Part one of a love letter to the beloved and unpretentious pop culture icon to recognize her unsung role in animation, sound recordings, musical films and theme park entertainment.
Annette Funicello, whose birthday is this Thursday, came to prominence on the original Mickey Mouse Club in the fifties and defined the 1960s beach party era through the film series co-starring Frankie Avalon. Decades of MMC reruns and broadcasts of the beach movies (there are seven “official” films) and her own personality (no one who knew her has anything negative to say) sustained her image. She continued to make occasional TV guest appearances and in Skippy peanut butter commercials (they fit into her schedule, paid well, and she used a lot of the product). Annette never took herself seriously and was humble–almost to the point of denial–about her talent and continued appeal.
In truth, Annette was a genuine catalyst. The circumstances surrounding her career, music and films were quietly seismic. She is an official Disney Legend for what she contributed (and continues to contribute) to Disney, but animation might not be the first thing that springs to mind. Yet her work involved some of the giants of the art, including Bill Justice, X Atencio and Ward Kimball.
Walt Disney’s BABES IN TOYLAND
Original Cast Album
Based on Victor Herbert’s Tuneful Musical Comedy
Buena Vista Records STER-4022 (Stereo) BV-4022 (Mono)
Released in November 1961. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Camarata. Musical Direction: George Bruns, Camarata. Chief Engineer: Allan Emig. Vocals Recorded at Sunset Sound, Hollywood. Running Time: 45 minutes.
Performers: Ray Bolger (Barnaby); Annette (Mary Contrary); Tommy Sands (Tom Piper); Ed Wynn (The Toymaker); Ann Jillian (Bo Peep); Henry Calvin (Gonzorgo); The Mellomen (Trees).
Songs: “Mother Goose Village;” “Lemonade,” “We Won’t Be Happy Till We Get It,” “Just a Whisper Away,” “Slowly He Sank Into the Sea,” ”Castle in Spain,” “I Can’t Do the Sum,” “Floretta,” “The Forest of No Return,” “Go to Sleep,” “Toyland March,” “Just a Toy,” “Tom and Mary” by George Bruns and Mel Leven, adapted from music and lyrics by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough.
When Walt Disney announced the production of his first musical, Babes in Toyland, a more modern approach than the traditional operetta, infighting began within the studio regarding the female singing star. Insiders wanted it to be Annette, others wanted a current pop star. It was akin to the Tiffany voicing Judy Jetson instead of Janet Waldo.
In his autobiography, Inside the Whimsy Works: My Life With Walt Disney Productions, Disney Legend Jimmy Johnson (president and founder of Disneyland/Vista Records) recalled when he and another Disney Legend, A&R and musical director Tutti Camarata, were in the thick of the Toyland tussle.
“Some of Walt’s production people plugged hard for a Warner Brothers recording artist for the female lead, and much propaganda was spread about the inability of our own Annette to handle the Victor Herbert tunes,” he wrote. “Tutti and I had faith in Annette and also couldn’t stand the thought of the soundtrack album going to another label. We made a demonstration record of her singing probably the most difficult song in the score, “Just a Whisper Away” and the novelty number, “I Can’t Do the Sum.” The demo came off beautifully, and Walt, who had great affection for Annette like the rest of us, gave her the part.”
Johnson continued, “Throughout the principal shooting, Babes in Toyland was hard going. As an example of how wrong things were, the director who replaced Ward Kimball (whose dismissal is well-documented in the book, The Life and Times of Ward Kimball by Todd Pierce). Jack Donohue, kept telling Ray Bolger how to dance.” The film was dubbed a misfire by critics and at the box office.
Time, events and circumstances have a way of changing perspective. Babes in Toyland may not have fulfilled its initial expectations, but it emerged as a watershed project with a staying power that reached beyond the walls of movie theaters.
During production, pressure came from the top to future Disney Legends and Imagineers Bill Justice to get the film’s most important sequence, the “March of the Toys,” just right. “That was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Justice told your author. “Walt said, ‘You guys had better make this part good!” As he said this, he used an illustration of the soldiers to sketch small rectangular objects below their feet. “See here, we had to have these magnets underneath every one of their feet underneath the set to keep them in place.”
For the Disneyland parade soldiers, Justice, designed the life-sized versions to look exactly as they did in the movie.
Like the Rankin/Bass images of Rudolph and Frosty, these designs are, to millions, the definitive look of holiday toy soldiers. During seasonal park events, their appearance rival those of Mickey Mouse, not only for the reactions of park guests and all the pictures they take but also from a marketing perspective. Countless holiday ads feature the soldiers as much as Mickey and various Princess castles. The art direction of Disney’s Babes in Toyland has made its way into thousands of park set pieces, merchandise and stage shows.
The toy soldiers were marching up and into a toybox three years later in Mary Poppins, during the stop-motion-driven “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence, also created by Justice and Atencio. Other props popped on The Lucy Show, courtesy of director Jack Donohue, who transition from Toyland to being director of Lucille Ball’s second sitcom. One of the life-size soldiers stood outside a toy shop in a 1977 episode of Wonder Woman.
In 1962, Walt Disney hosted Holiday Time at Disneyland, the first time a Disney theme park parade was broadcast on national television. The Toyland sets had been added to the park to create a walk-through attraction (which began with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sets and continues today). In addition to the soldiers, various materials from the film can be seen in the parade.
