How ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ and ‘Kids Incorporated’ created child stars
Warner Bros.’ live action Barbie The movie won’t hit theaters until next summer, but fans have been losing their minds since the studio released the first footage of Ken. There are Ryan Gosling, Oscar-nominated star Half Nelson and The Earth, in a Canadian tuxedo – lightly faded denim paired with a frayed denim waistcoat, opened to reveal a waxed, spray-tanned torso – leaning casually against a bright pink colonial column. His hair was Clorox blonde and windswept, his facial expression (slight squint, half-smile, pure camp) told us all we needed to know: Gosling’s Ken is all in on it.
On The Tonight’s show, jimmy fallon said Gosling looked like “Draco Malfoy if he went to Barry’s Bootcamp”, while Conan O’Brien tweeted, “I’ll put my slick mound against his any day.” The image marked a full circle moment for Gosling, who over the past 30 years has gone from child star to teen idol to box office kingpin to…Ken. From boy to boy to toy toy toy. The loop seems to be closed.
Gosling is among that very first vintage of kids who broke into the industry on Disney’s then fledgling channel, in one of two shows. There was The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (a.k.a CMM), a reboot of a popular 1950s variety show created by Walt Disney and originally aired on ABC. So what Incorporated Children, a more narrative preteen precursor to Kidz Bop and Joy (who yelled at Incorporated children on a first episode). The two programs, which ultimately ran back-to-back in an after-school time slot, may have seemed historically inconsequential in their day. But looking back, it’s clear they were instrumental in building what is now a professionalized pipeline for talented kids to become industry players. Martika market like this Zendaya could run.
These people are everywhere, in every category of the entertainment world. First there is Prestige Actors, represented by Gosling (MCM, 1993–1994) and Keri Russell (MCM, 1991-1993), best known for her roles in Congratulations and Americans. Then there are the Megastars, who have dominated pop music charts and newsstands for decades: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera (all three appeared on the 1993 and 1994 seasons of CMM alongside Gosling), as well as Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie (Incorporated Children, 1984-1989). There are songwriters J.C. Chasez (MCM, 1991–1994), member of Timberlake’s 1990s boy band ‘NSync, Ricky Luna (MCM, 1990–1994), and Rahsan Patterson (Incorporated Children, 1984-1987). There are the lifers, known for their longevity in the industry, like Jennifer Love Hewitt (Incorporated Children, 1989–1991), currently starring in Fox’s first responder drama, 9-1-1, Eric Balfour (Incorporated Children, 1990–1991), which appears in the Paramount+ series The offer, Mario Lopez (Incorporated Children, 1984-1986), who later played AC Slater on saved by the bell and host various television shows, and Nikki DeLoach, a Hallmark cinema regular (MCM, 1993). There are the producers, like Josh Ackerman (MCM, 1989-1994), which has a massive list of documentary and reality TV credits. Unfortunately, some promising careers ended in tragedy, like that of the late Brittany Murphy, who starred in a 1992 episode of Incorporated children in which she kindly sang the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” with a cast member named Nicole Brun, who can be said to represent the executives. Brown is now the president of Sony’s TriStar Pictures. And, of course, there are some big stars who are still around but have fallen into disuse, like Martika, a one-time hit wonder, an original Incorporated children cast member whose song “Toy Soldiers” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 and was later sampled by Eminem. After The All-New Mickey Mouse Club ceased broadcasting in 1996, Disney’s star-making machine continued, producing shows like Hannah Montana (Miley and Noah Cyrus), shake it (Zendaya, Bella Thorne) and camp rock (Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers).
“I would say I created that pipeline and Disney perfected it,” says Tom Lynch, one of the co-creators of Incorporated Children, which ran in syndication for a few seasons before being picked up by Disney Channel in 1986. Casting was difficult, as the vehicles to showcase young talent simply did not exist. Lynch, who produced music videos for artists like Hall & Oates, realized shortly after becoming a father that there was a void in the television market for outgrown children. sesame street and didn’t want to watch cartoons. “The idea was The little rascals meets MTV,” he says. For her first casting call, held at the Franklin and Highland Methodist Church, just northeast of the Sunset Strip, no one showed up. He had to reach out to industry contacts to find talented kids like 10-year-old Stacy Ferguson. Once the show became popular after a few seasons, “I had thousands of people show up. [for casting calls]and entertainment tonight would be there to cover it. As Lynch recalls, Jennifer Love Hewitt was initially rejected by the show and said she would quit and return to Texas if not cast. Children incorporated. “As she was packing her bags to leave, I said, ‘Find me the girl with the big hair! ‘” Lynch said.
Whereas Incorporated children was gaining momentum, Disney was going through a corporate overhaul following the appointment of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg as CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company, respectively. Considered a low-level asset at the time, Disney Channel was launched in 1983 to take advantage of the studio’s extensive library, showing movies, cartoons and shorts non-stop as a premium channel. But Disney’s new management saw the channel’s potential in targeting a new generation of kids with original content, which would generate wider distribution from cable companies as part of a basic cable package, while promoting simultaneously the company’s new theme park, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). “We were like, ‘We have to find the lineup,'” says Patrick Davidson, former senior vice president of Disney Channel, which bought the distribution rights to Incorporated children to fill this immediate need for original shows. (Lynch and its distributor, MGM, not Disney, owned the intellectual property for Incorporated Children, says Lynch.)