Saturday, July 9, 2016

That Time Walt's Plane Took Snow White on a "Personal Appearance" Tour Across the US

By Keith Mahne




The year was 1967, Disney was looking at unique ways to promote the re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theaters all across the United States. The idea eventually came up to take Snow White, along with the dwarfs of course, on a personal appearance tour across the country and, this is the best part, they used Walt's own personal airplane to do it. The Disney characters were scheduled to visit 18 cities on what was billed as a "coast-to-coast" publicity event. In today's new article, we'll hear from someone who played one of the dwarfs to get their first-hand account of the tour and what is was like flying on Walt's plane...

Today's article comes to us from a wonderful interview done by the fantastic website Filmic Light - Snow White Archive, which is a non-commercial site dedicated to the documentation of all things Snow White. The website interviewed Edward Grant, one of the cast members who participated in the 1967 event. Ed played Bashful on the "coast-to-coast" publicity tour, and he shared his fond memories of the tour and being on Walt Disney's personal airplane. It's a wonderful piece of Disney history and offers us an amazing, first-hand account of being on Walt's personal plane, a Grumman Gulfstream I. Be sure to also read my article on Walt Disney's airplane that includes some rare photos of the interior which you can find by clicking HERE. Enjoy the interview...








Filmic Light: You were already working at Disneyland at the time, so how did you first learn about the 1967 Snow White tour? Was this your first time as a costumed character?

Edward Grant: The news of the pending tour was "leaked out" among the cast members at the park, primarily through the various divisions under the Operations Department at Disneyland. All that was known was that a tour was being put together for the re-release of the film and they would be needing eight shorter individuals from within the park's ranks to fill those positions. No experience was required.

A new movie was about to premiere in Hollywood and Disney would be using the "regular" Snow White characters from the park for that event. Thus, this gave an opportunity to some "rookies" to play these roles on the tour. We submitted our names and waited. Most of those volunteering were either "ride operators" or "parking lot crew" members.


FL: Were there auditions and rehearsals beforehand?

EG: There really weren't any auditions. We were notified that the Studio and Operations had chosen 8 individuals (one alternate, just in case), all men/boys, to go on the tour. Each of us was informed privately and given the amounts of dollars we would receive for our work. All of us were put into a screening room at the Park where we literally watched the entire Snow White movie.

Afterwards, we were all taken to Wardrobe to be fitted for our costumes and then an impromptu performance out in the park, just to get the feel of the sometimes cumbersome outfits. After a few minutes inside them, it was clear that this was truly not going to be just a lark!

An independent musician, Bob Messenger, was brought in so a "routine" of sorts could be worked out. The ideas for this came directly from the movie itself, especially where all of the dwarfs would be able to interact with an audience in some way. The Studio had also auditioned and hired a young woman to play the part of Snow White. She was small with a lovely voice that sounded very much like the movie's star. After this routine was established, we actually appeared at a local movie theater (in Riverside, CA) and we did our act on stage for a live audience following the showing of the film. The response was fantastic and we knew then that we would be a hit!

There was one more Park "stroll" just to see how we must react to the various things people do to your typical Disney character. This meant NEVER EVER speaking!!!! Be sure to lean over before you start to walk because vision was not very good towards anything or anyone standing directly in front of us. The Studio did not want anyone trampled by a dwarf!


FL: You were Bashful. How did you get to be him and not one of the other dwarfs?

EG: We were picked at random for our roles. I was BASHFUL just because that is how it worked out. I must say that some of my fellow troupe members had the real life personality to match their dwarf characters. DOC and HAPPY were so funny that I would crack up inside my costume many times during their turns for being introduced by Snow White.

Earlier I mentioned that there were seven guys picked to go on the tour with one alternate. I was the eighth, but because number seven needed to go to summer school and also make some extra funds, we traded places. And I paid him for the opportunity with no regrets. He got his much needed class, and I got this wonderful experience.


FL: Where did the tour start? And where did it go?

EG: The tour was set for 18 cities in 20 days. Starting on June 5, 1967 and ending on June 24th, the order of cities was: Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Denver. 


An advertisement for the tour, for the film, and several Snow White records was published in the June 10, 1967 Billboard Magazine (Volume 79, Issue 23, p.15).




