Thursday, February 01, 2018

That Infernal Swiss Music

A few years ago, I previewed a bit of the work being done in an infuriating little corner of Disney music that I call "The Swiss Loops". This is a group of three or four Jack Wagner loops created at an unknown time consisting entirely of alpine music - yodeling, accordions, lederhosen, etc.

So grab your alpenhorn and feathered cap, and let's finally get this out of the way - we're going to plunge into those infernal Swiss loops. I hope you like polkas!

Pinnochio Street Music

One of the least appreciated areas of Magic Kingdom is the stretch of Fantasyland that runs from Liberty Square, up past what was once the Skyway Station, past Small World, and ends with Pinnochio Village Haus. On early blueprints, this is called the "Pinocchio Street" - an area of steins and Bavarian charm anchored by a Swiss chalet spitting out a steady stream of brightly colored sky buckets. Compared to the more prosaic and less elaborated themed west side of Fantasyland, and especially compared to the Fantasyland of 1955 which was still what Disneyland had, this little area was the seed that eventually would overrun the entire concept of Fantasyland, turning the whole of the area into Little Europe. It may not look like much to anybody who's been to the 1983 Fantasyland at Disneyland or the 1992 version in Paris, but for 1971 the Pinocchio Street was a major accomplishment, and had its own specific project name to prove it.

Regardless, what is likely the earliest surviving piece of music associated with this area was thankfully recorded by Mike Lee in 1991. It's only 30 minutes long, which puts it in line with other early music loops of its era, and the two Capitol Records LPs used in the Matterhorn Bobsleds queue BGM also appear in it.

Thanks to a snippet posted by the excellent website WaltsMusic, I'm confident in assigning a date to this one. The WaltsMusic segment, taken from Jack Wagner's collection, is the first seven tracks represented here, and is labeled "Village Haus Disneyland 1974". Since Disneyland didn't have a Village Haus in 1974, this has to be our date.

I'd give a lot to know if music played in the Skyway and Village Haus before 1974, but like a lot of early Disneyland and Magic Kingdom music, we'll just never know.
“Pinnochio Village Haus” 
Compiled by Jack Wagner 1974, Recorded by Mike Lee 1991 
01) Obervazer-Schottisch - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
02) Gruss Milano (Salute To Milan) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
03) Lusbübe-Ländler (Naughty Boy Ländler) - Ländlerkapelle Oberland [1]
04) Beim Augustfeuer (By The Bonfire) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze [1]
05) Tessin Melodies - Orchestrina Verbanella [1]
06) Urner-Polka - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
07) Am Hinterrhein (At The Source Of The Rhine) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
08) Unknown A
09) Unknown B
10) Unknown C
11) Der Klarinettenmuckel - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
12) Landlergrusse - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
13) Gruss aus Bayrischzell - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
14) Rund I’m Salzburg - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2] 
[1] A Visit to Switzerland - Capitol ST-10264 1964
[2] Music of the German Alps - Capitol ST-1-211 1959

For this track to be playing in 1991 seems astonishingly late considering that its replacement, fully considered below, had already been available for eight years by that point.

However, the 1990/1 date does line up with when Magic Kingdom was really starting to standardize their sound system - see my piece on Tomorrowland for another example. Once "Fantasyland West" received its new digital music playback system, of course it would receive the newer, longer version of the Swiss loop.

"Fantasyland West"

For decades, a 60-minute loop has been floating through the Disney music diaspora  called "Fantasyland West". Trying to identify the tracks in this loop has always been an absurd nightmare of yodeling, brass bands, and alphorns - after even just a few minutes, all of the yodeling begins to bleed together and my eyes would begin to roll back into my head.

Which is how things stood for years. This 60 minute loop played in the Skyway station at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, inside Village Haus restaurants in California, Florida, and Paris, and heck, even at Tokyo Disneyland - here's a quick video where you can hear it. Besides the fact that it had seemingly been playing since anybody could remember, nobody had any idea where it came from or what it was made up of.

Most of the really early Magic Kingdom music loops were really odd lengths. But even if Disney had wanted to replace the Skyway / Village Haus loop as early as, say, 1975 - when both Main Street loops got filled out to a full hour - it's hard to imagine them having a good incentive to pay Jack Wagner to do the same work over again.  In the early 80s, Disney was moving to standardize the length of all of their BGM loops to exactly 60 minutes thanks to emerging digital formats, a standard that holds even today.

What makes more sense to me is that Jack prepared the 60-minute loop as part of his commission to prepare the music for Tokyo Disneyland. Many of his loops for TDL are interesting expansions and variations of his earlier loops at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, and all of them are a rock solid hour in length. It also makes sense that Disneyland would use the same loop as part of their New Fantasyland project, which saw the addition of a German-style Village Haus of their own.

Meanwhile, the discovery of "A Visit to Switzerland" on MouseBits by RocketRods and the tracks it shared with the Matterhorn Bobsleds made it much clearer the relationship between all of the various "Swiss" loops was much closer than it initially seemed. Except for one little problem...

Bi Eus im Schwyzerland: A Mystery Inside An Enigma

In mid-2013, our understanding of the Fantasyland West loop improved considerably when, with no warning whatever, most of the source tracks appeared on iTunes. Suddenly, we had track names and performing artists but with no real insight into where these things came from. The album in question was called "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3", released by the mysterious "Elite Special" and dated 1974. Trouble was, who knows if the metadata provided on the album was at all accurate. Even more worrying, the total run time of the digital release was nearly an hour - a total impossibility on the vinyl records Jack Wagner was working off of in the 70s.

