Monday, May 5, 2014

Q&A With Lonnie Burr, Author of The Accidental Mouseketeer

The Iconic Shield Logo for The Mickey Mouse Club (1955)
Image Courtesy of IMDb
© Disney

In the past decade, there's been no shortage of literature for fans of Walt Disney and the Disney Studio to ingest. In fact, the level of quality and new information on those very subjects have been raised considerably in the past decade: lovingly restored comic book and strip reprints from Fantagraphics, gorgeous tomes on niche subjects from Disney Editions, and the stellar works by respected Disney historians such as Didier Ghez and Jim Korkis from a new independent publisher, Theme Park Press.

Cover for the Updated 2014 Edition of The Accidental Mouseketeer
Image Courtesy of Theme Park Press

One of the new releases from Theme Park Press is an updated edition of The Accidental Mouseketeer: Before and After The Mickey Mouse Clubthe memoirs of original Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr, which contains in-depth stories of Lonnie's on-screen years before and after his years on The Mickey Mouse Club. Not only did Lonnie earn his ears, he crafted a remarkable career of acting, dancing, directing, choreography, award-winning writing and more. With refreshing candor and intelligent delivery, the book showcases his decades of work with some of the most notable names from stage and screen, in front of and behind the scenes.

I was recently put in touch with Lonnie Burr through the generosity of Theme Park Press Editor Bob McLainon the occasion of the release of The Accidental Mouseketeer I had a few question about his days at the Disney Studio during the original run of The Mickey Mouse Club. Those questions multiplied into a Q&A you're about to read, to which Lonnie most graciously agreed to participate in.

Lonnie Has Made Many Friends Throughout His Career
Image © & Courtesy of Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr

The following Q&A is intended as a canapé for reading the entire book, and to maintain the mission of keeping the contents of this blog unique. As per the usual format, my questions are formatted in blue text, his responses are formatted in red text.

Be sure to stick around after the Q&A: directly below it, you'll find out where to purchase The Accidental Mouseketeer, as well as a link to Lonnie's recent appearance on Stu's Show, where you can purchase Lonnie's three-hour interview from February 2014 for only 99¢. You can also find out how to be part of a proposal to induct the original Mouseketeers as official Disney Legends in 2015.



The Mickey Mouse Club Producer Bill Walsh is credited for crafting most of what the show would become, including those famous "ears" you and the others helped made famous. I have a theory that Walt was grooming Walsh to run the studio prior to the grafting of Ron Miller. Do you have any insight to that notion, or memories of Bill Walsh in general?
First: the EARS were artist/Big Mooseketeer Roy Williams's contribution, not Bill, which he recalled from an early cartoon when Mickey tipped the "top of his head including the ears" to Minnie Mouse.
Artist and "Big Mooseketeer" Roy Williams Pulled Inspiration From the 1929 Mickey Mouse Short, The Karnival Kid to Design the Mouseketeer Ear Hats 
Image Courtesy of Press Pass
© Disney
We had little to do with Walsh and he seemed very gruff. Hal Adlequist, however, was a very pleasant producer, next in line. I have no knowledge about Walt grooming Walsh for anything except he threw him into putting it all together just as he FORCED Roy Williams, who had never performed before a camera nor anywhere, into becoming a comedy foil for Jimmie and the kids given his girth, size and baldness. Roy was not happy but grew into the role.
The set decorator for the entire series run of The Mickey Mouse Club was Harriet Burns, who would later move on to WED as a prominent show designer. Did you have any encounters with Harriet, or experience set designs in progress as they were being built and painted?

