Disney Goes Commercial Part Two

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Last installment (link), I wrote about the Disney Commercial division in the 1950s and the characters and advertisements they created for a variety of clients. Bucky Beaver, Tommy Mohawk and Fresh-Up Freddie are still fondly remembered by many folks today, but they weren’t the only characters animated by the talented artists working at the “secret” department in the Animation building at the Disney Studio in Burbank.

In addition to creating new characters, the Disney commercial division also utilized Disney characters for television ads, but generally just for the sponsors of the three Disney television shows at the time: Disneyland, Zorro and the original Mickey Mouse Club. If you’d like to know more about the commercials on the MMC click here (link).

There were a series of Jell-O commercials of well-dressed young girls looking into a mold of Jell-O and in its jiggling seeing all sorts of Alice in Wonderland adventures.

In one that recycled animation from the original feature “Are you the smile on my Jell-O or the smile on the Cheshire Cat?” asks Alice with the voice of actress Kathryn Beaumont who played the role in the animated feature.

Her reply comes from the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway, who also provided the same voice for the character in the animated classic. After extolling the different colored flavors of Jell-O, the cat disappears.

Another commercial that used all new animation had the characters of the Griffin and the Mock Turtle (who never appeared in the feature) learn from Alice how easy it is to make Jell-O for a party. As Alice informs the viewers, “For energy, for color or just playing games, there is nothing quite like Jell-O.”

American Motors hosted an attraction at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland titled Circarama. I wrote about that forgotten attraction (link).

“Disneyland was sponsored by American Motors and George Romney was president then. He came to the Studio one day. Walt sent George Romney and his wife and two kids down [one of whom was a very young Mitt Romney]. I showed them how to draw Jiminy Cricket,” said animator Paul Carlson with a laugh. Carlson, along with Jerry Hathcock, was responsible for the How to Draw Jiminy Cricket booklet sold at the Art Corner at Disneyland in the 1950s. Carlson was the assistant to Nick Nichols who was the primary director of these commercials.

Innovative artist Tom Oreb redesigned the classic Disney characters into a more streamlined look for the series of American Motors commercials. Mickey was given a big “adult” suit and a very angular triangle like face. His iconic round ears were transformed into large floppy jungle plant leaves.

In one commercial, an angular Donald Duck is in a schoolroom lecturing unintelligibly to his bored nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie about the benefit of deep-coil springs on the Hudson Hornet. (Guess Doc Hudson in Cars was in even better shape than we knew.) Another commercial has Donald and his nephews bouncing wildly down a steep mountain road in an old car because they don’t have deep coil springs. Fortunately, a live announcer was able to translate for Donald about the advantages of American Motors cars.

To escape Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, Br’er Rabbit locks himself inside an American Motors car with “all-season air conditioning” so he remains comfy through the seasons of excessive heat and freezing snow that his adversaries must endure. What the clever rabbit eats in his “laughing place” during all those months is never explained.

Jiminy Cricket on a window sill sings “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you see a star. A Nash is a star a car makes. It outshines all others by far.” The voice is Cliff Edwards who did the voice for the cricket on a variety of projects in the 1950s from shorts for the Mickey Mouse Club to records for the Disneyland label. My parents had a red Nash Rambler that took my brothers and me to Disneyland during the summer for a few years.

One of the most unusual American Motors (“More for America”) commercials was Pluto napping by his doghouse when he is hit by a flyer for the 1955 Nash that he takes to Mickey Mouse who is relaxing in a hammock. Pluto is distracted by a cat eating out of his bowl and chases the feline through the yard and into the garage while the announcer extols the benefits of how the car can turn and has a nice big windshield (since Pluto now has his head stuck in a fishbowl). Mickey is dressed and ready to walk out and go to the car lot and takes Pluto along.

Victor Haboush, who did background design on a number of the commercials, told animation historian Amid Amidi (make sure to visit www.cartoonbrew.com) that when the Nash commercial aired with Mickey Mouse, “There was a little kid that used to write Walt telling him to stay away from modern art because it’s communistic. So when the commercial came on, he got a letter from this kid, a little malcontent somewhere and he wrote, ‘I’m disappointed Walt. I never thought you’d succumb. What happened to you?’ and Walt went crazy. He stormed down there and outlawed us against using any of the Disney characters in commercials. I remember at the time everybody was incensed that we couldn’t use them, and it basically spelled the end of the unit. [Companies] were coming for the celebrity, to be able to use Disney characters in commercials.”

Apparently, there is at least one more commercial with Mickey Mouse looking at his image in a mirror above a dresser and two children in the back seat of an American Motors car, a male and a female, so they are not the nephews. I have seen stills from this commercial but not the actual commercial. Supposedly there was another that featured Cinderella and yet another with Alice from Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. There is no official listing of all the commercials done by Disney at this time.

Peter Pan Peanut Butter had been around since 1929 and Derby Foods, which controlled the brand, was one of the earliest sponsors of the Disneyland television show on ABC.

Legendary Disney storyman Bill Peet had a run-in with Walt Disney when Peet didn’t make a change Walt wanted in a scene on Sleeping Beauty where the prince and Aurora are dancing in the forest.

