The Lost Biographies of the Country Bearsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Recently, I got a chance to see an official 1972 Disney promotional film for the Country Bear Jamboree attraction, and was taken aback by some of the descriptions of the individual bears coming from the Audio-Animatronics lips of Henry, the host. I love the Country Bear Jamboree attraction and, over the years I have enjoyed it both at Disneyland and at Walt Disney World. I thought I knew the story of the show pretty well. However, it became apparent I was missing a key piece of information that I will share with you in this column.
In a beautifully ornate proscenium theater, a variety of Audio-Animatronic bears and a handful of other animals perform a series of musical numbers with a country and western theme, just like an old fashioned knee-slapping hoe-down at the Grand Ol’ Opry…but with lots more fur.
The concept art for this lively show was some of the last artwork ever seen by Walt Disney himself and it gave him a good laugh shortly before his untimely passing. Designed by Imagineer Marc Davis, the Country Bear Jamboree was originally intended to be an indoor attraction at the Bear Band Restaurant in Disney’s planned Mineral King Ski Resort to be built in California in the 1960s.
As Imagineer Wathel Rogers recalled, “After the Mineral King contract had been signed, Walt had an idea for entertainment after people had been skiing. Walt said, ‘What we are going to do is have a bear band and have them perform two or three programs of entertainment. We’ll say that the bears had come out of the sequoias and we trained them to be entertainers.’”
The Mineral King project fell through, and the show premiered opening day at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, where it received so much positive guest feedback that a replica was built in Disneyland in California with two theaters (both Disneyland theaters replaced in 2003 by that British bruin, Winnie the Pooh and his attraction).
“The drawings that Walt saw had all kinds of bears, not just a country band but a jazz band, a circus band. A lot of choices. I had a one-bear band in a red outfit with all these instruments he was playing,” revealed Marc Davis when I interviewed him in 1998.
So why the decision to make it a country band? When it was decided that the attraction was going to be Florida-specific, it was natural that, since country music was so popular in that part of the country, when the Floridian bears came together to make music it would be Country-Western.
The backstory for the attraction was that Ursus J. Bear, after a restful hibernation, rounded up his musically inclined kinfolk and friends to put on a down-home celebration. As guests, we’ve been invited to join in on the fun as the show continues to celebrate that first performance so many years ago.
Over the years, a variety of different shows with different costuming and songs have rotated through to help celebrate the seasons, including a Christmas Special show (introduced in 1984) and the Vacation Hoedown (introduced in 1986) but, nowadays, it is just the original show that still entertains the guests at Walt Disney World’s Frontierland as it did four decades ago.
There are all sorts of wonderful details as well, including those bear claw scratches on the floor of the waiting room, and at Walt Disney World there are those bear pelts hanging up on the second floor that guests never seem to question. However, there is more to the story. In the promotional film, as the familiar tones of the voice of Pete Renaday (or Renoudet or a host of different spellings over the years) as Henry introduced the bears to a potential audience, I discovered an interesting backstory on the fictional biographies of these famous bears.
Did you know that Trixie is known as “The Tampa Temptation”?
Did you know that little Oscar with his teddy bear is the silent son of Zeb who is playing the fiddle with the Five Bear Rugs band?
Did you know that Bunny, Bubbles and Beluah are so young that when they are not performing on stage that they are backstage doing their school lessons, sometimes with the help from the rest of the cast “but they get good grades anyway”?
Did you know that Master of Ceremonies Henry was a “bearitone” and he and Wendell are known as the “Hilarious Duo”?
Well, neither did I. So I looked to see if I could find some further documentation on these bear biographies. Doing some of that research, I was recently resorting my record collection and ran across Disneyland Record 3994, which was the first Walt Disney World attraction soundtrack released. It included a long playing record and an 11-page full-color illustrated booklet.
As noted Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar (link) recalled, “Side one contained the complete audio of the Country Bear Jamboree with no additions made for the record, though references to the show’s corporate sponsors, Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay, were deleted. Side two contained atmospheric background music from the Frontierland Mile-Long Bar. Walt Disney World opened October 1971 but this album came out September 1971 and was conducted by George Bruns.”