Not at all; I would not have recognized the name if you had asked. However, their were 28 Mouseketeers the first season due to 4 being fired early on:

1) Dallas Johann left the first day because he could only cry when "action" was called; he was replaced by his brother John Lee as Mouseketeer Lee since there was already a Mouseketeer Johnny (Crawford, later starring on The Rifleman);

2) Paul Petersen (later on The Donna Reed Show) went up to one of our two portly Casting Directors punched him in the stomach and called him, "FATSO"! He must have changed his "attitude problem" for Ms. Reed;
3 & 4) two of Mickey Rooney's kids, Mickey Jr. and the late Tim Rooney, got into the paint department and did a Andy Warhol on ALREADY FINISHED set pieces. Mouseka-Bye-bye. They may have encountered Ms. Burns.
Harriet Burns Was a Set Decorator on The Mickey Mouse Club Prior to Her Well-Known Work as a WED Theme Park Show Designer
Image © 2014 Pam Burns-Clair & Don Peri

There's plenty of footage of the original Mouseketeers at Disneyland from Opening Day in 1955 through the subsequent decades. What are your impressions of the growth and evolution of the park over the years?
It seemed fresher to me then but that may be because it was so new and I was so young.
Anything now gone from Disneyland's past that you'd like to see restored?
Tomorrowland, particularly the stage where we performed live from 1980-1985.
I wrote, co-choreographed and co-directed the first live show at the now defunct stage with Barbara Epstein the first year. I was one of the six Mice in the show along with Mickey, Goofy [Mouseketeer Tommy], Minnie and other characters and the Disneyland band.
The Mouseketeers Perform at Disneyland's Main Tomorrowland Stage (Circa 1980)
Image © & Courtesy of Meet the World


You have an impressive list of Hollywood and Broadway personalities that you've worked with during your career. Did anyone surprise you by being down to earth, bucking the trend of affectation and ego despite their celebrity status?
I was in the film Live a Little, Love a Little (sometimes under a different title) in 1968 with Elvis. He was pleasant off camera and we chatted; he showed no signs of booze, nor drugs, and had no cadre of "insiders" surrounding him. The late, great Prez [Robert Preston], with whom I did the musical Mack & Mable on Broadway for Gower Champion was a GREAT raconteur. He would have a Black & White [scotch] and soda, tall after a show and regale us with stories of Errol Flynn and Victor Jory as good guys vs. bad buys with many of the "stunt fights" their separate gangs had were actual fights for the two groups were like the Jets and the Sharks.
In our e-mail exchange you mentioned working with Bob Fosse, Shirley MacLaine and Sammy Davis Jr. on the theatrical version of Sweet Charity in 1969.
Actually, it was 1968, released '69, and Fosse's first film as choreographer and director. The late Mouseketeer Bonnie Lynn Fields, third season, was on the flick, too, so we met up again for the first time since 1957.
One-Sheet Poster For the 1969 Theatrical Release of Sweet Charity
Image Courtesy of A Shroud of Thoughts
© Universal Studios

That adaptation had a large cast, as well as an impressive pedigree of writing (Neil Simon, based on a Federico Fellini script)—can you relate some of your experiences in that massive production? Was Fellini involved at any point?
No Fellini. Two Fosse mistakes: we were all in heavy wigs, costumes etcetera for the "Rhythm of Life" number with Sammy and his costume was leather boots/pants, all one piece, which was really HOT. Being new at film-making, Fosse took a long time setting up and he disregarded how long we sweated under the lights while standing around waiting for him to decide on the shot, lighting and so on. Sammy, with his Mai Tai glass filled with Bourbon and Coke, finally shouted out, "Bob I'm a super star and I'm sweating to death with everybody else, give us a break, man!!!"  And Fosse did.
Lonnie Reveals How Bob Fosse Had Some Stumbling Blocks Cutting His Cinematic Teeth on Sweet Charity
Image Courtesy of BOOKTRIB
I also heard a sotto voce exchange between the Cinematographer and Fosse while setting up a scene. Bob muttered, "I can't get the setup I want, it's too far away", as he looked through the small, hand held view finder one uses to see what the camera will see. Bruce Surtees, the Cinematographer, whispered, "Bob, you're looking through the wrong end."
You also told me about a role in a cut sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Hook that you (thankfully) still receive residuals for. That must have been quite an experience considering the star power of the cast, the enormous, practical sets and elaborate costumes. Has that sequence surfaced as bonus footage in DVD or Blu-ray releases?
I have not researched it, ergo, have no idea. If someone knows, I would like to see it. I was a peg-leg, drunken, Cockney sidekick of Bob Hoskins who played Smee, first mate to Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook.
 Lonnie's Pirate Role in 1991's Big-Budget Hook Was Cut, But Proved Rewarding by His Maneuvering of Double Pay Due to the Hazardous Peg-Leg Effect
Image Courtesy of Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr
My leg was bent up from the waist to the knee and tied off, which was very uncomfortable, and very dangerous and more painful to dance on. I was not pleased when Spielberg got on his $200,000 crane and was flying around looking at shots and Robin Williams continually did his crazy club act, distracting Steven. I was in pain. I did, however, get myself and three other guys my age as peg-legs, more mature than most of the other pirates, double pay by being very tricky.

