Background: Lonnie Burr, one of the original Mouseketeers, and I have been talking to each other from our homes in Oregon and Hawaii for a few months, sharing our Disney and post-Disney experiences, mixed-in with some good laughs. We thought it would be good fun to share our conversations with our fans. We hope that you enjoy this unique conversation between a Mouseketeer… and an Imagineer.
Mark: Lonnie I would like to thank you for taking the time today to talk with me.
Lonnie: I appreciated it actually, and I’m not Britney – Britney Spears!
Mark: (laughing) I had the pleasure to have read your book “Confessions of an Accidental Mouseketeer” and I found it delightful and a very honest book.
Lonnie: I wrote it because so many books are puff pieces written by ghost writers
Mark: Well this obviously came straight from you. After getting to know you in our previous conversation I could hear your voice behind the words.
Lonnie: Thank you, that’s good to know!
Mark: You’re just a couple of years older than me.
Lonnie: Well that makes you a junior or a “Meeseketeer” but in show business I may be younger than you. (laughing) Despite all the so called creative people in show business there are some who would see a guy who is 53 and say well he can’t do a guy who is 48 whether on screen or on a resume so you have to do that differently, like Jack Benny and his joke of being 39 for decades, I’m 59 in show business realizing I’m turning an unmentionable age this year. The one between 68 and 70.
M: I’m turning one of those unmentionable ages myself next month.
L: (both laughing)
M: I grew up in my very early years watching the Mickey Mouse Club and little did I know that someday I would be working for the mouse and I’m sure you and I have similar but different perspectives of what it was like working for the mouse. You did it early in your career
M: And I did it later in my career. When you were there Walt was still alive and you had the pleasure meeting him
L: (laughing) yea, yea, we actually talked and much more than 4 or 5 times which Wikipedia and other incorrect online “information” sites, which are frequently erroneous, has written about me as trivia.
M: But when I was there I actually met Walt’s ghost walking down the hallways of the Flower Street building!
L: Oh, my gosh! That’s one I haven’t heard! Good for you!
M: Well he kept me straight, I have to say that!
L: Well, I always thought he had a couple of drinks at the end of the day, not that he had a problem with alcohol, he just seemed to be that kind of guy with the pipe and relaxing and sitting back
M: One thing I did note is that you and I have met and enjoyed the company some great people like Jack Lindquist,
L: Oh, yes Jack is very nice but I don’t know him that well, we haven’t double dated before but a very pleasant chap.
M: And the Sherman Brothers,
L: Oh yes. Unfortunately, Robert just died.
L: I got to work with them, not like Annette did. Oh, Annie was my girlfriend the first year of the show in fact she talked about it in her autobiography.
M: That’s right
L: I worked with them at the Bowl (Hollywood) in —– 1991 – the Mouseketeer‘s appearances there being four: 1956 and in ‘88, ‘89 and finally ‘91. My wife of 41 plus years, Diane, took some pictures with the brothers around the piano while we were rehearsing onstage.
M: I know Robert will be missed
L: Really great and talented guys!.
M: Most definitely!
M: Here is another one, Stephen Spielberg
L: I didn’t get much time with him because of the big cast in “Hook.” He wasn’t like Cecil B. DeMille on the “Greatest Show on Earth” stalking about cut in his jodhpurs and gesticulating with his riding crop a bit like a French WW I marionette.
M: I guess he kept everyone in line!
L: (both laughing)
M: Well my exposure to Stephen was we were having dinner at Club 33 at Disneyland…
L: Oh sure.
M: and it was my daughter’s birthday so there was this couple with these two bratty kids sitting at the table next to us
M: so were saying, hey this is Club 33 cant they control their kids? And then all of a sudden in the back of the room Michael Jackson comes in with his bodyguard and Disneyland security.
M: So I told my daughter “Lisa! Michael Jackson is coming up behind you.” And she says “Oh no, he isn’t.”
M: So she turns around and sees him while they quickly bring a chair up to the table next to us with the couple with the bratty kids
M: and he sits down and then I take a good long look and its Stephan Spielberg and Amy Irving!
