Disney Hoppy Easter Memories

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Easter is a busy time at Walt Disney World as the crowds increase and, for a limited time, guests get a chance to meet and greet Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny. Make sure you read MousePlanet to get all the details about the different activities (some beginning days before Easter itself).

While MousePlanet is a very valuable resource for this type of information, I think MousePlanet readers often forget that there is also a plethora of forgotten treasures in the MP Archives.

Six years ago, using information from my Bill Justice interviews done over the years, I wrote about how Bill in 1985, did artwork for the White House Lawn Easter Egg Roll.

However, as I always say, "there is always more to the story." While digging through some stuff, I ran across some other notes about that moment in time and thought this might be a good time to include those additions.

In 1985, Bill was 71 years old and retired from the Walt Disney Company. He was a hugely popular guest at events and on cruises where he often quickly sketched Disney characters on paper plates and sent them sailing like frisbees into the audience.

When I did an extensive interview with him a decade later, he still took great enjoyment in doing that same thing as we sat at a table at the Disney Institute Animation Event. It really made him happy to see others so happy (and appreciative) about getting one of those drawings.

One of the things I didn't cover in my original article is why Bill was personally selected by President Ronald Reagan to paint an Easter egg.

Obviously, Bill had worked for the Disney Company for 42 years and was involved with a wide variety of special projects and had drawn just about every Disney animated character (just check out my article on Bill's murals for Walt Disney World).

Although many other Disney artists (both currently working and retired) could have handled the task, the answer for Bill's selection was actually quite simple.

"Last year (1984) President Reagan appeared on tape on our Christmas (parade) TV show from (Walt) Disney World," Justice said. "The studio asked me to come up with something to thank him."

So, Bill took a photo of the Reagans at a podium, as if they were holding a news conference. Bill painted a group of reporters, in front of them, who were all wearing Mickey Mouse hats. The Reagans were surrounded on the platform by Pluto, Goofy, Donald and Daisy, the dwarfs, and assorted friends.

I wonder if that piece of artwork has ever been displayed at the Reagan Museum?

The Reagans must have liked Bill's clever rendition because early in 1985, Bill received a phone call from Peggy Henkel of the Westport Marketing Group in Connecticut, who was the director of the Easter program at the White House.

"She invited me to be among the persons who will paint eggs for display this year. I agreed, and shortly afterward she called and asked if I would do the cover for the program."

They also found out about all the practice eggs he had done and wanted him to bring those along as well for display.

"My friends started sending me egg-shaped canisters that had contained pantyhose, and I wound up painting 30 of those. I even mounted a few on music boxes that play tunes such as Easter Parade, Bill told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in April 1985.

He also joked about the two wooden artificial eggs he was sent by the White House that were only slightly bigger than a regular supermarket-size egg (apparently, one was for practice and the other was for shipping back to the White House).

"I don't know where they get the chickens that lay wooden eggs," Bill laughed. "The splinters must be terrible. Try painting on a curve without getting your fingers in the paint!"

Bill was also asked to attend the actual event and sit at a table and draw Disney characters for four hours straight to give to the children.

"Every year we invite an American artist to execute a painting of the Easter event while it is taking place," Henkel explained in 1985. "This year it will be Janet Munro of Fly Creek, New York. But this is also the first time we will include a cartoonist on the grounds."

That year, cartoonists Mel Lazarus and Charles Schulz also decorated eggs but it was Bill who did the program cover design and that artwork was used on all sorts of items like balloons and the gift bags.

The Los Angeles Times article that announced that Bill was on his way to Washington, D.C. ended with this cute quote by Bill: "I remember one time when Walt was asked by an interviewer how many many people were working for him. 'Oh, about half,' he replied."

I think a Disney Easter memory for many of the readers of MousePlanet was the televised Walt Disney World Happy Easter Parade that aired on Easter Sunday, beginning in 1985 (two years after the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas parade started airing) and lasted as a television event through the 1990s.

