The Osmond Brothers at Disneylandby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Were the famous Osmond Brothers really discovered by happy accident (or act of God) at Disneyland? That’s certainly the story that is often told but as with all stories, there is always something more to be told.
Those who read my book, The Vault of Walt, know that I stated that while researching Disney stories I try my best to go back to the original sources: newspapers and magazines from that time period, interviews with people who were there, legal documentation, and more. However, that doesn’t mean that I completely trust those sources. It just means that it gives me a pretty good foundation to do further research.
Lots of things have appeared in newspapers and magazines that aren’t true, including quotations attributed to a person. Legal documentation can be misleading or wrong as well since it is sometimes based on what is being told the person recording the information. More importantly, just because a person was actually there when something happened doesn’t mean they know the entire story of what was going on. In later years as well, chronological events sometimes become very fluid and things just blend together to make a better story.
Chuck Corson was a manager of the Customer Relations Division. In the early days of Disneyland, Entertainment was not a separate department, but part of the Customer Relations Division. Corson assisted the legendary Tommy Walker with the elaborate entertainment program in 1959 for the big openings of the Matterhorn, the Submarine Voyage and the Monorail.
Many people forget that the celebration also included Meredith Willson, who wrote one of my favorite musicals of all time The Music Man, conducted from a gazebo that moved down the street. He led a band that literally had 76 trombones (with 110 cornets right behind) just like in the famous song he wrote for that Broadway show. Nobody seems to mention that performance when mentioning that Willson came back to do a much larger version for the dedication of the Magic Kingdom in 1971.
Nearly 40 years later, after the 1959 ceremonies, Corson wrote the following anecdote to Ron Logan, then vice president of Entertainment, who was trying to gather up information about early Disney entertainment from those who were there. (Logan began his long career in Disney Entertainment in the early 1960s as a fanfare trumpet player for Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional.)
As Corson remembered how the Osmond Brothers were discovered at Disneyland:
“The Osmond family had driven down from Utah. In fact, they were sleeping in their camper in the parking lot. They came into the park one day, and the four little guys were enthralled with our Dapper Dans and asked if they could sing for them. They said, ‘sure’, and they wowed them. T.J. Marker who was the head of the [Dapper Dans] group, brought them to my office because he wanted me to hear them.
“They were absolutely sensational, of course. It happened that we had a local television show at that time, every Saturday night, which was called Meet Me at Disneyland and aired on Channel 5. The kids were asked if they could stay over. In fact, we put them up at the Disneyland Hotel and got them out of the camper! They stayed over until Saturday night and appeared on the show. And the story goes that Don Williams, Andy’s brother, happened to see them on that show and that’s how they met [singer] Andy Williams. Of course, Donny and Marie weren’t even around at that time!”
Corson was there and had absolutely no reason to embellish the truth. He sent Logan the information to help fill in some of the gaps of Disney Entertainment history. However, even in those cases when someone was actually at an event, it is important to double check all the statements.
Every biography lists Disneyland After Dark (originally aired April 15, 1962) as the Osmonds’ network television premiere. The show was released theatrically as a short subject overseas in 1962, and domestically in 1963.
The foursome from Ogden, Utah wowed a crowd of Disneyland guests at the Carnation Plaza Gardens with their performance of two numbers: "Hello To Everyone" and "Side By Side."
So why did Corson say they got their start on Meet Me at Disneyland? Was he just confused? What was Meet Me at Disneyland?
From June 1962 to early September 1962, Disneyland produced a Saturday-only show (airing at 7:30 p.m. PST and proclaimed as “Live from Disneyland Town Square”) titled Meet Me At Disneyland in a an attempt to drive up attendance during the summer weeknights. It was a live broadcast directly from the park each week so it was pretty frantic. Sponsors included Stouffer’s, Fritos, Chicken of the Sea, and Hills Brothers Coffee, who were all involved as lessees in Disneyland at the time.
From the scripts that I have seen, the show actually ran on a local Los Angeles channel, KTTV which was Channel 11. (Channel 5 was KTLA.) The producer was Tommy Walker (assisted by Chuck Corson). The master of ceremonies host was Johnny Jacobs (later a well-known announcer for many television shows), who would introduce the performers and interview guests in the park. I know that Larry Clemmons wrote most if not all of the scripts and Buck Pennington (from KTTV) was a director. Bob Matheison was listed as doing sound so maybe someone will interview him about this “lost” show.
The Osmonds DID appear on “Meet Me at Disneyland” on the show broadcast July 7, 1962, along with the Vonnair Sisters, Owen Pope, Frank DeVol and others. It was episode No. 5 titled “There is Something About a Band”. Other shows included everyone from Fred MacMurray to the Firehouse Five to Annette Funicello to Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra Jr. (No, I have never seen an episode and don’t know if there are any copies that exist of this short-lived local show. I did attempt to interview a young lady who worked on the production but she was unable to help me connect all the dots.)
Corson claims it was Andy Williams’ brother, Don, who watched the Osmonds on television and convinced Andy to use them on his weekly television show. Most biographies claim it was Jay Williams, Andy’s father, who saw the talented boys and recommended them to his son. Supposedly, they reminded Jay of how Andy and his brothers sang as young boys.
