We were delighted to have the opportunity to speak with original Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess about his new book Ears and Bubbles: Dancing my Way from the Mickey Mouse Club to the Lawrence Welk Show. Burgess was one of the original Mouseketeers, but also spent 21 years dancing on the Lawrence Welk Show. He began dancing at 4 years old, and today teaches young dancers. He will be at Drury Lane this coming spring with Elaine Balden! We spoke with him more about his Mickey Mouse Club days, including about the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, meeting Walt Disney, and whether all the male Mouseketeers had a crush on Annette. You can hear about 10 minutes of the interview on our Mousesteps Weekly YouTube show below, which includes a little more of the interview.
You can read more about Ears & Bubbles and Theme Park Press here.
Hear 10 minutes of the interview during our Mousesteps Weekly Show #115, then keep reading for more of the interview in written form!
MS: What inspired you to write Ears and Bubbles?
BB: Ears and Bubbles: Dancing my Way from the Mickey Mouse Club to the Lawrence Welk Show…well, I had fans who, when I would tell stories to them would say “Why don’t you write a book, and put these down on ink and paper?” And I thought, well, someday I will. And it took me two years. I wrote it long hand on yellow paper and finally my wife typed it up and we got Theme Park Press to publish it for me. Lorraine Santoli, who worked for Disney for years as publicist for Disneyland and at the Studio edited it for me. It’s my recollections of all the great times that I had with the Mickey Mouse Club and the Lawrence Welk Show. I went from one family institution to another, I was really lucky in my career.
MS: Did you think as a teenager that at this point in your life, you’d still be talking about the Mickey Mouse Club?
BB: (Laughing) No. As a matter of fact, when we had our 25th anniversary at Disneyland, we did 5 shows a day, 16 numbers. At that time, we thought “Gosh, it’s been 25 years since the Mickey Mouse Club debuted in 1955. They won’t ask us back to do anything else”. Well, every big holiday at Disneyland we were in parades, and we were singing and dancing at Videopolis at the Space Stage.
So finally, even on the 50th they called us. And we performed again. I jitterbugged with Sharon, and Cubby played the drums, and Tommy sang, and we sang Monday Through Friday, and we did all the moves. Everybody was in good spirits and good health, thank goodness, those of us who were still with us. And now, next year is our big 60th and they are calling us again! (The Mouseketeers just performed at the Disneyana Convention this year and may have more plans soon).
I hope it (the show) comes back on television, wouldn’t that be great? It was such a classic show. Not only did we sing and dance Monday through Friday, but we had Spin and Marty, the Annette series, Corky and White Shadow, Hardy Boys…we were one of the first shows to have a cartoon every day, even though some of them went back to the 30’s, I think. But still it was entertaining to the kids who were watching. Jimmy Dodd was so great, and Roy Williams..we had guest stars, and Circus Day, Anything Can Happen Day…we had just a great time on that show.
MS: What was your first meeting with Walt Disney like?
BB: The first time that Walt Disney was ever involved with us was at the audition. I went through five auditions. I lived in Long Beach, it was an hour each way. Finally on the fifth audition, a producer said “Be on your best today, because Walt Disney is going to be here”. But he (Walt) stood in the back, he didn’t make himself known at that time. That was the first time he saw us. I think the first time I met him was…I got chosen along with Sharon to escort President Sukarno’s son, along with Walt Disney, around Disneyland in 1955. And it was interesting, because we rode in a golf cart, with Sharon and I with the son in the backseat and President Sukarno with Walt in the front. And that’s when I first got to see how proud he was of his new domain, driving us around all over Disneyland. That is when I first really got to know him. I don’t think anyone really know him as a Mouseketeer, because he was more like a high school principal. He wanted us to call him “Uncle Walt”, but we were 50’s kids so we always called him “Mr. Disney”. We did have interaction through the years, we did a preview to the Rainbow Road to Oz on the Disneyland show. We worked with him there, and we saw him here, there and everywhere.
MS: There was the special where you danced with Sharon, before anyone knew who you were.
BB: That’s right, that was 1955 when the park opened. That was July 17th, and our show didn’t come on until October. I like the quote that Art Linkletter said at the time, “These are the dancing children, I think they are going to be called the Mouseketeers”. I was just going crazy with Sharon, doing my jitterbug dance in front of that theater. It was a hot day that day, and we were in Talent Roundup outfits, which were made of wool. The concrete was kind of soft and uneven, and we had to dance on that. Then we put on our horses, these little stick horses, and we galloped around Main Street, around the hub in the first parade. It was so much fun, because now that I am a grandfather – I have four children of my own, and now three grandchildren, I get to take them to Disneyland and show them all those great things that I experienced growing up as a teenager at Disneyland in the 50’s.
MS: Disneyland means a lot to you. Didn’t you become engaged to your wife (Kristie Floren) there?
BB: I did! I tried to figure out something really unique. So I thought, Disneyland is very romantic at night. The lights are twinkling. She and I went on the bucket ride, which was the Skyway from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland. The music was playing “When You Wish Upon a Star”, and as we went through the Matterhorn, I asked her to marry me. We had a nice kiss. (Laughing) So I think that is quite a memorable connection to Disneyland after all these years. My wife and I have been married 43 years now. That is very unusual for show business you know.
MS: That is wonderful you get to take your kids and grandkids to where you got engaged, and to where you worked.
