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Live orchestra to animate Disney ‘Silly Symphony’ short films from the 1930s

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs live to old Disney "Silly Symphony" shorts in 2015.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs live to old Disney “Silly Symphony” shorts in 2015.
(Jamie Pham)

Imagine if you will: Arts supporters, dressed to the nines, gathered for a benefit in a grand old movie palace, listening to a chamber orchestra — and watching Disney cartoons.

Last year, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra broke from a 25-year tradition of playing live accompaniment to old silent films for its annual fundraiser and instead dove into the Disney vault. The rechristened “LACO @ the Movies,” which featured eight vintage animated shorts, packed the Theatre at the Ace Hotel and marked the first time the event sold out in more than 10 years.

It was only natural, then, that LACO would return to the well of Walt. This year the ensemble will perform seven of Disney’s “Silly Symphony” shorts, restored by the studio, including the first (“The Skeleton Dance”) and the last (“The Ugly Duckling”). This time the concert will take place at downtown Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater — built in 1926, just a couple of years before Walt Disney loosed Mickey Mouse on the world, and equipped with an old Wurlitzer organ that will be dusted off for the occasion.

The 1939 short "The Ugly Duckling" will be on the LACO program.
The 1939 short “The Ugly Duckling” will be on the LACO program.
(Walt Disney Co. )
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“I think this is one of the most on-brand things we do, because the roots of LACO are in the L.A. studio scene,” said Scott Harrison, the organization’s new executive director.

Indeed, LACO was founded in 1968 as another avenue of expression for Hollywood’s top studio players. Today, more than 85% of its 40 members are regulars on the scoring stages around town. “So we feel really connected to this project,” Harrison said. “It shows our musicians doing something that they’re excellent at, and putting a spotlight on something that often only happens behind the scenes.”

Disney created “Silly Symphony” movies as a playground for his animators to experiment with new techniques, particularly the idea of animating to pieces of music rather than the other way around, an idea he consummated with “Fantasia” in 1940. Between 1929 and 1939, the 75 “Silly Sympnony” shorts earned seven Academy Awards, advanced the use of Technicolor and the multiplane camera and paved the way for Disney’s kingship in animated features.

The shorts represent the dawning era of movie music, when live organists playing pastiches of classical music were replaced with recorded original soundtracks (though the recycling of classical works did not entirely disappear). The composers include Carl Stalling — Disney’s first music director and the architect of animation scoring, who would later become a fixture of Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes” — as well as Leigh Harline, Frank Churchill and Albert Hay Malotte.

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The LACO program will include the 1933 short "Three Little Pigs."
The LACO program will include the 1933 short “Three Little Pigs.”
(Walt Disney Co. )

“The composers that worked for Disney in those days were at the top of their game, and I would put them on the same level as any of the great composers who were doing feature films,” said Mark Watters, who will conduct the LACO show. “Unfortunately — and I can relate to this being an animation composer — they did not get the respect that perhaps a Korngold or Max Steiner or Franz Waxman did. But their music is every bit as good.”

Watters has been writing music for Disney since the early ’90s, going back to the afternoon television series “Goof Troop.”

“I like to say I’m as close to a staff composer as they have in this modern day,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to work in virtually every division they have, from video games to theme parks.”

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His bread and butter, though, has always been animation. The composer’s CV (with its six Emmy wins) is filled with cartoon series such as “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Aladdin” and films such as “All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.”

“I used to lament that I’d been hopelessly typecast as an animation composer,” he said. “But now that I’ve been doing it for 25 years, I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

The benefit night is meant to be a fun outing for families, but Watters said the concert also will show off the quality of the scores and the challenge of performing them.

“Even though we use a click track, it’s still very, very difficult to do these live,” he said, referring to the metronome that will keep musicians synced with the picture.

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Originally the shorts’ rhythmically schizophrenic scores were recorded in pieces, so players could adjust instrumentation and tempo between takes. Playing them live, synced to picture, is a different animal.

“It’s not unusual to change tempos 10 times in a minute,” Watters said. “And what might be considered a really fast tempo for traditional symphonic music is an average tempo for animation.”

The Disney short "Flowers and Trees" from 1932.
The Disney short “Flowers and Trees” from 1932.
(Walt Disney Co. )

LACO will have only two rehearsals to master these dime-turning workouts — which is where being old pros in Hollywood comes in handy. On the scoring stages, these musicians tackle brand new pieces after only one or two quick read-throughs.

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Another tie to Hollywood is the event’s honorary chairman: Dustin Hoffman. The Oscar-winning actor is helping LACO’s fundraising mission by writing a letter and opening up his star-studded Rolodex. If possible (he’s been away shooting a film), he’ll attend and speak at the event.

LACO was one of the earliest entrants in live-to-picture screenings, which are now experiencing a boom worldwide. Ironically, the fundraiser is competing against a juggernaut event at the Hollywood Bowl, where Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” will be accompanied by a live orchestra and celebrity singers including Sara Bareilles, Titus Burgess, Rebel Wilson and Darren Criss. Even more tradition-bound orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic are finding new and large audiences performing the scores to films as diverse as “West Side Story” and “Home Alone.” Harrison said his group is contemplating further ways of exploring the practice.

As popular as these events have become, LACO gets to lay a special claim.

“We have musicians in the orchestra with 400 film credits to their name,” Harrison said. “It means a lot to them to be able to be a part of that world.”

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"The Skeleton Dance," the 1929 film that was the first of 75 "Silly Symphony" shorts.
“The Skeleton Dance,” the 1929 film that was the first of 75 “Silly Symphony” shorts.
(Walt Disney Co. )

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“LACO @ the Movies: An Evening of Disney Silly Symphonies”

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

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When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: Start at $38

Info: (800) 745-3000, laco.org

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