The First Disneyland Christmas Paradeby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Once again, a penultimate reminder before the holidays that two books I wrote, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories and The Revised Vault of Walt are now available at Amazon. I’ll mention it one final time next week and then give it a rest.
Actually, the name of this column might be better titled “How a Bad Film Inspired a Good Parade." Although I realize that every Disney film is somebody’s favorite film, not every film is widely embraced by the general public.
The Disney live-action musical Babes in Toyland was released to theaters December 14, 1961. It was showcased as the Christmas attraction at Radio City Music Hall and, over the decades, has been closely associated with the yuletide season.
The story is only very loosely based on the famous 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert. In the Disney film, Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) plan to get married, but the villainous Barnaby (Ray Bolger) plans to drown Tom and marry Mary to get her upcoming inheritance.
The film is actually more of a comedic farce than that short description implies and features the comic antics of Barnaby’s bumbling henchmen (Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon), the befuddlement of the eccentric toymaker of Toyland (Ed Wynn) as well as a final climax where the hero is reduced to the size of a toy and magically leads the other toys in a successful battle against Barnaby.
Unfortunately, the film turned out to be a critical and financial disappointment.
Walt Disney was unhappy with the final production but sought to use all of his resources to promote the film just as he had done with another film that disappointed him, Alice in Wonderland.
In those days, the term “synergy” was not used. Roy O. Disney referred to it as “cross-pollination” where Disney comic books, records, television, Disneyland Park and other items supported each other.
“Walt was a genius in using Disneyland to advertise his television show and films,” said Disney Legend Bill Justice with a smile when I interviewed him. “He used the television show to advertise Disneyland or one of his films and it all worked hand-in-hand. Those things in turn were supported by advertising, merchandising with all the music and the comic books and other tie-ins. But it all started with Walt and the product he wanted to promote and it all worked together.”
As film historian Leonard Maltin wrote, “Oddly enough, even though this was Disney’s Christmas release and well promoted…it did not do all that well at the box office. Considering its cost and potential, it grossed just $4.6 million in domestic release or a little more than half what The Shaggy Dog pulled in.”
Walt opened a Babes in Toyland exhibit in the Opera House on Main Street on December 17, 1961, containing some of the sets and props from the film, hoping it would generate interest in the just released movie. Also, on December 17, the weekly Disney television show aired an episode titled “Backstage Party” using the premise of a Hollywood film wrap party to showcase some scenes from the film.
That holiday season, the Sears Roebuck and Company Christmas catalog had four full-color pages devoted just to Babes in Toyland merchandise with massive promotions in its 740 retail stores selling more than 200 different Babes in Toyland items. (The total number of items produced by all licensees ended up being 367 items.)
Everything from hats, umbrellas, board games, handkerchiefs, cookie jars, tray tables, dolls, puzzles, records, books and even a “magic gun” (“world’s only toy gun that shoots and reloads automatically…Safe: shoots a harmless paper roll… Shoots 5 feet with no reloading”) were offered to hopefully eager young customers.
However, one of the biggest promotional gimmicks became one of Disney’s most enduring and beloved traditions: The Christmas Parade with the giant wooden toy soldiers and silly reindeer.
While in the early years of Disneyland, there was a holiday parade for the two weeks of Christmas vacation, it was more of a makeshift affair with the Disney characters scattered among some homemade community floats and local ethnic groups dressed in native costumes.
It was Walt’s philosophy that Disneyland was “dedicated to all the people of all the nations of the world” and it was not unusual to invite clubs, historical societies, and other such groups to participate in Disneyland events. The parade was really a salute to “Christmas Around the World.”
The group from Holland would have a small float pulled by hand that featured a tiny windmill and some children dressed appropriately. Representatives from the United Kingdom would dress in medieval garb and drag a Yule log down Main Street. Mexican participants were not just colorfully costumed, but would do impromptu dancing while other members carried colorful piñatas high in the air.
