Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Knowledge Gap

I was recently perusing the excellent blog 2719 Hyperion and found this article referencing the recent controversy over the supposed installation of The Three Caballeros into the EPCOT attraction El Rio del Tiempo. Having taken part in this debate recently on several fronts, it became evident to me after several posts that I was not only the only person who had seen the film recently, but one of perhaps only 13 – 15% of people involved in the debate which had seen it at all.

Truthfully, current Disney fandom displays an abhorrent lack of knowledge or interest in the actual history and accomplishments of the company in lesser known works. While dreck like High School Musical is wrung dry by the corporate structure, eternally seeking profits, a large percentage of the fandom, especially its’ younger members, embrace whatever Disney is promoting as “the best thing” du jour, effectively creating what I like to term a “middle brow fandom” which persues whatever carrot is dangled before it. So in the interest of helping others discover the varied and strange history of the Walt Disney Company, I tell you: throw out your copies of The Little Mermaid, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas, and Kim Possible. Throw out your DVDs of High School Musical and Cinderella. And start over from scratch with this hastily-complied list of alternative Walt-Era classics:

Plane Crazy (1928): The really-for-real first Mickey Mouse short is hilarious and blissfully non-PC. Ub Iwerks’ gifted animation has Mickey torturing a whole barnyard of animals in an attempt to build an airplane so he can get Minnie up in the air and take advantage of her. Yes, you read that right. Don’t worry; she escapes from the lusty mouse by using her panties as a parachute. This was originally animated silent.

The Shindig (1930): This black and white short has just about everything that makes the early Mickey Mouse shorts so wonderful and also has just about everything that makes politically correct parents, the ones who complain about Pirates of the Caribbean shooting rifles at each other at Disneyland, want to go take a running jump off a cliff. It has Mickey snapping Minnie’s panties in time to “Pop, Goes the Weasel”. Clarabelle Cow lounges around naked with her udder hanging out, reading a dirty novel. And at the end, Mickey is literally flattened by an enormously fat girl pig.

Pluto’s Judgement Day (1935): The nightmare atmosphere this short generates compares favorably to the best output of the Fleisher studios from years before. In addition to being beautifully animated and having images and jokes as unsettling as they are funny, this is one of the best non-Silly Symphonies to demonstrate the Disney Studio’s amazing use of music to set tempo and tone. The cat chorus’ wailing cries of “we want Plu-to! We want Plu-to!” haunted many of my formative years.

Donald’s Lucky Day (1939): The Disney studio’s fantastic send up of Hollywood gangster movies has Donald carrying a ticking time bomb and battling a black cat who won’t leave him alone. The depth and quality of the backgrounds in this short is what makes it especially memorable and haunting, as well as the unusual ending for a Donald short of this time period.

Symphony Hour (1942): Not only is this the last color appearance of Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow (now wearing a dress and minus udders), it’s the last outing for Mickey, Donald and Goofy together. Donald and Pete (as Mr. Macaroni) steal the show, but it has plenty of complex, detailed animation as the musical instruments slowly fall apart at the hands of the musicians. It’s also very funny and you get to hear the big rodent announced as “Michael Mouse”.

How to Play Football (1942): This short is so funny it’s almost difficult to watch: the cheerleaders beating themselves unconscious with their routine, the bizarre ellipsis created by blocking out action and narration with the crowd, the team members strewn across the locker room, and the animation of the coaches. It’s one of the fastest paced and funniest shorts of the entire Disney canon.

The Vanishing Private (1942): Although it may not be as morale-boosting or have as great a song as Der Fuehrer’s Face, this is another short which is so funny you wonder if the Warner Brothers animators began sneaking into the studio and working on the shorts under the cover of night. Also necessary viewing is The Old Army Game, from the next year, where Donald and Pete thinks the duck has been sawed in half by barbed wire and commanding officer Pete gives Donald his pistol to kill himself!

Victory Through Air Power (1943): The beautifully animated segments make this under-seen masterpiece more than just an illustrated lecture, and the final segment of the Allies’ symbolic defeat of the Japanese empire (storyboarded by Marc Davis) may be one of the most powerful things you’ll find in a Disney film that isn’t called Bambi. More chillingly, we know that this film convinced FDR to strengthen the US’ air squadrons and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this film is a stepping-stone to Hiroshima. Released in some of the darkest days of World War II when it seemed likely that the Allies could actually lose the war, Walt Disney funded this film himself because he believed in its message and, given the results, we can count this as one of his most significant accomplishments.

Duck Pimples (1945): This short is so surreal and strange that I thought for years it was a dream I had as a child. Makes a great double feature with the similarly creepy, shadowy and spare Donald Duck and the Gorilla.

The Three Caballeros (1946): The end result of the studio’s experimentations with color, music, surreal images, and new techniques is this absolutely beautiful film – it’s a masterpiece and, technically, something of a Fantasia redux only set to a lively Latin soundtrack that’s one of Disney’s best ever. Much of the film takes place in Donald’s head as he literally goes out of his mind in a sex-fueled surrealistic reverie. Ward Kimball’s fantastic titular musical set piece is a highlight. The use of live-action and animation here is a forerunner to Song of the South, which is more logically structured but also not as interesting. It has a slow opening so be patient.