It was hosted by Good Morning America Joan Lunden with various male co-hosts like Rick Dees, Ben Vereen, Regis Philbin, and Alan Thicke. The Magic Kingdom was decorated for the Easter festivities as well. The televising of the parade was the inspiration of Walt Disney World marketing who felt it might generate increased attendance during the spring and like the Christmas parade, offer an opportunity to promote the resort.

Unlike the Christmas parade, the Happy Easter Parade had a turn-of-the-century feel with the traditional Easter bonnets and long skirts, pastel colors, references to the old-fashioned barbershop, baseball themes, and more. There were no religious references, and it was a smaller experience than its Christmas cousin.

Beginning in 1989 and for a few years afterwards, guests might even see a costumed Roger Rabbit sputtering out the song "Let's Go To the Hop."

A huge Easter basket float (with a generic huge yellow chick or some other character) might roll down the street with the song "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" playing in the background. Dancers dressed as painters with giant paint brushes to decorate giant eggs entertained the guests. Some characters held on to large colored balloons that resembled eggs.

The beautiful Mobile Alabama Azalea Trail Maids in their colorful gowns and bonnets would glide down Main Street (in recent years, they have been included in a short Easter-themed pre-parade in the Magic Kingdom on Easter Day).

For the 1985 Walt Disney World Happy Easter parade, Disney costumers produced 125 new costumes and renovated 283 others, making 112 new hats and selecting hundreds of pairs of shoes.

They used 3,000 yards of fabric, 1,500 yards of ribbon, 500 yards of feathers, and 3,000 silk flowers. Altogether, the effort consumed about 6,000 working hours.

"We`re even costuming the horses this time," said Rebecca Brodrick, costume coordinator for the Easter parade that year. "I think we have six horses who will wear hats, and our Country Bears will get Easter bonnets."

"To get 600 people dressed, it takes nine people to issue the wardrobe and we have to start about two hours (before the parade)." Taking the costumes back and inspecting them afterward takes about the same amount of time. "There are so many pieces involved for each costume that it`s real important we get them back orderly, or we`ll never get them out again."

One year, Pluto might be dressed with a handlebar mustache and vest as part of the barbershop quartet float and the next year he might be wearing a green baseball cap leading a baseball team of dancers down the street.

Tokyo Disneyland still holds an Easter parade. In Disney's Easter Wonderland, Mickey Mouse and his Disney friends don rabbit ears and Easter bonnets to put on a happy Easter party parade.

The nine float parade features such visual treasures as characters from Alice in Wonderland on a giant Mad Hatter's hat, Goofy and Pluto hunting for eggs, Winnie the Pooh and friends in an egg-shaped Hunny Pot, an Oswald the Rabbit float and finally, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck and Clarice in their Easter finery. (And Mickey changing into six different costumes during the course of the parade and running around to appear on different floats.)

After all the floats have appeared, the guests join the performers in chants and motions relating to the holiday. Don't even get me started about their Easter Egg hunt (with different Disney characters on the eggs) that has two different skill levels.

Of course, to celebrate a Disney Easter at home, all you have to do is just pop in a DVD of the following Silly Symphony. Funny Little Bunnies was released on March 24, 1934, just in time for Easter as part of the Silly Symphony series of short theatrical cartoons.

The premise of the cartoon is a visit to rainbow's end where in the magical land of the Easter Bunnies, they prepare for the holiday by decorating colorful eggs and other goodies. They weave and fill baskets. They make chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits. At the end, a crew of rabbits load giant Easter baskets with the brightly colored items (with the colors taken right from the rainbow).

That's pretty much the full story. No evil villain disrupting the process. No unrequited love story between the bunnies. Just seven minutes of mild, predictable gags (painting plaid and polka dots eggs with a paint that same pattern) with a variety of bunnies (and some birds and other animals) engaged in a series of colorful activities.

Directed by Disney veteran Wilfred Jackson, the cartoon features animation by Woolie Reitherman, Dick Huemer, Art Babbitt, Ham Luske, Dick Lundy, Cy Young (who did the rainbow and some bunnies), Ugo D'Orsi, and others, with layout by Hugh Hennesy.

