For an astounding number of years, Walt Disney held sway over American families with his weekly program, "Disneyland." In what was basically a commercial for Disney films, programs, and theme parks, the show was nonetheless cherished by the public, due substantially to the warmth and ease of the host: everyone's favorite uncle, Walt.
The creators of the "Walt Disney Treasures" line of DVDs have dipped their fingers in the "Disneyland" archives before, but the new 2-disc set, "Your Host Walt Disney," takes a hard look at Walt himself, and the episodes that best showcased his affability and showmanship in front of the camera, as well as his innovation behind. Like every "Treasures" tin, it's frustratingly incomplete, but what is here gives the viewer an appealing look at a legend at his most rehearsed, revered, and assured.
Disc One kicks off with 1956's "Where Do Stories Come From?," an examination of the various facets of inspiration that are taken into account when the Disney engine prepares a new project. The episode opens with the creation of Daisy's theme; Donald's main squeeze being one of the few characters without a fanfare of her own. After some tinkling on the piano and a few lightening bolts of imagination, the song is born, leading us into a cartoon short, "Crazy Over Daisy," from 1950.
Walt next turns his attention to the "True Life Adventures," the popular series of nature films he shepherded. Here, one of the animators reviews raccoon footage with the help of an animated Pluto, deciding how best to create a comic foil for Mickey and the opinionated yellow dog. We witness the fruit of this labor in "R'Coon Dawg," a 1951 animated short.
Walt's next area of inspiration encompasses the World War II effort, when the Disney Studios becomes a factory for recruitment and training films, and assorted bits of entertainment for the war effort. A Donald Duck wartime short accompanies this segment.
Finally, Walt and his crew unveil their love for model trains. And when I say love, I mean complete and utter devotion. This segment has only the loosest ties to the overall theme of the show, but it is an amusing glimpse at the obsessive collecting and building habits of the animators. The footage of creative legends Ollie Johnson and Ward Kimball crafting their train landscapes are entertaining enough, but once Walt gets a taste of the hobby, all bets are off. Uprooting his entire "backyard," Walt builds an insane dream playland for his train in a theatrical style befitting a studio mogul, much to the mortification of "Mrs. Disney."
Perhaps this ode to the relaxing joys of a weekend hobby is meant to lend some insight into the average animator's creative process, but mostly it feels like a bunch of middle-aged men showing off their toys. However, when the toys are this fantastic, it's worth a peek.
The "Disneyland: Fourth Anniversary Show" (1957) opens rather uproariously with a flashback that has Walt interrupted in an 1938 animation meeting by an opportunity to meet with Sergi Prokofiev, the composer of "Peter and the Wolf." Taken to a tiny, cluttered closet with an old piano, Prokofiev runs through the songs of his creation, while Walt stands back and watches with thoroughly rehearsed delight.
Flush with inspiration, Walt put "Peter" right into production, but along came WWII, putting a halt to the work. "Peter" marked the first Disney production when post-war work resumed.
Shifting gears quickly, Walt is soon overcome by an assault of Mouseketeers (including superstar Annette Funicello) who whisk him away to his surprise anniversary celebration. Marking four years of Disney television and theme park magic, the festivities including some signing and dancing from the Mouseketeers, appearances by Fess Parker and Jerome Courtland, and a good old fashioned tease for the upcoming "Zorro" television series, punctuated with a cameo by the man in black. It's shilling of the highest order, but absolutely enjoyable.
Things take a turn for the bizarre when the Mouseketeers pitch Walt their idea for a "Wizard of Oz" movie, which they promptly perform for what looks like a slightly agitated Uncle Walt and his tireless crew.
Rounding out the first disc is the 90-minute "Kodak Presents Disneyland '59" television special (1959). The crown jewel of the package, this is a rare and long thought lost glimpse at the party Walt threw to introduce three new attractions to Disneyland: The Submarine Voyage, The Matterhorn, and the Monorail.
The "'59" special truly is a remarkable time capsule not only of the era's media innocence, but of Disneyland as well. Still working out the kinks, but finally able to relax and enjoy its massive success, Walt Disney charged full ahead with his Imagineers to start shaping the park into the technical marvel it remains today. To commemorate his achievement, he threw one heck of a party.
