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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 10

Jim Hill

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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 10

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I spend weeks writing articles about Disney theme parks that haven't opened yet. Months researching attractions that never made it off the drawing board. A lifetime collecting never-before-revealed stories about Disney animated features.

None of that matters anymore. After the ton of mail I received last week from you folks, I now know what turns on DIG readers. Grabs your attention. Sends chills racing up your spines.

Not stories about corner cutting or staff in-fighting. Not items about soon-to-be-built attractions or soon-to-close shows. All I have to do to really excite you folks is write about ... missing geese.

That's right, kids. Geese. I was stunned by the volume of mail last Tuesday's story that mentioned - in passing - the mystery surrounding the missing "America Sings" geese generated. (I got hit with so much stuff that my "Outlook Express" account crashed and burned last Wednesday. My computer still hasn't fully recovered).

I want to thank all of you kind folks who came forward with information about the attraction. After wading though that vast pile of e-mail I think I can finally provide all your "America Sings" and "Star Tours" fans with a definitive answer to that all important question:

"It has long been rumored that the two labor droids featured in the repair bay at "Star Tours" are actually geese AA figures recycled from Disneyland's "America Sings" attraction. But - if "Star Tours" opened in January 9, 1987 but "America Sings" didn't close 'til April 10, 1988 - how can this be so?"

In my article, I jokingly suggested that maybe "the Imagineers just took two of the singing geese out of "America Sings" ... But wouldn't you think that someone would have noticed two of the attraction's AA figures were missing?"

As it turns out, a lot of you did. Many of you wrote to me last week, saying that you'd been to Disneyland during "Star Tours"'s first year of operation. During these '87 - '88 visits to the park, most of you went to see "America Sings" and noticed that something wasn't quite right.

(This reminds me of a story Imagineer Bruce Gordon - who served as a show producer on Disneyland's "Splash Mountain" - loves to tell. He used to say that the folks at WDI "wanted to see how many AA figures they could sneak out of 'America Sings' before anyone would notice.")

A lot of you then told me that you did notice that some of the singing geese were missing. Trouble is - none of you could then remember which "America Sings" sequence these AA figures had come out of.

Some folks told me that the two geese had been grabbed out of the "Songs of the Old South" segment. Others argued that one goose had been plucked out of the "Songs of the Old West" scene, while the other came out of the "Gay Nineties." One gentleman insisted that four geese had been snatched out of "America Sings" finale.

Oh my God! It's a conspiracy.

Thank heaven for Dan Alexander. Dan is a fan of my "View from a Hill" column. He writes in regularly with detailed information about Disney theme park attractions that no sane person should have access to. I am constantly amazed and humbled by Dan's in-depth knowledge of all things Disneyana- related.

Anyway, Dan has in his possession a video tape of "America Sings" that was taken during that attraction's last year of operation. This automatically makes Mr. Alexander the definitive authority when it comes the Disney goose caper.

After careful frame-by-frame analysis ("Notice how the goose's head snaps back and to the left ... back and to the left .. back and to the left"), Dan provided me with the all-important answer:

Old South sequence: 3 geese

Western sequence: 3 geese

Gay 90's: 4 geese

Modern: 4 geese

There you have it, kids. I think we Disney dweebs can all sleep better now, knowing that - at last - we finally have a definitive answer to the all important "America Sings" goose question.

Seriously, thanks to Dan for unearthing that tape ... as well as making me aware of the other questions that continually taunted Disneyana trivia buffs when it comes to "America Sings."

Kevin Yee - best known on the Web for his excellent, on- going DIG series, "Cast Place" - also provided me with some fun facts related to the missing geese saga. Kevin wrote to tell me that the Imagineers just jerked the geese AA figures out of those two "America Sings" sequences ... but neglected to reprogram the three remaining singing geese.

