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6 The Commercialization and Co-optation of Children’s Play, 1950 to the Present FEW IF ANY people knew it at the time, but October 3, 1955, was a landmark day in both the history of American television and the history of American childhood. That Monday marked the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club, an hour-long children’s variety program that aired on ABC in the late afternoon, five days a week. The year 1955 already had been memorable for television because it included the initial broadcasts of such celebrated programs as The Lawrence Welk Show, The 64,000 Dollar Question, and Gunsmoke. Perhaps more pertinently for the history of childhood, just seven months before The Mickey Mouse Club first aired, one-half of all Americans had watched the TV adaptation of the Broadway hit musical, Peter Pan, the story of “the boy who never grew up.” And in July of that year, Disneyland, a “magical” amusement park for children (and their parents) opened in Anaheim, California. The Mickey Mouse Club was the first major network show aimed directly at preadolescent children, and its success was impressive— ten million viewers a day. Unlike previously popular programs such as The Howdy Doody Show, which catered to a younger audience, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which amused older viewers as well as children, The Mickey Mouse Club featured young performers and tried to connect with the twelve-and-younger age group. Loading productions with moralism, patriotism, and advice, the producers endeavored to carry out Walt Disney’s goal of fashioning “a better world of tomorrow” and to create “the leaders of the twenty-first century.”1 Each presentation used a cast of “everyday” kids—“Mouseketeers”—outfitted in clean-cut, black and white clothing and mouse-eared hats, who sang, acted, and danced in various show segments. In addition, each day of the week featured a different theme: Fun and Music; Guest Star; Anything Can Happen; Circus; and Talent Roundup. Reluctant to present 154 youngsters as acting fully on their own, Disney producers cast a sole adult, the cheery, musical Jimmie Dodd, to guide the Mouseketeers throughout the show. Another unique feature of The Mickey Mouse Club was its commercial appeal directly to children. Significantly, one of the program’s original and continuous sponsors was the Mattel Toy Company, formerly a manufacturer of plastic ukuleles and jack-in-the-boxes. Before The Mickey Mouse Club, very few toy makers had advertised their products on television. Popular “toy king,” Louis Marx and Company, with sales in excess of $50 million, spent just 312 dollars on publicity in 1955.2 In 1952, Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro), a maker of pencil boxes and other school supplies, began advertising its new toy product, Mr. Potato Head, on TV. But most toy manufacturers avoided mass marketing except at Christmas time. Mattel recast the mold. Daily commercials on The Mickey Mouse Club for the Mattel Burp Gun yielded sales that exceeded all expecta1950 to the Present 155 the mickey mouse club. The first network children’s television show using child performers, The Mickey Mouse Club starred only one adult, Jimmie Dodd. Library of Congress tions. More importantly, because the Burp Gun was not likely to appeal to parents as a “useful” toy—it fired Ping-Pong balls and was not intended to promote learning—and because kids could not afford to buy the product themselves, the company had somehow to sway children into convincing their parents to purchase the gun, as well as other Mattel toys, for them. Company marketers accomplished this goal by producing televised ads, replete with the slogan, “You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s swell.”3 Soon, Mattel and other toy marketers were applying sophisticated survey techniques in order to discover children’s desires and preferences and then to integrate those factors into TV commercials. Their aim was to boost children’s consumer influence. As one marketing analyst later asserted, “The trend is for children to get more decision making authority and exercise that authority at a younger and younger age.”4 Four years after it began advertising its Burp Gun on The Mickey Mouse Club, Mattel introduced a product that was to become arguably the most enduring icon of American girlhood: the Barbie doll. Created by Ruth Handler, who with her husband Elliot had founded Mattel in 1945, the first Barbie was a three-dimensional representation of the lifelike adult paper dolls that Handler’s daughter Barbara, who inspired Barbie’s...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814790052
Related ISBN
9780814716649
MARC Record
OCLC
181104517
Pages
288
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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