Sunday, May 14, 2017

Rod Miller: The Master of Disneyland Ragtime Music

By Keith Mahne

Those toe-tapping ragtime tunes Disneyland guests heard on Main Street, U.S.A. since 1969 came from the patio of Coca Cola Refreshment Corner. On piano, the remarkable man responsible for that enthusiastic, honky-tonk music was the great Rod Miler. Rod has made that sound a cheerful part of the Disneyland experience for 30+ years. Join us today as we celebrate the master of Disneyland ragtime music, the legendary Rod Miler...

Born in Bertha, Minnesota, Rod Miller was destined to play music. As the son of a mother who played the accordion and piano and a dad who played violin, it's easy to see how Rod could teach himself how to play the piano, his first learned song being “I Can't Give You Anything But Love.” Surprisingly, he doesn't know how to read music, but he does know more than 600 songs by heart. To learn a new song, he listened to a tape or record, then added his own flourishes to adapt it to his unique ragtime sound. Rod is able to play an amazing 22 notes per second at top speed, rolling through songs like "Mame" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" in less than a minute or two.

The first time Rod had heard about Disneyland was from a family member who made a passing comment about how wonderful the place was. At the age of 19, Rod left home and moved to California, where he was eventually recruited to play at Disneyland. Although Miller was at first unsure of the job, after some negotiation, he agreed to play. Stationed at Coke Corner, Rod (who, ironically, detests soda) would go on to play at Disneyland five days a week from 1969 until 2005, becoming a favorite attraction and familiar face.

Disneyland guests gather round Rod Miller's piano at Coke Corner, 1977

Rod's made his unique sound a cheerful part of the Disneyland experience. In the 30+ years of his magical, high speed tickling of the ivories, Miller has gone through 23 pianos! His friendly smile, as bright and cheerful as the music he played, has made him a legendary figure of Disneyland history. Many guests, who were lucky enough to see him on repeat visits, always made a special point of stopping by to say hello and listen as Rod played a favorite song.

Rod has countless fond memories from his career working at the "Happiest Place on Earth". He remembers back to the old days when Disneyland had entertainment everywhere...

"Walt believed in wasn't just the attractions. He was so into details. So, all the entertainment up by me like The Plaza Pavilion (Jolly Holiday Bakery Café currently) had an accordion player up there. In the Plaza Inn, we called them the Grasshoppers because they wore these green outfits, they had two violins and a string bass. They would go around the tables and play for people while they ate. The old Tahitian Terrace, the show in there was better than anything I've ever seen in Hawaii and I wish it was still there. The line was always huge to get into that place. It was a lot of fun having all that entertainment. Before Space Mountain was there we'd go out and watch groups on the Tomorrowland stage like The Coasters, The Carpenters, The Supremes; they always had some famous band playing. I remember one time while I was at Coke Corner and all my fans would be out there and all of a sudden Louis Armstrong walked by with his case and I'd go call upstairs to whoever was supervising and I'd say 'Louis Armstrong is here' and they'd say 'just go and watch him play if you'd like'. Disneyland was so lax in those days. My schedule was 10 to 5 and I was always out there with the people because I didn't want to take breaks and just sit in the dressing room; that's no fun. Walt was always a people person, always out and always visible. He wanted his people among the people; their offices were a place to go after the Park closed. But he believed in having entertainment everywhere and it was a lot of fun." 

A quiet night in 1965 at Disneyland’s Coke Corner. Many hours of Rod's Ragtime piano music have been played here - much to the delight to legions of guests.

What makes all this even more amazing was that Rod broke his back as a child and had his spine fused. Doctors told him he’d never walk again, but he defeated that prophecy. He shouldn’t have been able to sit and play piano either, but Rod figured out how to do that just as he taught himself how to play piano. In the end, the 30+ years of playing 8 hours a day, plus outside gigs and practice, took its toll on Rod’s body and his spine. He eventually had to face the inevitable and retire in 2005 although he continues to make special appearances at places like The Walt Disney Family Museum and even Disneyland from time to time.

If you have never seen Rod Miller play in person, the good news is that there are quite a few videos and recordings of his performances. One of those recordings resides here on Disney Avenue and is actually the very first track I ever uploaded to the Disney Avenue Music Player. It's titled "Disneyland's Rod Miller - Coke Corner Ragtime" and is track number 1. Click the playlist button at the top, right-hand corner of the page if you are on a desktop computer and select it now to hear those magical notes for yourself. If you are on a mobile device, you can find that track by clicking on the Disney Avenue Mobile Music Player tab under the banner. And finally, watch Rod in action playing at Disneyland's Coke Corner in the 1980s video below that is a true delight just like the man himself...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)


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 every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.

1 comment:

  1. I met Rod in the early 90's when I was stationed in Southern California while I was serving in the Air Force. We would visit Disneyland often and would always stop by and say Hi to Rod. He was fantastic! On one visit I bought a copy of his CD and he signed it for me. Great guy! Great talent!
    -Gary Moulliet