We’ve seen you perform many styles of dance with outstanding form. Professional dance requires physical and mental grit on top of real discipline: what is the physical preparation beyond routine rehearsal? 
The unique and great Fred Astaire would have used the line about getting to Carnegie Hall: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE - which Fred did. Others work differently. You have to warm up and even more as you mature. Kenny Ortega (High School Musical all versions, etcetera) - used me first in Newsies, his first film directing and choreographing as an Irish strike breaker. Later, Mandy Pantinkin's doctor character on Chicago Hope had a very rare musical number from Guys and Dolls -- "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" -- while he was undergoing brain surgery. They needed at least ONE dancer who was mature enough to be a neurosurgeon and I was in my fifties and Kenny knew I could cut it, thus, it was me and the "pretty young boys and girls" and Hector Elizondo who was VERY jazzed about getting to dance one time in his career.
Lonnie Skillfully Executes an "Over-The-Leg Jump"
Image Courtesy of Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr

Do you continue to dance today? 
The last show I danced in was the tragedy, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in 2003 which had been rewritten as a stage play and after Broadway was done at the oldest extant theatre in the country: Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Yes, the one Lincoln was assassinated in and was not used for about a hundred years. In this dark play there is only one scene of merriment and celebration in which everyone waltzes, polkas and then does a hoedown. Script did not have me in the scene but the choreographer, being aware of my dancing/choreography background, thrust me into it in my 60th year. It was easy and I enjoyed the break from the sadness we portrayed, although my Grammpa Joad got many of the few laughs in the show that echoes our recent U.S. financial downturn, unless you are part of the 3%.
I had previously played the second oldest theatre much earlier with Joel Grey in the musical George M! about the life of George M. Cohan. That is (or was) the Shubert in New Haven, Conneticut around the corner from THE University.
1968 Playbill Cover for George M!—featuring Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters
(Broadway's Palace Theater Production)
Image Courtesy of Adventures in Playbills
There is a myth that "older" folks, like athletes, lose their abilities but that is not as true for dancers. It has been a while since I have choreographed or danced but I had to quit being a runner after eighteen years due to an arthroscopy, or knee operation, not a replacement. I gained weight, got it off quickly, and began aerobic hiking three miles twice a week AND giving myself an advanced ballet and jazz dance warm up, about 45 minutes, but no combinations - steps put together as part of a number as one does for a class. This keeps me in shape - I add push ups, yoga, 2 sets of 110+ sit ups and the like to the dance exercises and they counter the hiking.
At 70, I am more limber than most men or women at 40 and can still dance. IF I had to do eight numbers a show, eight shows a week as on Broadway I would not last very long, as I did in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, but I can STILL dance quite well.
What’s your opinion of the popularity of dance competitions on network television today? Do you think it’s a refreshing return to showcase the art, or do you find it over-produced/bombastic?
Definitely NOT refreshing, nor a viable showcase for dancing. Definitely OVER-PRODUCED. It is too much like a dancing survivalist show for my taste.
Current-Day Dance Competitions Rely More on Inflated Production Values Than Actual Art and Skill of Dancing
Image Courtesy of ABC
© ABC Television
I prefer the dancers from Carol Burnett's show and others of that level. My forte and favorite, of course, is tap. Then it would be jazz dance and last ballet, which I took six years of as a kid and was better training for the body than the other two but not my style - too formal.
Lonnie's Parents, Howard and Dorothy Babin
Performed as the
Vaudeville Dance Team "Dot and Dash"
Image Courtesy of Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr
Image © & Courtesy of Lonnie Burr
The late and also great James Cagney, who like my parents the dance team Dot & Dash in vaudeville and night clubs, learned to dance by watching, just as Bob Hope and George Burns could do a simplistic "soft shoe", the easiest form of tap. Cagney once said, "Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man" and you will recall his only Oscar he received was not for playing a tough guy but as a song-and-dance man in Yankee Doodle Dandy as George M. Cohan and we could see James' [he hated being called Jimmy, which was forced upon him by a studio head] unique way of dancing. So, bad guys do dance, despite Hemingway's testosterone overload.