That’s fascinating, but, in the past, I had only skimmed the interior pages—and that was ages ago. I took a closer look and was surprised to see color concept sketches by Imagineer Marc Davis (just like his more famous and sometimes reprinted pirate sketches done for Pirates of the Caribbean attraction) that had never, ever been reprinted anywhere else. Isn’t it about time that someone published a book of Davis' lively sketches for Disney attractions like America Sings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and, of course, Country Bear Jamboree? While they are at it, they could also include his evocative sketches for the never built Big Thunder Mesa and that would probably help Disney more firmly secure the copyright on that material, as well.
By the way, these sketches of the Country Bear Jamboree by Davis on the record album are different than the ones that appeared on the set of postcards that were released at the opening of the attraction, although some of the poses and expressions are similar. You can check those postcards out here (link).
In addition, in the booklet with the record album, each the Country Bear Jamboree performer had his or her own elaborate one-paragraph biography that obviously came from the Imagineers who worked on the show. It certainly matched what was being said on the promo film, but this were even more elaborate. Disney Legend Jimmy Johnson, then-president of the Walt Disney Music Company, was personally involved with this album (and the one for America Sings) and wouldn’t have created the text out of thin air. He would have adapted it from an existing Disney document as he did on other albums. It turns out, according to the biographies, that many of these bear performers were residents of Florida and not the North Woods.
It is clear why Disney didn’t publicize this storyline once the attraction appeared on the West Coast. North Woods bears seemed appropriate for Bear Country, and, later, Critter Country, but Florida bears just didn’t seem to make much sense—except when it was a Florida-only attraction. Also, some of these biographies are pretty convoluted and don’t necessarily add anything to the enjoyment or understanding of the show. However, it is fun to read these biographies and it is something that most Disney fans either never knew or don’t remember.
So, for this column, let’s take a closer look at those “lost” biographies and imagine what a better and much richer live-action movie could have been made about this attraction, if someone had been paying attention and used some of this material as the foundation for that underwhelming film. I would have been happier if the filmmakers had, at least, used the characters that appeared in the actual attraction. I think you will find the following biographies not only enlightening but amusing.
Henry—Henry, master of ceremonies at the Country Bear Jamboree, stands six feet tall in his stocking paws. He is another famous football player who entered show business. Henry was formerly with the Goose Creek Bruins. One day they tried a hidden ball play, and Henry hid the ball so well he couldn’t find it. This hastened his transfer to music. For a while, he had trouble finding a melody, too. But Henry is a likable sort, and audiences go for him like he goes for honey. For a finale, Henry sings Ballad of Davy Crockett with Sammy, his live raccoon hat. Henry is glad he turned in his football gear for a starched shirt and Sammy. “After all,” he explains, “I never knew a football helmet that could sing like Sammy.”
Gomer—Gomer is the piano player, but he didn’t always play country and western music. His training was classical. He began pawing the ivories while a cub and practiced days and nights for many years. Finally, he went to New York, much to the relief of his neighbors. There he studied Bearlioz, and his favorite composition was "Night on Bear Mountain." When he heard himself referred to as the “lard of Juilliard,” he quit the concert stage and went home to the hills. He is highly regarded by the other musicians because he can play in a key other than C.
Five Bear Rugs—The Five Bear Rugs began playing music together when they were in first grade. Fifteen years later they were still playing—in fourth grade! Zeke plays the banjo and wears glasses—he’s the only one who can read music. Fred plays the mouth harp and carries the tune (his wife says Fred is lazy, and a tune is the only thing he carries). Ted blows the white lightning jug, and Tennessee plays the one-stringed thing (he hopes one day to add more strings). Zeb plays fiddle, and Zeb’s son Oscar accompanies his father on concert tours because Zeb’s wife works (she models fur coats—always the same one—at a nearby boutique).
