The Monkey vs. the Mouse

When Louis Prima's widow Gia took Disney to court, she was after more than the bare necessities.



Louis Prima may have let Disney make a monkey out of him, but his widow wasn't about to let the "King of Swingers" settle for peanuts.

In May, Gia M. Prima, widow of the New Orleans-born entertainer, settled a lawsuit against Disney over home video and DVD royalties from Disney's 1967 animated feature The Jungle Book. Prima, who died in 1978, turned in a memorable performance in the film as the voice of King Louie, the jive-talking, scat-singing orangutan who delivered the inspired ode to hominidae "I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)."

Gia Prima had sued Disney for breach of contract, non-payment of royalties, unjust enrichment, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed and both Prima and Disney, through their attorneys, declined to comment on the case.

The case was the latest in a series of suits brought against Disney over royalties from videocassette and DVD sales. In 1991, singer Peggy Lee was awarded $2.3 million in damages over Disney's unauthorized use of her performance in the home video version of the 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp, which grossed a reported $72 million in videocassette sales following its release in the mid-1980s. In the wake of Lee's suit, Mary Costa, the voice of Sleeping Beauty, and Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book and Thomas O'Malley in The Aristocats, each sued Disney over home video and DVD royalties. Both cases were eventually settled out of court.

"The language of the contracts during that period made no mention whatsoever of future technologies," says Jim Hill, a columnist for Orlando Weekly who covers the business side of Disney. "It was pretty much the notion if you did it for movies, it would be rebroadcast for television. Now, given the huge sums of money these things are generating on home video and DVD, some of the older performers -- who were literally paid $1,500­2,000 for their appearance -- obviously want to come back to the trough."

What made the Prima suit unique is that it was one of the first examples of the estate of a star -- rather than the star him or herself -- going after Disney. According to Hill, the lack of a live, exploited legend to generate negative publicity for Disney may have put Gia Prima at a strategic disadvantage. "Unless Disney senses that their family-friendly image is being sullied, they stay tough," Hill notes. "One of the reasons Disney lost the Peggy Lee case was [Lee's attorneys] rolled her into court in a wheelchair every day -- here's the mean Mouse refusing to pay Peggy Lee."

Lee may have played a greater role in Lady and the Tramp -- she co-wrote six songs and provided the voices of four characters -- but today it's nearly impossible to separate The Jungle Book from Prima's performance. Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman envisioned the ambitious orangutan as "the king of the swingers" when they composed the Dixieland-flavored "I Wanna Be Like You" for the film, the last animated feature to be personally supervised by Walt Disney prior to his death. Prima's swaggering hipster persona was a perfect match for the scat-singing hepcat King Louie. Disney animators flew to Las Vegas to see Prima in concert and incorporated Prima's histrionic onstage mannerisms into their sketches. King Louie's number even features what amounts to a simian second line, a play on Prima's tradition of ending performances with a parade through the audience.

Phil Harris' slacker anthem "The Bare Necessities" was the film's better-known song at the time, but "I Wanna Be Like You" gained popularity in the 1990s, mirroring Prima's own posthumous resurgence. Along with Prima's "Jump, Jive and Wail" and "Sing Sing Sing," "I Wanna Be Like You" became a touchstone of the retro-swing movement. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy covered it for the soundtrack to the 1996 film Swingers.

But while Disney rode Prima's newly expansive coattail to financial success with the home video release of The Jungle Book, Gia Prima claimed, the Prima estate got none of the lucrative royalties.

Prima's 1965 Jungle Book contract called for him to be paid $1,500 per day for his work on the film, with a guaranteed minimum of $7,500. In addition, he was to receive a royalty based on the sales of recordings. Exactly what type of recordings were entitled to royalty payments was at the heart of the dispute.

According to Prima's contract, the royalty obligation related to the "manufacture, sale and distribution of phonograph recordings derived from soundtrack materials." The contract goes on to define "records," "phonograph records" and "recordings" to include "all forms of recording and reproduction manufactured by any method and intended primarily for use as home entertainment." Under that definition, Gia Prima argued, videocassettes and DVDs -- recordings primarily for use as home entertainment -- would trigger the royalty obligation.

"This grant of rights by Louis Prima only gave Disney the exclusive right to exploit The Jungle Book motion picture photoplay in any format for public viewing," said Prima's complaint. "It did not give Disney the right to sell and distribute videocassette, DVD or other recordings of The Jungle Book to consumers for use as home entertainment without any additional compensation to Louis Prima."

Disney countered that Prima's contract granted Disney the full rights to exploit The Jungle Book by any means and in any format and that, as was standard practice, royalties were to be based on sales of recordings taken from the soundtrack, not recordings of the film itself. Videocassettes and DVDs, Disney argued, are nothing more than the motion picture itself in a particular format, and Prima was paid in full for his work on the motion picture. "The only reasonable interpretation of the contract is that its royalty provisions apply solely to the sale of sound recordings, and not to the distribution of the motion picture itself, whether on videocassette or some other present or future format," said Disney in a memorandum in support of its motion for summary judgement.

In an interview published prior to the settlement, Gia Prima expressed her frustration at Disney's refusal to pay the disputed royalties. "This would never happen if Walt Disney were alive," Prima told the U.K. Daily Express. "Mr. Disney was a wonderful man who loved Louis. When he died, the personal side of the studio died with him."

Louis Prima had been a fan of Disney before appearing in The Jungle Book. In 1965, he recorded the album Let's Fly With Mary Poppins, a jazzed-up collection of songs from the Disney film.

In the wake of the Peggy Lee case and similar suits over videocassette and DVD rights, Hill says, Disney amended the language of its contracts to essentially cover technologies not even invented. "Obviously, one of the reasons Disney opted to seal this settlement is that if they had people coming forward trying to get this money, it could be disastrous," Hill says. "But again, one of the longest arms of the Disney company is its legal department. They'll keep this as tightly wrapped up as they can and hope that some other senior citizen doesn't get a smart idea."

Gia Prima has not been shy about defending her late husband's estate in court. In recent years she has also sued both Campbell Soup Co. and the parent company of the Olive Garden restaurant chain over the use of Prima sound-alikes in television commercials.


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