Image scan courtesy of Colin Cameron.




FL: What did you do? Visit shopping centers, theaters, schools, and/or other locations?

EG: Beside the obvious movie theater locations where the film would be shown, another stop on our route would always be the newspapers that were going to advertise it. This usually included a short walk around at the paper's offices with "photo ops". If there was a Bozo the Clown TV show in town, we then appeared on it! There sure were a lot of Bozo's back then! Talk about syndication!

Sometimes a motorcade down main streets was done. This was kind of awkward for us dwarfs due to the fact that we had to be sitting on the convertible top boot with no place to hold on--since our hands were inside the costume! Quick stops could result in tumbling dwarfs everywhere! In almost every city, we would make a stop at the local children's hospital for all of the obvious reasons. Sometimes very heartbreaking for all concerned. Department stores with large auditoriums were also a good venue. Those with a runway proved to be quite hazardous to some of us due to the very limited vision. More than one of us took a tumble into the audience, no harm to anyone thank goodness.


FL: What was your costume like to wear? What was it made of?

EG: Our costumes were very ingenious for sure. The lower part you simply put on over a tee shirt, shorts, socks and tennis shoes. The "head" was the heavy part and would hit the scale somewhere between 50 to 60 pounds. The face was hollow so you could put your hand into the big nose and animate the overall face. As for seeing, there was a screen located in the hat of each costume, painted black so not to reveal us inside. With the large floppy shoes adding the "clown" affect, the whole package was heavy but not so much as to be impossible.

The issue for us was the time of the year we were touring--SUMMER! We California guys really did not know what humidity was, but we found out when we got off the plane in Dallas. That was a very rough first day for all of us. As I mentioned before, the costume was all about the "illusion and magic" of the character. Absolutely no sounds (other than SNEEZY) were allowed. If you happened to fall down you just lay there until you were righted by staff.

Speaking of which, we had a great wardrobe man along with us on the tour. Each day he would take all of our cloth lowers and have them cleaned and refreshed for the next day. The inside of the "head" had a fiber glass skeleton that had to be wiped clean from our sweat. He was also in charge of making sure all of our personal luggage plus the costumes were loaded up at the hotel and transported to wherever the plane had been parked overnight.


FL: Did you travel by plane? Stay in hotels? What was the everyday experience like when you were not in costume? Did the group do other things together when not working?

EG: All of our travel was on board of Walt's personal plane, a Grumman Gulfstream I. It was piloted by a total of four retired military men (mostly Marines) for this tour. They were the coolest guys and the most professional individuals that I had ever met. This aircraft was a turboprop and could be quite loud inside and out. There was a pull out jump seat between and slightly behind the flight crew and many and hour was spent watching them fly us! I personally had never flown commercially, so this was a very big thrill for me.

 Since I was the only married dwarf, night times were spent with these gentlemen dining and going out to movie's. The rest of the guys were usually out on the town in every city! All of our hotel accommodations were top notch. We each had our own rooms for privacy. The biggest and fanciest hotel would have to be the Royal York in downtown Toronto. WOW!

The usual day was up early for breakfast at the hotel. Board a rented box truck with lift gate in the rear of the hotel and start our day. Our costumes were cleaned and in large canvas bags inside the truck. There were usually folding chairs for us to sit on and a cooler with cold water and soda's. Lots and lots of ice was a must. Clean hand towels were there for when we suited up. These were essential for the working periods, since some of us wore eye glasses and they would fog up during our heated performances. At each stop some one would yell at us to suit up and let them know when all of us were ready. In no way were we to be seen out of character by the public.

After no more than 45 minutes, it was back into the truck, two at a time on the lift gate. When were all inside the roll up door was pulled down and we could get out of costume. We developed the habit of singing "Getting Out Of My Head Over You" on a regular basis! Traveling inside these non-air conditioned boxes was not really all that safe for us, but we endured just the same. The Show Must Go On was our motto.


FL: What were the other people in the group like? Did you know any of them before you started? Did you stay in touch with any afterwards?

EG: Each and every one of my group members was some one who would do anything for you at a moments notice. The very best Disney people. The Disneyland Ambassador, Marcia Minor, was the nicest young woman I had ever met. Truly a class act and well deserving of her position. The head of the tour, Tom Bradly, came from the Studio and was a blunt and to the point guy. Really a take charge kind of person.

