Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in July 1955, the park featured distinct areas dedicated to different kinds of kid-friendly fiction: Westerns, jungle adventures, fairy tales, and futuristic fantasy. Then there was another section, reflective of Walt Disney himself. “Main Street, U.S.A.” was meant to represent not just early 20th-century America but also the Missouri small town where Disney grew up. The company’s design team polished and preserved an idealized version of its boss’s youth, imagining a friendly, genteel community at the intersection of rural gumption and modern industry.

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The same year that Disney invited the world to tour his Main Street, he discovered a 12-year-old Annette Funicello at a dance recital in Burbank and personally cast her in his new ABC afternoon series, The Mickey Mouse Club. Of all the show’s “Mouseketeers,” Funicello stood out for her Italian American last name and softer, relatively darker facial features. Almost as soon as The Mickey Mouse Club debuted, she became a fan favorite. Over the next four years—until the first run of the series was canceled in 1959—young America watched Funicello grow up.

While all that was going on, many of the same kids were tuning in to another show that ABC was airing in the afternoons in the late ’50s, sometimes immediately before The Mickey Mouse Club. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand showcased a different vision of teenage life than Disney’s—one that was every bit as fresh-scrubbed, but a lot more contemporary. On American Bandstand, dancers shook their bodies to the hard beat of rock ’n’ roll. On The Mickey Mouse Club, the cast opened each show with big band music and a little soft-shoe, exhorting the audience to “put on your mouse-ke-ears.” The Mouseketeers represented adolescence à la Andy Hardy, not Elvis Presley.

To get a sense of how displaced in time The Mickey Mouse Club could seem, look at the episode that aired on February 10, 1958. After the usual intro and theme song from an animated Mickey Mouse—marching around to “M-I-C / K-E-Y / M-O-U-S-E”—and the usual opening tap dance and roll call, the gang does a cornpone musical skit called “Howdy-Do” about country neighbors saying hi. Set in front of painted backdrops meant to resemble the small-town Americana of Main Street, U.S.A., the song and the performance is like something out of one of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” MGM musical revues from the previous decade.

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At the end of the episode, The Mickey Mouse Club’s middle-aged host Jimmie Dodd sings a short tune called “Eat A Balanced Diet” before joining the Mouseketeers for their slowed-down, almost elegiac reprise of the main theme—punctuated with Dodd saying, “See you real soon!” after the “C” in “M-I-C,” and “Why? Because we like you!” after the “Y” in “K-E-Y.” While The Mickey Mouse Club never really tried to be hip, it did always put out a warm, positive message. Be healthy. Be friendly. Join us.

The most notable part of the February 10th episode—and the reason it’s one of the few to be released in full by Walt Disney’s home video division—is that it launched a new serial called “Annette,” which ran for four straight weeks and would become one of the most fondly remembered of The Mickey Mouse Club’s recurring features. Over its four years on the air, the show’s serials ran the gamut from male-dominated adventures like “Spin And Marty” and “The Hardy Boys” to little quasi-documentaries in which the Mouseketeers would learn about farming. But “Annette” was a little different, in that it was about a young woman trying to find her place in what was presented as contemporary middle America.

“Annette” is based on the 1950 young adult novel Margaret, written by Janette Sebring Lowrey (better known for the perennial bestselling picture book The Poky Little Puppy). In Disney’s version, Funicello plays Annette McCloud, a Nebraska farm girl who moves in with her childless aunt and uncle in a middle-class suburb after she’s orphaned. Through 19 ten-minute episodes, Annette adjusts to attending a new school with kids who initially aren’t sure what to make of her hayseed ways. Eventually, they get to know and like her—that is, all except for one classmate, Laura Rogan, who sees her as a rival for her boyfriend, Steve. The major plot-driver for much of the serial is a missing necklace, which Laura insists that Annette must’ve stolen.

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The “Annette” that aired on February 10th wasn’t really a chapter in the serial. Titled “An Introduction,” the episode has veteran character actress Mary Wickes playing Katie, the maid to Annette’s aunt and uncle. Katie narrates what amounts to a 10-minute trailer, laying out pretty much the entire plot of the series to come. Throughout, Katie comments on the action, groaning about the misunderstandings at school, and even questioning Annette for being stubborn and prideful and not trying harder to fit in.

“An Introduction” may actually be the best episode of “Annette,” even though it’s the least typical. The speed with which Katie zips through the various story points is a reminder of how little actual plot there is in a typical serial. And the shortness and directness of the scenes resembles one of the True Romance-style comics of the era, where a young woman would meet a boy, lose a boy, and get a boy back in the space of four pages.

