Monday, July 25, 2011

Orange You Glad

In case you didn't know, I heart pin trading. It's one of my favorite parts of going to Disney Parks. I usually stock a lanyard up with traders before I go, trade them throughout the trip and emerge with a unique souvenir. It's par for the course to go to Downtown Disney when I arrive in Orlando and have a looksee at the the new pins in Disney's Pin Traders.
Must be hard for him to find Mickey ears that fit.

When Tom and I went this past February, they were displaying a new set of hidden Mickey pins featuring a weird little orange and green dude that I was completely unfamiliar with. I thought he was cute and he piqued my curiosity, but I was too preoccupied trying to get a complete collection of Country Bear Jamboree pins to worry about collecting him.

Since then, I have done my research like a good boy and now I know that the little dude was the Orange Bird, who is a character created by Disney especially for the Florida Citrus Commission in 1970 to live in the Sunshine Tree Terrace, which the Enchanted Tiki Room would, coincidentally, empty into, and encourage people to, as M'Lynn would say, "Drink your juice, Shelby." He was a meet and greet character and was merchandised heavily throughout Florida, so I'm surprised that I'd never really seen him, considering that I was born and raised there. He was featured pretty prominently in the park until 1986, when the FCC and Disney parted ways, and faded a bit until folks in Japan embraced the cute little bugger and sparked a resurgence of Orange Bird related merch.

Meeting his public at the Sunshine Tree Terrace.
All of this is well and good, but I'm leaving out one major fact about this adorable little guy. He was inextricably linked to one Ms. Anita Bryant. Ring a bell? She's a pretty atrocious human being whose legacy is her organization Save Our Children, which in the late 70's succeeded in repealing a Florida ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination and convincing the legislature to pass a law barring gays and lesbians from adopting. She claimed that homosexuality was "immoral", "against God's wishes", and that "since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit and freshen their ranks." Charming, huh? The ex-pageant queen was famously rewarded for her efforts with a fruit pie in the face.

I was first made aware of Ms. Bryant in high school through the (life-changing, so you should read them now if you haven't already) Tales of the City books, which take place in San Francisco during the 70's and have a gay character, Mouse, who hails from Florida and is deeply affected by Ms. Bryant's disgusting shenanigans. Why is the character called Mouse? You get three guesses and the first two don't count.

I like her better when her hips wiggle.
So how does this harpy have anything to do with adorable orange friend? She was, at the time, also the spokesperson for the FCC, who had commissioned Disney to create him. After her crusade against the gays, there was a huge uproar and orange juice boycott, so it should come as no surprise that Ms. Bryant was dropped as the voice who implored you to "Serve it generously!" But not before she appeared in print ads and commercials with our orange friend and recorded a 45rpm record featuring his story and song, which was distributed free of charge to WDW guests. This is how it came to be that such a cutie pie was saddled with such awful, negative associations in many people's minds, including this gay boy's. I was even born and bred in Florida and fell right out of the very Sunshine Tree that Ms. Bryant was warbling beneath.

Since Orange Bird is becoming more ubiquitous in the parks, his round face calling out to be re-examined and better understood, I decided to try to gain some more perspective on what the little guy was all about. First I watched one of the Orange Bird commercials featuring Ms. Bryant, her children, Billy and Barbara Bryant (oh, the alliteration!) and Orange Bird, who is apparently kept in a fancy box in the kid's room.

It's kind of amazing how different the pacing for commercials in the 70's was, huh? That was downright epic compared to the twenty second, jump-cutting ads of today. They told the whole story of a sunny morning at home with the Bryants. Not a very exciting story, but nonetheless. There's nothing offensive about the clip. Ms. Bryant is terribly sunny, flirting with creepiness in a way only former beauty queens can manage. She's excited about how thrifty and delicious OJ is, just as she was paid to be. The Orange Bird is charmingly animated flying about and looks genuinely ecstatic to escape Stepford at the end and think orange thoughts in his orange tree home, unfettered by the oppressive Ms. Bryant and her perky bouffant.

She follows him out into the citrus groves for another commercial. Her hair is longer, but no less pert, and she introduces Orange Bird to the audience, mentioning his home at Walt Disney World. He really is adorable flitting around, thinking orange.

It was after seeing these that I stumbled upon a gold mine. Some genius had the wherewithal to make a YouTube video which taking the recording of the Orange Bird story and songs 45 and matching it to illustrations from the accompanying book. It lasts about twenty minutes and is totes worth the time. That's shorter than that episode of Friends that you've seen a hundred times and just as funny, but not as good as that episode of The Golden Girls that you've seen a thousand times. Nevertheless, the clip is quite well put together. I especially appreciate the subtle hip swinging they added to Ms. Bryant for the title song.

The basic story centers on our friend, Orange Bird, who cannot make any sounds, but thinks beautiful thoughts. When he concentrates very hard, his sunny thoughts appear above his head in a cloud of orange smoke. He loves his beautiful orange tree home, but is lonely, and so he ventures out into the world to find friends. He comes across a group of birds in the picnic park who mock and reject him for being silent. He can't sing like they do and can only muster an orange musical note in orange smoke above his head. Next, he goes to the city, where he narrowly escapes being eaten by a cat. He mistakes a stoplight for a birdhouse and is crestfallen when the kindred "orange bird" in the center roost disappears when the light turns red.

