Still Loving Those Meeces to Pieces : WHY DID ALL THE KIDS 40 YEARS AGO WANT TO BE A MOUSEKETEER? LET'S ASK SOME WHO WORE EARS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me?

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!

Sophisticated baby boomers suddenly transform into excited, wide-eyed children at the mention of "The Mickey Mouse Club."

It only seems like yesterday when youngsters watched Mouseketeers Annette, Bobby, Tommy, Sharon, Sherry, Darlene, Doreen, Karen and Lonnie and their adult leaders, Jimmie and Roy, sing, dance, educate and e nchant. What honorary Mouseketeer didn't love the serials "Spin and Marty," "The Hardy Boys," "Corky and White Shadow" and "Annette"? Or learn how to spell e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a thanks to Jiminy Cricket?

From 1955 to 1959, kids and even their moms tuned into the popular weekday ABC series. (Another generation tuned into the syndicated repeats from 1962-65.) Everyone wanted to be a Mouseketeer. Every child had a favorite day whether it was "Fun With Music Day," "Guest Star Day," "Anything Can Happen Day," "Circus Day" or "Talent Roundup Day." Of course, the biggest thrill in life for a fan was to become a card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club .

"The Mickey Mouse Club" hits the big 4-0 Wednesday and the Disney Channel (which also airs the new version of the show) is dedicating the month to the "Club." Highlights of the celebration include episodes of the original series (weeknights at 11:30 and midnight); a repeat of the "Annette" serial starring the most famous Mouseketeer Annette Funicello (Saturdays at 3 p.m.); "Spin & Marty: The Movie" (Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.), a feature version of the serial; and "The Mickey Mouse Club Story" (Oct. 22 at 9 p.m.), a new documentary complete with interviews with nine Mouseketeers (there were 39 "mice" in all) who were with the show throughout its run.

Lorraine Santoli, author of the "The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book," says the series struck a chord in 1955 because there "were not a lot of kids shows then. I think one of the important things is that the kids on the show seemed like regular kids. They weren't real slick. They weren't playing a role. They were playing themselves. They seemed to be having a good time. I think that's why the studio got so many letters saying, 'How can I be a Mouseketeer?' "

Walt Disney, Santoli says, "wanted it to be a show for kids, but not one that talked down to kids, but treated kids as they should be treated, like little adults. He also wanted the show to be very educational, which it was."

The lives of the core Mouseketeers, she adds, are still intertwined. "If one has a big birthday party, the others are invited. Tommy Cole's and Bobby Burgess' sons are the best of friends. Lonnie Burr's doctor is Sherry's husband. Sharon and Annette are best friends. They always were."

"It's probably as deep as a blood relationship could be," says Mousekeeter Tommy Cole, 53. "We have gone through pressures, fun times and craziness together. We were working together for a good four years."

Sharon Baird, 52, lives in Reno where she works in a beauty salon. 'I'm my own private contractor, so that way I can leave and go do ["Mickey Mouse Club"] reunions. I just did two commercials. I have a little bit in both worlds."

Baird was a seasoned veteran of 12 when she donned her mouse ears. At 8, she was under contract to Eddie Cantor and appeared with him when he hosted "The Colgate Comedy Hour" series. "He had my legs insured for $50,000. I used to dance on his show."

She was filming the 1955 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy "Artists and Models" when she was recommended for the show. "We went to Capitol Records to prerecord the song we were going to do in the film. Jimmie Dodd, who was the leader of the 'Mickey Mouse Club,' was at Capitol doing his own recording session. He saw me there and recommended me to Disney."

For her audition, Baird recalls, she wore a sailor dress and sang, "I Didn't Know the Gun Was Loaded." "I did a tap dance while I twirled the rope."

Karen Pendleton, who sported long, curly blond hair, was all of 9 when she was hired. She and Cubby O'Brien were the youngest "Club" members and were always paired. Pendleton had been taking dancing lessons since she was 3; it was her instructor who got her and three other class members an audition for the series.

"They called three of us back," Pendleton, 49, recalls. After her second audition, "they called me and asked me to report to work. I got the giggles [at the audition]. I think that may be something to do with why they chose me. They were really trying to find kids who were really down to Earth--not real, real professional. They were always capitalizing on my mistakes. They thought it was funny when I would goof up all the time, which I did because I wasn't a professional when they hired me."

For the last 12 years, the Fresno resident has been confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car accident in which her spinal cord was injured. She hasn't let her disability slow her down. Pendleton earned a bachelor's degree in psychology. She works at a clinic for battered women and is pursuing a master's degree in psychological counseling.

Pendleton didn't realize how great an impact the "Club" had on the public until she was a judge at a Miss Wheelchair Pageant in 1986. One woman with polio told her she'd been abused by her parents as a youngster. "She said, 'Being able to see you on the 'Mickey Mouse Club' was the only happy part of my childhood.' My eyes just filled up with tears. The impact I got from that was, 'Wow.' "

Before he become a Mouseketeer, Cole was a professional singer and accordion player. Originally, he was given a trial contract because his dancing wasn't on par with the others. "They gave me dance lessons every night to see if I could catch up or at least pick up," recalls Cole, now an Emmy Award-winning makeup artist working on "Wings" and "Bless This House." "I picked up fast. Lonnie, Bobby and Sharon helped me on the side. I was basically picked as the boy singer. Darlene and I became the two singers on the show."

Cole, Funicello, Doreen Tracey and Dodd often would tour and perform on the East Coast. "When the 'Annette' series went on, we were on tour back East on a bus and wanted to see the opening of the series," Cole relates. "It was starting one night when we were out [on the road]. It was snowing out. We looked for a house with a TV antenna and kids' bikes or toys on the porch. The bus driver spotted one, stopped and went to the door and said, 'Do you mind if Annette, Tommy, Jimmie and Doreen come in and watch TV?' These people were flabbergasted. They let us in and called everybody in the world. We were watching the 'Mickey Mouse Club' in front of all of these people. We were bigger than life. It was quite exciting."

He has nothing but warm memories of the late Dodd. "He was everybody's father," Cole says. "Kids believed him. They broke the mold when he was born. He wrote most of the songs for the shows. He was part of the magic of the show."

Cole's years on the "Club" were wonderful, he says. "I have no regrets. I'm one of those child actors who really looks back upon this just as a great time. I would do it over again."

And he's still recognized by fans. "I will see people in an elevator or they see me in a restaurant and say, 'Thank you for my childhood.' What a responsibility that was! What a great responsibility! What a great feeling it gives us all."

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