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Buck Sergeant Duck and other tales of Donald's 50th birthday celebration

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Buck Sergeant Duck and other tales of Donald's 50th birthday celebration

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So what are you going to do with your Memorial Day Monday? If you're out in Southern California and looking for a really spectacular patriotic event to attend ... I'm afraid that you're about a week late at this point.

You see, the City of Torrance's 52nd Armed Forces Day Celebration and Parade was held last weekend. With the branch of the service being honored this time around being the United States Army.

"And why should I care about an Armed Forces Day parade that's being held in Torrance, CA?," you ask. Well, some 27 years ago, a similar sort of celebration was held in this same city during the month of May. One that honored a longtime Disney star who also happened to be a U.S. Army veteran.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Maybe you've heard of this character? Donald Fauntleroy Duck?

Seriously, folks. The City of Torrance turned out on masse on May 19, 1984 for a parade and retirement ceremony for Donald Duck. And - yes - I said "retirement ceremony." The Duck had supposedly been inducted into the Army with his May 1942 cartoon, "Donald Gets Drafted." But the Studio  had never produced a cartoon or a comic strip that showed Donald being separated from the Service. Which meant that - by the late Spring of 1984 - the Duck had been on active duty for 43 years.

There was plenty of media on hand as Donald - in his WWII-era uniform - arrived
for his retirement / promotion ceremony. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Well, as part of Walt Disney Productions' year-long celebration of Donald Duck's 50th birthday, the U.S. Army decided to do something to acknowledge this cartoon character's long time in service. Which is why they sent a four star general - Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, Jr., director of the Army staff - out to Torrance, CA. to preside over a ceremony. During which Donald would simultaneously be promoted and retired.

"And what rank was the Duck promoted to before the Army then retired him?," you query. Appropriately enough, E5. Which made Donald a Buck Sergeant. Buck Sergeant Duck, to be specific.

Lt. Gen. Brown pins Donald's new E5 patch on the sleeve of his
uniform. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I'm told that Walt Disney Productions really pulled out the stops from Donald's combination promotion / retirement ceremony. Which means that they raided Disneyland's costume department and unearthed every single Duck-related walk-around character that had ever appeared in that theme park. Which is why - as Donald was being honored - not only was Daisy looking on, but so was Scrooge McDuck, Ludwig Von Drake and Huey, Dewey and Louie. They even reportedly put a cast member in Disneyland's seldom used Grandma Duck costume.

But you know who was not there for Donald's promotion / retirement ceremony in the City of Torrance? The Disney Legend who had been the Duck's speaking voice for the past 50 years, Clarence "Ducky" Nash.

Clarence "Ducky" Nash and his longtime feathered
friend. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All
rights reserved

Though - to be fair - the only reason that "Ducky" wasn't on hand when Donald was separated from the Service was because Nash had a previous engagement. You see, on that exact same date (i.e. May 19, 1984), "Ducky" was down at Walt Disney World.  Where Nash was serving as the Grand Marshall for the very first presentation of the Magic Kingdom's Donald Duck 50th birthday celebration parade.

And those who were in the Magic Kingdom on that day remember this parade well. Given that it featured a cast member dressed in a Donald Duck costume who was followed by 50 live Peking ducks. Who waddled after Donald as he was their Momma ... or Poppa, I guess.

Donald and his 50 friends rehearse for their big moment. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This particular publicity stunt was the brainchild of longtime WDW PR guy Charlie Ridgway. Who - when he heard that Disney Corporate was planning a Company-wide celebration of Donald Duck's 50th birthday for the Summer of 1984 - hatched this promotional scheme.

As Ridgway recently recounted during his appearance at D23's Destination D: Walt Disney World 40th's "Making the Magic Happen" panel:

Donald gets introduced to 50 Peking ducklings in the
Winter of 1984. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

According to Charlie Cook - who was Disney World's bird guy - the only way that we could train the Peking ducks to perform this kind of behavior was if Donald was introduced to them at birth. Which is why we then arranged to have a cast member dressed as Donald Duck to be on hand at a Miami hatchery when these fuzzy little duckling initially hatched out of their shells.

