What were you doing on Sunday night? For many Americans, starting in the 1950s, the answer was: watching Walt Disney's TV show. Richard Rothrock's comprehensive history of that show, in its many forms, will take you back to long-ago Sunday nights spent together with family...and Walt Disney.
Rothrock combines meticulous backstories and episode synopses with insight into how Walt's TV show shaped American culture and how it shaped his own childhood and adolescence, gently exposing him to the wide, wonderful world outside his rural town—a world not just of Disney, but of nature, technology, history, foreign cultures, and even romance.
Organized thematically, Sunday Nights with Walt covers both well-known and lesser-known characters and episodes, from Zorro, "Man in Space", and "Disneyland After Dark", to Bullwhip Griffin, "A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood", and the Whiz Kid.
If you recall your own Sunday nights with Walt, Rothrock's book packs the ultimate nostalgia buzz; and if you're too young to imagine a family sitting together in front of a TV, with no iPhones or Facebook or email to distract them, this is your window into a bygone era, and a new way to appreciate the importance of Disney in our lives.
It's almost time. Dad's got the RCA Victor warmed up. Mom's bringing down the popcorn. And now your host, Walt Disney...
Chapter 1: “And Now Your Host, Walt Disney”
Chapter 2: A Carousel of Color
Chapter 3: A Carousel of American History
Chapter 4: Adventures in Nature
Commercial Break: Making Mom's Pizza
Chapter 5: Life Lessons and Journeys with Our Pets and Horses
Chapter 6: A Carousel of Fabulous, Faraway Places
Chapter 7: Walt and His Park
Chapter 8: The Show after Walt
Commercial Break: Fads and Evolutions
Chapter 9: Solving a Mystery
Chapter 10: Growing Up
Chapter 11: Discovering the Classics
Commercial Break: Rich's Top 10
Chapter 12: Learning the Ropes of Romance
Chapter 13: Embracing the Future
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Sunday nights at my house were different from the other nights of the week. It was the only night when my mother made pizza. It was the only night of the week when we could drink soda. It was the only night of the week when we could have candy for dessert. Iit was the only night of the week when we were allowed to eat dinner in front of the television. And the only shows we ever watched were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. (Mom sent us to bed as soon as Bonanza started.)
For almost the entirety of my childhood, The Wonderful World of Disney was always there, even as I grew from a boy to a young man of eighteen, and even as my family moved from the small towns and farms of rural Indiana to the coal and steel towns of West Virginia to the towering spires of the Motor City in Michigan. The only true anchors in that time were “pizza night,” as it came to be called in our family, and Disney.
Like all of us growing up at that time, The Wonderful World of Disney was an eye opener to our world. Peering through that spinning kaleidoscope that always served as background for the episode title, we caught our first glimpses of what it meant to be a kid, what it meant to travel, what it meant—to borrow a phrase from the lyrics of the opening credits—to be in “this world where we each play a part.” We learned about history. We learned about fantasy. We learned the magic of science, the glories of art, and the marvels of the earth, sea, and sky. We experienced the power of drama and the cleansing laughter of comedy.
We learned about faraway places and how they were populated by people like you and like me who had the same hopes and fears and joys and tears. And, more than anything, it taught us the miracle of imagination and how it can be harnessed and used to unite us all.
It taught me about life. It taught me how to be (and how not to be) an adult. It taught me the value of nature. I learned the ropes of friendship, romance, and how to make my way in the world. I learned to believe in the future. Most of all, it taught me how to dream.
So for the rest of this book I am inviting you over to my parents’ house to share Sunday nights with Walt. In our kitchen, my mother has her homemade pizza (your choice of cheese, pepperoni, or sausage) set out buffet style on the top of the stove. My father has popped popcorn using his Mirro chrome popcorn popper (the only thing I remember my father ever cooking and the only night I can remember having popcorn outside of going to the movies). And our beverage selection, usually Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, or 7Up, is set up on the kitchen table. Sometimes there would be Fresca or Tab or Dr. Pepper, depending on what flavor of the month my sisters and I were into.
The weekend is almost over. Tomorrow morning, we will each be back to school or back to work. But for right now, we have tonight to travel and to dream.
Fill up your Tupperware dinner plate and glass and come downstairs with me to the family room. Grab a TV tray and take a seat (green sleeper sofa, blue butterfly chair, white bean bag chair, or brown recliner) as we all gather around my father’s 1964 RCA Victor color television set, which to my eyes still gave off the best color picture ever. Second helpings, refills, and dessert can be had during the commercials.
