Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Refurbishment a Go-Go

These are exciting times for East Coast Disney Park fans - who all too often are forced to sit around feeling neglected - in that by now most of the major Magic Kingdom E-Ticket rides have received significant upgrades with the exception to Space Mountain, which is apparently on the slate for the near future, and even minor but still grating examples of deteriorating show have been addressed. Although the return of the spinning blades to Muff Potter's Windmill on Tom Sawyer Island seemed heaven-sent, even more delightful and surprising was the totally unexpected replacement of the water wheel on Harper's Mill. A bright shiny new water wheel turns there now, and it isn't evident except on very close examination that it's actually made of steel - beautifully painted, long lasting, lightweight stainless steel craftily painted to look exactly like wood - insuring that Harper's Mill will be creaking out Down By The Old Mill Stream for years to come. I simply haven't gotten used to expecting this sort of long-term investment in the parks' future on the part of Disney yet.

But the announced refurbishment of Country Bear Jamboree was a real moment of celebration at Passport to Dreams Headquarters - all too often as of late the show had been suffering from terrible audio and neglected audio-animatronics, despite the best efforts of the maintenance team to combat these deficiencies. I'm excited enough about this, in fact, to offer a wishlist for this refurbishment, and I may note here that I'm taking for granted that this monthlong refurbishment will already entail the installation of a true digital sound system, redressing of all figures in fur and costume pieces, replacement of interior finish and correction of those AA functions which have been intermittent for years. Here's a few more humble suggestions:

- Reprogramming of Bunny, Bubbles and Beulah to better match the original 1971 programming. This would necessitate the removal of their handkerchiefs and the return of their wickedly sarcastic little synchronized routine. The rest of the Bears were reprogrammed in 1991 to closely follow and improve the original animations, but these bears were reduced to merely flopping around where once there was wonderfully expressive animation. Also possibly not programmed or just broken for years are Terrance's swaying hips, which would also be a welcome return (remember how he's supposed to be "The Vibrating Wreck from Nashville Tech"?), along with Ernest's bopping body atop his little pile of logs.

- Replacement of Teddi Barra's swing mechanism, which often causes her to merely rock on her perch when she should really be doing quite a long swing, and an even longer one during "Ole Slew Foot". I saw this fixed a few months ago and broken again two weeks later, so it's clearly a faulty mechanism.

- Return of Dal McKennon's performance as Zeke on "Pretty Little Devilish Mary". The Randy Sparks version of "If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl" replacing the Pop Van Stoneman version is debatable, but McKennon is a genuine Disney Legend and returning his vocals while the audio is being worked on is possible and would go a long way towards currying favor among Bears aficionados (me and two other people... we have lunch every sixth Thursday of the month).

- Way way way Blue Sky, but everyone (even you, dear reader) wants to see the return of Melvyn, Buff and Max to the CBJ exit area. A wall could easily be constructed between Pecos Bill and the CBJ exit doors and the heads could easily be elevated off the ground a good six to eight feet to keep guests, who are more touchy-feeley than ever, away from the Bodiless Three. For those of you wondering, raising the ceiling would be fairly easy because the only thing above the drop ceiling is some storage space.

Similarly upcoming is a refurbishment to the Hall of Presidents, which may possibly see a third discrete version of that attraction as rumors have been circulating that WDI may nix the distracting and unnecessary "current President speech" and may even be making a new film for the show. Similarly persistent are rumors that Lincoln's speech may be the Gettysburg address from the "MORE Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln". Although it took a year and a half or so to get George W. Bush into the Hall of Presidents, I've been told that this was waffling on Disney's part - the idea was to just let the show go and tear the whole thing out to be replaced with a dark ride. After much beating about the bush the change was finally made sixteen months after Bush was inaugurated. There is no intention of doing this this time and Disney is ready, but if things aren't yet set in stone and if there is yet a sympathetic ear, I'd like to suggest:

- Returning to the Royal Dano vocals for Abraham Lincoln would be very respectful and tactful. These are the recordings supervised by Walt Disney and still the best available for their honesty and lack of ponderousness. If WDI wants to replace the current Lincoln speech with the Gettysburg Address, they should consider listening to the Dano version available on the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln LP. I have heard that one of the reasons for not reinstating the beautiful original Lincoln speech is that the lines:

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Should we expect some transatlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us in a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge..."