Isn't he just too precious for words?
He returns to the country, where he happens upon a family picnicking. The children and mother are charmed by him, but the father is suspicious and will not allow Orange Bird be their pet, despite thinking "I love you" in a puff above his head. "It's three against one," thinks the Orange Bird. "Isn't this a democracy?" (Bold political thinking by Orange Bird. If only it were that simple.) Though disappointed, the Orange Bird flies ahead of the family, keeping an eye on the road, when he sees a washed out bridge in their path. Knowing that he had to do something or the family was in real danger, Orange Bird concentrates harder than ever before and thinks a big orange stop sign. The father stops the car just in time and the family is saved.

The family emerges from the car to find their little orange friend and thank him. The daughter says she always knew he was a friend, despite what her father thought and says that "when you meet somebody new, you should stop, look and listen and most times he'll turn out to be a friend." The father admits that he's "jumped to too many conclusions in [his] life and many times [he's] been wrong." Then, the Orange Bird is invited to join the family and be their friend forever. And they all lived happily ever after, but not before one final ballad about his magical orange tree home, no doubt included to keep the FCC happy.

It's pronounced "or-eenge", thank you very much.
It's all actually quite charming and completely weird. Personal feelings aside, I can't say I care much for Ms. Bryant's performance. First and foremost, you'd think that the orange juice spokesperson would be required to be able to say the word "orange" correctly. Former Miss Oklahoma's odd accent means that we are, in fact, listening to the story of the "little Or-eenge Bird" in the "or-eenge tree" thinking "or-eenge thoughts". Ugh. In the words of a fed up toddler in tiara, you're drivin' me nuts!

I'm not a fan of her voice in general, which is rather flat and tinny, though I know recording technology didn't help her out in that regard. I think she would benefit from a healthy dose of auto-tune. Cue the Orange Bird dance remix. Her performance as narrator is fine. Nothing exciting. Not horrifyingly bad, but certainly not good. She did not miss her calling as a children's storyteller. I shudder at the thought of poor Billy and Barbara's nightly bedtime story with mom ("And the moral of the story is- if you meet a man who loves Judy Garland and dresses well, avoid him at all costs. He just wants to recruit you so he can get his toaster. Sweet dreams!").

The songs, it should be noted, are Sherman Brothers creations and are rather good if not outstanding. Second tier Sherman, to be sure, save that spritely title tune. The Orange Bird song is bright and sunny, appropriately enough, bouncing along and incorporating some clever wordplay, such as "his little beak can't even peep a squeak", while laying out the premise of Orange Bird as mute feathered friend who thinks in puffs of smoke.  I love the gentle slide up at the final world in the line, "Won't you think of something sunny just for me-ee?" It no doubt makes the FCC happy by incorporating the word "orange" in as much as humanly possible and including the Sunshine Tree that was so much a part of their campaign.

He's even a dancer!
What really hit me in the gut when hearing the whole story was that it can easily be read as an allegory. There are so many parallels between what happens to Orange Bird and the experience of a young gay man. He is voiceless, which is how many closeted young people feel. He lives in his thoughts, trying to stay positive and hopeful about his chances of finding love and others like him despite the world making him feel that he won't. He longs to reach out and make a connection with others. He escapes home looking for like-minded folk to accept him, but is shunned for being different and attacked for seeming vulnerable. He longs to be part of a family and is rejected by a paternal figure. He is looked upon as odd and not taken seriously because he communicates differently. These are all common threads in the stories of many gays youths.

It even has my name on it!
What I have come to genuinely love about Orange Bird is the persistent optimism he displays in the face of severe obstacles. Despite being rejected, physically threatened, and outcast, Orange Bird never loses faith and always believes that he will find love. In the end, happily, he does find the love of a family. I'd like to think that if there were a sequel, he would find another Orange Bird to makes his nest with. It is a story of hope overcoming hardship and love overcoming fear. I would love to see his It Gets Better video. Orange Bird is the kind of hero that my little seven year old gay self could have used in the 80's, but I guess we missed the record giveaway at WDW.

That's right, Orange Bird.
Kill 'em with kindness.
The irony that Anita Bryant was being so horribly small minded, spewing hatred and fear mongering, while at the same time narrating a story about understanding and accepting others who are different from you, is blindingly apparent. She herself should heed the sage theory about people-you've-yet-to-meet espoused by the young girl in the story. Stop, look and listen. Most times they'll turn out to be a friend. Kids say the darndest things, huh?

I think that it is time to completely pull Orange Bird out of the shadow that Ms. Bryant has cast and embrace him. All the reticence I had regarding the character at first has been wiped away and I now look on him as a gay icon of sorts. At the very least, he is certainly a role model for anyone who has felt crushed by the weight of being different, gay or straight. He reminds us that is up to us to triumph in spite of other's prejudices and think sunny, orange thoughts.

You can bet that next time I'm at WDW, an Orange Bird t-shirt is at the top of my list of purchases to make and I will make sure to explore the area that was formerly the Sunshine Tree Terrace a bit for remnants of his stay there. Also, I'm excited to say, there are rumors that Orange Bird will be incorporated somehow into the Enchanted Tiki Room when it reopens in Walt Disney World. The attraction was shut down after catching on fire and the rather unpopular (especially with me) "Under New Management" theming is being replaced by something akin to the original show.

I would love it if this idea comes to fruition. It would be awesome to have a place to visit my new orange hero and think my own "I love you", even if it's not in a cloud of orange smoke.

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