Wendell (mandolin)—Wendell is a frustrated basketball player. He quit the game when in the team photograph, he discovered he came up to the other players’ knees. He then turned to baseball, but three people stepped on him (they thought he was second base). He went from baseball to football, until two quarterbacks threw him for touchdowns. It was after his gridiron career that he latched onto Henry. When Wendell and Henry get together—well, nobody dares mistake Wendell for anything but what he is: a small, singing bear.
Liver-Lips—Liver-Lips McGrowl is a homebody who is never home. His career has spanned the entertainment world, and he is equally famous in radio, TV, night clubs and the circus. His throaty growl has captivated audiences everywhere, and he had played return engagements in such famous towns as Paris (Kentucky), Rome (Tennessee), Berlin (Wisconsin), Athens (Georgia), Cairo (Illinois) and Stuttgart (Arkansas). But his heart is always at home, where the Miami Serenader can guzzle home cookin’ and catch up on his whittlin’. He has whittled a rain barrel, a bath tub, a pig trough and a sump pump.
Trixie—Trixie is an old trouper, a veteran performer. There is nary a sourdough or grubstaker who doesn’t recall her singing and dancing in the rip-roaring music halls of the western frontier. She has been known variously as The Calgary Charmer, Alaska Allurer, Vancouver Vamp, Bewitcher of British Columbia, and Tacoma Temptress. As did so many folks with good sense, she visited Florida and decided to stay. She is now known as The Tampa Temptation. She spends her spare hours thumbing through the pages of her scrapbook and is planning to write a book, I Bearly Remember.
Terrence—Terrence is better known as the “Vibrating Wreck from Nashville Tech.” His stay at Nashville was short—the roar of the greasepaint called to him, and he became an actor. He performed often with the Bearrymores. He was known throughout the Ozarks and as far north as Joplin for his tent-show rendition of Cyrano de Beargerac (he was one of the few actors who could play the role without a false nose). A fall from the balcony in Romeo and Juliet literally brought down the house. It ended his acting career (and the stage) and he turned in his tights for a guitar.
The Sun Bonnets—The Sun Bonnets (Bunny, Bubbles, and Beulah) are the babies of the Country Bear Jamboree. They began singing in Public School 821 in Clint, Texas, in Miss Grizzly’s class. From there they appeared five weeks running on Major Bear’s Amateur Hour and were booked into Walt Disney World. Backstage they study their lessons (all the cast helps them with their homework, but they get good grades anyway). In their spare time they are all knitting a scarf for Big Albert, which they hope to have finished for Christmas—three years from now!
Ernest (fiddle)—Ernest the Dude is a modern Beau Brummell, the well-dressed bear-about-town. He carries his wardrobe with him wherever he goes, which is difficult (not many motorists will pick up a bear hitchhiker with 17 trunks of clothes). He has 30 coats and 40 slacks (some of which fit), 60 shirts, 47 shoes, 20 hats and a pair and a half of underwear. Each year, when the Ten Best Dressed are announced, Ernest the Dude is there (wondering why he isn’t on the list).
Teddi Barra—Teddi Barra was discovered sitting on a soda fountain stool in an ice cream parlor three miles from Gentry, Arkansas. From there, her rise in show biz was meteoric, and the ravishing beauty is known as The Jewel of the Dakotas. Though she has always wanted to perform serious drama, her fans have never let her forget her feather boa and her parasol, both of which have been promised to the Daughters of Benton County Western Museum when they wear out. In Grizzly Hall she performs her famous “Heart, We Did All We Could” while descending from the ceiling on a swing. She has been called The Last of the Big Time Swingers.
Big Albert—Big Albert says, “I was born in a cave near the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho”. There was music in his blood, and he’s been playing his guitar since he was a child. It’s become more difficult—Big Al has grown, and the guitar hasn’t. He loves to sit in front of his cave and sing. He was the first to practice ecology; he didn’t litter his cave with tin cans and paper cartons—he ate ‘em. He was resident bard and balladeer in the swamp before Walt Disney World was built (and three badgers and an alligator have expressed great joy that he is now singing for people). This is Big Albert’s 10th farewell appearance.