Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Two

Devilish Mary (Traditional Song)
Zeke's ballad, about the beautiful woman he was married to for a mere three weeks, is a genuine folk song, the furthest the show stretches into the back catalog for inspiration. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this number is given to the Bear Rugs, who represent the sort of mountain minstrels who would've sung this song from town to town, both in appearance and variety of musical skills (Tennessee, instead of his whimsical homemade "thing", would played upright bass or, in some groups, sung from the prayer book). Zeke, especially with his original voice by Dal McKennon, seems to be the oldest bear in the show, and so would be a very tactile link back to the 20s and 30s heyday of Hillbilly music. In a show full of "uptown" Country tunes, the Five Bear Rugs are traditionalists.

It's not hard to find recordings of Devilish Mary. It's been played as a folk song, a rock tune, a square dance, and more. The lyrics (and the order of the verses) almost all differ from each other, especially in the gibberish section of the refrain which is sometimes sung "ring-a-ding-ding Mary" (which seems to fit well with her description as being sexually alluring) "ring-on-my-ding-on-my-derry", or  "rick-em-lick-em Mary", especially in the Western and Cowboy interpretations. There's no sure way of knowing exactly which version Davis and Bertino found in their research, although it's probably a good bet that its' lyric "every time I looked cross-eyed / she hit me on the head with the shevel" (hilariously commented on, deadpan, by Zed: "How sad") is what got it into the show as the representative of old-time Country. This version is by the Red Fox Chasers, and is easy enough to find online.

How Long Will My Baby Be Gone - Buck Owens - Sweet Rosie Jones - Capitol ST-2962 1968

Buck Owens was considered in the 60's to be a Country traditionalist. Beginning as a Rockabilly performer in the 50s, Owens' stripped down, guitar-driven tunes meet Rock and Roll halfway with their strong forward momentum. Owens also hosted TV's Hee Haw beginning in 1969, which almost certainly how Marc Davis and Al Bertino came to think of his music while assembling their Bear Band show.

Terrence, one of Davis' most inspired (and bizarre) creations for Country Bear Jamboree, is a sad-hearted mountain man, whose enormous height is only exaggerated by his pointed hat and his comically tiny guitar, which he strums furiously enough to outpace even Owens. Terrence is sometimes called "Shaker", especially for the publicity for the Disneyland version in 1972, as his primary mode of dancing is gyrating wildly. For the 1972 and 1983 figures in California and Tokyo, Terrence was re-engineered so that his hips and butt could move independently of his body, and was furthermore re staged in profile (instead of pointed straight out at the audience), which made the gag of his ludicrous dancing a little easier to understand. But for pure lunacy nothing matches Wathel Rogers and Bill Justice's programming of 1970-71, where Terrence shakes up the house by literally bobbing around on his tiny, stubby legs, so violently that the curtain behind him shakes. This action was so difficult to program and maintain that for many years the lower half of his body was simply turned off.

Terrence kicks off the second half of the show; he's out on stage seconds after "Devilish Mary" has finished and gets out his songs and his laughs in less than thirty seconds without any introduction at all: both a palette cleanser of sorts and the lynch pin for the furious later part of the Jamboree. His appearance and behavior is so strange, especially coming after the increasing weirdness of Liver Lips and Trixie, that the second part of the show develops an "anything goes" craziness. The audience settles in to see how outlandish the performers will become.

Owens contributed something else to Terrence besides his quick-fingered guitar: the drum beats in Owens' recording of "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?" likely inspired the bongo-drum fade out at the end of the number, memorably visually accompanied by the only "eyebrow duet" in the history of American theater.

All The Guys That Turn Me on Turn Me Down - The Stonemans - Dawn of the Stonemans Age - RCA Victor LSP-4264

The Sun Bonnets from the Sunshine State and their number "All the Guys That Turn Me On, Turn Me Down" is Country Bear Jamboree's pièce de résistance, the part that even those who can't stand the show enjoy. What could be a more essential musical number in the show? But it almost wasn't there are all; the little maids in blue were originally supposed to sing a very different song.

