Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Two Shows by Marc Davis - Part Two

America Sings

“Yankee Doodle remembers when
To make these songs ring true
People came from every land
To mix these tunes for you.

So we should al
l remember
As history mov
es along
That everything is b
etter now
For someone
wrote a song!”

The next Marc Davis venture was to be a fateful one, not only for being the first Disneyland attraction to be done more or less without the supervision of Walt Disney in some form (even the new Mickey Mouse Revue and Hall of Presidents attractions over at Walt Disney World were outgrowths of Disney-originated ideas), but a fateful foray into a world of “theme parks” that was teetering precariously on the razor’s-edge of complete upheaval. Since the opening of Disneyland, a number of smaller and essentially un-designed “theme parks” had been popping up around the United States under the names of Six Flags, Busch Gardens, etc. These low-end attractions often had their staying power through their collection of ever-expanding roller coasters and a new kind of guest was being created: the thrill seeker.

In effect, it would be an old-fashioned Disney-style show on a grand scale when, all around the US and even within Disney, it was making less and less sense to just not build roller-coasters. Between 1975 and 1980, Disney built five coasters, if we count the Matterhorn refurbishment as part of the craze.

And in the midst of all this 70’s hedonism, the bicentennial of America was (appropriately) approaching, and interest in American history and iconography was peaking. Florida’s park already had Country Bear Jamboree and Liberty Square, two enormously successful explorations of American history. At the same time, Marc Davis was at the tail end of his busiest period of themed design work, having just finished being a major designer on Walt Disney World, which also involved significantly redesigning some of his original Disney adventures such as The Enchanted Tiki Room and The Jungle Cruise. He had tried to save Florida’s Pirates from being a lame hack job (he didn’t). He had installed a double copy of Bears in Disneyland, plus a whole separate land. He had been and would continue to try to save his lost masterpiece, The Western River Expedition (he wouldn’t). And now, in the midst of everything, he would gather up a team of experienced accomplices and pay tribute to 200 years of American song.

Davis' Western River Expedition: Cast Out of Eden

The show would be wedged (literally) into the Carousel of Progress theatre, making it an uneasy fit in Tomorrowland and requiring something of the clever manipulation that Claude Coates utilized when he designed If You Had Wings, another slightly awkward fit in another Tomorrowland: finally emphasizing a vaguely suggested but positive “future” of (aviation, air travel, song, etc). But the show was a technical marvel, far outpacing the simple revolving platforms of the Bear show by flying in and out literally dozens of figures on hydraulic lifts. Stages rotate in and out of view, figures fly up and down, back and forth, and whole walls peel away to reveal new levels and layers.

Of course all of this is augmented by the fact that the stage itself stays still and the audience moves from set to set, which ultimately becomes the structuring motif of the show itself: because the scene is constantly changing, to build a sense of continuity Davis and Bertino built in a succession of repetitions which continue both within and outside of each “act”, with each act as an entire self-contained unit with its’ own patterns and variations.

The biggest and most brilliant pattern is the cleverly re-written verses of Yankee Doodle Dandy, America’s first popular song, which open and close each act and the show at large. All of this is actually performed by emcee Sam the Eagle, voiced by Burl Ives, and his comical sidekick Ollie the Owl, who structure the show itself rather neatly. There are further repetitions: four musical geese open each act dressed in the manner appropriate for the time, singing a fast medley of popular or representative folk songs before the main body of the act, representing more unusual and varied sources, begins. Infamously, a weasel appears in each act to loudly and unexpectedly announce “Pop! Goes the weasel! Hehe!” after unwisely being invoked by Ollie in the introductory opening. Each act builds to a large “keystone” number. And so on.

What these repetitions actually do, combined with the relentless onward turning of the carousel in exactly even units of time (for each act must run exactly the same length), is create patterns of setup and payoff – namely, expectation – which the show builds on for entertainment and comedy. This concept is actually an expansion of the “honk honk” created by baby bear Oscar squeezing his teddy bear in Country Bear Jamboree at the conclusion of each number by the Five Bear Rugs. Oscar squeezes his teddy three times in Country Bears, and each time it’s a laugh. In America Sings, the audience is tormented by that weasel seven times, the payoff being his final signing off of “Goodbye, goes the weasel!”

But the weasel structures the acts in a fairly complex way, often signaling a shift in rhythm and tone; between “The Birmingham Jail” and “Down By the Riverside”, between “Who Shot the Hole in My Sombrero?” and “The Tale of Billy the Kid”, and more. In the Gay Ninties segment he actually appears twice, once to downshift the exuberance of the showgirl pig’s rendition of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” to the more restrained accapella version of “Sweet Adeline” by the four geese and Blossom-Nose Murphy. Furthermore, the weasel’s interruptions are often followed by commentary by Sam and Ollie in a more leisurely fashion than the pace of the show can usually accommodate in the heat of the battle switching between songs.

