Wednesday, February 28, 2007
But to Disney enthusiasts of the baby boomer generation, it serves to remind us of a once famous, but now mostly obscure Disney production. For the story of Hinckley and its prodigal buzzards became perhaps the most well remembered element of the 1969 animated short subject It’s Tough to Be a Bird, and the subsequent episode it evolved into on the Wonderful World of Disney in 1970.
Now I can only speak from my own memories, but this wacky film was a huge deal to myself and fellow members of my then preteen generation. While my contemporaries viewed most Disney television offerings of the time as little more than a way to kill an hour on a Sunday evening, It’s Tough to Be a Bird managed to elevate itself to a viewing status typically reserved for the likes of The Wizard of Oz and holiday perennials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was the subject of at least a couple Monday morning playground discussions that I fondly remember participating in.
Released on December 10, 1969, It’s Tough to Be a Bird proved immensely popular due largely in part to its zany, fast paced montages and over-the-top humor. It was all a very distinct reflection of its creator Ward Kimball. The film is hosted by the character M.C. Bird, voiced by Richard Bakalyan, who relates (often to his own detriment) the history of mankind’s relationship with its avian counterparts. While rooted in some of Kimball’s sci-fi themed parodies from earlier Disney anthology episodes, it is clearly a departure from the studio’s typical short subject fare, animated or otherwise. Its offbeat nature is more akin to Monty Python than Mickey Mouse, and its cutout style animation brings to mind the later efforts of Terry Gilliam on the Pythons’ Flying Circus shows. In one particular scene that epitomizes the film’s somewhat more irreverent humor, M.C. alludes to Edgar Allen Poe’s reputed alcoholism and how a certain raven salvaged his literary career.
The short culminates with the aforementioned visit to Hinckley, Ohio, and the very quirky reality of the town’s “Buzzard Day” celebrations. The sequence finishes with comedienne Ruth Buzzi’s hilarious and very off-key rendition of “When the Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge.” Kimball’s efforts were rewarded when the film received the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject of 1969.
Originally 22 minutes in length, the short was expanded to fill out a full episode of the Wonderful World of Disney that first aired in December of 1970. Recycled True-Life Adventure footage and a homage to birds in Disney films and cartoons rounded out the television version.
The film’s success would lead Kimball to direct Dad, Can I Borrow the Car, another short similar in style and humor, but this time examining the relationship between man and the automobile. Narrated by Kurt Russell, it arrived in theaters in September of 1970.
Unfortunately, watching either version of It’s Tough to Be a Bird, is quite difficult at best. The theatrical version appeared a few times on Disney Channel Vault Disney programming in the late 1990s. I was lucky to obtain a copy of the television version when it was included on a Wonderful World of Disney VHS collection, and that tape is now well over twenty years old. Hope currently rests on its possible inclusion in a future Treasures or Legacy DVD set of remaining Disney rarities.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Smaller scale endeavors were also numerous, as this article that tells the stories of famous mountain men Jim Bridger and John Colter from a 1957 issue of Walt Disney’s Magazine demonstrates. While studio vet Milt Banta is shown as the author of Yellowstone: Land of Burning Mountains, the artist of the illustrations is uncredited. The renderings of Colter and Bridger are however very similar in style to the studio's cartoon version of Paul Bunyan, that was released the following year. The character of Jim Bridger would appear in a two part episode in 1977 of the Wonderful World of Disney entitled “Kit Carson and the Mountain Men.” He would be portrayed in that show by actor Gregg Palmer.
"The Ballad of John Colter" by well know Disney composer George Bruns would be sung by Fess Parker in the Disney film Westward Ho the Wagons, and would also be included on Parker’s own record album Cowboy and Indian Songs.
Here is the text from Yellowstone: Land of Burning Mountains, a small piece of fun nostalgia from the 1950s:
A man had room to grow out on the western frontier — before the towns came in, and the farms and the factories. Sometimes men grew so great, and their fame spread so far, that they became legends in their own time. John Colter was one of these. Folks say that John was chased by hostile Indians once, and he fooled them by hiding under the surface of a deep stream, breathing through a hollow reed.
Now a man who'll keep cool when a pack of redskins are after his scalp will keep cool most anywhere. That's probably a good thing, because Colter needed all his wits about him when he stumbled into Yellowstone.
It was along about 1805 or 1806 that Colter decided to leave the trail and strike out on his own. He walked for nearly 500 miles before he found himself in a valley like no other place he had ever been before.
First, Colter saw a great lake stretching out in front of him. Then he came on huge waterfalls in the midst of a yellow rock chasm. He found springs of scalding water that bubbled right out of the ground, and spectacular geysers and steaming pools of mud. "Land of Burning Mountains" the Indians called the place, and to them it was filled with evil spirits. Colter went back east and told everyone who would "There couldn't possibly be a place like that," they scoffed. John Colter was so hurt and humiliated at this that he went back to the peace and quiet of the mountains. But his stories went on.
