A few years back I woke up in the middle of the night to the Roy Del Ruth musical already in progress. I thought I was dreaming when I saw fresh-faced Buddy Ebsen singing and dancing while wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and looking straight out of a Glee version of The Mickey Mouse Club!
It wasn't the first time I recalled seeing Mickey Mouse merchandise make a cameo in a movie long before he and the gang were ever on TV or an E-ticket was ever sold at Disneyland — but it is definitely one of the earliest appearances I ever seen. Which made me curious as to why Buddy was wearing it in the first place. After all, this was nearly twenty years before he became Fess Parker's sidekick in Disney's Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
I caught the "Sing Before Breakfast" scene again the other night, and was reminded to research the significance of the sweatshirt, if any. Turns out, apparently, that Walt Disney chose Buddy for his unusual style of dancing as a model to help aid animators drawing Mickey Mouse's dance moves in the Silly Symphonies short films! Maybe sportin' the sweatshirt in Broadway Melody of 1936 had been an inside joke and a nod of thanks to Walt!
And there I had it — a cute little anecdote that would make for a fun blog post! Until on a hunch, I decided to dig deeper into finding out about the photographs of Walt Disney and Buddy Ebsen that I posted here. The story behind them that I was reading online from a former animator wasn't matching up in any sense. Thankfully, Marissa has a treasure trove of Disney history books — and within minutes, I discredited what I read earlier — and found a much more exciting and much more important contribution by Buddy to the magical world of Disney than I could've imagined!
In the 1940s, amid the success of his animated movies, Walt's next ambition was to bring three-dimensional characters to life in the form of Audio-Animatronics. And he knew just the guy he wanted along in making the Dancing Man lead the way. As Buddy Ebsen explains:
"After I got out of the service, I needed a job. Out of the blue I got a call from Walt Disney, who invited me to his studio for lunch. He took me to a small workroom, where some folks were fiddling around with a little wooden man that had wires coming out of his bottom and was connected to a wheel with cams on it. As the wheel turned, the little man’s arms and legs moved.
Walt looked at me and said, “I want you to do a corny soft-shoe dance for us, which we’re going to photograph.” So while they photographed me dancing they rigged cams and wires in such a way that the little man moved as I moved. Meanwhile, Walt was off to the side showing me how he wanted me to move by doing little steps and telling me to repeat the steps. This became the beginning of Audio-Animatronics." (Greene, & Greene 2001).
Two decades later the Audio-Animatronic of President Abraham Lincoln appeared at the 1964 World's Fair. Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln has been a beloved attraction on Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A. for the past forty-eight years.
I didn't know much about Buddy Ebsen before all this — except for his reputation. He was a long-time resident in my old neighborhood of Newport Beach (which happens to be a quick drive straight up Harbor Boulevard to Disneyland) and I often heard the old-timers talk about how Buddy had been a familiar, friendly face around town. In fact, Buddy was living in Newport Beach when Walt Disney passed away and he shared his recollection of that day:
"I was driving to work from my home in Newport Beach and the radio was going. And they announced Walt's passing. Then they cut-in Julie London's voice and she sang the Mickey Mouse Club song. She did it so tenderly and with great sympathy. 'M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.' I had to pull off the road because my tears were blinding my ability to drive." (Greene, & Greene, 2001).
Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, my curiosity over a wardrobe choice made seventy-eight years ago caused me to uncover the amazing connection to a man who created a place on Earth and in our hearts that has forever changed my family's life.