Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Year of the Frog

I've been actively seeking out Walt Disney World history for around ten years now. In relative terms of the community, that makes me a little-bitty baby researcher. It's okay. Ten years sounds like a lot otherwise, but it really isn't, because it's not every day (or even every month) that something cool shows up. Probably the most significant aspect of Disney research isn't so much skill and perseverance as it is sharp observation and luck.

In 2008, Mike Lee turned me onto a Jungle Cruise mystery he'd been contemplating for a long time. I was able to put more information out there, but then out of nowhere this year the mystery was finally unraveled - twice, in rapid succession.

This is more a natural function of the internet age than anything appropriately mystical - even the most obscure facets of Walt Disney World history probably are preserved, somewhere, on some moldering obscure slide in an attic in the Midwest. The place was not obscure. Millions of people saw it in only its first two years, and they were armed with cameras, and home movie film. As more and more people have this film and these slides digitally scanned, more and more (and longer) videos are cropping up. Sometimes you get lucky. A few years ago, a snippet of film of Disneyland's infamous Hatbox Ghost materialized. That was 2011. As far as I'm concerned, 2014 is the Year of the Frog.

I've told this story before elsewhere on the site, but here we go again. At least it'll all be in the same place this time. A true Walt Disney World mystery: The Tale of the Vanishing Frogs!

In a weird way, the frogs never entirely "vanished". Always intended to accompany their significantly less impressive brethren who have managed to survive these 43 years - the giant butterflies - Marc Davis' giant frogs can still be heard  just past Inspiration Falls, although their bodies departed the place sometime around October 1973.

In the beginning, there was a concept drawing.

I've also seen versions of this where Marc wrote on the bottom "Replaces Man-Eating Plants", which at least is a tantalizing option. Now, what's interesting about the Florida Jungle Cruise is how completely faithfully WED replicated Marc's designs in the finished show:

Bottom photo: Joe Shelby

...And when it came to the giant frogs, MAPO was no slouch. The final sculpted frogs, as unearthed by Mike Lee and Dave Ensign, looked even cuter than the concept art.

So basically for about five years, we ("we" meaning the WDW internet community who cares about rubber frogs) have known that a) the frogs did indeed exist, and b) that tourists saw them, but what we didn't really have was any photos of them in situ in the park. We didn't have to wait long.

In May of this year, a mid-1972 silent reel of super 8 film appeared online, painstakingly restored by the webmaster of RetroDisneyWorld.Com. It's a beautiful watch. The colors are vivid, the shadows pop with that "Florida Summer" bright white intensity, the grain is clear and it's the next best thing to being there. Oh yeah, and the frogs are there.

It's just about three frames of footage between Inspiration Falls and the beached canoes, but there's five handsome looking frogs - two adults and three babies. Based on Mike Lee's maintenance schematic diagram, these appear to be the first cluster of frogs which appeared on the right side of the boat in the area that's currently home to a tarp and a skull on a stick.

(That squiggly thing across from the figure location is Inspiration Falls, the arrows indicate the direction the boats travel...)

It also just happens to be the spot I singled out back in 2011 as a possible frog location when I posted this 1973 Jungle Cruise refurbishment slide due to this cluster of men working on... something:

All of this was great news, but of course three frames isn't long enough to see the frogs move, just long enough to know they're there. But the Year of the Frog would not be stopped so easily. Just a few months later, thanks to a lucky eBay find by Brian Miles, a reel of 8mm footage from December 1971, showing what I can only describe as an astonishingly young Magic Kingdom, summonded the Jungle Cruise frogs yet again, for their best appearance yet:

Showing three adults and two baby frogs on a fallen log and tree stump attractively flecked with mushrooms, this frog grouping likely is the one across the river to the right:

(To anyone paying close attention at home, in this case the designation "F22" or "Figure 22" likely refers to the whole piece, ie the sculptural base plus five frogs, with each frog being designated A thru E).

