Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Hear America Sing!

"The Old Gray Mare, she ain't what she used to be..."

It's hard to think that Disneyland's America Sings has been gone now for 24 years, after a 14-year run (and even harder to think how Innoventions, the attraction that replaced it, has managed to survive just as long.)
Marc Davis' fanciful characters were pure genius and inspired Jody and I as artists more than just about anything else at Disneyland in the 70s.  

"Ain't gonna study war no more, no more..."

Here's a terrific LA Times article on the opening of America Sings in the summer of 1974.

"The Duo Behind America Sings" By Michael Seiler, Times Staff Writer

Helpful to a fault and proud of their new $6 million addition to the empire that Walt Disney built, a couple of senior Disneyland creative-types were doing a little mugging in front of the photographers at a press preview the other day.

Al Bertino and Marc Davis, co-designers of America Sings in Tomorrowland's revolving Carousel Theater, were dancing around the mechanical singing animals that appear and disappear from the floor and backdrops.

Lights were flashing and a worried mother rabbit was singing "Where is my wandering boy tonight?" to her brood while father rabbit's silhouette was visible in a neighboring speakeasy.  The song ended, the lights went out, Mom and her children slipped beneath the stage on an elevator-like contraption.
It was suddenly very dark and Bertino, a 60-ish man of ample girth and not terribly light on his feet, was not looking where he was going.  Suddenly, he was gone.

When next seen amid a scene of confusion, Bertino was lying on his back 8 feet below the stage on top of the rabbits.  And several Disneyland public relations people were turning interesting shades of gray.

"Pop goes the weasel. Heeheehee!"
Bertino was carried away on a stretcher, but the damage was more to his pride than anything else.  The doctors who checked him at a nearby hospital found a sprained ankle and a bruise or two.  The rabbits survived and America Sings opened to the public, as scheduled, last Saturday, replacing the old General Electric Carousel of Progress display that has been moved to Walt Disney World in Florida.  
That's probably just as well, because the GE carousel was a sexist hymn to all-electric progress in the 20th century.  Through the years, dumb old Mom would fall off ladders replacing light bulbs and strident Sis would be talking on the phone all day while working off the blubber with an electric exercise belt.  Dad, of course, would be long suffering.

"It's the good life."
So now the Disney people have instead a delightful 24-minute "tune-filled adventure tracing nearly 200 years of our nation's musical heritage" as the publicity folks put it.

The 114 animals sing 40 different songs as the audience revolves around the stage.  The kids will love it, of course, and the adults fascinated by the mechanisms of what Disneyland calls "Audio Animatronics."  This is just another way of saying singing mechanical animals.  They're about as lifelike as the Disney people's 20 years of working on this kind of thing can get them.

"And in the evening, hear the train blow..."
Davis, a veteran of 39 years with Disney as an animationist and later, a designer of Disneyland attractions, teamed with Bertino, who has been with Disney 30 years.  Bertino wrote the story line, then both men selected the music.  Finally, Davis designed the animal characters and supervised the set design.  It took about two years, said Davis, and the idea, a spin-off of the Bicentennial celebration, was their own.

"We listened to a lot of recordings to pick the music, since neither of us can read music, and hired a piano player who couldn't sing.  Al wasn't much help on that.  He's an Italian - the only one who can't sing a tune," Davis said with a smile.

"Lord, I wish I was a single girl again."
Bertino said they looked for popular songs, ones most people know and remember.  "We stayed away from war songs and things like that," he added.  "We were looking for entertainment and a laugh, if we could get it."

After selecting the music, which ranges from "Camptown Races" to"Hound Dog," Bertino and Davis supervised design and construction of the animal characters.  The animals were sculpted, then plastic casts were made.  The moving parts were made of a flexible vinyl.  The plastic shells of the animals are steel supported and hydraulically operated.

"...where the bright diamond sand flows leisurely down to the stream..."
A computer moves the animals in coordination with the music.  Davis was hesitant to give details of the operation.  "It hurts the illusion," he said.  "I want people to believe what's happening on stage."