Now, quiet down! The NBC peacock is on to signal the start of the prime-time TV line up. The show is about to start…and for the next sixty minutes the world truly will be a carousel of color.
Richard Rothrock is a writer, teacher, and freelance editor with an undying love for film, television, literature, the Indianapolis 500, and all things Disney. He is a proud graduate of George Washington High School in Charleston, West Virginia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Film from Oakland University and a Master of Arts from Bowling Green State University. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and book anthologies. He has authored a number of award-winning screenplays that got trapped in development hell and currently teaches writing at the Motion Picture Institute in Troy, Michigan. He still wishes to fly in outer space some day and would move to EPCOT in a second if it were ever built. This is his first book.
Nature documentaries don't have to be big, sprawling, brawling affairs. Sometimes you can get a lot out of a little—in the case of this episode, a single day, spent in a single place, with a cast of just a few.
Out of all the Disney nature shows that aired, the one that affected me the most is this simple documentary portraying one day in the lives of the animals who populate the Teton Marsh outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Narrated by Sebastian Cabot, it follows the residents of the marsh, prey and predator alike, as they go through the hopes and dangers of another day in the life.
The film’s motley collection of animal stars includes an osprey, otters, a wolverine, a porcupine, trumpeter swans, beavers, muskrats, and assorted fish.
The story begins at dawn with the osprey surveying his kingdom from a treetop. It is a late autumn morning so the air has “a touch of chill in it.” The bird goes for an early morning flight and the sweeping point-of-view shots of the valley from the bird’s perspective immediately sucked me into the story. The beauty of the American West lies below, the snow-capped mountains reflected in the mirror surface of the crystal lake. And yet a series of uncommon events begin to mark this as an unusual day. The osprey misses the fish he is trying to catch. Surprised, the bird focuses on a mother otter who has caught a fish. They battle for the fish and the osprey wins.
The focus shifts to the rest of the otter family, described as “probably the happiest and hungriest creatures on earth.” The baby otters set off on a journey with no destination in mind. They set off down the river. After swimming for a while, they pause to rest on a warm sandy riverbank. Far up the hillside, a loose rock triggers a landslide that slides down and buries the three otters before they know what happened. Only one escapes. The beautiful morning has a sad ending.
The surviving otter heads back upstream to locate his mother. Cabot describes the otter’s emotional state as an “overwhelming sense of emptiness” and how “loneliness can destroy the will to live” in an animal. The otter spends the rest of the day trying to find a suitable replacement for his family. He tries a porcupine, but that ends with the frightened animal making a decided point. He checks out a flock of trumpeter swans on the pond. They cannot fly because they are in their molting period. Seeing these endangered birds back then, I marveled at their white beauty. Watching the film now, I am so glad to know they are no longer endangered.
By mid-afternoon, the otter arrives at the beaver pond only to discover that beavers don’t care for otters. Our hero persists and follows the beavers into their lodge. The underwater shots in the beaver pond are still stunning after all these years. Eventually, the otter gives up and swims on, but a female beaver shows up. The two bucktoothed lovebirds commit to their match in an instant and spend their “honeymoon” gathering food for the winter. The otter’s loneliness ends with the return of his family, not only his mother but his brothers supposedly lost in the rockslide. They are a family once again.
But the marsh’s peace is quickly broken by the arrival of a late afternoon thunderstorm. Its swift ferocity brings to mind similar storms in The Old Mill (1938) and Bambi (1942). The music even calls to mind Oliver Wallace’s “April Showers” song from the latter film. Lightning strikes a tree and it topples, ripping open a hole in the beaver dam. The beavers scramble to repair the damage even as the otters hinder progress by riding what appears to be a natural waterslide.
As the storm passes and sunset arrives, the animals feel a chill in the air. Autumn is almost over and soon the “full brunt of winter” will be at hand. For the animals, it is time to either migrate or hibernate. As they bed down for the night, “a sense of peace” returns to the valley. Life is once again triumphant and undefeated. It was “a good day to be alive.”
One Day at Teton Marsh captures all the elements that made the Disney nature shows great. The animals are portrayed as they are with a minimum of human personification. The simplicity of the animals’ lives helped me understand what their existence would be like if they were just left alone with no traces of “man in the forest” (to quote from Bambi). At the same time, the movie helped me to appreciate my own life. The animals live in the moment, relishing the simple pleasures of life whether it be the industriousness of the beavers or the sense of family of the otters or the majestic soaring of the osprey. If it doesn’t take much for them to find fulfillment in life, why must it sometimes take so much to make us feel fulfilled?