The shows launches with a look back at Disneyland's creation; how that spark in Walt's mind grew to what stands today at the world's most beloved vacation destination. Art Linkletter returns as host for this special, picking up exactly where he left off at the 1955 grand opening celebration. Taking his place in the bleachers with a host of dignitaries and Vice President Richard Nixon, Linkletter can only do his best to keep up with the monumental extravagance that Walt planned for this special day.
A grand parade kicks off the excitement for both the families that crowd the Disneyland streets and the viewer, who can play the game "Is That Who I Think it Is?" in their own living room. Accompanying their appropriate land of the park, stars like a young Clint Eastwood (you have to look fast, but he's there), Dennis Hopper, Wally Boag, Tommy Kirk, and TV's Zorro trot along with the parade. Even "Music Man" composer Meredith Wilson gets a moment in the sun, briefly taking over conducting duties for the massive Disneyland Marching Band.
Because, after all, this is a commercial for the new attractions, the show segues into a short film on the submarine history that inspired the new ride. We also observe the dedication ceremony of the Disneyland fleet.
The action turns over to the Monorail, opening with a film that establishes the pure intention of this traffic-alleviating cure. Another dedication follows, this time with Nixon handling the speaking duties, and the man surely know how to...bore everyone in sight. Even Walt looks a little "get on with it!" in the background during the speech and problematic ribbon-cutting duties.
The Matterhorn dedication is far more involved, with mountain climbers scooting their way up the side of the attraction, finding their way to the very top where Swiss and American flags are planted in front of an awed crowd. Elaborate Swiss-style song and dance soon follow in front of the ride.
The show closes with parting thoughts from Linkletter, and Walt himself, who drops the ropes to officially open the new attractions to guests. Too bad the kids can't hit their cue on time, forcing Walt to freak out a smidge to get these juvenile customers to look excited. It's pretty comical to watch.
Oddly enough, it's the commercials that steal the show here (I can't believe I just wrote that). With Kodak being the sponsor of the big day, the ads featuring celebrities such as Ed Sullivan are the highlight of the program, gently urging viewers to take a Kodak with them if they want to take the best possible photos or films of their day at Disneyland. My personal favorite spot features Harriet Nelson extolling the virtues of her Browning Movie Camera while Ozzie naps on a Disneyland bench and Ricky and David fish off a raft at Tom Sawyer Island. It's classic television at its finest.
Disc Two begins with 1961's "Backstage Party," airing during the "Wonderful World of Color" era of the "Disneyland" show. This episode takes us to the Disney Studios for a private tour, offering a chance to drive down "Goofy Drive" and glimpse the workings of the studio during the average day.
We convene with Walt and are soon hustled over to one of the soundstages, where work on the feature film "Babes in Toyland" is just wrapping up. After Walt excuses himself, Annette Funicello takes over hosting duties, and what follows is an extensive look at this Disney live-action release.
We're introduced to actor Ray Bolger, who performs a little song and dance; Gene Sheldon and Henry Calvin ham it up; Ed Wynn yucks it up with his prop comedy that clearly inspired Carrot Top; leaving heartthrob Tommy Sands last but not least as he rocks out with the band.
The show concludes with the cast serenading director Jack Donohue with a song describing how awful it is to work for him. Of course, it's performed with a wink, but I'm sure there's more truth behind the lyrics than is let on.
"The Disneyland 10th Anniversary Special" (1965) is the most controversial selection on the DVD. Already included on the "Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland USA" DVD five years ago, it's a bit repetitive to include it again here (still in edited form), yet it does fit in nicely with the theme of this package, as it's Walt in his element, charming the viewers with plans for Disneyland's next big construction assault.
The start of the show introduces us to Julie Reems, or "Miss Tencennial." This perky lady was selected by Walt to represent the park on a worldwide tour during this critical anniversary year. Julie is an important figure for this episode, as Walt shows her no mercy from his condescension. Being both younger and a woman, Walt teases and prods the poor girl endlessly.
