Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Early WDW Music

This post is intended to be exactly what the title states: a brief overview. Those who have downloaded and read my expanded notes to A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World will already be well ahead on this topic, but for the rest of my readers some preliminaries are in order.

Starting shortly on this blog I'm going to begin an ongoing series about the music which constituted the very earliest in-park background music, or BGM, at the Magic Kingdom as well as topics relating to it.

It's generally my goal to allow others to disprove me, if necessary, in future research, so consider this the start of a paper trail in which I'm going to reveal some very specific and obscure information. Please remember: myself, and my friends who helped me gather, compile and post this information, are human too, and can and possibly have made mistakes. Some of the conclusions you'll see me coming to could probably not be defended in a court of law and are based on interpretation of certain known factors. As you'll shortly be seeing, even sometimes obvious conclusions can turn out to be very, very wrong in the strange, murky world of early theme park background music.

So what is early background music and how do we know about it? It's time to...

Meet Jack Wagner
If you spent any time going to Walt Disney World or Disneyland in the 70s, 80s, or 90s you know that Jack Wagner's voice was ubiquitous. You heard this man's voice everywhere. Inside monorails, Peoplemovers, at ticket booths, during ride breakdowns, for parade announcements, and more. His voice is the one which, having been run through a synthesizer, provides the opening announcement for the Main Street Electrical Parade. Jack Wagner also voices the two most famous bilingual safety announcements of all time: "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas" and "Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor."

Wagner had been an actor, a radio player, and a disc jockey. Of interest to Disneyland fans is his long-running “Silver Platter Service” pre-recorded radio broadcasts of performances and interviews with Capitol Records performing artists, which are very much like the well-rounded audio experiences he would craft for Disney. Wagner’s experience in radio, voice over, music rights and clearances and compilations made him uniquely suited to what Disney was asking him to do. In fact, his one-man operation was completely unique in the industry.
"But there is more to Wagner's unusual occupation than discoursing for Disney. His voice has proven so distinctive that a growing number of corporations, police departments, airports and schools are paying to use it for their own purposes.

Wagner also is a versatile sound engineer with a knack for shortcuts and money-saving recording techniques that have made him popular among producers in the growing field of taped musical productions and video marketing presentations.

The same voice that tells the Tinkerbell story each night also hawks everything from weapons systems to pharmaceutical equipment.

For example, it was Wagner's voice, recorded against a backdrop of James Bond music, that pitched to Pentagon officials a proposal to purchase dune buggies loaded with rocket launchers and machine guns for desert warfare. The armored vehicles are made by International Ordnance Systems, a Los Angeles defense contractor. Hardly the stuff of bedtime fairy-tales." Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1988
 Walt Disney Productions outfitted Jack’s Anaheim ranch house fully with sophisticated audio and video recording apparatus wired directly to Disneyland. If Disneyland was to close early that day due to rain or fog, Wagner could create a new recording to be played in the park in his on-site recording studio and it could be playing inside Disneyland within minutes. He recorded announcements about ticket prices, special programming, events, and attraction spiels. His voice was the voice of Disneyland, and it would soon become the voice of Walt Disney World, too.

But Jack's influence stretched even further than that. Although Disney hired Wagner in 1970 as a contractor to act as their in-house announcer, his tasks also came to include overseeing practically all musical components of the Disney outdoor entertainment empire.

Working from his house, Jack Wagner essentially invented the idea of theme park background music as we know it today and set many of the stylistic conventions. There almost certainly was music that played at Disneyland in Walt's era, such as the Tiki Room "Lanai music", "When You Wish Upon a Star" inside Sleeping Beauty Castle, and the dozens of unique soundtracks and sound effects for the attractions. Still, there were then and remain areas of Disneyland with no formal continuously running musical underscore, such as Tomorrowland and New Orleans Square, but the Magic Kingdom in Florida was intended from the start to have continual orchestral accompaniment in every area. This was Wagner's task, and very possibly why he was hired in the first place.

Record from the Disneyland Sound Archive shows Wagner's notations for Tokyo Disneyland selections

Wagner's job was to work directly with record companies on behalf of Disney to clear specific pieces of music for broadcast inside a theme park - and he must have gotten them for good terms, because some of those pieces he cleared back in the 70s still play on today. Checking off tracks on the back of record sleeves, Jack obtained the clearances for his desired pieces of music - sometimes entire albums, sometimes just a single song. From there he would compile these pieces of music onto reels of magnetic tape, each following a specific theme... "Marches", "Polynesian", "Ragtime", etc. When Disney asked for a new piece of music to play at a specific shop, venue or even special event, all Jack had to do was work off his reels of cleared music and put together a new piece of BGM, or "music loop".

The masters were delivered directly to the Disneyland Sound Department in the Carousel of Progress building, who then would either send the magnetic tape off to Florida or start transferring the music themselves. Masters would wear out over time, requiring Wagner to compile new masters based on his notes or to come up with new pieces of BGM. As these magnetic tapes were retired or thrown out, they would circulate into the hands of collectors, which is how some of the early BGM tracks reach us today.

The broadcast standard for music had shifted throughout the 50s - as the complexity of radio broadcasts increased, it became impractical to have a half dozen turntables simply to play radio spots and station ads, and by the 60s the broadcast standard had become magnetic tape audio carts, like the Fidelipac one seen at the right. These could be custom cut to any length, would repeat endlessly, and were cue able by means of electronic tones which could either stop the tape, start it back up, or cue a second audio cart to start playing. This media format provided the recorded narration for monorails, ferry boats, show breakdowns, and more.

