Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Walt Disney and Buddy Ebsen — Two of a Kind from Frontierland to Happily Ever After

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was born 116 years ago today. In 1901 our country was in the Second Industrial Revolution, or “Technological Revolution,” and the United States was about to experience major changes in how things were made. At this exciting time of exploring the unknown, time, creativity, and imagination were three of the most important assets anyone could have.

The first cartoon or animated film was credited to Emile Cohl, a French animator in 1908, the same year Christian Ludolf “Buddy” Ebsen was born. In 1928, at age 27, Walt Disney released “Steamboat Willie,” featuring the product of his wonderful imagination: Mickey Mouse.

Eight years later, Buddy Ebsen would star alongside his sister Vilma Ebsen and Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1936.” In the iconic YouTube clip, Buddy is proudly wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater as he sang and danced his way into American’s hearts, never then realizing what was to come.

In 1951, according to an article in D23, the Disney publication, “Walt Disney hired Buddy to demonstrate a dance routine; the dance was filmed, and Walt’s crew analyzed the action, frame by frame, to devise a way to animate a nine-inch figure with the same movements.” The actual date of 1951 is subject to correction as a display of Project Little Man notes the year 1949 when Buddy was hired to dance against the grid. It makes sense that he began the process in 1949 and it took the engineers at least two years to go from drawing to reality figure.

The endeavor was called “Project Little Man” and morphed into Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics®” that would become the precursor for Disney theme park exhibits including “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” In “To Dad with Love: Finding Buddy Ebsen,” Kiki remembers that when Buddy would take the children to Disneyland, he paused for the longest time, reflecting at the Mr. Lincoln exhibit, yet never saying a word to them about his role in the entire process.

The blog “The Wonder of Miniatures” recently shared this photo and the story from a plaque in the Walt Disney Imagineering Collection.

Buddy and Walt enjoyed a personal friendship as well as a great professional relationship. Here’s a photo where Buddy is showing Walt Disney and others a few dance steps, with Walt trying them out.

In 1954, Walt Disney wanted Buddy Ebsen to act in a new project he was developing, considered him for the title role of Davy Crockett, in a series of TV adventures about one of his favorite folk heroes. Then, Walt saw a young actor, Fess Parker, in a two-minute scene in “Them,” a movie about an army of giant mutant ants, which starred James Arness. Soon after, Fess “became” Davy and Buddy was re-cast as Georgie Russel, Davy’s right-hand man, a journalist.

In all, there were five hour-long television episodes of “Frontierland,” introduced by Walt Disney in 1954/1955). The shows included “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter,” “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress,” “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race,” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.”

Ultimately, they were repurposed into two feature-length cinema films (one was “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” (1955), and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates”), expanding the Davy Crockett craze.

Little boys from California to New York were running around in their coonskin caps, just like Davy. Record albums featured more “Davy Crockett” songs and themes, Fess Parker “received 10% of the merchandising for Disney coonskin caps and Old Betsy toy rifles,” and Buddy continued to work regularly toward his next big break, which would come via “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

On the opening day of Disneyland, July 17, 1955, Walt Disney had Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Ronald Reagan, and Art Linkletter on hand to welcome the crowd. Part of the ceremony is featured in this video.

As you’ll see, Walt read the dedication:

Frontierland. It is here that we experience the story of our country’s past. The color, romance, and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads, and civilization. A tribute to the faith, courage, and ingenuity of our hearty pioneers who blazed the trails and made this progress possible.

There’s a charming story told by Grenade Curran, who was a general factotum at Disneyland, about this picture, taken before the grand opening in July 1955 (L to R: Fess Parker, Walt Disney, and Buddy Ebsen).

Buddy also appeared as Sheriff Matt Brady in “Corky and the White Shadow” in 1956, and he was on the “Mickey Mouse Club.” All of this happened, by the way, before Buddy’s two youngest children, Kiki and Dustin, were even born.

On March 3, 1967, an article in Kittanning, PA’s Simpson Leader-Times (among other UPI papers) ran Vernon Scott’s story, noting “Buddy Ebsen will take time out from his highly rated “Beverly Hillbillies” series to star in the last picture on which Walt Disney’s name will be seen as producer. The story went on to note that “…It was Walt Disney who prepared and engineered every detail of his final movie,”…“The One and Only Genuine, Original Family Band” (released March 1968) as “the sort of family entertainment with which both Disney and Ebsen have been identified for three decades.

Aired first in December, 1988, Episode 19 of the Disney Family Album starred Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen, which you can see here, narrated by Buddy.

In 1993, Ebsen was inducted as a Film and Television Disney Legend, together with others who were honored for Animation–Voice, Animation & Imagineering, Film, and Administration contributions.

Here’s a photo by David McNew (all rights reserved to Getty Images) of Buddy with Roy Disney (at the time Vice Chairman of the Walt Disney Company), taken Feb. 8, 2001, in Anaheim, when Disney opened their California Adventure theme park.

Walt Disney was born in Hermosa, Illinois, on December 5, 1901, and died on December 15, 1966, having just turned 65 years old. Buddy Ebsen was born April 2, 1908, about 175 miles away, in Bellevue, Illinois. He died on July 6, 2003, at the age of 92. The world of fun family entertainment has benefited for over 50 years of combined creativity of young men who saw opportunities to pursue their passion for entertainment, love of music and dancing, and with dedication and hard work, two legends were made.

The opportunities that Walt Disney gave Buddy Ebsen to showcase his talents defined his future and his eventual career as an internationally beloved actor. Even more would Disney impact the Ebsen family. Daughter Kiki graduated in Vocal Performance from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which was founded in 1961, by Walt and Roy Disney, when they merged two schools together. The Disney family would be a major funding source to launch CalArts into its ranking as “America’s top college for students in the arts by Newsweek.”

At the time, Walt said, “CalArts is the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.” He did. The Disney Company and all of the wonderful interactions between Buddy and Walt are featured prominently in “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen.” A brief video EPK follows:

Kiki Ebsen’s theatre show features her vocals and storytelling, with exquisite multimedia by videographer brother Dustin Ebsen. Three musicians accompany her on the songs that span seven decades of their father’s career. The show concludes with the final image of the full-page ad that The Disney Company took out upon Buddy’s passing: it’s a drawing of Mickey Mouse, shedding a tear.

Today, we celebrate the 116th anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth. His phenomenal imagination and creative live on for many generations to come and as Kiki says, “Just because someone is out of your life, doesn’t mean they’re out of your life.” Truth.

by Dawn Lee Wakefield and Kiersten Ebsen

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