The Story of Disney's Toby Tyler

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“Strike up the Band! Here Comes the Happiest Show on Earth! Roaring with Thrills! Ringing with Laughter!”

Those colorful advertising phrases seem a trifle excessive to describe one of Walt Disney’s unassuming formulatic live-action films that achieved its modest intentions at the time quite successfully.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Disney live-action film, Toby Tyler, and it was screened March 27 at the Disney studios as part of the D23 “50 and Fabulous” film series. While it is not considered a classic film, it is still an enjoyable experience and, like most of the live-action films made during Walt Disney’s lifetime, it has some delightful little touches and some production stories that deserve documentation.

In the past, I have written about similar simple Disney live-action films that have received scant attention including Blackbeard’s Ghost (link) and Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN (link).

These films have been justly overshadowed by Walt’s blockbuster classics but even decades after they were made, they still offer solid family entertainment with their cartoony slapstick and strong moral values. Unfortunately, the DVD releases of these films have no commentary tracks nor any “extras” to help today’s audiences better appreciate and understand the films.

Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus, was the first novel by James Otis Kaler. It was originally serialized in Harper’s Young People in 1877 and then was later collected and published as a book in 1881. It became a very popular book for young boys over the years. Writer Carl Sandburg told people that Toby Tyler was one of his favorite books. Writer Harlan Ellison claimed that it inspired him to run away and join a carnival.

Basically, the film recounts the story of an orphan who, after being verbally abused by his poor struggling “uncle,” runs away to join the circus. Toby gets a job as a concessionaire selling lemonade, peanuts and candy apples under the tutelage of Harry Tupper, a slick con man who takes Toby’s tips and keeps secret the fact that Toby’s uncle and aunt need Toby back at the farm. Toby is befriended by the circus strongman and one of the clowns and eventually gets a chance to perform in an equestrian act. Along the way, Toby makes friends with a mischevious chimp named Mr. Stubbs who is constantly causing trouble for Toby.

The novel is much darker than the Disney film—with a fat and lazy Toby being punished in a brutual orphan home for his dishonesty and Mr. Stubbs a much older less cuter monkey who dies after being shot, among many other significant changes, including Toby giving up his life with the circus to return to the orphanage for what is implied will be a difficult life.

However, the story of a young boy in a small town running away to join a travelling “mud show” type of circus as a refreshment “concessionaire” appealled to Walt Disney. As a child, Walt saw his first circus parade in Marceline, Mo., and attempted to create his own circus in his family barn with cats dressed up in his little sister’s doll clothes. When he was 15 years old, Walt worked one summer as a news butcher for the Van Noyes Interstate News Company on trains that went to a half-dozen different states. Selling newspapers, popcorn, peanuts, fruit, cold drinks, and other snacks to the passengers from the box strapped over his shoulders was supposedly one of the happiest periods of his life.

“Everyone loves a circus and I'm no exception. I've been fascinated by the clowns and the animals, the music and the excitement ever since I worked in one of these wonderful shows for a few days as a youngster,” wrote Walt in the introduction to the program of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland in 1955.

The publicity material for the film quotes Walt as saying, “What a spectacle! A treat for the youngsters who have never seen a circus and for their elders who remember it.”

Kevin Corcoran was discovered at the age of 6 by Walt Disney who dubbed him “the typical American kid” and cast him in the role of “Moochie” in several productions including The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty, Moochie of the Little League and Moochie of Pop Warner Football. Toby Tyler was his third theatrical Disney film—he was roughly 11 years old. Kevin had previously appeared in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog.

During the production of the picture, Corcoran’s father had just died, but the crew on the film remember little Kevin being the professional trouper and finishing the film without incident with his mother at his side. He performed his own stunts on the horse, although he was connected to piano wires as a safety precaution.

His co-star, Mr. Stubbs, received much more publicity and attention than he did. Mr. Stubbs was born in 1956 in the Belgian Congo jungle. When only a few months old, he was captured and shipped to Portland, Maine, with 15 other young chimpanzees. In 1957, he was bought by Gene Detroy, the trainer and creator of the famous “Marquis Family” of four performing chimps. Mr. Stubbs was actually officially known as “Marquis Jr.” and Walt was intrigued when he saw the chimp perform on a 1959 episode of the Jack Benny television show. Publicity for the film claimed that Mr. Stubbs had the intelligence of a 3 year old child, had been purchased for $1,000, but was insured for $12,000 and often wore $75 suits. He lived at a spacious ranch in Las Vegas with Detroy and his family.

“He puts on the most convincing act since Cheetah talked to Tarzan,” claimed director Charles Barton, “After a rehearsal or two, he knows the scene backward. Then we get around to doing it forward. When I first met him in Las Vegas, he was watching television with Detroy’s three children. We shook hands. After the kids went to bed, he looked in on them from time to time to be sure they were all right. It was a very pleasant evening. I haven’t gotten over it yet. He has looks, talent and real humility. And when he rolls those big brown eyes, wow! He even works for peanuts.”

