My generation was the first to grow UP with the Mickey Mouse Club.
And just like Miss Frances’ Ding Dong School, I never missed it!
The show ran from 1955 to 1959 on ABC. The cast included regulars and a few that changed from time to time.
Everyone had their favorite, mine was Darlene.
Someone gave me a doll, I named it Darlene.
Seriously, it was my first crush.
I was 3.
Darlene was one of the prettiest and by far one of the most talented on the show. But what started as a promising career careened to temper tantrums, jealousy, back-stabbing, a phasing out, to a life of crime and even a little jail time.
Hey, she wasn’t Annette Funnicello – which was exactly the problem.
What is today known as Walt Disney’s Bad Seed, Darlene was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and at the age of ten started taking singing lesions when her mother noticed that many in the congregation at church were moved to tears when Darlene sang . Dance lessons were added, and the bright young star had the opportunity to study with Burch Mann, the founder of the American Folk Ballet!
In 1955, she auditioned for the MMC and was in all three seasons. Starting as the lead female singer she starred in serials such as Corky and White Shadow. Later on she would appear in the New Adventures of Spin and Marty.
Then there was Annette.
While the other kids were in the studio, Darlene was on location at Big Bear Lake learning to ride a horse and learning to act while working on Corky and White Shadow.
All the hard work impacted her health and she came down with pneumonia. Six weeks in bed cost her the main role and Doreen Tracey took over.
Darlene didn’t take the setback well.
The second season of the MMC saw her more reticent and less likely to share that big grin with the gang.
I was oblivious to all this. At three, I was infatuated with the gal.
Darlene realized that she was no longer the favored child on the set.
Annette was on the scene, the boys were crazy for her, and Darlene’s pigtails couldn’t hold a candle to Annette’s hot Latin looks and raven locks.
Again, I was still team Darlene.
She did get several scenes in Annette’s first serial, and the director was impressed. After all, Darlene could act, and she was second only to Annette in fan mail!
Often paired by the Disney machine for personal appearances the two girls were constantly vying for the spotlight.
The fact that Darlene was a better singer helped a little.
But that Annette was just so darn popular with the boys!
The serial roles started going to Annette, and eventually the serial Annette and Darlene was renamed Annette.
Darlene was replaced by Judy!
Things were not going as planned.
While the serial was filming in 1957, Darlene was shipped off to the Windy City on a one-woman publicity tour to promote the MMC’s Magazine.
Darleneites, at least the ones who could write, were furious, and letters poured into the studio.
Disney reacted quite differently than fans had hoped.
A Disney-friendly columnist claimed the letters were part of an organized campaign instigated by Darlene!
Disney said Darlene was busy rehearsing for an upcoming movie.
Typical Hollywood smoke!
By February of that year, the movie had been shelved and Darlene was in the recording studio awaiting the expiration of her Disney Mouseketeer contract.
Still bound by her recording contract, her recordings of the Sleeping Beauty songs were released in 1959. The recording contract kept her from using her most valuable talent, her voice, elsewhere.
Finally released, she signed a contract with Decca and recorded two 45s in 1960. One had two rock songs and one had a ballad and a polka.
The discs are so rare, they are collectors’ items.
Her career slowing, Darlene focused on school and graduated High School in 1959. She spent a few years as a soloist with the First California Ballet Company and toured with them in the US.
She refused to join the tours organized by Jimmie Dodd and refused to do personal appearances for Disney.
She and her sisters did some night club work, singing and comedy – stuff like that. And there was the occasional TV guest appearance; Dr. Kildare, National Velvet to name a few.
She eventually became an ER nurse at Valley Presbyterian Hospital where she was called Nurse Mouse!
She wasn’t too fond of that, nor was she fond of the constant questioning as to why she didn’t become a big star like Annette!
In 1968 she married, and he tried to restart her singing career as a country artist. You’ve probably never heard any of them.
She did go to the 25th Disney reunion in 1980.
Divorced from the first husband, in legal battles with Disney and the Screen Actors Guild, Darlene fell for a conman who further alienated her from the Mouseketeers and led her into a string of felonies and misdemeanors.
Shoplifting, check-kiting, and the like landed her partner in crime and life in the slammer for 18 months; they married while he was in the big house so she could visit.
When Darlene was tried, her conviction saddled her with a two year sentence of which she served three months.
California, just sayin’.
In 2005, the couple was indicted on federal fraud charges, but the issue was resolved without prison time.
Darlene became a widow in 2008.
Her legal battle with the Mouse ended with a settlement; undisclosed of course, and she’s now retired.
She no longer does Disney appearances or MMC reunions.
She’s happy to live a quiet life spoiling her grandchildren.
Life didn’t turn out for Darlene as either she or I would have hoped. Her last television appearance was in 1962, but for a while, she was many a little boy’s dream date every afternoon.
And she was for darn sure mine.