Thanks to the magic of "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3", we can now show you Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser, who you've been listening to over a loudspeaker at Disney for basically your entire life:

So just who the heck was Elite Special? As it turns out, Elite Special was a sub-label of Turicaphon AG - founded in 1930, and which still exists today in the Swiss town of Riedikon (on the Turicaphonstrasse!). Once you have label and performer information, the rest begins to fall into place.

Its seems as though Truicaphon took a special interest in recording and releasing Swiss folk music in the 1950s - although for all we know, they were releasing these recordings on 78 records in the 30s. Alpine music being of limited interest outside of Switzerland, eventually the Elite Special sublabel was formed to recycle their music into budget LPs of the kind that haunted drug stores through the 60s - cheapjack releases with names like "I Remember Switzerland". Just looking at the mysterious track data and recording company history, that much of the story seemed obvious.

But I still was not satisfied with this "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3". I knew the chances that a single record had nearly the entirety of a Jack Wagner loop was too persuasive to ignore, but after weeks of checking databases and virtual auction sites in English and German, I could find no evidence of a physical release of Bi Eus im Schwyzerland - never mind Volume 3, I couldn't find Volume 1 or 2. I knew it couldn't be this obscure.

After literally years of downtime, in which Pixelated put the rest of the puzzle together, finding "Accordion in Gold" by Horst Wende, I was ready to try again - and I finally struck gold in the Worldcat, where "Holiday in Switzerland" had a single entry with nearly every track listed - the only thing missing was the track "Jodel-Polka". I even found a company in the United States selling a CD of the album.

I was so close I refused to believe that this was not the correct album. After another search through German eBay, I was able to find the actual LP - and "Jodel-Polka" was included. As it turns out, Jack had dumped practically the entirety of "Holiday of Switzerland" into his Village Haus loop, and in near exact album order, no less. With the 4-year mystery of "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland" solved, the Village Haus loop finally came into focus.

"Fantasyland West" / "Pinocchio Village Haus"Compiled by Jack Wagner, 1983
Reconstruction by Michael Sweeney, Foxxy, and Pixelated 
01) Obervazer-Schottisch - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
02) Gruss Milano (Salute To Milan) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
03) Uf Em Grätli (Up On The Cliff) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze With Sepp Sutter [1]
04) Lusbübe-Ländler (Naughty Boy Ländler) - Ländlerkapelle Oberland [1]
05) Beim Augustfeuer (By The Bonfire) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze [1]
06) Urner-Polka - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
07) S' Kantönlilied - Ländlerkapelle Heidi Wild mit Kinderchor [2]
88) Frohsinn (Schottisch) - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
09) Am sunnige Egge - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
10) Frühlingsfreuden - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
11) Alpenjodel - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
12) Heigh-Ho / Whistle While You Work - Polka Band [3]
13) En Heimelige - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
14) Jodel-Polka - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
15) Liechtensteiner Polka - Horst Wende und seine Accordeon-Band [4]
16) Die Fischerin Vom Bodensee - Horst Wende und seine Accordeon-Band [4]
17) Mi Freud - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
18)  Am Hinterrhein (At The Source Of The Rhine) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
19) Mitenand Gaht's Besser - Ländlerkapelle Bergfriede, Jodelduo Josy Eugster und Helene Schwegler [2]
20) Aelpli (Schottisch) - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
21) Läbeslust - Berhely Studer [2]
22) De Würzegrübler - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
23) "Obe abe - une ufe" - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2] 
[1] A Visit to Switzerland - Capitol ST-10264 1959
[2] Holiday in Switzerland - Elite Special PLPS 30150 1973
[3] A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom - WDP 1972
[4] Accordion In Gold - Polydor 249 306 1970

One of the nice things about having the actual Holiday in Switzerland album to look at is that it clarifies that not all of the tracks included in the loop are traditional songs. Nearly everything on Holiday in Switzerland is an original composition - these traditional folk music groups, which had likely been performing together since before World War II, and who recorded their efforts for a small, local recording industry would eventually go on to be heard by billions of vacationers in search of a cheap pizza in Florida. That's an exceptionally bizarre path to infamy, but it's a good one.

Also interesting is the inclusion of a single track by the Fantasyland Polka Band smack in the middle of the loop. Many versions of the loop begin with the Heigh Ho, but the loop does appear to play out as I've got it arranged here, with the Polka Band around the 30 minute mark.

The Polka Band was an afternoon offshoot of the Walt Disney World Band that hung around Fantasyland for a few years in the 70s, and their phantom appearance in their old haunt is intriguing. It reminds me of Jack's use of Fred Burri in the Matterhorn Bobsleds loop - a recorded testament of atmosphere music which was once recorded live.

Honestly, this is probably how all of Disneyland's music loops began - a tape would be played while the band went off to lunch. A few years ago, a tape was sold on eBay which supposedly played in the Skull Rock seating area of the Chicken of the Sea restaurant in Fantasyland. Without having a transfer of the tape to be sure we'll never know, but it appeared to be a recording of the pirate band which played in that area in the early 60s. Intentionally or not, this notion survives in the Matterhorn and Village Haus loops of today.

And with that romantic notion, I think we've found as good a place as any to finally put this subject to rest. Auf wiedersehen!

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.
Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Wilderness Lodge Video Fireplace

Every so often you come up with an idea so obvious, so stupid, that you're convinced somebody must have thought of it by now. And when it turns out nobody has, well, what's a fan to do? Just go out and do it herself, I suppose. Which is what I did.

Despite growing up in the northeast with a proper wood burning fireplace, and despite having access to a gas burning one in Florida, in my opinion nothing quite lands at that juicy intersection of nostalgia and kitsch as a good old video fireplace. The Yule Log tradition, after laying dormant for most of the hip 90s, has roared back to life in the digital age, and a quick search on YouTube will turn up hundreds of these things. Then as now, the attraction is in the extreme simplicity of the production: find a fireplace. Point a camera at it. Share the results.