Then - to further re-enforce the bonding between these live ducklings and the costumed Donald Duck character - when these animals were finally moved on property in the early Spring of 1984, they were always fed by a cast member wearing the Donald Duck walk-around costume. Which is why these ducks then began to associate the costume with the reward of food.

Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck creator Carl Barks visit with the 50 Peking Ducks in
their holding pen at WDW's Fort Wilderness Campground. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that this Donald Duck 50th birthday publicity stunt went exactly as Charlie Ridgway had hoped. This Disney Legend still regrets his decision to bring Donald & all 50 of those Peking Ducks up to Cinderella Castle for a photo op.

We had made this giant birthday cake out of frozen corn that the ducks were supposed to nibble at. But as soon as those ducks saw the water in that moat around the Hub, that was all she wrote. It took us hours to collect them all up again, fish them out of the water.

This picture was taken just seconds before all those live ducks made
a break for the Magic Kingdom's moat. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This episode taught the folks at Walt Disney World that - no matter how well an animal may have been trained - its natural instincts are eventually going to kick in.

Which is why - after that initial photo op of those live ducks following a costumed version of Donald up Main Street, U.S.A. - the parade operations team opted to go  for a far more manageable solution. Which would still allow the public to get a peek at these 50 Peking Ducks over the course of Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration parade. While - at the same time - give these fowls far fewer opportunities, as this parade rolled around the Hub and/or past the Rivers of America, to take like a duck to water.

These Peking Ducks rode in style aboard Donald's 50th birthday float,
penned inside of clear acrylic circles. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"But what became of all those ducks after Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration was wrapped up?," you ask. Not to worry. Once this special promotional event was wrapped up in August of 1984, these Peking Ducks were broken up into pairs and donated to zoos all over the country.

And speaking of traveling ... Borrowing a page from Walt Disney Productions' highly successful promotional campaign for Mickey Mouse's 50th birthday back in 1978 (which involved putting Disney Legend Ward Kimball and a cast member in  a Mickey Mouse costume on the Southwest Limited. Where - over the course of a 5 day train trip - Ward & Mickey retraced Walt's fateful trip from NYC to Hollywood in 1928), the Company persuaded Pacific Southwest Airlines to dub one of its Boeing 727s Duck One.

Here's the prototype for that custom paint job which Walt Disney
Productions officials wanted PSA to do on Duck One. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In mid-May of 1984, Duck One then zoomed around the country, visiting 14 different cities in just 4 days. Starting its journey (appropriately enough) at the Burbank Airport, this 727 then flew to San Jose, Sacramento, Eugene, Oregon and Seattle. After an overnight stop in Seattle, Duck One then zoomed to Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and New York City. After spending the night in NYC, this flying birthday party then took off for Boston, St. Louis and Orlando.With the final leg of this journey going from Disney World to Atlanta to Camp Pendleton in California, followed by a special nighttime parade at Disneyland.

Which brings us back to Clarence "Ducky" Nash being the Grand Marshall of Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration parade on May 19, 1984 at WDW's Magic Kingdom. You see, "Ducky" and his wife Margaret were on board for the full four days of this whirlwind press tour. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see those two in among the crowd posing in front of Duck One during one of the stops on this trip.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And each stop along the way, this 80 year-old did what he could to help promote Donald's 50th birthday. Be it doing a radio interview with NPR and/or making an appearance at a New York City movie theater which was - at that time - screening a retrospective of the Duck's 150 shorts and 5 feature-length films.

Now you have to understand that "Ducky" had officially retired from Walt Disney Productions back in 1971 and was only doing Donald Duck's voice part-time at this point. But given that Nash felt that he owed his career to the Company, when Disney officials asked him to take part in high profile publicity stunts during the late Spring / early Summer of 1984, this octogenarian immediately said "Yes."

