Wednesday, January 9, 2013

January 9, 1938 - Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air

The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air was a short-lived Sunday afternoon radio program on NBC. A children's musical variety show, the half hour broadcast was recorded in front of a live studio audience at the Disney Little Theater on the RKO lot. Initially, Walt Disney was skeptical of a weekly presentation featuring his characters; he didn't believe they would translate well into this non-visual medium. However, Pepsodent tooth paste was offering a weekly sponsorship outlay of ten to twelve thousand dollars, and that's probably what got the show the green light. Yet, Walt's instincts were correct. Looking back, the programs are certainly interesting from a historical perspective, but they do lack a little something in entertainment value.

In all, there were 20 episodes that ran from January 2 to May 15, 1938. It's not difficult to see how Walt aspired to use this platform to help promote his recently premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With the film scheduled to open at New York's Radio City Music Hall on January 13, 1938 and then into general release across North America on February 4th, a weekly radio show would only help to enliven the buzz.

Every episode incorporated Snow White's talking Magic Mirror as a means of teleporting the Disney characters into their adventures. The gang would drop in on Mother Goose, King Neptune, The Pied Piper, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other storybook tales.

Image via 2719 Hyperion.

The January 9, 1938 Program:

Today's episode, the second in the series, was entitled "Snow White Day". Our host John Hiestan was joined on stage by Walt Disney as himself. Walt also voiced Mickey Mouse (a role he continued for only the first three episodes; Mickey's radio duties were then turned over to actor Joe Twerp). Other characters included Minnie Mouse (Thelma Boardman), Goofy (Stuart Buchanan, who voiced the Huntsman in the film, and possibly Grumpy here) and Donald Duck (Clarence Nash).

The opening theme was Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? performed by the Felix Mills Orchestra, followed by an instrumental of Whistle While You Work. Additional vocals (and bird sounds) were provided later in the show by the twelve-member, all-female Minnie Mouse Woodland Choir, plus their counterparts, an eight-member male choir.

We learn from Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and announcer Hiestan that Donald has been locked in the attic (although he turns up later). Walt then asks Goofy to bring out the Magic Mirror, after which Mickey invokes it to 'bid Snow White and her Prince to appear.'

Snow comes on to sing I'm Wishing followed by the Prince's One Song. When I first heard these numbers, I thought the vocals were performed, as they were in the film, by Adriana Caselotti and Harry Stockwell. I still think the Prince's voice may be Stockwell. However, after many more listenings, I'm leaning towards the idea that Snow White is played by Thelma Hubbard. Hubbard would have this role for certain eleven months later on the Lux Radio Theater.

Walt continues a narration of the Snow White story which leads into her singing With a Smile and a Song. Mickey then invokes the Mirror once again, this time to bring forth the Old Witch, Lucille La Verne. It's a terrific little moment between her and Walt when she approaches with a basket of apples and says, "Hello Disney! Have a bite?!"

Later, the Seven Dwarfs arrive on stage singing Heigh-Ho (the male choir) before being introduced to the audience. Again, the voice-actors sound a bit anomalous to what we're used to in the movie. Pinto Colvig, aka Grumpy and Sleepy, surely had been replaced since he'd already left the Studio in 1937. Yet all the others could be here: Roy Atwell (Doc), Otis Harlan (Happy), Scotty Mattraw (Bashful). Certainly Billy Gilbert is Sneezy. He practically steals the show with his nasal antics. The whole gang is then transported to the Dwarfs' cottage where they perform the Silly Song.

The program's showstopper was a version of Some Day My Prince Will Come where both Snow White and the Prince sing to each other. Things wrap up with a final Pepsodent plug before Walt tells us what to expect in next week's show. Then it closes with an instrumental of With a Smile and a Song.

Thanks to musical director Felix Mills, we can now listen to this program in its entirety. His estate donated the original recorded discs from the radio show to the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, and you can hear seven out of the original twenty episodes, including Snow White, on the Internet Archive.

Special thanks to Jim Korkis for his invaluable knowledge of this subject. Learn more about Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air in Jim's article posted on MousePlanet.

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