BB: And after all these years, they still give us a pass to get in! I can go into every park in the world, and bring my family. Isn’t that nice of them? They renew it every year, so if you get in any type of trouble (laughing)…I would love to go over to Tokyo, and go into Disney Sea because we don’t have that over here. I remember when they were putting that together, the Imagineers invited us to come over, my wife and I to see the model of what it was going to look like. It was a working model, on a huge table. They took us around and showed it to us. I guess it is one of the most successful parks.
Of course, I’ve been to Walt Disney World many times for functions. One of the most fun things I think I did as a Mouseketeer, I was invited to the premier of Dick Tracy around 1988. They actually flew us in the plane with the stars and…I took my entire family and they gave us helicopter rides, we got to see the premier, it was really a highlight.
MS: Was being a Mouseketeer more work or fun? It looked like a lot of fun, but in the past few years I’ve realized how much work you put in.
BB: Well, we were working Monday through Friday, eight hours a day. But three hours we had to go to school, and we had an hour for lunch. There were three teams going at all times. They had a white team, a blue team and a red team. We were on the red team, which was the roll call kids. We did mostly Monday and Friday. So we did most of the singing and dancing, and then we worked with the talent kids who came out on Friday. I think it was mostly fun! I mean, I loved doing what I was doing. I had been tap dancing since I was four years old. Although the way I got my job on the Mickey Mouse Club was that I did a barefoot jazz dance to “Rock Around the Clock”. I also had to tap dance and sing, which I didn’t know how to do (singing) because I’d never sung before in front of an audience. So I picked a tune called “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and I only knew about half the words, but I made up the rest, and they thought, “Fine” (laughing).
MS: There is a calliope here at Walt Disney World, kept at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground that was used in the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. What was performing in the circus like for you?
BB: That was so much fun, we had a great time! My mom and Sharon’s mom were Chip & Dale, they got $6.00 per day for two shows. We got to ride elephants, we got to ride horses, we were in a trapeze act. We dressed up as Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and they turned off the lights and we glowed in the dark as we swung the girls through the space. It was a blast…we even made some 3D films for that. I sometimes come across them, they are probably collectors by now. It is the Mouseketeers in the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. And of course, Walt Disney was not 100% behind it. He said, “Why would I want people to come to a circus when they can actually come to Disneyland?” And so it wasn’t a big success, but it was put on by the Ted DeWayne Circus, which was a professional circus troupe putting it on under a big red and white tent where the submarine ride is today at Disneyland. It was called Holiday Hill. They had camels, and zebras, a lion and tiger act, and elephants…it was a big deal. We had fun on that one. I was called a web setter for my part in the trapeze act. Mouseketeer Bonnie would climb to the top of the tent, and I would twirl her around and around. I wonder if there is any film available of that circus?
I do remember the calliope, that was part of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. We had a big circus parade right at the beginning (makes calliope sounds). And we bought some circus wagons, at same time time… I think there were a few of the lions and tigers in the circus wagons in the parade. It went around the outside of this huge tent. It was spectacular.
MS: Did all of the male Mouseketeers have a crush on Annette?
BB: You know, I think they did. If not outwardly, then secretly. She was so nice, and so beautiful. And of course, we watched her go through adolescence right before our eyes. But she kind of liked the older guys. She was in love with Zorro. For her 16th birthday, Walt Disney gave her an appearance on the Zorro show. He got to hug her, and we heard about that for the next month or so (laughing)…Annette was actually in love with Paul Anka at that time. She also liked Fabian. We Mouseketeers were pretty young, girls were ahead of the boys at that time as far as maturing. My voice didn’t even change until I was 15 1/2, so that’s where I was.
MS: So after that, you went to the Lawrence Welk Show. Within just a few years time, you went from a TV show that was aimed for kids to one that would appeal more to parents and grandparents. What was that like?
BB: That show is still on today on PBS, and I’m one of the hosts of the reruns. This is our 60th year coming up, also started in 1955 on ABC. It’s been on public television since 1987. I had about 2 or 3 years where I went back to high school and graduated in the upper 2 percent of my class due to the great tutoring I had gotten at Walt Disney Studios. I won a dance contest with my partner Barbara. While I was on the Mickey Mouse Club, I was taking ballroom dancing lessons down in Long Beach. I won an appearance on the (Lawrence Welk) show. 6 months later on the TV show, he announced that we were regulars, and then I stayed for 21 years…from 1961 to 1982, when the show went off the air. Then we did 14 specials for PBS, and it’s been on PBS since 1987.
MS: Was it a very different environment than the Mickey Mouse Club had been?
It was in that I had to do my own choreography. So, he (Welk) would tell me two weeks in advance what the theme was, and I had to come up with a dance or three or four…sometimes five per show. I could even plan my own wardrobe and my own sets. It was a great job and I loved it. I learned so much being on the Mickey Mouse Club that I took to the Welk Show. I knew I had to be on time, I knew I had to be prepared and I couldn’t put on weight…I was a professional. In fact, one of the great quotes that Lawrence said to people was, “I had no trouble with Bobby because he was raised by Walt Disney”. That was special.
All my stories are in my book, Ears and Bubbles: Dancing my Way from the Mickey Mouse Club to the Lawrence Welk Show. It is on Amazon right now, so anyone can purchase it on Amazon.com. It was so much fun writing it. I’ve had a great life. I have a wonderful family of 4 kids, just great in every way.
Thank you to Bobby Burgess for giving so much time for our interview, it was pretty exciting for me to get to speak with someone who meant so much to my childhood!