In Santa Rosa during the 1930s and under twelve? If so, then you were at the California Theater every Saturday at 12:30 for the pandemonium known as the Mickey Mouse Club.
A quarter century before the Mouseketeers donned their plastic ears and gleamed sparkling smiles on our TV screens, hundreds of movie houses nationwide were filled to capacity with small children on Saturday afternoons. They would watch a movie and some cartoons, but mainly they would sing and yell. They would get to yell a lot – pause for a moment and imagine being in a theater with around a thousand kids, all their little volume knobs cranked up to 11. Maybe 12.
Gentle (and cynical) Reader might presume this was a marketing ploy by the Disney Empire to exploit our children, but the company actually had a light hand in its doings. According to an article on the Mickey Mouse Club origins by unofficial Disney historian Jim Korkis, a movie theater owner seeking to boost attendance broached the idea to Disney in 1929. It proved such a hit Disney Studios hired the guy to create a network of licensed theaters across the country. At its peak, there were over 800 clubs and over a million card-carrying Mousers.
For 25 bucks a year, participating theaters received a manual and a bimonthly newsletter with promo ideas. Disney also sold theaters all sorts of Mickey Mouse Club swag at (or near) cost; buttons, masks, custom membership cards and posters and for $16.50 a theater could own the official club cartoon, “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” a sing-a-long with Walt Disney himself providing Mickey’s voice (spoiler alert: The tune is pretty catchy and Walt’s voice is pretty creepy).
Theater owners found they had a ready audience; In November 1931, the Press Democrat ran a small “coming soon” notice and “[California Theater] Manager Gurnette is already being besieged by a small army of youngsters wanted to know all about the Mickey Mouse club – what it is, what it means, and for the boys and girls who join, etc.”
Disney also encouraged theaters to partner with local retail businesses. In exchange for donating contest prizes and other goods (historian Korkis says local bakeries would donate a free cake to be shared by club members with a recent birthday and florists sent flowers to sick ones) the merchant would display a window card announcing it was an “Official Mickey Mouse Store.”
In Santa Rosa, Rosenberg’s department store was the only place boys and girls could get their free membership card. Before the theater club debut, Rosenberg’s took out two half-page ads in the PD promoting the first club meeting, promising Santa Claus would greet the kids at the theater and then take up residence at “Toyland” on the store’s mezzanine.
A reported 1,500 children packed the California Theater on Nov. 21 for that first gathering, which was free for any child who had filled out the membership form (admission thereafter was 5¢ for anyone wearing the official club button). Petaluma followed suit three months later with a club at the California Theater in their own town.
|Press Democrat, November 20, 1931|
The shows could fill the entire afternoon with a mixture of films and live doings on stage. An American flag would be brought out and everyone would sing a verse of “America.” They would recite the Mickey Creed: “I will be a squareshooter in my home, in school, on the playgrounds, wherever I may be. I will be truthful and honorable and strive always to make myself a better and more useful little citizen. I will respect my elders and help the aged, the helpless and children smaller than myself. In short, I will be a good American.”
Everybody would join in for five or six “peppy songs and yells” which usually started with “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” and ended with “Happy Days are Here Again.” There would be a new cartoon and a chapter from a serial which was most often a western, although they also watched “The Lost Special” starring Santa Rosa football hero Ernie Nevers. Once at Petaluma there was a “Backwards Party” where a cartoon was shown in reverse “those who have seen this novelty claim that it is exremely funny and some of the craziest noises are heard.”
Every week there would be also shown a short feature movie approved by the California PTA. The first approved film shown here was an Amos ‘n’ Andy comedy – which is to say it starred two middle-age white men in blackface.
In the mix were also contests, drawings, “stage stunts,” musical and dance performances by other kids and everything wrapped up with Minnie’s Yoo Hoo.
In less than three years, the Mickey Mouse Clubs had become as large as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts combined. What caused this explosive growth? Certainly a part of it was Mickey Mouse mania; kids couldn’t get enough of Mickey and Minnie but aside from crude handmade stuffed dolls, there were no toys, games, or other Mouse stuff to buy until Christmas 1932. Let me restate that again, in italics, so it really sinks in: For four years, the Walt Disney company owned the most popular cartoon character in the world but had no idea how to merchandise it. Tempora mutantur.
The other appeal of the Clubs was probably that they were not rigidly organized like the scouts – it was more like the lodges and social clubs that most parents belonged to. The children elected their own officers, among them a Chief Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a Master of Ceremonies, a Yell Leader and others. (The 1932 Santa Rosa lineup is found below in a footnote, which will probably give some genealogist a case of the vapors.)* Although there were adults involved it was more like boys and girls were putting on the show themselves and not unlike what we saw in the “Our Gang” shorts, with adorable tap dancing girls and Alfafa’s unfortunate warbling.
Both the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier would occasionally describe programs. In Santa Rosa, Esther Walker’s downtown “School of the Dance” usually had students as young as five performing and George Trombley (founder of the Santa Rosa Symphony) would bring up one of his music pupils for a solo. Trombley also formed the Mickey Mouse Orchestra with apparently any child who could read music, and the ensemble varied between 25-40 members. In Petaluma the grownups involved were “Kathleen Budd’s Kiddies” (she was a high school student who taught dance) and Percy Stebbing at the pipe organ.
