Herbie Day at Disneyland 1974

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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With the huge financial and critical success of The Love Bug (1969), it was natural for Disney to make a sequel, Herbie Rides Again (1974). Once again producer/writer Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson were on board, but actor Dean Jones turned down the offer to reappear as Herbie's owner Jim Douglas because he felt the script was not as strong as the original.

Audiences generally agreed and the film was not as critically or financially lauded as its predecessor but still brought in $38 million dollars at the box office that first year making it a certified hit.

Herbie Rides Again was so well known that it was parodied in the trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): "Once in a lifetime there comes a motion picture which changed the whole history of motion pictures….Then there are more run-of-mill films like Herbie Rides Again and Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

None of the original cast from the first film returned for the sequel.

In the film, Herbie is retired from racing and lives in a San Francisco firehouse with elderly Mrs. Steinmetz (Helen Hayes playing a role originally written for actor Walter Brennan, who died before filming began) and other sentient objects, including a juke box and a trolley car. Steinmetz is the widowed aunt of Tennessee Steinmetz from the first film and, like her nephew, she believes that inanimate objects have feelings and thoughts, so she has no trouble communicating with them.

Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn) is buying the surrounding land to build Hawk Plaza, a massive shopping mall with tall skyscrapers, and needs the land that the firehouse is on to complete the project. When she refuses to sell her home, he tries some underhanded tricks on the old woman and eventually sends over his nephew (just out of law school) played by Ken Berry to intimidate her but he falls for Mrs. Steinmetz's beautiful granddaughter Nicole (Stefanie Powers), who is a stewardess.

The three band together with Herbie to prevent the firehouse from being bulldozed down. At one point, there is a wild ride up the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is explained that after all the success he had with Herbie, Jim Douglas moved to Europe for the foreign racing circuit and Tennessee went back to Tibet to help his ailing mentor.

At one point, Hawk steals everything within the firehouse, forcing Herbie and his friends to break into Hawk's warehouse to retrieve everything. The finale has Herbie rallying an army of driverless Volkswagen beetles to help defend the firehouse.


Herbie drives Helen Hayes, from Herbie Rides Again, down Main Street as part of a TV special in 1974.

One scene has Herbie racing through the famous restaurant Garden Court of the Sheraton Palace Hotel that was originally opened in 1875 and, after the great fire, underwent renovations in 1906. It is breathtakingly ornate, is one-third the size of a football field, and surmounted by a dome of amber leaded glass 48-feet above the marble floor.

Many dignitaries, including Thomas Edison, Franklin Roosevelt, Nikita Kruschev, and Prince Philip had dined beneath the crystal chandeliers and gold leaf sconces.

To get permission to film the scene, Disney had to agree that the Herbie used would be battery powered, so as not to produce engine noise and emissions. The bottom of the car also had to be drip-proofed to prevent any fluid spills. In addition the scene had to be shot during mid-afternoon so there was no disturbance to regular lunch and dinner patrons.

Hayes was 74 when she got the part and was enjoying a career resurgence since her Oscar winning performance in a supporting role in the film Airport (1970).

"I always wanted to do a picture for Disney," Hayes said. "This is the third try. Walt wanted me to play in The Light in the Forest (1958) and The Happiest Millionaire (1967), but I was busy on stage both times."

She must have enjoyed working at Disney because she went on to make two more Disney films: One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975) and Candleshoe (1977).

Keenan Wynn had appeared as the character of Alonzo P. Hawk in The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and would pop up again as the character in its sequel, Son of Flubber (1963).

"This is my third crack at Hawk and I am happy to say he is rottener than ever," stated Wynn, son of comedian Ed Wynn, who had been in several Disney films. "With Hawk, the trick is to get the audience to laugh at him. The guy is in the construction business. He has built his empire. He's a ramrodder. And he is deadly serious about what he is doing, which is trying to wipe out a little old lady and her pet Volkswagen."

Wynn played other villains besides Hawk in Disney films like Smith! (1969), Snowball Express (1972) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976).

When Volkswagen sales rose significantly after the first film, Volkswagen allowed Disney to use VW logos on Herbie, and various dealerships had full-sized Herbie cars on display as well as 300,000 free posters to give to customers. Dealerships also offered a graphics kit so owners could transform their VW Bug to look like Herbie.

Disneyland held a new "Beautify A (VW) Bug" contest on June 30, 1974. Twenty-five finalists were selected in each category (Most Patriotic, Most Nostalgic, Most Comical) to be in the parade at Disneyland. The grand prize was a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle.

Across Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland (where Mimi's Restaurant is located today), Herbie Rides Again was playing in the now long-gone Fox CinemaLand Theater where the "gala premiere" was held on June 30, sponsored by Variety Club of Southern California Tent 25 with proceeds benefiting the Heart of Variety Trust Fund.

The film actually opened on June 6, 1974 in 2,178 theaters and 1,761 drive-in theaters and ended up grossing more than $38 million dollars that first year. Outside the Fox CinemaLand Theater was a 1970s model VW Bug decorated to look like Herbie.