Following Julie and Walt into the workshop, we're shown models and ambitious plans for the new "Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" attractions. 1965 was a massive new step forward for Disneyland, now fully immersed in the new "Audio-Animatronics" technology that would soon define the park's limitless imagination. Just seeing the groundwork laid for these deservedly classic rides is a treat.
With a wink from Tink, the show magically transports Walt and Julie to the big anniversary parade, bringing out all the top-shelf costumed characters to delight the throngs of people who came for the party. Things get a little surreal when some dancing candles come out to hoof it on a massive birthday cake.
Recalling the 10 years of attractions and fun, Walt takes the viewer through the decade of progress at Disneyland. We even see Walt guiding such dignitaries as the Shah of Iran, the Prince of the Netherlands, and Ike and Mamie Eisenhower through the rides.
Jose, one of the Tiki Birds, soon pops up to meet Julie and narrate a brief history of Audio-Animatronics, and to breakdown just what it takes to keep the machines running.
Finally, Walt says good-bye to his little pet Julie, as she takes her United Airlines bag and prepares for her yearlong journey to spread the news that Disneyland is better than ever.
In keeping with the historical television presentation of the programs, all the episodes retain their anamorphic, full-frame aspect ratio. The picture quality of the DVD varies from show to show; most reveal hefty age defects, but nothing detracts from the viewing experience. With 50 years separating the original telecasts and this DVD, the material looks as good as can be expected without the full-court press from the Disney restoration team.
All the programs are presented in 2.0 Dolby mono. Again, due to the wear and tear on some of the shows, the sound isn't always crystal clear, but a majority of the material is in fine shape. There's nothing immersive here, but the mix reproduces the humble sound ambitions of the "Disneyland" show very well.
Both discs open with introductions by the "Treasures" unofficial mascot, Leonard Maltin. Here Maltin does what he does best: state the obvious, describing what we are about to witness on the DVDs, along with some talk on show history, and crucial A/V reminders.
The Disc One extras include:
"My Dad, Walt Disney" is a 20-minute interview from 2006 with Diane Miller Disney, Walt's last living daughter. Diane tackles each one of interviewer Leonard Maltin's questions like a pro, discussing her private family time with Walt, her marriage to 1980's Disney CEO Ron Miller, and the overall legacy her father has left behind. Diane shares wonderful stories of her time on the Disney Studios lot and her unique perspective on the construction of Disneyland. Her enthusiasm and lingering surprise that Walt continues to enchant and enthuse all these years later is quite endearing.
Also on the first disc is a photo gallery consisting of nearly 200 snapshots covering Walt's rise from dreamer to icon.
The Disc Two extras include:
"I Captured the King of the Leprechauns" (1959), already included on the "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" DVD, gives the viewer great insight into Walt's acting abilities. Here, Walt takes a tip from friend Pat O'Brien and travels to Ireland to meet with Darby O'Gill for some hot tips on where the leprechauns call home. Walt eventually meets up with King Brian to convince him to be in his new production. Loads of "Little People" film clips follow, some with star Sean Connery, doing his best to swallow his Scottish accent to pull off an Irish one.
"Disneyland USA at Radio City Music Hall" is a short six-minute film clip from 1962 of a big screen Walt trading dialogue with a costumed Mickey Mouse on stage at the legendary New York theater. Shot in Cinemascope, the short is played for laughs, but contains some breathtaking aerial views of Disneyland in its prime, as crisp and colorful as you will ever find.
"Working with Walt" (2006) sits down some of the stars of past Disney productions to gab about how wonderful it was to work for Walt. Ex-Mouseketeers, Tommy Kirk, and a frightening-looking "Babes in Toyland" star Tommy Sands take the time to share some anecdotes on Walt the myth vs. Walt the man. We learn he was a friendly fellow, but distant, and wielded his celebrity like a fine-tuned instrument.
"Your Host, Walt Disney" is perhaps the least revelatory of the "Treasures" line. What's included here is an important first step (or second step, if you count the material repeated here from earlier DVDs) to understand Walt in the context of his television show that meant the world to a generation of viewers. The DVD also serves as a potent reminder how Walt used television to his advantage, calmly and warmly serving as our guide to his empire. There's still so much footage out there to complete this complicated portrait of a man and his mouse, and for the initial effort, this DVD is well worth the time spent.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com