Dear Straight Dope:
Something I hadn't thought about in years dawned on me last night when I watched A&E's "Biography'' on Annette Funicello. It showed scenes from the old "Mickey Mouse Club" TV show and I was stunned by something I hadn't thought about since I was a kid. I was born in 1964, so I only saw the "Mickey Mouse Club" in re-runs, and only a few episodes. I was struck by Roy, however, the balding, heavy-set, middle-aged Mouseketeer. Jimmie, who was about 18-20, was the obvious leader, and Roy always seemed a little slow, so I couldn't figure out why he was there. Was he Walt Disney's doltish brother-in-law? In this day and age, he'd look menacingly like a pedophile. What gives? I have every confidence you'll uncover the truth.
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
To answer this question completely, let’s first look at the history of the Mickey Mouse Club. After the success of Disney’s first foray into television, the original “Disneyland” show, Walt began thinking about another show which would be strictly for children. Bill Walsh, who had previously worked with Disney on television projects, got the nod to set it up. A lot of different ideas were floated. One would have had the show filmed at Disneyland and would feature park visitors performing in skits. Another would have had a live studio audience. Yet another would made “Mickey Mouse Club Island” out of what is now “Tom Sawyer Island” at Disneyland.
Eventually, the live studio and the park visitors ideas were dropped in favor of using a small band of talented children as regular performers. There had always been the idea of using an adult host, but now the idea had changed to using several adults in that role. The leader, of course, was Jimmie Dodd, the boyish leader of the group who was actually then in his mid-forties. Roy Williams was next, often referred to as the “Big Moosketeer.” Often forgotten was Bob Amsberry, who frequently appeared in sketches with the kids, but usually took a back seat to Jimmie and Roy.
Roy Williams was not new to the Disney organization. He began with Disney back in 1929, after the success of “Steamboat Willie.” When he first applied for the job, he began talking with what he thought was an office boy while waiting for his interview. That “office boy” turned out to be Walt Disney himself. He signed on and stayed with Disney as a storyman for more than thirty years. A former high-school football star, he garnered the nickname “Moose Williams” while at Disney and is referred to by that name, in one of the many in-jokes the animators sneakily put in the short subjects, in the 1945 Goofy short “Hockey Homicide.”
But why Roy as a Mouseketeer? As Williams himself recalled it, he was sitting in Walt’s office one day, when Walt “looked up at me and said, ‘Say, you’re fat and funny looking. I’m going to put you on [the show] and call you the Big Mooseketeer.’ The next thing I knew I was acting.” Roy did have a darker side of sorts. According to sources, Roy, always a gruff man anyway, told off-color stories to the boys off camera. He served as a protector to the girls, and all of the Mouseketeers loved him. He was known to take a nip every now and then when rehearsals went on too long, and Mousketeer Doreen (Tracy) claimed that she helped hide his bottles so he could drink undiscovered.
Though he was not the typical Disney “type” to some people, even if he had never appeared on the “Mickey Mouse Club,” Williams would have had at least one other Disney landmark to his credit. Inspired by a gag in the 1929 short “The Karnival Kid” where Mickey tips his ears to Minnie, William invented what is still the most popular item at Disneyland: Mickey Mouse ears.
Watts, Steven, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Houghton Mifflin, c1997
Cotter, Bill, The Wonderful World of Disney Television: A Complete History. Hyperion, c1997
I just picked up a new book entitled Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards by John Canemaker (Hyperion, 1999) in which I found this final, but telling tidbit about Mouseketeer Roy Williams:
“When Williams did die (on November 7, 1976) as a result of a heart attack, he took part of Disney with him. ‘Ever a colorful character,’ reported the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Newsletter, ‘Roy stipulated that he, much to the astonishment of morticians, but not his many friends, be interred wearing his Mickey Mouse Club hat and his Mickey Mouse Club t-shirt, with his name inscribed on the front thereof, in full regalia. It was so done.'”
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