Saturday Matinee #88: "Disneyland Showtime" (March 22, 1970) - published September 8, 2012
by Albert Gutierrez
Disneyland is currently 2,726 miles away from me. It seems even longer written out: two thousand, seven hundred, and twenty-six miles. Driving non-stop on I-40 would take me forty-four hours. Flying out tomorrow according to online sources gives me several options, the longest being a fifteen hour flight with two stops, and the shortest an eight hour flight with one stop. It would be so much easier to just live in Disneyland, but then taking trips to Walt Disney World (and by extension, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, etc.) would take much longer. Since I much prefer going to Walt Disney World than any other Disney park, I'll have to save Disneyland trips for special occasions that warrant the 2,700 miles. In the meantime, I can always settle for the next best thing and watch old "Disneyland" episodes set in the park, or even 1990's "Disney Sing-Along Song: Disneyland Fun," which I traditionally watch the night before starting any Disney trip. However, my favorite depiction of a Disney theme park came twenty years earlier, in 1970's "Disneyland Showtime." It's the Disneyland I enjoy visiting most. After all, what could be more fun than following Kurt Russell, the Osmond Brothers, and E.J. Peaker for a madcap adventure throughout the happiest place on earth?
Kurt Russell meets up with Disney tour guide Emily, who brings them over to the Osmond Brothers - Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, and Donny. They plan on taking a tour through Disneyland, when they meet up with E.J. Peaker, who left home after lunch to drive her car in the Love Bug Parade - which happened to be last year. "Guess I should have left right after breakfast," she muses. E.J. decides to join them on their day in the park, and they board a double-decker bus for a ride down Main Street. However, Mr. Gridley (played by Peter Bruni) needs to time them for their performance numbers, and asks them to sing "Down on the Corner." The Osmonds oblige, and offer their cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song as the bus makes its way down Main Street.
As they depart from the bus, young Donny decides to follow Br'er Bear, separating him from the rest of the group. Jay runs off, believing Donny went to ride the Haunted Mansion. The others decide to split up as well to search for the two missing brothers, eventually joining the Disneyland Band and various characters during a parade set to a medley of "It's a Small World" and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." Played against the medley are shots of various guests throughout the park, sitting, taking pictures, eating, and even sleeping. Jay eventually catches up with Donny, who's been dancing with Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox, and they follow the Three Little Pigs throughout the park. While Kurt, Merrill, and Wayne examine a map in the Swiss Family Treehouse, they fail to notice Donny and Jay abandoning the Pigs and following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The elder Osmonds soon start asking characters if they've seen Donny and Jay, with no results. Chip 'n' Dale intentionally misdirect one of them, while Big Bad Wolf pretends he's who E.J. is looking for: "a very attractive man with deep, deep blue eyes, a heavenly smile, and flashing white teeth." Meanwhile, Kurt passes by the Indian Village, where he is stopped by a little boy who wants to know when the Fire Dance will be. He adjusts the clock so the performance can start now, rather than in fifteen minutes, allowing the boy to see the show his mother promised. Later, Mr. Gridley comes across the same clock, and turns it back fifteen minutes, leading to the show starting again.
Over on the Mark Twain river boat, Alan, Wayne, Merrill, and E.J. continue the search for Jay and Donny, when Mr. Gridley calls out to E.J. She needs to rehearse for tonight's show. Unable to hear him over the river boat's bell and steam whistle, they believe that Mr. Gridley wants her to rehearse now. The boys follow E.J. throughout the river boat as she sings "Walking Happy" (from the 1966 musical of the same name). In their attempt to find the Haunted Mansion, Donny and Jay stop to enjoy the Dapper Dans' rendition of "Goodbye, My Coney Island Gal," before walking off. They fail to hear Kurt calling to them from the WEDway Peoplemover. Soon, the Kids of the Kingdom emerge from the Tomorrowland Terrace to perform "This Land Is Your Land," first on the stage, and then throughout the park. Donny and Jay join them towards the end, unaware that Kurt has continued to call out to them.
By early evening, the show is ready to begin. Kurt starts the show with The Sound Castle, as they sing The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar." Mr. Gridley is still searching for Donny and Jay, who call out to him from the Skyway. He runs over to the Tomorrowland station, hoping to get them to reverse the buckets. The cast member explains those controls are at the Fantasyland station, but they have a flare gun for emergencies. Mr. Gridley shoots the gun, which instead cue the fireworks to begin. Back on stage, E.J. sings "It Must Be Him" (an English version of "Seul Sur Son �toile"). Donny and Jay get back in time to change, and the five Osmond brothers take to the stage, performing "Golden Rainbow" (from 1968's musical of the same name) and "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" (from 1967's Hair) With the show a conclusive success, the gang decide to finally go on Haunted Mansion.
While they change back into their regular clothes, Kurt Russell addresses the viewers at home, as he narrates a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the Haunted Mansion. He concludes just as the group make their way to the entrance of the attraction. They enter the doorless chamber, followed by the thundering hallway, before climbing into their doom buggies. Donny, being the bravest, elects to accompany E.J. on the ride. The other Osmonds, Kurt, and Mr. Gridley pair up and follow suit. They pass through various areas of the attraction, with appropriate screams and laughter throughout. Upon exiting, Donny declares he wants to go again, and sneaks away once more. By the time the group realize he's gone again, the camera pulls back, and we see various ghosts floating towards the Haunted Mansion.
