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LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE

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

 

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HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW

She was a good hen, sitting patiently on her nest for nearly twenty years. Then she loudly blew up.

In the 1920s and 1930s she was Petaluma’s first goodwill ambassador, greeting visitors driving into town from the south.

Her name was Betty.

She was originally part of a float for the very first Egg Day parade in 1918 and made by Albert Welchert, a German carpenter turned chicken rancher. “Mr. Welchert is building the biggest hen that has ever been made,” the Argus-Courier noted. “It will be twelve feet long, ten feet high, five feet across the back and will be sitting on golden eggs.”

There’s no photo of her debut. We first see her in a picture from 1920 when a couple of flappers are dancing on her back for a newsreel movie – quite a change from seven years before, when Petaluma banned “rag” dancing and arrested people for it. (All images shown below.)

The Welcherts moved to Oregon in 1921 and presumably gave the big hen to the Chamber of Commerce, who built a perch for her a mile south of city limits on the old Redwood Highway (roughly where Petaluma Blvd. South meets McNear avenue, close to the Vets Building).

She didn’t have much company out there, except for her noisy neighbor: The Colony Club, about a quarter-mile further down the road. Petaluma’s nightclub!

Bill Soberanes, Argus-Courier’s columnist and “peopleologist” later wrote often about the Club as a place where “Petaluma’s Cafe Society set” dressed up for dinner and dancing. It wasn’t very big – about the size of a modern three-bedroom ranch house. Still, it had a dance floor, and outside it advertised both “DRINKS” and “COLD DRINKS.”

Like other swanky places it often had a floor show. Among the headliners were contortionist Rue Enos (“Making Both Ends Meet”), harmonica virtuoso Ernie Morris (“formerly with the Minevitch Harmonica Rascals”), “tap tumbler” Tommy Konine and song stylist Charlotte Day (“she’s gorgeous to look at”). Should Gentle Reader think I’m cherry-picking the really unusual acts, note that I have avoided descriptions of the ventriloquists and puppeteers.

The joint closed every night at 2AM when the master of ceremonies said, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” That sounds less threatening if it can be imagined said in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon voice.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well for Betty.

Some artistic pioneer happened to notice her big, beautiful white sides were like a blank canvas. And get this: If someone wrote a comment there, officials would eventually paint over it, thus providing a fresh canvas for a response! It was like instant messaging, except not so instant.

In 1934, the Argus-Courier reported the “big hen” had been vandalized by someone “placing obscene language thereon… This is the second time within a year that obscene language has been painted on the ‘big hen.'”

Not to worry: The paper also stated, “Officers at the Chamber of Commerce have information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the offenders, it is said.” Uh, nope.

Apparently this cat-and-mouse game with the vandals went on for years. The next evidence was shocking: Betty was now disfigured! A 1936 image shows the remains of the latest grafitti, but also now gone was her lovely wattle; no more the red mask around the eyes, so typical of the Petaluma’s noble leghorn. Both were clearly visible in the 1920 picture.

It gets worse. An undated photo (1937?) shows Betty with eyelashes! What next, lipstick?

Then came the awful night of October 27, 1938. It was a Thursday. 10:25PM.

“A blast that shook the outskirts of Petaluma on Thursday night and blew its ‘advertising chicken’ to smithereens,” the Petaluma paper announced. The Colony Club shook like there was an earthquake. A man who lived about a mile away said “it seemed as though the walls would fall in.” The explosion “scared the wits out of passing motorists,” the Press Democrat observed, and plaster chicken nuggets were “littering the highway with chunks of stucco, twisted wire and sticks.”

Petaluma police and the Highway Patrol rushed to the scene. No evidence was found, except for a piece of a dynamite fuse. An investigation began immediately, and the result was possibly my favorite newspaper headline of all time:

The lawmen on the case were Marin Undersheriff Frank Kelly and Sonoma county Chief Criminal Deputy Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, who became Santa Rosa’s much-respected police chief a couple of years later.

“Both Kelly and I are of the opinion that Tam students are the logical ones to be involved,” said Dutch. “Tam” meant students of Tamalpais high school, whose football team was about to play against Petaluma. The Tam principal told the Argus-Courier a “thorough investigation of all Tamalpais students revealed that none were involved.”

The other suspects were from Santa Rosa Junior College. Kelly said Santa Rosa students were spotted in Kentfield around 10PM, where they were trying to sabotage a pre-game bonfire before a football game against Marin Junior College. That gave them time to reach the chicken. But Floyd P. Bailey, president of SRJC “didn’t believe any [investigation] was necessary…Santa Rosa students were too busy at their own bonfire and rally Thursday night to be bothered with any trips or blastings.”

The Argus-Courier ran a photo obituary, showing Betty’s scattered innards. “Largest Hen’s Career Ends,” read the headline over a final image of poor Betty.

Whodunnit remained a mystery. An A-C article years later mentioned in passing that she was bombed because of the upcoming “Santa Rosa-Petaluma annual football classic.” No one was charged.

The crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession which appeared in Lee Torliatt’s Golden Memories of the Redwood Empire (the most enjoyable book about Sonoma county history, IMHO):


We got together a bunch of guys and somebody said it would be a great idea to blow up that big, ugly chicken. If you came from Santa Rosa, that seemed like a hell of a good idea. A couple of farm boys, I can’t mention their names, provided the dynamite, we got a car caravan together, and went down and planted the dynamite in the chicken.

So there you go: It was the dirty rotten sneaks from Santa Rosa – as if there really was any doubt.

There’s an epilogue to our tragedy: Some time later, Betty’s spot was taken by “Chantacline.” This chicken was nearly as old as Betty and stood for many years between the Petaluma train depot and Hotel Petaluma, which was her owner. Chantacline was smaller and more delicate, supported with guidewires. There would be no dancing on the back of this hen, no sir.

Like her predecessor, Chantacline was repeatedly vandalized. The worst happened in 1945, just a day after her most recent repainting had finished. Both legs, tail and head were broken and her wires were cut. Since Chantacline belonged to the Hotel Petaluma and not the town’s Chamber, hotel manager Harold Eckart was determined to Sherlock out the perps. He succeeded; five Santa Rosa High School students were taken into custody and ordered to pay $500 in damages.

All of this is now gone, of course. There are no giant statues of plaster poultry on the old route, and Colony Club burned down in 1955 (another place was built north of Petaluma). With the heyday of Betty and the nightclub now about eight decades in the rearview mirror, there’s few still around to be nostalgic about their passing. Even in the 1970s, details about the Club were Trivial Pursuit-type items in Bill Soberanes’ columns.

Places like that little stretch of road are suspended in a kind of twilight zone, reserved for locations which were landmarks even though nothing historical happened and no one noteworthy setup home or business. Yet for a generation or more, there was probably no patch of Sonoma county better known.

It was where stylish couples and flirty singles danced to the tunes of Kim Kimmel on the Hammond organ, the women in their rayon dresses from Carithers and men in their worsted tex sport coats bought at the Penny’s.

For those traveling through or returning home from San Francisco, there was also that whimsical super-sized chicken announcing the egg basket of the world was up ahead, just around the curve. And sometimes there was a bonus message concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative.

Newsreel cameramen filming dancers, Petaluma, California, March, 1920 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

Betty in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

 

Undated image of Betty with eyelashes, probably 1937 or 1938

 

Argus-Courier obituary photo, November 3, 1938

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