The original video fireplace, the WPIX Yule Log, was a scant 17 seconds long, looped over and over, accompanied by the easy listening Christmas hits of the day - an amazing synthesis of midcentury plastic living, the modernization of mass culture, big hearted Christmas cheer, and extreme laziness (the hours-long broadcast meant the TV station staff could take the day off).

Growing up, my grandparents had a copy of the non-yule version on VHS, and that fascinated me even more - no stockings, no Christmas carols, just an hour of a fireplace doing its thing. There were other atmosphere VCR productions - aquariums, beaches, rolling hills - but none quite captured the strange magic of the idea of turning one boxy home furnishing into another.

And as a fan of the intersection of midcentury convenience culture, easy listening, and themed design, it's not too hard to see where my brain went - where's the Disney version of this? Not some generic fireplace with Disney crap piled around it, but an actual, at-Disney fireplace. And what is probably the defining Disney fireplace experience?

I packed up my camera and drove out to Wilderness Lodge.

It was the sort of blustery, overcast Florida winter day that really set the tone for being around a fireplace, and most of my time was spent sitting and waiting for the fireplaces to become available. There were so many that it seemed sensible to include as many as possible.

I really enjoyed making this, and even the editing of the subject came together amazingly fast. So on this cold January, put some Wilderness Lodge on your TV, and if you like this, show your friends and let me know!

Happy New Year's from Passport to Dreams!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Summer Series Hub Page


This hub page at the web blog "Passport to Dreams Old & New" is an easy reference for this site's occasional "Summer Series" - extended looks at a specific body of work, often chronologically arranged, intended to encourage exploration and discovery of overlooked corners of Disney.

The Age Of Not Believing - Summer 2014
A pseudo-legendary, vaguely suicidal retrospective on the Disney films released in a crucial period - between the death of Walt Disney and the release of Robin Hood, where what it meant to be a Disney film was shifting rapidly. There's a lot of garbage in this body of work, but there's some gems too, and I watched and wrote about all of them.

There's a lot here, but a handful of highlights for those who don't need to read the whole thing are in-depth assessments of The Happiest Millionaire, The Love Bug, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and an epic piece on Robin Hood, including it's lasting legacy and Disney's role in forming the modern Furry community (really!).

Week One - Monkeys Go Home, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, The Gnome-Mobile
Week Two - The Jungle Book, Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, The Happiest Millionaire
Week Three - Blackbeard's Ghost, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band, Never A Dull Moment
Week Four - The Horse In The Grey Flannel Suit, The Love Bug, Smith!, Rascal
Week Five - The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, King of the Grizzlies, The Boatniks
Week Six - The Wild Country, The Aristocats, The Barefoot Executive
Week Seven - Scandalous John, The Million Dollar Duck, Bedknobs & Broomsticks
Week Eight - The Biscuit Eater, Now You See Him Now You Don't, Napoleon & Samantha
Week Nine - The Magic of Walt Disney World, Snowball Express, The World's Greatest Athlete, Charley and the Angel
Week Ten - One Little Indian, Robin Hood, the legacy of Robin Hood

Summer Game Camp - Summer 2017
Growing up a video game kid, I worshipped the famous, fruitful collaboration between Disney and Capcom in the early 90s. But were they really all they're cracked up to be? And which ones are still worth playing? I played through all of them, in order of release date, to find out.

Part One - Mickey Mousecapade, DuckTales, DuckTales: Remastered
Part Two - Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers, The Little Mermaid, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck
Part Three - The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, The Great Circus Mystery, Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
Part Four - Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2, DuckTales 2
Part Five - Goof Troop, Disney's Aladdin, Bonkers
Part Six - Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, plus history and forgotten movie??
Final Game Ranking and Retrospective

Will there be more Summer Series? Only time will tell...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Conflict in Theme Parks

“Over the years Disney repeated to his animators: “Make it read!” Meaning, make the action distinct and recognizable. No contradictions, no ambiguities.” - Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original
You, the audience, make your way through the Temple of the Crystal Skull. You know Dr. Jones has been here - he's set up his base camp, disarmed booby traps, and his name is on the attraction marquee. But now he's vanished inside the temple, and his faithful assistant Paco, who can't operate a tripod, decides to send you directly into certain death!

....Hold on, back up here. Let's take this from the top.

We're all taught in Western storytelling that nothing can happen without conflict. There just can't be a story of renewal or growth without somebody running into some kind of obstacle, or antagonist. Many people think the antagonists are more interesting than the heroes who fight them. Even a cursory glance at a single scene from most major Hollywood movies and you'll see it's mainly a checklist of characters developing or resolving conflicts. Sometimes, when the conflict building isn't adequately disguised inside the narrative spine - as in the recent Hobbit movies - audiences rebel.

In contrast, theme parks seem to operate in an entirely different register, despite otherwise seeming to be a direct outgrowth of traditional Western art forms like theater and filmmaking. And while we conflate the effects of multiple art forms - think of those who consider an especially visually appealing area to be "painterly" - the fact is, theme parks construct their meanings quite differently than other narrative modes like cinema.

Although they've been the dominant narrative mode for most of the last 110 years, films have limitations. Film scholar Tom Gunning notes that "Whereas literature is never directly iconic, film, as a series of photographic representational signs, is. [...] In film, the excess of [surface detail] over meaning appears automatically with the photographic image." Films can depict dreams, but they can't really convey thoughts; they are full of surface details, but audiences must know which details in-frame are relevant. We begin to realize the unique difficulties of storytelling in the themed space when we realize that  filmic limitations apply to spaces such as Disneyland, but the difficulties are multiplied!