According to a 1969 press release, RCA contributed all of the speakers and playback devices used in the construction of Walt Disney World. Whether or not this is true (it was RCA themselves making the announcement, after all), and you can be sure that at least some of those devices were built to Disney's exact specifications. Below is a bank of custom machines based on the Fidelipac model below ground at the Magic Kingdom. These machines, each processing a single reel of magnetic tape capable of housing many channels of sound, could be synchronized to control the audio of a single complex attraction like Pirates of the Caribbean. They're something like extremely fancy variants of  familiar 8-track tape decks.

Custom audio cart playback machines in Magic Kingdom's DACs Central, mid 70s

Music that did not need to be kept synchronized was treated differently. Disneyland and Walt Disney World used the more familiar one-inch reel-to-reel tapes for in-park music. BGM has always been (and remains) mono sound, because Disney liked to use each stereo channel of a magnetic tape for different pieces of background music - the Main Street USA and Main Entrance music, for example, emanated from the left and right channels of a single reel of magnetic tape stored beneath the train station at Disneyland. The "banjo music" and "haunted caverns music" in Pirates of the Caribbean played from the same tape, and this remained the case even during the CD conversion of the 90s and the data chips which play theme park music today.

(Thanks to ColanderCombo, in the comments below, for helping clarify this section)

Interpreting Data
It's important to have this information handy because otherwise one could incorrectly interpret the extremely mystifying sets of data offered by some of these early background music loops. For example, because Wagner liked to create hour-long pieces of music for most of this career, one could conclude that some of the early loops are fraudulent or incomplete because they're also not an hour long.

In reality, because the in-park magnetic tapes were custom cut for each piece, they could be and often were any old length. The one-hour convention - still adhered to today - seems to have developed for two reasons. The first is that Wagner liked to use Scotch magnetic tapes to deliver his audio masters to Disneyland, no doubt because of the machine he had at his disposal back home. These tapes could house thirty minutes of music playing forwards and another thirty minutes playing backwards. The more songs he licensed, the more he could charge Disney for his services - so Jack had good incentive to fill the whole tape.

Reel from Jack's archive - WaltsMusic.Com

The one-hour convention isn't necessarily a technological limitation on Disney's part. As technology has changed, the way these BGM loops are constructed has changed. Many hotels at Walt Disney World use CD changers loaded with six CDs set to "random", resulting in six to eight hour background loops of no particular "order". Other hotels seem to have licensed many many hours of music tracks, arranged them alphabetically by title in iTunes, and called it a day.

Wagner was at least extremely scrupulous in his selections and often eclectic in his tastes. Once one has had enough experience retracing Wagner's steps, you start to be able to suss out what his methods were. As a result, I can offer these general principles I try to follow when looking at Wagner's early-era background loops:

- No choice is too obscure. If Wagner liked the sound of a piece of music, he would license it, and sometimes only it. Some of his choices are extremely surprising, such as playing "Theme From Minnie's Boys" from the album Appearing Nightly at the Piano by Merv Griffith on Main Street, USA. Jack seems to have loved that one, dropping it into his Main Street loops for Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland. It fits very well. Who knew?

- Reuse, Reuse, Reuse. Once Wagner had completed a loop to his satisfaction, he rarely saw need to change it. Of all the areas in the Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland's music changed the most between 1971 and 1993 - three times. In the mid-70s as Wagner increased the length and ambition of several pieces of music, even then he went out of his way to expand out the existing loops to a full hour. Some pieces of music repeated several times across the two parks and hotels. Pieces of music which appeared in the 1971 Sunshine Pavilion BGM track pop up again in the Disneyland Tiki Room Lanai loop for 1976. Pieces of music already recorded and owned by Disney were always used, such as the Main Entrance loop which pulled heavily from titles in the Disneyland Records portfolio. In many ways Wagner was extremely economical in his choices.

- Expand, not contract. Similar to the point above, but still worth noting: Wagner generally reused as much of his early work as possible. it's therefore possible to find traces of earlier loops in more recent ones, such as the bones of the 1973 Frontierland loop in the 1976 one. His 1989/1990 "New Age" Tomorrowland track supplied music still used today at Epcot - and which had its roots in music licensed and compiled for Tokyo Disneyland in 1983.

- No BGM was too obscure. This is a dangerous game to play, but it seems that Wagner created more loops than are strictly necessary, simply because Disney paid him as a contractor per work done. As a result he put together BGM loops for almost every shop and every restaurant at Disneyland and Walt Disney World - unique ones. As the BGM playback system modernized in the late 80s, many of these loops were removed and replaced with the general area music. This may help explain why we sometimes run into hints of things like two Adventureland Veranda loops - he made more than was needed.

It's a ludicrously complex maze, and one I'm still navigating. In the best situations, we have consistent loops from multiple sources and eras and dated live recordings. Tokyo Disneyland, which has changed their music the least of all the Disney parks and still uses many Wagner compilations from 1983, is also a useful source and one which is very well documented. Home videos on YouTube are invaluable clues. In the worst, you'll see me doing some "informed speculation". We may never know all the answers, but I do hope to dispel some longstanding rumors and provide an interesting glimpse at the sound of early Walt Disney World.

Hope to hear you soon!

Where it all happened... Jack Wagner's Anaheim "Studio". Set on Imagur