Walt Disney World Chronicles: Remembering Walt Disney Entertainment

by
Jim Korkis

Feature Article
This article appeared in the September 1, 2020 (#1100) edition of ALL EARS®

Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Statler & Waldorf in MuppetVision 3-D
Statler & Waldorf heckling during MuppetVision 3-D

When people ask what I missed most when Walt Disney World was closed, near the top of my list was entertainment. As a former performer being a friend of Merlin in the Magic Kingdom as well as a theater arts teacher for many years, I am very appreciative of the high level and variety of entertainment that Disney produces seemingly effortlessly and for free.

Over the years, I have been a huge fan of some long running Disney theme park productions including the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland and Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure at Disney’s MGM Studios.

The thirty-minute Hunchback show premiered at the Backlot Theater in 1996 to tie-in with the release of the movie and was considered by many to be even more successful than the animated feature film that inspired it. It ran until 2002.

Storyteller Clopin and his troupe of Gypsy performers bring the story to life including using amazing puppetry incorporated by Show Director Fran Soeder who was a huge advocate for the use of puppets at WDW including in other shows he directed like The Legend of the Lion King and Voyage of the Little Mermaid. A runway that extended forty feet into the audience helped make the show feel more intimate and involving.

Unfortunately, WDW has not always fully appreciated the true value of its entertainment and how guests fell in love with certain offerings like the Adventurers Club performers.

In September 2019, Animal Kingdom’s Burudika band in Africa (the only Afropop band of their type in Florida and one of the best known in the nation), the Muppets show in Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom’s Royal Majesty Makers, and the Coco puppet and Folklórico dancers in Epcot were all completely cut.

Entertainment is quite easy to eliminate because of the limited contracts that usually just run about three months and have to be constantly renewed for another three months. Until 2014, the World Showcase Players, an improvisation group of performers, entertained guests in the United Kingdom and Italy pavilions often by pulling in guests to participate in their twenty minute storytelling of “Arthur’s Quest for the Holy Grail” and “Romeo and Edna”.

That same year, Epcot eliminated other popular entertainment acts including Off Kilter, the rock band in the Canada pavilion; Mo’Rockin’, a musical ensemble in Morocco and The Spirit of America Fife & Drum Corps that marched in front of the American Adventure attraction.

The Walt Disney Company is a business and for the show to go on the business has to be financially healthy which is one reason many of these cuts take place. However, I would like to fondly remember two of WDW shows that though long gone always made me smile.

The Golden Horseshoe Revue was a popular musical entertainment attraction and food and beverage location in Frontierland at Disneyland that premiered opening day in 1955. The music for the show including Hello, Everybody! was written by Charles LaVere, who served as the show’s original pianist, and had lyrics by Tom Adair. The script for the production was co-authored by two of its stars, Wally Boag and Donald Novis.

A duplicate of the show called the Diamond Horseshoe Revue directed by Boag opened in Frontierland at Walt Disney World on opening day in 1971. The park brochure described it as “A rollicking stage show right out of the Old West featuring a cast of dancing girls, comedians and singers including Slue Foot Sue herself.”

It ran until October 1, 1986 when it became the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree with Sam the bartender and his three cowboys and Miss Lilly and her three dancers that ran until 1995.

Several other shows and food service options occupied the location including the The Diamond Horseshoe Saloon Revue and Medicine Show with Dr. Bill Ya Later and Calamity Kate and that show was replaced in 2003 by Goofy’s Country Dancin’ Jamboree. Finally, it became a character meet-and-greet location and then a seasonal restaurant.

The interior of the traditional circa 1860 saloon featured a raised stage for the performers and for the original show a small three-piece band on the floor in front of it. There were round tables and wooden chairs on the main floor for guests with seating also available in a horseshoe-shaped balcony area.

While the show was free, because of limited seating of less than a thousand guests a day even with multiple shows, tickets had to be obtained early in the morning at the hospitality desk located in Main Street’s Town Square.

Guests could purchase soft drinks, cold sandwiches, and chips. The income from the food service rarely covered the cost of the labor, much less the performers which was one of the reasons for the original show closing. It lasted as long as it did because it was a favorite show of Dick Nunis who ran the parks. The show was sponsored by Del Monte from 1979 -1984.