Best of all, there was enough footage this time to get a taste of what these guys looked like in motion. Watch the adult frog's throat pouch inflate and the baby frog's mouth open:

As for the fate of the frogs, Park Operations VP Dick Nunis ordered them removed on the grounds of being "hokey". How these particular figures were singled out to be removed in a ride which, let's be fair, is not exactly known for realism, is unknown. I personally think they set an appropriately whimsical tone at the start of the ride which is more fantasy than reality, but what do I know. Anyway, a scene Marc Davis had designed for the end of the MK Jungle Cruise was repurposed to sit alongside the Walt Disney World Railroad, and one of the baby frogs was reutilized for this purpose:

The crocodiles are still there, but the fiberglass ambphibian has been missing for the past few years as of this writing. Let's hope it one day returns as an unlikely but still interesting remnant of early Magic Kingdom history.

Oh, and if you yourself have home movie footage of Walt Disney World, please consider getting it restored through Todd at RetroWDW's ImageWorks service. The results are beautiful and, best of all, the resulting footage will appear online and add to the growing treasure trove of material. The Jungle Cruise frogs are cool, but they're just one of hordes of early WDW mysteries which can be resolved. Thanks to international renown, a colorful local fanbase and a cadre of researchers who got started in the 1980s, Disneyland in California is very well documented and the reference material is only growing by the day. When the production team behind the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks wanted to re-create the look of Disneyland in the 60s, they went to fan sites like Daveland and Stuff From the Park to draw material. Walt Disney World's past is still clouded in time. So if you have the material, do your part. We can build a visual and textual history to rival any other. There may be another Year of the Frog waiting, collecting dust in your own house.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Music of the Matterhorn

When we're inside theme parks, our perceptions change radically. Things which may seem to be noteworthy anywhere else - a perfect sky, for example - become not so important, a mere backdrop to the fabricated reality. One of the sensory perceptions that seems to fade is background detail. When I was young, I'd drive myself to distraction trying to picture every detail of the parks in my mind and become worried I'd not really experienced them if I couldn't - especially the color of the sidewalks. And one of those details that seems to especially fade rapidly for people is background music.

I've noticed that people mostly tend to be dimly aware of musical genre and style inside the parks, and less aware of specific selections. In this way the parks simulate the sensation of watching films: when we see a Western scene on TV we usually hear Western-style music, and Frontierland follows suit. The mind smooths right over it. We're aware that appropriate music plays on Main Street, but most people would not be able to select song titles off a list.

But there's one exception to this, it's a background music loop that everyone notices: the yodeling music.

This may be because of sheer force of novelty. It's very rare to be in an environment in which yodeling is unavoidable, so it's the sort of thing that leaps out at you when you do hear it. Combine this with two attraction queues in which the wait was usually quite extensive - the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Skyway - and you have a situation where people are going to remember that yodeling, whether they want to or not.

There are, depending on how you count them, three or four distinct Jack Wagner created loops in this category - I call them the "Swiss" loops, and they all share a common, though largely unexplored, ancestry. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to fully explore the subject, but in the meantime let's take an intimate look at the most famous of them: the queue loop for the Matterhorn Bobsleds from 1978.

How Many Swiss Records Can You Have?

This loop comes to us through an authoritative source, which is Wagner himself - it survives as a physical reel to reel magnetic tape. It's circulated in various versions and various states of completeness through the years, the best of which was recently available through Walt's Music. "Best" may be subjective here, as most of the copies of the loop itself - which is a scarce 18 minutes and consists of polka-style music with Jack's overlaid safety announcements - is severely deteriorated. As park testimonial it's invaluable but as a listening experience it's somewhat unpleasant.

For a long time these existed as one chunk of musical material, all apparently from a single, unknown source. The one lead which existed was that one of the tracks was known to have been recorded by Fred Burri, Disneyland's in-house yodeler, and available on his record "Folk Music and Yodeling".

Thanks to Michael Sweeney, RocketRodsXPR, Pixelated, and others at MouseBits.Com, a fuller picture of the Matterhorn queue loop may be assembled.

