Jim Hill: From the Archives
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Over the next few weeks LaughingPlace.com will publish many of Jim Hill's older columns done for another website in these "Jim Hill: From the Archives" columns. Today's edition was originally publised in April 2000.
The Greatest Performances You Never Got to Hear
Part One: Who's in "Pooh" and Satchmo's a no-show
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When most people talk about the artistry of Disney animation, they're usually talking about the drawing end of the process. Me personally? I think it's just as important to acknowledge the vocal talent behind many of our favorite characters.
I mean, can you picture anyone other than Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna doing the voices of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare? As wonderful as Ward Kimball's animation of the Mad Tea Party scene in Disney's Alice in Wonderland may be, it's the voices that really make this scene work for me. Just thinking of Wynn lisping "Musthard?! Leth's not Sthilly" is still enough to make me smile.
And who could picture Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty or Lady Tremaine from Cinderella without hearing Eleanor Audley's regally menacing tones? Or that same film's fairy godmother without Verna Felton's sweet, slightly absent-minded vocals? ( It's kind of amazing for me to think Felton -- who did such a fine job with this grandmotherly type -- is the same person who later voiced the wildly comic but still genuinely frightening Queen in Alice in Wonderland. The two characters couldn't have been more different. But Felton, being the pro that she was, pulled them off without a hitch.)
And who could have imagined Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree without Sterling Holloway's wonderfully whimsical performance as Edward Bear?
Walt Disney could.
The Winnie the Pooh series
It's true, folks. Strange as it may seem, Sterling Holloway, veteran vocalist on dozens of Disney animated projects, was not Walt Disney's first choice to play the voice of Winnie the Pooh. Walt had someone else that he would have preferred to have played Edward Bear - 1960s TV comic George Gobel.
Many readers may be too young to remember old Lonesome George. A big favorite of TV talkmeisters Jack Parr and Johnny Carson, Gobel was a gentle sort of comic. He told these whimsically rambling stories that didn't really have punch lines, but still had the audience in stitches.
Walt was right, of course. George Gobel would have made a wonderful Winnie the Pooh. But, when Disney offered Gobel the role, he turned it down. Mind you, it wasn't because the money. Gobel just didn't get the point of Pooh.
After being offered the part, George read all the A.A. Milne books that featured Winnie and found the bear an awful bore. It seems strange that a comic whose whole career was built on spinning whimsical stories couldn't see the obvious charm of Winnie the Pooh. But it all flew right by George.
So Gobel called Walt and, after thanking him for the opportunity, politely passed on the "Pooh" project. Disney was obviously disappointed. He had hoped that if he had a big-time TV talent like Gobel on board that he could justify to Roy his idea of turning the Winnie the Pooh books into a full length animated feature for the studio.
But with no celebrity on board the "Pooh" project became a lower priority at Disney studios. Walt didn't think that the Milne stories were strong enough to support a feature all on their own (Disney was still smarting from the less-than-enthusiastic reception for the company's last animated feature, The Sword in the Stone. " Walt blamed most of the film's failure on its source material - T.H. White's fanciful novel about the origin of King Arthur. "This whimsical English stuff just doesn't appeal to American audiences," Disney was supposed to have grumbled at the time). But rather than walk away from two years of development on the project, Disney opted to do a single short based on Milne's books.
So Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, with Walt's second choice, Sterling Holloway voicing Edward Bear, hit theaters in February 1966 ... and just kept going and going. At last count, Disney has used Milne's whimsical characters as the basis for four theatrical shorts, two TV series, two direct-to-home videos, two theme park attractions and God knows how many stuffed toys - 34 years worth of product. And that bear's bigger today than he ever was. According to some reports sales of Winnie the Pooh items accounted for more than half the merchandise sold last year at the Disney Stores.
Kind of makes you feel bad for old Lonesome George, doesn't it? Missing out on his chance to ride along on the Winnie the Pooh express.
Well, don't feel bad for Gobel. After all, George himself decided that he didn't want to take part in Walt's "Pooh" project. He deliberately chose not to be part of that success. If you must feel bad for someone who should be associated with the Winnie the Pooh films but isn't, feel bad for Walt Disney's favorite vaudevillian, Wally Boag. Boag was the one Walt originally wanted to do the voice of Tigger ... but professional jealousy and tragic circumstances robbed Wally of his chance to play this bouncy, trouncy striped tiger on the big screen.
You see, Boag, best known for his decades of zany performances as the traveling salesman at Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe, was probably Walt's favorite performer. Every time he'd bring a guest out to Anaheim to tour Disneyland, Walt would insist on bringing that person by Frontierland to watch Wally work. Seated in his private box right next to the stage, Disney would start laughing the second Boag hit the stage. No matter how many times he'd seen Wally bend balloon animals or spit out fake teeth Walt would still roar at each and every one of those hoary old gags.
And, since he was Walt's favorite performer, Disney insisted that Boag be a part of Disneyland's biggest projects. So Wally was asked to create the script for what would have been Disneyland's first audio animatronic attraction: The "Grandfather Chung" show. This after-dinner entertainment was to have been presented at a Chinese restaurant which Walt once considered building as part of a Chinatown expansion of Main Street USA.
But Disney tabled the "Grandfather Chung" show in favor of another restaurant-based entertainment: "The Enchanted Tiki Room." This audio-animatronic show,- also scripted by Boag, was originally intended to be a sit-down dinner attraction featuring talking tikis and cocky cockatiels. Walt eventually chucked the dinner-time entertainment idea but kept Wally's pun-filled script for the bird show.