Remembering Disney Composer and All-American College Orchestra Director Jim Christensen (1935-2020)

April 7, 2020, 4:43 PM · When I met Jim Christensen in 1990, he was traveling the country, visiting various university music schools and conservatories, auditioning new prospects for a work-experience program for college musicians he helped develop — the Walt Disney World All American College Orchestra. Jim served as music director and conductor of the orchestra for nine seasons (1984-1992) at the American Adventure in World Showcase at EPCOT Center, where he and his hand-picked young musicians collaborated with world-renowned artists and celebrities each summer.

Jim created the Orchestra program with the late Bob Raddock (who started the Disney College Band programs) as a new initiative in the Disney parks that would not only showcase and cultivate great young American talent but perhaps serve as a means to recruit musicians for future Disney projects.

Peter Wilson
During my summer, in the Disney All-American College Orchestra.

As I arrived at Northwestern University’s Regenstein Hall on the day that would soon be my audition, I hadn’t even heard of this Disney orchestra program. My plan that day was to find a practice room to go over some orchestral music, but on the door was a sign advertising walk-in auditions taking place that afternoon. The sign instructed students to sign up for a time and to bring a resumé and a headshot, if possible. As luck would have it, I had recently updated my resumé and printed out copies, and a classmate of mine who was into photography had just taken and developed some photos of me posing with my violin.

I ran back to my dorm to grab these items while deciding what to play for my short-notice audition. Should I play a concerto? Do I need to have orchestral excerpts prepared? All I could think about was that I had been a fan of all things Disney since I was a little boy listening to LPs of "Jungle Book" and "Pinocchio" and had been to Disneyland only once in my life. With a sudden wave of "carpe diem," I decided that Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d’Amerique ("Yankee Doodle" Variations Burlesque) might be most appropriate. I’d been playing that piece since high school, which is to say that it was memorized and would be relatively easy for me to brush into shape.

While I was concertmaster of the NU Symphony Orchestra at the time, I suspected what may have been more impressive to him was that I served as a bass drummer in the NU Marching Band (since I later learned of his marching band director past and his eye for versatility). In any event, it appeared that my choice of repertoire paid off. I couldn’t have imagined how "know your audience" lucky I was until I finished, when Jim exclaimed, "Ya SEE that?! THAT’s what I’m talkin’ about!! You’re ready for the SHOW!!" He went on, talking a bit under his breath about how people were coming into their auditions with classical concertos before asking me to sightread a few things. I actually was floored when I received the call from Jim a few months later, inviting me to be his concertmaster. After all, I knew he must have heard many great players throughout his travels. Ultimately, those of us who had the privilege of being in Jim’s orchestras soon learned that our ability to play was only part of what he saw in us. Regardless, I knew right away how important one’s presentation was to Jim. I would soon learn what a master he was of the stage, the show, the image, and how to entertain audiences — in short, the whole package.

James "Jim" Christensen was an American trombonist, band leader, arranger, composer, music director, and conductor -- a musical legend in the universe of Walt Disney World. He passed away on March 15th at age 84. Well known particularly throughout the United States and Canada as a prolific composer and arranger, his over 400 published works have been heard worldwide on recordings, radio, television specials, and in documentary films. During his nearly four decades at Walt Disney Productions, Jim served 12 years as music director for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Perhaps his most notable contribution to Disney theme parks was the popular arrangement of electronic music he created in 1977 for the "Main Street Electrical Parade." He also composed the soundtrack for "Fantasy in the Sky" and many other Disney productions, and in 1992 he conducted the All-American Marching Band at the grand opening of Euro-Disneyland in Paris. Jim’s arrangements can still be heard at theme parks around the world in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., including all Disney parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, Canada’s Wonderland, Hershey Park, Lotte World (Korea), Everland, and Movie World in Germany.

Peter and Jim at the All-American College Orchestra Reunion in 2019.
Jim Christensen and I in 2019 at the All-American College Orchestra reunion.

Jim appeared as guest conductor with many orchestras and bands throughout North America, including the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Honolulu Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the New Orleans Pops, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, and the Winnipeg Symphony. He also served as music director and conductor of the Pacific Pops Orchestra. In addition, Jim arranged and orchestrated music for the Boston Pops, the London Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl, the Academy Awards, several Super Bowls (and Sun, Fiesta, and Orange Bowls), National Public Radio, and the MENC World’s Largest Concert. A former director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band (which performed at the Rose Bowl), Jim was a popular and beloved guest conductor for high school, college, and community bands as well. From 1994 he conducted the Community Band of America (Band at Sea) for over a decade. Additionally, Jim was a longtime trombone clinician for UMI-Conn, a member of the American Bandmasters Association, and he served on the advisory board of the Association of Concert Bands.

After I arrived at Walt Disney World in Orlando to join the orchestra in the summer of 1990, Jim immediately began drilling into us that we should always strive to not only give the audience what they came to see and hear, but also to exceed their expectations through exciting musical performances and by having a great time on stage. We performed three shows each night for five days (Wednesday through Sunday) and worked with some amazing, legendary musicians each week including Rosemary Clooney, Carol Lawerence, Billy Taylor, Della Reese, Maureen McGovern, Michael Feinstein, Pat Williams, Bill Conti, and Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath. Jim would stress the importance of making sure each guest artist was as happy and comfortable as possible.

