At 50, Tiki Room birds are still singing

JUNE 21, 2013


It started with a mechanical talking bird.

It grew into a chorus of singing, blinking, breathing birds and was a breakthrough of animation in an era before computers. Fifty years later, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room represents the birth of a technological evolution at Disneyland.

Although the attraction may seem quaint today, without it Abraham Lincoln may never have come to life, there’d be no sword-fighting swashbucklers on the Pirates of the Caribbean and Lighting McQueen and Mater would just be a couple of old cars.

Walt Disney had for years sought a way to create live-action characters with the same personality as his cartoons. On a trip to New Orleans, he found a toy mechanical parrot. Disney knew he could build a better bird. He put his creative team to work using the latest technology, which he dubbed Audio-Animatronics.

The mechanics, which had then just recently been declassified by the military, were cutting edge in 1963 for the design studios of WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises in Glendale, where technicians were charged with hatching new ideas for the eight-year-old Disneyland.

“Walt liked to trot out that parrot and show it to people he wanted to impress,” said Marty Sklar, 79, who at the time was helping build attractions for the General Electric exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair.

One day, a vice president of GE came to the Disneyland offices in Anaheim. Disney wanted to show off the parrot. He had Wally Boag, who played Pecos Bill in the Golden Horseshoe Revue, hide under a table to provide the bird’s voice.

“We want you to meet our parrot,” Disney told the GE executive in the gentle fatherly tone familiar from his weekly introductions on his television show, “The Wonderful World of Color.”
Disney continued to ad lib.

“Now, what is a four-letter word for the thing you do at the bottom your cage?” Walt asked.
The group, including Sklar, tensed up a tad, not knowing how Boag might answer. Boag didn’t know what to say, apparently. There was a pause.

“Grit,” Disney said, as the room exhaled. “It’s called grit.”

“The parrot started taking on a life of its own after that,” Sklar said.

The Audio-Animatronic birds were conceived so Disney could have them in a restaurant – without getting any grit in the soup.

Musical movements

John Hench, who had started with Disney as a sketch artist in 1939 on “Fantasia,” had roughed out a drawing for the proposed restaurant in Adventureland. Hench envisioned a Polynesian theme with dozens of bird cages suspended from the ceiling.

Rolly Crump, a show designer, remembered Disney hitting the roof.

“You can’t have birds – they’ll poop in the food,” Crump, now 83, remembered Disney saying.

Hench suggested using stuffed birds.

“But Walt was not going to use stuffed animals at Disneyland,” Crump said.

Disney had the Animatronic parrot. He also had an idea for a Tiki garden to entertain folks as they waited to get into the restaurant.

Soon, there would be no restaurant.

“The show started taking over, and then the restaurant went by the wayside,” Sklar said. “But you can’t have birds tweeting for the whole show. Walt brought in the Sherman brothers to make sense of it.”

A year before audiences would hear their memorable soundtrack for the movie “Mary Poppins,” Robert and Richard Sherman wrote the songs for the new show.

“In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room, all the birds sing words and the flowers croon, in the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room…”

Disney named it Audio-Animatronics because the songs and sound made the birds move. All the controls in the show, even the revolving bird cages, were controlled by audio signals on the 16mm tapes that contained the songs.

“The sound would go through a tone filter and would come out and send signals to 12-volt relays that would open and close what were called ‘Skinner’ valves that controlled the air actuators on all the figure functions,” said Jack Taylor, who was 18 when he programmed the sound controls for the show in 1962.

The contraption involved large equipment banks in the basement.

“The basement was as big as the Tiki Room was, and was filled with all kinds of control cabinets, air valves and more,” Taylor said. “Each of the main birds had their own control cabinet originally. Now you could probably put all the audio and programming data on a laptop.”

Crump, meanwhile, began figuring out how to build the show.

Meanwhile, in the parking lot

Crump headed to the UCLA library and found a book called “Whispers on the Wind,” which gave the stories behind Polynesian mythology and served as the inspiration for the tiki characters.

Next, he sought out Disney sculptor Blaine Gibson, who was tied up working on the World’s Fair exhibits.

“But I don’t know how to sculpt,” Crump remembered telling Gibson, who answered there was no better time to learn.

It was so cramped inside the studio, Crump began building the clay molds for the tiki characters in the winter cold out in the parking lot of WED Enterprises – the group now known as Walt Disney Imagineering – on Senora Avenue in Glendale.

The molds moved into the studio to be cased in fiberglass, then Crump painted them by hand. He also installed them.

“Today, you’d have about 50 people doing the job, but back then it was just us,” said Crump, who joined Disney in 1952.

Walt Disney had another idea: he wanted a huge chorus of birds descending from the ceilings, singing in female French chorus.

“Next thing I know I’m in a Raymond lift 15 feet in the air working on a ‘bird mobile’ all day,” Crump chuckled, describing the device that spins the birds around. “I could come down for lunch.”

A flock of birds, singing flowers and totem poles filled the Enchanted Tiki Room by the time it opened on June 23, 1963. The mechanical birds looked so lifelike they would appear the next year in “Mary Poppins,” 22 years before Pixar’s first three-dimensional animated film. The parrot became a smart-talking macaw by the name of

Jose, keeping Wally Boag’s voice and would sire future Disney characters, like the wise-cracking Iago of “Aladdin.”

The bird at 50

These days, the line for the Dole Pineapple Whip stand is longer than the one for the Enchanted Tiki Room.

But those who remember a time when it seemed like a magical experience come back with their kids, who no doubt will someday feel the same way about the computer-generated images that now make comic characters seem so real.

“We’re so spoiled these days with all the sci-fi and CGI, but this holds some nostalgia for me,” said Glenn Molina, of Altadena, who took his daughter Olivia, 6, and Jacob, 5. “When I was a kid this was so fun to see, and I want them to see it. They keep wanting to come back, so it must still be fun.”

Dawn Hartman brought her son Logen, 10, and Piper, 2, to see the show on the last day of a three-day trip to Disneyland from Travis Air Force Base.

“The two-year-old just loved it,” she said. “She was back there dancing and singing. Plus, it’s one of the few things here that I can take both of them to. So many of the rides have restrictions, I can’t do that.”

Nearing their 50th birthday Sunday, the old mechanical talking birds have proven to have as much grit as Walt Disney could have ever imagined.