This was the very first Disney-animated cartoon on which Woolie worked doing some of the bunnies in the supply room, eggs rolling down the chute, and bunnies filling the baskets.

The music was by Frank Churchill (main title music and the song "See the Funny Little Bunnies" with lyrics by Larry Morey) and Leigh Harline. By the way, Florence Gill, who is known for providing the voice of Clara Cluck, did the voices for the singing chickens. Mary Moder and Dorothy Compton (the voices of Fifer Pig and Fiddler Pig in the Three Little Pigs) sang as the girl trio.

To release an Easter cartoon was a risk for the new Disney Studio because not all countries celebrate this holiday or even celebrate it as it is done in America. Try to imagine going to the movie theater and seeing a seven-minute cartoon celebrating "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Showa Day" or some other holiday not internationally celebrated.

While an audience might be intrigued by the character design or the colors, the foreignness of the concepts might not provide the same level of enjoyment or emotional investment that takes place with a more familiar topic from defeating a bully to falling in love or any of the similar story situations that Mickey Mouse found himself in during the 1930s.

While attention has been given to Flowers and Trees as the first three-strip Technicolor film, it was actually Funny Little Bunnies that was used to experiment with the full possibilities of Technicolor.

Herbert Kalmus, the founder of Technicolor, used this cartoon as his sales tool for convincing other studios on the value of Technicolor. In 1938, Kalmus told a group:

"I have said to producers and directors on many occasions: 'You have all seen Disney's 'Funny Bunnies'; you remember the huge rainbow circling across the screen to the ground and you remember the Funny Bunnies drawing the color of the rainbow into their paint pails and splashing the Easter eggs. You all admit that it was marvelous entertainment. Now I will ask you how much more did it cost Mr. Disney to produce that entertainment in color than it would have in black and white?' The answer is; of course, that it could not be done at any cost in black and white, and I think that points to the general answer. A similar analogy can be drawn with respect to some part of almost any recent Technicolor feature."

The actual cost of the film to reply to Kalmus' question was $21, 975.17, making it about the average cost for a Silly Symphony that year. The film won a Gold Medal for "Best Animated Film 1934" at the Venice Film Festival.

However, those cute little bunnies should be avoided as Easter gifts for children. A real bunny can live for up to 10 years. While Disney rabbits may spend their days romping through wooden glens with other animal friends, domestic rabbits are companion animals.

That means that the rabbit should be kept inside, not in a hutch in the backyard. Keeping a rabbit in an outside hutch will shorten the animal's life span so that may only live for about two years according to some sources.

Although bunnies may seem like the ideal Easter pets, they are really too fragile for most children. They are prey animals, which means that they are easily startled. A rabbit can actually be so startled that it can literally be scared to death.

Although they are easily frightened, they are not equipped to yowl or scream when frightened so they are likely to scratch or bite when scared. Children, who are likely to move suddenly and grab the rabbit often end up scratched and bleeding. So a better gift would be a plush Disney toy rabbit.

By the way, when a rabbit stamps its hind foot, it means it's frightened, mad, or trying to tell you that there's danger… like Avatar Land is heading your way. Contrary to Disney's portrayal of rabbits in Bambi, rabbits don't thump repetitively but give one, loud stamp of the foot .

While visiting the Land of Oz Garden at Epcot, I along with other guests were greatly amused and fascinated by a real live rabbit munching away on the yellow brick road of flowers that had been planted.

When I worked at Epcot, I remember the gardeners telling me that rabbits would often sleep in the miniature train tunnels in Germany and that the first job in the morning in that area was to hustle them out of those cozy dens so the trains could run on time.

A happy Easter to all the readers of this column and remember this is a time for renewal so there really is a great, big, beautiful tomorrow shining for you.

If you are looking for something a little less caloric to put in an Easter basket, please consider a copy of Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? or The Revised Vault of Walt.

I need the income to buy some See's chocolate for my nephew's Easter basket, which his Uncle Jim will have to sample, of course.