As part of our On the Ground embedded neighborhood coverage, High Ground News profiles individuals with unique community knowledge. For more coverage from our focus neighborhood, visit On The Ground: The Heights. The following is based on interviews with Ric Morgan and his personal collections and recollections of an eclectic life well-lived.
Ric Morgan has done a remarkable number of remarkable things in his 74 years.
“I didn’t do just one thing. I did a bunch of stuff,” he said.
At his home in The Heights area of Memphis, stacks of albums packed with letters, awards and photos show a smiling Morgan posing with celebrities, Olympic athletes and beauty queens. In his childhood, he was an original "The Mickey Mouse Club"
Mouseketeer. As an adult he’s been an actor, carnival worker, stunt diver, pageant coach, Olympic Games staff, parade float designer and a caterer to the stars.
Sitting in his front yard in an oversized Mickey Mouse sweatshirt from the show’s 25th-anniversary reunion, he laughs at the absurdity of a career that at one point included touring in a carnival with a water-skiing squirrel.
Ric Morgan leaps from a 40-foot platform into a 12-foot pool while engulfed in flames during a show with Danny Cosmo, a champion stunt diver. Morgan emceed for Cosmo and often performed the fire jump in his shows. (Ric Morgan)
“People would not believe me if I told them all the things I have done,” he said.
About the only constant in Morgan’s life has been The Heights. His grandfather built his home on Tutwiler Street near Holmes Road in 1946 for Morgan’s mother. Morgan said The Heights of his youth was vibrant and close-knit, but he watched it decline beginning in the 1980s.
Today, he’s seeing familiar signs — dedicated residents, community activities and pride in the neighborhood — that he hopes he can contribute to and watch grow. He doesn’t drive anymore, but he still works, volunteers and shares his knowledge of the area when he can.
“I’m almost 75 years old, and I’m still going,” he said. “I’m just kind of forgotten, but I have a
huge Memphis history of all the things I’ve done.”
"He brings joy to the neighborhood," said Jared Myers, director of the Heights Community Development Corporation. "He's positive, he loves the community, and he has for a long time."
Memphis’ Other Mouseketeer
Morgan was born in March of 1944 and has fond memories of The Heights. As a child, he rode the National Street trolley to the Memphis Zoo and had his appendix removed at Dr. Elzey’s office at 3320 Summer Avenue where O’Reilly’s Auto Parts now stands.
“Clickity, clackity rough!,” Morgan said of the trolley ride. “You were sitting on wooden benches, you did a lot of bouncing. It was exciting to do that; that was an adventure!”
In 1955, his mother remarried and the family moved to the Los Angeles area, where he began performing with the Pasadena Children’s Theater. That same year, the theater got word that Walt Disney Studios was looking for children for a new television show —
"The Mickey Mouse Club."
A young Ric Morgan (L) plays on the Disney studio lot with Annette Funicello during a break from shooting "The Mickey Mouse Club" in 1955. Morgan said the cast worked, played, and attended school at the studio. (Ric Morgan)
“They were looking for talent for a TV show and they asked me to audition. I did and I got a callback,” said Morgan.
Morgan wasn’t part of the Red Team,
the core actors who appeared in almost every episode like breakout star Annette Funicello
, but he was an alternate who appeared in closing numbers and the Talent Roundup
skit from October 1955 to November 1957. He fondly recalls time spent on set and how he and his co-stars were generally treated as normal kids.
“It was an experience for somebody that was just twelve years old to be in that situation,” he said. “We had shoot time, and then we had school.”
Morgan did get a chance to meet Memphis’ more well-known Mouseketeer, Justin Timberlake, at a River Kings hockey game in the 1990s during Timberlake’s time on "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club"
but said the introduction was brief.
Today, Morgan spends his time making young Memphians honorary Mouseketeers. A few times a year he attends local events where he signs certificates appointing each child as ‘a Mouseketeer in good standing of the Mickey Mouse Club.’
"He really cares about the kids," added Myers.
Ric of All Trades
In late 1957 Morgan and his family moved back to The Heights. He attended Treadwell Middle and High schools alongside members of popular sixties bands The Boxtops and The Gentrys.