The contests were traditional birthday party fare except the audience got to cheer for the contestants. There were races with silly handicaps such as rolling a metal pie plate across the stage. There were competitions for the best harmonica player and the best Hallowe’en costume. There were games to see who could accurately drop the most beans in a milk bottle (“from the looks of the stage, not very many hit the bottle”), eat a bowl of ice cream the fastest, whistle with a dry mouth (“everybody gets a big laugh out of seeing the boys and girls spray cracker crumbs when they try to whistle”) or chew the biggest jawbreaker (maybe that’s where Dr. Henry Heimlich, who was young enough to be a Mouser at the time, got his inspiration).
Roller skates were the most common prizes given out each week, probably also courtesy Rosenberg’s. There were also drawings for more valued items such as electric train sets and bicycles.
|Tommy Ware with the bicycle won in a Mickey Mouse Club drawing. Photo at his home in Santa Rosa, July 13, 1933 and courtesy Sonoma County Library|
The peak for both Santa Rosa and Petaluma clubs came at their one-year mark during the winter of 1932/1933. In Santa Rosa there was a special matinee at Thanksgiving and Christmas (“be sure to remind Mother that the place to leave you is at the New California theater while she does her last minute Christmas shopping”) followed by “Mickey’s Revue” at 9PM – a variety show put on by the kids with the Mickey Mouse Orchestra.
Petaluma saw 900 kids at their first anniversary, but they had really turned out a few months earlier for the special Friday morning show before Christmas in 1932. Members of the orchestra from Santa Rosa were guest performers and 1,200 children descended on the theater, some squeezed in two to a seat. The Argus-Courier reported there were policemen and firemen on duty; “a few kiddies in the gallery started throwing hats to the orchestra floor and there were several other actions that the police had to curb” and there was a precautionary firehose attached to the nearest hydrant with a fire engine standing by.
The Petaluma club sputtered out by late 1933, as did many of the clubs around the country. Disney would no longer license new clubs and stopped underwriting membership materials. The company did not foresee there would be blowback from non-club theaters in the same community. Later a Disney representative explained to a theater owner “…We ran into all kinds of difficulties and controversies over the Clubs and finally decided to do away with any connection with them. A great many theaters are still running such clubs, but they are doing so entirely on their own, and without help or references from us.”
What happened in Santa Rosa is less clear. The California Theater had long interchangeably advertised the Mickey Mouse Club and a Mickey Mouse Matinee for Saturday afternoons, and in the middle of 1933 the club was no longer mentioned specifically. The Mickey Mouse Matinee continued into 1935 when it became the Popeye Matinee, that being the year when the muttering sailor eclipsed the squeaky rodent in popularity.
It’s unknown whether the onstage activities and audience participation continued here after 1933, although they probably did – because the Mickey Mouse Club was resurrected by name in 1937, both at the California Theater and as a radio show on KSRO.
This is not the place to extol the glories of KSRO in that era, except to say it was truly community radio. Everything heard at 1310 on your dial was locally produced live – from the “Man on the Street” interviews to “Italian News with Joe Comelli” to “KSROlling Along” to the “Redwood Empire Quizzing ‘B.'” The bulk of the airtime was music on records, but there were hours of talk and interview shows every day. Anyone who had something to say or could play an instrument could find a few moments of AM radio fame. If there were kids performing at a downtown theater it was only natural they’d be invited to KSRO.
The 30-minute show aired Fridays at 4:00 and was sometimes sponsored by the Sonomaco Ice Cream Company. There were often contests (where the prize was an ice cream brick) and George Trombley sometimes conducted a juvenile orchestra. Performers were rarely mentioned, although “Three Fiddling Bobs” and Healdsburg ventriloquist Charley Perry with “Dummy Dan” seemed to be popular regulars.
The Press Democrat promoted KSRO with a daily column so it’s a bit surprising that more wasn’t written about the program. What did appear were stories about the kids pissing off station management:
|Perhaps I shouldn’t mention it, but yesterday about a quarter to three the Big Boss of KSRO, himself [presumably Ernest Finley] stepped into the studio and saw the gang of youngsters assembled. I guess it was the first time he had ever seen the Mickey Mouse Club performance… anyhow, the sight of children draped all over the furniture for lack of chairs may be the means of another load of chairs being added to the studio.|
A month later, the station manager found “about 100 kiddies making rough-house around the place” and threatened to not broadcast the show unless the children arrived only a half-hour before the show and sat quietly until air time. (“Boy! Was he burned up!”) Apparently the gang headed for the station as soon as school was over at noon, and hung out in the studio for the four hours before the show to ensure they’d be on it.
The California dropped the children’s matinee in 1938, and KSRO announced it was reorganizing the club itself, with a membership application form printed in the PD. The Mickey Mouse Club was cut to a 15 minute program in 1939 and then cancelled two weeks later. There were 1946 plans to revive the club at the California Theater but nothing came of it.
Today the 1930s Mickey Mouse Club is lost history – even the Disney Corporation, which venerates its mousy past, says little to nothing about the club. But it was celebrated by an enormous number of children in the early ’30s, and I’ll bet there still would be more than a few smiles of recognition at any large senior center or retirement home upon hearing the unforgettable chorus of Minnie’s Yoo Hoo.
* 1932 Mickey Mouse Club officers for Santa Rosa: Chief Mickey Mouse (Bob Quarry), Chief Minnie Mouse (Nancy Hesse), Master of Ceremonies (Charles O’Bear), Sergeants-at-Arms (Evelyn Henshaw and Bonnie Jean Harbald), Yell Leader (Bobby Vulkerts), Color Bearer (Wallace Constable) and Courier (Bruce Karn).
|Undated photograph and location unknown|