Throughout October I've offered all kinds of Halloween treats—but now that October 31st is actually upon us, it's time for a trick. Cue the flashing lightening and crashing thunder as Tulgey Wood asks the ominous question: Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of...Disneyland Showtime??? Hosted by Kurt Russell and starring the Osmond Brothers and E. J. Peaker ("Who's E. J. Peaker?" asks little Donny Osmond, in his innocence), Disneyland Showtime gets off to an auspicious start when kooky E. J. arrives in a wildly decorated Volkswagen. The boys inform the zanily vivacious performer she's late for the Love Bug parade and she perkily replies she set out for Disneyland “right after lunch.” The parade “was last year,” Kurt gamely responds. “Guess I should have left right after breakfast!” is E. J.'s inevitable and quasi-adorable answer. Naturally, Ms. Peaker and the boys are then compelled to sing on the Omnibus, “walk happy” on the Mark Twain Riverboat (also taking time to visit the newly-unveiled Haunted Mansion, of course) and otherwise vocalize and verbalize their way through Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, circa 1970.
It All Began with Disneyland
But just like E. J. Peaker herself, we're getting ahead of ourselves. This March 22, 1970 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney was produced to celebrate Disneyland's newest E-ticket attraction the Haunted Mansion, which had opened on August 9, 1969 to record breaking-success. (Some reference books erroneously state this TV episode focuses on the “opening” of the Haunted Mansion.) The Disney TV show (newly rechristened The Wonderful World of Disney for the 1969-1970 season after 8 years as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color) had not presented a new show focusing on the Park since Disneyland—From Pirates of the Caribbean to the World of Tomorrow in January of 1968. Before that it was Disneyland Around the Seasons in December of 1966 (the first show to be broadcast after Walt died on December 15, 1966). In a way, the model for this show was the 1963 installment Disneyland After Dark. Disney performers (Annette Funicello) mixed with stars not known for a Disney connection (Louis Armstrong, Bobby Rydell) and sang non-Disney songs around the Park. Throw in a dash of Disneyland's 10th Anniversary from 1965 in which Walt introduced forthcoming attractions (including Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion itself) and you have the witch's brew that is Disneyland Showcase, which of course has some offbeat elements of its own.
The plot is a wacky search through Disneyland as that madcap Donny just has to head for the Haunted Mansion, meaning the rest of the performers must track down the elfin younger Osmond before it's time for the Big Show. It’s all a good-natured excuse for a lively tour through the Park. Kurt and two of the Osmonds briefly hang out in the Swiss Family Treehouse and use a (now vintage and very collectable) Disneyland souvenir map to try and determine where that little scamp could have gotten to.
The Host Wore Tennis Shoes
Part of the reason for this show's unusual format was the death of Walt Disney in 1966. The great showman had hosted the weekly hour from its inception in 1954, when it premiered under its original title Disneyland. Episodes that had presented behind-the-scenes peeks at Disneyland had naturally been hosted and narrated by Walt himself. The Disney show had already tried one alternate approach to Walt as host—having 1967 Disneyland ambassador Marcia Miner act as guide to Disneyland—From Pirates of the Caribbean to the World of Tomorrow, but perhaps the choice of the largely unknown Ms. Miner was considered too impersonal. At any rate Disneyland Showcase needed a host and as it was decided to give this episode a youthful appeal, what better choice could there have been than Kurt Russell? The teen-age star (the show aired five days after Kurt's 19th birthday) was the Disney Studios superstar of the late 1960s-1970s, and he’s put to perfect use here. The young star does a lot more than flash his friendly smile or show off his famous dimples. His easy, affable nature makes him the perfect host, especially at the end of Act III of the program (before the commercial break) when Kurt (who before this had acted as an informal host, welcoming the other performers to Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom with ease and charm) speaks directly to the camera and then (after the commercial, naturally) he narrates the behind-the-scenes footage shot at WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering). For his onstage performance and his talk-to-the-audience introduction, Kurt is wearing some particularly groovy threads (see image above). Well, what would YOU wear if you were going to sing “Sugar, Sugar” in Disneyland?
