Monday, August 1, 2011

Papa Bear

Love this poster art. Those Marc Davis
characters are just so full of life!
The Country Bear Jamboree is rather controversial among Disney parkgoers. There are who hold it close to their hearts and will defend it to the death and there are those who emit a resounding "Meh..." and avoid it at all costs. Which camp, y'all ask, do I fall into? I fall squarely into the former. 

For me, no trip to the Magic Kingdom is ever complete unless I have made my pilgrimage to Grizzly Hall. I enter the waiting room, which is wonderfully detailed, down to the bear claw marks of audiences past covering the floor. I remember noticing that they were there when I was a kid, fully convinced that bears made them, and now it stands as one of my favorite bits of architectural storytelling in the park.

The wood interior warms my soul, transporting me to a rustic time and place where woodland creatures sing songs for me, even when they only exist from the neck up. The theater is equally simple and cozy. And the show that plays there is like a salve for what pains you. You just have to sit back, relax, and wallow in the pure joy of knee-slapping silliness.
At a certain point, you flat out give up
on replacing the floorboards.

On my last trip to Walt Disney World my big pin trading goal was to collect all six of the Country Bear Jamboree hidden Mickey pins that were circulating around. Tom and I kept our eyes peeled for patches of brown on cast members' lanyards. By the end of our second day, we had found them all and I displayed them proudly on my puffed out chest. Tom and I literally jumped up and down and cheered when we finally found the last of the set.

I finally got a vinyl copy of the attraction soundtrack on eBay, which now graces my wall. I even own the much maligned movie on DVD. I haven't watched it in years. I remember being severely disappointed when I saw it the first time, so I am curious to revisit it and see if that opinion has changed at all. Do you need any more convincing about what Country Bear JamborFan I am? I thought not.

I would venture to say that most people who don't like the show either haven't seen the show recently, refuse to do so because they don't like country music, or are scared away by other bear bashers. Disney itself is guilty of mocking these poor ursine performers, lampooning the attraction unabashedly (and quite cleverly, I must admit) in A Goofy Movie with the Lester's Possum Park scene.

Don't get me wrong. I will admit that the show can use a bit of sprucing up. The fur has gotten a little matted. They bears sometimes do that weird, one-eyed blink that only animatronics who need a tune-up do. The cracks show around the edges and the thing can tend to look a bit threadbare and janky. But that's not the show. That's upkeep. And that's a shame.

I would love to see our friends be treated with a bit more care- especially since this is the very first attraction to originate in Walt Disney World before moving elsewhere. As a Florida boy, it's a matter of home state pride to me. Now that the Disneyland version is gone, WDW alone holds the Country Bear torch. Apparently the three heads- Buff, Max and Melvin- still live in the Winnie the Pooh ride that has taken over their old home in Critter Country. I tried unsuccessfully to find them on my last trip and will try even harder when I go back next month.

Big Al and Al Bertino. Striking resemblance, eh?
Underneath the layers of dust, the attraction that is there still shines and I would argue that dismissing the Country Bear Jamboree so quickly is doing yourself a disservice. I think that it is one of the most subversive, funny, weird, and original attractions in the park. Imagineers like Marc Davis (one of my personal faves) and Al Bertino (Big Al, who memorably sings "Blood on the Saddle" in the attraction is based on him) infused the show with a wicked sense of humor and a big, beating heart.

Every one of the songs in the show, whether original or not, really gives you an insight into who these characters are. You come out having a very firm sense of all of the characters' personalities after a very short time with each. It manages to be appropriate and engaging for kids, who are taken by the fun songs and the big Audio-animatronic bears. They also have my favorite character, little Oscar clutching his teddy bear, as an absolutely adorable stand-in for them to relate to. He acts as an observant child who just soaks up all the craziness oozing out of the adults that surround him.

At the same time, it winks slyly at the adults in the audience. If you're a gay man, a show filled with bears takes on a whole new meaning. It's a no-brainer. Moonshine flows and the bears imbibe, both to forget their man troubles or just because that's what hillbilly bears would do. Any parent who's had a long day in the park with a pain in the rump child will appreciate the sentiment of not whupping little Buford, but shooting him instead. It's also very easy to relate to the Sun Bonnets when they lament that "all the guys that turn me on, turn me down." Liver Lips McGrowl shares his acceptance that his woman ain't pretty, cuz he ain't, too. And married Earnest admits that when he flirted with a lady bear, she told him "If ya can't bite, don't growl." Sage advice, indeed.

Yup. This lives on my wall now. Jealous?
These bears aren't singing cute little bear songs about cute little bear things. These are bears that act like real people. Ladies are bein' sexy. One even looks like Mae West beckoning us to come on up and see her and is a swinger, for heaven's sake! Guys are noticing and hollering their approval. Everybody jammin' to music they love. They are performing mostly old school folk, country and blues songs, with originals perfectly blended in, including "The Bear Band Seranade" by George Bruns and X. Atencio, who co-wrote "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me".

These songs are tongue in cheek, raw, and full of black humor. They are singing songs that stem from the everyday experiences of real people, mostly revolving around their relationships. This is not the most politically correct attraction in the park, and has is pretty much unchanged over the years, thank heavens, save the occasional vacation hoedown show and the holiday incarnation which are only in Japan now. This is as close to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and you will ever get in the Magic Kingdom. And it's purty darn close, at that.

