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Wednesdays with Wade: The Disney / New Orleans Connection

Wednesdays with Wade: The Disney / New Orleans Connection

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The continuing tragedy in New Orleans is heightened for me by the fact that Walt Disney had a special affection for that city and that affection was clearly reflected in his theme parks.

I suppose most Disney fans would immediately think of "New Orleans Square" in Disneyland as the major connection. It was the first new "land" added to the theme park since it opened in 1955. It was officially dedicated on July 24, 1966 by Walt and the Mayor of New Orleans, Victor Schiro. A reporter for a New Orleans newspaper wrote that "it's the next best thing to being there" and repeated the information from the Disney publicity material that it was built for almost the exact amount paid for the entire Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

When New Orleans Square opened you could hear the chants and ringing bells of a voodoo queen living off a balcony on the backside of the Square near the bathrooms and the train station. I always wondered if it was the infamous Marie Laveau who practiced voodoo in New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s. After all, her portrait could be found in both "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Haunted Mansion" when those attractions opened.

It wouldn't have bothered Walt whose massive personal apartment was being built over the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride where his wife Lilly would have been able to easily visit the nearby "One-of-A-Kind Shop" filled with antiques.

At the dedication, Walt said, "Disneyland has always had a Big River and a Mississippi sternwheeler. It made

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sense to build a new attraction at the bend of the river, and so New Orleans Square came into being - a New Orleans of a century ago when she was the 'Gay Paree' of the American frontier."

However, Walt's interest in New Orleans goes back to his childhood and his fascination of the big steamboats that journeyed from St. Louis, Missouri down the Mississippi to New Orleans. In fact, one of the things young Walt was looking forward to when he returned from France was to take a trip down the Mississippi on one of those steamboats.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon took place on one of those steamboats and the song "Steamboat Bill" was about a steamboat trying to beat the record of the Robert E. Lee to race to New Orleans.

On a trip to New Orleans in 1946 with his wife, Lillian, who was an avid antiques collector and loved shopping in the collectibles shops, Walt discovered a small golden birdcage with a singing bird and wondered if this type of technology could be duplicated on a larger scale. Most research describes this moment as the beginnings of audio-animatronics.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt had plans for the development of a New Orleans section next to the "Jungle Cruise". "Aunt Jemima's Pancake House" (later "Aunt Jemima's Kitchen" when it expanded in 1962 and then eventually the "Magnolia Tree Terrace" and finally the "River Belle Terrace") featured wrought-iron balconies in the style of New Orleans.

At the opening day ceremonies, hosts Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings both referred to the New Orleans flavor at the edge of Frontierland and the famous "Firehouse Five" played Dixieland jazz to inaugurate the area. A Disneyland postcard of the area stated: "down on New Orleans Street over in Frontierland...finest barbeque this side of the Mississippi..."

It was Walt who created "Dixieland at Disneyland" that debuted at the Carnation Gardens on October 1, 1960 and featured big name entertainers playing Dixieland Jazz. (Dixieland Jazz is more frantic and faster than Chicago Jazz or New York Jazz. Dixieland mixes elements of military bands with street parades and adds syncopation and rhythmic swing.)

The following year (September 1961) saw Louis Armstrong join the performances that had been moved to the Mark Twain steamboat. This event was filmed for "Disneyland After Dark" that was shown April 15, 1962 on the Disney television show and later released theatrically as a short subject both domestically and overseas.

Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans, performed again in 1962 and 1964-1967. In 1968, he even recorded an album entitled "Disney Songs the Satchmo Way" that brought the flavor of New Orleans to Disney standards. (Louis Prima who was the voice of King Louie in "Jungle Book" was also born in New Orleans.)

However, it was not just this special event that showcased the music of New Orleans. The streets of Frontierland echoed with the sounds of the South from groups like "Young Men from New Orleans" (the gag being they were anything but young) who performed from 1955-1966.

Johnny St. Cyr was the leader of the small group that included vocalist Monette Moore, Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Kid Ory (trombone) Joe Darensbourg/Paul Barn - clarinet, Harvey Brooks - piano, Alton Redd - drums and Mike Delay - trumpet. He continued to perform at Disneyland until his death in 1966 and the "Young Men From New Orleans" can be seen in the "Disneyland After Dark" special as well as clips from various Disneyland parades.

Another group was "Royal Street Bachelors" that performed starting in 1966. The leader, Jack McVea, was personally hired by Walt Disney himself. McVea kept the job for twenty-seven years, retiring in 1992. McVea was a famous musician in his own right having written the song "Open the Door Richard" in 1946. The original "Royal Street Bachelors" who all played string instruments included Harold Grant (who was replaced by Ernest McLean when Grant passed away) and Herb Gordy.

