Created in 1929 by Harry Woodlin for the Fox Dome Theatre in Ocean Park, California, this original Mickey Mouse Club was a cartoon matinee club for gregarious, all-American youngsters. Clubs of this sort, based around a character with some drawing power like a Mickey Mouse or a Popeye the Sailor Man, were popular with both kids and theatre owners. The kids loved the opportunity to see their animated hero and win prizes, while the owners loved the radically increased patronage and profits they brought with them. Within a year, 150 theatres organized Mickey Mouse Clubs with some 200,000 members. By 1932, the number of members inflated to a million kids spread over 800 theatres.
The weekly club festivities would always get underway with its very own theme song, originally featured in the cartoon Mickey's Follies and comprising the very first original song written by the Disney studios: "Minnie's Yoo Hoo"...
Members would meet each other with a special club handshake and greeting. Then would follow the club's code of honour, turning this matinee club into the equivalent of a fraternal order. Among the club officers were an elected "Chief Mickey Mouse" and "Chief Minnie Mouse", presumably the most popular boys and girls respectively. Special merchandise was made available to club members as well, such as buttons and pre-orders of items such as The Mickey Mouse Book published by Bibo & Lang.
Of course, there were the latest and greatest Mickey Mouse cartoons. The little mouse hit the cinematic world with vengeance in 1928 with the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, and his star was still climbing during the heyday of the Mickey Mouse Club. It was only over time that cartoon shorts became ingrained as a children's genre, for at the time, many of them were downright bizarre and included much of what might be considered "adult content". Mickey himself was fond of animal abuse and making unwarranted advances on Minnie, smoking and drinking, and even leading prison riots before finally settling down into the wholesome, all-American character he is known as today.
Steve Renzi, of the Downtown Tusconian, recalls the Tuscon, Arizona, chapter of the Mickey Mouse Club:
Imagine a Tucson youngster walking into the first meeting of the Mickey Mouse Club at the Fox. It begins at noon on Saturday. Today, admission is free, and thereafter for many years the admission price was only ten cents. The Fox Theater just had its grand opening a little more than a month ago, so everything is new, clean, shiny and luxurious. Inside, the theater is big, air-cooled, and jam-packed with over 1,500 noisy kids. There is no assigned seating so everyone moves towards the front.
A Wurlitzer organ plays. Above your head hangs a six-foot chandelier, ablaze with multi-colored lights, and mounted onto the domed ceiling painted in fabulous art deco designs and colors. Behind and also above is a large balcony. In front, a wooden stage ensconced by two curtains, one a thick red velvet plush, the other, a shimmering white with black polka dots.
A typical itinerary of the Mickey Mouse Club was an afternoon of cartoons, movie serials, contests and games. Boys and girls attended. All the Mice had to learn the secret handshake, special member greeting, code of behavior and special club songs.
Over the years, there were roping, yo-yo, and costume contests, rodeo events, parades, and patriotic and citizenship activities. Many of the former members still remember the cartoon and movie serials like “Last of the Mohicans” and “Flash Gordon”, some of them divided into as many as fifteen episodes - cliffhangers till the end. Celebrities like Kate Smith, Will Rogers and Art Linkletter appeared on the Fox Theater stage. Also appearing was “The Flying Nelsons,” an acrobatic troupe and Pinky Gist, a rodeo clown with his two trained burros, Freckles and Peanuts. Also, not to be forgotten was Queen and Semi, two dogs who it was said could understand up to 700 spoken words.