The track finally chosen was from the third of the Stonemans' best period in the late 60s, the awkwardly titled Dawn of the Stonemans Age. This is the record in which Roni, Patsy, Jimmy, Van and Donna began to experiment with a more eclectic sound, including this comedy duet for the family's youngest musical daughters. George Bruns' arrangement for the show is an interestingly honky-tonk take on the music. He also straightens out the rhythm a bit, making for a better song.

In the late 60s and early 70s and Stonemans, unable to find much work in Nashville's "uptown country" market, were extremely popular in California. I suspect that Bertino and Davis were having difficulty finding a song that properly matched their three Sun Bonnets before coming across both the song and the proper musicians for the job. Part of the trouble may have been that in this era the options in country music for women's songs was limited to songs about affairs or heartbreak, neither of which would've fit the character designs for Bunny, Bubbles and Beulah. Instead of making the three young girls sing about loss, budding desire thwarted probably seemed a better fit.

Did The Stoneman family get the job recording the music for Country Bear Jamboree as a result of this record? Because most of the Studio correspondence of the era has presumably been destroyed, we may never know. For all we can guess at, Davis and Bertino only looked at the record because the group was primarily female, a novelty for Country at the time. What they found was the sound of their show. Roni and Donna couldn't have guessed that their lighthearted little number would live on for decades, seen and heard by millions of people each year.

Davis' realization of the number as an Illustrated Song is ingenious. The Illustrated Song was a vaudeville invention, although movie theaters sometimes showed them too. The basic idea is that somebody stands up on stage and starts singing while hand-painted glass slides are projected through a magic lantern on the screen behind them. Here's a representative slide from 1907 that was reprinted for purchase as a postcard:

Although they hardly lasted into the 1920s, Illustrated Songs were sufficiently popular to cause at least one artist to make the leap from being a "model" for the glass slides into the motion picture: Fatty Arbuckle, one of the silent screen's funniest clowns, launched his career through the Illustrated Song market:

Starts Thursday! Blog

Besides the crazy characters and quick humor, one of the glories of Country Bear Jamboree is in its preservation of the spirit of Vaudeville, an art form that Davis would've remembered well from his youth which was largely dead by the 1960s (it evolved, in a way, into the television "variety show" - itself long gone). This is part of the show's claim to be a fragment of Americana, part of the tapestry of America that the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland offered to us. It's an all-inclusive portrait, including the snarky audience in the balcony (Melvyn, Buff and Max), the rapid pace of the numbers, and even the Illustrated Song. "All The Guys That Turn Me On, Turn Me Down" is the sole survival of the Illustrated Song in popular culture, and probably the most widely-seen example of all time.

If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl - Tommy Collins - The Dynamic Tommy Collins - Columbia CL-2510 1966

Tommy Collins, born Leonard Sipes, had a significant hit in 1966 with "If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl", a lively (if silly) romp of a song emerging, like Buck Owens, from the local sound of Bakersfield, California - a peculiar music movement that ended up influencing both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, one specializing in stripped-down rhythm.

The name of the song alone makes it a prime candidate for Country Bear Jamboree, but even more interesting is the bear designed for the tune, and here it's necessary for a bit of explanation for modern audiences.

Ernest plays a fiddle bearing his stage name "The Dude". "Dude" is used here in an obsolete meaning; it's not just a male or a cowboy, but a very specific and extremely colorful kind of dandy who began to appear in big cities in the East following the Civil Wars. Dudes wore high hats, big pantaloons, white gloves, spats and crazy-colored jackets and engaged in fashion wars to outdo each other. These urban peacocks were especially visible before the start of the Great War; although "Dude" continued to mean a dandy up until about the 1960s, the actual style was long gone by then. A Dude could also be a clueless city slicker; "Dude Ranches" were tourist lodgings intended for city folk from back East who wanted to see the Frontier.