Unlike in a film, a themed space can be experienced in any order, and at any speed desired. Unlike a film, images may be examined from multiple perspectives, and linged over or rushed past as the viewer desires. And unlike film, the gaze cannot entirely be fully directed, although a truly exceptional themed space can "drag" the eye through it in controllable ways. Themed space shares the visual limitations of films, but without the benefits of editing!

This means that if you want to tell a story in a theme park with an identifiable bad guy, there can be no cut "back at the ranch" while the villains hatch their scheme, no leisurely unfolding of information through a first act. Themed spaces tell stories that hardly ever break down in acts; it's all action, as if you had to tell an entire film's narrative in the context of one huge action scene. Given these limitations, it's amazing that any theme park stories work at all!

So what's the solution? Theme parks tell stories that boil down to morsel size "storylets" with lots, and lots, of conflict.

On one end of the spectrum, we can look at an attraction like Alien Encounter, which had so many various conflicts going on at once it was confusing. There was the conflict of the X-S Tech Corporation wanting to demonstrate its very poorly tested teleporter technology, the conflict of Chairman Clench wanting to teleport into the theater but being unable to, the conflict of an alien bug wanting to eat the audience, and an extra layer of conflict of the XS Tech technicians trying to figure out how to get the bug out of the theater. If Western narrative wisdom about conflict were applied here, this would seem like a winner, and perhaps it would have been - in a feature length film! In the practice of an 8 minute theater show, with an excess of telling instead of showing, it all came across as a lot of shouting.

Another attraction where there's simply too much going on to be digestible at the fast pace required of a park attraction is Dinosaur - in this one two characters even get into an argument in the safety film! We think we're entering an ordinary museum, but surprise! We're going to be sent into the past in a time machine they built in their weird basement secret lab. Once on the ride we're required to keep track of multiple story threads simultaneously: we're supposed to be looking for and capturing a highly specific dinosaur, while also being pursued by another highly specific dinosaur, while also somehow getting out alive before a meteor hits - three jobs nobody associates with bounding around in the dark with dinosaurs. While Dinosaur checks the boxes of being a thrill ride, most guests forget one or two of these plot points while actually going through the darn thing, and the payoffs never register as well as they should.

If we want to look at a more successful example, we could look at the Indiana Jones Adventure, where we are asked to keep track of a missing person narrative about Indiana Jones, a not very fully thought out danger situation involving an angry Indian god, and finally our own desire to survive the ride. I think where Indiana Jones Adventure succeeds whereas Dinosaur fails, is because the first two conflict threads or storylets pretty much resolve immediately; they're only really there to keep us engaged while we're waiting in line, and manage to sneak in a safety film sideways without seeming abstruse. Pretty much right away Mara decides to kill us and Indiana Jones is recovered; with those resolved, the only remaining pressing concern is to survive the temple.

Indiana Jones Adventure and especially Dinosaur spend an inordinate amount of time checking the boxes of classical story structure, to really no discernible good end - ask anybody coming off either ride to identify what the main conflict in the ride is, and they won't. Or, more accurately, they'll fall back on descriptions of things that happened to them - we dodged the Carnotaurus, we avoided the rolling boulder, with no consideration whatever for the elaborate conflicts and storylets laid out inside the narrative for them. With such complicated considerations, the harried theme park designer starts to long for the simple life.


I consider these three attractions to be just about the most convoluted experiential narratives ever devised in the industry, and really only one of them works to any degree it was intended to, so let's back away from the double (or triple, or quadruple) conflict narratives and look at some middle-ground examples.

Let's consider Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as an example. Yes, there have been various layers of narrative complication added to the attraction over the years, mostly in the form of queue area entertainments, but when you get right down to it, the basic conflict of Big Thunder Mountain - the one you actually experience between getting on and off the ride - is that you decided to ride a runaway mine train, and now you are on a runaway mine train. Various things, little "storylets", happen to you while you're on the train, and each is more exciting than the last, until you arrive safely back at the station.

Or, to take another famous example, there are many opinions and rumors as to what the "story" of the Haunted Mansion is, but in reality the story is simplicity in and of itself - you, played by you, decide to enter a haunted house and you live to tell the tale. That's it. The ride implies universes of characters, connections, and backstories, but in the end it's really just the story of you spending a night in a haunted house. Does it really need to be anything more?

Perhaps the pioneering narrative conflict told in themed spaces is what we may call "Dodge The Witch", in which you avoid various dangers and make it out okay. Under the guise of "man vs. nature", The Jungle Cruise is basically a Dodge the Witch ride. Grizzly River Rapids is an very good Dodge the Witch - it may not have a grizzly bear, but it does have plenty of dangers and surprises. Even Disneyland's Matterhorn is an exceptionally carefully modulated Dodge the Witch, in which there's nearly nothing doing the storytelling except some steel track and an abominable snowman.

Yet aren't Indiana Jones Adventure and Dinosaur also Dodge the Witch rides, to some degree? Is there perhaps something to the fact that most riders blithely ignore all of the carefully modulated narrative information and conflict setup in these attractions and gleefully report that they did indeed Dodge the Witch?

Laff in the Dark, Early 1930s

Here, then, is one crucial distinction in the way theme parks tell stories and the way everyone else tells stories. A novel, or a film, or a play, must engage in a lengthy setup in which character are introduced, a situation is outlined, a conflict identified, and then pass through an inciting incident which sets the rest of the narrative in motion. Theme parks don't need to do this.