Officially, the Osmond family had driven down from Utah for an audition, in the summer of 1961, with band leader Lawrence Welk for his weekly television show. At that time, the Osmond Brothers performing group consisted of Allan (bass, 12), Wayne (baritone, 10), Merrill (tenor, 8), and Jay (lead, 6).
In his autobiography, Stages, Jay Osmond wrote that when they showed up to meet with Welk, they kept being put off and waited for hours. The father, George Osmond, not wanting to waste the trip and wanting to lift the spirits of his boys who had been geared up to audition, took them all to Disneyland.
Performing on Main Street were the well loved barber shop quartet, the Dapper Dans, composed at that time of John Borneman (tenor), Roger Axworthy (lead), Fred Frank (baritone), and T.J. Marker (bass).
According to legend, the Disneyland group noticed the matching outfits on the four young boys immediately. The Dapper Dans performed one of their songs and the boys asked if they could do one which they did. The set continued that way with the two groups switching back and forth. An appreciative and enthusiastic crowd gathered around them for this friendly “competition.”
In reality, Fred Frank of the Dapper Dans had previously been in contact with Val Hicks, who was the vocal coach for the boys. (Hicks was also an arranger and coach for the Dapper Dans.) The meeting at Disneyland had been informally arranged in the hopes that the Dapper Dans might introduce the Osmonds to Disneyland’s Entertainment management. The Osmonds were well received by the guests and T.J. Marker took them to see Tommy Walker, who was the overall director of Disneyland Entertainment, in his office at City Hall. Corson was probably there, as well.
Supposedly, some stories say that Walt Disney was in the park that day and was brought into Walker’s office to hear the young singers. The way that Jay Osmond remembers the story, an additional trip had to be made from Utah to perform for Walt.
“I was so excited that we were singing for the guy who invented Mickey Mouse," wrote Osmond in his autobiography.
While most sites state that the Osmonds were discovered in 1962 at Disneyland during the summer, that would be a neat trick since the Disneyland After Dark show was filmed and broadcast months before the summer of 1962 began. What is undisputed fact is that the Osmond Brothers were hired to perform at Disneyland for the rest of the 1961 summer, appeared on Disneyland After Dark and also Meet Me At Disneyland. It was their performance in one of these Disney television shows that brought them to the attention of singer Andy Williams and their regular appearances on his popular weekly television show.
The Osmond family has home movie footage of the Dapper Dans on Main Street, the Osmond Brothers performing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” on Main Street at Disneyland, performing on the stage of the Golden Horseshoe and even a casual Walt Disney giving the boys some informal coaching. Wouldn’t all of that footage with commentary by the Osmond Brothers be a great extra for a Disney DVD covering some of the history of early Disneyland entertainment— including the Golden Horseshoe, the Coke Corner pianist, the big bands, Dixie at Disneyland and more?
Speaking of early Disney Entertainment history, someone—are you reading this Didier Ghez?—needs to interview magician Mark Wilson who, to the best of my knowledge, produced the very first live Disney character stage show at Disneyland. It was a show with Mickey Mouse as a magician in the Fantasyland Theater and debuted the Christmas season of 1967. It featured Mickey (attired as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) with assistants Pluto and Goofy doing magic with Alice in Wonderland—since she was not in one of the clumsy fur costumes so could be used in some of the traditional girl assistant tricks. Called the The Wonderful World of WIZARDRY, it was a 20-minute show performed 15 times a day! It effectively demonstrated that the character performers could do a stage show. Wilson also has stories about working with Ward Kimball on the traveling show Disney on Parade.
While many think the Dapper Dans were around since Disneyland opened, they actually did not start performing until 1957. Over the years there have been more than 100 different performers who have been part of the group. By the way, it was Corson who put together the Dapper Dans group from a direction by his boss, Tommy Walker. Corson was a former stage manager for the Fred Waring Chorale and contacted some of the singers from that group to come to Disneyland to form the group.
There are still many unanswered questions, which is why I write these articles in the hopes that someone with another piece of the puzzle might share it so we all get the bigger picture. For instance, did you know that, in 1961, when the Osmonds sang with the Dapper Dans, the group gave out a red and white Official Honorary Dapper Dans Membership card to anyone who sang with them? It included Walt Disney’s printed signature in the lower right hand corner. I wonder if the Osmonds all got those cards.
Is there correspondence between Walt and the Osmonds or was it all handled through Tommy Walker?
The Dapper Dans used to do private serenades for Walt and his wife Lillian. Sometimes they would be called to the backroom of the Hills Brothers Cafe on Main Street to sing while Walt had his breakfast. Did the Osmonds ever do that? Do they have other fond memories of their meetings with Walt and his wife? The talented careers of their younger siblings, Donny and Marie, have in recent years overshadowed the very charming and talented original Osmond Brothers.
Although Donny later made some Disney impact from that first look at the Haunted Mansion on the Disneyland Showtime episode on the Disney television show to doing the singing voice of the hero Shang in Mulan to performing on Broadway as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, it was his brothers who helped open the magical Disney door.
You can learn more about the Dapper Dans and make sure you browse the site because it reprints an excellent article from the sadly defunct “E Ticket” magazine (summer 1997). I knew the Janzen brothers when I lived in the Los Angeles area and have a complete set of their “E Ticket” (including the special issues) and I wish someone would gather that material and print it in a permanent book for all of us who love Disney history.