ANIMATION SPIN
June 14, 2022 posted by Greg Ehrbar

“it’s a small world” and the happiest records that ever spinned

Back in the late seventies when Dinah Shore ruled the world of daytime TV with a peppy talk show, she was demonstrating modern furniture ideas with her guest, comedian Don Rickles. Each took a seat in low, cylindrical plastic chairs. Rickles instantly saw that the two of them looked like they were getting into theme park ride vehicles.

“Hey, Dinah!” he quipped. “It’s like we’re at Disneyland!!” Waving his arms like a conductor, Rickles sang, “Da-da-DAAH-DAAH-DAAH, da-da-DAAH-DAAH- DAAH!“ The audience roared.

Not only was Don Rickles (sort of) singing “it’s a small world,” it was “the verse, not the more familiar chorus. Even Don Rickles knew the entire melody to “it’s a small world.”

It is said that there is a Disney Park somewhere in the world in which the song is playing twenty-four hours a day. If not, at least it’s playing in thousands of heads. Over the years, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman nodded with good humor at their “earworm” and how it can drive folks crazy. The most serious layers woven into the song have meant mean the most to them. Like a lot of their songs, it’s not all sunshine and daisies.

The recording of “it’s a small world” is significant as well. The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board recently inducted one of its many vinyl issues into its Hall of Fame.

This is a demo recording of ‘it’s a small world” in which you can hear the Shermans, particularly Richard, as well as Ginny Tyler (who does her “Polynesia” parrot squawks) with what sounds like Robie Lester, who sang a lot of demos for the Shermans, very likely recorded at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, where all of them were involved in ongoing projects.

The specific version inducted into the Hall of Fame was a souvenir 45 rpm single released as a Disneyland “Little Gem” 45 rpm single and a specially-packaged edition sold at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair Pepsi-Cola pavilion. It’s a medley of several renditions of the song culled from throughout the attraction’s “countries.” It was also released on Disneyland Records as a “Little Gem” record.

Speaking of gems, here’s a little-known one. “It’s a small world” had a strong presence in Florida long before Walt Disney World opened in 1971. It was not in Central, but South Florida at the ultra-modern Pepsi-Cola plant opened in 1964 amid much excitement and hoopla.

Pepsi Plant Miami in 2021 (Photo by Larry Shane)

It was a landmark of sorts as seen from the Palmetto Expressway because it boasted a round, flat “bottlecap” building that was actually a theater/conference room. Schoolkids who were fortunate enough to tour the Pepsi plant were finally able to see what was inside that strange building as a finale – it was a film promoting Walt Disney’s “it’s a small world.”

Pepsi did not sponsor the Walt Disney World version of the attraction (which capitalizes It’s a Small World without the quotation marks). The plant is now closed, but to a select few, the attraction offers an extra bit of nostalgia for the Miami “bottle cap.”

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and “it’s a small world” were released as soundtrack albums at roughly the same time. Lincoln already had narration by Paul Frees and require little additional production other than editing and remixing from the multiple tracks for stereo and mono (certainly not a slight accomplishment in any case). “it’s a small world” was only released in mono (and was only available that way until producer Randy Thornton remastered the tracks many decades later.

For an LP version of “it’s a small world,” there also had to be some kind of story. Although they are not credited, the Sherman Brothers produced it for Disneyland records with Jimmy Johnson (and Tutti Camarata, because during this time almost all the storytellers and compilations were being recorded, mixed, edited, and mastered at Sunset Sound).

Disney story artist turned producer Winston Hibler was the narrator. The Shermans adapted the script from the promotional materials written by Walt Disney Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar. This is the only Disney record with Hibler narration. (Pairing this disc with Rex Allen’s Incredible Journey LP creates a True-Life Adventure-style double feature.)

The first issue of the album tied into the World’s Fair, with a rendering of Imagineer Rolly Crump’s fanciful “Tower of the Four Winds” on the front cover. The tower is mentioned on the recording and was not changed even after the front cover was revised with a Disneyland attraction photo. It may have confused a listener or two unfamiliar with the “missing tower” but not so much now, thanks to plentiful information about the attraction—just google our colleague Jim Korkis and “small world.”

Presumably, Jimmy Johnson came up with the story for the read-along for “it’s a small world,” as he wrote almost every Storyteller and read-along in the sixties, including The Haunted Mansion album. The premise contrives a fictional orphan named Bobby who has no sense of his identity until he rides “it’s a small world,” which assures him that he is a part of everywhere. Robie Lester read (and partially sang) the book for the 1968 edition of the read-along.

Ten years later, Linda Gary narrated it with the attraction soundtracks nicely edited behind the text. This version continued to be available on cassette through the nineties.