Why? The reason is because the only characters that really matter in theme parks are the spectators. That's the reason people visit, after all - we sail over London, we encounter some dinosaurs along the Disneyland Railroad, we ride the Hogwarts Express. This is what themed spaces can do that nobody else can, and it's the blend of passive and active participation that makes the places resonant. There doesn't need to be an inciting incident because it already happened when we entered the park.

There is conflict (or at least drama) baked into everything that we do at a theme park, because by their very nature theme parks are places of the exotic and strange. The unspoken contract that exists between the themed space and the public is that we will agree to be mildly inconvenienced while entering an attraction in exchange for being excited inside it - this is why it's disappointing, sometimes enough to make news headlines, when the ride breaks down and the excitement is ended prematurely. Themed spaces are orderly areas of pictorial effects which break down in irrational and chaotic images, briefly glimpsed, once we hop into that Mr. Toad car.

This is why the attractions that really matter, that really last, tie up the conflict with the theme of the attraction in a way that's seamless: we decide to enter the jungle, board our jungle steamship, and are guided through the various dangers. That situation doesn't need anything more than to be present to be understandable, it uses very clear, very understandable visual cues to work. Everybody knows that giant snakes and cannibals are bad news, and - uh oh - now it's happening to us!

This is also why a ride like Space Mountain can work across time and cultures in a way that the Delta Dreamflights of the world could not. Just as with Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain really offers amazingly little information about what we are doing or why - we're going into space, and space is weird. The drama is right there in the attraction name, and as far as theming goes, all that's really required is that the vehicles look like rockets and we're off. Again, riders bring more drama to the experience than the designers need to supply, because themed spaces work differently.

This also points towards one feature of themed spaces which the rules say would seem impossible in other media: the low, or no, conflict experience. There's the Enchanted Tiki Room, which 50 years on still enraptures audiences by doing nothing more than slowly coming to life. Consider also the Skyway, which requires severe interpretive methods to find any conflict in it. Or It's A Small World, where the entire darn point of it is that it's conflict free. Through the 70s, Disney repeatedly attempted to make a Small World movie, and repeatedly failed because to introduce conflict into that experience defeats the whole reason it exists in the first place.

During the construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney repeatedly instructed his designers just to "build something people will like". In theme park analysis circles we like to say that areas need a mix of A, C, and E tickets to be successful - a shorthand to refer to the "levels" of the attractions that are needed to flesh out any themed space. But it may be just as well to refer to these ticketing levels in terms of levels on conflict - this is why Tomorrowland doesn't feel complete without a Peoplemover, because the Peoplemover fulfills the role of the Mark Twain steamboat in Frontierland - a relaxed scenic experience with no plot or conflict to speak of.  The low conflict attractions round out the day with a variety of low-stakes experiences that are "safer spaces" than the Jungle Cruises or Space Mountains. Every child implicitly understands this unspoken dynamic.


This mass of data seems to suggest, more than anything, that there is in fact a diversity of ways to build a successful theme park attraction's story - there may be plenty of bad examples that hog the spotlight, but for every three unsuccessful, obvious examples, there's at least one where the thing works just fine.

What can be said is that conflict in theme parks can be implied in such a way to require almost no special treatment, or indeed even be a component of creating a compelling experience. The aesthetics of theme parks, and the unspoken contract between themed spaces and spectators, is such that there can be narrative inherent in simple visual designs and enveloping environments that can supplant the need for a formalized conflict. In this sense, themed spaces have a power to suggest narratives in a way nearer to the way that fine art like painting or sculpture can: through the deployment of such features as colors or shapes.

Although themed spaces are absolutely the nearest to cinema in terms of logic and effect, the theme park has a secret power that cinema does not: it can be iconic without needing to be abstract. Every so often, somebody comes along and tries to make a film that is played out entirely from one character's point of view, replacing the "I" tense in traditional novelistic storytelling with the filmed camera. This never ever works; it's easier for audiences to invest in screen characters depicted on the screen rather than as the screen.

Theme parks are films that happen to you, and they happen with no signposting or role playing. Think of the Disneyland Railroad: imagine if you made a film out of those events. You'd have an avant-garde film; mass audiences would say that it makes no sense, that it's outside their comfort zone. But millions ride the Disneyland Railroad every year and take its bizarre mix of nostalgia, sightseeing, and time travel totally at face value. That's the secret power of themed spaces, the power to compel without the need for a formalized narrative or even narrative logic.

Ready for more deep dives into the hows and whys of theme parks? Check out our Park Theory Hub Page, host to dozens of long essays just like this one!

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Social History of Background Music

"Muzak and mood music [...] emit music the way the twentieth century is equipped to receive it. They have so successfully blended genres and redefined music appreciation that they have become the music world's Esperanto." - Joseph Lanza
Some time ago I was at a thrift store, hovering over an especially unpromising stack of vintage records, when I had an uncomfortable realization.

Over the years, first from working at Disney, then writing this blog and researching historical music loops, has warped my musical taste. I'm much more likely to spin a piece of background music to relax - Epcot's Innoventions music loop, for instance, or perhaps George Bruns' Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii. After a tough day at work, I want to settle into a groove with a drink and some mellow music.

As I stood there contemplating one of these dog eared LPs, I had one of those horrible moments of lucidity that makes one doubt her sanity: I was shopping for easy listening music. I was excited to find elevator music. I went home and began to cue up video after video on YouTube of the most treacly, canned music possible - and I loved it. Theme parks had made me love Muzak.

