Friday, January 26, 2018

The Stowaway: A Story Disney Would Not Have Told

A few weeks ago, newspapers everywhere reported the passing of Doreen Tracey, best remembered as one of the fresh-face youngsters who sang and danced their hearts out on The Mickey Mouse Club. I remember Doreen well. Like all the girls my age (and maybe the boys too) I had my special favorites. I liked Darlene, Annette, and Bobby. That left my little sister with Karen, Cubby, and Doreen. Neither of us was too crazy about Sharon, despite her outstanding dance skills. But all of those squeaky-clean kids served as role-models for us mere mortals. How we longed to be in their tap shoes! (Who knew that years later spunky Darlene would be sentenced to prison, along with her third husband, for a check-kiting scheme?)

One daily feature of the Mickey Mouse Club, aside from those frolicking Mouseketeers, was a live-action serial in which young people did brave and exciting things, usually in the great outdoors. Like racing horses, fighting off rustlers, and solving crimes. Remember, for instance, “Corky and White Shadow”? And “The Adventures of Spin and Marty”? 

When I look back at the programming of that era, I realize one thing that never occurred to me in the 1950s. Not only was everyone on-screen white, but it was rare to see any performer or character who strayed into ethnic terrain of any sort. No Jews, of course, needed to apply. There was much comment, even back in the day, that Annette Funicello was the single most popular Mouseketeer, even though she (given her name and appearance) was overtly Italian-American. Everyone else, though, had WASP surnames like Burgess and Pendleton and Burke, or the occasional O’Brien and Gillespie. Original Mouseketeer Don Grady, whom I knew slightly in later years, was born Don Agrati, but his Italian last name disappeared when he started his showbiz career. 

I bring this up because my colleague, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has just published a rollicking true tale of derring-do. It’s called The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. And it’s all about a seventeen-year-old lad who in 1928 persistently stowed away on sea-going vessels, until he could finally fulfill his dream of joining Admiral Byrd on his historic trip to the bottom of the world. It’s a thrilling story, but not one that Disney would have pursued back in the Mickey Mouse Club days. An essential fact about this young stowaway, Billy Gawronski, was that he was Polish-American, the son of immigrants, and had a deep cultural connection to the land of his parents’ birth. When Shapiro stumbled upon his story, it appealed to her partially because she too (a product of New York’s Lower East Side) knew what it was like to come from immigrant stock: the pride, the parental expectations, the urge to prove oneself in the wider world.

One of the fascinating details I learned from Shapiro’s book was that at the outset of the voyage to Antarctica from Hoboken’s harbor, there were no fewer than three stowaways. The one who managed to remain undetected the longest was an African-American named Bob Lanier. Though for a time Lanier was accepted onboard as a crew member, racism reared its ugly head and he was eventually sent back home, long before reaching his dream destination. Despite several attempts, he never managed to walk on Antarctica. It took another 12 years, until 1940, for a young navy man named George Gibbs to be the first African American to visit Little America.  

That’s one more story that Walt Disney and The Mickey Mouse Club of my youth would never have chosen to tell.

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