Walt appears in front of a process screen (as opposed to Ub Iwerks’ traveling matte process) that had been used in movies for years—seen in Meet Me in St. Louis when Judy Garland did when she sang “The Trolley Song” and The Three Caballeros when Aurora Miranda made the town dance. Walt Disney was on a Burbank soundstage as moving film of Sleeping Beauty Castle and happy guests were projected behind him. This allowed actors to interact with him during his presentation. Among them are veteran actor Olan Soulé (voice of Batman for both Filmation and Hanna-Barbera) as the harried father and Paul Maxey as Santa Claus. The carolers include Portia Nelson (Doctor Dolittle’s sister in the 1967 musical and the cranky nun in The Sound of Music) to the left, and our own Disneyland Story Reader Robie Lester at the right of the screen.
Many viewers were seeing the Toyland soldiers for the first time on this broadcast. Decades later they the soldiers have become the in-person and broadcast equivalents to the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades.
Many consider Mary Poppins to be the total of everything Walt Disney mastered in cinema, all rolled into one magnificent movie. Babes in Toyland also combined, as best as it could, the elements of the businesses Walt and Roy Disney were developing in the previous decade. Toyland was a lavish extension of precisely where they were at that moment — television programs, a stock company of performers, backstage artists, experimental stop-motion, and cross-utilization at Disneyland… A “home-grown” production, Toyland was not (and should not be compared to) Mary Poppins, but without it Disney could never have realized which internal resources he should access for Poppins and which ones needed to be secured from elsewhere.
It’s easy to dismiss Toyland if viewed a as a theatrical “movie,” especially if it came from any other studio. Quite a few Disney live-action theatrical features create this dual perspective (and still do). At this time, every Disney live-action feature was modular, easily divided cleanly into segments running roughly 51 minutes each. When a made-for-TV project went over budget or had theatrical potential (like 1957’s Johnny Tremain), it would be edited into a feature first. Multi-part TV films were also edited into features for Europe (like two Annette films, Escapade in Florence and The Horsemasters).
It was obvious in some films. Babes in Toyland has two distinct halves, totally different in tone. The first is traditionally musical, with no attempt to hide the stage. Viewed on a home screen it plays like a lavish holiday TV spectacular of the fifties and early sixties. It is also like a very expensive Technicolor version of the Mickey Mouse Club on “Fun With Music Day.” There is even a big curtain reveal at the beginning, exactly the way “We’re the Mouseketeers” kicked off the latter days of the MMC. The choreography is by Mickey Mouse Club veteran Tom Mahoney, so there is a similarity in the way the men confidently hold their lapels as they dance and the ladies swirl in their crinoline skirts. Mouseketeers Bobby Burgess and Sharon Baird could easily join the ensemble. Director Donohue films captures it in the glittering style of television musicals.
The second half is a comedy-fantasy film along the lines of The Absent-Minded Professor (released earlier that year to great success). Oversized sets convey the characters shrunk to toy-size (recently effective in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man). There is almost no relation from part one to part two except a few early story threads (finding Bo-Peep’s sheep) and the finale.
In the past several years, however, Babes in Toyland has been embraced as a family favorite like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and White Christmas. The Blu-ray, when seen in high-definition, looks like the TV special it was destined to be. It’s never been out of print since it’s VHS release and it is often presented on several platforms at once. A 1961 Little Golden Book was reprinted in 2018. Sometimes the opening weekend box office is the least important part of a Disney IP’s actual “legs.” Quite often the public decides what property will take on a life of its own. A very long life.
For something completely different, but also beloved, there is 1934’s Hal Roach/Laurel & Hardy beloved classic, later retitled and shortened as March of the Wooden Soldiers (Disney had nothing to do with title change, nor did the studio prevent the Roach version from being broadcast, even in 1961). Roach’s version is much more cinematic, offers more serious danger and highly quotable dialogue with the great Laurel and Hardy. The Disney version is dipped in colorful, campy candy, is a little closer to the original stage story, and stars Oz’s Ray Bolger and the winsome Annette. Both avoid the very disturbing, dark turn of the operetta when the Toymaker is revealed to be an evil man enabling toys to kill children on Christmas day!
The music on the “original cast” album of Babes in Toyland is not the film soundtrack. The back cover explains that it is a “re-creation,” recorded at Camarata’s new Sunset Sound Recorders studio in Hollywood. For Mary Poppins and the three Sherman Brothers musicals following it (as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), the term “Original Cast Sound Track” was coined, probably by Johnson. No other recording seems to have ever used that terminology before Poppins.
No arranger or conductor is listed for the Toyland album except for Camarata, and that is only for the special overture, which is not in the film at all. This overture was also added to the Buena Vista LP, 33 Great Walt Disney Melodies, which was mostly a collection of medleys. A different recording of the same Toyland overture arrangement was recorded by Camarata for his Great Victor Herbert album on London Records. (He was an executive at London before he joined Disneyland Records and continued to make albums for that label throughout the sixties and seventies.)
No arranger or conductor is credited on the LPs. There may have been several, as some of it sounds similar to the movie and thus has the George Bruns stamp, and others have Camarata’s stylistic touches. Since Sleeping Beauty and Grand Canyon had just been recently recorded in Berlin by the Symphonie-Orchester Graunke, it is also possible that Kurt Graunke conducted the music tracks with the Los Angeles vocals added.
A “second cast” album of Babes in Toyland songs (without the overture) was also released by Disneyland Records with some identical tracks (including “The Workshop Song” with Ed Wynn and “Never Mind, Bo Peep” with Ann Jillian) and others with alternate music tracks featuring a stellar group of studio singers including Teri York, Gene Merlino. Bill Lee, Thurl Ravenscroft and Ginny Tyler. Long after the “original cast” album was discontinued, these versions were available for decades on several different vinyl formats. Today, it’s the original album that has once again become available on download.
Special thanks to Stacia Martin, Hans Perk and Bill Morgan for their consultation on this article.
Please be with us in two weeks on Animation Spin for more Animation-ette!