I think the foundation of this loop is probably the Fred Burri LP, which, if I had to put money on, was probably used as the Matterhorn music in the years before the 1978 rebuild and Jack's loop came in. Jack appears to have gone to some lengths to match and complement the feeling of his selections to the Fred Burri recordings. The Fred Burri record wasn't released by Disney, but under Star Records, but they seem to have ended up with the rights somehow anyway: a Fred Burri selection was released as part of the 2005 "Musical History of Disneyland" box set.

The other two records were already in Wagner's back catalog of music due to his use of them at the Magic Kingdom in the early 70s, and both were courtesy of Capitol Records. Jack used to work for Capitol and had an amiable agreement with certain people inside the company. The records are A Visit to Switzerland and Music of the German Alps.

Disneyland - Matterhorn Bobsleds
Queue Music - 1978 - Comp. Jack Wagner

01. Im Chuchichäschtli
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

02. Alpaufzug Luzarner Chilby [edit]
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

03. At the Source of the Rhine
     Bundner Landlerquintett - A Visit to Switzerland

04. Naughty Boy Ländler
     Landlerkapelle Oberland - A Visit to Switzerland

05. Obervazer-Schottisch
     Bundner Landlerquintett - A Visit to Switzerland

06. Am Trachtefescht
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

07. Schi Scha Schatzeli [edit]
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

08. Der Klarinettenmuckel
     Alfons Bauer - Music of the German Alps

09. Schneidig Voran
     Alfons Bauer - Music of the German Alps

10. By the Bonfire
    Landlerkapelle Barner Mutze - A Visit to Switzerland

Thanks to Michael Sweeney, Pixelated, and Theme Park Audio Archives, I was able to rebuild the 1978 loop in Stereo with much higher aural quality than had previously been available. All of the edits and spacing is closely modeled on Jack's edits as preserved on the Walts Music copy.

Note that this version is slightly longer than the existing source tape copies. I had similar problems in synching up other Wagner loops for reconstruction, but both of these other reconstructions were based on live recordings by Mike Lee. This leads me to suspect that the process of transferring from reel to reel to result in the looping audio cartridges used in park resulted in a slight speed up. Or, for all we know, Jack's turntable just ran slightly too fast!

What is noteworthy when you have the entire source LP playing is how judicious Wagner was in selecting his tracks. A great deal of these 60s "Swiss" LPs consists of "Nature-Yodels", which are spare and almost dissonant to the ear. He definitely knew what he wanted, and edited the Fred Burri tracks to match. Often Fred will sing a few verses (or more) - Wagner dropped it all and got right on with the Yodeling.

Fred Burri, by the way, seems to still be around, although retired. Perhaps if you live in the Seattle area you can hire him to play your next birthday party?

The Alfons Bauer LP is an odd case. Bauer seems to have been promoted to capitalize on the momentary popularity of the zither due to the 1949 film The Third Man, and there's surprisingly little of him on his record. A more apt byline would probably be "Alfons Bauer and his 50 Friends". Regardless, the whole record is up on Amazon, split up not by individual song but by side, which is suspicious to say the least. At least nobody can say it's a bad value!

"A Visit to Switzerland" LP is made up of tracks from various performing groups, as are many of the other "Swiss" LPs Wagner worked with. In Swiss folk music, the name of the group changes depending on how many people are in the group and what instruments are used so that, in this example, a landlerkapelle is different than a landlerquintett. One way to translate Landlerkapelle Barner Mutz would be as "The Berner Bear Band".

Very little information about these artists seems to exist online, but what does exist strongly implies that Capitol was licensing these tracks from local music producers for fairly cheap, as the music was already ten to fifteen years old and had depreciated in value. Some of these tracks, recorded in the 40s, repackaged in America in the 60s, and combined into theme park loops in the 1970s - they still play at Disneyland and Walt Disney World today.

That has to be the most bizarre path to a kind of immortality on record. Who would suspect, generations later, their yodeling would be heard by millions each year - in Fantasyland?

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.
Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.