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Wednesdays with Wade: 25 years of "Disney on Ice"

Wednesdays with Wade: 25 years of "Disney on Ice"

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It's hard not to do so but when you hear the phrase "Disney On Ice," you probably think of the urban legend of Walt being cryogenically frozen (or the project done by several CalArts students who created "Waltsickles"). It is the same for an entire generation that hears "The William Tell Overture" and wants to shout: "Hi yo, Silver!" since it was the theme of the "Lone Ranger."

This year marks twenty-five years of partnership between Feld Entertainment and the Walt Disney Company in creating ice shows. And unfortunately, it is truly a hidden Disney treasure for most Disney fans. However, it took many decades for the two organizations to become partners and the route had many paths that had to come together.

I just saw the latest show, "Disney presents Pixar's The Incredibles in a Magic Kingdom Adventure" and just like many of the previous "Disney On Ice" shows I was impressed at the efforts made in character integrity, in ingenuity in sets and special effects and how the entire show seemed much more "Disney" than some of the latest entertainment offerings at the theme parks.

This gives me great hope since Feld has recently partnered with Disney to provide "Disney Live" which will be a series of non-ice stage shows featuring Disney characters. The first show with Winnie the Pooh and friends ("Pooh's Perfect Day") is currently making the rounds and is an interactive experience where "children and their parents will sing, dance and play along with Pooh and his friends" and is the first time that Feld Entertainment worked with Disney animators to create backgrounds inspired directly by the films using digital projection so the Hundred Acre Wood comes to life. ("Kim Possible" has been mentioned as a possible future "Disney Live" production.)

How did Feld Entertainment and Disney become partners? Well, as I said, it is a story with many different paths.

When you think of Feld Entertainment, you usually think of the circus. Ringling was the King of the Circus when the circus was king. The July 16, 1956 performance in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was the last performance of the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth under the direction of John Ringling North.

Irvin Feld and his brother Israel had made their mark as pioneers in the rock and roll concert tour business (with clients ranging from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Paul Anka and Chuck Berry) and they were familiar with the new arenas around the American cities and felt the circus could fit into those venues.

April 3, 1957 a new Ringling circus tour began as an exclusively indoor presentation with Feld in charge of booking and promotion. On November 11, 1967 Feld purchased the Greatest Show on Earth from John Ringling North at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

Within two years, Feld created a second unit equal in size, scope and quality. Over the years they hired Gunther Gebel-Williams, the popular German animal trainer and in 1968, Feld created Clown College to train new generations in the art of clowning.

In 1970, Kenneth Feld joined Ringling Bros., learned the craft of production and took over after his father Irvin's death on September 6, 1984 and looked for new opportunities for expansion. We'll come back to Kenneth in a few paragraphs.

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The "Ice Capades" began life as halftime show. In 1940, John H. Harris, a Pittsburgh rink owner, noticed that his hockey crowds swelled when he booked a figure skater to perform between periods. Harris envisioned an ice carnival that would entertain crowds in rinks across America. He hired professional skaters, comedians, clowns, jugglers, barrel jumpers, and swarms of scantily-clad chorus girls. For the early Ice Capades shows, Harris borrowed liberally from vaudeville. He combined the words "ice" and "escapades" to come up with "Ice Capades".

The first "Ice Capades" show premiered June 16, 1940 at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans and was a huge hit. One of the "Ice-ca-pets" (a scantily clad female ice skater) described it as "A Las Vegas show for the entire family."

In 1949, "Ice Capades partnered with the Disney Studio to showcase a lengthy segment that would feature Disney characters. That first show featured "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" who appeared on the back of the program book. That partnership of having a Disney segment in the "Ice Capades" show lasted for many years with the segments ranging from adaptations of "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella" to a salute to Disneyland itself.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt borrowed the Disney character costumes created for Harris's "Ice Capades" for the festivities. Walt attended the productions, watching the Disney inspired segments closely, and even hired one of the top "Mickey Mouse" character performers at Disneyland, Paul Castle, after he saw him perform as "Dopey" in the 1958 "Ice Capades." However, "Ice Capades" had a troubled future and some of those troubles were evident by the Sixties when it competed against other shows like the "Ice Follies".

Seeing the success of the Disney characters at the New York World's Fair in 1964, the Disney Company searched for another opportunity to showcase its characters which at that time could only be seen at Disneyland and created its own arena style show in 1969 entitled "Disney On Parade." Gene Columbus, who was a long time stage manager for those productions, jokes today that it should have been called "Disney On Wood" since it faced the same challenges that ice shows did of loading into arenas and dealing with moving sets and performers across the country.

After several years, Card Walker determined that the show was not making a substantial profit and the challenges of mounting the show were more trouble than they were worth. Feld had taken over the failing "Ice Follies" in 1980. The "Ice Follies" audience was elderly, and Feld had an idea to reinvent it by making it kid- and family-friendly. After being turned away by Muppets creator Jim Henson because Feld had fired a friend of Henson's, Feld approached The Walt Disney Company who initially weren't interested. However, arrangements were finally made so there would be a touring show of Disney characters.