So now - when this newly formed trio would perform in the attraction's "Old South" and "Wild West" sequences - these geese would just follow their old programming. This meant that the AA figures would continually turn and acknowledge the now invisible fourth member of their used- to- be quartet. Folks who saw the geese robotic trio's perform this way during "America Sings" last year of operation describe these scenes as being "really creepy."

In a half-assed attempt to hide the fact that an AA figure was now missing out of each of these "America Sings' scenes, Kevin described how the Imagineers just piled props up in the spot where that goose used to be. This made WDI's decision to stick with the attraction's old programming all the more comical - as the trio of the geese kept gesturing toward these piles of crates and barrels, as if to say " Come on, you inanimate objects! Why don't you - SING!! "

After digging through all that e-mail last week, I was amazed to learn how many other people look back fondly on "America Sings." I mean - given the number of times I personally sat alone in the theater- go -round building, thinking "Am I the only person on the planet who actually likes this show - I was amazed to learn how many other Disney dweebs on the Web truly liked this old Tomorrowland show.

What really surprised me, though, was the number of folks on the Net who have made it their life's goal to account for the whereabouts of every single "America Sings" AA figure. You see, kids, not all of those computerized critters successfully made the trek from Tomorrowland to Splash Mountain. Some of these AA figures are still MIA.

Mr. Alexander clued me in to the mystery surrounding the old Grey Mare (It's believed that this car- driving Clydesdale may have undergone a sex change operation during its 1988 rehab at WDI. Now masquerading as a male, this "America Sings" favorite reportedly can be spotted among the AA figures whooping it up in Splash Mountain's "Laughing Place" sequence). He also revealed to me the current whereabouts of the show's infamous "Pop Go the Weasel" weasels (These rascally rodents supposedly ended up in WDW's "Splash Mountain," where they spend their days popping up and surprising guests in that version of the attraction's "Laughing Place".

Dan also told me about the "America Sings" AA figures that haven't resurfaced (yet) in any Disney theme park attractions. Disneyana trivia buffs are still on the look-out for all six sets of of the show's robotic narrators: Sam Eagle and that un-named owl.

And then there's the matter of that guitar- playing, rock- and -roll stork AA figure from the show's finale.

This stork robot - which (in a not- so- clever jab by Marc Davis at "those kids who listen to that rock & roll") actually had a dust mop for hair - has been unaccounted for for over 12 years now. Disney dweebs have been wondering for years whatever became of this AA figure.

Well, wonder no more, kids. I have found the stork!

You'll be pleased to hear, kids, that - after 14 years of endlessly playing watered- down versions of "Hound Dog" and "Joy to the World" in Disneyland - this bass playing bird found himself a cushy gig in Glendale. Nowadays, the stork robot is used to train Imagineers in the subtle art of programming audio animatronic figures.

Truth be told, this stork AA figure is WDI's equivalent of a final exam. Before they are officially certified to program audio animatronic for Disney theme park attractions, Imagineers are given two hours with this "America Sings" figure and a programming console. Their mission: Get a pleasing performance out of this robotic bird.

Believe me, folks. It ain't as easy as it looks. Many folks actually wash out of Imagineering's AA training course because they can't pass the stork test. (There's also a very tired WDI joke that's associated with this portion of the audio animatronic programming training course. When a would- be programmer gets to this point in class, his or her teacher says " Well, I guess it's time we give you the bird." Ha Ha. It is to laugh ... )

So - finally - the stork has been accounted for. But there are other mysteries associated with "America Sings." Questions like:

"What was the deal with Disney changing the voice of the AA Dog's voice that sang "Who Shot That Hole in my Sombrero?"

Actually, that's an interesting bit of Disneyland history. Something that might particularly intrigue those folks who get so mad at Disney's attempts to make its theme park attractions politically correct.

Disneyana fans who became so irate about that recent "Pirates of the Caribbean" rehab (where those salty old sots in the "Rape and Pillage" sequence lost their affection for femininity and began lustin' after lunch instead) might be interested to learn that changing shows and attractions so that they would not offend theme park guests is not a recent development at the Walt Disney Company. The Mouse actually began doing stuff like this back in the mid-1960s.

