One day in the summer of 1970 some friends and I decide to try to do everything in Disneyland in just one day. On a dash through Frontierland I spy open doors in a corner building – the Golden Horseshoe Saloon. I’d run past the place many times on my way to the rides, but couldn’t remember ever going in; this day seemed like the perfect opportunity.
We sit at a table down front as the old-style projection screen squeaks down from the rafters. A series of quaint slides provide a preshow, with comic announcements and a sing-along. When the houselights dim three musicians down front strike up a spirited overture and we’re off.
Right away, I’m struck with the atmosphere of the place — the jewel box theater with its architectural details, the authentic bar, waitress costumes, Remington-style paintings and the large collection of steer horns adorning the walls. Even the words ‘Pepsi-Cola’ embroidered on the plush curtain are in an ornate font that softens its anachronistic impact. The band itself – piano, trumpet & drums – are a rather somber lot, who go about their business as if it really is just a business.
For someone accustomed to ‘theme park’ shows, this is a revelation. Nothing in this room draws attention to itself as ‘wholesome’ or ‘childish’. There is no overweening Disney gloss to the place, no one insisting that I loudly proclaim that I am having fun. It’s as if I’ve left a Synthetic Atmosphere and stepped into the real world of 1871.
Four truly beautiful saloon dancers take the stage (‘Milly, Tilly, Molly & Polly’ as the song goes) to sing and dance a welcome, flirting and waving as if we’re dusty pioneers on payday, looking for female companionship and a respite from the trail. They then introduce, “Our boss – all the way from St. Lou – Slew Foot Sue!”
A truly magnificent-looking lady (this was Betty Taylor) in a beaded gown herds ‘her girls’ safely off stage and announces that she’s ‘Looking for a Big City Beau’. She sings as she ventures into the house to charm the children, flirt with fathers and focus her attentions on one embarrassed, balding cowpoke.
She introduces “the boss of this Golden Horseshoe” and out skips the happiest, friendliest ‘boss’ you can imagine (Fulton Burley). The only way to explain this guy is: he’s happy in his work. He sings an old Irish tune, ‘Clancy Lowered the Boom’, punctuating the verses with old jokes and geniality.
The dancing girls return for a romantic production number performed by Betty and Fulton, and as the lights fade out and the applause reaches its peak – shots ring out! And my life changes.
The first time I see Wally Boag he’s standing in the middle of the Horseshoe in a long coat that looks like it had been cut from an old couch. The derby on his head is pushed back and he’s toting a large carpet bag in one hand and a raised six-shooter in the other. “Here I am, your Avon Man!”
What strikes me about this isn’t his suit or sudden entrance; it’s his attitude. This man is totally at ease. Even apathetic. Every other comic I’ve ever seen tried to charm the audience, to make an impression. Here is a guy who acts as if WE are the ones who suddenly appeared around HIM… and we’re five minutes late.
It turns out he’s a traveling salesman. After swapping some friendly ‘digs’ with the ‘boss’, he takes the stage and starts peddling his wares: a bottle of Pepsi, a deck of trick cards, a rubber chicken. Every item, every line, every thing this guy does gets a laugh. Obviously what I’m watching is an authentic vaudeville act, polished to perfection over a long, long run by one who knows how.
He produces a set of four animal balloons that seem to defy the laws of physics, inflating forwards, backwards and in sections. He swaps them about, making an elephant, a rabbit and a dog from the same four balloons. He whips out a bagpipe and plays it for laughs, He does an eccentric dance. Then, just when you think he’s run out of tricks, he takes off his toupee, proclaiming, “It’s so hot in here today!”
The whole time he’s onstage I’m laughing… and I’m not alone. Everyone’s laughing – small children, young couples and grandparents. He dances offstage to a big round of applause, then returns one minute later with the others to perform a brilliant musical comedy sketch as ‘Pecos Bill’.
As funny as everything has been up to now, nothing prepares me for ‘Pecos Bill’. This routine, I learned later, had grown over the previous 15 years from a simple musical bit into a masterpiece of musical invention, ensemble comedy and razor-sharp timing. The centerpiece is the moment when Fulton pretends to slug Wally and knocks out a few of his teeth. Then he spits out a few more. Then a lot more. And they just keep coming and coming and coming until everyone’s in stitches.
By the time the show ends I’m certain of three things: 1) I’ll be returning to the Golden Horseshoe; 2) Wally Boag is my new hero; and 3) I’m going to be just like him someday.