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...”