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Samland talks to Billy Hill and the Hillbillies

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by , 05-23-2012 at 05:14 PM


In the book, DisneyWar, author James B. Stewart suggests that the definition of the Disney ‘magic’ is that point when the guest’s apprehension turns into awe and delight. You can frequently see this moment as you watch a child’s eyes as they meet their favorite character or when an adult laughs because they made it through a thrill ride unharmed. I feel that one of the most reliable places to find this magic is watching Billy Hill and the Hillbillies inside of the Golden Horseshoe Saloon at Disneyland.

Billy Hill and the Hillbillies first began performing at Disneyland back in December 22, 1994. They got their start at a show called “Pig Mania” where they played music and raced pigs. Seriously. This is show business. They have also played outside the park, in parking lots, and very, very early for morning radio shows.


Starting on June 18, they will be moving out of the Golden Horseshoe Saloon for the summer and heading north to the Festival of the Fools arena (didn’t think that one through, eh?) to play in a larger venue and hopefully help to absorb the giant crowds the Resort is expecting this year. Frankly, I would be hard pressed to suggest a better way to spend a bit of time in the shade during a hot summer’s day.

Recently, I sat down with one of the many Billy siblings. Rumor has it that there are thirteen or fourteen brothers all named Billy. Some of the boys have nicknames. This one was called Kirk Wall. He is the one my wife calls “Sexy Billy.” Hmmm. Kirk started back at Disneyland playing the Wally Boag role of Pecos Bill in the first version of the Golden Horseshoe Revue. By this time, Wally had already retired after more than 39,000 shows and the role was being filled by Dick Hardwick. Kirk was Dick’s substitute and learned how to twirl guns and spit out teeth. Kirk said that he swallowed a few, “Breathed one in and coughed it across the room.” After leaving and working elsewhere for a couple of years, Kirk came back and was one of the founding members of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies.


I have made it a habit to bring anybody who rarely comes to Disneyland to see the show. Frequently, they will mention that this was one of their favorite memories and something makes Disneyland different than the other theme parks.

Where the Billys excel is in how they bring that Disney magic to the audience show after show. Of course, there is always a core group of die hard Billy fans in the audience. You can count me as one. But it has been my observation that many people in the audience are in the building because it is air conditioned, they can sit, or there is food. There are a lot of people who are not even aware that there is a show about to happen. Whatever is their initial motivation, I have noticed that most guests will find themselves going through the same experience. It goes something like this.


The band gets their attention with an upbeat opening tune that blends in a little comedy, a bit of Disney music, and the irresistible sound of a bluegrass band. The song ends and the diehards cheer wildly, suggesting to others in the audience that there may be something special going on up there. The first thing most people figure out is that these guys are really funny. Then they get sucked in and realize that they are listening to extraordinary musicians and that is when the magic happens. Kirk said, "If we didn’t have that 'expertmenship', if we didn’t have the best players, which we certainly do, I mean they are top dog players, this would not be possible." he added, "Every one of us respects the job and the fact that we get to play in front of thousands, every day, improving our craft. We are lucky and we make sure to keep a good attitude. We have been together for 20 years and have been through a lot.”

Kirk said, "What is really nice is that we have a really large appeal. We appeal to teens who are too cool to like anything. We also still appeal to grandmas and grandpas and families and stuff." The band has begun to gather a following from people who enjoy Rockabilly music. Kirk noted, "They appreciate the earliness of what made rock and roll and what made country all come together. They appreciate the nostalgia of the music and the roots of where it came from.”

Over the years, the band has played more than 25,000 shows. Kirk recalled one of the stranger shows, "We were doing Puddle Prance (a parody of River Dance). As you know, I make it like we can’t disconnect, our arms are locked together and I got the bow way up my nose. I knew we were all connected. It is a mess. So I was trying to put that across but this earthquake happened and we all went like - boink - and fell to different parts of the stage.”