The Disneyland Boys Choir recorded the second most heard recording of ‘it’s a small world’ on Disneyland Records, released on single discs, extended play records, compilations and even Walt Disney’s memorial LP, The Music of Walt Disney, explored in this Animation Spin. It was part of an album of folk songs adorned with Mary Blair’s only signed artwork for the record label.

The Disneyland Boys Choir was a generic studio group name created for the record. Generic names for orchestral or vocal ensembles are common in the recording industry. It’s not unusual to find the same version of one song on several recordings under different names. The Mike Sammes Singers were called The Maury Laws Singers for the Rankin/Bass special The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians, and most often uncredited. The Ron Hicklin Singers were The Charlie Fox Singers for Love American Style. Ron Hicklin also contracted singers for Ray Conniff’s albums in the seventies. It didn’t matter all that much as long as there were solid contracts.

The Disneyland Boys Choir was actually the choir from St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. The conductor, Paul Salamunovich, who is credited on the “it’s a small world” folk song album, was also the musical director for the church. He had a legendary vocal career of his own (he is one of the a cappella singers in the I Married Joan theme song). St. Charles Borromeo’s adult church choir sang for The Robert Shaw Choir on RCA Victor Records and the children’s choir appeared in several movies, including Dead Ringer with Bette Davis. Some of the former choir kids from the days of the record album are still in the choir. A huge plaque honoring Salamunovich is mounted in the lobby of St. Charles, where parishioners also included Bob and Delores Hope, Henry and Ginny Mancini, and Rose Marie.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“it’s a small world” – The Jack Coleman Singers / The Bobby Hammack Orchestra

This quite wonderful 1971 Buena Vista single was not widely circulated except as side two of a seven-inch 33 1/3 rpm picture disc a few years later. Bobby Hammack was a pillar of the music industry; a musician, arranger, and conductor for records, TV and film who was involved with far many sessions than can ever be listed accurately. His credits include playing and arranging for countless Disney discs, films and attractions, and working with Jackie Gleason on his best-selling easy-listening albums.

16 Comments

  • Don Rickles was on the Dinah Shore show? I hope he behaved himself.

    The cover of the Disneyland Boys Choir album reminds me of the 1968 Walt Disney 6 cent U.S. postage stamp (Scott catalog #1355). The U.S. Postal Service had a longstanding rule that only American citizens who had been dead for at least ten years could be depicted on postage stamps; the only exceptions to the ten-year rule were former U.S. Presidents — and Walt Disney. Even some stamp collectors have the mistaken impression that Walt is surrounded by his own cartoon creations — Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, etc. — on the stamp, but no. Rather, a long line of children in ethnic costumes, looking very much like the ones in Mary Blair’s cover art, encircles Walt and extends back to a “small world” in the upper right corner. It’s a lovely tribute to a man who during his lifetime really did make the world smaller and, in so doing, brought us all closer together.

    Was Paul Salamunovich the one who sang that crazy high G at the end of the “I Married Joan” theme song? Or did he do the “dun dun dun dun” bass line at the beginning?

    • @Paul Groh: In 1968, there was no rule that a person had to be dead for 10 years to be shown on a postage stamp. Among the famous people who were honored in a shorter time than that in that era were John Foster Dulles (died 1959, stamp in 1960); Eleanor Roosevelt (died 1962, stamp in 1963); Adlai Stevenson (died July 1965, stamp in October 1965); Frank Lloyd Wright (died 1959, stamp in 1966); and Douglas MacArthur (died 1964, stamp in 1971).

      The 10-year rule was probably instituted sometime in the early 1970s but I’m not sure when. In more recent years the 10-year period was reduced to 5 years, then to zero (with living people becoming eligible), then increased again to 3 years.

      • You’re right, of course; I remember the Frank Lloyd Wright stamp. It’s been many years since I lived in the United States or collected stamps, so I had no idea that living persons were ever eligible to be pictured on U.S. postage stamps. Did that ever actually happen, and if so, who?

  • One of the kids in the Disneyland Boys Choir, Bob Joyce, grew up to sing bass on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjiAq89cy6w

    • Lee, it’s fascinating that Bob Joyce sang on the track, which most likely was the attraction soundtrack. It would make perfect sense since The Jimmy Joyce Singers were such a popular group of child session singers (as well as an adult group that sang on The Red Skelton Show).

      Tutti Camarata told me the Disneyland Boys Choir was actually from the St Charles Borromeo Church and the folk song album was a completely different production and session than that of the attraction. Paul Salamunovich’s wife told me a lot of the other stuff about I Married Joan and Robert Shaw.

      But of course, why wouldn’t Buddy Baker bring in the same children for “it’s s small world” who sang on The Sound of Music, backed up Doris Day on her “With a Smile and a Song” album, and were “The Children” when The Chipmunks Sang With Children?

      After Jimmy passed, Betty Joyce conducted “The Disneyland Sing-Along Chorus” in the late seventies. This was another generic name created for records like Children’s Favorites.

