Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me — as it turns out, Stevan Clements, professor of communications at Augusta State University.
This former writer for “Welcome Back, Kotter” and creator of “Hour Magazine” with Gary Collins and “Body by Jake” was executive producer for the ’90s version of the iconic Disney variety show, “Mickey Mouse Club.”
“I had a staff of 150 people, a budget of $1 million a week and was facing at that time about 15 Mouseketeers and 1,000 parents. I was given this line: ‘You have four weeks to make this work. If you do, you’ll be a Disney hero. If you don’t, you’ll never work for Disney again,’” Clements chuckled.
That was a daunting way to begin a show he didn’t even want to do. Now, Clements will reveal all on Saturday, June 9, when E! Channel’s “True Hollywood Story” runs a documentary about the making of “The New Mickey Mouse Club,” aka, MMC.
After a disastrous pilot in 1988 that cost $5 million to produce, industry insiders called it Disney’s “Heaven’s Gate” after one of the most expensive and notorious disasters in the history of film. Others called the show Disney On Thin Ice. The result of the initial effort was a silly show aimed at young children, and the producer was fired. Clements read about the company’s resulting national search for a producer in TV Guide.
“I said: ‘That’s not me. I am staying a million miles away from that,’” Clements said. “And an hour later the phone rang.”
He folded like limp noodle. It was Disney. It was good money. They asked him to change everything that was wrong with the show and gave him creative control. Clements brought in top-notch choreographers and writers for sitcoms and late-night television, like “Late Night, with David Letterman.” His goal was to write an adult show for kids, and Disney gave him the control to make the changes the show needed — even over their most precious commodity: the mouse himself.
“Mickey was too young, and Disney allowed us to adjust the concept of the mouse and what they called ‘The Mouse’ and what the mouse looked like,” Clements said. They had an artist reshape the face to look older, and added a rugby shirt with a collar to help the already geriatric 61-year-old rodent look more hip. It was kind of like a face-lift without the look of permanent surprise.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but this helped to put an edge on the program. We had to say to the viewers that this is not going to be a babyish show. This is not going to be something you’ll be embarrassed to say you watch,” Clements explained. “Young kids want something a little older. Young kids will watch what teens watch. Teens will watch what young kids watch. So if you produce up, you get everyone.”
The show was a success. During the three years Clements helmed the good ship MMC, the then-premium-cable-only Disney Channel doubled in size from 3 million subscribers to 6 million, driven by the demand for MMC. On top of the money and control, the show was filmed in Orlando , at the Happiest Place on Earth. Or so it seemed. As it turns out, Clements never did work for Disney again. on Earth. Or so it seemed. As it turns out, Clements never did work for Disney again.
“That’s OK, believe me. It’s a privilege to have worked on this project,” he said. “It was the toughest company I ever worked for. It was a very stressful situation, because it was 24-7.”
Strict guidelines for child workers meant that the kids had to excel in school and be in and out at certain times. Editing was done at night after taping ended. The executives were meticulous perfectionists who came in to watch the results of each day’s work at 3 a.m., so that Clements would have their comments on his desk — sometimes 20 pages of notes from just one person — when he arrived the next morning.
“We’d shoot it with five cameras four times, but if anybody so much as blinked and we didn’t have a replacement shot, we’d have to re-shoot it another day. They would absolutely decimate it frame by frame,” he said.
At the same time, 250,000 tourists marched by the studio every day. So in 1991, when Clements’ daughter was born, he decided it would be his last season. His wife lived in Los Angeles . He lived in Orlando and commuted back and forth every other week. And he and his team were flat-busted tired.
“My team was about ready to leave. It was exciting. We were very proud of the show, but we decided we wanted to live,” he said.
Still, he launched careers with his successful formula: Keri Russell and J.C. Chasez, along with lesser-known but still successful entertainers such as musician Tony Lucca and actress Nikki DeLoach. Five members of the show broke off and formed the musical group The Party, and released four full-length albums. They had a radio hit of the Dokken cover “In My Dreams.” Tabloid fodder Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling came shortly after he exited the show. Little-known fact: Jessica Simpson and Matt Damon were both rejected by the show.
“But there’s so many of the people that I said this kid, this teen, is going to make it. So talented. They’re so good, but they haven’t broken through. Now they’re about 30, and they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Clements said.
There’s musician Tony Lucca, who dated Keri Russell for years. He holds the record for highest sales for a record only sold over the Internet. His 1997 album, “So Satisfied,” as well as his 1999 album, “Strong Words, Softly Spoken,” sold nearly 50,000 from his personal Web site alone. He also won the 2001 LA Music Award for Best Male Singer/Songwriter. He has shared the stage with John Mayer and Macy Gray.
“I would say the older we get and the further away from the whole Mouseketeer experience, the more we’re able to understand the strength of our connection,” Lucca said. “Obviously, some of us had a bit more in common with each other than the relationships portrayed on the show. Mostly it was age-related differences.”
Some of the cast was as old as 19 years old, and some were as young as 12 — co-workers working from the same script, but not always on the same page in life.
“Now, of course, age does seem rather irrelevant, as it always tends to become the older we get,” Lucca said.
There’s also actress Nikki DeLoach, who continues to work steadily in small roles. She was a special guest star on the NBC summer series “Windfall” in 2006, and has guest-starred on “CSI: NY.” She is also doing a film, “The Net 2.0,” which is a sequel, of sorts, to the 1995 Sandra Bullock movie. She is also a sociology student at UCLA.
“Some of them are working in small venues, one of them who is very talented, called Lindsay Alley, just did a one-woman show in New York called, ‘Look Ma, No Ears.’ She’s been a waitress; she just came back from performing on an all-gay cruise ship. She’s incredibly smart, incredibly talented, but she’s not a household name,” Clements lamented. “It’s a very tough industry.”
And luck and timing have a lot to do with it. Keri Russell got her break because the show was desperate to replace the members who had departed for The Party.
“The casting director had gone around the country and we were about three or four days from going back to Orlando to start the new season. I just put my hand on Denver, took out Denver . It was my first and only tape,” Clements said. “The first few were ridiculous. The fourth one was this beautiful girl. I went, ‘Wow,’ and she couldn’t sing but she could dance.”
Russell very rarely sang solo. She was hired for her acting and dancing abilities, which suited her just fine.
“Dance is definitely what I love doing much more than anything else.” she said. “Acting happened to me. If I had pursued it, I think it would have been like someone going to a bar, desperately looking for love and not finding anyone.”
But it shows how haphazard stardom is, Clements said. Russell, formerly of “Felicity” fame, has worked steadily on films (“The Upside of Anger”) and miniseries (“Into the West”), and is now starring in the film “Waitress.”
J.C. Chasez broke off from MMC to start n*Sync with newer cast member Justin Timberlake. There were “no strings attached” to their original agreement, but the group met global superstardom. Timberlake is serving up hash at a diner somewhere, of course, poor guy. Chasez, on the other hand, has released two solo albums and found success as a songwriter and as a producer for other musicians.
N*Sync may have fallen out of step — except for “Dancing with the Stars” runner-up Joey Fatone — but the appeal of the show seems to have found a place in history almost as strong as the original version that launched the career of Annette Funicello (but rejected Candice Bergen).
“I found as a professor at Augusta State, when I say I was executive producer at Mickey Mouse Club, sometimes people who are of that age, they’ll be in tears because that was such a time in their lives. They had a relationship with each of the kids, and they have their favorites,” Clements said.