He appears once more at the very end of the Gay Ninties segment, drunk, which is not only a structural payoff (he never again appears twice), but a linking “effect” and nestled right before another linking “effect” which itself structures the act and makes it unique: two descending cords played on a piano, which play immediately after the conclusion of “Home on the Range” and “Tah-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay”. And since “Tah-Ra-Ra” is so repetitive, and because it is followed by three more repetitions / variations on existing patterns (“Pop, goes the weasel! Hic!” / two descending chords / Yankee Doodle Dandy), the audience is suddenly confronted with four repetitions in less than ten seconds. The whole pace of the show suddenly “shifts up” to the manic pace required by the Modern Times act, featuring eleven songs at breakneck pace, the most of any act in the show (it averages around eight). The show structurally has increased the pace the necessary amount simply by repeating four elements in an intelligent and designed fashion.

The primary fulfillment of America Sings and Country Bear Jamboree is, in effect, structural.

America Sings also extends the concept of the narrator or master of ceremonies as presented in Disney attractions of the era. It’s important to differentiate between the pre-1963 Disneyland attractions and the post 1963 attractions in this sense. Ever since the Enchanted Tiki Room the idea of an “emcee” had gained popularity in Disneyland, as opposed to the early Disneyland “guides”. A Master of Ceremonies, as embodied by the Ghost Host, Jose the parrot, or Sam the Eagle, are diagetic to the environment; a part of the show which steps forward to greet us and act as a guide through a foreign locale. This differs from the Jungle Cruise skippers, Storybookland hostesses or even the captain recording on The Submarine Voyage Thru Liquid Space in that these personalities are “one of us”, a character who exists to explain and illuminate the scenery in the way which is essentially distanced (menacing hippos notwithstanding). A “diagetic” Jungle Cruise skipper could be a native of the region, or on the subs, well… a fish.

The show also represented two other significant benchmarks in the history of Disneyland. Its figures, machined and manufactured by WED, were among the best and most sophisticated ever produced. The balance between fluid motion and necessity – the figures are never over-produced, with too many functions, nor too few, but just right for their purpose – had finally reached a happy medium. So sustaining and excellent are these characters in their design and construction that they can still be seen in Disneyland, populating Splash Mountain, where they might as well have been produced yesterday. Second, America Sings marked the first time Marc Davis’ ability to draw beautifully realized and immediately ascertainable figures actually began to outpace WED’s ability to reproduce them. Although Blaine Gibson’s realization of many of the animals is charming and admirable, certain tableaus – like the prairie dog who sings “Home on the Range” or Mrs. Bunny with her children – simply cannot match Davis’ subtle and often hilarious staging and design.

You're gonna wanna click for larger versions of these, folks.

America Sings is a complex give and take, constantly setting up expectations and then defeating them only to set up further expectations; engaging the audience on a deep level, effectively getting us “where we live” - our desire to be entertained doesn’t mean we have to shut our brains off, either. Consider the opening moments where, an audience prepared to see an Audio-Animatronics review, hears a fanfare and sees a curtain open to reveal – two figures standing shock still. And they remain still, despite Ollie’s occasional blinking, through a fairly leisurely passage of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, whereupon Sam the Eagle starts moving like greased lightning. This is a reformation of the audience’s “contract” with the show, providing audio animatronics figures but not requiring them to actually move. This is a reversal of the opening of the Country Bear Jamboree, where the animation is sudden and unexpected. Here, the gratification of animation is presented, but delayed.

The way the show will raise and lower characters into view, have them slide in and out of sight, and then shuffle the audience ever onward is part of this give and take: which of course comes to a head at the end of the Gay Ninties segment, where first a tiny portion of the set opens to allow the “Bird in the Gilded Cage” to slide forward, then the entire back wall peels away to reveal an entire chorus line of chicken showgirls, two storks riding unicycles, and a drunk pig waiter. The climax of the Going West segment has the scrim “sky” suddenly become transparent to reveal more hidden figures. Perhaps best and most interestingly of all, two featured performers aren’t hidden or flown in at all: the “Boot Hill Boys” are present on set of Act Two for its’ entire duration, only performing their number in the last third of the presentation.