The decorating of VWs bug contest, unlike the previous 1969 event, was filmed this time as a one-hour special on June 30, 1974, and it ran on Metromedia KTTV Channel 11 on July 11, 1974. it was syndicated on more than 80 stations.

It was quite common at one time for Disney to have an hour-long special on one of Los Angeles' locally syndicated channels (KTTV Channel 11, KHJ Channel 9 and KCOP Channel 13) to promote some event at Disneyland like Blast to the Past, State Fair, or Light Magic.

Like most of those specials, this one does not seem available for fans to view, even though Disney publicity at the time declared it "a fanciful, fun-filled hour of entertainment for the entire family."

The credits included KTTV staff like director Jack Scott, executive producer Dick Stratton, production manager Ray Green, and technical director John Westbrook.

To promote the release of Herbie Rides Again, the Studio sponsored another "Beautify A Bug" contest of people decorating their Volkswagens in an imaginative way for a chance at a brand new car.

The show opens with a line of cars waiting to enter the Disneyland parking lot where the decorating is to begin. Herbie gets tired of waiting in the line and veers around the others to sneak into the lot. Hosts Bob McAllister and Bob Crane climb out of Herbie and introduce what the show is going to be about.

McAllister was the host of the highly popular Sunday morning series produced by Metromedia called Wonderama. He hosted for a decade from 1967-1977. It was a children's series with a variety of games for the children in the studio audience to do as well as watching some old Warner Brothers cartoons. While the format was similar to any number of children's host shows at the time, especially on the local syndicated channels, this show captured a large audience perhaps because it was aired on Sunday. A daily version was attempted and it failed.

Crane, best known at the time for his role on the television series Hogan's Heroes, had just appeared in the Disney theatrical film Superdad (1973).

He was a last-minute replacement. One script has comedian Tim Conway as the host interacting with Herbie. Conway was to have had a running "feud" with Herbie with Conway saying some mean things about the car and Herbie sprinkling on his foot at least twice. The final scene was Helen Hayes and Herbie inviting Conway to attend the premiere of the film since he doesn't have a ticket.

"Herbie likes you," says Hayes as an explanation.

By the time McAllister and Crane have finished introducing the show, Herbie has vanished. McAllister says he's not surprised at this turn of events because Herbie loves to cause mischief and has a mind of its own. He mentions the problems Herbie gave actor Ken Berry in the film and that remark transitions into showing some scenes from the film.

McAllister and Crane set off after the missing car assisted by costumed characters like Brer Bear, unaware that he's making his way through Disneyland to enjoy the park. After he searches the parking lot, McAllister heads to the grand opening of America Sings, Disneyland's newest attraction.

A costumed Mickey Mouse and Burl Ives (who voiced Sam the Eagle in the attraction) are there to open the show. The attraction officially opened on June 29, one day before the filming. The attraction attempted to showcase the history of the United States through popular songs of each era performed by a host of audio-animatronics animals.

After a preview of the show, the Kids of the Kingdom entertain the crowd by singing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."

The original press release announced that the singing group would be the Mike Curb Congregation, who had a hit with their "jazzy version" of the "Mickey Mouse Club March," arranged by Don Costa, released in 1974 by Buena Vista Records.

Whether because of financial issues or scheduling conflicts, the group was replaced by June 26 for the filming with The Kids of the Kingdom, a wholesome, college-aged group of singers and dancers dressed in white patterned after the popular Up With People group meant to be an alternative to the "hippie counter culture." The Kids of the Kingdom frequently performed on the Tomorrowland Stage (now the site of Space Mountain). They were formed in 1968 and lasted for almost 20 years at Disneyland (and the Walt Disney World version a little longer than that).

The Kids of the Kingdom often traveled outside of Disneyland to perform at special events and corporate conventions often held right next door at the Disneyland Hotel. They appeared in the Disneyland Showtime (March 1970) television episode.

"A choice was made to bring together young talent because of availability, cost and image," said Ron Logan, former executive vice president Walt Disney Entertainment. "Those Kids of the Kingdom shows had a certain formula that evolved which was anywhere from 8 to 12 singers/dancers and an eight-piece band. These shows generally were not marketed and were really there as part of the atmosphere environment. They were built to where anyone could walk into the half-hour format at any time and still enjoy the show.

"The Kids of the Kingdom shows evolved through the years and eventually included the characters," Logan said. "There was a lot of discussion in those days about whether that was appropriate. Time proved that it was not only appropriate, but character-related stage shows became a major brand for the Disney parks. Even today, when we do stage shows without characters, we have less of a chance to be successful in the eyes of our guests."

Earlier press releases had touted that cameo appearances would be made by several actors, including Ken Berry, Stefanie Powers, John McIntyre, Keenan Wynn (all from the film), Jan Michael Vincent ("This is a small world, Herbie. I heard you got my old dressing room at the Disney Studio."), Walter Matthau (representing the Variety Club to explain the charity), Carol Burnett, Cary Grant (!), Phyllis Diller, and Fred MacMurray. Most never made it into the final special.

