The First Disney Television Christmas

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Over the years, Walt Disney and the Disney Company have given the world many memorable Christmas gifts from animated films and comic books focusing on the holiday, to decorations and celebrations in the theme parks, to involvement in groups like Toys for Tots and Give Kids the World. Each year, I’ve written a column about some of these many treasures and this year, I struggled to find something a little different.

Because of my background as a Disney historian, I am often asked what Walt Disney might think of something that is being done today. My response, borrowed from Disney archivist Dave Smith, is that I might be able to make a guess about what the Walt of 1966 might think, but I have no clue what the Walt of 2008 would think.

The reason is that Walt was always ahead of everyone else. He had a great curiosity of the future just right around the corner. He was interested in what was being developed for the next five or 10 years, not the fantastical world of the future where by now we were supposed to have robot butlers, personal rocket packs and would only eat little colored pills instead of real food. The Walt of 2008 would already be looking at new technology that is in development to be part of our lives in the next decade and how he could adapt it for his own plans.

A perfect example of Walt’s looking to technology of the immediate future was his involvement with television. In late 1944. RCA wanted Disney to produce an infomercial special called “The World In Your Living Room” (also known as “Your Window on the World”) to demonstrate why Americans needed to own a television set. TV 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 people of owning a television set in your 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.

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 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. He commissioned a study by an outside research firm, C.J. LaRoche, titled “Television for Walt Disney Productions” (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.

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 Roy had some concerns over how the audience would react to its upcoming animated feature, Alice in Wonderland and Walt felt that perhaps a television special could be used to promote the film.

Bill Walsh ended up writing and producing the special. Bill Walsh remembered, “I kept bumping into Walt and he said, ‘You’ll be the producer of the TV show.’ And I always said, ‘I don’t have any experience in tv’ and Walt would always say, ‘Who does?’”

Even though it is hard to believe, Walt was uneasy about being the sole host for the show so looked for a little support. Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy were huge stars of radio and had been former clients of Walsh as well as having their radio show sponsored by Coca-Cola who would be sponsoring the Disney special. They had also appeared in host roles in Disney’s film Fun and Fancy Free.

Bergen was also interested in exploring the possibilities of television. He was so popular and had been wooed by several network that some publicity for the show indicated that it was a Bergen and McCarthy special with some help from Disney.

“Edgar Bergen was a very dear friend of dad's. I'm certain that you're aware of other instances of their collaborating, like on a radio show or two," Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, wrote to me when I was asking about this television special. "Candice Bergen, in her biography, Knock Wood, refers to their friendship and states that dad was her godfather. I don't think he actually was, but I was pleased that she thought so. My parents were good friends with Edgar and Frances Bergen, but I think that dad and Edgar had a special bond. Edgar had a wonderful sense of humor, was really very witty. I think that they were a really good family.”

The special was supposed to air on CBS but they could not guarantee the required number of stations. As a result, Coca-Cola decided to move the show to NBC which guaranteed a total of 62 stations.

The special was aired at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day 1950. Disney captured 90 percent of the available television audience and got rave reviews. It cost more than $100,000 to produce which made it one of the most expensive hours of television ever produced up to that time.

The special opened with “Coca-Cola brings you holiday greetings!”

Santa Claus is standing at his bag with a huge Christmas tree behind him. At the top of the bag are stuffed dolls of Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and … Panchito the Rooster from the Three Caballeros. A stuffed Mickey doll is already at the bottom of the tree and there are several stuffed Mickey dolls of various sizes in the “Disney Studio” set.

According to the title cards, Walt Disney presents not only Snow White and the dwarves and Mickey and the gang but also “with Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox” and “introducing the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland” and guest starring Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Officially, the show starts in the Bergen home where Edgar tells Charlie they have been invited to a tea party at the Disney Studio. The temptation of a young lady at the studio who wants to meet Charlie convinces him to go. There is a harrowing convertible ride to the studio where Walt is sitting on the Carolwood Pacific demonstrating its whistle to the surrounding children.

Kathryn Beaumont is dressed as Alice from Wonderland while Bobby Driscoll is in a suit and signing autographs for the young girls. Mortimer spends much of the special talking to a stuffed Goofy doll.

“During the filming of the One Hour in Wonderland television broadcast, he [Walt] was performing in scenes with us. He was a little uncomfortable about his role because he wanted to do it right. He was concerned about remembering his lines,” remembered Beaumont who was about 12 years old at the time; Driscoll was about 13.

Of course, Walt introduces the Magic Mirror and tells the gathered guests how he obtained the device. “It all started a good many years ago when I was traveling through Europe. I happened to meet a fairy princess who had a cousin who used to work at the Studio and she put me on to the wonderful Magic Mirror and I was finally able to buy it and brought it back here to the Studio.”

Walt summons the servant of mirror with great flourish and Charlie snidely comments to two young ladies sitting on the couch with him: “How hammy can you get? Do you girls know this character Disney?”

“Yes,” Sharon Disney says.

“He’s our father,” Diane Disney says.

The two Disney daughters pop up twice more in the special. There is another shot of them later on the couch with Charlie and one shot where during the commercial break, they each grab a bottle of Coke for the “pause that refreshes.” Interestingly, both Edgar and Walt also grab bottles of Coke but don’t drink on camera even though Kathryn and Bobby do.

“We were on that first show because dad wanted us there. I was miserably self-conscious. I think we both were, but Sharon perhaps not so much, being younger,” Diane Disney Miller wrote to me.

