Disney History Stocking Stuffersby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
In the spirit of the Christmas season, I thought I would give the readers of my column an early holiday gift with a few small stocking stuffers revealing some forgotten stories about Disney and Christmas. If you love untold stories about Walt, the Disney parks, the Disney films and more, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy of the book I wrote, The Vault of Walt, or think about it as a stocking stuffer for one of your friends, especially since Amazon has it a bargain discounted price for the holidays.
WALT’S SANTA CLAUS
On the Disney weekly anthology television show, the episode titled Holiday Time at Disneyland originally ran on December 23, 1962, and has been rerun many times over the decades. The show starts with Walt Disney ringing a bell as Dickensian garbed Christmas carolers sing in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. Amazingly, even Santa Claus himself shows up to talk with Walt, who seems to be a good friend.
Two children excitedly run up to Santa Claus and Walt for an autograph on their Disneyland souvenir guidebook.
"Sure, you can have our autographs," says Walt filled with Christmas spirit. "You go first, Santa."
After Santa signs his autograph, Walt prepares to sign and the kids grab the guidebook and run off mumbling under their breath, "Who's that other guy?"
Walt is amused and tells Santa, "It is your day, Santa, so make the most of it. I've got 365."
For decades, I, and several of my knowledgeable friends, always assumed that Santa was probably portrayed by actor Hal Smith, who had done some voice work for Disney over the years and was also known to perform as Santa. That friendly tone of voice seemed reminiscent of Smith.
Thanks to the recent detective work of Disney Musicologist Greg Ehrbar, it has been confirmed that Santa was actually portrayed by corpulent actor Paul Maxey, who appeared in many movies and television shows. He was also known to perform as Santa, as well, and did so in at least three Jack Benny Christmas television shows (1954, 1957 and 1960).
Maxey died in June 1963, so this was one of the last television appearances he made.
Inadvertently, Christmas was the source for Goofy’s memorable yell ("yaaaaaaa-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!!") as he falls off mountains or soars unexpectedly into the air. The talented Pinto Colvig provided the voice for Goofy in the early years and his background as a clown, a musician and a vaudeville entertainer helped define Goofy, especially his infectious and distinctive laugh.
However, Colvig was not the originator of Goofy’s famous yell.
Walt and his family sometimes spent the winter holidays skiing at the Sugar Bowl Ski resort in Northern California. Walt was friends with the founder of the resort, Austrian skiing champion and instructor Hannes Schroll. Schroll re-named one of the mountains at the resort “Mount Disney” to honor Walt. Walt even filled in as a bartender one time and was unrecognized by the crowd. As a favor to Walt, Schroll supplied the yodelling in the Goofy cartoon The Art of Skiing (1941) and was the first person to do that classic yell that has become so iconic. Over the years, there has been some debate about whether Schroll was ever paid for that yell or yodelling.
My good friend Jeff Pepper wrote a great article about Walt and Sugar Bowl.
JENNINGS OSBORNE AND HIS LIGHTS
In 1986, Arkansas businessman William Jennings Osborne started a Christmas outdoor lighting display for his young daughter. Eventually, the display covered more than 600 feet in front of his house and the fronts of the two adjacent houses that he had bought to enlarge the display to more than 3 million lights.
He donated the lights to the Walt Disney World Resort in 1995 where The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights were displayed along more than 760 feet on both sides of Residential Street, Washington Square and onto New York Street at what was then the Disney-MGM Studios.
As a preface to the lights going on, there was a short performance every evening titled “Lights! Camera! Christmas!” written and directed by my brother Michael Korkis. The setting was a movie director and his crew filming a scene with all the guests as extras. Two men from the power company threaten to turn off the power since the permits hadn’t arrived in time. Fortunately, a young child from the audience is able to flip the massive switch so that the lights come on. (By the way, the names of the fictional characters in the script were the names of Mike’s mom and dad and two brothers.)
When Residential Street was demolished almost 10 years later in 2004 to make room for the car stunt show, Lights! Motors! Action!, the massive lighting extravaganza was reconfigured for the Streets of America. In 2006, dimmer relay and control switches were added to the display allowing the lights to be choreographed to a musical score and the holiday event, now encompassing more than 5 million lights, was renamed The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
When the moving trucks arrived at Walt Disney World in 1995 and the lights were unloaded, Show Director John Phelan (who was the one responsible for making the arrangements for the Osborne lights to come to there) discovered that there was a figure of a two dimensional cat with an arched back outlined in purple. Phelan contacted Osborne to try to identify where it fit into the overall display. An amused Osborne replied that it was actually part of his Halloween lighting and he had shipped it by accident.
Phelan kept the cat, had it re-lit in holiday style and each year, the Walt Disney World lighting crew hide it somewhere in the display but refuse to tell Phelan where so he has to go find it. It has appeared in all sorts of different locations from the top of buildings to being hidden near a more elaborate display.
By the way, the radio station, WJBO that broadcasts music and interviews during the night is a tribute to “William Jennings Bryan Osborne” who was happy that the show had gotten “too big for Little Rock, too big for Residential Street and finally had to move to the big city.”
Osborne and his extended family would visit every year and would contribute more lights.
“He loved being part of a Disney experience,” Phelan recalled. “We had a special nametag for him and his family that he wore when they visited.”
It was Christmas that inspired the creation of Scrooge McDuck and also launched his animated career.
