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How Disney Became a Kiddie-Star Factory

11/03/2010 04:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The original Mickey Mouse Club of the 1950s was the spiritual breeding ground for the kiddie-star explosion of today -- it built the model by which Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, and the like have risen to ubiquity. But as I document in my new book, Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the Mouseketeers, the show had plenty of its own shining moments in pop culture history. Here, a few of them:

July 1955: The Mouseketeers debut at Disneyland's opening day. But ABC's parade announcer, Art Linkletter, is baffled by their strange name: "And here come all the little children," he says on air to 70 million viewers. "They're the ... the ... the what? They're the performing children who are going to be on the Disneyland Mickey Mouse Club!" Later in the broadcast, those children do get to perform for TV audiences for the first time, singing their "Talent Round-Up" song.

October 1955: Mouseketeers become an instant phenomenon, a huge hit with kids across the country, making overnight stars of the two dozen singing and dancing children at its center and an enduring classic of its infuriatingly catchy theme song. ("Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.") More than 2 million Mouseketeer ears sell in its first three months on the air, starting a trend that would never die. Critics declare, "There's never been anything like Mickey Mouse to hit television."

November 1955: The Mickey Mouse Club's first serial, The Adventures of Spin and Marty, becomes a phenomenon all its own, making bigger stars of the two young, cute actors at its center, Tim Considine and David Stollery. The real-life buddies earn heartthrob status among the show's avid female fans and become the envy of boys across the country who wish they could spend their summers at a horse-riding camp just like the fictional Triple R Ranch.

December 1955: The show's biggest break-out star, aside from Tim and David, has become abundantly clear: It's Annette Funicello. She's soon getting the vast majority of the show's fan mail, peaking at 6,000 letters per month.

1956: Sherry Alberoni, later to become famous for her role in the drama series A Family Affair, joins The Mickey Mouse Club in its second season. She is, however, let go from the cast by season's end, along with six other Mouseketeers. She gets a part in Lou Costello's Dance With Me, Henry by the next week.

Spring 1957: Mouseketeer girls, particularly Annette Funicello, become known as much for what's, um, underneath their sweaters than for their singing and dancing.

Summer 1957: Don Grady (then Agrati), who would later be known for his work on My Three Sons, becomes a Mouseketeer in the show's third season.

February 1958: Annette gets an eponymous serial about a country girl who moves in with relatives in the city. She scores an unexpected pop hit single with the song she sings in the hay ride episode, "How Will I Know My Love?"

Spring 1958: The Mickey Mouse Club ends production after three seasons due to contractual disagreements between ABC and Disney. Annette Funicello signs a production deal with Disney, but the rest of the Mouseketeers are cut loose from the Magic Kingdom.

Summer 1958: Drumming Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien finds immediate work in a kiddie band on The Lawrence Welk Show.

January 1959: Annette scores a top-10 hit with "Tall Paul."

Spring 1959: The Mouseketeers take Australia. A group of them tour Down Under, where the show has only just started airing, and they're welcomed by screaming throngs of fans. They even require bodyguards, and are treated to constant breathless media coverage.

1960: Don and Tim hit it big as brothers on ABC sitcom My Three Sons . Cubby leaves Lawrence Welk just as former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess joins it as a dancer.

1962: The Mickey Mouse Club begins a wildly successful syndication run that will last through 1965, giving the illusion that the show was shot for an entire decade, rather than just three years, and showing its cast in perpetual pre-teendom even as they aged into their teens and 20s in real life.

1963: Annette cements her cultural icon status by starring in a series of Beach Party movies with Frankie Avalon.

1964: Former Mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge makes gossip-page headlines by marrying Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow in a glitzy ceremony.

November 1964
: Adult host Jimmie Dodd dies after being hospitalized with a staph infection in Hawaii.

1965: Tim quits My Three Sons, itching to work behind the camera instead. He eventually becomes a writer, first for movies and television, then for magazines.

December 1976: Former Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey shocks the world (and Disney executives in particular) with a nude pictorial in men's magazine Gallery.

1977: The All-New Mickey Mouse Club tries to modernize the format but fails to take hold with viewers. It ends after just six months.

August 1979: Doreen poses naked for Gallery again, this time poking fun at the Disney reaction: She's shot right in front of the Walt Disney Productions entry gate.

November 1980: The Mouseketeers hit TV once again, with a widely watched 25th reunion special.

1989: A Mickey Mouse Club revival premieres on the Disney Channel, this time successfully. Its cast includes future megastars Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake.

1990: Former Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie sues Disney, accusing the company of cheating her out of royalties from her work during The Mickey Mouse Club. It's eventually settled out of court.

1992: Annette Funicello reveals in a USA Today interview that she is suffering from multiple sclerosis.

1997: Darlene and boyfriend Fraschilla make the news when they're convicted of stealing a food processor and four shirts from a Macy's in Ventura, California.

2005: The Mouseketeers reunite for a 50th anniversary performance at Disneyland.

For more on the book and the Mouseketeers, please visit my website, JenniferMArmstrong.com.