It was about 25 years later that another great frontiersman, Jim Bridger, heard the tales of Colter and the Yellowstone country and decided to find out for himself whether the tales were tall ones, or true. Bridger found Yellowstone and saw that Colter had been right. When Bridger went back east and told the folks about Yellowstone, they laughed at him, just as they'd laughed at Colter. But Bridger didn't take to the hills to nurse his wounded pride. Instead, he decided that since no one believed his true stories, he'd tell some fantastic tales about the mysterious place.
There was a mountain there, he said, called Echo Mountain, where it took six hours for an echo to come bouncing back. And there was a glass mountain that had a peculiar way of making things miles away seem a whole lot nearer.
Bridger's favorite yarn was the one about the "Peet-rified Forest" filled with petrified birds singing among petrified leaves in the petrified moonlight.
Strangely enough, the tales of Colter and Bridger are, still told in Yellowstone, "Land of Burning Mountains," which is now a national park, preserved for all to enjoy.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Pecos Bill was featured in the final segment of the 1948 “package film” Melody Time. His story was told in both narrative and song by movie cowboy Roy Rogers, accompanied by the Sons of the Pioneers. Disney child actors Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were on hand around the campfire to hear the tale.
Reaction over the years has been mixed about both Melody Time and specifically the Pecos Bill sequence. Leonard Maltin called it a “felicitous collaboration,” and was especially complimentary of how animators brought to life the “marvelous exaggerations” of the Pecos Bill legend. Author John Grant however called it a “somewhat lackluster short,” in his Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters. Personally, I feel Melody Time is one of the studio’s most underrated productions, and Pecos Bill in particular is a high-energy and very entertaining piece of work. The supporting characters of Widowmaker and Slue Foot Sue are especially memorable and well-realized.
Not counting cameos on the recent House of Mouse television program, Pecos Bill was never animated again beyond his initial Melody Time appearance. He did receive exposure over the next few decades on the Disney anthology television show. Like Johnny Appleseed, his Melody Time segment was an easy cut-and-paste into episodes with American folklore themes.
Unlike many of his lower-tier contemporaries, Pecos Bill managed to make his presence felt at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The character of Slue Foot Sue, played originally by actress Betty Taylor, was the proprietress of the original Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland when the park opened in 1955. That particular show went on to play for over 30 years and 39,000 performances.
A Pecos Bill restaurant has been a mainstay at Walt Disney World since the Magic Kingdom’s opening in 1971. The long-popular counter service venue was originally called the Pecos Bill Cafe. It was remodeled and expanded in 1998 and then became known as the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe. Known for its burgers and extensive “fixin’s bar,” it straddles a corner between Frontierland and Adventureland, just opposite Splash Mountain.
A sign at the entrance identifies the establishment as having "The Tastiest Eats and Treats this side of the Rio Grande." An excerpt from the text on the sign provides the cafe's backstory:
“In 1878, with the encouragement of his friends, Pecos Bill decided to open his own watering hole, a restaurant whose motto very much reflects its one-of-a-kind owner, “The tastiest eats and treats this side of the Rio Grande.” Pecos Bill called it the Tall Tale Inn and Café and it quickly became a popular hangout for some of his legendary friends. As time went by it became a tradition when each friend paid a visit they would leave something behind for Pecos Bill to remember them by. As you can see from the articles and artifacts that don the walls, many of which carry inscriptions, Pecos Bill had some mighty impressive friends. It seems that every trail eventually led to the Tall Tale Inn and Café.”
Among those articles and artifacts:
- Slue Foot Sue's gloves, bearing the inscription "To Billy All My Love Slue Foot Sue.”
- Davy Crockett’s bag and powder horn. Disney’s version of Crockett from the 1950s became a pop culture phenomenon. Fess Parker played Davy. Crockett's best friend Georgie Russell is also featured. Russell’s artifacts include trail gear and a letter that details a shooting match between Crockett and Big Foot Mason. Russell was played by Buddy Ebsen.
- Johnny Appleseed’s tin pot hat--John Chapman's story was also a featured segment in the film Melody Time.
- Paul Bunyan’s ax. His story was told in a Disney cartoon from 1958. The ax bears the inscription, “To Pecos--from one giant to another. Best wishes Paul Bunyan.”
- John Henry's hammer and spikes. The famous steel-driving man was featured in an animated short produced by Disney in 2000, a couple of years after the restaurant's refurbishment.
- Casey Jones’ coal bucket and oil cans. Casey Jones featured in the 1950 Disney cartoon The Brave Engineer. He was based on real life engineer John Luther Jones. Jones died in a locomotive crash in 1900 where he sacrificed his life to save the lives of the passengers on the train. Not surprisingly, in the Disney version he survives for a somewhat happier ending.
