Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Symposium on Popular Songs - December 19, 1962

Symposium on Popular Songs sits in a relatively unvisited corner of Disney animation history. Rarely seen since its release on this date in 1962, it was finally made available last year on the Walt Disney Treasures Disney Rarities DVD set. It’s interesting for a number of reasons and, and it has some especially notable names in its credits.

Disney’s marketing department released this short article as a part of promotional material sent out to theaters:

With $3.88 worth of groceries, a pipe cleaner, a spool of yarn, a box of toothpicks, 500 sheets of colored paper and their whimsical imaginations, Walt Disney artists Bill Justice and X. Atencio created a symposium of comical characters that make "A Symposium on Popular Songs" one of Disney's funniest featurettes.

The star of the Technicolor production, however, is that expert on everything, the man who invented jazz, Professor Ludwig von Drake. Making his motion picture debut, the Professor introduces a brand new cast of "animoted" stars—made of movable paper cutouts—to trace the history of popular music from ragtime to the twist. Whenever possible, "Pops" von Drake steals the spotlight by singing one of the tuneful melodies composed by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.

Ludwig's modest home is vaguely reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. He greets his guests at his massive double doors and leads them into the parlor. He explains how, when he was a starving musician at the turn of the century, he was in rags. So he invented ragtime. As the Professor sings and plays "The Rutabaga Rag," a group of "animated" oranges, apples, rutabagas, string beans, and other vegetables and fruits dance the ragtime.

Since ragtime was soon worn to shreds, the Professor decided to write a new song about the roaring twenties. He introduces Betty Boopie Doop to sing "Charleston Charlie," and a group of flapper era characters to do the Charleston.

Ludwig's next great song hit came after he had lost all his money in the depression. To cheer everyone he wrote, "Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby, I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile." To sing it, the Professor introduces Rah, Rah Rudy and his Megaphone Boys.

During the late 1930's and early 1940's, a new type of singer called "crooners" captured the imaginations of the American public. Ludwig brings on Fosby Crooner to sing his love ballad, "I'm Blue For You, Boo-Bo-Bo-Bo-Boo." Fosby makes it easy for the audience to join in by bouncing from word to word as he sings.

While everyone was cutting "Boo-Boo" records, Ludwig was cutting out paper dolls. By "shear" accident, he cut out three talented look-alikes called the Sister Sisters. The girls introduce the Professor's new boogie woogie rhythm with "The Boogie Woogie Bakery Man." During the 1950's, the beat that put American youth back on its feet was Bop. To sing his new bop hit, "Puppy Love is Here to Stay," Ludwig introduces Freddie Babalon and his Babalpnians.

In his Hi-Fi studio—"Dot means Hi-Finance," says the Professor— von Drake brings his "Symposium on Popular Songs" to a swinging climax by singing and twisting to his latest hit, "Rock, Rumble and Roar."

In color by Technicolor, Walt Disney's cartoon featurette, "A Symposium on Popular Songs," was written and styled by Xavier Atencio, directed by Bill Justice, with words and music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and arranged and conducted by Tutti Camarata. Animation was by Eric Larson, Cliff Nordberg, Art Stevens, Ward Kimball, Les Clark and Julius Svendsen. Buena Vista releases.

Justice and Atencio previously employed the studio-dubbed “Animotion” stop motion animation process on the 1959 release Noah’s Ark, and in a number of opening title sequences of live action features, most notably The Parent Trap in 1961. Both Noah’s Ark and Symposium earned Oscar nominations. The results of the process in Symposium are both clever and creative, but can be a shock to those expecting traditional hand-drawn, cel-produced Disney animation.

The music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers are a lot of fun, but sadly have been largely forgotten, even by the Disney company itself. I’ve only come across one song, “Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby, I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile,” on a CD compilation. Surprisingly, The Sherman Brothers CD that the company released back in 1992, did not include any of the seven numbers from Symposium.

The highlight of Symposium on Popular Songs for me personally is Ludwig Von Drake, as performed by Paul Frees. Von Drake is one of the most underrated of all Disney characters. He is nothing short of hilarious in all of his appearances, of which Symposium is no exception. An especially great example of Frees’ voice and comedic talent with Von Drake is the vintage 1961 vinyl LP Professor Ludwig Von Drake, which has been recently made available for download on iTunes.

Likely one of the reasons Symposium remained locked away, especially in recent years, was a fairly extreme caricature of a Chinese character in the Boogie Woogie Bakery Man sequence. Thankfully, Disney has moved away from the soccer-mom focus group method of marketing its classic animation, and now allows viewers to evaluate these films, and their occasional controversial elements, for themselves.


Hans Perk said...

A great record called "Tinpanorama", with all the Sherman Brothers' songs for this show and some extra they wrote especially for this record came out in 1965 on Buena Vista Records BV-3330, then was reissued recently on the Wonderland music system in Disneyland, where they burned a CD mastered from the original source for you while you waited. This system has sadly been discontinued around a month ago.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for the info Hans! I had heard the title "Tinpanorama" before but never knew the connection to Symposium. I hate it when I miss stuff like that!

The Wonderland titles have started migrating over to iTunes. Tinpanorama wasn't among the first wave, but more are supposed to arrive in January according to producer Randy Thornton.

According to Randy--"It is our plan to release every master that we still have rights to and that still exist!"

DaVon Walker said...

I ordered my copy of Walt Disney Treasures Disney Rarities Celebrated Shorts:1920s-1960s DVD set from a Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago for this short being one of my favorites featured on it mainly. I think it's one of the best shorts (if not The Best) that Disney ever made and I'm so glad that it wasn't among those that didn't make the cut and get dropped. You're right, it is still an interesting short more than 40 years later even though this was before my time, I enjoyed every minute of it. Naturally, this suits me being that I'm such a good music lover and fan of music history. Especially after having been exposed to past sub-genres of music as through this cartoon for instance, I've really become more open-minded to most musical sub-genres. Like I never thought I'd actually get into any kind of rock full-time for example, but I finally did eventually by my mid-teens. Symposium is among my Disney favorites due to the interesting songs used and performed in it that all just grabbed me. Another reason I love this short so much is because we get to see the Sherman brothers work their magic by branching into other genres and sub-genres rather than just the usual songs they write for film companies like Disney and the Charlie Brown cartoons. Who knows for sure just how far the could've gone if they actually wrote tunes for various kinds of recording artists/bands. They're among the best songwriting duos ever. I was first introduced to this short years ago, when I was in elementary school, via volume 5 of the Disney Sing-Along Songs video: Fun With Music. The musical number featured on it from Symposium was I'm Blue For You (Boo Boo Boo Boo Boo). I saw the whole thing at last on Youtube a few months ago. I forgot all about where I first saw that short's title until coming across and seeing that musical segment again. And then that's when the memories just came flooding back. I didn't find any of the tunes grating at all, I have no idea what's wrong with the critic who commented on them at his blog I read nor what he's talking about at all. Neither the reviewer at IMDB who claimed that Ludwig in here is like fingernails on a chalkboard. There are no flaws to me, it's just absolutely perfect. I'm sorry, but I feel the need to defend this short and can't stand when someone disses something that doesn't deserve to be dissed. Anyway, I'm thankful for this short and to the Sherman brothers for composing such great material, and bringing us such great joy with them over the years. The DVD will do, but I wish I'd obtain a copy of the CD mentioned in this blog/recap and learned about it sooner, because I'd love to own it.