BOOTLEG FILES 548: “The Mouse Factory” (1972-74 syndicated television series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces can be found online.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The Disney executives never allowed this to go into home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be fun if that happened.
Memory can be a bewildering experience – I easily forget to do things today unless I write down multiple notes and tape them all over my office, but I can clearly recall TV programs that I saw only once more than 40 years ago. And while I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing tomorrow, I can happily remember a favorite television show from my childhood: Disney’s “The Mouse Factory,” which ran from 1972 to 1974.
In the early 1970s, the Disney studio had an interesting problem: it possessed a huge backlog of animated short films, but it had no venue for exhibiting them. The theatrical shorts market had evaporated years earlier, and the home video and cable television outlets were still years away from becoming a reality. The studio had a popular NBC program called “The Wonderful World of Disney,” but that show was mostly devoted to Disney’s charmingly dopey live action films and Oscar-winning nature documentaries, with only an occasional pit stop for animated mayhem (usually featuring minor characters such as Humphrey the Bear or Professor Ludwig von Drake).
Ward Kimball, the legendary Disney animator, came up with a clever idea for repackaging the old animated shorts. Kimball proposed a weekly television series where each episode would be built around a vague theme – either a sport, an occupational or leisure pursuit, or a specific Disney character – and Disney cartoons related to that theme would be put together into each episode. To add to the family appeal, a popular comic performer would serve as the zany host of each episode, usually wearing a funny costume and engaged in bits of mischievous action.
The program was dubbed “The Mouse Factory” – taken from the nickname of the Disney operations – and each program opened with the Disney characters (in their theme park costumed versions) checking into a factory entrance by punching a time clock. In a nice blue collar touch, some of these characters carried lunch buckets. At the end of the line would be the episode’s guest host, who would address the camera and lay out what was in store. A quickly compilation of the crazier scenes of the episode’s cartoons would run while a rabid instrumental rendition of “Whistle While You Work” filled the soundtrack. The introduction would end with an animated explosion, cueing the viewer for a commercial break before the show resumed. The end of the show was capped by a jaunty rendition of the tune “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” which ran over the closing credits.
“The Mouse Factory” appears to have been put together on the cheap, with conspicuously shabby sets used for the live-action segments. The star wattage for the guest hosts was somewhat at a medium level, with a flurry of actors that were mostly familiar through their work on game shows and sitcoms: Charles Nelson Reilly hosted the first episode, while the likes of Phyllis Diller, John Astin, Jim Backus, Wally Cox, Joe Flynn, Jonathan Winters, Nipsey Russell, Ken Berry and Don Knotts were among the celebrities on parade. Disney’s one-time queen Annette Funicello and four former “Laugh-In” ensemble players (JoAnne Worley, Henry Gibson, Dave Madden and Johnny Brown) also showed up. The only bona fide film star to host “The Mouse Factory” was a young Kurt Russell, who was then enjoying an early peak as the juvenile lead of Disney’s comedies in the early ‘70s. And in order to keep costs down, most of the hosts were asked to be at the center of two different episodes – which sort of raised an “Oh, it’s him again” response among jaded adult viewers.
But jaded viewers were relatively few and far between among the youngsters in the audience. For kids like me, “The Mouse Factory” provided a rare treat to experience Disney cartoons that I only heard about but never saw. Indeed, I believe the first time I saw “Steamboat Willie,” “The Reluctant Dragon,” “Mickey and the Beanstalk” and “Goliath II” came via “The Mouse Factory.”
Also, the stars that served as host genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, hamming up their appearances with a kid-friendly gusto. I can very clearly remember Jim Backus as a lumberjack (of all things) talking about the legend of Paul Bunyan – anyone expecting Mr. Magoo, Tyler Fitzgerald or Thurston Howell III would be hugely surprised at how Backus seized this opportunity. The only episode I can recall disliking was one hosted by Jonathan Winters, whose comedy seemed obscure to the eight-year-old version of me; if I saw it today, I would probably find it hilarious.
The problem is that no one can experience “The Mouse Factory” today as it was intended to be seen. Disney sold the show on a syndicated basis – why it went that route instead of pushing for a network slot is unclear – but the program was never properly promoted in the major U.S. television markets and the ratings were disappointing. After two unimpressive seasons, the show was cancelled, although Disney had some success selling the series to overseas markets.
When Disney finally launched its own cable channel, “The Mouse Factory” was dusted off for brief broadcasts during the 1980s and early 1990s. But since then, it has been out of sight. To date, there has never been any home entertainment release, and nothing is planned for the near future.
Normally, I would use this part of the column to point out the program’s easy availability for online viewing. In this case, however, very little of the two seasons of “The Mouse Factory” can be found online. The only episode that exists in its entirety features comic Bill Dana, with a focus on bullfighting. Dana was best known for creating the politically incorrect character of the bumbling Mexican Jose Jimenez, though in this episode he dons a handsomely tailored matador’s outfit and offers a mostly dignified presence – perhaps Disney was (finally) sensitive to offering comedy that could be seen as insulting to ethnic groups, hence Dana’s mature persona.
Other episodes that exist in bits and pieces include Wally Cox introducing his segment on dragons – the funnyman was dressed as a minstrel, complete with mandolin, and it is a shame that the rest of his performance cannot be seen. Two very badly recorded broadcast – they look like they were filmed off a TV with a Super 8 camera – involve young Kurt Russell talking about snow (and getting a bucket of stage snow dumped on his head) and scrawny Don Knotts hosting segments on physical fitness.
I find it strange that there is so little of “The Mouse Factory” in unauthorized YouTube postings, considering the show did play on the Disney Channel during the first part of the VHS era. Perhaps the notorious Disney attorneys served up cease-and-desist notices that forced YouTube to remove most clues that “The Mouse Factory” survives.
I have not seen “The Mouse Factory” since it left the air at the end of its original syndicated run in 1974, and I dearly wish that I could see the full show again. And while the show may seem corny to today’s CGI-obsessed kids, I am sure there are plenty of nostalgic old farts like me that would love to go back and punch in with yesteryear’s stars for another go-round at this delightful stop in the Disney experience.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!