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Walking down Main Street at Disneyland is nearly always a pleasure, but never more so than when the Dapper Dans are present. The Dans are known for their charming blend of humor, showmanship, and versatility. For those of you not familiar with the Dapper Dans, let me describe them for you. They are four gentlemen with a longstanding tradition of providing atmosphere entertainment for the Main Street area of Disneyland, in the form of song, dance, and humor. Their blend of four- part harmony and vaudeville- style routines is, without a doubt, one of the treasures of Disneyland.
Back in 1957, the Disneyland powers- that- be, decided a little atmosphere entertainment would be a good addition to the Main Street area of the park. Since Main Street is supposed to be small- town America, what could be more American than the addition of that quintessentially American song form, the barbershop quartet? Park Talent supervisor, Chuck Corson, who had worked for the Fred Waring Chorale as stage manager, was enlisted to find the needed talent. He contacted some of the singers from the chorale and in short order, a great Disneyland tradition was established. The original Dans were John Borneman (tenor), Roger Axworthy (lead), Ted Nichols (baritone), and T.J. Marker (bass), with Marker being the gentleman credited with coming up with the name "Dapper Dans" for the group.
In the beginning, the Dans were strictly a vocal quartet who sang in the barbershop quartet style of tight harmonies, loosened up a bit to allow the singers room to interact with guests. Then along came a guy named Bub Thomas. Bub was a consummate entertainer who sang, danced, told jokes, and even drew caricatures. He had spent years honing his craft, performing in barbershop quartets and nightclub acts. When Bub joined the Dapper Dans, he brought with him a repertoire of vaudeville-style jokes (think Fozzie the Bear, wakka- wakka) and a curious instrument known as the Deagan Organ Chimes. Under Bub's influence, all of these things eventually worked their way into their performances.
Now I'm sure you all know what vaudeville is, but I would imagine that some of you may be wondering what a Deagan Organ Chime is. I had never heard of such a thing until I saw the Dapper Dans. Patented by John Calhoun Deagan in 1900, it is a unique instrument that has a series of spiky hollow tubes connected to each other. It's played by shaking, and produces a lovely tin- like resonant sound that always reminds of old music boxes.
The Dapper Dans, as we know them today, is a group of very versatile performers continuing the tradition established by the earlier Dans. If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing them sing or laughed at their corny jokes, I'm sure you'll agree that they are the true ambassadors of Main Street, USA. However, Main Street is not the only venue the Dans play. They have been known to branch out from Main Street.
Anyone who was at Disneyland's Fantasyland Theater on June 26, 1999, for the Haunted Mansion's 30th Anniversary event can tell you what a thrilling (and chilling) treat it was to see the Hitchhiking Ghosts -- played by none other than the Dapper Dans -- come to life. It's my not- at- all humble opinion, Dear Readers, that they never sounded finer than when singing Grim Grinning Ghosts. In fact, it was quite a magical moment in the evening.
The Dans have also popped up during other special events and times, most notably as the Monster Shop Quartet (during the much loved and missed, Mickey's Halloween Treat). They "rocked and rolled" as Danny and the Dappers for Disneyland's Blast to the Past, and even have been known to sing salty old sea tunes as the Jolly Tars. They also pop in once a year during the fall when the Disney Studios opens its doors for a charity craft fair.
The Dapper Dans however, are not even confined to the parks. They've been known to occasionally pop up on television shows. They played The Flannels, a barbershop quartet that won a contest to pen words to the Tool Time theme song on an episode of Home Improvement. Decked out in red flannel plaid shirts and full beards (not unlike Al, Tim the Toolman's sidekick), they managed to make a song about power tools sound good.
In addition to Home Improvement and numerous Disney specials, (even a Sonny and Cher show way back when) they also made a guest appearance on The Simpsons. When the creators of The Simpsons came up with a storyline where Lisa and Bart discover Homer's long lost career as a member of a barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans were the first and only thought for casting the singing voices of The Be Sharps. The Be Sharps' big claim to fame was their "world famous" hit, Baby On Board, which can be heard on Rhino Record's The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield.