The Boot Hill Boys are, of course, perhaps the best indication of Davis’ ability to ‘animate a character’ versus simply ‘move a figure’. Their movements, appealingly simple, were more or less restricted to head raise, head turn, and beak open, but Davis made them entertaining and even funny by having them raise and lower their heads in effective synchronization, and even do a little dance with those two simple motions. Look at how much mileage Davis got from these two birds, then go watch a video of “Spaceship Earth” (vintage or current) to see the difference between ‘animating a character’ and ‘moving the figure’.

Yet after all is said and done, the Country Bears and America Sings could not be more similar, nor much more different. Both are, unmistakably, Marc Davis presentations and, for much of the history of Disneyland, Marc Davis Was Disneyland. Consider, for example, that as of 1972 there was not a single major attraction west of the castle (save Tom Sawyer Island) that he did not work on!

Yet America Sings, brilliantly and fully realized, teetering on the edge of a culture about to go Coaster Crazy, ironically, was the first and last Disney attraction to go for the full spectrum of emotions. After years of refinement, work, and discovery, America Sings seems to be WED’s moment to stand up and say “look what we can do”. As the first Disney attraction to go for and earn poignancy honestly, simply, and smartly, it’s hard for me to improve on the final lyrics of the show, one of the most famous popular American songs, so let these be a fitting close.

“Yankee Doodle always says
The past is just the start
Tomorrow will bring songs to you
That come straight from the heart.
Another thing he had to say,

Is life, is just a song
So everybody get in tune
And let’s all sing along!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne...”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Two Shows by Marc Davis - Part One

Between 1963 and 1975, WED Enterprises were on top of their game with attractions like it’s a small world, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Pirates of the Caribbean, and more. If so many of these Walt and post-Walt attractions turned out to be classics, they are also discernable as having evident and signature styles behind so many: Claude Coates, Rolly Crump, Mary Blair, and others. And the key creative man who got WED through two huge projects – Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion – was ex-animator Marc Davis. Davis was indestructible for many years, and if he had had his way, The Magic Kingdom in Florida would have been a very different place. He was also a certifiable genius.

Davis' early art for Disney as character animator on Bambi.

Davis was responsible for two keystone attractions at Disney parks, one made for and under Walt Disney and another a great leap into the unknown. Both are / were unique experiences full of his trademark wit and sense of character, and both were unique in the sense that they were stage attractions where the audience remained (more or less) stationary and the performers paraded in front of them. These are, of course, the twin Americana musical revues The Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings. One still exists, both have been badly mishandled, and both are among the most fondly remembered creations in American themed entertainment.

“There was a bit of jealousy there… Walt bought what he [Marc] did and he never bought what they did.” – Alice Davis

Note: I am assuming the readers are familiar with “Country Bear Jamboree” and “America Sings”, as this is an analysis, not a history. Those of us who don’t listen to these shows constantly may want to take a “refresher course” in the form of music or video (of varying degrees of legality) that may (or may not) be available online.

The Country Bear Jamboree

“He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump
Runnin’ 90 miles an hour, takin’ 40 feet a jump
Ain’t never been cornered, ain’t never been treed.

Some folks say looks a lot like me.”

One of the original Magic Kingdom entertainments, Walt’s original Bear Band Serenade can only be seen in the United States in Florida these days, where it originated, and is in that way perhaps fitting for these 20 musical bruins, one of The Magic Kingdom’s defining unique attractions in 1971. Originally designed for a ski resort in Mineral King national park, it is said that Walt Disney had seen the bear show, more or less. The extent that this is true is questionable as it is also reported that on his last visit to WDI he met with Marc Davis on the bear show and Davis had shown him development sketches. So although it is often reported that Country Bears was overseen by Walt, it’s more likely that Disney himself was about as responsible for the actual wiring, track, installation and music actually laid down in 1971 as he was with the interior show of the Haunted Mansion.

This was a Marc Davis show from beginning to end.

Davis' art, matched very closely by WED Enterprises.

Davishumor, which worked so well on attractions like Pirates, Mansion and Jungle, - where guests could “read” his joke or situation immediately upon entering the tableau – was transformed into something infinitely more subtle and varied when taken to the stage. His trademark style “gags” were subjugated into mere punctuation marks for scenes and passages and often transposed into repetitions of situations or events as necessitated by the action for comic effect. Country Bears, in particular, is all “character work”. Although the bears in Country Bear Jamboree are often stylized in such a way so that you can immediately understand their personality from first glance, they also are involved in developing action: the bears are not, in short, gags in and of themselves.

Davis always had a gift for designing characters who seemed to suggest whole back stories on first glance and placing them in scenarios where the identifiable dynamics of the character are often in opposition to the general scene: for example, a fat woman is being auctioned to rowdy pirates. Although the rotund lady giggles and obligingly shows her rear end to the drunken brigands, they shout down the auctioneer for the next lot on the block. Nobody’s getting what they want: the brigands their woman, the auctioneer his money nor the fat girl her groom. It’s basic character dynamics but it’s also one of the most famous and memorable assemblies of artificial humans ever put on display. It’s the character dynamics that impress us today, not the phony Pirates.

