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The Music Stops for the Original Disneyland Band

The Disneyland Band in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy of Disneyland Resort Archives.

When Warren Gale, 94, started playing the trumpet at Disneyland in August of 1955, the park had just opened, there were no formal musical arrangements -- the band played by memory -- and there wasn't even an organized payroll.

"I was in the Disneyland Band from almost the beginning and it was amazing to be a part of it as it grew and evolved," he said. "When I heard the news that the band was being replaced, it was hard to hear."

That day is imminent for the Disneyland band, which had been playing since the opening day of Disneyland on July 17, 1955. It is estimated they have been a part of over 100,000 performances and marched over 20,000 miles. Recently, they were given an "end of run" notice, and were invited to audition for a brand new band under the same name. Characterized by a variety of sources as a more "showy and flashy" band with a focus on high-energy choreography and a more modern approach, the majority of the original members chose not to even audition. There is currently a Facebook page rallying to save the original Disneyland Band called "I support Walt Disney's Disneyland Band."

Disneyland Band performing at the Main Entrance in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.
Disneyland Band performing at the amusement park's main entrance in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.

Typically, the 16-member band plays four times a day, performing and marching around Main Street, U.S.A. and then the members break out in different musical groups throughout the park. Although they have been told they will continue to play in smaller groups around the park, the last performance for the original band will be on July 16th, a day before the 60th anniversary of the park.

Gale, who played in the Disneyland Band for 33 years and retired in 1989, talked about how lucky he was to get the job at the time. He said at that point he had been playing nightclubs and ballrooms and even traveled in a big band for a while. "This job offered a real sense of security, which was highly rare for a musician," he said.

In the early days, they started coming up with the smaller spin-off bands to expand the entertainment. He was a member of the Straw Hatters and there were other legendary bands like the Keystone Cops that were created. "The one band that nobody wanted to be a part of was the Polka Band," he said noting they were forced to wear leather shorts. "No one ever knew where they were playing because they found good places to hide."

 Disneyland Band castle performance in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.
Disneyland Band castle performance in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.

Over the years as the 16-member band gained popularity, they played all over the park, including the bow of the riverboat and on the carousel, and they entertained countless dignitaries from around the world, often playing music originating from their countries. Gale has great memories of backing up high profile bands and entertainers, like Lawrence Welk and the people from his show. "We were constantly learning new arrangements for these special performances and being challenged as musicians. There was always something new [we] were rehearsing for right around the corner."

Robert F. Sanders, President of the Orange County Musician's Association, which represents professional musicians, believes that losing the band as it is currently configured would be a terrible loss. He feels that as far as iconic bands with historic importance they rank right up there with the "President's Own" United States Marine Band and the band at Buckingham Palace that plays for the changing of the guard. "Disneyland is unique, distinct from all the other Disney theme parks, worldwide," Sanders says. "The traditional Disneyland Band has been a huge part of this. Disneyland should be doing a tribute to this band, not just sweeping them under the rug."

The band was designed to fit in seamlessly on Main Street, U.S.A. According to Sam Gennaway, author of "The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream" Walt Disney conceived Main Street, as a nod to the small town in Missouri where he grew up at the turn of the century, and the Disneyland band was hired for a two week gig to add to the ambiance of the small town feel. "The band was modeled after a turn of the century park band and they played music from "Your Father's Moustache" on opening day. They were an instant hit and they have remained in the park since," he said. "The band was an important part of setting the stage and carrying out Walt's vision," he added. He also noted that currently, there is the smallest number of musical acts and entertainment in the park's history.

Disneyland Band marching around Town Square on Main Street, U.S.A. in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.
Disneyland Band marching around Town Square on Main Street, U.S.A. in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.

Joe Shaw, a drummer in the band for 36 years who retired in 2013, said his favorite act to date was when Cab Calloway came to perform and the band backed him up. "He was such a high energy performer and such a talent it was an honor to play with him," he said, noting that the band consistently backed up the legendary performers who often entertained at the park, which often demanded they learn new arrangements.

An entire room filled with these musical arrangements dating back to the beginning of the park has been a source of concern. "The music library alone is an amazing historic resource and it needs to be preserved," Shaw said. "That entire library is about to become completely obsolete and it represents years of time, energy and resources. I just don't want to see it get it thrown out accidentally or trashed by someone who doesn't understand the musical value," he added.

Art Dragon, a conductor for the band for 21 years, said one of his best memories was the first set of the day at the park because "it really set the tone and you could feel the excitement." The other was the youth education program they host with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, "Disneyland Salutes the American Band," which has given performances for second graders for over 32 years. "To teach the children about the different instruments in the band and then give them a musical history of sorts, was an amazing thing to be a part of it," he said. "We would always invite the children to come say hello to us when they came to the park and they sure did -- not a day went by when a child or an adult came up and said they had seen us in the concert."

Gale noted that it was the band's popularity that kept it going year after year. "I still run into people that talk about what an inspiration that band was to them," he said. "I hope that over all those years I may have inspired a trumpet player or two."

The Disneyland Band in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.
The Disneyland Band in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.   
Disneyland Band performs at the Flag Retreat ceremony in Town Square in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.
Disneyland Band performs at the Flag Retreat ceremony in Town Square in the 1950s. | Photo: Courtesy Disneyland Resort Archives.

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