It was 60 years ago Friday that Walt Disney first opened the gates at Disneyland. Once referred to by skeptics as “Walt’s Folly,” the Anaheim landmark forever changed the game in the world of amusement parks.
The focus over those six decades has been rides and adventures, but the park also HAS featured live entertainment since the beginning, including comedy acts, barbershop quartets and strolling Dixieland bands, along with big-name pop and jazz performers.
These days, most of the live music comes in the form of cover bands who play throughout the day at Tomorrowland Terrace. But once upon a time, some of the most renowned musicians in the world included Disneyland on their tour itineraries.
Here are five noteworthy acts that played the Magic Kingdom:
July 15, 1971: Linda Ronstadt (and the Eagles): Ronstadt had established herself as a star with her band the Stone Poneys in the late-1960s, and was booked for a week of shows at Disneyland in 1971. Only problem was, she didn’t have a regular touring band at the time. So she invited four musicians she’d met through her regular appearances at the Troubadour in West Hollywood to join her for the Anaheim shows. It was the first time that Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner performed together, and it wasn’t long until they’d flown the coop as Ronstadt’s supporting group to take flight as the Eagles.
July 6, 1965: The Sir Douglas Quintet: In the mid-‘60s, Disneyland had some pretty au courant pop bookings. Long before he became a superstar in the 1970s, young John Denver appeared at the park. The Dillards bluegrass band played. So did the Turtles, the Dixie Cups, the Rivingtons, the Bobby Fuller Four and the Modern Folk Quartet. One of the most vibrant rock bands of the time was Texas-based Sir Douglas Quintet, which was riding high on its first hit single, “She’s About a Mover,” when leader Doug Sahm, keyboardist Augie Meyers and company visited Disneyland to perform. They returned in the early-‘80s, shortly before Sahm and Meyers connected with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez to form the Texas Tornados.
1982: L.A. pop eccentrics Sparks. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael were a decade into their envelope-pushing career with Sparks when they released “Angst in My Pants,” their album that included the minor radio hit “Mickey Mouse,” in which they sing from the perspective of the world’s most famous rodent: “And my name is Mickey Mouse/To the right is Minnie Mouse/And we own a little place in Disneyland, California.” That landed them a spot on the park’s Tomorrowland Terrace stage for one of the quirkier moments in Disneyland’s music legacy.
July 17, 1988: Buster Poindexter. On the park’s 33rd anniversary, pop subversive David Johansen played Disneyland’s relatively new Videopolis stage, created to bring a bit of MTV video energy into the Magic Kingdom. The founding member of the punk-glam New York Dolls was doing his Buster Poindexter lounge act at the time, having scored a pop radio hit with his rendition of the calypso song “Hot Hot Hot.” His act was a bit risqué for the squeaky-clean Disney image, and when he tried to lead a rumba line into the crowd, security cut the number short and the show was over.
Jazz, various: Fans used to eagerly await the summer season of music at Disneyland’s Carnation Plaza Gardens stage, as it served up a bonanza of big band greats for decades until the plaza’s entertainment ended in 1999, and the Carnation Plaza itself gave way to Fantasy Faire.
But in the 1960s and ‘70s guests could still hear orchestras led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Into the ‘80s and ‘90s, bands led by Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and other jazz veterans were mainstays of the summer entertainment. “I enjoy the Disneyland gig more than any other we play all year because the band can blow,” Les Brown told The Times in 1990. “Actually, the only time we can blow out the way we like to blow out and play the arrangements that we recorded and the way we recorded them, full blast, is at Disneyland, or an occasional concert.”