Kal David, the voice of iconic animatronic Sonny Eclipse at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café inside Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World, has died at the age of 79 at his home in Palm Springs, California.
David, who was a renowned jazz and blues guitarist and musician in his own right, took on the persona of the pointy-eared lounge lizard alien in 1994 and will be fondly remembered for bringing the character to life with Imagineer George Wilkins.
Back in Fall 2012, Attractions Magazine carried a special Q&A with Kal and George, talking about how they got together to create Sonny – and the fun they had at George’s recording studio.
We reprint the feature in full today as a special tribute to Kal, and our favorite Disney alien.
Note: The original issue of the magazine sold out, but reprints can still be ordered at https://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/485989.
Q&A With – Sonny Eclipse
Intergalactic lounge lizard Sonny Eclipse entertains on the astro-organ at the Starlight Lounge inside Cosmic Ray’s at the Magic Kingdom. Simon & Susan Veness sought out an interview.
There aren’t many aliens left in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland these days. There’s Stitch, of course, and the guys from Monsters, Inc. But the Alien Encounter has been consigned to Disney history (thanks to Stitch) and the evil Emperor Zurg has been rounded up by Buzz Lightyear and his cohorts. Even Push, The Talking Trashcan, is hard to track down.
But there is one who has been in permanent residence since 1994. He’s around 6ft tall, green, with red and black hair and wide, pointy ears. He sports a purple, black and rhinestone tuxedo and hails from Yew Nork on the planet Zork.
So, Sonny, how did you come to pick up this pretty unique gig here on Earth?
Sonny: You know, after performing at weddings and nightclubs all over the Galaxy, it was good to find something different and I’m always happy to be back at Cosmic Ray’s.
And what is it that makes Earth such an attractive proposition for you?
Sonny: I really do love your beautiful planet Earth. It’s big and round and blue and green—just like my mother-in-law!
Hold on. That sounds like a stock answer. Is this a recording? Sonny Eclipse leaves the stage and a 60-something human male takes his place.
Hi. I’m Kal David, voice of Sonny Eclipse, what can I do for you?
Well, you can start by telling us how a famous blues guitarist came to be the voice of an alien in a Disney restaurant.
Kal: (Laughs). Well, it was really all the idea of George Wilkins, who was Director of Music for Walt Disney Imagineering. George scouted me at the club in L.A. where I was performing with a band that contained a lot of cool jazz musicians. My wife, Lauri Bono, and her backing group, Amy and Patti, were also performing with me.
Another human male joins Kal David on stage.
Hi. I’m George Wilkins. What can I tell you?
Well, how about how you discovered Sonny Eclipse, we mean, Kal David?
George: (Laughs). I knew Kal from a buddy of mine, Don Baldini, who was Frank Sinatra’s bass player. He dragged me down to see Kal and I became a fan of him and his wife. So, when this show came up, I auditioned another guy, who was so right on. But, when Kal did it, it was so honest. There is a little ‘sense of humor’ and a smile within his voice.
So who actually came up with the idea for Sonny Eclipse?
George: Well, I had done a show for the Pizza Parlor in Tokyo Disneyland, using a character called Officer Zzzzyxxx, and WDI wanted something similar for this revamped restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. The premise was there, and I would have Kal come up with the voice. Yew Nork was taken from the original idea. I helped program all the lights on the keyboards of the space organ. Kal and I worked on a bunch of different practices together, so I remember we sat and wrote the lyrics at my studio. We each had an idea and developed the material from there.
Kal: The basic story was that Sonny was a lounge singer from Outer Space, while I am a lounge singer from Planet Earth. They wanted a genuine galactic lounge crooner—it was perfect typecasting! I had already worked with George on Goofy For Health for the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot. He called me in on this project and showed me some drawings—basically Officer Zzzzyxxx in different clothes. I had only drawings and photos of what Sonny would look like, with that in mind.
And how did you feel about being the voice of an alien singing in a restaurant?
