OPINION: Why the Country Bears Matter

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When sources inside the Disney company suggested that Country Bear Jamboree may be on the chopping block, fans went into an uproar. Emails were sent and twitter lit up to the point that Disney themselves felt the need to “reassure” fans that the Jamboree would be around through the Magic Kingdom’s 50th anniversary (though not denying that a replacement may still be in development).

This flashpoint of nostalgic appreciation lead many in the parks community, whether they believed the rumors or not, to think about what exactly made these bears so beloved in the first place. Why keep these old bears around?

Ugly Mugs & Goofy Grins

It happens every time. The guitar twangs, the spotlight grows, and, when that curtains open on that chubby bear in a red vest, the audience laughs. It’s that look on Big Al’s face. A little sad and sleepy, maybe a bit tipsy thanks to the jug by his foot, he paints a bold and instant impression. They all do. We can thank Imagineering legend Marc Davis for that.

Davis had a knack for designing characters whose rough exteriors also portrayed a rather goofy charm. He turned ghosts into grim grinning tricksters and bloodthirsty pirates into clumsy drunkards. Even when portraying real-life animals on the Jungle Cruise the creatures find themselves in sight gags that bring any passing boat a good chuckle.

Country Bears is no exception and might be the crowning achievement of Davis’s ability (along with the help of other Imagineers) to distill entire character personalities in visuals alone. Whether it’s the aptly named Liver Lips McGrowl or Wendell with his overbite and bowler cap – each bear gives us a laugh just as early concept art once did for Walt.

Photo from retrowdw.com

Maybe it’s that bittersweet connection to Walt that makes these bears extra special. As Tom Corless wrote in his recent article on the Country Bears’ possible departure, “Sometime in late 1966, Walt stopped by Imagineering and Marc showed the drawings he was working on for the Bear Band show. As Marc shared years later, Walt had a good laugh at many of the humorous characters and scenes in the show that would later become the Country Bear Jamboree. On Walt’s way out he turned to Marc and said good-bye, a phrase that Marc recalled Walt was known never to say. That was the last time Davis saw Disney, who died days later on December 15, 1966, and the Country Bear Jamboree came to be referred to as “Walt’s last laugh”.

These fur covered bumpkins might have been one of the last things to make Walt grin between heavy coughs and thoughts of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Though not initially conceptualized for Orlando, Country Bear Jamboree became the only original Disney World opening day attraction with Walt’s approval. While Disneyland has Walt’s creativity in its bones, Country Bear Jamboree is something Florida hold as a little piece of Walt all for themselves.

Irreverent Awareness

Rather unfairly, Country Bear Jamboree gets pegged by culture at large as a creaky show of yesteryear, too often clumped into jokes with inferior (though beloved) robotic musicians such as The Rock-afire Explosion of Showbiz Pizza Place fame. With its aw-shucks nature and down home whimsy, the post-modern cynics tend to think it’s something that would work better in Branson. Even Disney has made a less than subtle crack with Lester’s Possum Park in “A Goofy Movie.” 

Lester’s Possum Park from A Goofy Movie

The truth is that Country Bear Jamboree, though in need of a full blown refurb, is far from toothless in its comedy and, at times, downright dark. Three of your hosts are the mounted heads of hunted animals and Big Al croons about “blood all around.” Things also get a bit wild as Henry plans to get a ladder and see Swingin’ Teddi Barra and the Sun Bonnet trio sing about getting turned on (and turned down). Let’s also not forget Wendell’s desire to shoot little Buford. Mickey Mouse stuff indeed.

Due to the script, the show’s humor is sometimes characterized as not politically correct, but that definition misses the intention of the joke’s entirely. There is a self-awareness – a giddy thrill from the Bears themselves that what they’re saying is a bit blush-worthy. It’s in that deep chuckle Big Al gives as the curtain closes on his morbid number. “I think you should shoot him instead” may leave your mouth agape, but “Yes, we only have high class stuff on this show” is what really makes you belly over.

(C) Matthew Cooper Photography – www.thetimethespace.com

It’s that style of irreverence that not only cements Country Bears as timeless, but also groups them in with another crew of misfits that just want to put on a show.

