Diving Into Disney Past, Present, and Future

There were many ways to approach the enormous D23 Expo 2015 this past weekend in Anaheim, California. If you wanted to see movie stars like Dwayne Johnson or Johnny Depp or have bragging rights about being the first kid on your block to preview upcoming Disney films you could join that throng. You could meet John Lasseter and the brain trust of Pixar discussing their newest projects and celebrating the 20th anniversary of Toy Story. There were panels and discussions galore, and autograph signings by artists, animators, and stars of ABC television series and Disney Channel shows.

As a participant and observer, I had a somewhat different experience. On Sunday I was privileged to host the world premiere performance of Disney in Concert: A Silly Symphony Celebration. Several thousand fans had the opportunity to enjoy classic Disney cartoons accompanied by a 32-piece orchestra. It was fun to watch the musicians synchronize their efforts to the antics of The Skeleton Dance and Three Little Pigs, but for my money the most effective selections were The Old Mill and Ugly Duckling, which focused our attention on the serene beauty of the scores (by Leigh Harline and Alfred Hay Milotte, respectively). The crowd cheered repeatedly throughout the program, and both conductor Steven Allen Fox and his talented musicians (drawn from the cream of Los Angeles’ players) were delighted by the response.

Leonard Maltin with Jimmy Dodd's original guitar

That’s me holding Jimmie Dodd’s original Mousegetar—still in amazingly good shape after all these years. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Disney buffs got a particular kick out of seeing some of the original hand-made percussion pieces crafted by Walt Disney’s longtime sound effects genius Jimmy Macdonald, still working after eighty years. (I’m told that Disney will be making this program available for orchestras, including an abbreviated version designed for school assemblies.) It’s a tribute to Jonathan Heely, Executive Director of Disney Music Group, and Musical Director Alex Rannie, who prepared the score reconstructions, script and visual supervision, that this event came off as well as it did. I had fun providing the connective thread between each short.

Leonard and the original Mousketeers

Me and the original Mouseketeers. (© Disney. All rights reserved.)

Then, as the convention wound down on Sunday, I had the chance to participate in the 60th anniversary celebration of The Mickey Mouse Club with many of the original Mouseketeers. It’s difficult for me to explain why I get so choked up when I encounter these wonderful people. Like millions of other kids, I watched The Mickey Mouse Club every day, and the young, talented Mouseketeers were a big part of my life. I guess my generation regarded them more as friends than as television personalities.

That’s why I’m never blasé about spending time with Sharon Baird, Bobby Burgess, Sherry Alberoni, Cubby O’Brien, Darlene Gillespie, Doreen Tracey, Tommy Cole, and “Spin and Marty,” Tim Considine and David Stollery. Their unofficial den mother, Lorraine Santoli (author of The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book), led a warm round of reminiscences, punctuated by film clips and even a few live performances by these still-engaging performers.

Mousecar award

© Disney. All rights reserved

At the end of the program, Becky Cline, Director of the Walt Disney Archives, asked me to help her officiate in a surprise ceremony. Decades ago, Walt Disney designed an award he called the Mousecar—after the Oscar—that he presented, without fanfare or publicity, to colleagues and employees he felt were especially deserving. When he died in 1966, a number of unengraved Mousecars went into storage—until now. When Becky discovered these original pieces, in pristine condition, she realized that this was a unique way to honor the Mouseketeers with something that came directly from the man who made them Mouseketeers so many years ago. These are not reproductions or recastings, but the original Mousecars. Five other original Mouseketeers took the stage to receive this singular recognition: Judy Harriet, Billie Jean Beanblossom, Paul Petersen, Mary Espinosa and Nancy Abbate. An additional one was presented to the Annette Funicello Foundation for Neurological Research, and others will go to the families of the late and much-missed Cheryl Holdridge and Don Grady.

As if that weren’t enough, the ebullient Bobby Burgess led his cohorts in song to make me an honorary Mouseketeer, complete with my own set of ears.

It was quite a weekend, and I only scratched the surface. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the products and merchandise that caught my eye on the exhibition floor.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024