For a December 1947 comic book, talented writer and artist Carl Barks created the character of Scrooge McDuck for a Donald Duck story titled Christmas on Bear Mountain (Dell Four Color No. 178).
The name of the penny-pinching uncle of Donald Duck, Scrooge, was inspired by the miserly character from Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, since the comic book story took place at Christmas and was themed to the transformation of the main character’s attitude towards the holidays and people.
While Scrooge was a very popular comic book character, the Disney Company had difficulty finding the proper animated vehicle for the crusty gentleman. An educational short “Scrooge McDuck and Money” was released in 1967 but was meant primarily for schools.
The Disney Company had invested some time and money in developing some artwork of Disney animated characters attired as characters from the time of Dickens and released a record of Christmas carols that did not sell well. Actor and writer Alan Young was called in to see if he could do something with the material. Young belonged to a Dickens Society and was very familiar with the author and his work. In addition, Young grew up in Scotland so he could do an authentic Scottish burr accent. Besides co-writing and co-producing the project, Young ended up doing the voices for Scrooge, Mickey and Merlin.
Released in 1975, this storyteller album titled An Adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol presented by the popular repertory company the Walt Disney Players was popular. A fan of the album was Disney animator/director Burny Mattinson who convinced the then head of Disney Productions, Ron Miller, to approve the project as an animated featurette. It was released as Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983.
Young was helping out a young actor with doing a Scottish accent for an upcoming audition when he realized that the script was the one Young had co-written for the record album. Young called up Disney and asked to audition for the part in the animated featurette. Young not only got the part but became the official voice for Scrooge on other projects, including the television series DuckTales.
Young even talked with creator Carl Barks: “I spoke with him on the phone and he told me he liked what I did. ‘That’s Scrooge!’ he said. I actually had a huge book he had done on Scrooge and wanted to get him to autograph it, but he passed away before I could meet him in person.”
WALT’S CHRISTMAS DOG
Walt Disney loved dogs. I have always loved this story about the first Disney family dog after Walt and Lillian got married. Writer Pete Martin captured on reel to reel tape Walt Disney himself telling the story:
“When we got the first home, I wanted a dog. And my wife would have nothing to do with dogs. For some reason she did not like dogs. She said ‘Oh they get hair on everything. They’re dirty and there are dog odors’. I got a book on dogs and the Chow did not shed hair or have fleas and had very little odor. She said ‘If I had to have a dog that’s the kind of dog I would want’. That’s what I wanted.
“The next day I went out and bought a Chow and I kept it under wraps until Christmas. I bought it when it was about 6-8 weeks old. And it was about a month before Christmas. We had our Christmas tree and her sister would come over and her little niece was about 11 then. And the niece was always the one who took the presents around and gave them to everybody. We had a kind of little family Christmas.
“I picked up my chow from the dog kennel in the afternoon. I took it over and kept it at my brother Roy’s. I got a big hat box. I got a big ribbon on it. When the time came I went over, put the little puppy in the hat box, tied it up with a ribbon and when they were all busy I put it over by the tree. And my niece was tipped off. So my wife didn’t see me bring it in.
“So then my niece went over and got this and she said, ‘Oh who is this for?’ and I said ‘To Lilly from Santa Claus’. So she brought this big hat box over and put it in front of my wife and my wife said, ‘Oh, Walt, you didn’t!’ Now she didn’t know I’d bought a dog. She thought I’d bought her a hat. And that’s one thing she doesn’t want anybody to do. She wants to buy her own hats. She was upset because I had bought her a hat.
“So when she started to open it, it moved. And she let out a scream. And then she was really kind of upset. She was a little mad that I had bought a hat. And when she opened it, this little chow stuck its head out of there and from that time on that was her baby. It had to sleep in our bedroom.”
That incident inspired a scene in the animated feature, Lady and the Tramp, the only animated feature to begin and end on a Christmas scene. You can hear Walt tell this story and see a photo of his dog Sunee.
WALT DISNEY WORLD CHRISTMAS TREES
Before the late 1990s, the Walt Disney World theme parks each had a huge live tree trucked in from Mt. Shasta in California. Basically, the top 65-foot portion of a live tree was cut and used so that the California tree could continue to grow. Once the top of the tree was brought to Walt Disney World, it was treated heavily with flame retardant chemicals and decorated so it made the trees non-recyclable after the holidays.
By 1999, Walt Disney World replaced the main trees with artificial ones. The artificial trees were designed at Walt Disney World and constructed by the Parks Decorating Department. They were constructed using a single pole, unusual for trees more than 30 feet tall, and divided into three connecting sections.
Decorating the resort is a massive task requiring a small, core staff to work all year round. Sometimes things are tried that don’t quite work out as planned.
In the 1990s, they decided to use 1,500 dozen red apples to decorate Fort Wilderness, in particular a huge garland hung outside. The natural looking apples were attached and about two and a half weeks into the Christmas season, all of the apples had lost their red color. When the sun hit them and dried off the night dew, the apples had turned into Golden Delicious since the color had been bled out. All of the apples were removed. Disney bought red automotive finish paint with ultra-violet inhibitors to put on the apples. Disney hand dipped and hung to dry all 1,500 dozen apples and then returned them to the garland.
I wish all the readers of this column this very happiest of holiday seasons and I hope that the coming New Year will be filled with lots of love and laughter for you all. Thank you so much for reading this column each week and for your kind comments via e-mail and in person.