Other than being larger physically, the only major change in the Diamond Horseshoe was that the bar was located on the left side of the room rather than the right as in Disneyland. When Boag returned to California late in 1973, he was replaced in his performing roles by Bert Henry who had been replacing him at Disneyland.

The roughly hour-long show always played to full audiences. Owner Slue Foot Sue and her four dancing girls welcomed the audience in song. She later introduced the emcee and Irish tenor who sang a song. A comedic traveling salesman did a comedy routine that included making balloon animals.

Sue and the emcee sang the song Pecos Bill from the Disney animated featurette and were interrupted by the re-appearance of the traveling salesman now attired as the iconic cowboy of folklore.

One of the memorable moments was Pecos Bill being accidentally hit in the face and spitting out his “teeth” (pale-colored beans) at the audience. The finale featured Sue’s girls doing a can-can dance and the entire company in a final song.

On August 1986, Dennis Despie, vice president of entertainment for Disneyland and Walt Disney World said about the show closing, “We all recognize the revue at the Golden Horseshoe and Diamond Horseshoe Saloon as one of the most enduring shows in the history of the park. At the same time, we feel we should now develop a new generation of shows.”

While some of you miss the recent closing of the two shows of The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History from 2016 to 2019 where they mangled American history which I thought were very well done, I am old enough to remember the first WDW Muppet show.

Here Come the Muppets ran from 1990 to 1991 at Disney’s MGM Studios.

In the late 1980s, legendary puppeteer Jim Henson had tired of having so much of his time devoted to business matters. He was in final negotiations with The Walt Disney Company to sell the rights to his famous Muppet characters and become a creative consultant just before his untimely death. In fact, he was actively involved in several projects from television shows to theme park attractions.

While work was still proceeding on the major Muppet*Vision 3-D attraction, to help introduce the characters into the park the fifteen minute stage show Here Come the Muppets was quickly opened in May 1990 in the theater in the Animation Courtyard that now houses The Voyage of the Little Mermaid.

To save time and money, the characters were portrayed by full-sized costumed performers with moving mouths rather than puppets except for two video inserts during the production.

The pre-show featured a video of the dog Rowlf playing the piano and being interrupted by Sam the Eagle.

Kermit is onstage and concerned because the other Muppets are late for the show. He receives a call on a videophone from Mickey Mouse who is checking in to see how things are going and Kermit lies that everything is fine. The scene with Mickey features the same set and animation as the Mickey scene in The Muppets at Walt Disney World television special from May 1990 but with different dialog.

Kermit calls the WDW picture phone operator who turns out to be actress Lily Tomlin doing her Ernestine character from Laugh-In. He asks to be connected with Miss Piggy who is relaxing in a robe with mud on her face. Informed that she is on a videophone, she instantly gets ready.

Kermit phones Fozzie Bear who claims to be lost but Kermit directs him to a green door behind him and it leads him to the stage.

Fozzie tells Kermit that Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band will be arriving soon by monorail and the front of a WDW monorail crashes through on stage right and the characters disembark. That same mechanism was later used for Ariel sitting on a rock in The Voyage of The Little Mermaid.

The show now starts with the Muppets performing the songs: Make ‘Em Laugh (Kermit/Fozzie), Personality (Miss Piggy), Bein’ Green (Kermit), The Heart of Rock & Roll and Shout!

The prerecorded voice track for the show used all the main Muppeteers: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson and Steve Whitmire. That video insert footage of Fozzie and Miss Piggy was later reused in the PBS series Great Performances episode entitled The World of Jim Henson in 1994.

The standees of The Electric Mayhem that had been in the queue leading into the show resurfaced sometime in 2012 and were installed in the Stage 1 Company Store that sold Muppet merchandise.

Two weeks after the show closed on September 2, 1991, another show using full sized Muppet costumed characters premiered on a loading dock stage near the exit of Muppet*Vision 3-D entitled Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses. The premise was that the Muppets were shooting a movie but take a break to interact with the audience by signing autographs and posing for photos. The show closed in 1994.

That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of memorable entertainment that appeared at WDW during the last five decades. What were some of the performers and shows that made a difference to your visit to the Florida vacation destination?