I think she is being much too hard on herself. She certainly seemed attractive and poised to me and I have watched the special many times.

The servant of the Magic Mirror was the face and voice of actor Hans Conreid. At the time, he was supplying the voice and live-action reference for Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan and would later supply the voice of Thomas Jefferson in Ben and Me and perform as Thimblerig in Davy Crockett. In the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Moroni Olsen did the voice of the mirror.

The clips that are run include the scene from Snow White where Snow White sings and dances with the dwarves in the cottage, Clock Cleaners with Mickey, Donald and Goofy cleaning a huge clock tower, a segment from Song of the South with the Zip a Dee Doo Dah song leading into the animated story of Brer Rabbit running away from home and getting caught in the snare, and Bone Trouble”\ where Pluto steals a bone from Butch and hides in a hall of mirrors.

Edgar Bergen expresses his desire to see the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a group of Disney animators, artists, writers and musicians who loved jazz and formed a group while working at the Studio with Disney Legend Ward Kimball as the leader. Members rotated over the years and the group played a lot of nightclubs, appeared on radio and television and of course, performed at Disneyland. They recorded almost a dozen albums that are currently available on CD.

During the special, Walt calls them the “hardest workers” at the studio and the servant of the Magic Mirror snickers because when he shows them at their animation desks, they are playing an up tempo, jazzy version of the song Jingle Bells. It is great to see Disney legends like Ward Kimball (on trombone), Frank Thomas (on piano) and Harper Goff (on the banjo) in their prime.

Their jam session is interrupted by a note saying “Dear Boys, You look great! Signed Walt.” Ward quickly picks up pencil animation of Tweedledee and Tweedledum to flip through to show he had been working hard but the Magic Mirror stops it because the film isn’t supposed to be seen yet. However, after some begging from the crowd, the mirror allows the guests to see the Mad Tea Party scene.

The special ends with Edgar and Charlie going home but Walt has loaned out the mirror to Edgar so he can keep an eye on Charlie to make sure he does his homework.

This show was seen by 20 million viewers at a time when there were only 10.5 million TV sets in the United States.

Coca-Cola is supposedly the world’s most recognizable trademark since it is recognized by 94 percent of the world’s population. There are roughly 7,000 soft drinks from the Coca-Cola Company consumed every second of the day, every day, 24 hours a day.

A newspaper reviewer at the time wrote: “There is nothing in television even remotely comparable to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dopey, Goofy, Pluto and the rest of them. The kiddies could hardly ask for more of a Christmas afternoon.”

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 air his older films on television and this was at a time when the entire company revenues for the year were only $7.3 million.

The success of the special had all of the networks trying to sign Walt to a deal for a weekly series. Walt and Roy had concerns about what a weekly series would contain. They both agreed that they couldn’t simply air each week a revised version of the special. Plus additional staffing would be needed for a series. Actually, the primary concern was that the special might have been a fluke, merely a curiosity with no competition.

After much internal company debate, Walt produced another Christmas special the next year. Walt Disney Christmas Show aired Christmas day 1951 and featured Walt as the sole host. It cost $250,000 and was sponsored by Johnson and Johnson and promoted the upcoming animated feature Peter Pan, although oddly the special itself had no animated clips from the film. The show ran on CBS at 3 pm. Bill Walsh produced this special, as well.

The special begins with a caricature of Walt as the engineer of a train and on the cars that follow are drawings of Snow White and the dwarves, Mickey and the gang, Bambi and Thumper, Uncle Remus and the Brers and a blank handcar with a sign: “introducing Willoughby.”

Walt is showing artwork on an easel from the upcoming animated feature “Peter Pan” to children who have gathered at the “Disney Studio” set for the festivities. Kathryn Beaumont is dressed as Wendy and Bobby Driscoll is dressed as Peter Pan and even does a little flying.

The clips that are shown include “Band Concert,” the classic first color Mickey Mouse cartoon; a segment of “Snow White” discovering the cottage and the dwarves coming home from the mine in 10 different languages including French, Italian, Polish, Swedish, Dutch and more; and a clip of Bambi meeting Thumper in Hindustani (decades before Bollywood here is Bambi with a Indian music background).

It turns out that Willoughby is a small hand mirror (“My wife’s little nephew,” says the Magic Mirror) who is trying to break into the business so he gets his chance by showing the cartoon Donald and Pluto where a magnet causes trouble. Willoughby is the face and voice of Bill Thompson who not only did the voice of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and J.Audborn Woodlore (The Little Ranger), but at the time was doing the voice of Mr. Smee to Hans Conreid’s Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”.

Finally, Driscoll asks for a clip of Uncle Remus and the Mirror gladly grants a segment of “the gentle spirit of the great storyteller” beginning with the How Do You Do? song leading into the animated tar baby segment ending with Brer Rabbit being thrown in the Briar Patch.

Television sets were placed in children’s hospitals in more than 50 hospitals in the United States so the patients could see this special. Johnson and Johnson distributed Disney toys and other gifts to those hospitals and hosted parties held after the screening.

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 and The Love Bug.

The success of these two Christmas specials led to the weekly Disney television program.

“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.

I will end this year’s Christmas-themed column with the closing statement from the servant of the Magic Mirror in Walt Disney’s Christmas Show from 1951: “Thank you everyone. May we wish you the best of all possible things for this season and in the New Year to come.”