One Big Happy Family

There is a certain tonal similarity between the Country Bears and The Muppet Show. Call them long lost cousins who never met, but still somehow act similar. Each have a host attempting to keep the show rolling as a bevy of performers sing and commentary comes in from the sidelines. 

It’s doubtful that the Muppet Show, which came out five years after Bears, was influenced by its predecessor, but both use vaudevillian tradition as a bouncing off point for behind-the-scenes hijinks that end up onstage. They are akin in their love of not only entertaining their audience, but welcoming us in on the madness.

“We’re just one big happy family,” states Henry and it’s clear we’re welcome into their kin, an odd mess as it is, if we so choose. What other park’s show gives you that feeling of camaraderie with its characters, besides maybe Muppet Vision 3-D? Tiki Room points you towards the exit while Bears, with all it’s country charm, beckons, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?”

Sadly, the comparison with the Muppets is also apt as Disney seems lost on how to treat either property in the parks. Perhaps it’s because the old showman spirit found in both isn’t really what Disney is focused on anymore – its nostalgic form in contrast to the slick synergy laden plans so beloved by the current pencil pushers in charge.

But, for now, Grizzly Hall and it’s furry inhabitants remain and we can only hope they won’t go into hibernation any time soon.

About the author

Nathan Hartman

A sunshine state resident, Nathan is an avid Disney parks wonk as well as a university film professor.

Twitter: @somestuffisaid

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Chris McPhie
Guest
Chris McPhie

Sadly, these days profit will always come before whimsy.

The bosses are so eager to put new IPs in, they forget what made WDW so legendary in the first place…they’re too keen on turning WDW into just another generic, soulless, theme park (*cough* Universal *cough*), rather than remaining the place for pure escapism it has been.

Doug
Guest
Doug

Glad you mentioned Muppet Vision 3-D. That’s one of my wife and my favorite attractions and has been for many years. It’s a zany and personal show, there’s nothing else like it. It was Jim Henson’s last film. And – there’s Kermit!

Pamela Fischer
Guest
Pamela Fischer

While I am dating myself with this comment, I have been going to Disney World since the 70’s and have been disheartened in the last decade (or two) as to the direction that it has been going. It is clear that management is solely interested in making huge amounts of money for the CEO’s, attracting the “high rollers” to the parks and DVC and basically squeezing every last dollar from guests while diminishing the quality of its product. The heart and soul of Disney is (remarkably) much more alive in the California parks. The business model for the Florida parks… Read more »

Kathy M
Guest
Kathy M

Some things should stay as Walt intended those bears are awesome cute and innocent and make people smile we don’t do a lot of that today.

Steve
Guest
Steve

I’m glad the Bears are staying. The park needs to be a mix of new (can’t wait for Tron!) and a mix of old. There’s a place for nostalgic. The park would not be the same without classic attractions like Haunted Mansion and Pirates. Next, I cannot get behind the obsession that all attractions need to be IP based, and that they all need to drive merchandise sales. You can put a gift shop at the end of EVERY ride, but at the end of the day each guest has a limited souvenir budget – doesn’t matter how cool the… Read more »

tvnutt
Guest
tvnutt

This is my dad’s favorite and has been for decades. Mom always made sure we visited when we were at the park. Now I make sure we visit it when we’re at the park(he comes with us). I’d be heart broken if they closed or changed it as my mom loved Country Music and used to sing a lot of the songs.

Michael Cox
Guest
Michael Cox

Your mention of the Muppets, and how it too seems to have been forgotten, is a telling remark that Disney needs to get hip to. I’ve been saying for years that the Muppets are a wasted commodity. And if CBJ is retired it will only solidify the overall decline of the parks. There is a Reason why us oldsters keep going back, and its not just to take the kids and grandkids. Its to share the wonder and joy we felt when we went there as kids.

I hope they don’t smother that joy by questing for the allmighty dollar.

Caroline
Guest
Caroline

Country bears is an absolute favorite of mine. I love the humor and I love watching people watch it. If anything needs to be changed, they can add the tiki room to the Polynesian… I think the humor in that one is really old.