And Now Your Host... Walt Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
When each week, off-camera announcer Dick Wesson in his distinctive voice said, "And, now your host…Walt Disney," it was as if Ali Baba had uttered the words "Open Sesame" and a cave of sparkling treasures was suddenly unveiled.
While Walt Disney is justly lauded for his work in animation, live-action films, theme parks, and so many other accomplishments, his great success as a television pioneer is often forgotten or minimized. His weekly television show was highly successful and influential.
The show opened the doors to major motion picture studios, like Warner Brothers, producing television shows, and demonstrated how television could promote upcoming movie releases and how television material, if well made, could be recycled as a potential goldmine for both American and foreign theatrical markets.
In the case of the Davy Crockett shows, Walt also wrote the book on how to aggressively merchandise a television program.
His weekly television show began on October 27, 1954, on Wednesday nights on ABC at 7:30 p.m. and, eventually, became the second longest-running American prime-time series (airing on all three commercial networks under different titles over the years) when it officially ended in 2008.
For the first 13 years, the on-screen host was Walt Disney himself.
"Once he began performing every week, he kind of liked it. It uncovered a streak of ham in him," said producer Bill Walsh.
"In the early days, Walt would help write his own dialogue," said producer Winston Hibler. "He never liked stilted dialogue or anything that was too formalized. He said, 'I like to talk the way that people talk'. He didn't like to talk about himself. He didn't mind being the butt of the joke if it worked."
Most of Walt's introductions were filmed on a small set on a soundstage at the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California. The set was a re-creation of Walt's formal office on the third floor in the Animation Building. Many of the items were taken from his actual office to decorate the set so that Walt felt more comfortable in the surroundings and then returned after filming.
Because of his heavy schedule, Walt would film a number of introductions for the upcoming season at the same time. Once, Walt filmed 12 to 14 introductions over a three day period.
Walt's last filmed introduction to his television program was done on October 6, 1966. It was for the episode "A Salute to Alaska" that was shown April 2, 1967, the last original show of the 13th season before summer reruns.
Walt barely moves during the introduction and looks pale but, at the time, people just assumed he was recovering from a bad bout with the flu, as well as doing so many other introductions in the same day.
"Toward the end of the day, we would often have to keep pouring water down his throat because he got so scratchy from doing so many different intros in the same day," recalled producer and director Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law.
The famous "Epcot film" where Walt shares his plans for the Florida property was filmed about 10 days later on October 27, 1966 and was never intended to be part of the weekly television show.
Walt went into Burbank's St. Joseph's Hospital in late November and died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966, 10 days after his 65th birthday.
The television broadcast of the anthology show three days later on Sunday December 18, 1966, that featured Walt prominently hosting the episode "Disneyland Around the Seasons," was preceded by a memorial tribute from NBC news anchor Chet Huntley along with actor Dick Van Dyke.
Walt's pre-filmed introductions continued to be shown for the rest of the 13th season.
The weekly television show was an eclectic mix of edited versions of previously released theatrical features and animation as well as original productions including many popular "behind-the-scenes" episodes.
As Tinker Bell would fly across the screen, announcer Wesson would intone:
"Each week as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you.
FRONTIERLAND—Tall tales and true from the legendary past.
TOMOROWLAND—Promise of things to come.
ADVENTURELAND—The wonder world of nature's own realm.
FANTASYLAND—The happiest kingdom of them all."
Originally, the show was titled Disneyland to help publicize the Anaheim theme park. In 1958, the title was changed to Walt Disney Presents," when it was no longer necessary to heavily promote the successful park, and the show was moved to Friday night at 8 p.m. In 1960, the show moved to its much-remembered Sunday night time slot where it remained for more than two decades.
When the show moved to NBC in the fall of 1961, it was renamed to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color to signify it was being broadcast in RCA "living color," even though some earlier episodes had already been filmed in full color at Walt's personal expense since its beginning.
For eight years, the new opening song by the Sherman Brothers that emphasized that "the world is a carousel of color" generated excitement for families gathered in front of their television sets.