Not only would he have us rehearsing a great deal so we were well prepared, but he often would impart little nuggets about show business (or "show bizhniszh" as Jim would mock) so we could better understand the world of these great entertainers. One of my favorite "Jim moments" was when he explained what a "rider" was in someone’s contract (the extra, sometimes interesting, and perhaps small but detailed requirements at the end of a contract, often there to make sure the hosting company had actually read the contract in its entirety). This particular week, Michael Feinstein was performing with us, and in addition to him requiring a Baldwin piano on stage, his contract stated that he needed a Baldwin in his hotel room as well. While some of us questioned if perhaps this was a bit excessive, Jim quickly noted, "Hey, ya have to remember, if they want purple M&Ms, ya gotta give’em PURPLE M&Ms!"

We all began to collect these wonderful phrases Jim would repeat throughout each summer. You might hear, "Zip Zip!" to engage the orchestra or a kind word to prevent rushing, "Don’t DO that!" And if you had a solo to play in a particular number, he’d give you that special encouragement, "You’re in the HOT seat now!" Jim was also keenly aware of how such a young ensemble of excited college students and recent graduates might be easily distracted by all the attractions around us (My goodness, the World Dancers were enough to draw my attention away from the music every show!). As such, he knew that repetition was the key to success in rehearsal, so Jim would invite us to take it from the top again, "One more time...for protection!"

Early that summer, I learned of a violin opening in Washington, D.C. with the White House Orchestra of "The President’s Own" U.S. Marine Band. The audition was to be the Monday of our final week of Disney performances, and if I were to take the audition, I would need to miss a Sunday evening show. When I approached Jim to inquire if he might excuse me, he could not have been more supportive as he removed all uncertainty, "Of COURSE you’re taking that audition! It’s the Marine BAND, for goodness sake!" And then with a twinkle in his eye and a warm smile he said, "Now we know you can DO the job, but can you GET the job. That’s the real question…. And I know you CAN."

Thirty years later, as I am about to retire as a Marine Violinist of The White House, I not only have Jim to thank for giving me amazing opportunities, but in a very real sense for preparing me to DO this job I have enjoyed for three decades. I will be forever grateful to Jim for setting such a wonderful example through his never-ending kindness and generosity. His abundant energy on the podium and his excitement about music, performing, and teaching were contagious. He was the perfect man for the job. Jim touched so many lives, and even for those who didn’t pursue music professionally beyond that orchestra, his positive impact on all of us during those summers will remain forever. He shaped who we are today, and his love of life and commitment to young artists are his legacy. As we bid farewell to this music man, I know I speak on behalf of all my fellow Disney alumni when I say — one more time… for protection — Thank you, Jim. We love you, and we’ll miss you.

Peter Wilson served as Concertmaster of the Walt Disney World All American College Orchestra under Jim Christensen in 1990. He currently is a Violinist and the String Section Commander for "The President’s Own" U.S. Marine Band as well as Music Director of the Richmond Philhamonic and Waynesboro Symphony Orchestras of Virginia. Dr. Wilson also serves as a Violin Instructor at George Mason University.

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April 7, 2020 at 10:24 PM · What a wonderful tribute to Jim Christensen! I was in the All-American College Orchestra in 1989 and had the time of my life. Also learned quite a bit about showmanship. RIP Jim!

Laurie Niles and Jim Christensen
Laurie with Jim Christensen, before a show. Backstage was next to the EPCOT World Showcase Lagoon!

April 8, 2020 at 12:25 AM · What a beautiful tribute to Mr. Christensen! Your final paragraph is inspirational. Peter, congratulations on a formidable career! (I'll admit I had no idea violins are part of the U.S. Marine Band.) Adorable photo, Laurie!

April 8, 2020 at 01:45 AM · Thank you, Diana! Get this - not only was I also unaware of strings in the Marine Band prior to my audition, I learned that my former high school violin teacher (Donald Portnoy, then at West Virginia University) had also served as a violinist in the Marine Band! I only learned of the opportunity through a dear friend and Northwestern classmate, Patrick Sheridan (tubist in the Marine Band at the time).

April 8, 2020 at 05:49 PM · Jim was very, very musical, and an absolute professional. My greatest appreciation of him was his great composing/arranging. I tried to model some of my writing after examining some of his techniques, especially for small ensembles. Thanks Jim for your musical input into my career.

Dr. Dana F. Everson

Anaheim Band, 1973

April 8, 2020 at 06:44 PM · That was a beautiful article. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with us. The last paragraph made me very emotional. Thank you for sharing all the marvelous qualities Mr. Christensen had. I would have loved to meet him. I learned that he had what I feel are the most important qualities for success with working with people: inspiring them to have a great time on stage (or in whatever they do), making everyone happy and comfortable, giving them what they want and showing never-ending kindness and generosity. These are all qualities that as an opera stage manager I strive to achieve and it’s so wonderful to see how successful Mr. Christensen was at it. Your article inspired me and helped me to know that I’m on the right track and I should continue to work on these qualities. So “one more time” thank you for sharing Mr. Christensen with us! It brightened up my day.

April 8, 2020 at 06:51 PM · What a lovely tribute to not just Jim, but all of those he led and inspired.

April 9, 2020 at 03:01 AM · Wonderful tribute.

April 10, 2020 at 05:14 PM · Peter. Thank you for writing this. It's amazing what an influence Jim and Disney had on so many lives.

April 14, 2020 at 02:19 AM · Terrific tribute, Peter. I met Jim once at an event in Knoxville in the 1980’s when I was arranging for the U.S. Army Band in DC. Although our conversation was brief, I found him to be a very friendly, knowledgable and humble man who made you feel as though you had been a life-long colleague. If I’m not mistaken (and I might be), I seem to recall hearing about Jim having been an arranger for The U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point prior to his years at Disney. Thanks for providing this. - Jim Kessler

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