      Epcot fans heard Bob Joyce for many years in the original rendition of “Golden Dream” at The American Adventure. His voice is everywhere in film and television, from The Lion King to Guardians of the Galaxy.

      Often the artists that have the greatest influence on our lives are people whose names we don’t necessarily know well but nonetheless have a significant and lasting impact.

  • Boy. Mike Sammes was the director of the Maury laws singers..meaning his already established gang was just hired by Rankin and Bass (and Laws) FOR THEIR shows..whew..read this morning..the things you know! Had that record a kid,..

  • I remember standing in line for the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland as a child, lulled by the monotonous rocking of that face in front until suddenly things started spinning and trumpets sounded, panels opened and some of the little figures you’d see in the ride itself came out. It was quite frightening. If the line was long enough, it happened two or three times before you finally made it into those boats, and it was unnerving each time.

  • There’s that gag in “The Lion King” where Zazu starts to sing “It’s a Small World” in an attempt to cheer up Scar (who, of course, silences him).

  • Not only is the Disneyland Storyteller album of “It’s a Small World” the “only Disney record with Hibler narration,” it is also the only Fantasyland attraction represented separately in narrative form on Disneyland records. The only other recordings that come close to serving this function are the album “Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland” which gives an overview of Fantasyland provided by Walt himself, and the later album “A Day at Disneyland” which re-purposes the previous one by adding narration by Jiminy Cricket (and which provides brief extra description of some the the Fantasyland rides). These albums (referenced in earlier posts) pre-date the arrival of “It’s a Small World” by a few years, but they cover several attractions in brief references instead of focusing on one in detail.

    And speaking of the Tower of the Four Winds, it gets a visit from the denizens of Bedrock via a mention in the comic book “The Flintstones at the New York World’s Fair.” When Dino takes a carved fish from the Tower of the Four Winds, Fred enlists Barney to climb the structure to put it back, resulting in a nice drawing of the Tower while Barney performs his precarious feat. A rare instance of an oblique Disney reference in a Hanna-Barbera production. (But not the only one as we have seen in the “Flintstones Songs from Mary Poppins” album, referenced here in Animation Spin several years ago in another great post which is still available for re-reading.)

    What’s really fascinating about these “Small World” recordings is the many variations on a theme, particularly the minor key interpretations as the boat travels through the many exotic lands that are visited on this fanciful world tour.

  • If I’m not mistaken, Imagineering recorded a new, inferior version of the song for (what opened as) Euro Disneyland. Eventually that version also ended being used at Disneyland (for a few years)? The big distinctive difference with the new version was that it changed the last three notes to the lyrics, “small, small, world.”

    And I think the original song was edited for use at the Small World clock at the Sogo department store in Taipei (which I saw many times):
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:It%27s_a_Small_World_Clock_at_Taipei.jpg
    Sogo is a Japanese department store that had locations in Asia and had a sponsorship deal with Tokyo Disneyland.

  • Thank you so much for this article Greg. As always, I learned a lot. I love Winston Hibler and was shocked to hear he was only on 1 Disney Record.
    I recently tried to find out if “it’s a small world’ led the list, with respect to the number of covers. None of the lists I found mentioned it. I still find that nearly impossible to believe. I have so many of them. – Even more of “Mary Poppins”.
    I think we were sitting together at D23 when Richard performed “it’s a small world” as a slow ballad, which he said, was the original intention. I’m sure that I recorded it and it was beautiful. He also expressed some thoughts about how if it would’ve been recorded as intended, it wouldn’t have gotten on anyone’s nerves.
    Personally, I’ve grown to love the song.

    • Thanks, Tom.
      Mike Douglas recorded “it’s a small world” as a ballad for an album on Wonderland Records called “Singing a Happy Song.”

  • I remember the I Married Joan “choir” (Joanie Joanie Joanie Joanie). Interesting part of this fascinating saga! The ride was always a nice respite in a trip to Disneyland: indoors, floating on a boat, interesting stuff to watch. And it’s pretty long! Hence plenty of time of the song to embed in ones brain. haha!! Sadly not sure society fully embraced the sentiment behind the whole thing. The ride opened I think in 1966 or so, amidst Vietnam. But hopefully some of the millions who have experienced it are the better for it. Or went insane with the earwig of a tune. HA! Anyway, great article.

    • Thanks, Bob, for writing in! The Shermans were well aware that the song was written at a tumultuous time and here’s another anecdote related to the headlines of the sixties associated with the records — the boys choir folk song album was recorded while Los Angeles was in the midst of the Watts situation, not far from the studio. What was going on only blocks away and what was being sung was also not lost on those involved in making the LP with the Mary Blair art cover.

  • Hello Greg,
    Thank you for teaching us so much about the wonderful history of Disney music,
    What a joy!

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