Every generation has its own signature version of The Mickey Mouse Club, the Disney-organized teen-friendly television club that’s been through three incarnations since its founding a half-century ago. In the ‘50s, Jimmie Dodd presided over a sedate black-and-white Clubhouse filled with wholesome teenagers with names like Annette, Bobby, and Cubby. In the ‘70s, The New Mickey Mouse Club injected a disco beat into the kiddie variety show format. And with the ‘90s came The All-New Mickey Mouse Club or MMC, a poppy Day-Glo series that, seen today, functions as a nostalgia museum for dated fashion trends and pop culture references. But it was also an incubator for some serious talent, including such future pop stars as Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears and acclaimed actors like Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. That’s why it makes our list of the 30 Best Bad Shows of the Last 30 Years.
The task of watching over these young Mouseketeers on-air fell to the white-haired Fred Newman, one of two adult co-hosts who lent a mature presence to the proceedings. Well… not that mature. In a conversation with Yahoo TV, Newman characterizes himself as the “weird uncle” of the MMC, who kept the kids’ spirits up with goofy humor and silly voices. Now a touring performer with Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion — as well as an author and voiceover actor — Newman filled us in on all the clubhouse mischief he caused, from making Britney Spears dizzy to staging an epic pie fight.
I remember watching MMC almost everyday after school. I was a junior high Drama Club nerd, and the show felt like one of our productions. In a good way!
It’s amazing how the series went into towns all over America, and the way people related to it. For some kids, it was a way out — it was a whole other side of life that you couldn’t see in other places. It gathered misfits, people who were looking to break into acting or showbiz. I grew up in Georgia, and felt very much like I was the “weird kid.” Every kid thinks that there’s no one like them, and then you see these Mickey Mouse Club kids on TV and say, “Oh, they’re a little bit like me!”
When Disney decided to revive the Mickey Mouse Club for a new generation how were you recruited to host?
I knew the original producer of the show, Keith Talbot, from working in New York public radio. Disney really wanted to do a different kind of variety show for kids; even though they had the template from the old Mickey Mouse Club they knew it had to be updated. And they were smart to bring in Keith, because he understood music and sound. He ultimately didn’t stay with the show, but he brought me in to interview as the host. I had been doing a Nickelodeon show called Livewire, which was Phil Donohue for teenagers. I was horrible, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Working with young people I learned that you can’t put any B.S. out there, because they will slap you down. I had to be who I was, and that lesson has marked the rest of my eccentric career. When I was initially approached to host, I actually turned it down. Growing up as a hippie in the ‘70s, Disney was so backwater. There was nothing cool about it at that time. So I went in wanting to be a little counter-culture with them, and they accepted that. I made sure that the first line of my contract said, “Cannot be compelled to wear Mouse Ears.”
The kids were intended to be the showcase stars of MMC. How did you approach your role as host, both with them and the audience?
I was sort of the slightly odd uncle for everybody! [Laughs] There was no social worker on the set — it was very professional. Just imagine: There were as many as 20-odd kids in hair, makeup, and wardrobe every day doing sketches and singing. This was a daily variety show, and no one had ever done a daily variety show. It was way too expensive, and it wouldn’t justify itself now. It was a unique configuration of events: there was a brand new park in Orlando, Disney-MGM Studios [now Disney Hollywood Studios], and they needed a working production there to show people.
Nothing will make your feel older and younger at the same time than working with a bunch of teenagers! It was a crazy time for them, and I felt the best thing was to stay out of their personal lives, but be a professional model for them. Make the process really fun, and show up on time. I felt I had to insulate the kids a lot from the business part of it. Sometimes it would be very intense and a director would yell [at them], and I’d say, “You can’t do that.” Every day when we finished filming, I would open the door to my dressing room, and shout out the line from Airplane! — “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” And all the kids would open their doors up and yell, “No!” and then slam their doors.
The cast featured a number of future stars, including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Keri Russell, and Ryan Gosling. What are your memories of them at that age?
