The Country Bears have been around for nigh on 40 years now, and I’ve seen the show a hunnerd times, but I find there are still a few details lurking out there waiting for me to spot them.
Such was the case last weekend with Big Fred. You know this feller, right? He’s one of the few bears to wear pants. Seriously, out of all the critters in the show, there’s three, maybe four who bother to put on any trousers. Fred holds his up with one suspender, so it’s not like he’s dressed in his Sunday finery.
|Not pictured: Modesty. Photo courtesy of Pirate J|
Y’all don’t need no introductions to Fred. I’d be disappointed if you couldn’t rattle off the names and birthplaces of the Five Bear Rugs (plus Gomer). For you casual fans, I recommend The Complete History of Grizzly Hall and the Country Bear Players, authored by Rufus T. Bear. And you need at least a dozen viewings before the Bears’ genius really starts to seep in.
Anyway, to belabor the obvious, Fred is the one playing harmonica. If I’m not mistaken, he’s also the tallest bear in the show. He doesn’t have any speaking lines, because nobody talks through a harmonica unless they’re Darth Vader.
|Young Luke is playing mouth harp. He plays it kinda sad. He never took a lesson, he just picked it up from dad.|
I never really thought much about Fred before. He’s sort of a background character, his motion limited to sort of bobbing his head up and down and flitting his fingers at the end of his harmonica. He ain’t flashy. But I discovered recently that he does something completely unexpected in an animatronic bear.
During that last show on Sunday, I found myself fascinated with Big Fred’s stomach, which expands and collapses as he plays his bit. The effect is extremely subtle, it’s not like he’s stoking a forge furnace or anything. It’s just the natural, practice movement of a career musician. One of those details that make Disney great.
Fred’s not the first animatronic to breathe. Those dinosaurs up the Interstate at Jurassic Park breathe also. But they’re enormous latex-covered things, bolted to the ground in broad daylight. They need a little bit of extra movement to cover how simple the robotics are. You can see their sides puffing in and out like Dizzy Gillespie making balloon animals at Chili’s. They call too much attention to themselves: “Hey, those dinosaurs can breathe!” when the last thing you want is for the audience remarking at how lifelike the fake lizards are.
Fred gets it right. He’s a bear playing harmonica, and we never really question whether he’s breathing or not. It’s as natural a motion as Teddi Berra’s soft blinking, Henry’s eyebrow raising, or Buff’s eye roll. Now if we could just do something about those pants…