Karen Pendleton, original Mouseketeer who became advocate for disabled people, dies
It was the height of the baby boomer era when Karen Pendleton and the rest of the Mouseketeers came bounding into living rooms across America, a troupe of bubbly, overly exuberant teens and pre-teens who danced and sang and reminded viewers to make good choices in life.
“The Mickey Mouse Club” was must-watch TV in the 1950s with the after-school set, led along by host Jimmie Dodd and the rock star of Mouseketeers, Annette Funicello — 60 minutes of wholesomeness that parents trusted implicitly.
But the show was canceled in 1959 and Pendleton’s career as an actress was done before she was even a teen, though life would take her in unexpected directions.
Active with Disney through the decades at reunions and fan fests, Pendleton died of a heart attack Oct. 7 at her home in Fresno, where she had lived for years. She was 73.
Pendleton, like most of the Mouseketeers, was recruited after Walt Disney made a sweep of local dance schools looking for talent. There were originally 26 of them who would alternate on the show but Disney cut the group down to nine after the first season, sticking with those who had the personality and work ethic the studio wanted.
The youngest in the group, Pendleton made the cut and stuck with the show until it was canceled in 1959 after failed contract negotiations between Disney and ABC.
“She had such fond, upbeat memories of the show,” said Richard Fancher, her nephew. “She never regretted that it all ended. It always remained a very positive memory.”
Born Aug. 1, 1946, Pendleton grew up in Glendale. Her father was a set designer and was firm that his daughter not pursue show business after “The Mickey Mouse Club” went off the air.
During its run, the show was wildly popular and Pendleton was hard to miss. She and Cubby O’Brien — nearly as young as she — would faithfully stare into the camera and say, “And now it’s time to say goodbye” as the show drew to a close.
She was matter-of-fact about giving up show business. She liked dancing and singing — acting not so much, she told the Los Angeles Times during one of the many Mickey Mouse Club reunions she attended.
In many ways, Pendleton became just a typical teen, attending high school and then going to college at Fresno State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later her master’s degree.
But her life changed radically in 1983, when she injured her spine in a car accident in Fresno, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
With an up-close look at the inequities and indignities that disabled people had to endure, she became an advocate for disabled people and for years served on the California Assn. of the Physically Handicapped. She also worked at a shelter for battered women, another cause she threw herself into.
Mickey Mouse Club reunions remained a favorite for Pendleton.
“It gave her the opportunity to relive great memories and to meet so many ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ fans who watched the show as kids and loved her,” said Staci Bletscher, her daughter.
Fancher recalled pushing her through Disneyland when the amusement park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005 and coming away stunned at how many people recognized her.
“This is someone who had every right to be cynical, but she never was,” he said. “People would come up to her, tell her how much they loved the show and she was just so sweet. There was an incredibly positive aura about her. Always.”
Pendleton, who was divorced, is survived by her daughter and two grandchildren, Luke and Griffen.
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