BACKSTORY: For the first Christmas at Disneyland in 1955, there was a group of 12 Dickens Carolers (from USC), under the direction of Dr. Charles C. Hirt (USC School of Music), who performed throughout the park. Hirt was a personal friend of Walt’s. Guest choirs were also invited to perform daily in the Main Street bandstand that had been recently moved to the Magnolia Park area of Adventureland.
“I trained the Disneyland carolers," recalled Hirt in a 1993 interview. "This included teaching the singers how to respond to people in the Park. For example, if a little girl walked up to one of the singers, that caroler would sing directly to that child.” For the opening afternoon of this holiday tradition, the Dickens Carolers and a 300-member massed chorus made up of visiting choirs stood together on the Main Street Train Station steps and sang Christmas carols accompanied by visiting school bands.
By Christmas 1956, this holiday event was officially christened the “Christmas Bowl” with a sign placed over the entrance to the Magnolia Park bandstand area. Under Hirt’s direction, the carolers and singers from eight visiting choirs also performed as a group on the Main Street Station steps, this time accompanied by the Disneyland Band.
In 1957, the event grew larger as choirs followed the Christmas Around the World Parade from Sleeping Beauty Castle into the Plaza where they performed. The Christmas Around the World Parade premiered at Disneyland in 1957 and ran until 1964 (later revived for 1980—1985) when it was officially replaced by the Fantasy on Parade that ran to 1976 during the holiday season. Christmas Around the World Parade included brightly costumed local ethnic dance and choral groups.
Due to the size of the crowd, the singers were unable to form a circle in the center of the Plaza as planned. Instead, they stood around the Disneyland band and performed in an informal manner. The choirs and carolers were so well received by Disneyland guests that Hirt suggested to Disney Entertainment that performances by a larger massed choir group would be a welcome addition to future holiday events. In December 1958, the first evening Candlelight Processional was held with singers from sixteen choirs moving down Main Street to the Plaza where they performed a full concert with the Dickens carolers singing from the Sleeping Beauty Castle balcony above.
Hirt remembered, “When we first did the ceremony in 1958, the carolers all gathered around the flagpole in Town Square. It was a beautiful ceremony, but we made one mistake: it was difficult for people to see since the singers were all in a circle with me in the center conducting. So the next year, bleachers were constructed adjacent to the Train Station so that the carolers were facing the spectators on Main Street.” The December 22, 1959 Candlelight Choir consisted of 2,574 singers and was the largest ever to perform for this annual event.
The 1960 Candelight Celebration was the first one to take place on a stage in front of the Main Street Train Station in Town Square. Celebrity narrators were introduced in 1961, beginning with actor Dennis Morgan, who continued in the role annually until 1964, and again in 1966. Dick Van Dyke, to help promote “Mary Poppins,” was the 1965 narrator. Other celebrity narrators included Cary Grant (5 times, including 1 in Florida), Rock Hudson (6 in Florida and 3 in California), John Wayne, Buddy Ebsen, Howard Keel (1985 and 1986 in Florida and 1987 in Disneyland), John Forsythe, James Earl Jones, Pat Boone (who sang “Go Tell It On the Mountain” as part of his narration), and many more. Howard Keel’s narration was filmed and shown on the Disney Channel.
“Cary Grant and Rock Hudson both wanted to narrate the ceremony again and again and they did it for free!” Hirt recalled. Stormy rain clouds threatened the 1970 ceremony when Charlton Heston was narrator. “He looked at me,” Hirt remembered , “and said ‘If I can part the Red Sea, then I can keep it from raining!’” The rain stayed away.
“John Wayne had a terrible cough the day he was to perform [in 1971]," Hirt added. "He told me that he had pneumonia and I asked him what he was doing here. In reply, he said, ‘I’m not going to let all those kids down.’” Cary Grant (at left) hosted at both 1973 & 1974 ceremonies. For the next 25 years, Hirt directed the 1,000-voice high school choir combined with a symphony orchestra and a narrator, recalling the story of the first Christmas. When the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened its doors in 1971, Candlelight began in Florida where it was also performed at the train station on Main Street. Every season, the California and Florida programs mirrored each other with great success and attendance. Hirt helped shepherd the original Walt Disney World version and, as a result, alternated his role with Jim Christensen in California. By the late 1960s, Christensen had taken over the directing role of the Disneyland Band from founder Vesey Walker (who still took up the baton occasionally during the week and on special occasions).