Karen Pendleton, who charmed young baby boomers in the 1950s as one of the original Mouseketeers on Walt Disney’s television series “The Mickey Mouse Club,” died on Sunday in Fresno, Calif. She was 73.
Her daughter, Staci Bletscher, said the cause was a heart attack.
Ms. Pendleton was 9 when “The Mickey Mouse Club” made its debut in October 1955, shortly after Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif. A tiny girl with long, curly blond hair, she could dance adeptly thanks to lessons she had been taking since she was 3.
“I got the giggles” at the audition, she told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I think that may be something to do with why they chose me. They were really trying to find kids who were really down to earth — not real, real professional.”
She joined Annette Funicello, Sharon Baird, Cubby O’Brien, Darlene Gillespie, and the other Mouseketeers — all of whom went by just one name, and all of whom wore mouse ears — in a show that featured singing and dancing, educational segments (one starred Jiminy Cricket), and episodic serials. Funicello, the Mouseketeer who went on to have the most prominent entertainment career, died in 2013.
Ms. Pendleton “told me she was like the little mascot to the older Mouseketeers,” Lorraine Santoli, author of “The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book” (1995), said by phone.
Each show began with a theme song in which the youngsters introduced one another, and ended with a song in which they said goodbye. In the opening roll call, they turned to the camera and crisply gave their first names.
In the closing number, Karen and Cubby, who were among the youngest ones and routinely paired off in duets, sang, “Now it’s time to say goodbye to all our company.” The troupe continued, “M-I-C,” followed by an adult Mouseketeer, Jimmie Dodd, saying, “See you real soon!”
After the group added, “K-E-Y,” Dodd said: “Why? Because we like you!” Finally, all the Mouseketeers sang, “M-O-U-S-E.”
Ms. Pendleton was one of nine original Mouseketeers (there were 39 Mouseketeers altogether) who stayed with the show until its run ended in 1959.
But when the series ended, so did her days as an entertainer, though she regularly appeared at events with her fellow Mouseketeers.
“It was the highlight of her life,” Bletscher said by phone about her mother’s time as a Mouseketeer. “They were a very close-knit group, very much a family.”
Karen Anita Pendleton was born on Aug 1, 1946, in Glendale, Calif., and grew up in North Hollywood. Her father, Herbert, built movie sets, and her mother, Mildred (Huber) Pendleton, was a saleswoman at J.C. Penney. Karen was recruited by producers of “The Mickey Mouse Club” seeking child performers at dancing schools in the Los Angeles area.
When the series ended, Disney wanted to keep her and Cubby under contract as a team, but Herbert Pendleton said no. Back at junior high school — she had taken classes at the studio while shooting the series — she was teased by classmates for having been on the show.
“The kids were tough on me,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “They’d say to me, ‘Wiggle your ears and we’ll give you some cheese.’ But it was worth it.”
After finishing high school and attending college for a while, she worked for the Prudential Life Insurance Co. of America as a clerk, married Michael DeLauer and had a daughter. She and DeLauer later divorced.
In 1983, Ms. Pendleton was a passenger in a car crash that injured her spinal cord and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Eight years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fresno; she went on to earn a master’s in psychology there.
After the accident, she became an advocate for disability rights — she served on the board of the California Association of the Physically Handicapped — and worked as a counselor at a shelter for abused women.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Pendleton, who lived in Fresno, is survived by two grandchildren.
Ms. Pendleton was often reminded that fans of the Mouseketeers felt great affection for the show. In 1986, when she was a judge for a beauty pageant for women in wheelchairs, she met a woman with polio who said she had been abused by her parents.
“She said, ‘Being able to see you on “The Mickey Mouse Club” was the only happy part of my childhood,’ ” Ms. Pendleton recalled in 1995. “My eyes just filled up with tears.”