This is the music of the common folk of America, which is, of course, why it fits comfortably in Walt's vision of the park. Instead of the more well-to do yesterday on Main Street, here in Frontierland it is more down and dirty. The struggles of working class people that broke their backs to lay the foundation of this country and what they did to leave forget their hardships for a spell. I hope that just as pirates have come back to the forefront lately, that Davy Crockett and his ilk will have a resurgence soon, but that's a whole other blog entry.

Having said all of that, I have a confession to make. Don't tell anyone, but I used to be a full on Country Bear hater. I wandered far away before I finally came back into the fold. There were years that I would turn my nose up at the thought of sitting down to a twenty minute show of country singin', weird winkin', twangy talkin' robotic bears. And it had as much to do with my own journey in life as it had to do with anything else. I can admit that now. Before I would have said that it was boring and dumb just so I wouldn't have to confront the fact that if my Dad was an attraction at Walt Disney World, he would be the Country Bear Jamboree. No question.

Almost any Southern gay boy will tell you that their relationship with their dad is fraught, to say the least, and mine was no exception. My dad is a good ole boy who comes from a large family in Eufala, Alabama. I'm sure that the idea of having a gay family member had never even crossed his mind, much less having a gay son. Things were tough for a lot of years and that resulted in me turning my back on anything that made me think of my dad.

The Five Bear Rugs (plus Oscar- toot toot!)
For all those years I rejected anything country. Music, culture, and even the accent. I worked very hard to hammer out any bit of that giveaway lilt from my voice to make sure that my heritage couldn't be pegged down.

To be fair, it wasn't just Dad. I lived in a town where the majority of cars proudly display Jesus fish or Confederate flags and the people in them proudly display the homophobia that oftentimes accompanies those bumper stickers. It was a hard place to grow up, but in the end I have no doubt I am stronger for it.

A few years ago, as I was approaching my thirties, I started to gain a lot of respect for Dad. It was the kind of respect that only life experience allows you to glean. Part of it was from my own contemplation of being a father. As I imagine what it is like to raise a child, I tip my hat to those brave souls who step into the wilderness of parenthood, knowing that it will be hard, amazing, exasperating, exhilarating, trying, and ultimately gratifying. I know it was hard for Dad to look at his son and not understand the person that he was becoming. It was equally hard for me knowing that he didn't and wondering if he ever could.

It's like a little patch of heaven.
It was soon after that I started to feel a real connection to the South. I was drawn to the music, the lore, the kindness that was everywhere if you looked for it. My love for roots-influenced music by folks like the Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile, Patty Griffin and Alison Krauss caught fire. Now country and folk leaning artists are among my favorites. I started getting into southern books, like The Help, and southern TV shows like True Blood. I also started missing Tallahassee, Florida, where some people were closed minded, but many more were accepting of anyone as long as they're good people. I missed the feeling of community, the importance of family, and the smell of honeysuckle when you drive down the canopy road on your way home to sit on the back porch with the family and sip sweet ice tea while the crickets make music and the fireflies dance.

I know, I know. Her eyes are wonky.
I don't have the heart to tell her.
My dad is pure country, with a bigger than life laugh, belly and sense of humor. Everything about him is over the top and silly. He also has a deep love for roots music- blues, country, folk, jazz. He goes out every chance that he can to play his huge bass and sang songs. It don't pay him much, but he does it because he loves it. The house is always full of music- sometimes annoyingly loud. Harmonicas at nine in the morning. Bass at three in the afternoon. Singing all night on the back porch. I think that the two great loves of his life are his family and his music.

As I began to make peace with Dad, I began to appreciate the simple joys that are within the doors of Grizzly Hall. He is the Country Bear Jamboree personified. He even kind of looks like a Country Bear, to tell the truth. And "liver lips" is a term of endearment / annoyment that has been so imbedded into my psyche from Dad saying it that it's hard to tell whether I heard it from him, he heard it from the show or it came out of a collected Southern consciousness that's bigger than any of us. He takes joys in the simple things, enjoys what he does without shame or apologies, jams hard and loves even harder.

There is a stuffed Oscar and
I don't own it. Unacceptable.
With the same fervor I used to walk right past the attraction because it reminded me of Dad, I walk directly for The Country Bear Jamboree now. It makes me think of him and the moments I spend listening to him tell hokey jokes or play the harmonica with more heart than skill. Dad and I will never be exactly on the same page about everything. Just ask me about his addiction to Fox News. But we now have a mutual respect that the teenage me would never have expected. I genuinely and without hesitation love my dad like crazy.

Disney has done something pretty spectacular by taking a piece of Americana out of the trunk and putting it on display for thousands of people every day. For me, it is more than just that. It's a piece of my history that I get to spend time with. It doesn't matter how loudly the gears grind while Henry and the gang entertain, beneath the clack of an animatronic eyelid, if you let yourself listen, you hear the story of a culture. And as I make my way back to that pine-filled auditorium, I am making my way back to my dad, one corny joke and mouth harp solo at a time.

And sometimes, usually when I talk to my family, a southern drawl sneaks back into my voice and it makes me smile when I catch it there. I am proud of my family, especially my dad, my heritage and that twang. Dang proud, thank you ma'am.

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