When The Mickey Mouse Club began in 1955, the main castmembers, called "Mouseketeers" had to be triple threats. These were once-ordinary kids who auditioned to come into other kids' homes every afternoon, singing little songs, performing little skits, dancing, and offering strong, wholesome programming. There was no question that once she started on the show, Annette Funicello was the break-out hit. However, the twelve year old originally from Utica, New York who was the only castmember to be handpicked for the show by Walt Disney himself (after he just happened to see her perform a ballet recital), was never intended to be the "marketed product" Disney has become so well known for churning out. That honor, instead, was supposed to go to blonde and blue eyed Darlene Gillespie.
Just what was the reason for the craze Funicello started (but so many managed to keep up)? "Mousetracks" co-author Greg Ehrbar led a seminar at D23 on closing day called "From Annette To Miley: How Disney Pop Changed The World" and offered his own theory: "[Funicello] was proof that stars are not made-- are not packaged. They are chosen by the public."
There is no doubt that Funicello had some sort of "magical" spark that enchanted her audience and fellow Disney employs; she even had a song written for her called "Annette!" However, there should be no doubt that it was the Disney machine that turned her into the brand that she is today. After all, it was never Funicello who was clamoring to sing on television; that was a decision made by the producers of the serial of her own name about a young girl from the country who is plunked down with big city kids. She was supposed to sing a corny little country diddy, and the kids were supposed to make fun of her dreamy nature. But the studio was flooded with so many letters about the song after, they made it a single. Hence beginning the trend of Disney kids having to star in movies, release albums, and plaster their names and faces on everything from tee-shirts to teddy bears.
It was back in Funicello's day that the Disney cross-overs began, as well: today we know them best on the Disney Channel with made-for-TV-movies like The Wizards on Deck with Hannah Montana, but back then it was a much simpler event, with the stars simply appearing on each others' shows-- a tradition that carried on into the nineties with TGIF and attempted to be copied by NBC with their Must See TV Thursday night (in a bid to get ratings up on the then-fledging Caroline in the City, Matthew Perry guest-starred as "Chandler Bing" and ran into the girls in the same small New York City neighborhood featured on both ...City and his then-hit, Friends).
But something else seemed to stall in the nineties, as the revised Mickey Mouse Club featured some of its strongest vocal talent (Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake could hit notes no one from the fifties' club seemed to even attempt), but Disney did not push its stars to star in any "beach blanket musicals." They didn't even sign the kids to their record company to churn out single after ear-splittingly sweet single! It was almost as if the Disney company could foresee the future even so early on, and they were distancing themselves from the troubled young starlets (like Britney Spears). While it was much talked-up early on that Spears was a part of the infamous Disney machine, all of the publicity was coming from her camp, in order to bring fans of the well-known and well-respected company to Spears as a brand.
Ehrbar didn't explain why there was such a break from the norm with the nineties version of the club. Instead, he merely skipped over it, as if it wasn't anything but an afterthought, which is quite poetic considering the way the studio seemed to regard the club in those years. In Power Point slides, Ehrbar showed pictures and played audio clips from the seventies and eighties and then jumped right to Miley Cyrus and her fellow tween co-horts that are currently all over TV...and radio and film and retail and viral (etc)...today.
Ehrbar and Disney are hanging all of their branding hopes on Cyrus now-- though Ehrbar was quick to point out that the rumors were not true: Hannah Montana was not a show crafted as a vehicle to launch Cyrus' stardom. Cyrus was just a normal kid, going to school where she was actually being bullied, when she (gasp!) auditioned for the role.
The studio thought Cyrus was too young during her initial session, but they were willing to give her another shot...and another. Cyrus actually auditioned a handful of times (each time coming back looking slightly more adult, thanks to some hair straightening and blonde highlights and finally sporting a tee-shirt that read "I should have my own TV show."
It appears that Disney almost thought they were taking a "risk" by finally signing Cyrus, and they have more than made sure she work for it and prove to them it would pay off. But pay off it did-- by the truckload! Whoever follows Cyrus is going to have to truly step it up a couple of notches to win over the hearts (and wallets) of Disney's head-honchos. Could that person already be on another Disney Channel show? As we learned from Ehrbar and Funicello, after all, the next star could simply be "the dark-haired girl in the back row." Keep your eyes (and ears!) out!