Not so Mickey Mouse

TV icon Cubby O'Brien has done quite well since leaving Uncle Walt's band

"Mouseketeers' roll call, sound off now! Karen! Cubby! Annette! Sharon! Lonnie! Bobby...!"

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."

It was on Carol Burnett in 1972 that Cubby met the Carpenters. "Our show was going on hiatus, and Richard [Carpenter] asked me if I would be interested in going on tour with them." O'Brien played with the Carpenters on and off for the next nine years. He saw Karen Carpenter deteriorating as a result of the then-unknown eating disorder, anorexia, "but none of us really knew it was as bad as it was. We knew she had problems, because you know all sorts of personal things about people when you're on the road with them. Her body wasn't functioning right for a long, long time. When she finally did get to New York and saw a specialist, not only was it too late, but they didn't know enough about the disease. She gained too much weight back too fast, and it put a terrible strain on her heart."

O'Brien says he saw Karen just four days before her death. "They had gotten some action on a new record, and we were going out on tour for the first time in two years, but it was too late for her, I guess. It really is sad, because she was such a sweet, warm girl. She never was temperamental or did any of that star stuff. We got along great, because she also was a drummer; I was much closer to her than I was to Richard. He's a great guy, but he has always been a little distant. He was the boss, and Karen respected whatever he said. He was a brilliant orchestrator and would write string parts for the orchestra, but as far as the rhythm section--his guys--we had to learn everything by heart!"

Had Karen lived, O'Brien says, the Carpenters' "place would be exactly what it was before: The reviewers would hate them, and everybody else would listen to them and buy their albums! Their music was some of the best music of the '70s."

Although he knew that the Carpenters currently are big in Japan, O'Brien says he was unaware that the Carpenters are retrocool now; he hasn't heard If I Were a Carpenter, the 1994 tribute album of Carpenters covers by groups such as Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, and Dishwalla, nor did he know that Richard Carpenter--who supervises his sister's estate--had finally consented to the release this month of a 1979 solo album by Karen produced by Phil Ramone, which one critic called Karen's "bold attempt to liberate herself."

O'Brien plays down notions that--as one critic said--Karen's "halo, like her brother, would prove impossible to shed" or that the solo album was her "emancipation proclamation." According to O'Brien, "It's not as big a rift as they are making it sound like, although her anorexia was definitely a control problem. Her parents and Richard basically ran her life. Of course, nobody runs your life unless you let them run it. She was outwardly a very happy person, as far as I could tell."

The Carpenters' current popularity doesn't surprise O'Brien. "Karen's like a cult figure; she deserves that. She was one of the most popular singers in the world. When I was with the band, we used to get rapped a lot because we weren't rock and roll or disco, but whenever we played an auditorium that held 25,000 people, it was packed!"

Shirley MacLaine is another celeb with whom O'Brien has traveled all over the world. He has been mentioned in her books and says that although she seeks out the spiritual aspects of every place she visits, you don't have to be a "true believer" to be in her band. "Oh, no. She's very low key about all that. We were in Rio de Janeiro, and she went into the jungle and saw some people being operated on with only [bare] hands. She's very interested in all that, but she does it by herself; she doesn't bother anybody. She comes back and tells us all about it, and you either believe it or you don't."

O'Brien is still an active Disney alumnus and says there are a group of about eight ex-Mouseketeers who are still pretty active. "I do lots of things for them, like the Disneyana convention each year. Thousands of people come, and they buy everything in sight!" When he was on The Mickey Mouse Club, he says, the actors had no idea the show would have such an impact on an entire generation of Americans. "[Some fans] have named their kids for their favorite Mouseketeer," he reports. "Some tell me, 'You started me playing drums,' or they'll say, 'What's Annette really like?' 'Oh, I loved you! You were my favorite!'"

Disney has tried to update The Mickey Mouse Club a couple of times since the 1950s, but O'Brien wasn't too impressed. "It was slick, it was in color, and they used kids from New York [rather than California]. It's hard to do those things over, because it was a different era, a different time."

O'Brien didn't envision that the Disney he knew would become the omnipresent megacorporation it is today. "It's so different now...When I worked at Disney studios, Walt himself was there, and he was the boss. He walked around and smoked his cigars, and it was a real studio like the old days, when the studios were run by the people who owned them, not lawyers and bean counters." O'Brien hasn't a clue as to what "Uncle Walt" would think of Michael Eisner's Disney. "I don't know how he would have reacted," O'Brien says. "I'm sure he wouldn't have let it get that far away from him. I don't think he ever would have given up the control."

O'Brien likes living in Dallas and doesn't miss L.A. or the show biz scene. "Maybe it used to be exciting," he says. "But it's different now. I still work a lot and have friends and family there, but I can be at D/FW Airport in 20 minutes from [Carrollton]. If I need to, I go, but I'm happy here; I like it here." When home, he prefers to spend his time with his wife fixing up their house.

O'Brien doesn't regret not having a solo career as a musician or in front of the cameras; what he enjoys most is playing show music and the excitement of working with a star. There are some stars, however, that he would just as soon never work with again. "Some of them aren't too stable," he says. "It's hard enough working with the ones who are stable." Singer Connie Francis, for one, is "unpredictable and has a lot of mental problems. She could have been a big star again; a friend of mine started managing her and put this package together, but she has a way of self-destructing, of not letting people have any control, [even though] she's not really capable of doing it herself.

"I think you have to be a little bit paranoid in this business; most of the people I work with are. Even Shirley--as slick and professional as she is, and who has done everything--she's a nervous wreck before a live show! Barbra Streisand wouldn't sing live for years. It's amazing to me what Shirley goes through to get herself out on stage."

O'Brien is quick to praise Bernadette Peters, whom he calls "one of the most undifficult people to work with, probably the sweetest person I know of on the face of the earth and very talented." He has worked with Peters on and off since 1968, when she was a guest on The Carol Burnett Show.

At 50, O'Brien is still going strong, and he doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the future. "I don't look that far ahead," he says. "I really don't. I like to just keep things interesting, trying to learn. I could say, 'I don't want to play drums anymore when I'm 65,' but what if I'm 65 and I really do want to play drums?

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