Disney parks have changed a lot over the years. There are many cherished memories that people have of things from the parks that may no longer be there. These things remain an important part of Disney park history, though. One of these long-ago things that are recalled by many with fondness from the early days of Disneyland in California is the Disneyland Band. At the time it was founded, it was one of the most unique musical groups in the world.
At the time it was created, the Disneyland Band was one of the only bands in the country that was employed as a permanent, year-round band. It was a 16-player band that played such music as Dixieland, marches, pop music, novelty tunes, and even took requests. The band could play almost any song. It was versatile, polished, and beloved by guests from all over the world.
The director of the Disneyland Band was Vesey Walker. Vesey was considered one of the last truly great bandmasters in America. Vesey led the band down Main Street USA in Disneyland for the first time in July of 1955; the public response was extremely positive. In fact, Vesey was surprised with just how much love the band was greeted the first time it played, and every time it played after that.
The band eventually went on to perform on behalf of the Disney Company in all fifty states and in more than one hundred foreign nations. Vesey always held the baton, as any proper old-time band leader would do. Vesey himself, as a bandleader, personally greeted such dignitaries as King Mohammed V of Morocco and former US Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
Audiences of all ages loved the band. Older folks would smile and tap their feet at hearing the songs of their youth. The younger guests would dance along to the music. When the band played, it was always a happy, cheerful, joyous time at Disneyland. Vesey would often offer the coveted baton of leadership to the youngest member of any given audience and let that child take a turn at marching around Main Street USA and leading the band, which almost always delighted both the child and the crowd.
While Vesey Walker is best known as being the leader of the Disneyland Band, he had an illustrious career in music before joining that iconic act. He was a past master at band organization and direction and had won more than fifty music awards ranging from local to national before joining the Disney Company. He led many other bands before the Disneyland Band, all to great success and acclaim.
Vesey was born in England but came to the United States in 1912, where he embraced his new country. He became the leader of the Milwaukee American Legion band after the end of WWI. The band won four national championships under Vesey’s direction. It also won the International Band Contest in Geneva, Switzerland in 1934, also under Vesey’s direction. Vesey also led that band to an Elks National Competition and a Veterans of Foreign Wars contest.
Other gigs Vesey had before becoming the leader of the Disneyland Band include a stint as the bandmaster for the Los Angeles Elks 99 Band, which he led for twenty-one years. The band was already famous as the Elks Toppers when he became its leader, and he led the band when it marched in the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California for many years. Another gig of Vesey’s was teaching two boy bands in Los Angeles; those bands were the Sheriff Biscailuz Band and the Inglewood Boys Band.
The job offer from the Disney Company came to Vesey in 1955, when he was asked to put together a small band to play at the opening of Disneyland. The band Vesey put together was supposed to play for the first two weeks the park was open. However, the band was so well received by the public that it was kept in place on a permanent employment basis.
There were some famous musicians who performed with the Disneyland Band and Vesey over the years. These included people like Woody Herman, Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Tex Beneke, and more.
The musicians who played as regular parts of the band also had impressive backgrounds. As an example, the assistant conductor of the band was Jim Barnsgrove, who played with such greats as Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and Jan Garber before joining the Disneyland Band. A classical musician named Forrest Clark was also with the band, and he previously played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Ballet Russe, and the Leopold Stokowski band (where he was a soloist). Vesey obviously had a lot of talent working with him to enhance his own natural musical talent, making him an exceptional and memorable band leader for the Disneyland Band.
Changes of personnel in the band were rare. In the first nine years, they played at Disneyland, there were only twelve changes. This shows the close and friendly nature of the band, and how much they enjoyed playing with each other. The manner in which the band performed together was always described as being in close harmony with one another, and that harmony seemed to come easily to the band under Vesey’s direction. Their long experience of playing together, along with their talent and Vesey’s leadership, made for a thrilling band experience for Disney park visitors.
Vesey always claimed that he had no favorite song for the band to play. However, it was rare that the Disneyland Band did not end their 12:30 pm daily concert in the park’s Plaza Gardens with John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Vesey directed the Disneyland Band for fifteen years, retiring in 1970. He crossed over in 1977. While there is still a Disneyland Band at Disneyland, those early visitors to the park still recall with fondness the days when Vesey let it down Main Street.