Disney executives approved the project at several stages of development, but there was no real market testing.  "I think we have a feeling if something is going to work," said Davis.  After 39 years, he said, you just know when an idea will be popular or not.

Davis hasn't missed often - he worked on the creation of several popular Disney characters, including Peter Pan, Cinderella and Tinker Bell, as well as many of the attractions at Disneyland and Disney World.  He left film animation in 1960 to work on developing Disneyland projects because that, somehow, is more exciting.  Walt Disney thought so, too, according to Davis.

"Walt used to drop by my office and he'd say, 'You know, Marc, I like to come here.  This is like the old days at the old studio.'  He most enjoyed the new things, whatever was being done that hadn't been done before."

"Oh my Sal, she am a spunky gal..."
Davis and Bertino figure Disney would have liked America Sings, but the big question is whether the public will.  "The most fun of all is watching the reaction of the audience," said Bertino, who will be hobbling around on crutches this week.  "If they all laugh in the right places, it will be worth it."

"I'll do the cookin' Honey.  I'll pay the rent."


Susie said...

Oh America Sings. This was my FAVORITE! I loved the disco ball effect when you moved from scene to scene was so exciting for me. I had (still have) the record and played it endlessly. There is a darn skip in the Sweet Adaline Song. Thanks for the post.

Mr. Chicken said...

What a great find. Thanks for sharing. I'm sorry to report the attraction was before my time, but what I've seen of it always looks like such fun.

Major Pepperidge said...

The newspaper photo with Marc Davis and Al Bertino shows a moose (cow?) figure that I don't remember at all.

Jody Daily said...

Hi Major, That would be the Old Grey Mare from the Gay 90s section. This attraction, along with Storybookland, was so impressionable on me and developed my art aesthetic to what it is today...for better or worse.

James Lopez said...

If any of you are interested, I made an animated version of this classic attraction. You can see a work-in-progress of it here:

Mr. Tiny said...

Oh, Jody - for BETTER!!! I loved America Sings and every once in awhile I'll find myself listening to the soundtrack! I don't know why, but the weasel always bugged (and continues to bug) me!

Jeff Kurtti said...

There was sheer entertainment value in the attraction, and the purity with which Davis's designs were translated to three dimensions was unparalleled.

Unknown said...

Great Post for the 4th! Love the pics! The Gators and the Hound Dawg were always my favorite characters on this ride!

Major Pepperidge said...

Thanks for the info, Jody!

Pete Emslie said...

I loved "America Sings" as well, especially considering how closely the sculpted figures adhered to Marc's original sketches. Ironically, when they recycled many of the figures for secondary characters in "Splash Mountain", they looked better than the main cast of Br'er Rabbit, Fox and Bear. Somehow the newer audio-animatronic designs lack the panache of the older ones (in my opinion anyway).

By the way, if you haven't already done so, please give your eyes a treat and check out the animated interpretation by James Lopez that he has provided the link to in his comment above. I absolutely loved it, James! I hope you have an opportunity to continue work on it in the near future.

Ben Churchill said...

I loved this attraction so much! Thanks for the post, with great pictures, and reprinting the article from opening. America Sings made such an impression on me, and I made sure to see it every time I was at Disneyland. So many great memories.

Also, James Lopez, your animated version is AMAZING! For years I've dreamed about 2D animated version of this, and the Country Bear Jamboree. I could see the animation in my head, in the classic Disney style, and you've basically made my visions come to life! Thank you for all the work you put into it, it's amazing to see something I've wished for come true like that.

JMG said...

As someone who didn't get out to Disneyland until WAY too late (I get to WDW at least once a year, starting in 1972) this is one of three attractions I really, really wish I would have seen (the other 2 are Inner Space and Mine Train).

(I dunno if the late-to-WDW west coasters feel the same about, say, Mickey Mouse Revue or the Swan Boats at WDW...)

Thanks a zillion!

JJohnson said...

No doubt the highlight of each trip to Disneyland in the '70's. I saw this so many times I can still sing the songs in order... Great article!

Yvonne said...

That was wonderful. Can I share it