The show was dubbed The Wonderful World of Disney in 1969, when color was now commonplace on television. In 1979, it was called Disney's Wonderful World. It moved to CBS in 1981 where it was titled simply "Walt Disney" for two years.
The show continued to migrate to different venues and with different titles, including The Magical World of Disney, until it officially ended in 2008. Whatever its title and whatever station broadcast it, people still recognized it as the weekly Disney television show and eagerly watched. Some still considered it "Walt's show" to the very end of its run.
Many of those television episodes were never shown after their initial season or released to any home video or DVD format. However, memories of them remained strong in the minds of those who watched them, crowded with their friends and family around a flickering image much like cave dwellers gathered around a roaring fire to listen to the clan's best storyteller.
Uncle Walt's 13 years with the program had the affable host eagerly welcomed into millions of homes when only three major networks were broadcasting along with a handful of local stations. In those early years, some families had to constantly adjust "rabbit ears" antennas on top of a television set in order to clearly watch the show.
Of course, the end of each show in those early Walt years offered a tantalizing preview of next week's show, as well as an advertisement for the latest Disney film in cinemas. Walt had cleverly negotiated that extra time for publicity as part of his compensation for doing the shows.
Walt Disney always had a fascination with new technologies and the possibilities it might provide to tell stories. In the case of television, Walt had expressed an interest many years before the studio produced its television series.
On April 30, 1939, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) began a limited television broadcasting schedule in the New York metropolitan area using antennas on top of the Empire State Building. Of course, RCA Victor had built three models of television sets to sell (and the units could also receive radio broadcasts).
In 1944, RCA approached the Disney Studios to create a short film titled The World In Your Living Room that would help explain exactly what television was and its benefits to a general audience.
At the the time, the Disney Studios was trying to earn additional cash by producing short commercial films for companies like Johnson & Johnson, International Cello-Cotton Company, Lincoln Electric, Westinghouse Electric, Firestone Tire, General Motors, Dow Chemical, and others. Walt quickly grew tired of producing these films and having to deal with the constant input and changes from the clients.
This RCA infomercial was at one point going to be titled "Your Window on the World" to demonstrate why Americans needed to own a television set. Television sets were expensive, there was a lack programming and movie studios were strongly opposed to this new medium so it was an uphill battle to introduce the concept to ordinary people of owning a television set in their own home.
For a variety of reasons, that project was never completed even though the Disney Studio did a great deal of research on the topic. At the time, Walt felt the market was just not there for widespread acceptance of television.
However, Walt was thinking about television even earlier than this research. A memo from Walt to Roy O. Disney and Disney Legal dated October 21, 1939 states: "Everything we do in the future should include television rights. There might be a big angle of television for the shows we have already produced."
In May 1939, several days before its theatrical release, Donald's Cousin Gus was broadcast over NBC's fledgling television station in New York as an experiment to the small handful of people who owned television sets.
In fact, during the late 1930s, Walt had agreed to let the BBC televise a number of Disney cartoons as a test. When the BBC stopped broadcasting in 1939, after war was declared, it was in the middle of showing Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933). On V.E. Day in 1945, when the BBC signed back on, it did so with the same cartoon at exactly the part in the short where it had been interrupted.
Walt mentioned in 1948 that he thought television to be the best medium to promote Disney films. That same year, Walt spent a week in New York for the express purpose of learning more about television.
He watched the broadcasts, talked with people and more and came back to the studio convinced that television was "the coming thing" as he told Disney Studio nurse Hazel George. While other motion picture studios were trying to devise ways of thwarting this new technology, Walt was eager to understand it and embrace it.
He commissioned a study by an outside research firm, C.J. LaRoche, titled "Television for Walt Disney Productions," which was delivered September 1950 to help determine the financial risk and potential long term value of being involved in television. By November 1950, the Disney Studio announced it would do its first television special that would air on Christmas Day.
Having the Disney Studios commit to a weekly television series at this time was too big a gamble for a variety of reasons. Yet, Walt and his older brother Roy had some concerns over how the audience would react to its upcoming animated feature, Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Walt felt that perhaps a television special could be used to promote the film.
In addition, it would be a trial run to figure out how to do a television show and whether an audience would respond to Disney on a tiny black-and-white television screen.