This is taken one step further in the Bear show. Davis suggests a whole backstage world we’re not seeing of bears rushing about, applying makeup, pulling up curtains. None of this is specifically pointed out in the literal minded way that later bear shows would add stereophonic bear stage hands: it’s done by having these characters designed so well and carefully, so correctly matched to a voice and having that voice correctly matched to a song, that it is simply unacceptable that those bears simply turn off once their number has been completed. We naturally fill in the blanks: where they’re from, how they got here, what they ate for lunch, etc. This is a triumph of artifice in the extreme sense: we’re not even reacting to humans up on stage, but exaggerated versions of them in the forms of bears! Singing bluegrass!

But the world’s illusion is total, from the macro (the Grizzly Hall “backwoods Victorian” setting) to the micro (the entrance hall’s floorboards are scuffed with bear claw marks). Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas wrote of the “illusion of life” in their famous animation volume. Davis was and is the foremost practitioner of this principle in three-dimensional animation – his canny eye has never been matched.

Davis – along with Al Bertino and George Bruns – created a show of enormously complex timing and rhythm. In this case it’s perhaps telling to show what they did right by comparing the original show to what the subsequent shows got so wrong in concept and execution. The essential plot arc of the attraction is that the bears put on a show, are interrupted by Melvin Buff and Max, continue to put on a show, are interrupted by Big Al, then have to defeat Big Al by drowning him out with song.

The drive of the show to resolve the rhythmical, building force of the songs: for about seven minutes there are five uninterrupted acts which build in rapidity and intensity, wavering between male and female acts, solo and ensemble acts, which build a cumulative total effect of having been seeing a real live performance. This is where the Vacation Hoedown version, in particular, fails: it does not trust the audience enough to sit still for about ten minutes of uninterrupted music with no real overt jokes: it is constantly interrupting the flow of the music and performance with asides, gags, mishaps, and other nonsense.

This sense of variety and, foremost, pace is why Bears still entertains but something like The Mickey Mouse Revue in Fantasyland, also a Magic Kingdom opening day show and also a unique Florida attraction, is today a barely remembered and rather tedious curiosity. Mickey Mouse Revue was particularly bad in letting down the rhythm and pace of each number with the next: following “The Three Caballeros” with the crashing bore that is “So This Is Love”. The Bears just don’t let up. On the other side of the equation, The pacing is so careful and succinct that although each number lasts only a few minutes at most, they’re adequately allowed to breathe so that Bears doesn’t have the effect of, whatever their merits or failings, Stitch’s Great Escape or Mickey’s Philharmagic, where the makers seemed to chafe at the idea of allowing any action to play for more than 15 seconds without having the hit the audience with a new “gag”

Davis and Bertino perfectly pace out the short numbers with instrument solos and variations; the effect is of the bears actually having to keep time and rhythm. In effect, this central segment of the show is what the bears have been trying to achieve in the first five acts and have been thwarted by the sarcastic animal heads. Each act significantly ups the ante of the previous. Once Teddi Barra’s swing number is over, the show has, in effect, no place to go once Big Al appears and sings his dreadful version of Blood on the Saddle. Henry and Sammy attempt to almost immediately recover the rhythm of the pre-Big Al material, but once Al (irrationally) returns for another solo, he threatens to disrupt the driving force of the music for, if the rhythm is offset, the show must, by definition, be over. This is why all the other bears team up to drown him out and prevent the building rhythm and structure of the music towards reaching its logical conclusion: once the pace is gone, the revue is essentially “dead in the water”. The show is structured so that the bears must fight to continue to have the attention of the audience. Just like in the vaudeville routines of the day, losing audience sympathy will result in being pulled offstage with a hook, ending the act and, by extension, the show.

Yet ironically the resolution of this conflict is also the resolution of the show itself for, once all the members of the Bear Band perform together, there is no further spectacle that can be provided by the troupe and the audience must be shuffled out the door, always with the requisite Southern hospitality: “ya’ll come back now, y’hear?”

Aside from the rhythm and pace, the second aspect the later shows seriously fudge is the characters themselves. Only Henry, Max, Buff, Melvyn and the Sun Bonnets seem to be the same characters: for no reason Liver Lips McGrowl becomes an Elvis rock and roll style character, which so badly misjudges the point of Liver Lips in the original show its offensive. The “thesis statement” of the show is stated by Henry almost immediately at curtain up: “A bit of Americana, our musical heritage of the past.” Modern rock and roll sensibilities are outside of the realm of these characters and show and placing Liver Lips as an Elvis character essentially misses the point that he’s the most unkempt, unattractive character in the whole theater. “She ain’t pretty, but I ain’t too… my woman ain’t pretty but she don’t sware none.” What’s the point?