Pecos found himself reinvented by Disney in 1995, this time as real flesh and blood, in the live action feature Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. The film starred Patrick Swayze as Bill, and also featured other characters such as Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Calamity Jane.
In 1998, Pecos Bill became a poster boy of sorts for Disney Animation purists decrying censorship, when the film was finally released to home video. Ironically labeled as Fully Restored, Buena Vista Home Video had actually taken a digital knife to the film, and most specifically in the Pecos Bill sequence. You see, our rambunctious cowboy just happened to also be . . . a smoker! More concerned with pleasing the soccer-mom demographic than preserving the integrity of the company’s classic animation, the suits cleansed our spirited hero of his homemade cigarette vice.
First, they clumsily edited the musical number that expounded on many of Bill’s over the top feats of daring-do. The tornado-taming scene is all but eliminated. Why? The song’s lyrics at that point enlighten the reason:
While that cyclone bucked and flitted,
Pecos rolled a smoke and lit it,
And he tamed that ornery wind down to a breeze.
It’s a fun gag when Bill grabs a lightning bolt and uses it to light the cigarette.
Second, Bill’s aforementioned “smoke,” that hangs dutifully from his mouth throughout, has been digitally removed from the entire sequence. In an interesting bit of high-handed PC hypocrisy, Jose Carioca continues to puff away on a cigar without consequence in the “Blame It on the Samba” segment of the same film. Sadly, the edits were still in place when Melody Time was released on DVD in 2000.
Pecos Bill has remained alive and well, and most especially in song. His theme song, originally performed by Roy Rogers in 1948, has been recorded by numerous other artists over the years, including cowboy band and Woody’s Roundup performers Riders in the Sky. The opening lines from that song happily sum up Bill’s unique personality and character:
And a western superman to say the least.
He was the roughest toughest critter,
Never know to be a quitter,
Cause he never had no fear of man nor beast!
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Friday, February 23, 2007
Thursday, February 22, 2007
The home front during World War II is brought to life in this out of the way corner of Disney-MGM Studios, a mere stone's throw from both the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Victory Gardens were popular morale boosters during the 1940s war years. This one is tended by another wartime pop culture icon: Rosie the Riveter.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Monday, February 19, 2007
One of the more interesting concepts from the ill-fated Disney's America theme park was an area called Enterprse 1870-1930. Press material from 1993 provided the following information about Enterprise and its headline attraction, the Industrial Revolution:
"The factory town of Enterprise plays host to inventions and innovations spawned by the ingenuity and can-do spirit that catapulted America to the forefront of industry. Within Enterprise, those daring enough can climb aboard the Industrial Revolution, a high-speed adventure through a turn-of-the-century mill culminating in a narrow escape from its fiery vat of molten steel."
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Rob is a world renown musician and recording artist, but is best known to Disney fans for his over four thousands performances at the El Capitan Theatre playing its legendary Wurlitzer pipe organ. When someone of Rob’s stature and talent emails with very complimentary words, I find myself both flattered and extremely humbled.
Rob has also been a longtime enthusiast of Disney and collector of animation art and has long been fascinated by the Art Corner at Disneyland. The shop opened in 1955 and during the remainder of that decade and into the 1960s, guests could purchase actual production cels from numerous Disney films, including Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians, for as little as a dollar or two apiece. Rob asked if we could put out a collective call for folks who would like to share any images, memorabilia, and even reminisces of this now almost legendary Disney location. We would like to feature any such materials and memories anyone might have in future posts here at 2719 Hyperion.
And for more information about Rob, check out his website. There is a section there that features his incredible collection of animation art that shouldn't be missed. He also treats visitors to an informative and very detailed visual tour of the El Capitan Theatre.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Friday, February 16, 2007
Here are some interesting elements that kind be found throughout Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World. The warning sign displayed above is attached to the main gate of a certain now-famous Hollywood hotel. Nearby in alleyway off of Sunset Boulevard, you'll find a sign for L.A. Cinema Storage.
Finally, on the recently rechristened Streets of America Backlot you will find this sign for a distinctly mob-inspired establishment.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
A lot has certainly changed in the past fifteen years.
I purchased a copy of the EPCOT Field Guide back in the early 1990s. It was made available at EPCOT Outreach, located in what was then Communicore West. EPCOT Outreach moved to a new location and became the Epcot Discovery Center when the first incarnation of Innoventions opened in July 1994. It closed permanently in October of 1996. There is currently no outreach or resource service available at Epcot.
