In which we note that Sterling Holloway would be 115 this Saturday and look at a Grammy-nominated grab-bag of eclectic music, strange casting and a few Mouseketeers.
Walt Disney Presents
A HAPPY BIRTHDAY PARTY WITH WINNIE THE POOH
Disneyland Records – Storyteller Series ST-3942 (12” 33 1/3 RPM with Book / Mono)
Released in June 1966. Executive Producer / Writer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer / Musical Director: Tutti Camarata. Running Time: 27 minutes.
Voices: Sterling Holloway (Pooh); Louis Prima (Himself); Junius Matthews (Owl); Robie Lester (Christopher Robin, Rabbit).
Vocalists: Gia Maione, Carol Lombard, Ron Hicklin, Al Capps; Camarata Chorus; the Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers (including Jimmie Dodd, Darlene Gillespie; Sharon Baird and Tommy Cole).
Songs: “Winnie the Pooh,” “Little Black Rain Cloud,” “Up, Down and Touch the Ground” from Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree) by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman; “Where Oh Where Is Eeyore’s Tail?,” “Who’s At Rabbit’s Table?” “Can You Find the Honey Tree?” “Birthday, Birthday” by Tom Campbell, Mark Turnbull; “Love Goes Round On a Merry-Go-Round” by Leo Fox, Tim Gayle, Clem Watts (Albert J. Trace).
Archival Tracks: “The Unbirthday Song” (from the Disneyland album, Alice in Wonderland: Music from the Score) by Al Hoffman, Mack David, Jerry Livingston; “Chinese Dance” (from The Nutcracker Suite sequence in Fantasia) by Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky; “Happy Birthday” (from the Mickey Mouse Club album, Holidays with the Mouseketeers) (Public Domain).
Instrumental: “Thinking, Thinking” by Mark Turnbull.
Sterling Holloway was one of those voice actors so skillful that he need only change his attitude and inflections to create entirely new characters. While the Cheshire Cat, Kaa the python, Mister Stork in Dumbo, Roquefort in The Aristocats and Winnie the Pooh all had the same basic timbre, it was the acting that made all the difference.
Holloway studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in his teens and made a huge splash on Broadway when he introduced the song “(I’ll Take) Manhattan” in the Rodger and Hart musical, Garrick’s Gaieties. Frank Capra gave him his first big break in movies, with 1932’s American Madness. When Walt Disney was planning Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he suggested Holloway as a model for Sleepy.
His many character role credits in films include “Willie,” Beulah Bondi’s farmhand in the beloved holiday classic Remember the Night (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. His melodic singing voice can be heard in this memorable scene:
Holloway could do wonders with words and his skilled narrations elevated countless radio shows, cartoons and recordings. Disneyland Records signed Holloway to a contract in 1957. He even wrote some of them, including the Country Cousin album discussed in this Spin.
Walt Disney’s 1966 short film version of Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree had only been in theaters for a few months when the Happy Birthday Party with Winnie the Pooh album was released, but it was certainly not alone in the variety of shiny new books, toys and cereal box premiums.
However, both the casting and scope of Pooh in Disney’s realm were still very early in development. Even Walt was not completely sure how the American audiences would take to the gentle charms of A.A. Milne’s creations, or if they could carry a full-length feature. The Honey Tree featurette was a test run of sorts, with two more films to follow that would be combined with bridging footage to make 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Disneyland Records released two LPs (see this Spin) and several singles based Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree eight months before the featurette was in theaters (a common practice in those days with books and records especially, to create momentum). The response must have been so great, even before the film, that the label set to work on new products.
In some ways, A Happy Birthday Party with Winnie the Pooh is ingenious and meticulously executed. In other small ways, the short time frame is evident. Every children’s record company released birthday albums with party suggestions, but none organized the format as well or had the powerhouse of Pooh characters to make it irresistible.
Colorful and child-friendly as the packaging is, the facts of the children’s record business are that the parents/caregivers are really the ones who are being primarily addressed with the covers and the liner notes. On this album, it is made very clear from the outset—it’s practically a birthday party in a package, according to the notes (likely written by Jimmy Johnson, who was also the president of Disneyland Records). Just add cake. The track listings are carefully spelled out as “band one, band two,” and so on, the way Disney’s more grown-up releases used the terms, such as Mary Poppins and Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.