Other groups that kept the flair alive at Disneyland were the "Side Street Strutters" (that had a horn section) and "Bayou Brass" (that had a Cajun flavor).

The Disneyland parades were even influenced by New Orleans. Blaine Kern is known as "Mr. Mardi Gras" because when the Mardi Gras parades were offering only dim shadows of past glories in the Fifties, Kern became an innovator at creating fanciful, outlandish floats that included storybook characters whose heads turned and whose eyes moved.

In 1959, Kern met Walt Disney who was visiting Mardi Gras in search of new ideas. Walt was quite taken with one of Kern's more inspired creations: an18-foot-tall King Kong-like gorilla, with five men inside, that walked and made facial expressions. Remember this was when Walt was still trying to get a grip on the concept of audio-animatronics for his park attractions. Disney showed a clip of Kern's gorilla in an episode of his television program entitled "Carnival Time" where Ludwig Von Drake sends Donald Duck to report on the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Walt offered Kern a job to work as an Imagineer designing floats for Disneyland as well as working on other projects. Kern's boss, Darwin Fenner (the son of the Fenner in the Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith) convinced Kern to say "no" to Walt.

Fenner reminded Kern of his love for New Orleans, and his passion for Mardi Gras. According to Kern, "Fenner said, 'Son, let me tell you: You stay here in New Orleans, you're gonna be a big fish in a little pond. You go out there, you're gonna be a small fish in a big pond.' He said, 'Your fortune will be here in the future. Mardi Gras is democratizing, it's opening up to everybody.' "

However, Walt's studying of Kern's work helped inspire the re-design of Disneyland parades. Today, Kern's son, Barry, carries on the family tradition and he is the builder and designer of props and sculptures for Disney and other theme parks.

Of course, the most notable New Orleans influence on a Disney parade was the famous "Party Gras" parade in Disneyland in 1990 to celebrate "35 Years of Magic". In fact, the parade was so impressive that it was shipped out to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1991 to help celebrate the Twentieth anniversary of that park.

Singer, dancers, and stiltwalkers threw beads and a special Party Gras coin to guests and occasionally the parade stopped so the guests could participate. Huge forty feet tall floats of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto and Roger Rabbit rolled down the street and seemed to dwarf the Main Street buildings.

In the early 1980s, *** Nunis pushed for an expansion of the Shopping Village at Lake Buena Vista (better known as "Downtown Disney" today) by creating a moderately priced themed resort to resemble Port Orleans. The Empress Lilly restaurant would have been a steamboat that had docked to unload its cargo at this riverfront town where the guest rooms would have been "hidden" in buildings resembling a cotton mill or a boatwrights shop.

A New Orleans themed resort did appear on Walt Disney World property on May 17, 1991 thanks to Fugleberg Koch Architects of Winter Park, Florida in collaboration with Disney Development Company. It was characteristic of the New Orleans French Quarter with balconies, wrought iron railings, cobblestone streets, and courtyards but with Disney touches like trombone playing alligators. Blaine Kern Artists, Inc. were responsible for collecting and creating the many Mardi Gras props, such as the jesters. Some of the Mardi Gras decorative props were purchased directly from Mardi Gras warehouses in New Orleans. (On March 1, 2001, it officially merged with "Dixie Landings" and became Port Orleans: French Quarter.)

There are other more subtle connections as well but my sadness at the plight of the population of New Orleans that will be felt for years is increased by the realization of the many Disney touches that were inspired by that famous location and its colorful residents.

Hey, gang. Jim Hill here. Wasn't that a great column by Wade Sampson today? Reminding us of all the strong connections that the Walt Disney Company has with that city along the Mississippi. Mind you, due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it may be years before New Orleans regains much of the charm that made this place so enticing to Walt Disney. Which is why it's crucial that we now all do what we can to help this city and its citizens get back on their feet.

So if you'd like to help out the on-going relief efforts, both Wade and I strongly suggest that you hammer on this link. Thanks in advance for your help.

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  • WOW, this is one of the greatest articles I have ever read.  I'm from NO, a fan of WD, and an animation major at an art college.  I just found this article to be very inspiring b/c I look up to Walt and I love my home and animation.  I'm looking forward to the release of the princess and the frog.

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  • Good read. I learn something new and difficult on webpages I stumbleupon daily. It will always be fascinating to study content from all other writers and practice something of their websites.

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