I recently interviewed Stan Freese for my TV show, Pat Pattison’s Remade in America, which explores creative second acts and inspirational stories of people reinventing themselves. Stan is Director of Talent Booking for the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. as well as an accomplished tuba player. Being in charge of all the acts that will attract young people to Disneyland, Stan has stayed at the forefront of contemporary music for many years. (For video of Stan’s interview, click on this link.)
At 69, Stan Freese is something of a modern miracle: he has worked for the same corporation (Disney) for 42 years. Even more miraculous is that he has done so in the popular music end of the youth-obsessed entertainment industry — a segment of the corporate world that lets people go quicker than you can say Miley Cyrus.
But Freese hasn’t survived and prospered in this ever-changing industry through a well-honed career plan. Just the reverse.
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He attributes his success to one key ability — grabbing hidden opportunities and seeing where they lead. In other words, saying “Yes” to life. Here’s how he’s done it:
“Yes” No. 1: A Child Tuba Dare
It all started with a tuba, Freese’s instrument as a musician. The tuba is not what you’d call the sexiest instrument in the world and not the quickest road to fame and fortune. Freese chose it because two friends in grammar school dared him to take it home during the school “pick your instrument for band” day.
That was the beginning of his willingness to take risks and see where they lead. Turns out, Freese was a natural and by his teens he’d already been on The Lawrence Welk Show as a “tuba prodigy.”
“Yes” No. 2: Turning “No” into “Da"
Like many struggling professional musicians, Freese ended up teaching after he graduated college. As a high school music teacher in the Minneapolis area, he came to the attention of a cultural exchange program with Russia and was asked to perform there.
Thinking his bosses would frown on an extended absence, Freese turned down this opportunity. But The State Department intervened and insisted he go. As Freese puts it :“The Fat Boy is going to Russia!”
This “No” turned into a “Yes” wound up resulting in an invitation to play at The White House for President Richard Nixon and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
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“Yes” No. 3: Appearing on the Front Page
Freese’s performance at the White House for dignitaries including Nixon, Dobrynin and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led to a unique photo opp.
After the performance, Kissinger told Dobrynin the administration should make Freese Secretary of State because his notes sounded better than the notes they were trading off back and forth. The press grabbed onto the remark and the shot of Nixon, Freese and the tuba made the front page of The New York Times and hundreds of papers around the world.
“Yes” No. 4: Disney Calls
Freese’s newfound fame brought him to the attention of the people putting together the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida. They were casting musicians for the Main Street Marching Band and asked Freese to audition. Once he got there, however, the combination of his natural ability to MC and Midwestern charm landed him the job of Bandleader.
“Yes” No. 5: The Road to TV
Freese, who was about to turn 40, was then transferred to Disneyland in California to be the Bandleader there. By that point, he had played every possible type of music on the tuba except Country. So he set himself a goal to write a Country song for the tuba.
The result was a parody of Play That Funky Music White Boy, dubbed Play That Country Tuba Cowboy. Freese’s Disney boss knew the producer of the hit TV show Hee Haw with Buck Owens and Roy Clark, and the song led to Freese appearing on it. This fluke turned into another hidden opportunity that lasted many seasons.
“Yes” No. 6: Staying Relevant at Disney
Once Freese was transferred to Disneyland and became the leader of the band there, he came to a career crossroads. Should he keep performing or go into management?
Once again, he said “Yes” and became a show director, which led in time to various projects including Tokyo Disneyland and his current gig as Director of Talent Booking.
By continually staying up-to-date musically and out of office politics, Freese managed to become a respected elder in his job.
“Yes” No. 7: Keeping Current Through Fatherhood
Along the way, Freese also said “Yes” to his wife and they’ve had two boys, Josh and Jason, who deserve some credit in helping their dad keep up to speed with the music scene.
Both sons are hugely successful forces in the music industry. Josh is a sought-after touring and studio drummer who has played for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Guns & Roses and Devo. Jason is the keyboard player for Green Day and produces Jewel. Their dad credits his sons for his knowledge of music trends and his openness to new genres at Disney.
Saying “Yes” to Life
Perhaps the best way to sum up Freese’s unexpected career is in his own words.
He told me: “People say ‘Life’s too short.’ I say, ‘No, it’s too long, man.' It’s too long to wake up every morning unhappy and not having fun and not seeing what goes around the corner. It’s about going for it and having fun.”
I say “Yes” to that.
Pat Pattison is the host of Remade in America, a TV show exploring creative second acts and inspirational stories of people reinventing themselves. Episodes can be seen at www.patpattison.net. Pattison is also writing a book of the same name. For his newsletter and publishing information, contact [email protected].
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