Makes this original speech impossible to use in the context of America's foreign and domestic entanglements today. Of course it was always presented in the context of "new words of wisdom from old words of prophecy", ie, from a time when America was fairly safe from outside invaders, and offered by Disney in the midst of the era of Mutually Assured Destruction. I think as a powerful notion the statement has as much currency as it ever did, but if Disney so chooses, the passage could easily be excised without losing much of the power of the speech. The immediate quantitative quality jump if the Dano vocals were to be dropped into the current show with nothing else changed should be evident and testament to the power of these recordings.

- Reconsideration of the film. Although I don't think a return to the original film is advisable - the length and prose form of that version is too much for most Disney visitors, many of whom are still wondering where the roller coasters and beer tents are (I swear to God I heard somebody say that with absolutely no irony once). But a halfway point between the excellent original version and the weirdly flaccid 1993 version can be made while still keeping the whole production under 20 minutes, especially if the ponderous slowness of the current Presidents roll call is reduced and the speech by the current President is removed. Here's a short list of things which must be reintroduced - at a minimum - to bring the impact of the show to something near its' original version.

* Fuller version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, still the most powerful moment in the show, which could be much more.

* Reintroduction of Benjamin Franklin's full comments at the Constitutional Convention would be valuable as it is the first full oration in the show and deserves some space to "breathe". WDI could score some serious Awesome Points here as well by introducing Franklin's musings on Washington's chair - so prominently featured in the attraction - featuring a rising or a setting sun.

* The screen must remain at its' "fully open" stage until the end of the film presentation or not used at all. Closing as it does now at the end of the Civil War it comes off as a strange gimmick rather than its' intended effect as a unique reflection of the broadening of America.

* The post-Civil War sequence must be reintroduced in some capacity and duration more than it remains now, and, most importantly, the end of the film needs something new. Ending as it does with the Saturn V rocket, this finale is a perfect single-image summation of America's achievements in the 20th century - or rather, it was in 1971. Today anybody in the audience would be hard pressed to even identify which rocket it is, where it is going, and so on. In 1971 the Space Program was one of the most exciting things about America, but this concept simply doesn't fully translate nearly 40 years later. Surely WDI can come up with an equivalence for 21st century audiences which will send off the film in an appropriate fashion.

- Reintroduction of Baker's full original Battle Hymn of the Republic finale. The American flag formed by the clouds and dawn sky happens far too quickly to be as subtle as is hoped - watch the original show and the little bit of quiet right between the Lincoln speech and the chorus starting to sing as the rear curtains part to reveal the Capitol is gooseflesh inspiringly perfect. The flag also forms so slows that one doesn't notice it until the curtains are practically already lowering, which is just about right. Any faster and the moment turns from a powerful cleverism to a big "ta dah!" moment and the subtlety is lost.

These are of course "best possible scenario" wishlist type items, and truth be told I'm just happy that changes are in the pipeline at all. Still, one must be optimistic about such things - my wishes have seemingly been heeded in the past, and after all, Disney is where Dreams Come True (tm), right? Right?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Blood All Around

The most valuable contribution of Country Bear Jamboree to the representations of American culture in the Magic Kingdom is its' resuscitation of Vaudeville and Vaudeville records - from the ambiance, the interaction of acts, and the forced interaction of rowdy audience and performers via the theater's talking mounted heads - this is perhaps the only modern survival of one of America's most potent and important cultural institutions. Make no mistake, many of the artists who shaped American popular culture in those heady days when entertainment was first starting to be recorded in "real time" documents began as vaudevillians: Billy Murray (The Denver Nightingale), Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and innumerable others. What's even more remarkable is that Marc Davis and Al Bertino snuck this history lesson in right under the noses of Disney guests and it has remained essentially unremarked on for 35 years. In presentation, especially in the use of a "host" bear, the mode of the show is not unlike that predecessor of Vaudeville, the Minstrel show.