Your writing displays a mastery of wordplay, some of which would send the casual reader to dash for a dictionary! Who influenced your romance with wordsmithery—was it brought about by family, a professor, or a published writer/poet?
It is embarrassing, but frankly I did not understand poetry/verse until I began working on my Ph.D. in English Literature, a few years after my MA in Theatre Arts. The reason was that NONE of my teachers knew how to do more than say read this, feed me back my POV [film script for point of view] and you get an A. I had written some horrid drivel before that for some young ladies who apparently did not understand it either, hence, they did not fall ill while reading. I did very well in school, passing my SATs around 1600 at 13 in my Junior year in high school and 14 in my senior year. Went through my BA & MA by [age] 19 (explained further in my memoir.)
Emblematic Masthead for Connecticut's Long-Running Newspaper, 
The Hartford Courant
Image Courtesy of Simon Goodman Pictures 
Once I understood poetry, I was impassioned and the first things I had published were poems, then reviews for film and theatre. I have had two collections, 51 poems published in varied media from The Hartford Courant (newspaper), Southern Humanities Review and Kansas Quarterly, both poetry mags and so on. I also edited a poetry quarterly in the early '70s called QUIDDITY [so you don't have to look it up, it means "the thing in itself" - that you may look up.] I've also won 11 poetry awards.
My unmet mentors include T. S. Eliot, Stevens, Donne, not Yeats, some of the earlier Romantics.
Panel Details of a Recently Illustrated Version
of "The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock"
Verse by T.S. Eliot, Art © by Julian Peters
Source Courtesy of The Dish
I have a public reading in this century I gave of my favorite poem, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" on my DVD. Unfortunately Thomas Stearns had a very nasal voice and was monotone so it has a bit more substance in my interpretation. The poem was published in 1917 and still is viable and vital.
Actually, there has been very little actual verse written in the last 30 or more years. Yes, there is Ashbery still and Merwin but it has become too much like the oxymoron [contradictory] "rap music," too much rhyme but no reason, no substance.
My latest Christmas card answered an ambition to write and perform beat poetry. Despite the whimsical outcome, the core was sincere and I found it to be quite cathartic. Did you ever pursue live poetry during the Beatnik era leading into the counterculture movements? Did you read the work of writers at the time such as Diane di Prima or Allen Ginsberg?
I have read Ginsberg but he is not my hazelnut blend of coffee at all. Is Diane the wife of the late Louis Prima? I am not familiar with the name. ;;---]
Pandora's Box Coffee House and Nightclub
Was Located at 8118 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, CA
Image Courtesy of Signs of the Times
© Mondo Mod
I did "hang" at a famous coffee house, Pandora's Box, at the beginning of the Sunset Strip but liked the bar across the street, Sherry's, where the Don Randi jazz trio played but that was in the mid-'60s. Don would do a little Monk for me once in a while. Pandora's Box looked far better in the darkness of night, although it was a triangular lot with no room for ANYTHING else where Laurel Canyon from the North crosses Sunset Boulevard and becomes Franklin south of Sunset.


