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Day 1 – Behind Walt Disney’s First Television Program, “One Hour in Wonderland”

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of the well-known song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, our writers will be counting up from 1 to 12 as we bring you a numbered, Disney-themed subject on each day leading up to Christmas.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and we’re kicking off a special blog series by going back to the very beginning.

Over the course of the next 12 days here on WDW Radio, you’ll hear from our blogging team as we celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas. Each day we’ll be sharing a Disney treat with you dealing with that day’s number. I’m delighted to kick things off today. In honor of the first day of Christmas, today we look back to the first television program ever aired by Disney.

One Hour in WonderlandOne Hour in Wonderland aired December 25, 1950, as a special Christmas Day telecast presented by Coca-Cola. Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice in Alice in Wonderland, is hosting a tea party at the Disney Studios to celebrate her film’s upcoming release. She’s invited some friends, including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, actor Bobby Driscoll (who, in a bit of foreshadowing, would later co-star with Beaumont as the pair voiced Peter Pan and Wendy), and, of course, Walt Disney himself. As partygoers mingle, they discover Walt’s Magic Mirror (which he says a fairy princess gave him during a European expedition… lol), and quicker than you can say “product placement,” the Mirror sends us on a journey through favorite Disney animated moments, occasionally pausing to remind us of the refreshing taste of ice-cold Coca-Cola. (In additional foreshadowing toward Peter Pan, the Mirror is portrayed by Hans Conried, who would later voice Captain Hook.)

Each celebrity requests a favorite movie scene to watch, in what essentially amounts to today’s equivalent of rotating who selects the next YouTube video to watch as a group. We see clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Song of the South, as well as a Mickey cartoon and a Pluto cartoon in their entirety. Rounding out the hour is a performance of “Jingle Bells” by the animator band, the Firehouse Five Plus Two, and a preview of the entire “Mad Tea Party” sequence from Alice in Wonderland, which surely must have been a treat for viewers. The whole thing really has little to do with Christmas, but the real marvel here was the chance to see the Disney stars in a place you had never seen them before: television.

The special is truly a snapshot from a different era. Obviously 65 years is a huge gap from the fast pace, quick camera cuts, and high energy we are accustomed to seeing on television today. By today’s standards, the production facet is a bit juvenile (Donald makes a cameo, but is literally made of air, as if there simply wasn’t enough money in the budget to fully animate him). In this brief hour, though, we get a glimpse into that time, not only in terms of the relaxed tone being indicative of the culture at the time, but also in terms of what was going on within Disney. The selection of movie clips tells us what was relevant and popular to families of 1950, while the sheer existence of the program is telling of something else. Television was still an exciting new medium at this point. While many film studios shied away from broadcasting, viewing it as a potential threat to the industry, Walt Disney was a pioneer of embracing the medium to not take away any value from his theatrical efforts, but add value to them.

One Hour in WonderlandIn a world without instant communication or backstage featurettes as Blu-ray bonus features (or even the option to own a movie on any home video platform), television was the audience’s primary way to see anything close to something like this, something that allowed Walt to play host to the inside workings of his studio in this capacity. As a family watching at home, it must have been revolutionary and extremely exciting. One Hour in Wonderland is the very first time we see the “Uncle Walt” persona, and the special set the stage for what would come after it. The program’s format is extremely similar to what would become the weekly television series Disneyland, which would debut in 1954 and act as a major advertising vehicle for the theme park of the same name. This television tradition evolved over the years to become The Wonderful World of Disney, which coincidentally returned to ABC just last night as Dick Van Dyke hosted a screening of Mary Poppins.

In a way, the tradition began by One Hour in Wonderland still continues to this day. ABC airs the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade each year, which essentially serves the same purpose that that initial telecast did: bring holiday cheer to families through favorite Disney moments and sneak peeks into future ones.

While One Hour in Wonderland is certainly one of the lesser-known projects from the Disney vault, you might be surprised to learn you already own it. If any recent edition of Alice in Wonderland is on your shelf (this includes the 2004 “Masterpiece Edition” DVD, the 2010 “Un-Anniversary Edition” DVD, and the 2010 “60th Anniversary” Blu-ray), you will find One Hour in Wonderland included in the bonus material. If you haven’t already done so, take some time this holiday season to enjoy this rare, archival treat.

Stay tuned all this week and next as WDW Radio continues our 12-Day Christmas Extravaganza!


Images © Disney.

Mickey - Blake

Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade in Frontierland and then sprint to Main Street in time to see it again. You can find him on Twitter @olddirtyblake or at BlakeOnline.com.