Previously for Disney, Charles Barton had directed the New Adventures of Spin and Marty, several episodes of Zorro and the film The Shaggy Dog. Barton had a long history of being a competent professional when it came to directing B movies on shoestring budgets, including several Abbott and Costello comedies, but was not known for his innovation or anything that would identify a distinctive directorial style. His finished his career directing a number of television shows, including being the principal director for Family Affair. Barton had worked with Corcoran in both New Adventures of Spin and Marty and The Shaggy Dog.

Toby Tyler not only reunited Barton and Corcoran from The Shaggy Dog, but also writers Lillie Hayward and Bill Walsh (Walsh was also producer on both films.)

A lively 72-year-old Ollie Wallace who composed many memorable melodies for Disney cartoons (beginning in the late 1930s) and live-action films (but not Toby Tyler) made his on-screen film introduction as the enthusiastic bandleader. He would pass away in 1963. Yes, that is Jimmy Macdonald, the voice of Mickey Mouse and member of the Firehouse Five Plus Two, as the drummer.

Several actual circus acts were featured in the film: The Flying Viennas was a famous aerialist act (including Del and Babs Graham) that was performing with Ringling Brothers at the time; The Jungleland Elephants came from Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that supplied animals for television and the movies and were probably handled by Eugene “Arky” Scott who also trained Bimbo for the Circus Boy TV series. (I suspect the big cats in the film were also from Jungleland.)

The clowns were identified as from Ringling Brothers and included Eddie “Spaghetti” Emerson who was 75, “Duke” Johnson who was 63, and his son Harry who was about 20 years younger.

Abe “Korkey” Goldstein was 64 at the time. Known as “Korkey the Komic Kop,” Goldstein had appeared most frequently before circus audiences as the keeper of several mutt dogs who would fall dead as Goldstein emptied a toy gun at them and then miraculously arose to bite him on the rear end. He died in 1990 at age 94, spending his last years performing free at hospitals and children’s clubs while still awaiting another professional job offer.

On July 2, 1959, Disney filed a lawsuit against ABC. The network has stated that it would not be renewing the Zorro series because it cost so much to produce, but that Disney was contractually bound not to offer the program to another television network because ABC had exclusive rights.

Henry Calvin played the buffoonish Sergeant Garcia and Gene Sheldon portrayed Bernardo, the “deaf-mute” servant of Don Diego, in that popular series. Because Walt assumed that the lawsuit would get resolved quickly and filming would resume on the series, he wanted to keep the two actors around, so they were cast in Toby Tyler. Calvin was the strongman with the soft heart, Ben Cotter. Sheldon was the gentle and articulate clown with a dog act, Sam Treat. They were also cast in Babes in Toyland (1961). Guy Williams, Zorro himself, was making a lucrative living doing personal appearances as the character and was still on full salary from the Disney Studio, as well.

Eventually four new hour-long episodes were shown on the weekly Walt Disney Presents series in 1961 and the contract dispute with ABC was resolved. However, with the move of the weekly Disney television series to NBC in full color, and the assumed declining interest in Zorro, the series was never revived and none of the three actors appeared in another Disney production after 1962.

The circus parade at the beginning of the film was staged by assistant director Arthur Vitarelli on the Western street on the Disney Studios backlot. Amazingly, Vitarelli was able to have it done in one continuous shot (using multiple cameras) that completed filming by noon. Lining up all the wagons and people meant the procession snaked through the backlot’s Residential Street and out the studio gate onto Buena Vista Street in front of the studio.

In the days before computer-generated imagery, special segments had to be created live, including the few seconds of “auguste” clown Gene Sheldon leading his line of mixed-breed dogs, who were dressed in elephant heads, down the dusty main street.

Animal trainer William Koehler, who worked with many animals on Disney films like The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, The Incredible Journey, That Darn Cat and others, remembered that brief gag almost led to disaster.

“Where else would a trainer be asked to teach dogs to wear elephant costumes and parade single file, trunk to tail?" Koehler said. "First of all came lots of careful measuring by our Special Effects department. In between fittings, we worked the dogs in harnesses that were linked together with wood shafts so that they would become accustomed to the positions and speed of the parade order.

“When all five costumes fitted to perfection, we took our dogs to Stage Four to see how they looked in the link up," he continued. "Again, Special Effects had created something that was truly art. Except for size, the latex costumes appeared real to sight. Each elephant head was molded smoothly into the body shell and tail assembly, regardless of each dog’s size and form. A traditional ornamental star was cut in the center of each forehead. A narrow vertical bar of the material was left in the middle of the star to strengthen the forehead."

