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Archive for February 16th, 2021

Phil Moore credit in Rooty Toot Toot (1951).

by Lee Price

 Did You Ever See an Elephant Fly?

Who was in the room that day in spring 1941 at the Walt Disney Studio when the Hall Johnson Choir did their first run-through of their portion of the Dumbo script?

The initial recording sessions on a Disney animated feature of this period (the twilight of that brief 1937-42 golden age) were opportunities for innovation. All available performing artists would have been present, some of the animators would have been there along with some of the music department and the writers, and other film crew members might have dropped by, too. The Disney Studio encouraged input from everyone. While much of the script would have been fully storyboarded by this point, past experience would have suggested there still might be a lot of changes in store. Unlike all the other Hollywood animation units, the Disney Studio built in an unusual amount of luxury time to play and experiment.

The focus here is on the first day assigned to work with the Hall Johnson Choir, the stars of Dumbo’s crow scene which is highlighted by the song “When I See An Elephant Fly.” Originally called the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, the 30+ member touring choral ensemble was nationally-famous and rigorously professional. Composer and arranger Hall Johnson established his choir in the mid-1920s and brought them to prominence with their acclaimed musical support in the Broadway hit Green Pastures. Johnson earned praise as a master at arranging African-American spirituals. By 1941, the choir was not only experienced with working on movie sets (they reprised their stage role in the 1936 film of Green Pastures), but had even worked for Disney, providing the choral backgrounds on a couple of scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Phil Moore performing, circa 1945.

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