by Paul F. Anderson
January 1958 View of the Frontierland Bandstand
Music was an important facet of Walt Disney’s idea for his Happiest Place On Earth;. That included songs and tunes of all styles, eras, and instrumentation; Dixieland music was, of course, no exception. From the opening day of Disneyland, the Frontierland Bandstand graced the waters of the Rivers of America. There, sat upon an elbow of the river as the waterway lead off into the wilderness, guests could enjoy daily concerts featuring the music of Dixieland, New Orleans Jazz, and the frontier. Most notable to the stage were the Strawhatters of Disneyland, which had performed as early as 1956.
The versatile group played “an indispensable part in creating the nostalgic charm that is Disneyland.” Their focus was as a tribute to loves of Dixieland music, and a favorite of early toe-tappers was to time their boarding of the Mark Twain paddle wheeler just as the Strawhatters were to begin their concert at the bandstand. Crowds could even be seen forming on Tom Sawyer Island, where music-loving parents of all kinds enjoyed the tootling of the band from a distance, while their young ones explored the ins and outs of the smuggler’s lair and pirate’s cave.

The five members of the group would cycle in and out, but one thing was for sure, it was a prestigious appointment (not to mention a steady one), and thus the musicians were hand-picked professionals and all of them from the early days featured well-established reputations with America’s “name” bands. The band had a long and tenured history at Disneyland, as the “Saints” came marching in at Disneyland for close to five decades. So popular was the lively group they actually cut a record deal in 1957, with none other than Disneyland records. The EP record featured four of their more popular tunes: Fidgety Feet (J.D. La Rocca-Larry Shields), Muskrat Ramble (Edward “Kid” Ory), At the Jazz Band Ball (J.D. La Rocca-Larry Shields), and Mississippi Mud (Harry Barris-James Cavanaugh).

1957 Disneyland Record, “The Strawhatters Dixieland at Disneyland” EP
Walt Disney knew everything that went on in his park. He knew what worked, what was popular, what needed improvement, and what he liked. And Dixieland music, New Orleans Jazz, and the Strawhatters, and everything that this trinity represented, was not lost on Walt. In typical Walt-style thinking, he looked for a way to expand on this. It became a combination of two things that lead to the creation of the “expansion,” which was the Dixieland and Disneyland spectaculars.

First, was as stated Walt wanting to improve on this idea and the obvious amount of thought he must have put into various ideas to do so. As we have all heard, Walt was intensely curious and always seeking knowledge. This material would be filed away in his mind and when it, or just a part of it, was needed he would call it forth and combine it in some new and ingenious way to create something most wondrous. What apparently provided this spark, according to the book New Orleans on Parade by Jonathan Mark Souther, was a series of yearly concerts called the Dixieland Jubilee held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. This had also spawned the popular Dixieland Jubilee record label, which no doubt Walt was aware of. So it was only natural for Walt to take his love of this music at Disneyland and combine it with the idea of a concert, and the concept evolved to become what was called the “New Orleans Comes West” show at Disneyland; and quite a spectacular it became. With the combination of the lively and uplifting music and the pageantry of Walt Disney, the spirit over took the Magic Kingdom each autumn for eleven years.
Dixieland at Disneyland 1960 Advanced Ticket Sales Poster
From the very outset of the Dixieland at Disneyland, it was over the top. The first year of the event, 1960, saw a format that held true for the run of the show (and most assuredly provided the inspiration for Fantasmic…sans dragon). The show started with water pageantry that created a floating Mardi Gras parade on the Rivers of America. Used to stunning results were ground and aerial fireworks. For each of the inaugural year’s six bands a floating raft was created, complete with multi-colored spotlights that illuminated the musicians. And for the grand finale, all six bands gathered aboard the riverboat Mark Twain and sailed past the audience, swinging in time, to the all-time Dixieland favorite, “When the Saints Come Marching In.” (Following the first year, 200 guests were invited to take the ride on the Mississippi stern wheeler with the bands, and participate in the show by waving sparklers).

When the Mark Twain docked, the bands disembarked and were once again led by torch light. They carried on and playing their liveliest Dixie melodies, each band marched off to six separate locations throughout Disneyland to perform for the crowd during the remainder of the night. The evening culminated when at the strike of Midnight, the bands once again assembled and were lead in a foot-tapping parade down Main Street and to the Railroad Station in Town Square. Once again the massed band of jazz performers would play together until the closing of the ceremonies at 1am (2am from 1961 onward).
In the earlier essay I wrote on Dixieland at Disneyland (see here) I listed the talent of the first five years of the event. I did not have the information for the first year as of that writing, but I am happy to report that I have it now. So I have updated that link by adding the talent, and I will also include it here.
1st Annual ~ 1960
Saturday, October 1st ~ 8pm to 1am

Pete Kelly’s Original 7
Bob Crosby and the Bob Cats
The Elliott Bros. And the Dixie Dandies
Disneyland Strawhatters
Teddy Buckner
Joe Darensbourg and the Dixie Flyers
Albert McNeil Choir
Alton Purnell and Monette Moore (Young Men From New Orleans)

1963 Newspaper Ad Art
There was some confusing elements found within the historical documents concerning the entertainment for that first year. What I was able to piece together is that the band Pete Kelly’s Original 7 was booked for the show, but had to back out for some unknown reason. (They were definitely a headliner, and had notable fame due to the 1955 Warner Bros. film Pete Kelly’s Blues, which was based on an earlier 1951 radio show.) The trumpet player Dick Cathcart was contracted as a replacement, and participated in the rehearsals and the concert.
One final note is on a band that was a regular fixture at Disneyland, The Young Men From New Orleans. Many bands made their reputations (and livings) by being “regulars” at the park (house bands if you will). Among the likes of Bill Elliott and the Date Niters (The Elliott Bros), The Royal Tahitians, and the aforementioned Strawhatters to name just a few. I had a request in one of the comments for the names of the band members from the Young Men. As of the early 1960s, the following were members of the band (I’m sure there was turnover, as there was in most of the Disneyland performing groups): Alton Purnell, Wellman Braud, Edgar Moseley, Andy Blakney, Gordon Mitchell, Willy James, Johnny St. Cyr, Gene Roach, and Monette Moore.

FOR MORE ON DIXIELAND AT DISNEYLAND: Over the last two months I have written quite a bit on this event and included a lot of rare, behind-the-scenes photos and art. To see all that the Disney History Institute has to offer on this early Disneyland event, go to: Dixieland at Disneyland

IMAGES: As always I scan my images at high resolution and try to provide the best viewing experience. Click on each image for a larger view, and use your plus arrow to zoom in on details.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I want to acknowledge the able assistance of Ed Ovalle at the Walt Disney Archives in helping me to chase down the talent list for this first year as well as the members of the Young Men from New Orleans. Moreover his support has been invaluable on numerous other projects over the years, such as my articles for Disney’s twenty-three magazine and so forth.

Pin It on Pinterest

Enjoy this?

Then, share this post with your friends!