I walk away from Teton Marsh reveling in the beauty and wonder of nature, how so much of what the animals feel is very close to our own emotions, and feeling a connection to the natural world that makes me want to preserve it, to make myself a good steward of the land. Although I never fulfilled my childhood ambition of becoming a forest ranger, these shows made me want to seek out nature by traveling to our national parks and working to preserve what we have in the face of overpopulation and unrelenting human progress. They are lessons I remember to this day.
Continued in "Sunday Nights with Walt"!
Growing up means growing out of things that once were important, shedding layers of cultural baby fat and emerging wingless but ready for a world where happy endings are not guaranteed. It wasn't Walt's TV show that changed; it was the audience.
I first noticed things were starting to change in both myself and my family around the fall of 1970. I had turned eight that summer and it was the first time I felt like I was starting to look at the world through older eyes. The Wonderful World of Disney was still the highlight of my week, but this was the first time when I recall the primacy of watching the show threatened, or at least questioned.
My two older sisters were fifteen and thirteen that year, and like most girls their age, they had fallen under the spell of teen idols and pretty boys promoted by teen magazines such as 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat. Teen idols they sighed over were already driving much of our television watching. We watched Here Come the Brides (1968–1970) because it starred Bobby Sherman and David Soul (did men really wear hip-hugger jeans in the Old West?). We watched The Partridge Family (1970–1974) so they could gaze at the beauty of David Cassidy. We even watched the short-lived TV series Maya (1970) about an elephant so they could drink in the Indian countenence of brief teen idol Sajid Khan. But in the fall of 1970, my sisters proposed out-and-out blasphemy.
They proclaimed to our parents that they had outgrown World of Disney and wanted to watch a new TV show debuting opposite Disney on ABC called The Young Rebels (1970–1971). Why? Because it starred two teen idols: Rick Ely and a French discovery named Philippe Forquet. Ely played the leader of a group of underground spies during the American Revolution who answered to the Marquis de Lafayette (Forquet) who answered directly to General George Washington. Personally, I found myself more interested in the lone female in the group played by a starlet named Hilary Thompson. Their secret organization was called the Yankee Doodle Society.
In order to understand why this was a problem, you have to understand a bit more on how things were in the time before we all had our own personal handheld device or even VHS cassette recorders. In our house, there were only two television sets. Everyone could watch shows on the RCA Victor in the basement family room. The other set was a Zenith portable color TV located in our parents’ bedroom. None of us could just walk in and start watching something on that set. We needed permission, advanced permission, to watch anything on that set. It had to be cleared with both parents. The other rule was that we were not allowed to eat or drink anything in there. We might get something on the bedspread. So if my sisters wanted to start watching The Young Rebels on the downstairs set at the same time as World of Disney, then I would be banished to the upstairs set and not be able to eat the pizza or drink the soda that came along with watching the show.
It was a horrible turn of events and a major unhappy development, as all these things appear to be from our limited childhood perspective. In the end, my mother negotiated a compromise (as she always did). We would continue to watch World of Disney on the set in the family room, and my sisters could watch Young Rebels on the bedroom set upstairs, but only if they finished eating their pizza during Wild Kingdom which aired from 7:00pm to 7:30pm, and they dutifully did. Once Marlin Perkins gave his closing speech for each episode that always ended with the words “wild kingdom,” my sisters raced upstairs to watch Ron Ely and a young Louis Gossett Jr. as those cute Revolutionary War spies.
In the end, The Young Rebels rebellion turned out to be a flash in the pan. The show was a ratings dud (like pretty much every other ABC show that aired opposite Disney and Ed Sullivan) and the network cancelled it after half a season. My sisters then resumed hanging out in the family room and watching World of Disney with the rest of us.
But the incident taught me that our family was growing up and a future lay ahead that might not include World of Disney. It was my first indication that Disney was something I could grow out of, and I fervently hoped that would be a day that never came.
Still, my own perspective was changing. I found myself getting older. I was thinking new thoughts and learning to adapt to new situations. I was watching more news and becoming more aware of what was happening out there in the wider world. Words like Vietnam, Kent State, and Watergate would come to dominate those events.
I was starting to grow up, and as I had so far in this life, I turned to the World of Disney to offer suggestions on how I was supposed to do that. As usual, they offered me the perfect examples for growing up through the performances of Kevin Corcoran, Tommy Kirk, Kurt Russell, and Ron Howard.
Continued in "Sunday Nights with Walt"!