 Ernest, with his tuft-feathered derby, neatly parted hair, and bow tie, revives the Edwardian Dude the same way the Sun Bonnets number revives the Illustrated Song. The joke is that he's a dandy city slicker (or at least trying to be one) stuck in this ludicrous Vaudeville show. And he has a fast paced, rather citified song to sing, one of the most recent and most popular of the fifteen represented. Yet Country Bear Jamboree is slightly out of time; from Henry's stovepipe hat, string tie and starched shirt bosom to the Victorian finery of the theater and the Vaudeville revival spirit indicate that we aren't in the present but somewhere indefinably in the past. We learn from the outside of the building that Grizzly Hall was erected in 1898 and from the proscenium arch that Founder Ursus H. Bear died in 1928; of course detail dates are just dates but if we take 1928 as the earliest possible fixed date of the show, then we may have our answer: Al Bertino and Marc Davis would've been in their mid-teens at the time. Grizzly Hall exists in some nostalgic recollection of the past, which may be one reason why putting Elvis costumes and camp t-shirts on the figures never worked well; it runs contrary to all of the other evidence presented by the show.

Heart, We Did All That We Could - Jean Shepard - Heart, We Did All That We Could - Capitol T-2690 1967

Teddi Barra is a complex Davis creation, consisting of an act that seems borrowed from famous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, a name that references silent screen sex goddess Theda Bara, and dialogue that quotes screen firebrand Mae West. Nesbit was a chorus girl who had an affair with a famous architect; one of their encounters involved a swing entwined with vines in a private room. Her husband shot the architect to death in Madison Square Garden, leading to an infamous and scandalous trial. Nesbit died in 1967 and was possibly on Davis' mind while he was drawing up Teddi. Nesbit also was the inspiration for the Gibson Girl, who was folded into the Disney theme park mythology in 1992 with the opening of Disneyland Paris.

Theda Bara, a silent screen sex goddess, was perhaps most famous for appearing onscreen in Cleopatra (1917) with as little on her as the movie industry would allow (hint: it's so little that even today it would raise eyebrows). Heavily promoted as an exotic mystery woman - her stage name "Bara" is "Arab" spelled backwards - Bara was likely remembered by Davis for her last name (one wondered if he and Bertino made lists of as many "bear" puns as they could think up). Most importantly, this is more evidence of Davis reaching into his childhood memory to produce an imaginative amalgam for the Bear Band show.

The third piece of the puzzle is Mae West, who handily replaced Bara as the silver screen's sex goddess once Bara retired in 1926. Mae West played bad women - thrillingly so, for audiences of the time. Her famous line "Why don't you come up and see me some time?" is actually from I'm No Angel (1934), but the movie everyone remembers it from is the previous year's She Done Him Wrong (1933), where she actually says "Why don't you come up some time and see me? I'm home every evening." In both films she plays a singer/dancer in a disreputable part of town, and even appears (in the same role) in a Frontierland-appropriate Western setting in 1940's My Little Chickadee, with W. C. Fields. The movie ends with Fields telling West: "Why don't you come up and see me some time?"

What we really see when everything is unpacked here is that Davis created his show-stopping show girl from a composite of three women spanning four decades, all quite unique but each piece contributing to the larger picture of a classic burlesque gal, unique but immediately understandable as a received image all at once. That's not bad for a fiberglass bear on a swing.

"Heart, We Did All That We Could" is another Nashville-style country standard sung by Jean Shepard, which charted quite high in 1966. Shepard was a pioneer female country vocalist in her era, but this is another case where the song is secondary to the bear performer and the iconic image. As of this writing, Shepard is apparently still in the Grand Ole Opry.

The Teddi Barra animatronic figure, by the way, is amongst MAPO's most ingenious creations: she sits on a static swing that's supported by the raising/lowering mechanism in the roof but is otherwise not animated; Teddi swings because in the hollow space inside her body is a pendulum that starts swinging back and forth to naturally power the figure. The pendulum is connected to a lever which activates her "foot kick" in appropriate rhythm. Like all of MAPO's best creations, it's mechanically elegant.

Blood on the Saddle - Tex Ritter - Blood on the Saddle - Capitol ST-1292 1960

Tex Ritter may not have been the definitive singing cowboy, but he lasted longer than most. Born 1905 in Texas, Woodward "Tex" Ritter was already an established radio and stage performer by the time he took the train out to Hollywood and ended up working for Grand National Films starting in 1936 in "Song of the Gringo".