With the updated re-release of The Accidental Mouseketeer complete, you have another updated volume coming soon from Theme Park Press: Great Comedy Teams: 1896-2014—that’s a pretty dense topic to tackle. How deep did you have to mine for resources for the earlier years?
Quite a bit, with some research help from my wife of 43+ years Diane, from things that they called "books." What in the hell are we going to do with all those libraries in ten years???? Plus, most of the well known teams have film from TV, movies and Broadway.
Stan and Ollie Demonstrate the Art of Anticipation in Comedy:
An Update of
Lonnie's Great Comedy Teams Will Be Released Later This Year
Image Courtesy of The Guardian
I will never read a book on a "slate" which I just gave my wife for her birthday - she requested it and I got the best, most RECENT one, which will most likely be obsolete before Xmas.
Can you provide a brief preview of what readers can look forward to in the updated edition of Great Comedy Teams?
The weakest team for me and the last one, Cheech and Chong, indicate that team comedy is ostensibly dead since they broke up in the late '80s. However, The Hollywood Reporter a couple of weeks ago (03.28.14) quoted Tommy Chong, 75, about doing another movie; their last was in 1983. I was not there for the interview so I am not sure what state Tommy was in at the time.
Cheech and Chong Are the Last of the Comedy Teams
Image Courtesy of Headspace
Photo by Paul Mobley 
The brief plot description he gave used, "All sorts of shennaigans happen." Words like shenanigans and the TV Guide's hideous "hi-jinks" scare the hell out of me vis-à-vis humor.

A lot of the readers of this blog visit for comic book and comic strip content, did you have a favorite newspaper comic strip growing up? I see you as someone who would appreciate the wordplay and intellectual subtext of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
You are precisely correct. The truth is I read and collected more comic books than read things from the paper. Now I prefer the arbitrarily absurd, e.g., Non Sequiter, The New Yorker's singles and the retired Gary Larson's work [The Far Side], even though his lawyers stopped me from using one of his on my website, in its 14th year and a section for primarily Mouseketeer but also other Disney comic scenes.
Walt Kelly Utilized Pogo as a Platform for Timely Topics and Political Figures, Such as 1968 Democratic Nominee Eugene McCarthy (Above)
Image Courtesy of Whirled of Kelly
Pogo by Walt Kelly © O.G.P.I.
I collected different comics, one of my favorites being Scrooge McDuck, even more rabid than Donald and THE Donald. I collected and read all of the Classic Comic Books which came in handy in college. Like an idiot I gave away my roughly 400 comic books to a boys home. Now it was not idiotic from an altruistic point of view but I sure could use all that moola.
Lonnie's Exquisite Taste in Rich Scottish Ducks Fits in Perfectly Around Here
Panel Details From Uncle Scrooge #5 (March, 1954)
Story and Art by Carl Barks
© Disney

The website shows photos of you visiting some impressive spots around the globe: was there a location that you were hesitant to visit that you wound up enjoying?
Not that I can think of - we are very eclectic in our choices but as I write this, I do recall more than one bad day in the Bahamas but I sure as hell did not enjoy it, nor would I return.

To wrap up, I’d like to ask if you could impart a personal manifesto: a simple mantra, or piece of advice as a token for readers to carry with them?
I really do not have a credo, nor mantra but I will write this:
Go with your gut; first impressions are usually right. Of course, this comes from a "thin slicer." 
Psychology finally caught up with me and named what I have been doing all of my life: I am a "thin slicer." I happened upon the phrase while writing my memoir and reading one of Gladwell's extended-to-a-book essays. It refers to people that can perceive in a literal millisecond something that is "off kilter," usually negative but it can be positive. It has saved my mouseka-buttocks and people I know near them on many occasions.
I'd like to thank Lonnie for his time in participating, and providing such great, detailed answers to the questions for this post. If this Q&A has whet your appetite, there's much more to be found within the pages of The Accidental Mouseketeer: Before and After The Mickey Mouse Club, which you can purchase in both paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon or directly from the publisher at Theme Park Press