I remember that Britney was one of the younger kids when she joined us — she was probably 11 or 12 years old. At the beginning of the show, we always had what we called “The Gathering,” where everyone would come out dancing during the theme song. They knew when the music would give the cue for the door to open and them to come out. So everyone’s backstage waiting, and I would sidle over to Britney and lift her up in a fireman’s carry around my back and start spinning around as fast as I could. Then I would put her down and push her onto the set when the door opened. She would be completely dizzy! You could see it sometimes, she’d be stumbling around trying to dance. One time she fell over, and the director came running out to ask if she was okay. She looked right at me, and said, “I got disoriented.” She didn’t bust me, and I always had respect for her, because she could have easily done that. [Laughs]
I remember there was a magic sketch I did with Justin where I pretended to take his head off and couldn’t get it back on. He was fantastic. Keri Russell joined the show as a dancer, but she ended up being this fantastic actor so we started writing more sketches for her. She was dating Tony Lucca at the time, so we’d put them together as a pair. Ryan was among the later waves of kids. He was very quite and pensive, but could explode when he was dancing. We did a few sketches together and you could tell that he ran very deep. The casting agents had a real eye for talent. Some kids would come to the set and have status issues, but it was a pretty cohesive troupe. We had a great mix of kids — Disney was really good about casting against type. Race didn’t matter [on MMC] and I was proud of that example. And the kids could really step up and do the work. They worked way too hard for my taste!
You left the show after Season 6, and for its last year, the adult hosts were replaced by older Mouseketeers. Were you ready to depart at that point?
Yes. I had a seven-year contract, but I had young kids, so I said I needed to be let out of it. I think it was a very mutual decision. The arc of [my involvement] was perfect, and I got out before I stopped enjoying it. By the fifth season, I began to see that the kids were more wizened, and there were a lot of studio politics. The show was starting to do fewer sketches and more rock music. It had become much more of a well-oiled machine. I’m surprised that I haven’t run into more of the cast now, but when we do run across each other, there’s always screaming and yelling. It’s so great to see that people like Keri and Ryan are doing what they’re doing. I don’t think they’ve changed; they’re still very much those teenagers [I knew], but they’ve pushed themselves as artists. The ones who decided to have normal lives are almost the ones that surprise me more.
One of the signature moments for me was the episode where the original Mouseketeers from the ‘50s series visited their ‘90s counterparts and they had a group sing-a-long to “Let the Good Times Roll.”
I missed the original Mickey Mouse Club; I remember when it was on, but it was just a little bit ahead of me. But everyone [my age] knew Annette Funicello. When she appeared on that reunion show, I asked her off-camera, “Why do you think you’re the one that’s most remembered from the old show?” And she said, “That’s easy — I won the race to puberty!” [Laughs] It was wonderful to talk to them, and that was a touchstone episode that showed you how much America had changed. If you ever had shows that reflected what was going on at their respective times in pop culture, both of those shows did. We always had to be current, whether it was bicycle pants or fluffy Farrah Fawcett hair. Now, of course, it all dates itself.
Do you have a personal favorite moment?
One of my proudest moments ever happened at the second season wrap party. It had been a really tough, really long season and the kids felt a little beat up. We were having a formal dinner in the studio with the producers, and I went out and bought 250 banana cream pies from the commissary. After dinner, I told everyone to come out to the parking lot, where there were these curtains built. They opened the curtains, and on these huge picnic tables were the 250 pies. I said to the kids, “This is my gift,” and they knew exactly what to do.
All the Disney executives and producers were standing right there, and the kids came at them with these pies. It was the most amazing pie fight ever! I don’t know if you’ve ever thrown a real banana cream pie. They’re not these little shaving cream things. It’s a three-pound pie, so you’d see these pies exploding in peoples’ faces like the ending of Bonnie & Clyde. The one thing I didn’t calculate was that banana cream is slippery, so people started slipping around the parking lot! I was so worried that somebody was going to have a bad fall, but nobody did. Afterwards, I scraped all the stuff up with a shovel, and Disney sent me a bill for $3,000 or $4,000 for clean-up, although they didn’t make me pay it. The video guys were in on it, so I think it was filmed and may have aired somewhere. I was very proud of that, and the kids loved it.