For me, one of my favorite shows was the Leap Year Day performances. The first show started after midnight and the rest ran through to sun up. I saw the 1:45a and 2:45a performances and they were incredible. I asked Kirk about the shows and he said they were "shocked. We didn’t expect anyone. When they asked us to do it we were honored to be asked but we thought it was going to be a long night playing in front of an empty room. As it turned out the room was full every show with people who like us. Everybody knew us and had seen us, so I treated it like we were friends. It worked at that level.” It was a very special morning.


So, who else stalks the side booths hoping to grab a coveted box seat to see the Billy Hill and the Hillbillies show?




WALT’S BARN

On May 20th, I had the great honor to sign copies of Walt and the Promise of Progress City at Walt’s Barn in Griffith Park. If you are a fan of Walt Disney you owe yourself a visit. In 1950, Walt bought a home in Holmby Hills specifically to build a 1/8th scale live-steam model railroad. At the heart of the system was the Barn, modeled after the one in So Dear to My Heart and Walt’s dreams. This structure is literally the birthplace of Disneyland and Imagineering. The furniture was hand built by Walt and the collection of mementos gives an eye opening view of his passion for trains. The volunteer staff is the best. They are knowledgeable and passionate for the man and his accomplishments. They have recently restored the original Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad combine car.

The Barn is open the third Sunday of each month from 11:00am to 3:00pm. Admission and parking are free!


Sam Gennawey is an urban planner, historian, and author.

If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you'll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.



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Updated 05-24-2012 at 07:19 AM by SAMLAND

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  1. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Thanks, Sam!
    So which one is Kirk? (Photo please.) I want to know which one
    was in the great Golden Horseshoe Review. Replacing that show was one of my all-time least favorite decisions ever made by any Disney leaders,
    along with replacing the Peoplemover with Rocket Rods, and then replacing Rockets Rods with an abandoned, highly conspicuous Peoplemover track for many, many, many years. (And counting.)

    At first (many years ago) I resented the Billies because they had this following and they were not The Golden Horseshoe Revue, but I came to appreciate them for the often excellent quartet(s) they are. I particularly loved their Hillybilly tributes to the Beatles!
    So there have been a number of Billy groups, and at least once, one gifted group (I think the one that did Beatles songs country style) was let go. Another group did (does?) a funny, brief Led Zeppelin tribute. Sam, if you ever run out if ideas, I wouldn't mind a more-detailed, five-part series on the Billies.

    My daughter and I only got to sit in a booth on the stage once, and it was one of the best Disneyland experiences we've ever had. I hope Disneyland avoids reserving this for VIPs (or ?), because the ability of any group of guests who patiently waits and who gets lucky enough to sit there--well, that's one of the things that makes Disneyland great for the ordinary guest. Still, sitting in the tables in front of the stage also gets guests into the "splash area" with outstanding (arguable even better) seats, so fellow APs, please don't take a "there is no substitute for the booths" attitude and sit there once a week; please let more other guests enjoy them too.

    I wish the upper booths were always open. The one to the right as you face the stage was Walt's.

    Although we haven't seen the Billies in over a year and a half (we're on a break from Disneyland), we noticed that the group that sometimes filled in for them, Laughingstock, had been improving, particularly after they had been allowed to perform INSIDE the theater.

    If I ran Disneyland's entertainment, I'd experiment with a family-friendly, cowboy/cowgirl comedy troupe formed from some of the best alums from The Groundlings, The L.A. branch of The Upright Citizens' Brigade and other gifted L.A. comedic actors who haven't made it to SNL, yet.
    Updated 05-24-2012 at 05:58 AM by jcruise86 (typo)
  2. Athlonacon's Avatar
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    I dunno, they are okay, but I must be the only person on this planet who just finds them merely average. I *really* miss the Golden Horseshoe Revue, and would take it in a second over the Billys. It's not that they're not entertaining, it's just that they don't belong in a venue like the Golden Horseshoe, that's sacred territory... they'd do so much better in the Festival of Fools area where there's not 56+ years of history and productions.

    I hate to bring it up here, but Knott's has a WAY better cast of Old West characters... hilariously drop-dead funny and highly entertaining. They are quick on their feet and are true comedians. They also look and act a lot more authentic, without losing that comedic charm. The Laughingstock, and even the Billys, just seem like they're pandering to the crowd to me.

