There was a time when life screeched to a halt every weekday at 5 p.m. as we gathered in front of our television sets to watch "The Mickey Mouse Club." The most intriguing feature of the show was the cast: the original Disney Mouseketeers sang and danced their way into our hearts five days a week with themed shows like Fun with Music, Guest Star Day, Anything Can Happen Day, Circus Day and Talent Roundup Day.
A few of the Mouseketeers -- most notably Sharon and Lonnie -- were seasoned professionals. But most of them were typical kids who could sing and dance passably, but who were otherwise pretty much like us, growing up in a time and place where the economy was booming, kids were center stage and the possibilities seemed endless.
We experienced the era's innocence and optimism with them, singing along to songs like "Beauty is as beauty does" and listening to Jimmy Dodd's sweet homilies. We commiserated with Karen when she sang -- in her imperfect, husky little voice -- "Gee, But It's Hard to Be Eight." We were right there with them as they went through puberty on national television. Voices cracked. Hips broadened. Faces matured. And, in the case of Annette, an entire nation of enraptured young boys watched her bosom blossom under that little Mousketeer sweater.
They were a cohesive cohort. They hung out together. They went to school on the studio lot together. They had their special songs. We could relate. Life was a song and dance, an adventure. Anything could happen, anything was possible.
The Mouseketeer concept didn't work quite as well for later reincarnations of the show. The last Mickey Mouse Club in the Nineties brought Britney Spears, Cristina Aguilara and Justin Timberlake to public attention. But these were slick professionals. They were sexy. They were always quite different from you and me. They weren't the peers we once knew and adored.
My childhood friend Mary Laing and I used to watch the show together and dreamed of joining the ranks of the Mouseketeers. We took up tap dancing and practiced our songs. But the real reason we longed to be Mouseketeers was not the promise of fame but a chance to be part of that group, to be one one of them.
One day, trolling through the phone book to see if we could find any of our friends, the Mouseketeers, listed, we came across Lonnie Burr's name. We couldn't believe our luck. Lonnie was one of our favorites. He was very talented and cute and oh, so cool. Mary called him. His mother said she'd put him on the phone and a minute later, there he was. Mary was momentarily tongue-tied. Then she frantically improvised. "You're our favorite Mouseketeer and we think you're so cool!" she said in a rush. "And we'd like to invite you to a party at my house next Saturday."
There was a pause on the other end. Then he said "Just a minute. I need to ask my Mom." His mother came on the line to get directions, time and said they would be there.
Mary hung up the phone and we looked at each other in total panic. "My Mom. Oh, my God! She'll kill me!" Mary cried, burying her head in her hands. But Mary's mom Liz simply smiled beatifically at us and said "Oh, how nice. A party for Mouseketeer Lonnie. Honestly, y'all get more vivid imaginations every day."
Mary and I looked at each other with growing panic. She didn't believe us. We went to my mother and told her the news. A look of disbelief crossed her face, too. But we persisted. Finally, she grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye and said "Kathleen, is what you're telling me real? You girls really have called Lonnie Burr and invited him to a party that doesn't exist? And he is coming to Mary's house next Saturday?" I nodded. My mother sighed. Then she picked up the phone and dialed.
"Liz," she said. "We'd better get busy. We're having a Mouseketeer party next Saturday."
When Saturday came, there were decorations, a lovely cake and sandwiches and a group of excited neighborhood kids gathered on the Laing's patio. Lonnie and his mother arrived right on time. We gasped when we saw him. The show filmed quite a few months in advance and the maturity gap was visible: Lonnie was growing into adolescence. He was more grown up -- physically and emotionally -- than we had ever imagined. He was very gracious, especially for a thirteen year old, patiently playing party games with the smaller children, talking amiably with the older ones. Seeing how grown up he was, I suddenly felt shy and wouldn't say a word to him. Mary took up the slack and was her most charming. Still, I'm sure it was a very long afternoon for him.
My mother sat under a tree chatting with his mother. Dorothy Burr explained that Mouseketeers stayed on the show only if they received enough fan mail and she urged my mother to encourage us all to send Lonnie fan mail so he could keep his job. Overhearing this, I suddenly felt sorry for this talented young man and realized the corporate bottom line underlying the merry Mouseketeers. Underneath the smiles, there was pressure and competition, realities we wouldn't know until later in life.
Nevertheless, the sense of fun and camaraderie on the show was genuine. Many years later, writing on his website, Lonnie said that he felt that the Mouseketeers were so beloved because they represented connection, belonging and family. And he has posted pictures of the gang celebrating birthdays together half a century later and coming out in force to help Annette, now totally incapacitated with MS, and her husband Glen after their house burned down earlier this year.
Indeed, the Mouseketeers really are just like the rest of us: they've had their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and disappointments, their tragedies and their limitations. And, like us, they generally have had quiet lives, with high points or low points not chronicled in the tabloids.
As the years passed and the Mickey Mouse Club became a warm, collective memory, Cubby went on to be a sought-after drummer and Tommy won an Emmy for his abilities as a make-up artist. Although Lonnie, Sharon and Bobby continued on with their show business careers -- Bobby dancing for many years on the Lawrence Welk Show, Sharon in films, television and road shows, Lonnie on Broadway, films and television -- their three year stint as Mouseketeers has remained a major part of their professional identity. Lonnie notes on his website that if he were to win a Pulitzer prize or the Nobel or an Oscar, his future obituary would still identify him primarily as "Mouseketeer Lonnie."
Most of the Mouseketeers went back to regular life once the show ended. Most married. Some divorced. And some earned brief notoriety: Doreen posing nude for a skin magazine, Darlene arrested for a series of crimes. Annette was not the only Mouseketeer to end up in a wheelchair. While still quite young, Karen was crippled in an automobile accident -- and went on to become a counselor for the physically challenged. They found that, while anything can happen in life, some things become less possible with time. Just like the rest of us.
They didn't get a free or easy pass in life and neither did we.
And we all found, over the course of the years, that connection, belonging and family have mattered most in all our lives.