The 11-page book has lots of nice illustrations but the text is also filled with instructions for a number of games. These are quite helpful for anyone planning a party or event for kids because you don’t have to be celebrating a birthday party to play all the games. The songs all correspond to the pages and activities in the book, much like educational products made for schools.
It is in this text and on the song listings that nits can be picked. Several songs are named incorrectly, but not so much that they are impossible to identify (“Where Oh Where is the Honey Tree?” should be “Can You Find the Honey Tree?” etc.) A reason for this is that printed materials have to be sent off earlier because they can take longer to complete than the recording. These little mistakes are probably due to a need for speed in getting the album into stores by summer.
Musically, vocally and technically the recording is top-notch. The reduced budgets of the much leaner years in the mid-‘60s are reflected in simple folk arrangements for the original songs, but Camarata was savvy enough to make it work. The songs are done in a Peter, Paul and Mary folk style, very much in vogue after their hit, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Tom Campbell, who wrote the Disney LP The Further Adventures of Jiminy Cricket (see this Spin), teamed with his colleague, musician/storyteller Mark Turnbull for four new songs (and one instrumental by Turnbull called “Thinking, Thinking.”)
Three of Hollywood’s best session singers performed them in a warm, genial style: Al Capps singing bass, who is responsible for countless major film and recording projects; Carol Lombard (no relation to Gable’s Carole), who sang on Annette’s records and had a children’s chorus that recorded the theme to the classic Japanese animated series Prince Planet, and Ron Hicklin, whose singing group was heard in almost every TV show and movie of the late ‘60s and ‘70s including Love, American Style, Happy Days, Pufnstuf, The Partridge Family and the movie version of M*A*S*H.
The entire album is “hosted” by Louis Prima, before he became known as the voice of King Louie. A friend of Tutti Camarata, he recorded “Winnie the Pooh” as a single with his wife, Gia Maione. They had already done an album of Mary Poppins songs together. Camarata’s role in bringing this talent into the Walt Disney Studios and how it connected to films and theme park attractions is highly significant. When the Primas’ young daughter was visiting the studio, Johnson gave her a copy of the Songs from Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree album and she noticed that Tigger was on the back cover, yet Tigger was not in the first Pooh film!
Pooh’s history with Disney was so early, Tigger had not been fully developed. Tigger appears throughout the Happy Birthday Party book illustrations, but he more resembles the Ernest E. Sheperd version, not the Disney character seen two years later in 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Even the script doesn’t get Pooh’s name quite right. He is rarely, if ever, called “Winnie,” yet on this record he is referred to in that way by Prima, Owl and even Pooh in the third person!
The voice casting on the album also reflects the time crunch and the infancy of Disney’s version of Pooh. Sterling Holloway plays Pooh, of course. But Junius Matthews–the original film voice of Rabbit–voices Owl on the record presumably because he sounds British and dignified and also because Owl serves as a “co-host” with quite a few lines. Rabbit is voiced by Robie Lester, who also plays Roo and Christopher Robin, each of whom has only a few lines each. The person voicing Eeyore sounds like a staff member brought in because he has a sullen demeanor. (The voice session was probably so fast, there was no provision made for the fact that Owl very obviously was supposed to be introducing the song “Mind Over Matter” before it was discovered that the lyrics wouldn’t fit the game and the “Thinking” song plays instead.)
The odd voice casting might have been more of an issue had this album told an actual story, but this is essentially a song album with commentary. Three tracks are borrowed from other albums: the “Chinese Dance” from Fantasia, “The Unbirthday Song” from The Greatest Album Ever Made; and the “Happy Birthday” song itself from a Mickey Mouse Club record released in 1958 (see this Spin).
Nevertheless, these are the kind of bobbles you only find very deep in the hundred-acre wood. Though never reissued on CD or download, the album had a strong run in its day and the songs were carried over into other Pooh compilations throughout the vinyl era.