Magic and Imagination: The Music of the Main Street Electrical Parade

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Disneyland proudly presents

Our spectacular festival pageant

Of nighttime magic and imagination

In thousands of sparkling lights

And electro-syntho-magnetic musical sounds,

The Main Street Electrical Parade!

Fifty years ago, Guests at Disneyland first heard those magical words. They were spoken in a sing-song robotic voice and introduced the world to the park’s latest nighttime spectacular: a parade of glittering lights and whimsical electronic music. 

With the success of Walt Disney World’s Electrical Water Pageant (which debuted in 1971), Disneyland decided to explore the idea of similar entertainment. Ron Miziker, an entertainment producer for Disney, came across an article at the Anaheim public library explaining how people would string together lightbulbs and then parade down the streets in the earliest days of electricity. That simple story sparked an idea, that Bob Jani would transform into the Main Street Electrical Parade. 

While the twinkling, multicolor lights are the stars of the show, it’s hard to imagine it having such enduring success without the memorable musical score that plays. In early concepts, Jani thought that the music of Fantasia should provide the soundtrack. Jack Wagner (who you might know as the voice declaring, “Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor.” and “Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas.”) disagreed with the choice, believing that the music should be electronic instead of orchestral.

Outside of Disney, Wagner worked as a DJ and had an enormous collection of records at home. He began searching through the collection until coming across an album by Jean Jacques Perrey and Gerson Kingsley called “Spotlight on the Moog: Kaleidoscopic Vibrations”. On side two of the record, he discovered “Baroque Hoedown”, the song which became the theme for the Main Street Electrical Parade.

The In Sound From Way Out

Born in 1929, Jean Jacques Perrey did not set out to become a musician. Instead, he started out in medical school. He left those studies to begin creating musique concrete compositions, an experimental technique that involved using natural sounds to create a montage of sound. 

According to longtime collaborator Dana Countryman, Perrey’s experiments with electronic synthesizers began in the 1950s. According to Countryman, “Jean-Jacques first started recording electronic music in 1952, long before the Moog synthesizer was first made for sale in 1967…Relocating from Paris to New York City, JJ actually owned and recorded with the second Moog ever produced…Jean-Jacques was truly the pioneer of popular electronic music.”

After moving to the United States in the 1960s,  Perrey met Gershon Kingsley. Seven years his senior, Kingsley grew up in Berlin, before moving to Palestine, where he taught himself to play the piano. He later played jazz in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv before emigrating to the United States. He studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of music and began writing music for Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

Perrey and Kingsley joined forces to become an electronic music duo, releasing the groundbreaking album “The In Sound from Way Out!” in 1966. The liner notes to the record note that it was the product of 275 hours of work and several miles of tape. In addition to the album’s use of feedback loops, oscillators, and musique concrete recordings, Perrey played the Ondioline, an electronic keyboard that became the forerunner of modern synthesizers. Tracks on the finished product included titles like “Computer in Love”, “Swan’s Splashdown” (a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”), and “Spooks In Space” (a variation on Camille Saint’Saens’s “Danse Macabre”). The webpage Seven 45rpm describes the album as, “filled with tunes that sounded like some kind of surreal animated cartoon from out-of-space gone berserk.”

The following year, the duo released “Kaleidoscopic Vibrations”. It is notable for being one of the earliest to ever use the Moog (a modular synthesizer developed by Robert Moog). The album featured a number of arrangements of popular songs, as well as several original compositions. Kingsley’s orchestrations were recorded first, before Perrey added tape loops and effects to each track. 

Baroque Hoedown is the first track on side two of the record. The song is a bright, cheery piece, once described as “harpsichord gone country”. The title hints at this juxtaposition, with baroque referring to the music of 17th to mid-18th century that was known for being heavily ornamented (composers include Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel). It sounds a bit like Bach as interpreted by a stereotypical pianist in a western saloon. In short, perfect for a grand parade of twinkling lights, fanciful characters, and childlike wonder.