Over the years, there have been as many as 100 different members of the Dapper Dans. Their costumes have changed from the original colorful vests, slacks, and straw boaters, to today's small-town merchant theme. The gentlemen comprising the Dapper Dans today, Shelby (lead), Tim (tenor), Jim (bass), and Bill (baritone), appear on Main Street as a barber, a grocery store owner, a constable, and a banker. They perform Monday through Friday and can often be found in front of New Century Jewelry performing one of their skits such as "Baseball Fever". [For exact times and locations, check with City Hall.]
A delightfully corny bit, "Baseball Fever" features Shelby trying to leave his job as town barber and take over for Ty Cobb with the Detroit Tigers. The rest of the gang, otherwise known as the "Main Street Magpies," help him get ready for his shot at the big leagues. What ensues is good fun that involves audience participation and the mapping out of a play, which ends up looking suspiciously like a very famous mouse.
Since it's getting close to that most American of all holidays, July 4, it's especially pleasurable to hear the Dans' beautiful voices blend together to sing The Star Spangled Banner -- with Shelby playfully making sure every audience member removes his or her hat.
In the over 40 years that the Dapper Dans have been a part of Disneyland's history, they have sung their way into the heart of many a guest, not the least of which, are other barbershop quartet members making the occasional Disneyland visit. In 1999, The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) held a convention in Anaheim. At that time, they honored the Dapper Dans with an honorary Main Street USA, Disneyland chapter of the SPEBSQSA. The charter, dated June 29, 1999, was presented to all past and present Dapper Dans and also acknowledged Mickey Mouse as the "First Mouse of Harmony."
Lastly, I don't want to leave out the subject of ephemera. If you're even the least bit like me, Dear Readers, you find yourself collecting little pieces of Disneyland history. You squirrel away napkins and copies of Disneyland Today. You save a hot dog wrapper because it has Pluto on it, or stash a parking receipt from July 17 in your "Disney box." It's fun to go back a decade later -- okay, real truth, I've been saving things longer than that -- and have a look at an old guide book, mouse ears, or even something as innocuous as a premium parking ticket. (Remember when we had premium parking? Sigh.) In working on this story about the Dans, I learned about some fun little Dapper Dan- related giveaways the park used to hand out. Those of you who favor this sort of thing may want to keep your eye out at the next Disney collectible show you attend.
In the 1960s, there was a charming card given to any guest who actually had the courage to sing with the Dans. Not unlike the old Autopia driver's licenses, it was a small card that said, "This is to certify that (Guest's name here) did sing (song title here) with the Dapper Dans of Disneyland.
Circa 1970, another small card featuring a caricature of the Dans at the top with their performance schedule under the caricature was handed to guests as they entered Disneyland. And last, but not least, there are the Viewmaster reels. Remember those? In the 1970s Viewmaster sold a package of reels with scenes of Disneyland. One of the featured shots was a picture of the Dapper Dans on Main Street.
If you can't find those nifty little bits of Dapper Dan- past, you can at least purchase a piece of Dapper Dan- present. Like many of the talented performers at Disneyland, they have their own CD. Entitled, The Dapper Dans, Shave & A Haircut featuring the Deagan Organ Chimes, it's available at 20th Century Music in Disneyland or right here on MouseShoppe (I'm sure Adrienne would be pleased to obtain a copy for you).
I'll leave you with one last Dapper Dan "picture," Dear Readers. Back in the days when Walt walked the park, he and his wife Lillian would often have breakfast in the back room of the Hills Brothers Café, which was also known as the egg house, and is now the area by Disney Showcase where all the pin trading takes place. A little music always makes the dining experience a bit richer, so the Dapper Dans would be called in to serenade.
Picture this: A small table set with a delicious breakfast, piping hot from the kitchen, fluffy eggs with a wisp of steam rising from them and Walt and Lillian listening as the Dapper Dans delicately croon Lida Rose:
Nice picture, isn't it? I couldn't think of a nicer way to eat breakfast.
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