Kal: I really didn’t know what he was going to be used for, to be honest. I was hired for the eight songs and the schtick in between. I was knocked out by how it came out, though. I couldn’t believe it. Everything was scripted; there were no ad-libs. But we laughed all day. George’s lyrics are so clever.
George: Some of that stuff isn’t easy to sing. Marty Sklar, the head of WDI, wanted to use the first guy I had auditioned, but he was so syrupy and slick in a Las Vegas style, you felt it was his 14,000th performance. I just liked the way Kal approached it and his singing blew me away. There was one song that he sang, The Little Star, that just made me cry. And that’s all because of Kal.
What do you remember of the recording session?
Kal: It was at George’s home. He had a big room dedicated as a studio; it was state of the art. He had keyboards and recording gear and outboard gear but no vocal or overdub gear. The entire track, the whole thing was done by George; all the things on the backing track—strings, horns, whistles, drums—were done by him on computers. The only instrument George couldn’t play or replicate on the synthesizer is a guitar, so he had me play guitar on some tracks and I had the entire thing on vocals.
The guitar and other instruments plugged straight in to the boards. Outside, he had a room with a washer and dryer. He set up a nice vocal mike, which had a very warm sound; there was no light-bulb but just enough light to read the lyrics. Most of the time was spent laughing because we’d do a little bit and then break up. It was like singing in a foggy lounge.
Wait a minute. Sonny Eclipse was recorded in the laundry-room??
Kal: (Laughs). Yes, that’s right! And, at the same time, part of the project was the Space Angels, Sonny’s three-piece invisible backing band. Only George could come up with something like that!
He’d heard Lauri and her band, The Brunettes, performing and thought they were ideal for the Angels. I think I did three days to finish my portion, and then we brought in the girls. Amy was pregnant and the three of them had to go in that little room with the washer and dryer and no light! They were crammed in there and it was hot. They did all of their parts in just a day. Then it was time for me to do my schtick. George wrote the entire thing. I didn’t have much leeway for ad-libs or changes at all, although there were times I would say, “I don’t think I would read it that way.”
And did you have the final say on how Sonny Eclipse was presented, George?
George: Yes, Kevin Rafferty and I were in charge of the show. Marty Sklar and others would come in say “Yeah, we like that,” but, ultimately, it was our show. I think I only saw it once, though. I got so tired at times in the parks because I had been there SO many times. With something like the Imagination pavilion, I was there practically all the time.
I think I’m officially retired from Disney now. The last thing I did was on the China pavilion, and California’s ‘it’s a small world’, or maybe it was Winnie the Pooh in Japan, Pooh’s Honey Hunt, which is an amazing ride.
Do you have a favorite part of your Sonny character, Kal?
Kal: Yes, ‘Little Star’ is one of my favorites, as it is one of George’s best. His arrangement was brilliant and he didn’t change things so much that I couldn’t be myself. I said “How do you want this guy to sound?” And he said “I want him to sound like you, Kal. Look at the character and think ‘What would entertain an audience of earthlings if you were from another planet’?” So he doesn’t disguise my voice at all. It was so much fun.
Do people still recognize you as Sonny?
Kal: Oh yes. I still play at festivals and clubs. Many of those folks from all over the world and many fans in the audience will later go “That’s a familiar voice.” And I would get people asking, “Is that you as Sonny Eclipse?” And I’d say, “Yes!” For a musician to be getting such a good, steady gig, playing every day in the parks, that’s pretty good!
And do you often go to the park to see ‘yourself’ perform?
Kal: I still haven’t been in WDW since Sonny started, actually. I went once with my four-year-old nephew in the 1980s. Lauri’s family were down and the thing started playing in the Wonders of Life pavilion, my cartoon talking to Goofy and, when my song started, Ryan started shouting “That’s my uncle!” And we went through it four times with him doing the same thing each time.
Sounds like we need to start a Disney campaign to get you to Cosmic Ray’s!
Kal: I’d be open to that! Gotta go now–there’s someone from Yew Nork on the phone…!