Please note the Mann's Chinese employees who are pressing the
feet of this Donald Duck character costume into the cement. Photo
by Con Keyes of the Los Angeles Times. Copyright Tribune
Newspapers. All rights reserved

Take - for example - the photo above. Which shows Ducky and Donald at Mann's Chinese Theater on May 21, 1984. Which is when Donald Duck became the 150th performer to have his feet immortalized in cement in the forecourt at this Hollywood movie palace.

Given that Nash had spent so many decades working in the shadows at Disney Studios, it was kind of a thrill for all of his friends at the Company to see Clarence suddenly getting all of this recognition. Sitting on the couch next to Johnny Carson on NBC's "The Tonight Show." Getting a plaque from President Reagan during a special ceremony in the White House's East Room in recognition of all those years "Ducky" visited kids in hospitals and then entertained them with his Donald Duck puppet.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, what people didn't know during the late Spring / early Summer of 1984 was that Clarence "Ducky" Nash was already sick with leukemia. But because he didn't want to put a damper of Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration, Nash always put on a brave face and showed up for every event Disney asked him to do. Be it the ceremony in June 9th when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley - in honor of the 50th anniversary of Donald's first on-screen appearance (in the 1934 Silly Symphony, "The Wise Little Hen") declared it to be Donald Duck Day in LA. Which was then followed by Clarence taking part in a ticker tape parade through Disneyland.

Or - better yet - Nash's trip back to his old home town of Watonga, Oklahoma. Where - on December 7, 1984 - Governor George Nigh declared that date to be Clarence Nash Day in all of Oklahoma. What's more, Watonga renamed a street Clarence Nash Boulevard in Ducky's honor.

Clarence "Ducky" Nash (1904 - 1985)

As it turns out, Nash's trip back home to Oklahoma was basically his last public appearance. Though Clarence has been selected to be the Grand Marshall of the 1985 Tournament of Roses parade, when January 1st finally rolled around, Ducky was just too ill to take part in those proceedings. As he dealt with the end stages of his leukemia, Nash was in & out of St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank multiple times over the next few weeks before finally succumbing on February 20, 1985.

But even then, Clarence was still trying to do right by The Walt Disney Company. In the weeks and months that led up his demise, "Ducky" identified an ambitious young animator - one Tony Anselmo - who seemed to have what it takes when it came to voicing Donald Duck. And in the limited time that he had left, Nash shared with Anselmo his many secrets when it came to the proper way to perform this irascible character.

Tony Anselmo with (L to R) Diane Disney Miller and Clarence Nash's
daughter & granddaughter during Anselmo's January 2011
appearance at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Copyright
The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

And given that Tony's done a stellar job of safeguarding Donald over the past quarter century (not to mention always going out of his way to acknowledge Clarence "Ducky" Nash as the originator of this Disney character's voice), I think it's safe to say the Duck is in good hands.

And given that I actually started out my career of covering The Walt Disney Company back in June of 1984, when - as a reporter for the Fort Devens Dispatch - I was assigned to write an article about Donald Duck's promotion / retirement ceremony in the City of Torrance ...

Buck Sergeant Duck salutes Lt. Gen. Arthur E. Brown, Jr. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... Well, I was somewhat pleased to learn recently (from a friend who works for the Department of Defense) that the Duck didn't actually retire from the Service 27 years ago. That - if you check the U.S. Army's active duty roster - you'll see that Donald's current status is listed as "inactive." Which means that - in time of war, if need be - this cartoon character could actually be called up once again.

Of course, given that Donald appeared on 400 military insignia during World War II, one might argue that the Duck has already done enough at this point to serve his country.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway ... Here's hoping that you and yours have a safe and happy Memorial Day. Just please make a point sometime today to remember all those who have served our country. Including one Donald Fauntleroy Duck.

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