From an interview I did with Imagineer Bill Justice in the early 1990s, here is his perspective of how that parade became the Christmas parade Disney fans have enjoyed for decades:
“X [Imagineer X. Atencio] and I along with Ward Kimball built all the toys and everything for the film. I think it was around late August , the picture was to be released in the fall, that Walt came down and said, ‘I think we ought to have a giant toy parade at Disneyland.’ Up until that time, they’d always had a Christmas Parade at Disneyland almost from the very beginning. The parade was primarily composed of volunteer groups of people from different countries. They would make a little float or a little cart of some kind. Maybe they would put their type of Christmas tree and the way it might be decorated in Norway, Sweden, Germany or whatever. They’d dress in their native costumes and they would get together a little group of people who would represent their country.
“The problem was that it was all volunteer stuff and a lot of them worked during the week so we never knew how many would show up. Sometimes there’d be only three or four groups and other times there’d be 25.
“Walt felt we needed publicity for Babes in Toyland and, believe me, it needed publicity because it didn’t turn out the way it should have. Anyway, X and I were proud of the toys and the stop-motion stuff that we did for the picture. Walt said, ‘Why don’t…since we need to get control of the parade anyway….why don’t we make a giant toy parade?’ He told me that I was to take charge and to supervise the building of all the toys and the floats and the costumes and so forth.
“As you might suspect, Walt had very specific ideas about how he wanted the parade to look. He said, ‘Bill, we are not in competition with the Rose Parade.’ He didn’t want the floats too big or out of scale. He didn’t want little kids to have to lean backward and look up high to try and see.
“I had no experience in any of that but you never said ‘no’ to Walt when he told you to do something. He thought you could do it so you did it and usually it turned out surprisingly well. I guess he picked me because it was going to be a toy parade and X and I had designed all the toys in the picture and he wanted the same type of toys.
“It was tough. We had to take the soldiers we designed down there and put somebody in them to wear. So we had to make compromises. They needed to look exactly like our toy soldiers in the film. They’re still using those soldiers today in the parade, although they have had to occasionally rebuild them.
“They’re still using the reindeer that X designed that were the funny looking reindeer. They still use the glockenspiel girls and a lot of other stuff we originally did. We had toy cannons. We had the big clowns and the little carolers and things that were toys that we had done in miniature for the movie. They were only about so big and the toy soldiers were about 12-inches tall. But now, we were designing these things that were like 6-foot tall soldiers and toys that were giant toys. We did a whole parade of those things.
“Later on, I did the snowmen and snowwomen and the dancing Christmas trees that were costumes and so forth.
“So this toy parade came out the same time as the movie. We usually started the Christmas Parade as soon as school gets out, which is usually the second weekend. We would run the Christmas Parade twice a day or once in the afternoon and once in the evening until New Year’s.
“The person who was in charge of Entertainment in those early days was Tommy Walker. He was wonderful and one time he came up with a great gag for the parade for the Preview Night. Each year we would have a preview night of the parade for the press, studio management, invited dignitaries and more. Walt would be there to welcome everyone. He’d be sitting at the top of the bleachers in front of the train station with his wife.
“Tommy had my wife, Marie, sitting across the street from the reviewing stand so she could be seen clearly. She had a little boy that everyone assumed was her son. It was actually Roy’s son, Roy E. Disney. He would run out into the street every now and then to attract attention. A balloon vendor came down the street and approached Marie and her ‘son.’
“The balloon vendor was actually Wally Boag, who was the entertainer at the Golden Horseshoe Revue and a very funny guy. He gave the balloons to the little boy and he rose straight up into the air holding onto the balloons. Marie started running after him and shouting.
“The audience gasped but we finally let them in on the gag. Marie had switched her live ‘son’ with an identically costumed doll. We had quite a time making it light enough to be lifted by the balloons. We had a note on it saying that anyone who found the doll to bring it back for a free Disneyland pass but it was never returned.
“Those were the first character costumes I ever designed and Walt liked them so much that I found myself doing costume designing for the characters in the park. I worked with Bob Phelps who came from Western Costume, as well as Tom Pierce and Jack Muse who had also worked there. It was Bob who came up with the posts with the padded tops for the character heads. The kids would take off the heads and practically throw them on to the ground. We spent a lot of money of these things but the kids would be so exhausted they would put them on the ground.