“The next day, I was sent down to the main floor to work on Peter Pan Peanut Butter TV commercials, which was without a doubt my punishment for what Walt considered my stubbornness," wrote Peet in his autobiography. "I toughed it out for about two months on peanut butter commercials, then stubbornly decided to return to my room on the third floor whether Walt liked it or not.”

“Yes, he worked on some on some Peter Pan commercials," Carlson remembered. "And he had some input on those. I don’t remember what he talked to Phyllis [Hurrell, the head of the department] about, but yeah, Peet did make some comments or some suggestions to story."

Tinker Bell was mute in those days and had to pantomime her delight at the peanut butter that could be put on hot toast because it melted like butter and was so smooth that it could even be” spread on crispy potato chips.” A lively background chorus would sing that “your eyes know and your tummy knows, best of all, your taster knows, Peter Pan Peanut Butter is so grand—the smoothest peanut butter in the land.”

In keeping with the theatrical tradition, the image of Peter Pan on the jar was a mature woman.

Cliff "Jiminy Cricket" Edwards and Sterling "Winnie the Pooh" Holloway often narrated the commercials. At the time, Holloway had finished doing the voice of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Reportedly, Josh Meador, who was the head of the Disney Studios animation effects department, did some work on the Tinker Bell commercials.

Captain Hook has tied up little Tinker Bell to force her to tell him where the Peter Pan Peanut Butter is and when she refuses, he makes her walk the plank. She is rescued by Peter Pan who battles Hook and tosses him to the hungry crocodile who is already consulting a recipe book for “Hook Stew” and “Baked Hook”. However, a kindhearted Tink rescues the Captain from the jaws of death with a jar of peanut butter because “it certainly is true Peter Pan Peanut Butter is the favorite of people and crocodiles, too!”

Tink appeared in a commercial where she uses her hands to make hand shadows on a nearby blank wall for viewers to guess the figures, including the easiest of all, her miming the opening of a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter. Often times there were enthusiastic off-camera children’s voices, like when Tink played a game with live-action hands and another where she interacted with a set of three different pairs of animated hands. In one commercial, Tink even plays a game of connecting the dots to reveal a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter and in another plays with a large storybook of words and pictures. One commercial has a peanut butter machine with the voice of Paul Frees making crunchy peanut butter for Tink.

Tink’s character design was very similar to the version that was used for the opening of the Disneyland television show and in fact at the end of the show, Tink might do an animated sequence to remind viewers to get some Peter Pan Peanut Butter or that the American Dairy Association recommends three glasses of whole milk a day just as live action tv stars who were promoting their sponsors in commercials. In fact, it was the commercial division that did the opening Tinker Bell credits for the long running television show.

Over the years, Peter Pan Peanut Butter have done other promotions with the characters, including one in 1976 in 15,000 supermarkets across the country offering 2 million full-color Disney Peter Pan movie posters given away free with the purchase of any size jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter.

Besides being in an American Motors commercial, Jiminy Cricket also shilled for Baker’s Instant Chocolate Flavored Mix for the original Mickey Mouse Club that made the “most delicious chocolate drink” while the rest of us were using Hershey’s syrup or Bosco with our milk. In fact, Jiminy had his own “Sipping and Singing Society” and you could get your membership card and, for 10 cents, a cardboard marionette puppet of Jiminy. Jiminy also did a PSA for the United Way at this time, singing a song about the benefits of giving. Bob Youngquist was primarily responsible for the animation of Jiminy in these commercials that were not stylized but reminiscent of his original design.

In 1956, Oreb and Haboush left the Disney commercial division to work at John Sutherland Productions that produced industrial cartoons for major corporate clients. Officially the Disney Studios closed its television commercial division in the late 1950s. The Disneyland theme park was generating plenty of additional revenue and just like his involvement with military training films, Walt had become irritated at not having the final word on what he was producing.

“One time Walt was very upset because the agency that was sponsoring The Mickey Mouse Club used Woody Woodpecker in a cereal commercial on The Mickey Mouse Club," Carlson said. "And he didn’t like it because he didn’t have control of the animation. They dropped it right into the show after the whole show was mixed. It wasn’t sound mixed with everything else. It was dropped in by an editor later. And the sound was up. So when they broadcast it, it was obvious that the volume went up and it wasn’t smooth, and Walt didn’t like it. And he usually looked at all the shows.”

“We did so different commercials and to tell you the truth I can’t remember all of them," he said. "There were so darn many of them. Some of these commercials were animation and some of them were live action. Nick had a live-action [director’s] card and that’s how he got involved."

"Nick Nichols and I had a great time together producing TV commercials. He was a great guy. He was very nice to work with. When they closed down the commercial division in ’59, I think, Nick went over to Hanna-Barbera, and he produced a lot of shows over there,” stated Carlson. who went on to work on Mr. Magoo at U.P.A.

Unfortunately, little documentation exists on Walt Disney’s venture into the world of television commercials and there is no DVD compilation of the many obscure animated masterpieces made either. However, you might get lucky buying some of those compilation DVDs of old television commercials and seeing Dumbo flying high to promote Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

One of my favorite Disney commercials was run decades later. Roger Rabbit disguising himself in an oversized trenchcoat sneaks into the Ink and Paint Club to see Jessica perform but he is discovered by Bob Hoskins as detective Eddie Valiant. Roger celebrates with a can of Diet Coke. And, no, that commercial isn’t available for you to see either (nor the Roger Rabbit one at McDonalds).