Thursday, 22 April 2010

Walt Disney at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth

It's the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth... Every July, the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada pauses for 14 days of revelry in remembrance of its Western heritage. In 1912, American entrepreneur Guy Weadick saw the "last best west" disappearing beneath the extension of the railway, the oncoming settlers tilling the land and the great urban centres springing up on the former bald-faced prairie. The age of the free-range cowboy was drawing to a close. So Weadick, backed by the big cattle barons of the Canadian frontier, created the Stampede as a celebration of the cowboy way of life, with a rodeo and chuckwagon races, Native American village, parade, midway carnival, agriculture shows, and plenty of alcohol. The Stampede continues to this day and is heralded as one of North America's - if not the world's - great festivals.

The Stampede also provides Calgary with a connection to Disneyana. In 1965, Walt Disney - who so often told tales of the Wild West and enshrined its romantic myth in Disneyland's Frontierland - was invited to be the honorary grand marshal of the Stampede Parade.

Walt Disney signing autographs
at the Stampede Parade.

Canada was nothing new to Walt Disney productions. Walt himself had roots in Canada, his family having arrived in the Dominion in 1830. His father and grandfather later emigrated to Kansas, where Walt was born. Walt talked warmly of those roots in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Later on, Disney productions returned to the True North Strong and Free when a crew of naturalist-photographers was sent up to the high north to film the True-Life Adventure White Wilderness in 1958. Jack Jungmeyer, staff writer for the Disney studios, wrote of the trials of filming in the Winter 1958 issue of the Canadian history magazine The Beaver:
There is nothing haphazard about making a wildlife film... details of transport, supplies, and communication must be worked out, in this case covering remote parts of northern Canada...

The subarctic Canadian wilderness is itself an essential element of the picture, for snowfield and tundra have conditioned the lives of some of the oddest animals of North America, among them living relics of ancient times. The photographers travelled by bush plane, by canoe and dog-team, camera batteries cuddled in sleeping bags. Pioneering in their own way, they followed and crossed old trails of Hudson's Bay men - a varied group of specialist with a single aim: to capture for film audiences, the pageant of this "White Wilderness."

... The search for caribou and musk-oxen led from Great Slave Lake to the Thelon River barrens, first by canoe, later by dog-team, when the quiet photographer and his silent Indian guide travelled for days with a minimum of words but with warm understanding and appreciation of each other's woodcraft... The career of the wolverine is seldom brought to light but this fierce, cunning predator... was found with the aid of Indians in northern Alberta...

Filming White Wilderness.

Walt himself fell in love with the Canadian Rockies when Alvin Gunn, then proprietor of the Rafter Six Ranch near Canmore, Alberta, convinced him to film Nikki, Wild Dog of the North there in 1960. Though Walt didn't stay at the Rafter Six, opting instead for a hotel in the nearby National Park resort town Banff, he did return again and again. A special cabin was built for him and his family at the ranch, where it stands today with distinction as the "Disney Cabin". (Calgary Herald, Aug. 20, 2006.) Elsewhere in the country, Ontario to be exact, his studio came back to film the 1963 film The Incredible Journey.

Finally in 1965, Walt was asked to be the honorary marshal of the Stampede Parade, the big kick-off event for the Stampede. He and his wife Lillian arrived in their private plane on July 4th to a 500-strong throng of fans and dignitaries. The official greetings were delayed by a surging mass of schoolkids who surrounded the couple and which the 20 dispatched constables of the Calgary Police Force were unable to keep at bay. Members of the local Nakoda, T'suu Tina and Blackfoot First Nations greeted Walt while the School Patrol Band played "Waltzing Matilda" in formation. (Calgary Herald, July 5, 1965.)

Walt meets a representative of the T'suu Tina First Nation.

A Calgary custom is to gift visitors to the city with a trademark white stetson, which then-mayor Grant MacEwan did, warning Walt: "Unless you wear one of these white hats while you're here you might be charged with indecent exposure." Getting your own cowboy hat signed by Walt became a prize of distinction, and before he could escape to the waiting 1925 Lincoln convertible, he was mobbed once again. Laughing, he was heard to say to Lillian "Oh, oh, we're in trouble." (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

Walt wasn't the only one to debut on Calgary's airfield that day. Along with him came Bertie Beaver, a new mascot developed by Disney as a "Smokey the Bear"-type character for Alberta's forests. (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

An original fire danger board featuring Bertie.

Surviving the onslaught of fans, Walt and Lillian were whisked away to a press conference with local media, where he gave his thoughts on a variety of subjects. When asked about the lack of sex in his films, he quipped "I am about the only producer that never uses sex." On the differences in his films, he said of the recently released and very successful Mary Poppins: "It has had the biggest audience I have ever reached." by contrast, he said of Alice in Wonderland: "For a while I wished I had never attempted it." He even took a moment to promote the journey into the cosmos:
As a tax payer and citizen I'm all for the American space program - I'm a slap-happy optimist and feel that out there is a mystery we've got to learn about... we've got to know.