The B Western, as unique an American invention as Disneyland, was unavoidable throughout the 30s and 40s before making the leap to television in the 50s and transmuting into the sort of series beloved my Marc Davis - Wagon Train and Gunsmoke. The reasons why B westerns were so numerous is complex, but even by the late 19th century when the West was still largely available to see, that time and place was transforming into the American equivalent of the England of Arthurian times - the national origin myth for a country still being born. But Hollywood, more than anything else, is what ensured that the Old West would stay forever young. Hollywood sits right on the edge of a desert, and it doesn't take much driving to find convincing Western locales, even today. Since Western stories are basically structured around encounters between civilization and wilderness, once you have your landscape you have most of the movie - from there it's just a matter of costumes and maybe a town set. And if you're planning on making a lot of Westerns, as studios like Grand National and Republic were, then all you really needed was one set to use again and again, plus costumes and actors. It was a low-cost, high-yield, low risk venture, and Hollywood was really really good at making them. The best B Westerns have an effortless companion-ability, artless they may be, and zip by in under an hour.

Tex Ritter made sixty of these shoestring spectaculars at a clip of about five a year between 1936 and 1945, ensuring his legacy and association with the Western even if he never made  a film most would describe as especially great. Most of Tex's westerns have him ride into town, sing a few songs, and maybe win the girl or defeat the baddies or find the gold - it's hard to differentiate when you're making a new movie every eight weeks. He sang Blood on the Saddle in 1937's Hittin' the Trail, his fifth film, and that film may be examined in detail at Archive.Org, having fallen into the public domain. It's a rare visual record of Tex singing a song that would come to be most closely associated with him.

Following the end of World War II and the impending dissolution of the Movie Studio system's monopoly on theater ownership - the arrangement that ensured that B Westerns had a ready market - Tex struck out on his own as a recording artist and sometimes actor. In 1952 he recorded his most enduring record for the film High Noon: "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", and eventually was a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry after leaving Hollywood for Nashville.

Marc Davis had his attention drawn to "Blood on the Saddle" by Al Bertino, whose performance of the song sold Davis on the comedy possibilities of the number. If you watch Hittin' the Trail and Tex's performance of the song, you'll see the the nucleus of Big Al's ludicrous pitching and lurching as he sings, which presumably Bertino imitated as Big Al is a tribute to him. However, WED did wisely license the Capitol Records 1960 Tex Ritter recording of the song, which is by far the best.

Big Al's appearance in the show, with his miner's cap and vest and out of tune guitar, clearly six sheets to the wind on corn liquor, is still one of the high water marks of theme park comedy. As a composite character of Tex Ritter's voice and Al Bertino's face and gestures, there is one final component: Thurl Ravenscroft appears to provide Al's guttural laugh at the end of his number.
The Ballad of Davy Crockett - Walt Disney Records
Ole Slew Foot - Buck Owens and the Buckaroos - Ruby - Capitol ST-795

The Big Al character is the figure who starts to cycle the show back around towards Cowboy and Western music following its lengthy tour of Hillbilly, Blues and Country circa 1920-1970. Undeniably visually a character from the West, with his Western gear and Cowboy music, Big Al's linked identity with Tex Ritter, a cowboy star, is matched by another famous Western song: Disney's own The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

The Western, as an idea and style, has always flitted in and out of fashion, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the two songs chosen for Country Bear Jamboree represent two of the high points for the Western in the twentieth century: a 1930's Singing Cowboy and Davy Crockett, poster child for the 1950's cowboy craze. The singing of Davy Crockett is also an interestingly self-reflexive moment, stretching back to 1954 and 1955, as the original Disney serial was produced as part of the Disneyland television series which sparked a merchandising bonanza worth millions of dollars. Disneyland, the TV show, raised awareness for Disneyland, the place, but helped fund it, too, and Davy Crockett was on hand to open Frontierland in July 1955. In a very different Frontierland in a very different place, in a show orchestrated by George Bruns, composer of the original tune, Henry's singing of the ballad seems to embrace the history of the past and the future all at once, linking Country Bear Jamboree with Walt Disney even while it moves forward with ideas he initiated. And, as of 1971, it was just old enough to count as nostalgic for most audience members.

