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.