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Rhett Wickham: The Treasured Pleasure of One Good Book...
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Typically at this time of year I find myself making a list of good Disney related summer reading, and, typically, there's plenty of books making their debut that are worth tossing into the beach bag and adding to a long summer to-do list. This year, whether by accident or design, combing the stalls and leafing through page after page of boulevard fare there was very little over which to get excited, resulting in what looked to be a long, hot, boring summer. Until, along came one book that proved this June, July and August could be very fun, indeed, provided you're willing to expend a little pocket change and make the extra effort .
The trick with Tim Hollis and Greg Ehrbar's Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records is that if it's read properly, it could take a good deal longer than the Summer of 2006 to make your way through it. It's not that this is some dense polemic on the music business atthe House of Mouse, it's not. But it is an outstandingly well researched, exceptionally well organized, and very capably written history that is informative, fascinating, a touch titillating and an excellent field guide for the yard-sale addicted among us (read Tag Sale for your New Englanders, or Jumble Sale for those of you on the other side of "the pond.â€?) From the very first chapter, Mouse Tracks begs to be supplemented by a bag of chips and a cold glass of lemonade while curled up on your beach blanket. The trick to having real fun with this compelling story of one of the Disney company's least appreciated and most influential divisions is to stay the temptation to rush from chapter to chapter and to make the book last by putting down your drink and going in search of a much better reading companion - a record player.
Fortunately, pack rat that I am, I had a large stack of old Disneyland Records gathering dust in a box and begging to be taken out for a spin. So on my own journey through the book I managed to actually hear what I was reading about, and such a pleasure it was that I can only insist that you find a way to do the same.
Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records is the tale of a late-comer to the diversified ventures of Walt and Roy. It's also the story of a small crew of very dedicated and very smart folks, particularly Jimmy Johnson and Tutti Camarrata. As the book relates, Johnson began his career in 1938, as a publicist, and like so many talented folks at Disney he climbed the ranks in the ensuing decades - peppered with a willingness to move from division to division just to stay employed at Disney - and by 1950 was a very business savvy executive in charge of the publishing division newly split away from merchandising. So, when Roy tapped him to head music publishing in 1953, Johnson turned things around to show a profit for the division for the first time. Salvador "Tuttiâ€? Camarata was the division's first artists and repertoire director; a Julliard School graduate who had been a music arranger for some the greatest big bands of the 1940's. It was Camarata's astounding ability to hear between the dialogue of a film soundtrack and extract marketable music in addition to the obvious potential hit-tunes, combined with a distinctive approach to pulling music in a myriad of directions to extend its life from pop to jazz to swing to rock that made him, as the authors so wisely state "the person most responsible for the distinctive sound of Disneyland Records.â€? What these men accomplished is nothing short of a miracle, and an absolutely fascinating look at the real workings of corporate Disney before Eisner. In fact, Mouse Tracks may be the best text book for understanding how Walt and Roy, particularly Roy, approached the practical side of extending the Disney brand so successfully. Long before the now (thankfully) defunct Synergy Group, the Disney brothers understood something critical about the power of their family name and family business - its value across a broad commercial spectrum and how, if properly used, it could bolster rather than dilute the public perception of Disney as a quality product. If only this book had been written two decades ago! Nevertheless, Hollis and Ehrbar have very carefully and very cleverly mapped out this history without too much editorial, as the parade of talented and sometimes gifted names who participated and contributed to Walt Disney Records would fill Radio City Music Hall to capacity. The greatest pleasure of the book is how it compliments its historical narrative with spotlight biographies on key participants. More than 40 individuals are singled out along the way, including some of the most unlikely and previously forgotten contributors to the tale of Disney's long and lustrous recording history - at tale that anywhere else would be the story of a company all its own, but is made ten times more fascinating for how integrally woven it was into the larger fabric of the Walt Disney Company.
Where WED and the development of the parks, or the expansion into television, are obvious and somewhat well-known tales for how they drew from the company's core business of animated films, Walt Disney Records pulls from as many places within the company, and from without, with recognizable talent and window-adorning executive names crossing paths with familiar faces and voices from outside of Disney so many times and in so many ways that it's nothing short of a minor miracle that Hollis and Ehrbar were able to untangle it into such an entertaining and interesting read. Take for instance the fact that the book's cover (lest it be judged) is lifted from a direct mail advertising flyer for the Magic Mirror line of records. This illustration of a model family - Mom, Dad and two-and-a-half kids (little Billy's back is to us, so he only counts 50%) - pulling records off the shelf and taking them out for a spin together, was originally drawn by George Peed, an artist who began work in the 1940's on classic films such as Fantasia. Peed, we learn, served in the war, went on to work as a freelance artist in New York, designed the characters for the Hanna-Barbera Herculoids series, and it turns out was the brother of the legendary Disney story man Bill Peet (although the conflicting T and D are never explained.) That's just a kernel of the kind of geeky touchstones that are tucked between the pages of Mouse Tracks, proving that University Press of Mississippi, the book's publisher, went the extra mile to get behind something that has suddenly and sadly gone missing from Hyperion Press this year - a book with some real meat and reading material greater than coffee-table content. While the books lacks the luster of color - it is nonetheless well illustrated with candid shots and album covers that are a mix of the previously undiscovered and the oddly familiar and frequently nostalgic.