Men of Science, and had a children's lab set marketed under the "Professor Wonderful" name. But his appeal was limited even with adults and older teens, while younger viewers found him baffling.
Professor Wonderful's Fun With Science
Strange Effects of Electrical Charges
The Wonder and Drama of Heat
Strange and Wonderful Properties of Liquids
Some Dramatic Physics in the Kitchen
The Physics and Drama of Toys
The Wonderful Principle of Archimedes
The Drama of Levers
Some Strange and Wonderful Paradoxes
Strange Effects of Blowing Air
The Beauty and Drama of Things that Oscillate
The Drama and Wonder of Things That Are Very Cold
The Strangeness and Wonder of Magnetism
The Wonderful Properties of Sound and Vibrating Things
Things That Sing
The Weight of the Air
Things That Stay Put
Helping in the Kitchen
The Strange and Wonderful Behavior of Things
The Strange Behavior of Rotating Things
Things That Roll
Center of Gravity (with Wally Boag)
Professional magician Robert "Torchy" Towner had designed illusions for CBS' The Magic Land of Alakazaam from 1960-64 before joining Disney during the summer of 1964. Made up to look like an elderly handyman, Bob portrayed Marvelous Marvin, the custodian for the Mickey Mouse Club World Headquarters. His schtick was solving maintenance problems with seemingly commonplace objects that in his hands became magical devices. Designed as filler material, his feature appeared in no more than eight episodes.
Also meant for filler material were Hub and Bub. Bill Skiles and Pete Henderson had been working at Disneyland off and on since 1958, first as musicians for Disneyland Date Nights, and later as comics. For the Mickey Mouse Club they wandered around the theme park, introducing guest stars, wisecracking with Marvelous Marvin and Wally Boag, and displaying their musical talents. They shot twenty-eight little segments, often no more than a guest star introduction and a joke or two, of which less than a dozen made it on the air. Like Professor Wonderful, they appealed to adults and older teens but not to the kids whom the show was supposedly trying to attract.
The original material for this season included the serials Further Adventures of Spin and Marty, Adventure in Dairyland, Mystery of Secret Lake, The Eagle Hunters, and Border Collie. Also shown was a Disneyland serial Moochie of the Pop Warner League. Two short educational serials, A Mousekatour to Samoa and Fun With a Camera were shown once, then replaced in reruns with another anthology show series, Moochie of the Little League.
The season officially ended September 23, 1965, though WGN in Chicago, which ran the shows only three days a week, continued airing them for another year. Overall ratings results were much lower than for the two previous syndicated seasons, justifying the objections many potential customers had made to putting college science lectures into a children's program. The studio decided it was time to retire the show for awhile, as it turned out ten years. Future incarnations of the Mickey Mouse Club would wisely avoid using adults in the cast save as Mouseketeer leaders.
Fourth Syndicated Season 1975
According to Disney historian Bill Cotter the studio was considering doing a new Mickey Mouse Club show but marketing research indicated there was more interest in seeing the original show again. The twenty-some years that had passed since its debut had fortunately nudged the program into the realm of nostalgia, for as a straight children's show it would now have tough competition.
Disney publicity director Tom Jones assigned a young employee named Keith Keller to handle the ad campaign, including the compilation of the show's history in book form as The Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook. Its publication was timed to coincide with the show's return to the air, as a counterpoint perhaps to the articles then appearing in Esquire by author Jerry Bowles.
There would be no editing of the original hour-long shows this time, nor any new material. Instead, the first ninety half-hour shows created for syndication in 1962 were re-used, featuring the serials The Adventures of Spin and Marty, Corky and White Shadow, and Boys of the Western Sea. One hundred ten stations signed up for the series, nearly as many as in 1962-63. This time there were no local hosts, tacit recognition perhaps that the show's main audience would be baby boomer parents whose bewildered kids wondered what had happened to the color on the TV.
Breaking with the television tradition of launching shows in September, Disney released the Mickey Mouse Club through syndication to local stations on January 20, 1975. An unexpected bonus for publicity came from an episode of The Tomorrow Show taped that same night. Lonnie Burr had suggested to NBC that with the return of the show to the air host Tom Snyder ought to do an interview with the Mouseketeers. Lonnie and five others, Darlene, Tommy, Sharon, Cheryl, and Cubby, gathered to relate their experiences, with surprise drop-in visitor Roy Williams showing up in Mouseketeer shirt and ears, and Annette taking part by phone.
The broadcast history of the Mickey Mouse Club finished up on January 14, 1977. The following Monday marked the debut of The New Mickey Mouse Club, also a syndicated show, with no adult hosts and a Mouseketeer cast all between the ages of seven to twelve. The original Mickey Mouse Club would next return in 1983 as a semi-permanent fixture on the Disney Channel.