One Hour in Wonderland premiered on NBC at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day with Walt and famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen sharing hosting duties. It ended up costing $100,000 dollars to produce, making it one of the most expensive hours of television ever made up to that point. Coca-Cola was the sole sponsor.
The show captured 90 percent of the available television audience, and one industry observer stated "That telecast should be worth $1 million at the box office to Alice in Wonderland. I think Disney has found the answer to using television both to entertain and to sell his product."
In his letter to the stockholders in the 1950 Annual Report, Walt commented on the success of his first show:
"I regard television as one of our most important channels for the development of a new motion picture audience. Millions of tele-viewers never go to a picture theater, and countless others infrequently. As a promotion medium, however, television has gained maturity as most top sales executives in the nation have recognized. We all can remember when the prophets of doom predicted radio would ruin the film industry. Instead it turned into one of our greatest selling forces."
In 1950, Walt turned down an offer of $8.5 million to buy and air some of his older films on television, and this was at a time when the entire company revenues for the year were only $7.3 million.
A second special, The Walt Disney Christmas Show was run on CBS at 3 p.m. the following year to help promote the upcoming Peter Pan (1953). This time Walt was the only host, the cost of the show was $250,000 and it was sponsored solely by Johnson and Johnson. Once again, the show was a huge ratings success and all three major television networks tried to woo Walt into doing a weekly series.
The first two Christmas shows were "kind of stuck together with glue and chicken wire, very cheaply" but their impressive audience ratings "somehow gave Walt the idea maybe I was a producer," stated producer Bill Walsh who would go on to write and produce such films as Mary Poppins (1964) and The Love Bug (1968), as well as producing the weekly Disney television show and the original Mickey Mouse Club television series.
"Instead of considering television a rival, when I saw it, I said, 'I can use that'. Television is an 'open sesame' to many things," Walt later said. "I don't have to worry about going out and selling the theater man.…I go directly to my public."
Walt even considered buying a television station at a time when Los Angeles had only one channel.
The first proposal for a weekly television show was called The Walt Disney Show and would have recycled animated cartoons under particular themes like "Fables." Also prepared were outlines for a half-hour True-Life Adventure television show, using excerpts from the popular series, and The World of Tomorrow that would have been a half-hour live-action introduction to new technologies.
Eventually, because Walt wanted to promote his upcoming theme park, the show was divided into the same sections that would be showcased at the park. While it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Walt hosting the show in his avuncular and passionate style, he initially considered other celebrity hosts or, like the True-Life Adventure films, have an off camera announcer.
As Disney historian Bill Cotter recounts in his outstanding—and highly recommended by me book—The Wonderful World of Disney Television (a book that should be on the shelves of any one interested in Disney television history), it wasn't until a story meeting on May 25, 1954, that Walt finally decided to be the host himself:
"I don't consider myself an actor of anything but in trying to get hold of these things, I can introduce them, get them going. I'm myself, good or bad, I'm still myself; that will be the gimmick. It's the safest bet to get under way, then later we can develop ways and other people can take over. If we over-use me, I'll be the first to recognize it. I know my limitations.
"If it's right for me to be talking about it, if it's my business, I can talk about it. If it's what we do here at the studio, the group, the individuals and the staff, it would be no problem to do that.
"I stumped myself, worry about being in too much of it. I haven't got a good voice to carry narration, got a nasal twang, I know. I'm not being immodest, just being practical. But I think it's the way to get this thing off. We've been avoiding it, but I think I have got to do it until we've established other personalities that mean something to the audience.
"Like Peggy Lee. And tie her up with what she has done in this picture [Lady and the Tramp, 1955]. She can carry the load since she has actually done things on the picture. She can really plug Lady. Unless we use someone like [Kirk] Douglas [who was appearing in the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954]. Got to be an emcee to get it going. It ties in with the whole thing. We've been selling the name and the personality."
Peggy Lee did appear significantly on the second half of the Disneyland television episode "Cavalcade of Songs" (February 16, 1955) discussing the creation of songs for Lady and the Tramp.