Electro-Syntho-Magnetic Musical Sounds

As noted, Wagner was looking for music for the Main Street Electrical Parade when he encountered “Baroque Hoedown”. He passed the piece along to music director Jim Christensen, who endorsed the choice. According to Don Dorsey,  a musician, producer, director, and audio engineer who worked on the 1977 version of the Main Street Electrical Parade, “The bright electronic sound and quick, catchy melody were infectious.  The tempo was right for choreography and a one-minute and three-second portion could be looped to play continuously; exactly what parade music needed to do.” 

Wagner and Christensen then met synth programmer Paul Beaver. Paul and Jim worked together, recording demos. According to Dorsey, “One was a short patriotic medley and the other was the original Baroque Hoedown recording with a synth bass line added.” Dorsey further notes, “it was decided to build the entire parade on top of Baroque Hoedown, a technique similar to “It’s a Small World” where one melody is overlaid with multiple synchronized arrangements.  In this plan, instead of moving the audience through the arrangements, the arrangements would move past the audience.  Armed with sketches of the parade floats, Jim began the puzzle-like process of fitting Disney melodies into the harmonic structure and format of Baroque Hoedown.”

Six musical scenes were created for the parade, all built around Perrey and Kingsley’s composition. Curiously, despite the fact that Disney obtained the rights to use the music, Perrey was unaware of the fact until 1980. He recalled, “In the 1970s, Walt Disney Productions chose this tune to be the theme for the Electrical Parade. It was extraordinary, I didn’t know about it because the publishers said nothing to me. It was by chance, in 1980, that I went there and was so surprised to hear “Baroque Hoedown” arranged for a full orchestra.”

Though the parade was a wild success, it was retired in 1974 as Disney prepared to celebrate America’s Bicenntenial. It was this new spectacular that brough Don Dorsey into the picture, as he was asked to create music for “America on Parade”.

In 1977, with the Bicenntenial celebration in the rearview, the company decided to bring the Electrical Parade back. Dorsey was named music director, and he brought a new approach to the parade. According to the history on his webpage, “The original parade had begun with a manually triggered tape of an oscillator sweep, followed by a fade in of the continuous parade music as the lights were turned off in each area the parade approached. Don wanted to heighten the excitement of the parade beginning by incorporating a fanfare that segued directly into the parade tempo. He also wanted to synchronize a dramatic “lights out” cue to the music. As the parade progressed through the park, this would require an inaudible transition from each new fanfare into the continuous track in perfect synchronization. To accomplish this, Don invented a production and playback method called the Opening Window which has been used to kick off virtually every Disney parade since.”

Dorsey, Wagner, and Christensen worked together to create the updated version of the music. In 1979, one final enhancement was added, when Dorsey suggested that Wagner’s introduction be run through a vocoder, transforming it into the robotic sounding voice that has become so associated with the parade. 

Over the years, segments have come and gone, including portions for The Fox and the Hound, Pleasure Island, and Return to Oz, while some additions (such as Peter Pan) have become permanent fixtures. 

50 Years of Nighttime Magic and Imagination

On April 22, the Main Street Electrical Parade returned to Disneyland, adding a grand finale float that, according to Disneyland’s’s official page, celebrates, “the theme of togetherness, reflected in a design that brings together characters and moments from more than a dozen beloved Disney and Pixar stories. These stylized scenes—interpreted in thousands of sparkling lights and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sound—bring to light classic and contemporary favorites such as Encanto, The Jungle Book, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Princess and the Frog, Coco, Mulan and more. Inspired by both the design of classic Main Street Electrical Parade floats and Disney Legend Mary Blair’s art style on “it’s a small world,” the new grand finale float is one of the longest and grandest in the parade’s 50-year history!”

At half a century old, it remains one of the most beloved Disney experiences, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. Here’s to many happy returns of the day and the hope that the Main Street Electrical Parade is around for another 50 years at least. 

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