Monday, September 22, 1997

Story last updated at 8:49 p.m. on Sunday, September 21, 1997

Home again
Disney coming back to Sunday nights with family entertainment

Nancy McAlister
Times-Union television writer

In 1954, Walt Disney needed financial backers for Disneyland, his ambitious                  theme park outside Los Angeles. ABC, a fledgling TV network, needed hit                shows.

The two joined forces to produce a series that for nearly 40 years was a           wholesome TV tradition.
In 1997, Disney and ABC again require each other's services. The Walt
Disney Co. has been the subject of boycotts and criticism for TV's Ellen and feature films The Priest and Pulp Fiction. Seen by some as promoting
homosexuality and screen violence, the company's reputation as a family
entertainer has been called into question.

ABC's problems are more bottom line than image. The network lost a
disastrous 13 percent of its audience last season, according to Nielsen
ratings. It is in search of prime time audience winners. This time, collusion with Disney is inevitable, since the house that Mickey Mouse built is ABC's parent company.

The folks at home should reap the benefits. The Wonderful World of Disney,
which returns to prime time at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC, marks the season's
biggest comeback of family entertainment. An industry analyst has predicted
the two-hour showcase will rank No. 7 among more than 30 new series on
ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, WB and UPN.

The show's placement on Sunday nights is particularly significant. Sunday is the most watched night on television and the most coveted berth. It was on Sunday nights that baby boomers, many of them parents now, made watching Disney a tradition.

Disney chairman and chief executive officer Michael Eisner will serve as
host, a job he assumed during the series' most recent run from 1986-1990
on ABC and NBC. The only other person to hold that position was Disney
himself, from 1954 to 1966. But it's the 30 films Eisner will be introducing that tell the real story.

The season begins on Sunday with Toy Story, the Oscar-winning movie that
uses groundbreaking animation. Others set for this season include The Santa
Clause, Disney's most successful live action movie, Babe, the
Oscar-nominated family film, and The Lion King, the highest-grossing
animated film ever.

This is one of several incarnations for The Wonderful World of Disney. With
the first broadcast on Oct. 27, 1954, the program was simply called
Disneyland. The park itself opened with a live nationwide telecast on July 17, 1955.

Peter Pan's Tinkerbell started each show with a wave of her sparkling wand.
A mix of cartoons, nature programs, documentaries and live action shows, it
was an instant hit.

By 1955, a reported 100 million viewers were tuning in on Sundays. One three-part adventure went on to particular fame. Davy Crockett, starring Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen, inspired coonskin caps, a hit song and a feature film.

Westerns of the early 1960s gave way to animals and their friends in such
series as The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit and Sammy, the Way Out Seal.
By focusing on films, The Wonderful World of Disney hopes to recapture
the glory days. Since fewer family features are being made by Hollywood
studios, there are more and better scripts available to choose from,
according to Charles Hirschhorn, president of Walt Disney Television. So
far, 16 original movies have been made for the series.

High on the list is the period drama Oliver Twist starring Richard Dreyfuss as Fagin and Elijah Wood as the Artful Dodger. Kirstie Alley plays the tooth fairy in the high concept comedy Toothless. Steve Guttenberg, Kirsten Dunst and Nia Peeples costar in the Halloween fantasy Tower of Terror, inspired by the free fall ride at Orlando's Disney World.

Easily the most ambitious production is Rodgers & Hammerstein's
Cinderella, set for a November premiere. Headliners include Whitney
Houston as the Fairy Godmother, Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina,
Brandy as Cinderella, Paolo Montalban as the Prince and Jason Alexander
as the Prince's loyal steward. Based on a brief preview, this ambitious
musical features lavish sets and costumes. 

Hopefully, the multi-racial cast will enthrall today's audiences just as the only white images of Peter Pan and Cinderella did years ago, said executive producer Debra Martin Chase.

"The idea is to say to all children and to the children in all adults of every color, of every walk of life, that dreams can be made to come true," she said in a meeting with reporters this summer. ''We hope that this Cinderella, as we approach the millennium, is reflective of what our society is today."