Walt continued in the role of host for the show until his death. Audiences loved "Uncle" Walt with all his flaws as just another relative coming to visit each week. No one else had a greater sense of humor, sincerity and love for his product.
Occasionally, Walt would grumble about the responsibility. "I'm as big a ham as anyone," he told a reporter, "but actually, it's an ordeal for me to be in front of the cameras. They wanted me to smile, to be warm. All I could see was that cold eye of the camera and the glum faces of the crew staring at me."
"Dad liked doing those introductions," his daughter Diane Disney Miller told me. "You can see it on camera. Television didn't change him as a person but I think it made him a better speaker and a more polished personality and better able to get across what he wanted to."
Occasionally, Walt had trouble pronouncing certain words including "hover" and "aluminum". Walt wanted a personal writer to just write the introductions the way he would say things. In the earliest episodes, that writer was Jack Speirs who came up with the phrase "I only hope we never lose sight of one thing…that it was all started by a mouse".
Speirs recalled, "He seldom used fancy or uncommon words but he would not talk down to his viewers either. For one of his nature shows featuring ants, he refused to change 'mandibles' to the more familiar word 'jaws'. 'They're properly called mandibles', Walt said. 'Let's stick to that'. I knew he pronounced 'hover' as 'hoover' so I avoided words like that in his script. He wouldn't be shy to tell me what he liked or didn't like. He was actively involved. He didn't just parrot what I wrote."
Speirs eventually left and was replaced by Jack Bruner, who continued in that position up to Walt's death.
Even though all the introductions were written and storyboarded, once on set, Walt would ad-lib, especially if he was working with live animals.
Disney Legend Jack Hannah who directed 14 shows introduced by Walt, recalled:
"Generally, it was fine when we were filming," "We had everything worked out carefully ahead of time and I'm sure he went over the lines very carefully ahead of time because he knew the situation and he didn't stumble around when we got ready to shoot it.
"We had cue cards just in case because that was the standard of the time and Walt would usually shoot several introductions in the same day because his time was limited.
"The stand-in would come in and we'd get the scene lighted and Walt would come on and worked with the cue cards, especially if there were longer speeches or if he wanted some words changed because he was having difficulty with them because they didn't sound natural to him.
"When he was playing with the [Donald] Duck, he had it all worked out, even his mannerisms. He could really see the Duck there and responded accordingly. Many times in the lighter situations he would ad-lib with Donald and that would take me by surprise and we'd have to go back and revise the storyboard accordingly.
"We would get the national ratings and such and they showed that the programs with Walt and Donald would get the highest ratings. That's one of the reasons we did so many of them. People loved the Duck, just like they had in movie theaters, and they just loved Walt. He came across as a playful uncle.
"However, we got to the point that it became more and more difficult to come up with premises for the Duck. You had him go on vacation or a day at the studio or taking the Mouseketeers on a tour or whatever. After awhile, it was tough to come up with a reason to tie all his old cartoons together."
Camera man Bob Broughton told writers Katherine and Richard Greene:
"Walt would pull out a book from a shelf that related to the topic for that show. Generally, Walt would memorize his lines for the entrance and then he'd read the rest of his lines from the book. At one session, we got the shot of his entrance. Then he pulls out the book and opens it. His lines are there, but upside down. Walt says 'Oh sh*t'.
"He goes back and we do another take. This time, when he opens it, the page with his lines falls out on the floor. So, he says 'Oh, sh*t'. By now everyone is really quiet because when the boss is having a problem, no one moves. He does it a third time and drops the book. He says, 'Oh, sh*t...at this rate, I'm going to start flubbing the words Oh, sh*t!' and everyone bursts out into laughter."
Walt's television appearances made him an instantly recognized celebrity and he always regretted that he couldn't always wander anonymously through Disneyland. A half century after his death, the introductions for the television shows still sparkle with charm and seem as fresh and natural as when they were first filmed.
"He was exactly (in life) as you saw him on television," Diane Disney Miller told me.
I wish the Disney Company was interested in releasing a Blu-ray of Walt's introductions. Of course, I would want a complete collection but I would certainly settle for a "Best of…" if that was all they were willing to produce. I'll bet many of the readers of this column feel the same way, as well.