“An Introduction” establishes the basic settings: a school, a malt shop, and a pleasant neighborhood, where handsome boys drive their jalopies very slowly and respectfully. The world defined by “Annette” would be familiar even today to anyone who’s ever read Archie comics or watched Leave It To Beaver (and not just because the latter’s Richard Deacon plays Annette’s uncle). Most of the exterior scenes were shot around the campus of Disney’s studio—including the main wing of the animation department, doubling for the steps of the high school—giving “Annette” the sterilized “back-lot Americana” feel of so many ’50s and ’60s sitcoms.

This preview also gives a taste of some of the serial’s songs. Again, as with the old MGM kiddie musicals, the music is an old-fashioned mix of plain ballads and bland boogie-woogie. Missing from “An Introduction,” though, is Funicello’s “How Will I Know My Love?,” which would became her first chart hit. Funicello didn’t have that strong of a voice, but viewers loved her and “How Will I Know My Love?” so much that Walt Disney signed his starlet to a recording contract and released the song as a single. Over the next few years, she’d keep pumping out watered-down teen-pop, along with special theme albums like Italiannette and Hawaiiannette. In an interview on the “Annette” DVD set, Disney songwriter-producer Richard Sherman says that they covered for Funicello’s vocal weaknesses by having her sing over herself, creating an echoey doubling effect that stood out on the radio. But in “Annette,” the star sings everything straight, with no tricks. There’s an appealing frailty there, in comparison to the slickness of the rest of the production.

It’s hard to say exactly what kids got out of “Annette” back in 1958. In an intro to the DVD, critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin talks about watching the shows when they aired and the kick he and his friends got from seeing Funicello and some of the other Mouseketeers play characters in a longer story. But like a lot of movies, TV shows, and books about teenagers produced even today, this serial feels like it’s really aimed at preteens to give them a preview of what they’re about to go through in high school.

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It’s easy, however, to see how “Annette” has retained its nostalgic appeal. It was directed by Charles Lamont, who had experience making juvenile fare entertaining after his years of working with Shirley Temple. He aims for simplicity, not hyperbole. Even when the characters are angry, they speak flatly, emphasizing the dialogue and the plot, not the underlying feelings. That works well for Funicello, who always had a strong screen presence but never developed into much of an actress.

After her Mickey Mouse Club years ended, Funicello became a movie star alongside Frankie Avalon in a series of low-budget beach party movies. Although the Walt Disney studio had no financial stake in them, Mr. Disney himself asked Funicello to avoid wearing bikinis or doing anything suggestive, and she happily obliged—in part because she felt she owed her mentor, and in part because she was a devout Catholic, disinclined to get too risqué on screen. Later in life, when she developed multiple sclerosis, Funicello initially kept her diagnosis a secret, but then went public when rumors were spreading around Hollywood that her shakiness was due to alcoholism. To the end, she was insistent on protecting her wholesome image.

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Why maintain these illusions? Why not let the outsized replica of reality be as messy as life itself? In the case of Main Street, U.S.A.—and later EPCOT, which Walt Disney planned but never got to see completed—there’s an idealistic impulse underlying the clean, confident image. Disney wanted to show the best of America, as he remembered it from his past and envisioned it for the future.

In the case of Funicello and her teenage co-stars, though… well, the reasoning’s more elusive. Disney grew up in a time before “teen culture” really existed. But he had two daughters himself, who were both in their early 20s when Funicello became a sensation—and thus would’ve been high schoolers when rock ’n’ roll first became a craze.

Maybe Disney’s movies and TV shows steered clear of what was actually happening in popular culture at the end of the ’50s because he himself didn’t understand it, and thus didn’t urge his underlings to contemporize. Or maybe, like so many parents, Disney watched his kids mature and found himself pushed out of their lives, no longer privy to their passions, their pains, or even how they filled their days. In the absence of actual insight into what’s happening with their children, adults extrapolate, drawing on their own memories of adolescence and their opinions about how the world should be.

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What’s poignant about so much of The Mickey Mouse Club today is that it looks like a bunker against the outside world—a haven for squares who really did want to grow up to be just like their folks, by eating right, buying in, and tamping down their emotions. Funicello was often described by her peers and employers as “the ultimate girl next door.” But she was also like a teen conjured from the subconscious. She was a reassuring pretense, filling a void. When the episode faded out, she faded away.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: 21 Jump Street, “Mean Streets & Pastel Houses”

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