Four months before the release of Alice in Wonderland, bandleader Fred Waring introduced the songs with a TV “mini-musical” and a Decca Records “cast” album.
Songs from Walt Disney’s
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians
Story with Songs, Sololists, Dialogue, Glee Club and Orchestra
Decca Records CUS-22 (78 RPM / Two Discs / Mono)
Released in 1951. Conductor: Fred Waring. Assistant Conductor: Fred Culley. Writer: Jay Johnson. Arrangements: Harry Simeone, Keith Textor, Hal Yates, Charlie Naylor. Running Time: 15 minutes.
Voices: Fred Waring (Narrator, Cheshire Cat); Daisy Bernier (Alice); John Petterson (White Rabbit); Herman Hennig (The Walrus); Clyde Sechler (The Carpenter); Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum (The Mad Hatter); Hugh Fleming (The Queen of Hearts).
Additional Voices: Gordon Goodman, Gloria Mudell, Mark Brull, Mike Doty, Nadine Gay, Betty Reynolds, Poley McClintock.
Songs: “Alice in Wonderland,” “I’m Late,” “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “All in the Golden Afternoon,” “Very Good Advice,” “Painting the Roses Red,” “In a World of My Own” by Sammy Fain, Bob Hilliard; “’Twas Brillig” by Don Raye, Gene DePaul; “The Unbirthday Song” by Mack David, Al Hoffman, Jerry Livingston.
Instrumental: “March of the Cards” by Sammy Fain.
When Walt Disney first took to the television airwaves on Christmas Day, 1950 with the NBC special One Hour in Wonderland, he didn’t hide his eagerness to promote his upcoming animated feature, Alice in Wonderland. Disney Legend Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice, was one of several special guests of the extravaganza which culminated with the “Mad Tea Party” sequence.
On March 18th, 1951, the premiere of the film was still four months away when a segment of the popular CBS series, The Fred Waring Show, presented an elaborate presentation of the musical score. Beaumont appeared in the role of Alice, with Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat—and a very special off-camera guest, Mary Blair, who worked with Waring’s designer Howard Bay on the sets.
Blair and Bay, knowing this would be a black-and-white program, made the graduations and linear variations work in place of color, resulting in a fanciful look that surely influenced the sets that would grace the Mickey Mouse Club starting in 1955.
Waring begins the show by reciting the delightful puffery, “We are forsaking the usual magic of General Electric and its wonderland of modern living for the wonderland of Alice…” To establish context, the combination of Walt Disney and Fred Waring on TV in 1951 was must-see for millions. For two decades, Waring was a constant household name on records, and even more so on radio, where he popularized such songs as “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” co-written by the Sherman Brothers’ dad, Al Sherman.
Waring (who also invested in the electric blender that not only bears his name but was used by Dr. Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine) began forming his “Pennsylvanians” when he was at Penn State. Unable to qualify for the school glee club, he formed his own. One of the members was Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum, who later became the iconic “Mr. Green Jeans” of TV’s Captain Kangaroo show. For Waring’s version of Alice in Wonderland, Brannum plays The Mad Hatter.
Walt Disney’s filmed opening for Waring’s Alice musical contains a few interesting remarks. Alice was not an easy creative experience for his staff. The public was certainly not aware of the difficulty and Disney could have just as easily sugarcoated things. Instead, he was straightforward and direct, while framing the project in a positive way. “We’re all steamed up out here about Alice in Wonderland,” he says to the viewers. After that arguable loaded phrase, he continues: “It’s, uh, about the greatest adventure in picture making that we’ve ever had. It’s always a challenge bringing a story classic to the screen giving visual form to characters and places that have only existed in the imagination. But it’s the kind of challenge we enjoy.”
A very brief clip from the caterpillar scene is shown (with none of Oliver Wallace’s background music), then it’s back to host Waring, who thanks his Disney friends for helping with the scenery and costumes, mentioning Mary Blair by name. He also announces that this would be the first time the songs would be performed on television. (“The Unbirthday Song” was heard in the clip on One Hour in Wonderland, and some records might have already been released, but Waring refers a debut of the whole score.)
The show does not dramatize the Disney film so much as use a basic Disney-Carroll combination to present each song. At the start, Kathryn Beaumont, as Alice, wanders among the cast of Waring Pennsylvanians and Glee Club members, costumed in Wonderland regalia as they sing the title song to her.
Then there’s a Sterling in a Blair tree! Mr. Holloway is seen in a very basic cat cowl, while the cutaway set piece around him completes the Cheshire Cat image, with a just swish of white paint to suggest his smile.
Alice talk-sings “Very Good Advice,” including some of the alternate lyrics that Darlene Gillespie later sang on Camarata’s studio LP version in 1957. When Alice joins The Mad Hatter and The March Hare for the tea party, they engage in some of the Carroll dialogue not used in the Disney film. The Tweedles also attend, along with the White Rabbit and several extra Hatters, all singing “The Unbirthday Song” with lots of additional lyrics that did also not end up in the film.
The Cheshire Cat gives Alice a “Looking Glass book” with the Jabberwocky poem that leads to an extended version of “‘Twas Brillig” played with a swing beat (that might that have some connection to Camarata’s 1957 LP arrangement). Alice dashes around the stage as various famous scenes take place: the Walrus and the Carpenter; the marching cards; the beamish boy fighting the Jabberwock with his vorpal sword; the cook, the Duchess with the baby that turns into a pig and Queen of Hearts at the croquet game.
Waring spends a few minutes with Beaumont and Holloway as themselves sharing a few production sketches and discussing the live action model filming process. Then Waring’s orchestra plays along to a clip of the “March of the Cards” sequence. This is particularly interesting because the arrangement and orchestration is near identical to that of the finished soundtrack. But it is not the soundtrack and neither is it the version on the Decca record, which also sounds similar. There were likely musical personnel connected with both Waring and Alice, perhaps arranger Harry Simeone.
The half-hour Alice in Wonderland segment of The Fred Waring Show (which was included in part on some home video releases of Alice) doesn’t have the landmark status of One Hour in Wonderland, but it could be said that it was among the first—if not the first—TV musical presentation of its kind. It’s a far cry from the scale of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1957, but an early television precursor nonetheless.