As an in-house production, there's little need to provide "the" inspirational version of Davy Crockett here, but this version sung by Fess Parker is, I think, especially good:

It's also an interesting use of a Disney icon almost as recognizable as the Mouseketeer ears: the coon skin cap, which is one of the most interesting jokes in the show. At first blush, it looks to be a rare example of hat-on-hat comedy, another Marc Davis special, because what's funnier than somebody wearing a lot of hats on their head? But then we're fooled: the coon skin cap is a real raccoon (somehow), who then sings a duet, a compound joke that always gets a laugh. Hat comedy is a strange subset of humor, and Country Bear Jamboree has a lot of it: from Terrence's weird peaked cap to the Sun Bonnets' bonnets and Henry's stovepipe,  Davis' jokes constantly play up the incongruity of bears wearing people clothes to great effect.

Henry (and Sammy) don't get far into their song before they're interrupted by the irrational return of Big Al, which leads to the final number, another one certainly chosen almost entirely for being a song about a bear: Ole Slew Foot.

Ole Slew Foot is one of those songs that's been recorded by everybody, but the singer who owned that song was Johnny Horton, in 1962. Horton was a Rockabilly singer and in fact he recorded Ole Slew Foot in two versions - a country version and a rock version - and most subsequent performers actually imitate Horton's memorable vocal performance in their own versions. Horton is most famous for his 1959 "The Battle of New Orleans", which you've almost certainly heard, even if you don't know if you have.

Knowing this, it's unlikely we'll ever find out exactly which version of Ole Slew Foot Davis and Bertino heard, so I've included one which sounds very close to the version Bruns and The Stonemans performed for the show, by Buck Owens in 1971.

Big Al's "defeat" at the end of the show has been confusing audiences for several decades now. In 1991, when the original Bear Band show returned for Walt Disney World's 20th anniversary, many of the original programming profiles were updated to match the modern refurbishment and parts the Bear figures were given. At this point, the Big Al figure had a feature disabled in which he would lean back rather far while singing the word "blood", with the idea being that at the end of the show he simply falls backwards off the box he's sitting on, through the rear curtain, and off the stage (did we mention that he's drunk?). To accentuate this gag, air canons situated above the figure inside the proscenium arch would activate, making the curtain visibly shake as he crashes through.

You can see this in the 1971 "Grand Opening of Walt Disney World" and some early videos of the show. The 2012 refurbishment brought back the air canons but not the lean. To modern audiences, Big Al's ultimate fate remains a mystery.

To match Bear Band Serenade, as audiences leave Henry, Sammy, Melvyn, Buff and Max sing another new Bruns song"Come Again", a trick borrowed from the Enchanted Tiki Room to make the show exit lively. The LP release of Country Bear Jamboree lists the track as "Come Again / Come On In", with "Come On In" being the version of the song heard in Mile Long Bar as guests exit, never publicly released.

Mile Long Bar, as probably needs to be explained at this late stage, was part of a Frontierland complex sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay consisting of Country Bear Jamboree, the Bar, and Pecos Bill Cafe - a sort of Pepsi empire in the West to rival Coca-Cola's domination of the Tomorrowland Terrace in the East. The two beverages continued to be available alongside each other at The Magic Kingdom until 1982, when Coke picked up sponsorship of American Adventure and negotiated the exclusivity rights they still maintain.

Mile Long Bar was very much the partner facility to Bear Band, and upon exiting into the snack stand, guests would find themselves looking at another set of Melvyn, Buff and Max mounted heads, this time singing "Come On In" to the exiting crowds. The Stonemans also contributed perhaps a dozen additional tracks, some of which ended up on the Country Bear Jamboree LP. The full set played inside Mile Long Bar, at the Mile Long Bar that opened in Disneyland in 1972, and continue to play today at the Hungry Bear Restaurant at Disneyland. Some of these tunes also ended up in the Frontierland area music from 1971-1991.