I am particularly impressed with the introduction to the EPCOT Field Guide. It is a very succinct summation of what was the park’s original theme and mission, a message that was still being communicated well into its second decade of operation:
Epcot was originally envisioned as a "living blueprint of the future," a place where families could come to learn about the world around them and discover the challenges of tomorrow. With this vision as our guide, we have worked to create a fun, dynamic, interactive theme park where science, culture, and education instill promise for our future. The park is comprised of two main areas: Future World and World Showcase.
Since its inception, Epcot has become more than a showplace for technology; it has become a classroom for thousands of students from around the world. Through such programs as the WALT DISNEY WORLD College Program, Science and Technology Internships, and the World Showcase Fellowship Program, students have the opportunity to study and research concepts ranging from cultural interaction to communication with marine mammals. Epcot is, in effect, a living laboratory.
The educational benefits of Epcot are not confined solely to the classroom. Our goal is to provide educational experiences for every Guest who visits the theme park.
With that in mind, we have created the Epcot Field Guide, a booklet full of fun facts, topical information, and background on the pavilions in the theme park. We hope that it will increase your enjoyment of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and that your visit will spark new interests that will return home with you.
As a part of our celebration of EPCOT's 25th Anniversary, I will be reprinting the attraction pages from the guide in future posts. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
A relatively new Kidcot Funstop had been set up and largely featured Goofy exploring aspects of aerodynamics and automobile design. One particular montage at the station was entitled Dream Cars and featured nine different scenes from the 1943 Goofy cartoon Victory Vehicles. Nearby was an actual scale model of the bathtub contraption featured briefly in a blueprint design near the short’s beginning.
Victory Vehicles is truly a short immersed in the history and popular culture of the time in which it was made. At the height of World War II, gasoline and rubber shortages severely limited the average citizen's use of automobiles, and in this cartoon, Goofy demonstrates some imaginative and very humorous alternate forms of transportation. It is a number of these concepts that are used to form the basis of the Kidcot Dream Cars display.
Victory Vehicles, while clearly fun and lightweight, is very much a time capsule of the U.S. home front during World War II. Director Jack Kinney and his crew filled the short with numerous wartime references, many of which are likely lost on today’s younger generations. The swing-shift defense worker, the air raid warden, the drugstore cowboy, rationing boards and Victory housing projects are all prominently featured. Details abound and it takes a quick finger on the DVD remote pause button to catch many of them. One particular moment involves a newspaper article with Goofy portraying a stumping politician. Incredibly, the fine print is an actual story, not just typeface filler. The first paragraph reads:
WASHINGTON D.C. (Special) -- Professor Donald Da Gradi, noted heel, and tire specialist, declared today, “If human beings needed tires to travel, they would have been born with a set on their pedal extremities.”
The story continues on for three more paragraphs.
When the short turns into a celebration of the pogo stick, sight gags and wordplays literally spring up everywhere. Billboards and signs are filled with “pogo” references. An advertisement for the Hop Right Inn is my favorite.
Recycling was the order of the day, and in that same spirit, Imagineers recycled the fun elements of Victory Vehicles some sixty years later for a kid-friendly Epcot exhibit.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
His work that made the greatest impression on me personally was the art direction for 1979's The Black Hole. A medicore story totally overshadowed by Ellenshaw's visually stunning and hauntingly beautiful designs.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Thursday, February 08, 2007
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Mickey Mouse Ears. Fashionable shortly after their creation in 1955. A perennial souvenir bestseller at Disney Parks worldwide well into the 21st century.
I was recently reminded of the origins of this famous headgear while rereading Lorraine Santoli’s excellent (and sadly out-of-print) The Mickey Mouse Club Book. The now-famous studio personality and eventual Disney Legend credited with creating the ears is revealed in the following excerpt:
Chuck Keehne, head of the wardrobe department, outfitted the newly hired kids in their Mouseketeer outfits, including their uniquely designed hats, which Roy Williams is credited with creating. "In 1929, after the sound cartoons came out, Walt hired me for two weeks to sketch some ideas for his animated shorts," Roy explained. "One of them had Mickey tipping the top of his head to Minnie, which left him with a flat head. So when 'The Mickey Mouse Club' came about years later, Walt said, 'How do we dress the kids?' And I said, 'Why not with Mickey Mouse ears?' I made sketches of the first hats and Walt liked them. That's how it happened."
Roy Williams was certainly a jack-of-many trades during his long career with the Disney company. Beyond his invention of Mouse Ears and his status as the “Big Mooseketeer” on the Mickey Mouse Club, Roy was a veteran of the story department and one of the studio's most prolific gag men. Roy was also a successful magazine cartoonist outside of Disney. He wrote a short feature for the December 1956 issue of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club Magazine that detailed his “moonlighting” and gave advice to aspiring young artists. The article also included a number of Roy’s cartoons from a then recently published collection.
Roy Williams passed away in 1976. His Disney Legends biography can be found here.