Samland talks to Billy Hill and the Hillbillies
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?
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.