The Osmonds on the Omnibus (and Elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom)
This talented brother act, famous during this era for their many appearances on NBC's The Andy Williams Show, were actually discovered at Disneyland itself. On a visit to the Park as regular, E-ticket-carrying guests in 1961, they were signed by Disneyland Entertainment after an impromptu performance on Main Street, USA. Shortly thereafter the Osmonds were featured on Disneyland after Dark. In Disneyland Showtime, the “O” boys (with younger Donny now part of the act) are in their native habitat as they perform throughout Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The brothers rock out atop the Omnibus, singing “Down On the Corner” as Kurt displays his dimples and E. J. performs a go-go dance all the way up Main Street. At the Big Show in Tomorrowland the Osmonds give an electric performance of such hits as Led Zeppelin’s “Golden Rainbow” and a “Hair” medley. All that's missing from this trippy concert is the acid.
The star of Hello, Dolly! (Well, not Barbra Streisand. Or Walter Matthau. Or Michael Crawford. Or Marianne McAndrew. Or...), Edra Jean Peaker was known to audiences as a frequent guest on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, and she would go on to star in eight episodes of Love, American Style. Here she projects a Barbara Eden-like vivaciousness. Described by author/historian Jeff Kurtti as a “giggly sprite,” E. J. brings her own unknown-planetary-origin appeal to the proceedings. “Mr. Wolf!” she cries in her perky yet raspy voice as she spots the Big Bad Wolf. “I'm looking for a very attractive man with deep set blue eyes, a heavenly smile and flashing white teeth." She's looking for Donny, she could be describing Jay who (since he is with Donny) is now also lost, but she's obviously describing Kurt. No matter, as the BBW thinks she’s talking about him.
Aside from a tearful rendition of “Oh Dear God It Must Be Him” (pointing up the number of non-Disney songs heard in this show), E. J.’s big moment comes with a kicky performance of “Walkin' Happy” all over the Mark Twain. Otherwise throughout the show, the chatty and ever-effervescent Edra Jean is talkin’ happy.
One of the show’s highlights is the sight of Disneyland guests throughout the Park, each enjoying the sights and sounds (and tastes, as in these two tykes who it is be hoped are not candidates for childhood obesity. Couldn't these urchins have been filmed eating healthy snacks, as today's corporate Disneyland would have insisted??) Another highlight is those clean-cut singers Kids in the Kingdom energetically performing a charming, upbeat (naturally) version of "This Land is Your Land" (as in “Disneyland is your land”), shot throughout the Park. This segment provides a fascinating snapshot of Disneyland as it was in 1969-1970. There's the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, the Pack Mules and the Magic Skyway, but just as importantly there's no Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, no Space Mountain, no Indiana Jones Adventure.
Welcome, Foolish Mortals
As might be expected the real stars of Disneyland Showtime are the Haunted Mansion and the Imagineers who created the spectacular attraction. Kurt narrates a tour of WED where we glimpse Imagineers Yale Gracey (with his ever-present pipe), Harriet Burns and Bill Justice. There’s an explanation of Audio-Animatronics, and we can spot many of the ghostly residents of the world’s most famous haunted house. Then in the tradition established by Walt, the audience is taken on an experience of the attraction, with the Osmonds, Kurt and E. J. The show ends with one of the most effective images ever created about a Disneyland attraction for the TV show: a long shot of the Manse with the group of stars standing outside (with that rascal Donny once again gone)—as above a myriad of ghosts, ghouls and spooks stream toward the Haunted Mansion. It’s a memorable last shot for an unforgettable show. Unforgettable? Of course it is, featuring as it does everything from the perkiness of Ms. Peaker to the Osmonds’ brand of hard rock, from Kurt Russell's dimples to the brand spookin’ new Haunted Mansion—it’s the one-and-only Disneyland Showtime! A special Tulgey Wood thanks to Disneyland Showtime aficionados Kevin Kidney and Ed Squair for their insights into this unique show, and also to Jeff Kurtti for his all-encompassing knowledge of entertainment history.