Gradually I began to wonder if that was such a bad thing after all. Background music cassettes from K-Mart went viral just a few years ago; a cursory search online reveals a raft of websites dedicated to preserving the background music of the past. And yet, theme parks are one of the few places left where you can experience true background music; walk into an average Starbucks or Waffle House and they're playing a sleeker, streamlined kind of BGM that's entirely popular recordings. It's sort of startling to realize that humans as recently as 80 years ago lived in a world where music wasn't constantly blaring out of every ceiling; what's so bad about a preference for music that's atmospheric and relaxing instead of popular hits of the past 20 years?

So I thought I'd take a quick look through the history of moodsong in the 20th century. At first blush this seems to be a tangent for this blog, but the links between postwar elevator music, social engineering, and Walt Disney run deeper than you think - once you go about digging them up, of course. It's a story that stretches over the better part of a century, world wars, and wrenching social changes, all events that can be bridged by strings echoing out of a tinny speaker in the ceiling.

Music To Read By

It was the early 1920s, and George O. Squier had an idea. George had spent a lifetime as an inventor and tinkerer for the US Army - he had invented the method for carrying multiple conversations over a single wire, allowing for the rise of a functional national telephone system, and had flown in one of the Wright Brothers' earliest aircrafts. Now, he wanted to apply his way with wires to send music to homes, offices, factories, and ballrooms across the country. George took the final two letters from "Kodak" and applied it to "music" to end up with "Muzak".

Squier was competing for an increasingly congested marketplace. The original American - which is to say, industrialized and populist - source of background music was almost certainly the radio. A boom market in the 1920s, by the 30s the radio was ubiqutious in American homes - it's been said that if you walked down the street on a hot summer evening during the broadcast of Amos 'n Andy or The Fibber McGee and Molly Show, you could hear the entire program from the open windows without missing a word. In the places where average Americans congregated - cafes, diners, and soda fountains, the radio rapidly gave life a distinct rhythm. And while today we think immediately of the radio stars of old, the fact is that the popular evening radio programs were but a tiny slice of an 18 hour broadcast day - a broadcast day made up of lots and lots of music.

Experiments in the teens and twenties discovered that those early crystal radio sets were best at transmitting a very narrow range of sound. The subtle buzz and hum of early radio transmissions could be counteracted by stringed instruments - especially those played overlapping, in a high frequency range. While George Squire was asking apartment owners to pay several dollars a month for subscription to his wired music services, a crystal radio set could play nearly nonstop all morning and night after the purchase of just one attractive unit that complemented the washing machine and icebox.

Unauthorized use of commercial 78 records, or electronic bootlegs of the same, were so rampant amongst small, rural radio stations that record companies began to stamp "Not For Broadcast" on their record labels. But even the mainstream radio stations of the 20s and 30s had off hours to fill with content, and in-house orchestras were kept gently sawing away between 11 pm and 1 am in stations like Chicago and New York in programs called Music To Read By, Time For Dreams, or Nightcap. The sounds of soft classical music became the defining sound of progress and modernity for a generation.

These early crystal radios were AM only; the superior FM format lumbered along inauspiciously, copying the content of the AM stations until World War II, when political pressure from radio manufacturers and increasing demand for television airwaves caused the US Government to move all of the FM stations further up the dial. This rendered obsolete in a stroke nearly every FM radio in the country. FM stations already just about on the rocks needed to adapt quickly or fold; they began offering their services to two symbols of modernity in urban America: the department store and the self-service grocer. Merchants found that the music helped move product and added and aura of prestige. In later years this format would come to be known as BM Music.

BM - Beautiful Music - stuck around for an astonishingly long time and has never really gone away - do a quick search and you'll find a small station probably not far from you who still broadcasts it. BM stations often ended up as a smaller operation inside of a larger radio studio, handled by less experienced operators. Free of commercials or announcements, BM stations churned away silently in the backdrop of modern life in major cities around the country. All across the country, businesses sprouted up like mushrooms with names like The Storecast Corporation of America, Store Radio, and Point-O-Salecast. Muzak's first major success came in arranging, recording, and selling music to BM stations who were becoming an increasingly legitimate and organized business.

Social Engineered Sound Scapes

George O Squier had died in 1934, a decade before Muzak's full ascendancy. In comparison to the wireless music provided by BM stations, all through the 40s Muzak had differentiated themselves by only offering wired music - the fidelity and reliability being said to be much better. Muzak also refused to be content with playing bootlegged light classical music - they recorded their own versions in house, carefully arranged to be as pleasant and unobtrusive as possible.

As early as 1935, Muzak was using red, vinyl discs running at 33 1/3 RPM, making them more or less the inventors of the LP. They also began to target their music to specific periods of the day - marches for breakfast, tangoes at lunch, light jazz at cocktail hour, then classics at dinner and dancing  till midnight. Through the 30s, Muzak had been bolstered by a raft of social studies published by such outlets as the Stevens Institute of Technology who found that "pleasant, functional music" improved worker productivity and happiness. The constant hum of nonintrusive music had become a welcome addition to a world plagued by depressions and worldwide wars.

(Yellow, Green, Red and Blue were Muzak's four programs - Red was intended for small restaurants, Blue and Yellow serviced retail, and Green for home use.)

By the end of World War II, Muzak Corporation had hit upon the concept of "Stimulus Progression". As American culture converged towards an illusion of stability in the late 40s and early 50s, Muzak claimed that workers were happier and more efficient while background music was playing, and that said music was more effective when played in 15 minute chunks, then silenced for another 15.

Muzak installations that offered the Stimulus Progression package came in two varieties: music for factories and music for offices. A 400 hZ signal broadcast over the wires separating the 4 fifteen-minute chunks would tell the office Muzak installations to remain muted during the more upbeat factory installations, or vice-versa. But a company doesn't go from a name brand to a description on novelty alone; you can't go from Xerox to 'xerox' by accident. With Stimulus Progression. Muzak hit exactly the tenor of their time.