Take - for example - the changes Disney made to its films and theme parks due to the civil rights movement. Sunflower, the black comic relief centaurette character featured in the Beethoven's "Pastoral" sequence in the original version of "Fantasia", was snipped out of the picture. Bacchus's two scantily clad zebra attendants from this same segment of that film were severely cut back. Around this same time, Walt Disney Productions also gave serious thought to locking up all existing prints of "Song of the South" up in the vault and throwing away a key.

(Over 30 years later, it looks like Disney's done just that. Earlier this year, Disney Studio head Peter Schneider announced that "Song of the South" was going on permanent moratorium. As of this moment, the Mouse has no plans to ever re-release this 1946 Academy Award winner. Mind you, this moratorium seems to only be in effect in the United States. If you'd live in Japan and want to have your very own copy of "Song of the South," no problem. Just head down to your local laser disc shop and snap up a copy today. "Song of the South" has been on sale in the Orient for years now ... One can only assume that the Mouse sells this controversial film in Japan because the company figures that there are precious few African Americans in this region to offend. Though I bet you won't find any copies of Disney's infamous 1940s era anti-Japanese film, "Victory Through Air Power," on sale in the Emporium at Tokyo Disneyland. Funny how that works, isn't it? ... ANYWAY ... )

Back in the late 1960s, Disney also made an effort to keep Disneyland from accidentally its African American guests by changing the name of that Frontierland favorite - Aunt Jemima's Pancake House - to the Riverbelle Terrace. As they made this name change, the Mouse also fired the black woman who had played Aunt Jemima since the park opened in 1955.

I'm told that this woman - a much beloved member of the Disneyland cast - wept bitterly when she learned she was being let go. Aunt Jemima wondered what she had done to lose a job she loved so much. Disneyland management tried explaining to the weeping woman that it was nothing that she had personally done. It was just the changing times. ( That didn't do much to stop her tears, though ... )

ANYWHO ... Getting back to "America Sings" ...

When this Tomorrowland attraction opened in June 1974, this "Wild West" section of the attraction featured a Mexican dog wearing a sombrero who sang while seated on a burro. Using a comically thick Hispanic accent, this AA character did a truncated version of "Who Shot That Hole in my Sombrero?"

Just how thick was that accent? Do you remember Speedy Gonzalez from the old Warner Brothers cartoons? That's what this character in "America Sings" sounded like. (Curiously, the last time I listened to a recording of the original version of the Mexican dog in this Tomorrowland show, I couldn't help thinking that this AA figure's voice had been provided by the same gentleman who also done Speedy Gonzalez's vocals: late toon voice master Mel Blanc. Can any of you Disneyana trivia buffs out there confirm this for me?)

Anyway ... Almost immediately after "America Sings" opened, Hispanic guests began storming Disneyland City Hall and complaining about how offensive the Mexican dog character was. (Hindsight is always 20/20. But - given the great number of Mexican- Americans that live in Southern California and regularly visit Disneyland - wasn't it kind of dumb for the Imagineers to put an AA figure in this show that deliberately made fun of that segment of public? )

Startled by the numerous complaints this "America Sings" figure was receiving, Disneyland management immediately asked the Imagineers to come up with less offensive vocals for the Mexican dog. Within a month's time, the offending vocal tracks were gone. The Mexican dog had completely lost his Hispanic accent. He now sounded like your standard canine cow-poke.

That's pretty much it for my behind- the- scenes stories for "America Sings." I want to thank Dan Alexander, Kevin Yee and all the DIG readers who wrote in to share their tales of this Tomorrowland attraction and their memories of the missing geese. It's nice to know that there are other folks out there who now look at Disneyland's "Innoventions" shopping-mall-go-'round and think:

"I remember when there was a real show in that building."

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