In a preview piece published just before Disney+ went live earlier this month, I bewailed the apparent absence of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” Disney Television 101, with a particular mention of its signal serial, “The Adventures of Spin and Marty.”
Well, it turns out not to be the case. Though finding them takes some searching, the service does indeed include the first five episodes of the 1955 “The Mickey Mouse Club” (that is to say, a week’s worth) and the first “Spin and Marty” serial — there were three in all, in 1955, 1956 and 1957 — set off on its own. (Not yet available are “The New Mickey Mouse Club,” from the late 1970s, and “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1994 and gave the world Keri Russell, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears.)
I first saw the original “Mickey Mouse Club” as a child, in some generation of reruns, well before its successor series came along. The Mouseketeer Roll Call, Talent Round-Up, Anything Can Happen Day: These features, and their musical introductions, are embedded deep within my memory, and I encounter them again with an agreeable shiver of recognition. I have no idea how any of it will play to today’s small fry, raised on speed and sensation; in addition, it’s all in black and white, which I understand creates a sort of cognitive dissonance in younger viewers. (It does look great, though, splendidly photographed and perfectly preserved.) More curious children, and for that matter, adults, may be interested to see how the world looked and comported itself smack dab in the middle of the 20th century. A grown-up might be good to keep on hand to discuss things like gender stereotypes, the overwhelming whiteness of the cast — in which Annette Funicello counted as the “ethnic” one — and how we are all marked by our moment in history, a handful of geniuses and mystics excepted.
Antique gender roles are clearly delineated in “What I Want To Be,” a serial that runs through the opening “Mickey Mouse Club” episodes, in which a boy dreams of becoming an airline pilot and a girl can only imagine being a flight attendant. (That’s not a dig against flight attendants, or air hostesses, as the job is called here; boys, in turn, would have been barred from that career path back then.) Even at that, we learn, most hostesses only worked 18 months. “Why do they leave?” asks the girl. “They usually get married,” she is told. “Oh, that’s dumb” is her sensible reply.
Nevertheless, not counting the adult hosts — Jimmie Dodd, who also wrote the show’s famous theme, and Roy Williams, a Disney writer and artist who would sometimes whip out the charcoal — the Mouseketeers are more or less equally divided boy-girl, and whatever else they’re asked to do, each provides an example of youthful self-actualization while they’re doing it. (Funicello was the series’ breakout star, the first of a string of Disney heroines — Hayley Mills, Jodie Foster, Kim Richards and, after a while, Miley Cyrus — who were often unconventional and usually smarter than the boys around them.) They sing, they dance, they play musical instruments. Yet few are aggressively cute in a trained way; many returned to civilian life afterward.
Filmed at the Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall (still Disney property), “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” presents a summer camp as a kind of classless society where each contributes according to his ability and is given to according to his needs. (It’s all boys in Series 1, but a neighboring girls camp is introduced in Series 2: Hello, Annette!) Spin (Tim Considine), who literally has had to work to be there, is good at things, comfortable in his skin and the tacitly acknowledged leader of the pack. Marty (David Stollery), a rich orphan who arrives under the care of his butler (J. Pat O’Malley), neither knows who he is or what he might become; learning that is the main business of the story. (Money, of course, is no advantage.)
Though it seems superficially too plump for a certain kind of manly boyhood — there is boxing to settle a score, which, significantly, it does not settle — it makes a case for sensitivity, as well, between adults and children, kids and kids, and small humans and big animals. (The camp is all about horses.) Unlike many modern series aimed at kids, including those produced by Disney, the adults are not beside the point, or idiots — some of them are silly — but encourage confidence and offer refuge, even as kids are allowed to find their own way. Among the boys, Disney has supplied a range of characters with which to identify. We are not all Spin or Marty. I felt closest to the ironically nicknamed Ambitious (B.G. Norman), because he is not, and is therefore free.
One might reasonably call the world these shows portray unrealistic. Every episode of “Spin and Marty” comes with the advisory that it “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” If you don’t look closely, or are in a reactive state of mind, it’s easy enough to write off the show as Cold War piffle, even propaganda for a world of bland “normalcy.” Certainly the 1950s were a dark time for many, and in many ways, but this is a children’s show, after all. Even given the purported if never publicly expressed politics of Uncle Chairman Walt, it doesn’t go in for flag-waving, empty piety or xenophobic insularity; all in all, the worldview offered here is humane, democratic, curious, welcoming, kind and less sentimental than one might imagine. (If the cast is homogeneous, the show’s “newsreel” feature let kids know there were lands where kids looked different and thought differently.) That’s all to say, it won’t remind you of 2019. For this relief, much thanks.