By the 50s, except for that annoying Rock and Roll, American taste was flattening out. The generation that had fought a great depression and two World Wars wanted things to be simple, to be pleasant for once, and a growing peacetime economy and a technology boom promised a happy, prosperous America from sea to shining sea. What could be more pleasant, more productive, more futuristic and modern than pleasing, scientifically selected mood music?

What got forgotten in the Baby Boom generation's rush to tear down all of their parent's idols is that many people genuinely liked the sound of this stuff. The seeds planted back in the 1930s with the radio constantly cranking out it light classical tunes eventually flowered in the 50s into an entire genre: Easy Listening. Go to any old record store and there they will be: hundreds upon hundreds of easy listening records, bought back in the 50s and 60s by Mom and Pop while junior held his nose. Muzak went mainstream, and emerged on the other side as muzak - and ended up on the home stereo.

Indeed, a key part of an hostesses' job was selecting exactly the correct record to play on the newly behemoth home record player consoles, which could play five or six LPs stacked up in order - a full evening's worth of mood music. In the era where the home cocktail party or backyard luau was the social glue that held together a generation, the tasteful background of cocktail tunes was an essential skill.
"The musically aware hostess no longer allows the butler, or her husband, to sling records on to the turntable in a haphazard way... she now supplies a ready made background of elegant and suitable music to smooth the evening into one long feast of pleasure and unshattered nerves." - Liner Notes, Velvet by the Frank Chaksfield Orchestra
The boom economy begat imitators. Seeburg, who started off manufacturing orchestrions, had moved into jukeboxes by the 50s and eventually released the Seeburg 1000 BMS1, the Cadillac of background music equipment. It was sized and styled to replace the old crystal radio haunting shelves in diners across the country.

Each Seeburg 1000 played specially-sized records at 16 1/2 RPM; the device would play the underside of a record, drop it down, then play the top. The device would hold over 25 records, each holding 40 minutes of music, for about 16 hours total, and could automatically repeat the process. Every four months, a new shipment of five records would arrive, and five records would have to be removed and sent back to Seeburg for destruction. Like Muzak, Seeburg offered a number of subscription "plans" intended for various settings, which they called Basic, Mood, and Instrumental. The strictly enforced obsolescence of the music discs and the styling of the unit itself makes the Seeburg 1000 highly collectible today, thankfully, interested parties can stream the music online for free at

By the same time, radio stations had moved away from records and towards the new endlessly repeating, automatically cueing Fidelipac cassette tapes, a kind of precursor to the 8-track. Fidelipac tapes were a single length of magnetic tape which spooled around inside its caddy endlessly; while best for voice announcements, it could also be played slowly enough and theoretically made large enough to allow for background music application.

The most impressive of these tape systems was the Cantata 700, manufactured by 3M of Scotch Tape fame. Consisting or two giant tape reels spinning around in a massive walnut box, 3M sold the device and tape outright to businesses instead of offering the subscription plan that BM Stations, Muzak, and Seeburg relied on and saw the device fail as a result.

That was in 1965, where the market was already overstuffed enough to see new options floundering. But cultural changes were underway - rock and roll came back, and now it was politically charged and experimental. The lightly relaxing music which once connnoted sophistication and modernity was the squarest of the square; just about the most damning thing you can say about any piece of music, then or now, is to called it elevator music - to call it Muzak.

The Decline of Background Music

Muzak and Seeburg continued trudging along, offering their subscription plans through the 70s and 80s while the various tape machines began to degrade, fall apart, and eventually be replaced by... the radio. Popular radio stations fled the AM band, crowding out BM stations. Grocery and department stores, accustomed to their FM receivers, kept playing the new FM program of popular hits. A few BM stations moved back to the AM band, but most just closed. After 8-track, after compact cassette, it was no longer classy or special to walk into a store and hear music playing - it was just something that happened everywhere.

In 1968, a company called Yesco began offering what they called "foreground music" - popular music of the day, intended to appeal to young Boomers. By the 80s, the writing was on the wall, and Muzak struck a deal with Yesco and began distributing their music programs through the existing Muzak channels. A few years later, both companies were purchased and merged. Yesco's corporate officers and headquarters ate up Muzak, which continued to do business only as a name - their entire strategy was oriented around Yesco's "foreground music".

In the 70s, Brian Eno sat in an airport for a few hours waiting for a flight and was annoyed by the canned background music. In 1978 he produced Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a mellow, experimental soundscape intended to relax listeners. Rolling Stone missed the point entirely, squawking that you could only appreciate the music by listening to it. In 1986, during the Muzak-Yesco merger, Ted Nugent, back then most associated with arena rock, made a public stunt of offering to buy Muzak for $10 million in order to destroy it. In the minds of many, Muzak, which effectively no longer existed, was still associated with inane social programming.

And yet, throughout all of this, wasn't there something unacknowledged just below the surface? In the 50s easy listening boom, records by Jackie Gleason, Henry Mancini, Les Baxter and Martin Denny pictured rigorously sexualized, perfectly up-do'd women staring temptingly out from the record sleeves. Compare this to the cover of any Mantovani album and perhaps we begin to wonder if the marketing of the Les Baxters of the world were perhaps overcompensating for something. Since the 50s, those who rail and rally against the constant musical backdrop of mood song have danced around what would otherwise seem to be their core complaint. Don't their protestations ultimately come down to the music being a little wimpy, a little emotional, a little... feminine?