It always bothers me when there is a special about Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and Disney forgets Walt Disney's philosophy that the park is the star. Disney tries to cram in "stars" who are only famous for just that brief moment in time and musical acts that people forget 10 years later or sooner. For those living in other than Los Angeles or Orlando, this was their only chance to see the park, something that frequent local visitors often take for granted.

One of my joys growing up was watching the annual Disney Christmas Parade on Christmas Day. One of its strongest supporters was host Regis Philbin who requested lengthy "fun facts" as part of his parade script, even though he wouldn't be able to use all of them. Those scripts were often written by knowledgeable author and Disney musicologist, Greg Ehrbar. There were several lengthy behind-the-scenes looks at what was being built.

Today, for me, the show is irrelevant. It is packed with musical acts that could be seen anywhere. Tight close-ups crop out any real view of the park. The show isn't even "live," any more but pre-recorded for safety in case of foul weather and convenience of the performers.

Grumble. Grumble. Let me get out my grumpy old man cane and wave it wildly in the air.

Anyway, back to the show. McAllister then runs into Helen Hayes from the film. When McAllister makes fun of Herbie, she defends the car, saying that Herbie is her friend. (An exchange that was also in the Conway script).

"Let me show you how he helped me," Hayes says.

After more scenes from the film demonstrating this fact, Hayes points out Herbie in the grandstand. The car is wearing oversized sunglasses and is getting comfortable to watch the parade.

McAllister has to rush to announce the parade so cannot pursue Herbie at this point.

Some of the contestants pass by accompanied by the Long Beach Marching Band, a variety of Disney characters and celebrities. At the end, Hayes awards the grand prize, a new car, to the winner.

The show closes with Hayes and Herbie watching the Main Street Electrical Parade and fireworks. These were actually briefly staged earlier in the evening around 8 p.m. so that the elderly Hayes did not have to stay for the actual fireworks. It had been a long day for Hayes. She had to be there before 1:30 p.m. for the filming and to have her hair and makeup done. She wore the same dress the entire day.

Interestingly, Walt Disney World had its own "Beautify Your Bug" contest in connection with Herbie Rides Again. The contest, sponsored by the Volkswagen Clubs of America and the Central Florida Volkswagen dealers, was held June 15. Entries were limited to 200 contestants. Judging was done by winners of similar nationwide contests with the ultimate winner receiving a new Volkswagen. The top finalists had to be content with participating in a special parade down Main Street U.S.A. with the Disney costumed characters.

In 1976, Imagineers proposed a Herbie dark ride for Disneyland that would take guests in oversized Herbie vehicles through scenes from the first two Love Bug movies (eg. driving up the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge, skipping across a lake, etc.) The proposal even included Herbie splitting in half at the end of the attraction.

In 2015, one of cars used in Herbie Rides Again and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo sold for $86,250 (less than a year earlier it had been bought on eBay for $55,200 after being found in a Florida warehouse where it had been forgotten for decades, but the pink slip was discovered under the seat in 2008) in the Treasures of the Dream Factory auction held by Bonhams and Turner Classics Movies in New York. It is now the most valuable Beetle ever sold at auction.

This vehicle is one of the ingenious "Invisible Driver" Herbies. Modified with an elaborate system of sprockets and pulleys connected to a second steering column under the front seat, the driver sits in the backseat to give the impression that the car is driving itself. There were non-factory standard high-back bucket seats to help hide the stunt drivers who peered through mesh holes.

This particular car also had the distinction of being the only vehicle ever to leave its tire print in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, during promotion for Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.

Thank heavens for all the "unofficial" Disney historians who do research and spend their own money in an attempt to preserve Disney history.

When Bill Cotter, responsible for the outstanding (and in need of updating but still hugely valuable as it is) book The Wonderful World of Disney Television was doing his research, he discovered that in the official studio production files there was no information on the Herbie Day at Disneyland special, but fortunately was able to find some retired Disney staff members who remembered the filming.

From a retired publicity agent, Cotter was able to buy the press file and now sells a scanned copy of it on eBay that includes publicity stills, two versions of the scripts for the show and miscellaneous material. This material was invaluable in trying to reconstruct the story of this event.

Track down one of Cotter's sales and give him a little bit of money to thank him for rescuing obscure Disney documents and allow him to purchase other treasures. Cotter is also a recognized authority on American World's Fairs and Disney's Zorro, among other things, and very much a true Disney historian.

Undoubtedly, Disney is thinking of some way to once again revive Herbie for a new generation of movie audiences. Why does he not make cameo appearances in the Cars films? There is just something appealing about the little car who has become one of Disney's most memorable characters.

Comments

  1. By LtPowers

    Boy, Jim, I couldn't agree more about the Christmas Parade special. It's no longer appointment viewing for my family, the way it was twenty-five years ago.


    Powers &8^]

  2. By Bill Cotter

    Thanks for the kind words, Jim. I have had some preliminary talks with Disney about updating the book, and will be pursuing it after things settle down from the D23 Expo.

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