The Accidental Mouseketeer: Before and After The Mickey Mouse Club is Published by Theme Park Press

Inside the book, you'll read PLENTY more about Lonnie's long career, with a generous focus on his days on The Mickey Mouse Club, it's subsequent tours and reunions on television and at Disneyland, as well as more on Lonnie's travels, writing and associations with prestigious names from all forms of entertainment.

Lonnie Burr on Stu's Show

Stu Shostak Has Hosted Stu's Show Online Since 2006
Illustration by Dan Cunningham

Since 2006, film collector and Television Historian Stu Shostak has hosted his own internet radio broadcast Stu's Show, a weekly program of in-depth interviews with talents from classic television and film. Lonnie was Stu's guest this past February and gave a whopping three-hour interview about the book, his life and career. The entire broadcast can be purchased as an immediate download for only 99¢.

Purchase the 2/26/14 Stu's Show Episode 357: 
Stu's Three-Hour Interview with Lonnie Burr HERE

Please note that Stu runs a special offer on his site that gets you FOUR shows for $2.97 (the price of THREE)—a basic word search through his show archives will lead you to show topics and personalities that will surely be of interest (e.g. Disney, animation, game shows, Lucille Ball, etc.)

Stu Offers an Excellent "4 for 3" Offer in His Archives
Image Courtesy of Stu's Show

On episode #357 you'll hear Lonnie speak about his relationships with Jimmie Dodd, the core (and rotating) cast of Mouseketeers, and his teenage romance with Annette Funicello! 

 Lonnie and Annette Were Off-Camera Sweethearts During the First Season of The Mickey Mouse Club
Image Courtesy of Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr

Which brings us to Mr. Shostak's excellent proposal to cement the place of The Mickey Mouse Club cast in Disney Studio history...

Nominate the Original Mouseketeers as Disney Legends for the 2015 D23 Expo

SInce 1987, the Disney Legends award is presented to individuals in honor of their long-lasting impact on the company's legacy. The ceremony has recently become a part of the company-run D23 fan club, and now takes place during their biannual D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.

 Annette Funicello Was Inducted as a Disney Legend in 1992

In 1992 both Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams were inducted as a Disney Legends, along with Annette Funicello, based on her years as a Mouseketeer, featured star of Walt Disney Productions films and television, and as a spokesperson for the Studio over the years.
The Disney Legends Award Ceremony is Held Every Other Year at the D23 Expo
Image Courtesy of Movie Dearest
© Disney

Stu has proposed that fans contact D23 to recommend the core cast of Mouseketeers (those who appeared on the show throughout all four seasons of The Mickey Mouse Club) to become Disney Legends in 2015. This would be a perfect opportunity to do so, as 2015 marks the 60th Anniversary of the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club on television.

If you'd like to propose the core Mouseketeers to be inducted in the next group of Disney Legends, e-mail or write D23 at the following addresses:

Subject: Mouseketeers as Disney Legends

500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA

A short, cordial note is all that is required, stating that 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of The Mickey Mouse Club and would be the perfect time to recognize the following eight original Mouseketeers as official Disney Legends:

Sharon Baird

Bobby Burgess

Lonnie Burr 

Tommy Cole

Darlene Gillespie

Carl "Cubby" O'Brien

Karen Pendleton

Doreen Tracy

Your letters and e-mails to D23 will surely count, so take a moment to give this talented group the official Disney Legends status they have long deserved. An update will be posted here if there's any progress on the nomination of the eight original Mouseketeers—why? Because we like you! (and all of them!)


Lonnie Burr's Official Website

 Theme Park Press

Stu's Show

The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases

George Grant's Original Mickey Mouse Club (a Comprehensive Fan Site)