Former Mouseketeer settles in Amboy

Child star, Carpenters drummer Cubby O’Brien shares memories

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

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AUG. 3, 2009 — At his custom-built Amboy home, a brown, contemporary design on an acre of land with views of Mount St. Helens, Cubby O’Brien is enjoying semi-retirement after a drumming career that began with “The Mickey Mouse Club” and has continued over the past five decades with stints on Broadway, tours with top performing acts and television work.

But it’s his time as a Mouseketeer, working alongside performers such as Bobby Burgess, Annette Funicello and Jimmie Dodd, for which O’Brien most often gets recognized.

“It’s usually ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ fans who tell me what the show meant to them growing up,” said O’Brien, 63.

While some former child stars tire of being associated with the programs that launched their careers, O’Brien embraces his ties to the popular 1950s Disney variety show.

“It really started me. It really set the tone for the rest of my career,” he said.

On Thursday O’Brien will give back to fans, appearing at the Clark County Historical Museum in downtown Vancouver to talk about his career as part of the “Boomer!” exhibit.

“We thought it would be fun to bring in Cubby since he was such a big part of that generation’s culture,” said Lisa Christopher, the museum’s visitor services coordinator.

O’Brien will supplement his discussion with video footage from his years on “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

Where it all began

Growing up in Burbank, Calif., as the son of drummer Haskell “Hack” O’Brien, show business and music were in O’Brien’s blood. And a childhood nickname became a stage name that stuck.

“I was three days old, I was this short, roly-poly little thing. My mom thought I looked like a bear cub,” said O’Brien, whose given name is Carl.

By the time he was 5, O’Brien was benefitting from daily drum lessons from his father. He was 8 years old, playing in a Dixieland band at a Screen Actors Guild benefit, when Disney producers spotted him and invited him to audition for “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

Drumming O’Brien could do, but he’d never sung before his audition.

“They had me sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” O’Brien said.

After being chosen for the show, he had to branch out further with tap dance lessons.

“But I picked it up really quick because of my drumming and rhythm,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien spent three seasons on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” getting to know the other Mouseketeers and enjoying occasional visits from Walt Disney.

“We all called him Uncle Walt,” O’Brien said.

After “The Mickey Mouse Club,” O’Brien went straight to “The Lawrence Welk Show,” where he played in the band.

“(Lawrence) was great. We got along really well,” O’Brien said.

After two years making “Champagne Music” with Welk, O’Brien took a break from television and went on the road playing for Spike Jones before getting hired on for Ann-Margret’s nightclub act at Lake Tahoe, Nev. Ann-Margret was an important connection for O’Brien, and helped him establish contact with some of the major television networks. This lead to work on “The Jim Nabors Show” and ultimately “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he spent six years.

“It was just fantastic. How can you not like Carol Burnett?” O’Brien said.

It was on “The Carol Burnett Show” that O’Brien met three people who would play key roles in his future: Karen and Richard Carpenter and Bernadette Peters.

‘Top of the world’

Karen Carpenter was an accomplished drummer, but band management wanted her out front singing where the audience could see her, so O’Brien was invited to go on tour with them.

“There was no (sheet) music,” he recalled. “I had to learn everything by listening.”

O’Brien toured with The Carpenters from 1972 to 1979. He even went with them to Japan, where the brother-sister musicians were so popular that they played a packed sports arena.

Throughout those years, Karen Carpenters’ struggle with her weight was evident, O’Brien said, adding that people back then didn’t have a good understanding of anorexia. Karen Carpenter died in 1983 of cardiac arrest related to her long battle with anorexia nervosa.

“Karen was a very sweet girl,” O’Brien said.

After touring with The Carpenters, O’Brien spent much of the ’80s touring with various nightclub acts, including Peters, Joel Gray, Debbie Reynolds and Andy Williams. He also played the drums on five Academy Awards shows and for various television specials and variety shows.

The first half of the 1990s, he spent touring the globe with Shirley MacLaine before turning his attention to musical theater.

The Great White Way

For the mid- to late-1990s, O’Brien toured with the casts of “West Side Story” and “Beauty and the Beast.” But over the years, he’d maintained his friendship and working relationship with Peters, so when she signed on to do “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway in 1998, O’Brien followed her to New York.

Next came “The Producers” with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. “They are both very funny guys,” O’Brien said of the pair, who starred in the Mel Brooks show.

Show tunes were a departure from the music O’Brien built his career around, but it was an easy transition.

“It doesn’t matter the (style of) music. What matters are the people,” he said.

And one of the people he most enjoys working with — “a lifelong friend” — is Peters. So when she took on the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, O’Brien left “The Producers” for “Gypsy.”

Until this point, he’d led a nomadic life. He’d lived in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas, Texas, spent time in Las Vegas and traveled the world. So after touring with “Chicago,” O’Brien celebrated turning 60 by settling in the Northwest.

Where he wants to be

It was love that brought the twice-divorced O’Brien to Amboy. In 2000, while flying from New York to Portland to do a Salem, Ore., show with Peters, O’Brien met Holly, a flight attendant who caught his eye.

“I was running back and forth from the galley to talk to her,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien was working on “Annie Get Your Gun” at the time and invited Holly to see the show the next time she was in New York. She took him up on his offer and “we haven’t been apart since,” O’Brien said.

Holly is from the Northwest. She moved to New York to be with him, but made him promise they’d come back to the West Coast one day. A few years ago, the O’Briens decided it was time, and bought a plot of land in Amboy to build their home.

“It’s exactly what I want it to be. We love it here,” O’Brien said.

Though he’s played in Japan, Australia, South America, South Africa and across the United States, O’Brien hasn’t done any shows in Southwest Washington. In fact, he doesn’t even have a drum set at the Amboy home he shares with Holly and their two cats, Mandy and Mr. Zipser.

He isn’t ready to retire the drumsticks just yet though, so Amboy’s proximity to the Portland airport is key.

Not only does Alicia, O’Brien’s daughter from his first marriage, live in Los Angeles, but he also travels two or three times a month to play with Peters, recently joining her for shows in Aspen, Colo., and Adelaide, Australia.

Peters still introduces him as one of the original Mouseketeers, and in contrast with many of today’s child stars, including “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” performers such as Britney Spears, O’Brien had a relatively smooth introduction to show business.

“(Child actors) are so slick now,” he says. “We were like the kids next door.”

And without so many of the pressures facing young stars today, he also was able to avoid many of the pitfalls of celebrity.

“We were the Mouseketeers that didn’t have to go to rehab,” he says with a laugh.

Much of his success and the course his life has taken, O’Brien says, has to do with the people with whom he surrounded himself.

“If you work with good people and nice people, you end up having good experiences, and I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.

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