Women were the ones who heard, supported, listened to, curated, purchased and played the genre we now know as easy listening. It was women who were home all through the 30s to get the taste for the light classical constantly blaring out from the crystal set. Women supported and enjoyed the addition of background music to take the drudgery out of factory jobs as they flooded the workforce during the war effort. And the modern cocktail hostess, armed with a fleet of up to date wonder devices like the washing machine and self-cleaning oven, provided the social lubricant of the 50s and 60s with her easy h'orderves and jello molds made with convenient, shelf-stable products. Mantovani, Liberace, Frank Chaksfield, Ray Conniff and Lawrence Welk played music that appealed to women, and there may still be a sublimated hint of sexism in today's detestation of the genre.

Today, aural relaxation techniques include everything from nature sounds to ambient music. Pop hits, perhaps from several decades ago, are more likely to be heard at workplaces than peppy little marches. The few businesses that do play light classical or jazz music do so in a deliberate attempt to differentiate themselves. While in the American lexicon "muzak" is today synonymous with any sort of canned music, you'll have to look pretty hard to find any genuine examples.

That is, except at Disneyland. Just as it won't take much online searching to bring up people who insist that background music contains "subliminal messages", Disneyland has always reflected the surface optimism and social engineering of the 1950s that some have always found so sinister. In 1957, Muzak was even purchased outright by Jack Wrather, television mogul and owner of the Disneyland Hotel. It's probably a safe bet that Disneyland used Muzak's "aural wallpaper" in several areas around the park in the early days.

Walt Disney was one of those twentieth century conservatives who supported large scale effort to improve the lives of the middle class. Born of blue collar cities at the turn of the 20th century, the product of the hangover from 19th century utopian fiction and the fallout of the great depression, Walt believed in massive public and private efforts like the building of the Eisenhower interstate system. I'm sure his EPCOT City would have played wall-to-wall Muzak inside its covered downtown, apartment complexes, monorails, and Peoplemovers.

It seems that, at least inside Disney, the association between a continuously flowing musical accompaniment and an automated, futuristic world never quite went away - EPCOT Center opened in 1982 with an entire, carefully orchestrated and custom recorded aural soundscape intended to set to mood. The styles ranged from bombastic at the entrance to ambient outside Journey into Imagination to unambiguously Easy Listening in World Showcase.

In the late 60s, Disney hired ex-radio DJ Jack Wagner to act as their permanent in house background music specialist. Jack's job was to clear the rights to and compile music into pleasing musical programs to play in the park - essentially, nothing but Disney's version of the "Stimulus Progression" concept. Prior to his assignment, Jack always maintained that "you'd go down Main Street and they'd be playing '60s musical hits like 'Mrs. Robinson'", which sure sounds an awful lot like something Muzak would have provided. But the story of Jack Wagner and his contributions to theme park background music are a story for another article.

While malls, grocery stores, department stores, and workplaces were switching over to the invasive hum of the radio, Disney held true to their convictions and background music eventually became an accepted facet of theme parks. In the 90s, Universal Studios Florida played pop hits from popular movies - none of that lame easy listening stuff! But their second theme park, the beautiful Islands of Adventure, had a much more traditional theme park musical background, setting the stage for their attempt to out-Disney Disney. The Port of Entry BGM remains one of the finest ever created.

Background Music and Moodsong in Context

Today, we are all music curators. The iPod taught everyone how tough it is to create the perfect playlist, and the disastrous effect following up Duke Ellington with Radiohead can have. What's more, theme parks are one of the only places left where you can watch background music still working. You can watch people pick up the pace in tune to the music on Main Street, or take on solemn, attentive postures inside the Hall of Presidents. It may be subliminal messaging or social programming, but it also works and makes people happy, which is what these places are all about.

There's never going to be consensus about background music, because there are as many people as there are options. But, you know, Muzak, or specifically Yesco - now called Mood Media - are still around, and they still sell sounds and even smells to retail chains. The "Muzak Principle" is still a sound one - consider how the teenagers who frequent, say, Abercrombie & Fitch would feel about those clothes if Garth Brooks were playing in the stores. Or how the patrons of Bass Pro Shops would feel if Run-DMC were playing at the entrance.

Meanwhile, certain sectors of the 50s and 60s Easy Listening genre have managed to shed their toxic reputation and bounce back to respectability. Thanks to his hipster image, Frank Sinatra has never really stopped being cool, but it's easier to find people enthusiastic about Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, or Nat King Cole than it was even twenty years ago. The re-emergence of cocktail culture in the United States has lifted a great number of moodsong purveyors of the 40s and 50s, and the subsequent re-emergence of Tiki as a popular drinking subculture means that exotica music is back in a big way. If you enjoy Percy Faith when he's orchestrating faux-Oriental nonsense under the auspices of a midcentury idol, you'll probably enjoy him in other contexts, too.

Ironically, the concept of background music may be making a resurgence. For many, just getting through a week is getting tougher and tougher, and any kind of stress-free outlet is appreciated. Next time you've had a hard day at work, try playing some Henry Mancini or Mantovani when you get home. It may not be chic, but it still works if you let it.

In 2015, Downtown Disney in Florida became Disney Springs, and the radio-style pop music which once haunted the streets of Downtown Disney was replaced with a mellow, nearly ambient selections of light jazz tracks. The new custom loop for the Marketplace is an hour and a half of unbroken ambient riffing which occasionally breaks into recognizable Disney tunes. It's as if the long arm of Stimulus Progression is reaching through time to gently guide us along, after all.

Elevator Music by Joseph Lanza, St Martin's Press, 1994
The Soundtrack of Your Life by David Owen, New Yorker Magazine, April 2006
A Brief History of Beautiful Music Radio by Richard O Connor, Percy Faith Pages, 2009
History of Muzak, Inc - Funding Universe
Seeburg 1000 BMS1 Background Music System - Techmoan
3M Cantata 700 - Techmoan


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