The show also documents a wide variety of styles of what eventually became what we think of as "country" music, but which originally was folk songs like Big Rock Candy Mountain and Red River Valley, became "cowboy" music like Blood on the Saddle or, more familiarly to Disney fans, Blue Shadows on the Trail. It eventually became some of the songs represented in the show like Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine. But many of the songs represented in the Bear Band show date from the 1920's. Pretty Lil' Devilish Mary, Fractured Folk Song and Mama Don't Whup Lil' Buford all date from this era. So does Blood on the Saddle.

Even more importantly, the show uses many of the performers who were actually there for the roots of that kind of music, including Ernest Van Stoneman, Dallas McKennon and Tex Ritter. And although the songs in the second half of the show are mostly from the decade surrounding the opening of the attraction, their vocalization and arrangement is clearly meant to insist on their status not as "Country Music", which even back then tended to be garish and overprocessed, but as a continuation of the longer legacy of truly American music, folk music and cowboy music. When Bertino wrote in the introduction to the show that it would be "...songs from Americana", he wasn't kidding. To those who recognize that's going on in the show in terms of instruction through entertainment, it is a remarkable panorama of American music.

I recently ran across a very fun account of Tex Ritter's relationship to Disney regarding their use of "Blood on the Saddle" and, knowing that many Disney fans were unlikely to find this themselves since it's hiding in the unlikely location of a 3 LP Tex Ritter career retrospective set from 1973, did my best to record the relevant vocal portion (Ritter vocally introduces all of the songs on the set) and attach it to a transfer of the music portion done by somebody who actually owns a USB turntable. It doesn't sound perfect but it is listenable, and affords an opportunity for Disney fans to familiarize themselves with a proper version of a song likely generally encountered only through Country Bear Jamboree:

As a bonus, I've done the same for Ritter's two other most famous records for those unfamiliar with Ritter's booming voice:

Tex Ritter - High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me) w/ vocal introduction (3.6 MB MP3, 4 mins)
Tex Ritter - Jingle Jangle Jingle w/ vocal introduction (3.4 MB MP3, 3 min 43 secs)

I post this partially in an effort to clarify a misconception about the role of the Big Al character in Disney circles. Although the performance certainly is dreadful, "Blood on the Saddle" is intended to be a comedy song with its' out of tune guitar and outrageously stressed syllables. The joke is that the song is awful rather than, say, Ritter or the bear character, which is minor point but one lost if the audience does not know that the joke is the song itself. If one were to locate the 1937 Ritter film "Hittin' the Trail" where he actually sings "Blood on the Saddle", she can observe Tex puff up his mouth to spit out each syllable for comic effect. If then one watches the Big Al figure's original 1971 animation she will notice how faithfully Davis replicated this motion as best he could (with comic exaggeration).

Teddi approved.

- -

These songs were originally released by Capitol on record, although their rights currently seem to be in dispute, so please remember that these are presented here for edification / reference purposes only and no money has been earned by posting this material.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Welcome Return

So I've been meaning to post about this since at least Feburary when I discovered this item for sale at Downtown Disney, but a combination of my epic coffee posts over at Minute-by-Minute and getting sidetracked by other stuff means I've kept forgetting. Furthermore, I meant to include it in my my "Various Updates" from a bit ago to get all the current news items out of the way at once, but I decided this topic deserved its' own post and I'm giving it its' due here especially in light of my old complaining about it.

