Reelin' in the Ears

updated 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CARL "CUBBY" O'BRIEN NO longer wears a shirt with his nickname on it, but that doesn't stop people from recognizing him. "I'll get into an elevator and somebody will look at me and say, 'Are you Cubby O'Brien?' " he says. "I'll say, 'How did you know?' And they'll say, 'Oh, your eyes look exactly the same.' "

It may seem hard to believe that a bearded 51-year-old drummer could be instantly pegged as the 9-year-old TV Mouseketeer he was in 1955. But O'Brien not only revels in his early identity, he practically exudes it. Now living in suburban Dallas with his second wife, Terri, O'Brien spends much of his life on the road as a backup musician, keeping the beat for traveling musicals and performers like Bernadette Peters. But he still wears a Mickey Mouse watch. He still goes by his nickname—a gift from his mom, who thought the newborn looked like a little bear. And it doesn't exactly take a handgun to get him under a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. "A couple of the other Mouseketeers aren't too cool about wearing the ears anymore," says O'Brien. "But it's never bothered me." O'Brien believes his four years as a Mouseketeer gave him an edge in showbiz. He's toured, on and off, for 25 years with Peters, who says "the response is amazing when I introduce him. It's like he has his own fan club."

Through it all, he stayed in touch with many of his fellow Mouseketeers. "We were all really like brothers and sisters," O'Brien says. Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton, with whom Cubby was often paired in skits and songs, remembers once mischievously sticking her chewing gum in O'Brien's hair during a screening of Fantasia. "They had to cut it out and he had a big bald spot," says Pendleton, 51, who now counsels battered women in Fresno, Calif., and has been a paraplegic since a 1983 car accident.

O'Brien's wife, Terri, 46, says Cubby is "still just as squeaky clean as he was when he was 8 years old." The youngest of three sons born to Haskell "Hack" O'Brien, 83, a dance-band drummer, and his homemaker wife, Agnes, 82, O'Brien was reared in a San Fernando Valley home filled with instruments. (Brother Haskell Jr., 61, is a retired computer scientist at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Warren, 60, is a retired construction supervisor for the city of Los Angeles.) By age 8, O'Brien was in a kiddie Dixieland band that played a benefit attended by several Disney producers. Duly impressed by the pint-size drummer, they offered a tryout for The Mickey Mouse Club. When the show ended in 1959, O'Brien didn't miss a beat.

After two years on The Lawrence Welk Show, he began playing backup for the likes of Ann-Margret, Carol Burnett and the Carpenters. At age 19, he married his first wife, Marilyn. The six-year union produced a daughter, Alicia, 27, now a TV production assistant in L.A. Cubby met Terri, then a Delta flight attendant, in 1974, poolside at a hotel in Las Vegas. He says it took "about four hours of my best material" to convince her to go out with him. They were married in 1978; six years ago the couple, who have no children, moved from L.A. to Dallas, where Terri is assistant to the finance director of a nonprofit foundation.

Their three-bedroom, country-style house boasts memorabilia like an original pair of Mouseketeer ears. "I wish I had just stolen about 10 pair," says O'Brien. "I'd be rich now."

O'Brien recalls earning $700 a week when the show ended—enough for the down payment on his first house. The Screen Actors Guild recently filed a residuals and royalties arbitration claim on behalf of the Mouseketeers against Disney. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that claims for income from videos, CD-roms and other software could top $100 million.

The Guild won't say who initiated the claim, but it wasn't Cubby. With a lifetime pass granting free admission to Disney theme parks and a lifetime of good memories in tow, O'Brien is feeling flush. "If somebody thinks something needs to be fixed, that's fine," he says. "But it's not going to ever spoil the feeling I have for those times."

NICK CHARLES
JENNIFER MENDELSOHN in Wilmington and PAULA YOO and LORENZO RENET in Los Angeles

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