Home Sweet Home; A Personal Reflection

I was something of a late comer to Country Bear Jamboree. It was a show I saw going to Walt Disney World as a kid, but it was never something my parents and I considered to be especially important or something we'd see repeatedly. I probably saw Country Bear Jamboree more often as part of my souvenir VHS video than in person. The things I remember most clearly from those early trips were the Sunbonnets and their lament, and thinking that exiting into the Mile Long Bar and seeing Melvyn, Buff and Max still in there singing was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

Aside from that, I didn't have much personal connection beyond a few viewings here or there. It wasn't until I moved to Orlando in 2003, and more specifically began to work for Walt Disney World, that I began to become more familiar with the show. Even then, I didn't really "get" it, although I knew I liked it well enough and didn't really know why. My interests in college, however, began to shift, and the more I found out about folk music, about vaudeville, about Tex Ritter, and began to experience the American mythology of its own past, the more deeply the show affected me. It wasn't until 2005, however, that the full brilliance of Country Bear Jamboree became apparent to me. As Shane at Parkeology points out, you need at least a dozen viewings. It just clicked one day, one viewing, and I've never looked back.

I became an addict. I'd see the show several times a day, and listen to the soundtrack incessantly. When I started this blog I had no real ideas about what to put on it besides photographs and some appreciations of the design of the various areas of the Magic Kingdom. It wasn't until my second month of writing that I combined my obsessions with structuralism and Country Bear Jamboree into one, put together "Two Shows by Marc Davis" and really hit on the appropriate combination of analysis, history, and speculation that continues here to this day. I owe much of my subsequent development as a writer to my desire to get inside the complexities of Marc Davis' Bear Band show.

There are worlds of things to unpack in Country Bear Jamboree, whether that be confining ourselves to the worlds of design, or of pace, or music, or even animation - each bear has unique little ticks and mannerisms, and each one of them becomes funnier the more you pay attention to them. I've tried to demonstrate some of its surprising depth in this article.

In this way, the show has almost never been the domain of vacationers, but locals, long time devotees and obsessives. Most of the people in Grizzly Hall at one point or another have been there before, and they comply with the rituals of the show - clapping and stomping, applause, or catcalls during Teddi Barra's number - and the tourists on board are swept up in a community experience. Country Bear Jamboree had the sort of relationship with its audience that the Enchanted Tiki Room enjoys in California - the community celebration of the ritualistic where everybody knows the words.

Something strange happens when you've had a Disney attraction in your life for a long time. Your relationship to it mutates until you can't even remember what it was like through fresh eyes, but it also deepens and takes of strange dimensions and unconscious connections. This is easy enough to find evidence of on the Internet, never mind this very blog here, but it's a very old phenomenon. One of the earliest examples I've found comes from the pen of Edward Prizer, who documented the construction of Walt Disney World for five years in Orlandoland Magazine before he wrote this in November 1971, when the paint was barely still dry on the hallowed planks of Grizzly Hall:
"By this time, I thought, I'd have formed my views on the individual attractions and be able to list them in order of preference. Instead, I find this becoming a virtually impossible task. First time around, I picked It's A Small World. This twisting voyage down a cavern filled with music and singing, dancing dolls and outbursts of color left me strangely exhilarated. The impact was directly to the senses, a hypo straight into the blood stream, turning you on like a neon sign.

On the second visit, however, I realized that the choice could not be made so simply. The Country Bear Jamboree was even funnier than before, and the ingenuity of it even more apparent. The Hall of Presidents, too, affected me more strongly the second time around. I listened more carefully to the narration and found it to be a prose poem of tremendous sweep and grandeur. I caught new meaning in the words of Lincoln. Suddenly I realized that he was uttering a message directed at the condition of our nation today... "If this nation is ever to be destroyed, it will come from within."

The Mickey Mouse Revue builds up to a rousing climax, all of the separate characters, after their individual performances, joining in the grand finale. You have to come back again and again, to experience the full impact of it.