We from the Park had an Operations Department manager along just for us. His name has drawn a blank on my old memory, but I will eventually get it back. Likewise with our Wardrobe man. A true professional in every way. Very handy with a needle and thread too. Our musical side-kick, Bob Messenger, was a very talented guy. He had perfect pitch and could play many different instruments. On this tour the accordion fit the movies' score.

 Our very own Snow White was played by Miss Lisa Binney (we all later nicknamed her Liza Benni). Absolutely lovely soprano voice. Short stature but not exactly petite like the movie's Snow. She was your typical stage brat! At the beginning of the tour she was under the impression that we seven lads were there to be at her beck and call, to carry her luggage, etc. She soon learned that we just didn't roll that way, and she was truly on her own when it came to taking care of herself.

 During this great experience, we pretty much grew closer and closer with one another. As far as we were concerned, our show could always be improved on. Many open discussions about dancing this way or marching that way enabled the actual show to improve with each performance. Our 'handlers" respected many of our ideas and went along with them. They were in charge of all of the details of our appearances, etc. and they did that very well. When one of the dwarfs was obviously in trouble, they were the first to close the curtain and get us help. More than once one of us fell or was pushed over, but never for long. Assistance was always there and concern for our well-being was paramount to them.


In the photo below, the troupe and flight crew are pictured at the tour's last stop in Denver. Ed is standing on the steps, third from the top. The plane is Walt Disney's turbo jet, a Grumman G-159 Gulfstream 1. (It had been on display for years on the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. The attraction closed on September 27, 2014.)








FL: This seems like it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Is there a fond memory you'd like to share about the experience?

EG: I would have to say it would be our many stops at the Children's Hospitals across America. The memory of seeing so may smiles from those injured or sick kids will be with me forever. On one special visit to a Shriner's hospital, there was a child who had been burned over 90% of his body from an accident involving gasoline. During our brief visit, each of us went into his room along with Snow White. She introduced each of us to this lad covered in bandages. After all seven of us had had our turn, it was time to go. The parents of this little boy came out into the hallway and thanked us for visiting their son. That was so very hard, but it helped us realize just how important this tour really was. A couple of days later our tour director let us know that he had received news that the boy had passed away but not before he actually was able to smile at photos taken of him with each and every one of us at his bedside.


FL: Did you continue to work for Disney after the tour?

 EG: After the tour, we all returned to our jobs within the Park. Most of us were what was called "permanent part-time", meaning we worked weekends, holidays, and private parties throughout the year. For me, being the only married dwarf, the need for full-time hours was what I was after. The Operations Department did their best to find me hours during the work week. Sometimes I would drive a shuttle bus carrying construction workers from their parking lots into the Park or backstage area where they were working. I would drive the Disneyland Hotel tram as well. At one point I was offered to try out a position with "Key Control" for the Park. Unfortunately,  I didn't have the manual dexterity needed for that position. In late 1967 I had to find a more permanent full time job outside of the Park. It was a very sad day for me; my thoughts of the fantastic times I spent with the Disney organization are still as strong today as they ever were.


END




According to the website, Edward Grant lost touch with the other members of the Snow White group after leaving Disney. He would be thrilled to have a reunion with his fellow cast members and is hoping to reconnect with those who were involved. If anyone knows the whereabouts of any of these folks, you can contact the Filmic Light website and they will be happy to pass the info onto Ed.




Walt Disney greets fans in front of his Grumman Gulfstream I airplane




As you can see, this fantastic interview offers us a great deal of insight into what it was like being a cast member for Disneyland in 1967 and getting the opportunity to travel across the country to represent Walt's company ON(!) Walt's plane! It just doesn't get any better than that. A big thank you goes out to the Filmic Light website for conducting this great interview and to Edward Grant for sharing his story with the Disney community to enjoy for years to come.






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Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.


1 comment:

  1. Can I just say this is one of my favorite Disney pages?? The articles are always so interesting and this one definitely one of my favorites. Also, I LOVE listening to the park music while I am reading the articles. Makes the readings so much more enjoyable!! Awesome job! Thanks for the work you put into getting these together for all to enjoy!

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