Of his filmmaking philosophy, Walt characteristically said "I make pictures for children and about children but I don't make childish pictures." Continuing, he remarked that "I just try and make everybody happy." When responding to the question of whether or not the forthcoming Jungle Book would be another children's classic, he humbly observed that "classics are earned and not made."

Nevertheless, Walt was in the business of making movies. For every lovely and insightful comment about making everybody happy, he followed with
When planning a film you have to study the market. I cater to the family audience, and it is a situation where the parents have to enjoy the film as much as the children... Anybody can make a film if they have some filming background, but you have to pick the right thing to sell in the universal market.

Ever the impresario, he didn't miss a beat in promoting his productions. "We have six features and 25 television shows under way as well as five projects for Disneyland," Walt said. (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

His biggest promotion, however, was for the big camera rig he was bringing along with him to the Stampede. The show O Canada! in the Canada Pavillion at EPCOT's World Showcase isn't the first time that the Circle-Vision 360 format has been used to showcase the True North Strong and Free. Disney created a Circle-Vision 360 show entitled Canada 67 for the Montreal Expo 67. This half-hour show, commissioned by Canadian telephone companies, was part of the exposition's celebration of Canada's 1967 centennial.

The Circle-Vision camera at the Stampede.

Any celebration of Canadian identity cannot but include scenes from the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. The Circle-Vision camera was brought up to the rodeo, with a beaming Walt proudly adding: "This is the first time that the gigantic screen has been used in Canada." "It will be an exciting indication," he said, "of what goes on here during the Stampede." (Calgary Herald, July 6, 1965.)

That it was, and in spades. Frank Sisson, well-known Calgary business owner, recalls when one of Disney's cameramen was filming a scene during the chuckwagon races:
Each year, more than 1,200 media come to the Stampede. It can get quite interesting as they try to get a picture or a story. I remember the time a Walt Disney cameraman was in the back of a chuckwagon doing a special film when it got into a wreck. When we got to the upside down wagon, the cameraman, still strapped in, had never stopped filming despite the chaos. His comment: "What a hell of a finish!"

Walt was also the guest of honor at the evening Grandstand show. Speaking to the thousands of audience members packing the stands, he chimed that it was "a privileged experience to be here at last. The Stampede is known throughout the United States and no doubt throughout the world." When declaring the Stampede officially underway, he grinningly noted that "It's known as the best outdoor show on earth - next to Disneyland." However and wherever the Calgary Stampede places on the list of greatest outdoor shows on earth, Walt was quite taken with it. "It was everything they told me it would be," he said. "It is truly a wonderful show." (Calgary Herald, July 6, 1965.)

Walt Disney left as big an impression on the city of Calgary as the city left on him. We leave off this article with a very touching editorial that appeared in The Albertan newspaper of July 6th, 1965:
The names of those who have opened the Calgary Stampede over the decades have been as illustrious as they have been numerous. But we suspect that not one of them would raise a dissenting voice if it were said that of them all, the name of Mr. Walt Disney deserves a special niche to itself...

There will come a day, we feel sure, that when as yet unborn generations speak of the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen and the other great children's story-tellers of history, Mr. Disney's will be up there in the fore...

For not only have our young known as loved the productions that bear his name but their parents and, in some instances, their grandparents too. Who among us hasn't smiled over the antics of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs or his magnificent full-length adaptation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Peter Pan" and other animated adaptations of the classic fairy tales. Then there were his wonderous nature films... his forays into American history, such as Davy Crockett, and, last but not least, his Academy Award-winning "Mary Poppins"...

Unlike so many other productions designed for children the "Disney" name on the marquee is a guarantee that the film will engage all regardless of age, that it will have a gentle moral without being preachy and that the contents will be above reproach - in this day and age no small compliment.

By the presence of Mr. Disney and his wife, Calgary has been honored. May they return soon.

Walt never did. It should be noted, however, that his creations Mickey and Minnie Mouse picked up his mantle as parade marshals in 1983.


Russell said...

"I make pictures for children and about children but I don't make childish pictures."

Seems to sum up his view on theme parks, too.

Ken B said...

I remember seeing Walt Disney leading off the parade to open the '65 Stampede a highlight of my then-8-year-old life. My 9-year-old grandson was talking the other day (in 2012) about how great Walt Disney films are. When I told him how I'd seen Walt in person, his eyes got big... Nice to find this blog, which confirmed & enlarged on my story.

Cory Gross said...

I'm glad I could help, Ken! It involved a bit of scrawling through the newspaper microfiche and local history room of the Central Library, but it was worth it. I've never seen anybody else write about it. In fact, I didn't even KNOW about it until I saw a list of parade marshals in a book once.