    Anyway, it's just my opinion, I'm sure everyone has one, but I've just never really saw whatever it is that makes this group so appealing.
  3. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Athlonacon
    . . . Knott's has a WAY better cast of Old West characters... hilariously drop-dead funny and highly entertaining. They are quick on their feet and are true comedians. They also look and act a lot more authentic, without losing that comedic charm. The Laughingstock, and even the Billys, just seem like they're pandering to the crowd to me.
    . . .
    During the summer when the can-can dancers join in, I really like Knott's saloon show, but the best Billy shows I've seen have been even better than the (few) Knott's saloon shows I've seen. The Golden Horseshoe theater is (as you know) a much, much better venue than the too small saloon at Knott's.

    John Lasseter may (we don't know yet) have been stupid (but well-intentioned) to bring back the flying saucer-type ride-which didn't work well back then either, but he can make up for it by using his still considerable clout to push for the return of the Golden Horseshoe Review, including its full cast and live band
    , along with the Peoplemover, for Disneyland's 60th anniversary in less than three years. Now those two things are worthy of returning!
  4. WorldFair's Avatar
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    Kirk is the one in all the pictures of this article - The guy who looks the best in the "Hillbilly Teeth". The Billys are one of my favorite highlights of a Disneyland visit. I do not like the Laughingstock show and, if they are moving the Billys out, I hope that they bring back the earlier version of the Golden Horseshoe Revue.
  5. jcruise86's Avatar
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    P.S. I do like Knott's western stunt show, the train robbers, and western street fighters too.
  6. sixalex's Avatar
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    Nice insight on the Billies! I second the motion for a more in depth series. This is truly a hidden gem at DisneyLand and EVERYONE I take to the show comes away wanting to see it again.

    Excellent musicianship and wild, on target comedic timing make them great. The broad appeal that cuts all demographics makes them Disney.

    For those who have not picked up Sam's book, here is an unsolicited plug for it. I met Sam at Walt's Barn and bought the book. It is really good. It may be a little dense for the casual reader at certain points, but there is so much wonderful Disney history inside this one volume that anyone will find something to enjoy. I

    n the brief time I had talking with Sam, I quickly realized that he could likely write several more volumes based on the stories he told verbally. Very entertaining! Maybe he can be part of the next Golden Horseshoe Show? Do you play the fiddle Sam? How would you look with pros-teeth-sis?
  7. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WorldFair
    Kirk is the one in all the pictures of this article - The guy who looks the best in the "Hillbilly Teeth". The Billys are one of my favorite highlights of a Disneyland visit. I do not like the Laughingstock show and, if they are moving the Billys out, I hope that they bring back the earlier version of the Golden Horseshoe Revue.
    Thanks, WorldFair!
    Well then Kirk might be on his way to a widndow on Frontierland!
    He's made me laugh outloud loudly & often.
    Updated 05-24-2012 at 11:12 AM by jcruise86
  8. Pirate Wench's Avatar
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    I went to their first show and last show of the night/morning on Leap Day. The place was packed. We were upstairs both times and it was standing room only. I HAVE to see them every trip I make. I even have their album, they need to record another one. I listen to it all the time.
  9. Dustysage's Avatar
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    The Billies are great! Always enjoy seeing them. But I'd give it all up to have the original Golden Horseshoe Review back. I'd imagine that Kirk would be leading the troop!

    Great article Sam. Billy Hill is one of those hidden jems of the park that most guests have never heard about.
  10. Wreckless Abrandon's Avatar
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    The Billies are excellent! I can't remember the Golden Horseshoe Review unfortunately. So I can't say that I agree that it's sacred. Times change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
  11. jkh1978's Avatar
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    I saw these guys play when I was there in November 2008. I didn't realize what special talents we were going to see. I wish I remember when we were there and which group we saw, because the bass played my favorite guitar solo, Stream. I've been asking around who played it and was that a typical song in the show, or did I just get lucky for my 30th birthday?!
  12. Timekeeper's Avatar
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    Me and my family are die hards for the Billies.


    Timekeeper