L: (still laughing)
M: So the room goes very electric and very quiet while he visited with them for 15 minutes while my daughter peed in her pants (not really)
M: Roy Disney?
L: I knew Roy Jr. He would appear at WDW or Disneyland events and he was a really comfortable fellow just like Walt had been.
M: And of Course Bill Justice
L: Oh, Bill and I were really close. I remember the last appearance he made at WDW for the 40th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1995 for, among other things, the 40th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse Club”. We performed a show and signed autographs. Bill was there for a Disney legends event. He got married at WDW and my wife and I were the only Mouseketeers present for they had invited us. Bill seemed quite happy and it was really a nice moment. I always liked Bill because he was a great raconteur and if it wasn’t for him Jimmie (Dodd) I would have never gotten into the Mickey Mouse Club.
M: Isn’t that something!
L: Well you know Jimmie was a character actor in film and TV, you know not the lead roles, but he had been doing it for 23 years as well as writing songs and singing and he was a tennis buddy of Bill’s too. Walt was involved in aspects of production before the Mickey Mouse Club started filming and Bill asked Jimmy to write and sing a “Pencil Song” that was going to be in one of our episodes. Everyone knew that Walt like to discover things himself and many times he did, but if you wanted to get something done it was better that he make the discovery. So Bill brought in his buddy Jimmie and he sits down with his great on and off camera smile and attitude and strummed his guitar and sang the song. Walt said “He’s our head Mouseketeer” and Bill said that’s great Walt and that’s how we found our lead adult Mouseketeer. (laughing)
M: That’s great!
M: Well I had the pleasure of meeting Bill late in his career in the halls at WDI. What a great icon and somebody that when he talked about show or story you really listened.
L: He was in an assisted living home the last two or three years of his life and I would encourage people to write him cards and letters, particularly his last birthday before he died. Then my friend and Disney aficionado who handles all my memorabilia, Dave Mason at Saturdaystoys.com, would drive from Altadena to Santa Monica where Bill was and talk with him. Bill was not doing well in terms of communication at the time but he still remembered things, especially long term memories. After Bill died, I found that the New York Times had failed to file an obituary for this famous Disney legend that was nominated with a partner for 4 Oscars and won one. I talked to an editor and he said it was just one of those things – they only had space for three and he had not fit in – so much for “all the news that is fit to print.” It bugged me and I told them so. Bill was a really great guy. You know all the great things that he did like Chip and Dale, the Mickey Mouse Club, Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, and a large mural at WDW. It was like the Sistine Chapel! He was just a talented guy and was there a long, long time.
M: Well he certainly will be missed!
M: Here is some wonderful trivia that I think is a great honor, that you are the only Mouseketeer in the Smithsonian Institution.
L: That’s correct and I have some more to put in but I’ve given about 75 different things, about 15 or 20 are from my career before and after the “Mickey Mouse Club” but the rest are all Mouseketeer memories from costumes which I purchased from the studio, and (laughing) various other things like my Ears that were put on display until about two years ago along with a car from the Dumbo ride that was donated by Disney for a 1950’s exhibit. No one get their original ears, not even Annie, because you were not allowed to buy them. I did get to keep the ears from the 25th anniversary Mouseketeer special and they were unique because they had sequins on the black ears! I was the second writer as well as one of the hosts on that show.
M: Speaking of Annie, you, Bill Carter, and Glenn Holt had been working to get some memorabilia back to her after her tragic house fire.
L: Yes, and I keep in touch with Annie and Glen although she has been unable to communicate for a while.
L: Yea, Bill and I got in touch with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to try to get her Hollywoodstar representation for wall hanging but at first they wanted to charge money for it! I also got in touch with Disney’s archives which helped get her a statue of Walt and Mickey that had melted when their house went up in flames. I saw a TV clip of one of Annie’s daughter-in-laws that was rescuing the few things left from their house after the fire and all I could recognize was a big cowboy belt and buckle of Glen’s and my memoir “Confessions of an Accidental Mouseketeer! Well they lost everything but their two cars and some odds and ends. They cleared the lot and sold it then moved to a home near their ranch closer to Santa Barbara. Their home had been near Michael Jackson’s in the hills of Encino. Annie had the home since her first marriage in her twenties.