“Many fittings had conditioned the dogs to their costumes and they stood, tails wagging and responsive to the attention, while their heads and body skirtings were fastened," he added. "‘Ginger’ the tallest would be led by Gene Sheldon. Ginger started forward and, as their trunks barely tightened, each dog followed. Then the procession stopped as though from an airbrake system. ‘Mouse’ fell over on his side and laid very quiet. ‘Rags’ was next to topple. Within seconds our entire parade was lying on its side and askew.”

The trainers rushed to the dogs and immediately removed the costumes. Slowly, the dazed canines revived and showed no ill effects. It was as if they had been hypnotized. Animals can be placed in a trance by unusual conditions or a “forced focus” as when a chicken is placed with its eyes to a line drawn on a pavement.

“On a hunch,” said Koehler, “I picked up a mask and put it to my face. If a dog looked through the eye holes, there was no line. But if he chose to look through the star, there was the bar in the middle. Right in the middle of his focus as he moved along would be an endless line. It only took a few minutes for a workman to snip out the bars. We put the costumes back on the dogs and re-established the line. No dog seemed stressed or even suspicious. Once more we started our parade across the big sound stage. Ten feet. Twenty feet. No stops. No falls. There were mixed sighs of relief and cheers as our ‘elephants’ paraded across the stage in the best circus tradition.”

Just as the parade and the credits are ending, the Dragon Calliope comes in to view and is followed by the eager Toby Tyler as music and steam billow from the colorful wagon.

As famed Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar (link) told me recently, the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground at Walt Disney World is now the home for the famous Dragon Calliope. This calliope, discovered in disrepair, was included with the nine wagons Walt Disney purchased from the Bradley and Kaye Amusement Park for possible use at Disneyland. A new wagon was designed to resemble the others in the collection, at a cost of $50,000 in order to house the refurbished steam-powered musical instrument. The wagon was adorned with decorative pieces from some of the other circus wagons in Disney’s possession.

The calliope was part of the short-lived Disneyland Mickey Mouse Club Circus Parade in 1955. The calliope went on to appear at Disneyland up until its 25th Anniversary (where it was repainted silver and blue), and then it was relocated for the Walt Disney World Tencennial in 1981, where it was seen in numerous parades, including several Christmas broadcasts.

Walt purchased nine authentic circus wagons from the Bradley & Kaye Amusement Park at the corner of Beverly and La Cienga boulevards in Los Angeles that had been sitting there as a sort of a backdrop for the entertainment venue. Later, Walt purchased an additional five wagons that had been used in the Jimmie Wood L.A.-based circus that had fallen into disrepair.

In 1962, Walt would donate these wagons to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc., where they are taken care of and displayed to this day. However, at the time of filming Toby Tyler, many of these classics were called into service to recreate a turn-of-the-century traveling circus. An outstanding article about these wagons that deserves reprinting somewhere is “The Disney Circus Wagons” by John D. Kenworthy in Persistence of Vision magazine, issue No. 10.

Ben Cotter and Toby Tyler ride on the Golden Bros. Cage wagon from 1910, which was originally yellow, but painted blue for the film. The wagon houses the impish Mr. Stubbs. This antique was actually tipped over in the film without any movie trickery (other than a stunt double substituting for Kevin Corcoran).

The Beauty Wagon from 1883 has a set of four female harem statues with exposed breasts. The opening parade shows an uncensored version of the wagon, but, later in the film, when Ben Cotter tosses the villainous Harry Tupper into a lake, the Beauty Wagon in the background shows that female figures demurely covered with sack dresses.

The office wagon in the film is actually the Lady and the Lion Tableau wagon from 1917. To use it as the office in the film, the Disney carpenters had to remove the beautiful center carvings and replace them with a door on one side and a window on the other.

Many of the other wagons Disney purchased can be seen briefly in the film including the Carl Hagenback Cage (housing the two tigers) from 1905, J.H. Eschman Bandwagon from 1915, Christy Bros. Canvas Wagon and more.

Toby Tyler was the first film to be shot at the Golden Oak Ranch since it was purchased by the Disney company. Mr. Stubbs is shot in a glade with the great oak where Francisco Lopez discovered some gold flakes leading to a minor gold rush on the property. I wrote about Golden Oak Ranch previously (link).

Toby Tyler had its world premiere January 21, 1960 at the Florida Theater in Sarasota (the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus now owned and operated by Feld Entertainment who produce the Disney on Ice shows). So as a D23 event, the film should have been shown out in Florida. In fact, they could partner with Feld and do an entire weekend showing Disney circus-related cartoons and have a representative from Feld talk about the history of the circus in Florida and photo opportunities with the Dragon Calliope.

Now, that would be a terrific D23 event for Floridians!