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Love, Revenge... and Ostriches!

Photo of an ornate astrological clock on the side of a building in Venice, Italy.
Arpad Czapp
Venetian astrological clock

Hard to believe that a dramatic opera that debuted in 1876 about romantic rivalry, love, lust, revenge, and eventually, death, would feature a fun dance that, more than 150 years later, lives on in pop culture.

Amilcare Ponchielli wrote music to Arrigo Boito’s libretto for an opera called La Gioconda. They were inspired by the 1835 Victor Hugo play Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

In Act 3 of Ponchielli’s version, revelers at a lavish party in a Venetian palace are treated to a ballet.

The dancers’ lighthearted music is a piece entitled “Dance of the Hours, where dancers used costume changes and various lighting techniques to describe the various times of the daydawn, day, dusk, and night. The party entertainment ends with the unexpected sound of a funeral bell tolling because of the supposed death of one of the main characters.

Because … Italian opera.

The opera premiered at La Scala in Milan and was a major success for Ponchielli. Despite its great reception, like so many other composers, he revised it a number of times. The version still performed today was his final 1880 iteration.

The “Dance of the Hours” prevailed through the various versions. It not only remained a favorite tune in the opera but gained recognition as both a separate ballet number and an orchestral piece unto itself.

So how did it begin to permeate American pop culture? That likely started because of a series of 75 short cartoons by Walt Disney Productions. In their Silly Symphonies series from 1929 to 1939 Disney took various classical music pieces and let loose the antics of various funny animal characters, including a newly introduced Donald Duck. “Dance of the Hours” was one of the tunes highlighted.

It must have done well because in 1940 “Dance of the Hours” became one of the major features of Disney’s animated film Fantasia. Everyone seems to remember the dancing hippos in tutus, but there are also other animals representing the other day parts including ostriches, alligators, and bubble-blowing elephants. Here are the ostriches doing their ballet:

If Fantasia launched “Dance of the Hours” into the general public’s consciousness, comedic writer, actor, singer, and producer Alan Sherman secured it a place in pop culture for generations to come. Sherman had a series of hit comedy albums in the early 1960s. Included in 1963’s My Son, The Nut, was his “A Letter from Camp” (which most folks just call “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” which are the opening words), based on “Dance of the Hours.”

In Sherman’s version, a boy writes home from his summer camp, Camp Granada. He bemoans the rainy weather, a fellow camper who got poison ivy, and shares his fear that he’ll be eaten by a bear. He begs his parents to take him home, while promising that he will behave himself. By the end of the song/letter he says that it has stopped raining and the fun has begun. He then urges his parents to disregard everything he has said in the letter. It was huge hit for Sherman, making it onto the Billboard Hot 100 list and peaking at #2 for 3 weeks in 1963.

There were a number of other novelty takes on “Dance of the Hours,” including from Mel Brooks and Spike Jones, but the Disney and Alan Sherman versions are the two that reign supreme.

On the other hand … there’s nothing like the original.

Here it is with Andras Korodi conducting the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra:

CODA: OK … in the spirit of lighthearted summer fun, here’s one more version. It’s the Andrews Sisters with their “Dance of the Hours” version called “Idle Chatter.” It was a hit for them in 1952. (By the way – it was written for them by Alan Sherman!)

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.