When Disney Came to Verona for an "Adventure in Dairyland!"
Above image: A 1956 Promotional booklet for "Adventure In Dairyland", filmed in Verona, Wisconsin.
Traveling Back to 1956...
To fully appreciate what this experience was like for our small town, let's travel back to 1956 and take a look at what that year was like for Verona, television in America, and Disney.
Verona in the 1950s
Verona was still a mostly rural town with a small village in the middle. The 1950 census had counted 748 people living in "Verona, Dane County". Advertisers in the 1955 Verona High School yearbook reveal many of the businesses below that you may have patronized if you lived here at the time. Of this list below, only "Miller and Son" still exists today, although its has been pluralized to "Sons". Roughly 2/3 of the buildings housing these institutions are gone today:
Television in 1950s America
Perhaps the most difficult part of this story to really appreciate for folks not around at the time was the rapid expansion of television media into American households in the 1950s. At the start of that decade, only 9% of American homes had a television. If you had ten friends, maybe one of them had a TV. As a kid, you likely hung out by the storefront or showroom of a local shop that had a TV turned on, marveling at the grainy images displayed. In Verona, that would have been at Blizard's Hardware (Avanti's today) or if you were older perhaps the Eagle's Nest bar - by several accounts the first two places in town to have a television. By the end of the decade in 1960, the percentage of American households with a television had swelled to 89%! At this point, nine of your ten friends likely now had a TV at home. This remarkable transformation calls to mind the rapid expansion of the internet in the late 1990s or smartphones in the 2010s, but greatly preceded them both.
The Mickey Mouse Club
With this sudden influx of television into our living rooms and daily lives came a vast opportunity and challenge to figure out what content might fill this new space. For this, Disney was well suited given their track record of box office success. Starting with "Snow White" in 1937, Disney had released a string of motion pictures still familiar today including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
"Adventure in Dairyland"
The "serial" portions of the Mickey Mouse Club were movie-like stories similar to a miniseries that were filmed outside of the regular studio and shown during the show in segments over many weeks. In the theme of "What I Want to Be", Disney entered a partnership with the American Dairy Association (ADA) to create a dairy themed serial depicting the work and rewards of the dairy lifestyle. Annette points out in her autobiography that although there were many nearby dairy farms in California, Disney decided to search for a farm in the actual Midwest.
Mentions of this started to appear in Wisconsin in Spring of 1956. An article in the May 8, 1956 edition of the Monroe Evening Times reported that a Walt Disney film on dairy farming will "be produced under the auspices of the American Dairy Association" starting local groups and being filmed "at a farm near Mt. Vernon owned by a Madison physician."
The Monroe Evening Times followed up three weeks later with additional details including the exact location chosen and names of actors selected both from Disney Studios and the local New Glarus area. The Dr. Ira Sisk farm on Sugar River Road in Verona would be that location. Disney stars Annette Funicello (13) and Sammy Ogg (16) would star along with local Swiss musical group "The Edelweiss Stars". Local yodeler Ernest Zenter was to be featured as a farmer in the series.
(Above image: Monroe Evening Times, 5/8/1956)
(Above image: Monroe Evening Times, 5/9/1956)
NOTE 7/3/23: This article is still IN PROGRESS. Please check back in a few weeks for more content :-)
Note: Special thanks to Mary Schaller of Verona for finding many of the news articles used in this story.
1. Population of Verona in 1950 census: https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/population-volume-1/vol-01-52.pdf
2. Percentage of TVs in American households: https://americancentury.omeka.wlu.edu/items/show/111
3. "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story" (Annette Funicello's autobiography), 1994
4. Disney films of the 1950s: https://disneyanimation.com/films/