A similar turnaround happened with Trixie, who gained a “big voice” with lots of gospel-style range. But the whole point of Trixie is that she’s enormous but has a tiny little voice and a petite attitude. However, most irritatingly of all, Teddi Barra was unsexed in all later versions of the show: giving her a rain slicker or cast makes the joke of a sexy bear on a floral swing rather beside the point. Worse, she was stripped of her accent, replacing those charming flat vowels with a rather bland and sweet non-regional accent. Where are these bears from, again?

When is this supposed to be happening, again? The date on Grizzly Hall in The Magic Kingdom reads late-19th century and the structure looks rather like Great Northwest territory colonial dance halls. The show inside is split between appearing in this kind of setting and having regional Floridian references thrown into the mix (the Tampa Temptation; The Vibrating Wreck From Nashville Tech, etc). Disneyland went the other direction, retaining the Floridian references but expanding the Northwest Territory theme into a whole surrounding land.

What is certain is that modern songs and references are outside of the realm of the attraction, although arguably Disney has been consistently breaking the Fourth Wall ever since cacti dressed up to look like the Seven Dwarfs appeared on the Rainbow Ridge Mine Trains in 1956. Still, the incongruity of these characters singing “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” or “Singing in the Rain” is transparent, in addition to removing half the ostensible purpose of Country Bears and America Sings – to expose the audience to kinds of music outside of their day-to-day experience. The Vacation Hoedown really just confirms the audience’s probably modern and narrow definition of “country music” in grand fashion. In the 90’s this kind of pandering even gained new speed in Imagineering as a proposed attraction transforming the bears into caricatures of modern country stars made the rounds. This tasteless idea was thankfully shot down with assured finality by that decade’s close and the failure of “hip” attractions like The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

The things Disney will sink money into…

Thankfully the bears still play on in The Magic Kingdom. Disneyland’s closure of their version and the drama surrounding it is well recorded elsewhere and will serve no purpose to repeat it here, suffice to say that in some ways Disney shot themselves in the foot while simultaneously trying to jump the gun by placing the bears way back behind the Haunted Mansion, out of any sane traffic flow, in the beautiful but usually vacant Bear Country. Placed right in the path of most guests, Florida’s bears still play to responsive and mostly filled theatres.

Old Zeke, from 1965 to 1971

In the mid-90’s some of the bears were reprogrammed to negative effect in Florida, this in addition to the mid-70’s re-recording of Zeke’s “Pretty Little Devilish Mary” and Ernest’s “If Ya Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl”. Dallas McKennon's original beautifully varied and complex vocal gymnastics as Zeke can only be heard on CD. Now Liver Lips can’t seem to stop jerking about randomly, the Sun Bonnets have lost their precise and wickedly sarcastic choreography in favor of generically sad flopping about, and Teddi Barra seems to swing a bit less. But short of a full scale restoration for Walt Disney’s World 35th (or 40th…), let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. After three and a half decades of performances those “silly singing country bears” are still one of the best things in the park. Thank god.

Return next week for the conclusion of this article.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Jungle Cruise Florida: Behind the Scenes

Taking a bit of a breather here in preparation of posting some big articles, so in the interim, here's some images related to the building of the Florida Jungle Cruise. There are several images of the building of the California version and one of the Florida version which are pretty commonly circulated, so here are some more obscure items for your persual. (Click for larger in most cases)
Taken during a mid-70's refurbishment to the Jungle, this shows how deep the hippo pool actually is, as well as the concrete trough that guides the Orlando boats. Below, a 1971 Pana-Vue slide showing the original end of the dock and a skipper riding a boat into the jungle, for reasons unknown. The Orlando queue was expanded in 1973 to include that whole stretch of riverbank on the right with the expansion of Pirates, losing some of the charm of appearing to cruise on into the jungle. Notice the original 1971 set dressing. I have an even older photo, from construction, showing that the Orlando queue originally had some steps up to the upper (forced perspective) boathouse level where I guess the foreman's office was. Also notice the artifical vine canopy, visible as the darkened area to the right.

I can't seem to locate a copy of the America Sings LP with the book of Marc Davis art at the front. Can anybody with it on hand scan me a copy of the pages in decent resolution, say 600 dpi? I'd be most grateful if there's any poor soul out there willing to help me out!