The Haunted Mansion is the craziest thing I've ever seen. I've only seen it through once and can't render a final judgement. But I think of all it must be regarded as a thing of beauty evoking the images of Edgar Allan Poe with a whimsical twist. This is the kind of ambiguity that lifts imagery to the level of art. Most people, I know, won't see it in that perspective."
By January 1973, Prizer was writing of the best descriptions of what was not yet called the "Annual Passholder culture":
"And still we keep going back, after all this time, when anyone would think that the charisma should have been worn down to the bones... all the sights seen, all the surprises exhausted, all the thrills quenched. Perhaps somewhere down inside there's a stubborn streak of childlike wonder that won't let go after the onslaught of 50 years.

So there we were, on a Sunday afternoon, driving again out to Walt Disney World for some more. After all this time, there was still that inexplicable pull that kept insisting: put it all aside and to hell with all the stuff you ought to be doing. Forget it. The Magic Kingdom is just down the road.

Surely, I think, it's like old songs now, that are never too old and faded to listen to again. Or old wine that is even better each time revisited.

We ride down Main Street in the horse-drawn street car, plodding slow, with the gaiety and celebration all around us. At the castle, we have to choose - so little time - and we choose first the submarine. Although the lines are long, the journey 20,000 leagues under the sea is as much an adventure as ever. As soon as we surface, we're ready to head over to the Circle-Vision theater. Magic again. For through the miracle of cinema we soar across the face of America and see and experience the places that would otherwise have taken a lifetime to encompass.

There is a pause for coffee in Fantasyland, and then on across Liberty Square to Frontierland. Guns crackle in the shooting gallery. A trio strums bluegrass music in front of the old saloon. Some might call it corn. To us, it is still adventure. And because Artice has an enduring love affair with the bears, we work our way up to Country Bear Jamboree. By now, these zany animals have become old friends. Even though we know each song and scene almost by heart, we still get carried away and sit there clapping and stomping like any old tobacco-chewing hillbillies.

Back outside again, we find the Magic Kingdom wrapped in twilight. The myriad lights are blazing, and it is yet another world. We stop for a glass of orange juice in Adventureland and listen for a while to the steel drum band playing Calypso in the square.

Closing time is near. The crowds are thinning out. Another day in the Magic Kingdom is nearing an end. We drift with the crowds over the bridge and along the walk in front of the Crystal Palace and down Main Street and out the gate.

Yes, time to go home. But, really, we're not quite ready."
It's rarely been better said than that.

Country Bear Jamboree, along with its sister attraction America Sings and counterpart The Mickey Mouse Revue, can be thought of as among the last great Disney animated shorts. Al Bertino was from the Disney story department, and wrote the scenarios (and presumably many of the gags) for the excellent late 40's Donald Duck cartoons and the famous early 50s run of Humphrey the Bear cartoons. The fast pace and conceptual wit of Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings has Bertino all over it.

Wathel Rogers (left) and Bill Justice (right), program Henry in 1970.
And although he never worked in the theatrical shorts department, Marc Davis' sense of animation and visual language, as evident in his late career as his early one, is legendary, even if it only ever fully blossomed in the media of themed design. Marc Davis was so good at what he did that he kept getting the most difficult animation assignments that scared the other animators. Cinderella and Alice aren't flashy roles and are technically demanding, but those characters hold their respective films together, and had they failed, they would've dragged the whole production down with them. That's how good he was, and most of his assignments for Disney animation were thankless ones.

When Walt Disney raided his animation department for Disneyland, he took many of his most accomplished artists to WED. By the mid-50s, the Disney shorts department was floundering. Mickey Mouse was retired after the totally forgettable The Simple Things, while Donald continued to evolve in increasingly bizarre and visually complex shorts like No Hunting and Donald in Mathmagic Land. Following the opening of Disneyland, Disney theatrical shorts became increasingly rare. 1961 saw the release of just two Donald cartoons, one Goofy cartoon, and the inspired Saga of Windwagon Smith, a historical curio. Walt literally stole all of the talent away. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Disney themed design products set standards for the industry, while Disney animation rolled along through the doldrums.

Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey Mouse Revue and America Sings, in style, content, format and length, show the integrity and wit lacking in Disney animation product of the time. Although they were animated with fiberglass figures instead of drawings and cells, the pace, wit and energy is the same as in the best of what the studio could offer in theatrical shorts at the peak of their accomplishment. It's probably no coincidence that animation legends furnished Magic Kingdom with two great tributes to Disney's glory days of animated past, a past that was rapidly sinking below the horizon line.

All of these things: the shows' importance to Disney, it's reverence towards history, and its preservation of memory, argue strongly for its continued existence, even if the full-strength version, with its full dose of Al Bertino and George Bruns' relentless forward pace and stronger structure, has been taken from us temporarily (one hopes).

Because to many of us, Grizzly Hall is home, too. Just as much as the Haunted Mansion, which I'll never tire of, or the Liberty Belle Riverboat, which I lived on for months at a time, Grizzly Hall was home to me, it preceded me and I hope it will outlast me because the show is one of those things that is The Magic Kingdom's birthright. For generations guests have entered the beguilingly simple lobby, toed the bear claw scruff marks on the floor, and settled in the heavy-draped Victorian finery of the theater to clap with Henry, laugh at "Mama Don't Whup Little Buford", applaud for the Three Sun Bonnets and roar with approval at Big Al. Country Bear Jamboree is one of the art's most enduring creations.

The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part One
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Two
The Music of Country Bear Jamboree, Part Three


Leonard Bast said...

Thank you for this excellent musical history and analysis. Two things strike me as especially appealing and interesting about the Country Bear Jamboree.

First, though the Bears clearly do connect in format with the Mickey Mouse Review and America Sings, they’ve always been more “whole” than either of those attractions. Unlike the attractive-but-generic Mickey Mouse theater or the futuristic America sings theater, Grizzly Hall creates a setting with a real sense of purpose and history. The theaters of Mickey Mouse and America Sings were each beautiful and dramatic in their own ways, but they lacked the things that gave the Country Bear Jamboree such a feeling of verisimilitude: the fact that the theater had a name, dates, specific architectural details, a founder, and lobby cards of the performers, among other details. The bears create a sense that they’ve done this show before, that they work hard to hold it together, and that they are proud to present it.

The Country Bear Jamboree also is the only attraction ever created for a Disney park that adds to the canon of recognizable, named, fully realized Disney characters. Many attractions have exploited the existing film characters (e.g., Snow White’s Adventures, Splash Mountain, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight), and many others have created well-regarded and recognized figures (e.g., some of the Tiki birds, the Hitchhiking ghosts, various pirates), but no other attraction has ever given us such fully rounded (hehe), personable, memorable characters as the bears. Right from the start, there was themed merchandise of the bears, along with costumed characters that walked the park on an equal footing with Mickey, Pooh, and the Seven Dwarfs. Many of us who are infatuated with the Disney parks recognize Madam Leota or the pirate auctioneer, but everyone who has seen the Country Bears knows Henry and Big Al in much the same way that they know Pinocchio or Dumbo. It’s really an incredible achievement of imagineering.

Kristin said...

This has been an amazing and enlightening set of posts, for which I thank you immensely! Every time I think I know a lot about Disney park history, your meticulous research proves me wrong. And I thank you for that!


Great article! One correction -- The Mile Long Bar Music recorded for Walt Disney World did not play inside Disneyland's Mile Long Bar, but was used as the entry hall music to the Country Bear Jamboree's twin theaters. Disneyland's Mile Long Bar played needle drop music that was used for Teddi Barra's Swinging Arcade & Mile Long Bar (and at one point Sargeant Preston's Yukon Saloon at the Disneyland Hotel)

Golden Bear Lodge / Hungry Bear Restaurant originally had it's own background music -also needle drop music -that was ALSO the Bear Country pass -the rock wall near the Rufus cave- entry music. It wasn't until recently the WDW Mile Long Bar music was played at The Hungry Bear --complete with the Home on The Range track.

Back around 1998 Imagineer Dave Durham had proposed a redo of the Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland using current Country Western singers voicing the Bears. Not too far off from what your research shows WED kinda did back in '71!

-Mike Cozart