Related: "Musical Heights: A neighborhood's forgotten role in the history of one of pop's most famous studios"
“The YMCA and the Highland Heights Presbyterian Church on Saturday night would have a
dance for the teenagers,” he said. “At the YMCA we danced on the basketball court, and of course it was called a sock hop because you had to take your shoes off to dance on the court.”
After graduating high school in 1963, Morgan moved to Midtown to launch his long and fascinating career.
He acted in musical theater productions in the Mid-South and nationally including Mame
, Fiddler on the Roof
and Ballad of the Sad Cafe
with actor Polly Holliday
. From 1971 to 1989 he performed with Opera Memphis. He also spent 10 years doing lighting and costume design, coaching and choreography for the Miss Tennessee Universe competition. His scrapbooks are full of photos of him dressed as various characters and posing with smiling pageant champs.
Ric Morgan poses with a Miss Tennessee Universe winner he helped coach in the 1960s. (Ric Morgan)
Other photos show Morgan working the midway with a traveling carnival, flying through the air as a trapeze performer for Ringling Brothers Circus, and engulfed in flames as part of a show with champion stunt diver Danny Cosmo.
“I was his emcee, and I also did the fire dive,” said Morgan. “I would set myself on fire and jump off a 40-foot platform into 12 feet of water.”
In the 1970s, he began working for the Memphis Cotton Carnival building floats, sets and elaborate costumes. The Cotton Carnival exposed Morgan to event planning and catering and inspired his most successful career.
Ric’s Carousel Catering and Decorating launched in the 1980s and provided craft services and event decorating for countless shows at the Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis Pyramid, Orpheum Theatre and Ellis Auditorium
, as well as events in Florida, New York and more. Morgan has worked with Penny Marshall, Lucy Arnaz, the Beach Boys, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Lisa Marie Presley, Guns N Roses, and Garth Brooks. He said he loved working as Reba McEntire’s touring caterer for 10 years.
“I love her to death … she was absolutely a wonderful person,” said Morgan of McEntire. “A personable person. We got along great. I also got along really well with Patti LaBelle. She was a terrific woman.”
From 1983 until 2004, he was part of the craft services team for the summer and winter Olympic Games which took him to France, Spain, Japan, Australia and more.
Morgan’s has albums full of photos of tables spread with elaborate foods and decorations including ice sculptures he carved himself.
“When I do something, I don’t do it halfway,” he joked.
Return of The Heights
Despite his globetrotting, Morgan stayed connected to The Heights. He visited his mother regularly and moved back to the family home in 1983.
He’s catered the Kingsbury High prom in the neighborhood and now uses his culinary and decorating skills at Highland Heights United Methodist Church. For the past 15 years, he’s supported the area church’s weekly community meal. Each Monday, he helps distribute the on-site MIFA food pantry and serve a free meal to anyone in need. He fashions beautiful centerpieces for the roughly 75 guests, and once a month the menu is his to create.
Ric Morgan performs with fire at the Cotton Carnival in the 1980s in a costume he designed. (Ric Morgan)
“I never prepare the same thing twice,” he said. “They don’t know what it’ll be until they get here.”
He’s helped with community barbecues and summer camps and said he remembers when communal activities were commonplace.
“We used to have block parties. During the summer, we would have picnics out in the streets. Each neighborhood would bring a potluck,” he said. “The kids would get together and play and the adults would talk and listen to music … They do it once a year now, that [National] Night Out. Back in the day, we used to do that once a week.”
Morgan said the decline of the neighborhood was largely the result of residents moving away and major employers like Schering-Plough leaving the area.
“[Now] there are a lot of rental properties in the area that the landlords do not take care of,” he said. “The area itself … it was in very bad condition.”
But he said he more recently he’s seen that trend reversing, and it’s something he’s glad to add to the list of incredible things he’s experienced in his lifetime.
“Here I’d say in the last 10 years, people are taking more pride in their living conditions. They’re sprucing the houses up,” he said.
“I am seeing slowly but surely a turnaround. More and more things are happening. Different organizations around this area are having more functions where people are getting together again. That hasn’t happened in a long time.”