“Walt was very interested in character costumes. At one time in a meeting, they were kind of ‘pooh-poohing’ the costumes as not being important and wanted to move to another subject. Walt stopped them. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘Our character costumes are the most important thing we have in the park. They are so popular you watch families come in and if Mickey Mouse comes out or Pluto or Goofy or any of them come out, the first thing they do, the child runs to the character and they’ve got to get their picture taken with Mickey or whoever it is. Other parks can have their thrill rides. They can have their bands. They can have pigeons with ribbons on them and then they can have sorts of other things but they can’t have our costumes. They are very important to us.’ He also mentioned that they delivered tremendous good will. That when you send them out to events off property, people are just so excited to have their pictures taken with them. Adults love them, too.
“When I was doing those first costumes, Walt said, ‘Bill, always remember. We don’t want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind that they’ve got to be as comfortable as possible.’ It was that important to him.”
Fortunately, for Disney fans, there exists film documentation of this first true Disneyland Christmas parade on the Disney television episode entitled “Holiday Time at Disneyland” which originally aired December 23, 1962. The emphasis really is on giant toys whereas later versions of the parade became more focused on Disney characters like the short-lived three person Reluctant Dragon costumed suit that emitted smoke from its nostrils but upset children.
“I worked on the Christmas parade from 1961 until I retired in 1979 and it was always tough to add different floats, costumes and generally improve the parade,” remembered Bill. “One time we had a Peter Pan float and the Darling children were bouncing on this huge bed which was really a trampoline. We filled the pillows with colored feathers and they would be having a pillow fight and sometimes the pillow would break and feathers would float down the parade route.”
In the television show, it is apparent that there was still a section devoted to “Christmas around the World” and some countries had a member attired as their version of Santa Claus. For instance, the Norway version was accompanied by his traditional goat.
The March of the Wooden Soldiers didn’t just have musicians in the costumes but also costumed soldiers who did precision marching routines at various stops along the parade route. Variations of the soldiers were on some of the toys as well like two dimensional ones that would pop up and down on wooden horses that were pulled along and others marching wearing baskets attached to hot air balloons.
While there were a handful of well-known Disney characters who appeared, there were many non-Disney characters like a huge two person black Scottie dog and a brown poodle who could twirl the poof on the top of his head. (In later parades there was a two-person camel whose two humps could rise and fall independently and twirl.)
Of course, the end of the parade was Santa in a huge sleigh. Costumed Raggedy Ann and Andy characters were in his bag in the back of the sleigh and they would toss out small stuffed toys to children along the parade route. The end of the parade was the release of colorful balloons to fill the skies. (Later versions of the parade would have these balloons released from the cars of a massive toy train.)
The television episode even recreates Tommy Walker’s gag of the little boy flying away holding onto balloons.
Ron Logan, former executive vice president of Disney Entertainment said, “The earliest Three Little Pig costumes were made with rebar and weighed more than 70 pounds. The creation of Fantasy on Parade in 1961 by Walker and Justice marked the beginning of a more formalized Disney Character Program.
“As the new parade was developed, Walt wanted to improve the character costumes to be more ‘on model’ with the animated characters they depicted. Height ranges had not been established so sometimes Mickey and Minnie were 6-feet tall. Only males were hired as costumed characters, a practice that would continue until 1973.
“At Walt’s request, a new Mickey Mouse costume was designed by John Hench. Walt wanted to cast a smaller performer for the Mickey role and standardize the performer’s height in the costume. Paul Castle was personally selected by Walt to perform as the new, smaller Mickey for Fantasy on Parade where he beat on a massive rolling drum.
“The first Disneyland parades consisted of the Disneyland Band and a few atmosphere groups that would march down Main Street. The parade was a way of performing for thousands of guests without a stage facility. The Disneyland parades began with Main Street vehicles, then evolved into seasonal parades with floats including Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, etc.
“The parades became a popular ‘draw’ that could be advertised. The parade times were generally scheduled when the lines might be the longest for the attractions of when you might want to lead guests out of the park. Signature parades were something that could be scheduled closer to closing and become a major event to keep guests in the park.”
So the very first true Disneyland Christmas parade held 51 years ago this year not only helped to standardize how Disney did parades, but influenced how Disney did costumed characters. Those were terrific holiday presents that we are still enjoying more than a half-century later.