L: Here is some trivia. The late Michael’s home in Encino was interior decorated by a girl I dated for a very short period of time and I mentioned her in my book, Charmian Carr, who played Liesle in the “Sound of Music” and later became an interior designer. She decorated Jackson’s Encino home as opposed to his huge “Never Never Land” ranch.
M: Well it’s wonderful that she has such good friends that can help her through those tough times and I’m sure she really appreciates it.
L: Oh she does, she does.
M: Can we talk about dancing for a moment? I mean choreography!
L: Well I was dancing at three years old to a player piano or radio and my mom and dad were a dance team before I was born in night clubs and vaudeville. My mom had a number of injuries but after Dash, my dad, put Dot – my mother’s name was Dorothy – through a chandelier during the number, mom said that was it for the dance act. So I had some dancing in me. We moved to California when I was three, and by four I was taking dance lessons and by five I was on acting on radio and dancing and singing on TV.
M: Tell me about Dee Blacker
L: Dee was the best of my teachers. I went to two name choreographers, Willie Covan and Louis da Pron, and they were both very good except for one significant element, they really didn’t break things down, you had to figure out what they were doing and then copy them. Dee taught you the right way to understand and dance by using the right tap lingo, where your weight should be and so on. I had ballet for six years too, but I didn’t like it for it was too rigid but it was very good training for my body. It just wasn’t my thing.
M: It’s a wonderful art form.
L: Yes, it is but I just can’t sit through a whole ballet. I would love a solo or duet with Baryshnikov but otherwise I preferred Bob Fosse, for whom I worked in “Sweet Charity” or the greatest, Fred Astaire tapping or anything else he chose to do. You know on the show everyone considered me, Bobby and Sharon the three best tappers and dancers out of the 39 original Mouseketeers.
M: You’ve got my vote on that!
L: Thanks a lot. I had a bit on the Mickey Mouse Club when I taught Moochie how to tap a little bit! It is on my DVD at my site MouseketeerLonnieBurr.com.
M: (laughing) Moochie! I wrote a breif story about his role in the movie “Swiss Family Robinson” last month.
L: The last time I danced onstage was when I played a gentleman who was much older than me Grandpa Joad in his early 80s in the “Grapes of Wrath” but he dies at the end of act one. Then I became a different character, the mayor of Hooverville. Now there were Hoovervilles all over the United States during the depression since Hoover was the president. Whether it was a small town square or Central Park that is where homeless and unemployed folks had to live. The mayor had a beat-up kid’s wagon and I would trade things and occasionally pilfer them, but the choreographer of the play knew who I was and wanted me in the one dance number that breaks up this somber drama where all the poor, out of work refugees could do a waltz, then a polka and ultimately a fast hoedown! This was at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. where President Lincoln was assassinated – there is a reproduction of him in the booth where he sat – and this is the oldest theatre in America. That is the last time I danced for money but I still give myself a 45 minute advanced jazz/ballet warm-up once a week to keep in shape.
M: You also had the distinction of working with Bob Fosse
L: Right. I did about 3 or 4 weeks in his first directing/choreographing on film: “Sweet Charity” (laughing). I have great stories about him. But the thing that is really wonderful is if you look at his first two films you’ll see that on the first one he did what most people do… and that is film a play. That’s not what a film musical should look like. But what he did in his second film “Cabaret,” changed the entire way film choreography works. He took shots from the side and above and through a chorus girl’s leg so you received more of the feel of the dance and it became much more visual, which is what film is, and real.
M: Let’s talk about movies. What was your favorite role in all the movies you were in?