Recently released at Walt Disney World was an unassuming little set of thin paperback books available seperatley or together in a slipcover with a bonus fifth book: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. The bonus book covers all the resorts and such and is called Everything Else in the World. The books have generic front covers with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto and Goofy in a clipart pose in front of a box with a relevant photo per each volume. Don't let their thin lightweight paper printing and generic covers dissuade you: these books are great. They're about the size of the books Disney has been making available for the entire resort for the past few years, so the expansion into a five-volume set is an immediate and tangible quality increase. But open up the book and start reading. I was amazed, too.

They're actually very well written with the mix of atmospheric description and quality, no-nonsense information I was bemoaning a year and a half ago in Promotional Prose. They're also beautifully laid out with very carefully chosen pictures. I don't see any staged, lame-o fake families anywhere, and when a good recent picture was not in the cards the creators of the book went back to very old pictures indeed - I see some 1982 photos of Epcot in its' book!

I think where these books really shine is in their inclusivitiy and careful attention: just like the Souvenir Guides of old, you are presented with very few big "here's all of Main Street!" photos and many moments of small and careful attention, things you would actually remember. The text is similarly careful, and a number of grids and charts of relevant statistics are scattered throughout the books. Make no mistake, this is a full-scale return to the form of those early Souvenir Guides, and author Jody Revenson, designer Steven Rosen and editor Wendy Lefkon deserve great credit for their efforts.

It must be said that the text would be much more suitably contained in a hardbound book and the disconnect of exterior and interior in these volumes to me belies the work of another hand dictating their outwardly appearance and strange publication method. But the five-volume, matte paper approach has a trickle down effect on consumers: you can buy the individual volumes for a scant $7 a piece, and the whole slipcovered box with fifth book will run you something insanely cheap like $20. That means not only the fifth book is free, but the price of each individual book has dropped to $5. Regardless, in the future, I'd immediately purchase a hardbound version of these books.

Here's some of the more beautiful spreads in the books:

OK, I've complained about it and my complaint has apparently been answered. I've done my duty and shelled out for the books. If you also care about quality pictorial souvenirs, consider doing the same. If you can locate the five book set, it is well worth your money, not only to get the nicest thing Walt Disney World's published since its' 1998 -2000 "A Magical Year By Year Journey", but to support the work and show Disney that quality sells.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

For Further Study, #2

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all you ever do to expose yourself to culture is that culture approved of by Disney, then your world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product we all know and love. Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either (something I've been trying to establish here for some time now) and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers. I'll be exploring books, media, music, or whatever it is that doesn't directly relate to Disney but is useful/essential to understanding Disney product.


Hollywood was a strange place. In 1935, in the middle of the Depression, Warner Brothers Pictures was best known for outrageous musicals like Wonder Bar and Dames, James Cagney extravaganzas like (the still breakneck) Lady Killer and Picture Snatcher, and what were then congenially called "shooting gallery dramas" like the superb Public Enemy or, less glamorously, Bullets or Ballots. This was 1935, years before superb dramas like The Maltese Falcon, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Dark Victory or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To Warners' credit: Dick Powell, James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Busby Berkley, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Micheal Curtiz, and a surprisingly intact economy through six years of the depression by cutting salaries viciously, paring costs to the bone, and producing fast, furious mass entertainment with as much sex and scandal as could be ferried past the film censors. And in 1935, this film machine was turned loose on - William Shakespeare?

Although there is literally no 21st century fair comparison, this would be akin to Burger King suddenly adding Escargo, a Waldorf-Astoria salad and the Del Monico steak to it's menu. Warner Brothers was pure working class entertainment, fast, cheap, and rude. A snappy 69 minute Warner epic in the height of the form shows your grandparents had more going on than anyone ever expected; the best Berkley musical number has more sex and psychedelia in it than any "liberated" modern picture ever could. And here, this studio, was going to film the famous Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night's Dream - all singing, all dancing, all couplet reading.