"Disneyland Showtime" aired on "The Wonderful World of Disney" on March 22, 1970, at 7:30pm on NBC. It was a Top Ten program that season, so I have little doubt that its competition didn't stand a chance. Checking old television schedules, "Disneyland Showtime" was airing against the second half of "Land of the Giants" and the first half of "The F.B.I." on ABC, with CBS offered the John Forsythe sitcom "To Rome with Love" and the first half of "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The episode's premise seems fairly promotional and cornball, both then and now. That's to be expected, given that Disney had made their name in family entertainment. Here, we get a safe and tame program in which clean-cut and wholesome kids enjoy their day in Disneyland. Peppered in are pop songs, contemporary Broadway showtunes, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The show doesn't try to be anything more than a fun romp in the park, which makes it easy and enjoyable viewing for most Disney fans. There's no need for a deeply complex plot when "Looking for Donny" will suffice. After all, the real star of this special is Disneyland itself. It becomes especially obvious when Russell is narrating the behind-the-scenes look at The Haunted Mansion. For audiences of 1970, this gives them a great look inside the then-new attraction, making them all the more excited to take a trip to Anaheim. For audiences today, the program serves as a loving snapshot of Disneyland 1970, especially since we get to see now-extinct areas like Indian Village, the original Swiss Family Treehouse, Skyway, and WEDway Peoplemover.
Particularly engaging are the performances from the young cast. Kurt Russell was nineteen at the time of this broadcast, and had already been one of Disney's biggest box-office draws. He was best known for roles in films like Follow Me, Boys! and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the latter which was the first in his Dexter Riley film series. He would continue at Disney throughout the 1970's in films like The Barefoot Executive, Now You See Him, Now You Don't (the second Dexter Riley film), Charley and the Angel (Fred MacMurray's final Disney film), and The Strongest Man in the World (his third and final Dexter Riley film), before moving on to other projects. 2004 saw his return to the Disney fold when he played U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in Miracle, followed by superhero "The Commander" a.k.a. Steve Stronghold in 2005's Sky High.
The Osmond Brothers had previously appeared in "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," when the then-barbershop-quartet performed in the 1962 episode "Disneyland After Dark." Throughout the 1960's, they had regular appearances on "The Andy Williams Show" and "The Jerry Lewis Show," with Donny joining the group shortly before "Disneyland Showtime." Donny in particular steals the scene throughout the episode, either because of his genuine fascination with the park, or due to some unintentionally hilarious moments. For example, early on in the episode, Donny randomly says "Hey, I'm hungry" before they get on the double-decker bus. I never quite understood why the editors allowed that random line to remain in, but it always provides a chuckle whenever I hear it.
Finally, there's E.J. Peaker, the young ingenue. She had already seen success in two musical projects. From 1968 to 1969, she and Robert Morse (of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) co-starred in ABC's "That's Life," a musical series about a young married couple that was essentially "Glee" before "Glee." 1969 also saw Peaker in the role of Minnie Fay in 20th Century Fox's Hello, Dolly!, adapted from the smash Broadway musical. Introducing E.J. in the episode makes special note of that particular credit, as Donny can't remember who she is until Merrill explains it to him. His look of shock and declaration, "the movie star?!?" seems a bit much, but is still well-deserved for Ms. Peaker. Sadly, "Disneyland Showtime" was her only work with Disney, which is quite a shame. She had amazing chemistry with Kurt Russell in this film, and would have been perfect as another girlfriend in one of his Dexter Riley films (even if she were seven years older). And given her connection to Hello, Dolly!, it would have been fun if she voiced a minor character in 2008's WALL�E, which referenced the film quite a few times.
"Disneyland Showtime" was always one of my favorite episodes of the anthology series to watch, because it offered such great footage of the park. I don't visit Disneyland nearly as often as I do Walt Disney World, so it's great being able to turn to a program like this - even if it's now forty-two years old - in order to satisfy my Disneyland fix. The story is still cornball, but that's part of its charm. After all, when Disneyland is the star, do we really need a reason to pay attention to a story when all we want to do is play in the park with the guest stars? It's a product of a bygone era, when Disney was still struggling with the effects of Walt's death. Most of their output in the post-Walt years were earnest attempts to continue the family-friendly fare they were known for, just without Walt at the helm.
That said, I think this is one of the best post-Walt programs to emulate the Walt era. We see the park as it's meant to be seen: filled with happy guests and alive with Disney characters. We have a group of kids who were the face of Disney and youth culture at the time, with hijinks that are fun and silly rather than rebellious or life-threatening. Had a similar program been filmed ten years earlier (1960), I could see the roles filled with A-list hitters from Walt's roster of stars. Tommy Kirk would assume the Kurt Russell role, the Osmonds might be replaced by a group of reunited Mouseketeers, and E.J. Peaker could be Hayley Mills. And, of course, Walt would have been on hand to introduce the program in the beginning, or even taken over Mr. Gridley's role.
I can't imagine Disney making another special like this today, although they have allowed other shows to film in their parks. When the Walt Disney Company bought ABC in 1995, five of their sitcoms - "Boy Meets World," "Family Matters," "Full House," "Roseanne," and "Step by Step" - visited Walt Disney World. This was blatant cross-promotion, but few in the audience complained. The shows' reasons why they went ranged from work ("Full House"), a gift from a relative ("Step by Step"), or simply winning a trip ("Roseanne" and "Family Matters"). Ultimately, why they went didn't really matter, it was just a lot of fun to see television characters interacting in the parks. Disneyland saw its own guest stars as well. "The George Lopez Show" featured a 2004 episode set in both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and last May saw the "Modern Family" cast take their own trip.
Sadly, "Disneyland Showtime" isn't available on home video - be it VHS or DVD - although most fans are likely to come across the special in certain online venues. The special would have been a prime inclusion had "Walt Disney Treasures" continued, as we could have seen another "Disneyland U.S.A." volume with more episodes and material devoted to the park. To be honest, I'm surprised it wasn't included in Wave 7's "Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, and Magic." Then again, with so many musical performances in this episode, each of which would need to be paid royalties, it might have been too cost-prohibitive given the limited print run for the set.