By Jeremy Hallock
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Who of the TV generation was not indelibly imprinted by The Mickey Mouse Club, the '50s TV show Life magazine referred to as "the first organization many boomers joined?"
As is usually the case with an ensemble cast, there were star Mousketeers whose personalities stood out; they were fuel for the dreams of a whole generation of young viewers and are remembered to this day. The girls wanted to be Karen or Annette; the boys were jealous as hell of Cubby, who was not only cute but had the added appeal of being a musician: his drumming was frequently featured on the show.
Cubby O'Brien not only survived being a crew-cut, baby-faced TV star; he is alive and well and today makes Dallas the home base of a successful career as a professional drummer. Five years ago, while drumming for Joel Grey at the Venetian Room, O'Brien decided to escape riot-, earthquake-, and traffic-plagued Los Angeles for Carrollton, the hometown of his wife, Terry Wilemon, whom he met in Las Vegas while on tour with the Carpenters in the 1970s.
For the past year O'Brien has been on the road with the touring company of the revived West Side Story, which has taken him all over the world. It has also allowed him to come back home this summer when the musical was part of the Dallas Summer Musicals series. He'll be back in town again for Thanksgiving, when he takes time to play for his good friend Bernadette Peters when she performs with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center November 22 through 24.
Two months ago, he celebrated his 50th birthday; unlike many of his peers, this former child star not only survived show biz unscathed, but he went on to have a happy life and a productive career. "I think they should do a show and get all the former kid stars together who didn't have a bad experience," he says. "The only ones you hear about go on Geraldo and talk about how they had bad parents, were molested by somebody, or something equally gruesome. On the other hand, I had really good parents who watched out for me, and the Disney studios took care of us. I look back on that time as a really positive one."
His post-Mickey Mouse Club resume of people with whom and shows in which he has played drums reads like a who's who of show biz notables from the past five decades: Spike Jones, Liza Minnelli, Bob Hope, Diana Ross, Cher, Andy Williams, and others. He has played for the Academy Awards, the Grammys, and the Emmys, and has numerous movie soundtracks and symphony pops concerts under his belt. He also has played for many TV variety shows, including those hosted by Lawrence Welk, Carol Burnett, and Jim Nabors. He has even backed up tiger tamers Siegfried and Roy.
"Roy is really into the animals," O'Brien says. "Siegfried is more involved with the illusions. They're not overly talented in any way, but have made their act into a multimillion-dollar thing."
O'Brien credits his parents for encouraging his music while protecting him from the pitfalls of the business. His father was a New York drummer who moved the family to California in 1945, where Cubby was born a year later. Cubby started playing drums when he was 5 and in 1955, at age 9, he joined the cast of The Mickey Mouse Club--a choice, he says, his parents left up to him. "They said, 'You've got the show, but do you really want to do this?'" he recalls. "'Do you want to leave your friends at school?' If I had complained to them, or if they had seen I was unhappy, I wouldn't have been there."
He was on The Mickey Mouse Club from 1955 through 1959. During that time, he also did commercials and parts on popular westerns like Bonanza and Cheyenne, but his first love was drumming and music. That may have helped him adjust to life after Disney better than some of his fellows: "A lot of casting directors didn't want to see any Mousketeers; they'd been on TV too long," he explains. "But after The Mickey Mouse Club, I went right to The Lawrence Welk Show and did two years on ABC with him. I sang, danced, played drums, and led the orchestra...anything they wanted me to do."
At 16, he was on the road with popular bandleader Spike Jones, the Master of Musical Mayhem known for his wacky, sound effects-laden treatments of songs like Duke Ellington's "Cocktails for Two."
"His humor was so understated, very funny stuff," O'Brien remembers. "He himself was a drummer, and I would play drum solos in the show, and he would sit down in front of me and watch. He was an interesting comedic talent, and there was something unique about him coming up with the whole idea of humor using guns, whistles, and bells."
Then came six seasons with The Carol Burnett Show. "That group was unbelievable," O'Brien recalls. "Harvey [Korman], Tim Conway, Carol, and Vicki Lawrence...Rehearsals were hilarious. Tim would go crazy--do things you couldn't do on TV--and crack everybody up."