L: Nothing comes to mind because I have always been a character actor. I did most of my leads on stage. I had recurring roles in sitcoms, cowboy shows with Roy Rogers and “The Range Rider”, plus a commercial for cereal with the Lone Ranger. I was the next door neighbor on an early sitcom called “The Ruggles” starring film character actor Charlie Ruggles. I was 8 and it was my first TV lead as the title character with Jock Mahoney in “Range Rider” and the same year I did my third play and first lead at the Pasadena Playhouse, all before the Mickey Mouse Club.
L: As an adult character actor I would be a supporting actor, or on a variety show like “The Colgate Comedy Hour”, of which I did ten, I would appear as myself or, in some, as a sketch actor. In films I was hollered at by Cecil B. DeMille in a scene with Jimmy Stewart in the Oscar winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth” and worked a number of weeks with Danny Kaye in the movie “Hans Christian Andersen”. I am related to Andersen on my mom’s side of the family so Danny and I appeared in a lot of publicity photos in costume. I did the child lead on a radio soap opera for a few years, “Dr. Paul”, was the spokes-boy for Chef Boyardee for two years and played Tiny Tim (not the singer) for the “Stars Over Hollywood” radio drama series in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol’ among other shows. If I had to pick just one film it would be my role in the independent “Illicit Behavior” where I played a bad cop who when discovered kills a pursuing fellow officer. Not your Mouseketeer policeman!
M: Talking about the “Biz”, you’re in a new book by Rob Ebner “Hollywood Celebrities And Where Are They Now?” but what is funny is that on the cover it also shows him the author of “Winds of Hell” and “Plague World” (laughing).
L: Well I knew he did sci-fi! (laughing)
M: I know it’s important to keep your name out there!
L: Well as a child star, unless you open your mouth, nobody knows who you are because you don’t look the same. I remember the first time I went into a show, Joel Greys’, “George M” one of the guys in the chorus says “You’re Mouseketeer Lonnie” and this was in 1969, but I was a guy in my early twenties and he knew me right away, but most of the time they told me it is important to bring it up. Where as if you’re a star, (and I wouldn’t want to be one now) during the last few decades you are constantly surrounded by people, many rude and nasty, and you can’t do anything. I just couldn’t live that way. Now when I’m making a performance for fans that’s great because that’s what I am doing at that moment, but otherwise I like to be private.
M: As do I
L: I was in a restaurant once with Brando and a lady friend. He didn’t do anything but you could clearly see that if you went over the table and said “I really appreciate your work Mr. Brando” that he would rip off your arm and eat it!
M: Well I guess you’re not going to take the same tack that Doreen did and do a folio in a men’s magazine?
L: Oh, that! Well that first one in my opinion was just grotesque. But she did call me about the second one in which she was going to flash nude at Disneyland and I told her what would happen if she did that in terms of security, then the police. So I told her what you need to do is this… do a dry run with a photographer and then you go someplace, but not the front gate, at the Disney Studios. You open your raincoat, get two or three shots and get the hell out of there. (laughing). It worked! She got in front of a sign that said Disney Studios and got the shots!
M: (laughing) So there is some trivia, you staged here most famous photograph!
L: Well she was one of the two girls I dated after the show, the late Cheryl and Doreen. I kinda knew who the prettiest were on the show so I said what the Mouseke-hell! (laughing)
M: Lonnie, we have hit the thirty minute mark. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone
L: Well I’m a hell of a guy, what can I say!
M: I certainly had a lot of fun talking with you and sharing and would really like to do this again sometime real soon.
L: Sure that’s great!
L: Oh, I’m updating my definitive book on comedy themes that includes everything from vaudeville through now and it’s going to come out as an E-book this year. The new title is “Two for the Show: Great Comedy Teams – 1898-2012”
M: I can’t wait for it!
M: Lonnie, have a wonderful weekend
L: OK, we’ll talk soon!
© 2012 Lonnie Burr and Mark Hickson – All rights reserved
Want to know more about Lonnie Burr? You can visit his website at: http://www.mouseketeerlonnieburr.com/
and… you can visit his page at the Original Mickey Mouse Club website at: http://www.originalmmc.com/lonnie.html