First of all, you have to suspend a certain amount of journalistic cynicism. The initial reaction is incredulity to a Laguna Hills home that has a swimming pool shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head and features prominently such items as a stained glass window of the full-length M. Mouse, a bronzed pair of mouse ears, a picture wall full of people--some small, some grown--mostly wearing the same mouse ears, and multiple needlepoint pillows carrying out the Mickey Mouse motif.
Then you meet the lady of the house--a tiny, pert, effervescent, former Mouseketeer named Sherry Alberoni Van Meter--and it all starts to fall into place.
Sherry Alberoni (her Mouseketeer name) can and has made believers of some fairly hardened people. Like the newscaster in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago. Sherry and her Mouseketeer sidekick, Bobby Burgess, were on a national tour hyping the 60th anniversary of the “birth” of Mickey Mouse. They were booked for an interview on the 5 o’clock TV news and had been warned that things might not go well since this was a hard news program in a hard news town.
The anchorwoman did a fairly straightforward interview, then when it was over Alberoni presented her with a plaque making her an “honorary Mouseketeer,” and the anchorwoman burst into tears. On camera. “You don’t know what this means to me,” she sobbed. “This is my childhood.”
Alberoni is discovering that the Mouseketeers represent a lot of people’s childhoods, especially her own. “I had such a fantasy childhood,” she says. “We’d film from September to June, then I’d go home to reality. But I was never allowed to get very far from that reality. The way I was raised, I was told that what I was doing at Disney was just a job--like baby-sitting. My father was always the breadwinner in my household.”
Almost 30 years later, the fine line between fantasy and reality still seems a little fuzzy, although Alberoni appears to have her feet planted firmly in the realities of being a mother, homemaker, and tireless community worker. She is married to Huntington Beach physician Richard Van Meter, has two daughters (Casey, 13, and Kelly, 10), and is active in a list of community affairs almost as long as Pluto’s tail (among them: vice president of the Saddleback arm of the National Charity League, vice president of the Orange County Medical Assn. Auxiliary, and president of the Women’s Council of Laguna Niguel’s St. Timothy Catholic Church).
But always in the picture is the ghost of Walt Disney. Alberoni is presently in the midst of four 10-day trips on behalf of the Mickey Mouse anniversary. She was an effervescent force in the Mouseketeers 25th anniversary show that played on prime time TV eight years ago. And for almost five years after the enthusiastic response to that program, she performed on weekends at Disneyland with a group of other former Mouseketeers. “We did 16 musical numbers in a half-hour,” she says cheerfully.
Alberoni got into Mouseketeering quite by accident. She and her family (two older brothers) lived in Westchester, where her father was a machinist in a furniture factory. (He later started a highly successful company in Los Angeles, servicing the furniture industry.) Her mother had been a dancer in vaudeville and heard periodically from her agent, who called one day to suggest that Alberoni’s brother Roy, a talented musician, try out for a new group Walt Disney was putting together for a TV show. Roy auditioned, didn’t get the part (Disney had already signed a drummer, Roy’s specialty), but suggested his 8-year-old sister, who could play the trumpet and tap dance at the same time.
“I almost knocked my teeth out,” she recalls of her audition, “but I got the job.” (The reputation stuck. She was asked to perform this same feat on the 25th anniversary show, “and I almost knocked my teeth out again.”)
“The charm of the show was its reality. (Disney) wanted regular kids--not slick Hollywood types---and a lot of us were recruited off playgrounds around the Los Angeles area. That was Walt’s special touch. Our show was so real that we would often leave in mistakes. Kids could really relate to it.”
Problem kids didn’t cut it as Mouseketeers. “I knew I had to be professional or Disney wouldn’t have kept me--even though I was the youngest in the group. If somebody on the crew cursed on the set, he was gone the next day. We were limited to eight hours of work a day, and three of those hours were spent in very intense school tutoring. A nurse checked us regularly to see if we were biting our nails or showing any other signs of stress. And my mom was with me on the set every day--and we’re (still) best friends.”
The original “Mickey Mouse Club” show ran for four years and Sherry entertained with the other members of her group on weekends at Disneyland during that period. When it was over, she worked in more than a dozen sitcoms and several movies.
“I was back in public school then,” says Alberoni “and I was treated fairly normally. But my schoolmates weren’t show biz kids; they teased me a lot, but they never resented me. My mom tells me that when I was 15 or 16, I thought I was pretty hot stuff, and she wouldn’t let me go to auditions if it interfered with things I was doing in my real life. My parents always looked on show business as a sideline, not a life work.”
About the only tangible show biz affectation Alberoni says she was allowed was a pink Corvette. When she was 21 and doing the Hollywood starlet number full bore (she made three trips to entertain troops in Vietnam), Alberoni was driving her Corvette with a friend in Salinas when she ran out of gas. The gas station attendant who helped her turned out to be a pre-med student earning summer money named Richard Van Meter. Alberoni refused to give him her phone number but told him she’d be playing in a charity softball game in Los Angeles two weeks hence. He showed up, they dated, and several years later when he completed medical school, they married.
That’s when Alberoni got out of show business--sort of. She continued (and still does) providing voices for TV cartoon characters and making occasional junkets for Disney. But her attention turned to her home, especially after Casey was born 13 years ago. The Van Meters lived relatively modestly in Costa Mesa while he was developing his practice as a lung specialist, then three years ago moved to their splendid digs in Laguna Hills with its Mickey Mouse swimming pool (which, Alberoni says, wasn’t her idea and she had to be talked into it).
Alberoni tries very hard to run her life on old-fashioned principles. “I pick up my kids at school, " she says. “I’m home when my husband gets home. I cook, and I sew on buttons. My family is the most important thing in my life. I do just enough work for Disney to satisfy my ego; then I come back to reality. I have too many friends with nannies who have to tell them that the baby crawled for the first time today. That’s not for me.
“My girls have done some work at South Coast Repertory, and Casey has done a commercial. But I wouldn’t let them try out for ‘A Christmas Carol’ because it would have taken them away in the evenings. And I won’t take them out of school to drive into Los Angeles for auditions. But if they ever really became interested in acting, I wouldn’t resist it. I don’t think show business, itself, is a problem with kids. It all depends on how the family treats it.”
All of the money Alberoni earned as a child was put into a trust fund for her. She remembers a little wistfully that as a Disney employee she was once offered stock in the company at $8 a share (it is now about $62 and has split several times). Her father chose not to buy it because he didn’t have the money and refused to dip into the trust “because I wouldn’t even consider gambling with your money.”
Those are the values that guide Sherry Alberoni Van Meter today--and that she expresses on the hustings for Mickey Mouse. “Mickey is the spirit of Walt Disney,” she says, “a spirit that brings out childlike--not childish--qualities in everyone.”
But Alberoni’s career has not been all apple pie and Mickey Mouse. A few weeks ago in a video store, her daughters came running up to her with a videotape of a movie called “Sisters of Death.” The blurb read: “An invitation to six beautiful women . . . for a deadly sorority reunion.” Playing one of the sorority sisters invited to the “deadly reunion” was Sherry Alberoni. She bought the tape, and it’s been given a place beside the Disney movies. Somehow it seems to help balance all that Mickey Mouse needlepoint.