The resultant picture is one of Hollywood's wackiest mixes of success and failure. Especially compared to the breakneck pace of the typical Warner product of 1935, Midsummer Night's Dream is a long, slow slog which is mired in self-importance - 150 minutes versus a more typical Warner 60, nearly a double feature by itself! Throughout the piece ballets of some description arrive to appear to be somebody's idea of High Art. Elsewhere, Dick Powell and Ross Hunter seem to be totally lost in the Bard's couplets while Olivia de Havilland perpetually looks confused.

Yet it has it's wonderful things too: Cagney and Joe E. Brown and the rest of the clowns perfectly interpret the humor of Shakespeare's working-class dolts who try to stage their own tragedy. Joe E. Brown, who famously voiced the closing line of Billy Wilder's drag comedy Some Like It Hot spends much of the final leg of the film in drag himself, rending snappy and hilarious American-style one liners from Shakespeare's gentle puns through pure force of personality. Cagney's Bottom the Weaver is unstoppable, except through the awkward mule's head he wears for a portion of the film, and Mickey Rooney as Puck is perfect. Rooney, in particular, may grate against modern sensibilities, but his Puck is an unhinged little devil with a cackling, annoying laugh and far too much energy, but Rooney, Cagney and Brown deliver Shakespeare to us rather than asking us to go to him as many other actors in the film do. Sometimes interpreting the Bard and making him relevant for modern audiences, especially in the case of his gentle comedies, requires less the gentle touch and more the sledgehammer. Warner's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the most gloriously alive Shakespeare film until Orson Welles unleashed his furious version of Othello.

And, of course, the beauty of the film. Directed by William Dieterle, with special effects by Byron Haskin and Germanic sets by Anton Grot,the film looks and feels unlike anything Hollywood has ever achieved, creating an atmosphere more convincing and less austere, but related to, the thick forests of something like Lang's Die Nibelungen. And when the forest nymphs cavort across a starry moonlit sky to the strains of Mendelssohn, conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the effect is poetry, not product.

Which brings me around to why we're talking about this accidentally great film on a Disney blog: this film is absolutely the source for Fantasia. The haunting imagery achieved by Warner - as the nymphs rise out of the mist or the retreat of the moth-fairy, carried by a bat creature into a starfield, as her arms flutter and sway in a spotlight and finally vanish - is a crazy mashup of high and low art which was essentially repeated in Fantasia, especially notably in its' "Dance of the Hours". Furthermore, this film is what British director Micheal Powell would later call a "composed film" - referring to the minute orchestration of image and music that he would perfect in his 1949 continuation of the Fantasia aesthetic, The Tales of Hoffman from Offenbach's opera. So there can be seen a line that runs through the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream, the 1941 Fantasia and the 1949 Tales of Hoffman as a sort of "unofficial triptych".

And of course let us not overlook the financial trick achieved in Midsummer and repeated with Fantasia: hijack a cultural institution (Reinhardt and Mendelssohn by Warner, Leopold Stokowski by Disney) to validate your culturally ambitious high-art-to-the-masses project. Both films required their creators to eat their shirt in the small towns but validated the makers' intentions. The difference is that in 1935 Warner still had Captain Blood, G-Men, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Black Fury to please the "Hix in the Stix". And in 1936 they would still have The Petrified Forest, The Singing Kid and 50 other pictures. In 1940, Disney had the esoteric Pinocchio to fall back on and the company was nearly sunk.

I'll let these three films' relationship to one another speak best in pictures. Please click to best appreciate.

Pixies in Pastorale: Midsummer Night's / Fantasia / Hoffmann

Oberon, Chernabog and Dr. Miracle: devils in the works

Fantasia / Tales of Hoffmann

Climax of Tales of Hoffmann / Salvador Dali art for Selznick International's "Spellbound" (1945)


And here's the list so far:

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Warner Brothers Pictures 1935, Dir: William Dieterle
The Tales of Hoffman, London Pictures 1949, Dir: Michael Powell
Last Time: Tiki Modern, by Sven Kirsten, 2007 - Taschen