"Walt Disney's World On Ice" premiered July 14, 1981 at a New Jersey arena and was an instant hit. That first show featured sixty skaters and four acrobats, and was a success. In 1986, "Disney On Ice" premiered its first international tour in Japan with "Happy Birthday Donald Duck." Today, there are five North American and two international touring spectaculars that showcase almost four hundred skaters in over two thousand performances each year. Each group does a different show. It is estimated that over twelve million people see a "Disney On Ice" show during a year.

Vice President of Creative Development for "Disney on Ice" is Jerry Bilik who recalled the first "Disney on Ice" production twenty five years ago that was supposed to focus on "a parade of Disney characters." To give the show an interesting storyline, Bilik created the premise that Pinocchio gets lost in Disneyland, and Geppetto goes looking for him, meeting various characters along the way.

"It's not 'Hamlet,' but it worked," he said.

That production was the first time an ice show "even thought of continuity," Bilik says. "Before that, we were doing 'Ice Follies' and 'Holiday on Ice.' We were really bored."

Bilik says the success of "Disney on Ice" productions is due not only to the sets and storylines that create a mood and theme, but to the skaters who make the show come alive. Unlike a typical ice revue, skaters in a Disney show often are required to act out the parts they are skating, he says, in addition to performing stunts and routines on the ice.

"The skaters are very self-motivated," Bilik says. "When they have to act, they embrace it. They feel it's a challenge. We can develop all the technical aspects of the show, but it's the skaters' skills that keep us going. They're not out there coasting; they're giving their all. The real show is not what we design but rather the crew and cast's performance."

Bilik is a talented fellow who not only arranges the music for the "Disney On Ice" shows but also writes and helps direct the shows. By the age of thirteen he had composed more than a hundred pieces of music from popular ballads to marches. He has also arranged music for television series including "Starsky and Hutch" and "Charlie's Angels."

The twenty-fifth anniversary show is very entertaining. "Disney presents Pixar's The Incredibles in a Magic Kingdom Adventure" is the story of the Parr family (Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack) visiting the Magic Kingdom. Of course, the Parr family is in actuality "The Incredibles" and keeping their identities secret is difficult when they are made the Grand Marshals for the Main Street Parade and Syndrome has popped up to capture Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

The show will appear in sixty-five North American cities before heading overseas. While the show is very successful as another adventure of "The Incredibles" (and yes, Frozone and Edna Mode pop up as well), what made me smile were all the Magic Kingdom references. From recreating the Jungle Cruise to an experience in the Haunted Mansion to another in "It's A Small World" (I knew those dolls could be a deadly menace given half the chance) to "Pirates of the Caribbean," this is a wonderful choice for a storyline in a year when we are celebrating the birth of Disneyland.

Fans of "The Incredibles" will love the show but fans of Disneyland will love it as well whether they know "The Incredibles" or not.

The show is truly in keeping with Walt Disney's philosophy of "family entertainment" where an entire family can share the experience and enjoy it on different levels. The kids certainly have fun helping rescue "The Incredibles" with their free "Incredi-Bands" (a special light up plastic wrist cuff).
While animated film director Brad Bird and Pixar seem to have had little input other than approving the script, the Feld creative team under the direction of Bilik captures the spirit of the characters and the spirit of visiting Disneyland.

As a special aside to you Disneyana collectors out there: Even if you don't enjoy attending ice shows, you should probably check out some of the items that Feld Entertainment Consumer Products churns out to support these "Disney on Ice" shows. For their latest production, not only are there "The Incredibles" merchandise you won't be able to find anywhere else, but also excellent Disney character-related merchandise. Take -- for example -- the icon for "Disney on Ice." Which is Mickey Mouse in a black top hat.

For further information on this exclusive merchandise, I suggest you give Feld Entertainment Consumer Products a call at (866) 295-2706.

Before I close out this week's "Wednesdays with Wade," I want to give a special thanks to Disney Historian Jim Korkis. Jim (as regular readers of this site already know) is not only a big Disney fan, but he is also a big fan of Feld Entertainment. And I just want to thank Mr. Korkis for helping me out with this week's article by providing me with some additional information about Disney and Feld history.

As he and I were exchanging e-mails during the research phase for this week's JHM column, Jim wrote that:

"One of the fondest memories I will ever have in my entire life is when I took my mom and dad to see Feld's 'Princess Classics' in Orlando. It was the last time my mom and dad were both alive together and they sat in the back row holding hands like teenagers and just being amazed at the beauty and entertainment. At intermission, my mom said, 'That was so wonderful. I could watch it all again!'

I had to tell her it was only intermission and there was an entire second act for her to enjoy.

The Feld staff that I have dealt with over the years are not only top professionals but caring individuals who really capture the magic and quality of Disney for family audiences. They have given my family and I much joy over the years. Their latest show is just another example of a special treat that too many Disney fans are missing because they don't know how great an experience it really is."

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  • Good post. I learn something new and difficult on blogs I stumbleupon each day. It's always interesting to read articles from the internet writers and practice a little something from other web pages.

  • I just saw the latest show, "Disney presents Pixar's The Incredibles in a Magic Kingdom Adventure" and just like many of the previous "Disney On Ice" shows I was impressed at the efforts made in character integrity, in ingenuity in sets and special effects and how the entire show seemed much more "Disney" than some of the latest entertainment offerings at the theme parks.

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