Darlene Gillespie was born in 1941 in Canada to an Irish father and a French Canadian mother, who were a former vaudeville dance team. She moved with her parents and siblings to Los Angeles, California when she was two years old, and became a naturalized US citizen at the age of fifteen. She began singing in the church choir when she was ten years old, and once, when she was singing a solo, her mother noticed many people in the congregation had tears in their eyes. This prompted her mother to sign her up for singing lessons, to improve her voice. Darlene and her sisters took voice lessons with Glen Raikes for seven years from that point.
Darlene had taken dance lessons as a small child, but quit them when she was still quite young. Her mother re-enrolled her in dance when she was eleven years old, at the Burch Mann studio in Alhambra, California. When Burch was asked by the producers of The Mickey Mouse Club, which was in pre-production on its first season, to find some kids to be on the show, Darlene was one of the students of his that he sent to the auditions. Darlene was hired to be on the show at her first audition.
During the first season of The Mickey Mouse Club, Darlene was the most popular and most featured kid on the show. She appealed more to grown-ups than kids, but grown-ups were about a third of the audience of the show. She was fourteen when she started on the show, but her braids and freckles made her look younger than that. Even after her popularity on the show waned, mostly due to the appeal of Annette Funicello, she still kept her position as the lead performer on the Red Team for all of the seasons of the show.
Between the first and second season, Darlene was selected to be in a Disney movie called Westward Ho, the Wagons! She spent many weeks on location at Big Bear Lake, learning how to ride a horse for the role. She also spent two months performing at the Disneyland Circus while doing pre-production for the movie, in addition to making personal appearances and making song recordings for the Disney Company.
This was a lot of hard work for anyone, let alone a child, and her health suffered during that time. In fact, she became bedridden with pneumonia for six weeks. This caused her to lose the role in the movie to Doreen Tracey, who already knew how to ride horses. This was the first setback in her young career, and Darlene never smiled on camera on The Mickey Mouse Club quite as much after this.
When the second season of the show started, her two biggest supporters on the show, Burch Mann (the first season’s choreographer) and Dik Darley (a director) were no longer with the show, and thus most of the prime serial roles on the show were given to Annette, whereas Darlene had those roles during the first season. Darlene still led most of the in-studio production numbers, though. Still, she knew Annette had taken her place as the public’s (and studio’s) favorite Mouseketeer.
Even so, Darlene was still the second most popular Mouseketeer after Annette in terms of how much fan mail she received. In fact, she and Annette were often paired together for personal appearances, and eventually became the two most recognizable Mouseketeers, and received the most media attention of any of the other kids. During the second season of the show, Darlene also shared a Talent Round-Up Day with her three sisters, and was also given her own special show called An Evening with Darlene.
During the third season of the show, Darlene recorded an album for Disney called Darlene of the Teens, and was told she would appear in two serials for the show, starring in one and co-starring with Annette in the other. A movie called The Rainbow Road to Oz was announced, and Darlene was given the role of Dorothy, but the movie was canceled before any production on it was done.
The serial in which she was to co-star with Annette was to be called Annette and Darlene, but the title was later changed to just Annette, and Darlene’s part was re-cast with Judy Nugent. While this serial was filming, Darlene was sent to Chicago on her own to promote the second annual of the Mickey Mouse Club magazine. Darlene’s dumping from the special made her fans angry, and there was some hate mail sent to the Disney Company protesting her exclusion from it. A newspaper columnist who was friendly with the studio told executives there that those letters were part of an organized campaign to promote Darlene, and some executives believed the letter writing campaign had been instigated by Darlene herself. Darlene was still under contract with Disney, and was kept busy by the studio by recording music for them until her contract expired in May of 1958.
After Disney, Darlene signed a recording contract with Decca, and released two 45 singles on its Cora label, but these songs did not gain popular attention. She went back to school and graduated from the Catholic girls high school called Providence in Burbank, California in 1959. The next several years after that, she was a soloist with the First California Ballet Company. She did not do any personal appearances for Disney like her other Mickey Mouse Club castmates, and did not appear to have any contact with them, whereas most of the other castmates became friends in real life.
Darlene occasionally stepped in for her mother as the legal guardian for her younger sister Gina on the set of Gina’s TV show, Law of the Plainsman. She also put together a musical comedy act for a nightclub that she worked with both of her younger sisters.
While making minor TV guest appearances and recording TV commercial jingles, Darlene attended Valley Junior College, and eventually became a nurse like her older sister. She worked in that profession for more than two decades. She married Phillip Gammon, a gasoline retailer from Illinois, in 1968. He tried to re-start her performing career by putting together a record label just for her, called Alva. She released a few poorly received titles under this label, using the name Darlene Valentine.
She appeared with most of the other Mouseketeers in a 1980 TV special for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the show. A few years after that, she did some live singing and dancing performances at Disneyland.
She and her husband divorced in 1983 after having two children together. Darlene remarried to Donald MacDavid later that same year. The couple separated after only a year of marriage, and divorced in 1986.
Though she did not keep in touch with her Mouseketeer castmates, Darlene did come to the aid of former castmate Karen Pendleton after Karen was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident in 1983. Because of her experience as a nurse, Darlene was able to offer Karen practical advice and assistance in adjusting to her new circumstances in life. The two women formed a close friendship with each other, and Karen once told an author that she was deeply grateful for Darlene’s friendship, assistance, and comfort that she offered her after the accident.
In the late 1980s, Darlene began a legal fight against Disney and the Screen Actors Guild for money she believed was owed to her. This money included royalties and residual payments for record sales and reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club. Winning this legal fight became especially important to Darlene after she sustained a back injury in a fall that ended her medical career. This legal activity also strained her relationship with her fellow former Mouseketeers, even Karen.
While the legal challenges were going on, Darlene began dating a man named Jerry Fraschilla, who talked Darlene into committing some petty crimes, such as shoplifting and check-kiting. They were apprehended in 1996, and Jerry was sentenced to eighteen months in jail in 1998. Darlene and Jerry married that year so they could have visitation rights while Jerry was in jail. Darlene herself was convicted for her part in these same crimes in 1998, and sentenced to two years in jail, but only served three months before being released. In 2005, the couple was indicted together on federal charges for fraud in the settlement of a class action lawsuit. The charges were dropped in 2008 after Jerry passed away, leaving Darlene a widow.
After being widowed, Darlene’s legal challenges to the Disney Company were settled with an out of court monetary settlement in her favor for an unspecified amount. Today, she is retired and living in Ventura County, California. She does not do Disney or Mickey Mouse Club appearances anymore, but loves to hear from her fans from those days. She is active socially with her family and friends, and is particularly fond of spending time with her twin grandchildren.