Melody Time (1948): This one is rather scattershot and slow, so having a DVD and being able to skip over the sometimes tiresome segments is actually a good thing here. But it has two absolute masterpieces wrapped up in it: Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. The Pecos Bill segment, in particular, which begins with the haunting “Blue Shadows on the Trail” before building into the relentless pace of the story of Bill himself, is perfection itself and one of the studio’s best examples of sophisticated pacing, rising and falling action, and color stylization. Before DVD we had to sit through the much worse Gold Diggers of 1935 in order to see Busby Berkley’s masterful Lullaby of Broadway, so we shouldn’t be too hard on this overachieving package picture.

The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad (1949): Another underrated masterpiece, and much better than it’s follow up, the perennially boring Cinderella. Bing Crosby’s narration in the second segment is, particularly, a very sophisticated use of voiceover as Bing speaks both for and about all of the characters. Especially noteworthy is the wonderful “Tale of the Headless Horseman” number which sets up the famous chase through the woods and manages to make you laugh and feel very uncomfortable all at once. “A hip hip and a clippity-clop! He’s out looking for a head to chop! So don’t stop to figure out a plan – you can’t reason with a headless man!”

Out of Scale (1951): Those who are up on their Walt biographies will immediately recognize Donald Duck’s hobby in this short as a cute send-up of boss Walt’s Carolwood Pacific. Even better is Donald’s behavior in this short, which is at its’ most unhinged and erratic as he seeks to destroy Chip and Dale’s home as it’s “out of scale” with all of his miniature trees. The solution is particularly brilliant.

Teachers are People (1952): This one edges out the wonderful How to Be a Detective and How to Dance Goofy shorts for the best of the latter 50’s cycle because of it’s honesty in portraying young children as ruthless and bizarre violence obsessed little creatures. Goofy collects a succession of deadly weapons from young George. The ending is especially hilarious given our current school anxieties: “I will not bomb the school!”

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954): Walt’s best and most serious live-action work is actually a haunting portrait of a man driven to madness, with Captain Nemo as perhaps James Mason’s second-best performance (I’ve always had a soft spot for his wonderful villain in North by Northwest). Top notch effects work, great performances by Kirk Douglas (master of guitar twirling) and Peter Lorre, and Harper Goff’s fantastic Nautilus all give an air of excellence. Today it’s easy to overlook that the film ends with one of the most loaded images you could have in a movie released in Cold War America: Nemo’s final act is to destroy himself and his work in a nuclear explosion.

Pigs is Pigs (1954): The manic pace and unusual animation style, combined with the clever story and charming verse-jig of this short piece makes it a standout in the studio’s rather spotty later career after it had decided to retire its’ most famous animated stars almost for good. It’s also, unexpectedly, a very funny parody of bureaucracy and makes good use of dialect humor. And yes, the multiplying guinea pigs are adorable.

Dateline: Disneyland (1955): How bad can things get? Well, pretty bad. Some great off the cuff Walt material, madness in front of Mr. Toad, smooching random women while not noticing the camera is running, awkward Ronald Regan and more makes his fascinating viewing material as well as fodder for a great drinking game that nobody’s invented yet.

Paul Bunyan (1958): The last of Disney’s trio of “American Legends” shorts is just as good as the other two, with some great Paul Frees material (“T’weren’t nuthin’!”), a driving theme song and a touching ending. The animation is regrettably simplier than Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, and the short is badly in need of restoration.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961): This highly contested short has always enchanted me, and not just for its eccentric visual style, wonderful music and original concept, but a magisterial, ghostly ending that I find to be beautiful and affecting.

A Symposium on Popular Song (1962): All hail Ludwig von Drake. Hail, hail. All hail the Sherman Brothers. Hail, hail. All hail X Actencio and Bill Justice’s eccentric stop-motion animation which so enriches The Parent Trap and Mary Poppins. But wait – there’s a short that combines all of them! This hidden gem is as funny, strange and charming as it ought to be, with the Sherman’s hilarious lyrics set to Actencio and Justice’s creative paper cutout style. The best part is the reason it hasn’t been shown in years: the “sentimental oriental fortune cookie bakery man.” I lose it every time he chucks something in the “dishonorable trash bin.”

The Tenth Anniversary Show (1965): Perhaps the best way to remember Walt, he’s awfully charming and strange as he leads Julie Reihm around the WED model shop and won’t stop taking pictures of her. Later he stands in front of a process screen and promises us pretty girls in Adventureland. We love you, Walt.

Thanks for everybody’s feedback and support through this blog’s first few months, and everybody have a very happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Liberty Square: Successes and Failures

As the only area unique to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Liberty Square offers a unique if frustrating challenge for the serious student of theme park design. Unique, in that its’ detail, scope, and honesty is unmatched anywhere in the Magic Kingdom. Frustrating, in that a series of design hindrances hoisted on the entire park seriously curb its’ intent, especially compared to Disneyland’s masterfully planned New Orleans Square, which it encourages comparison to through both terminology (“Square”) and staple attraction (The Haunted Mansion).

What is sure about Liberty Square is that it is earnest, detailed, and complex. Born of a desire to bring American History to life in a serious and meaningful way, it isn’t hard to see that compared to the beautiful excesses of Adventureland, the designers of this area truly believed that this would be the conceptual heart of the park and the strongest tie to Walt Disney’s patriotism and interest in bringing history to life. For the time, this was in lockstep with the rest of the nation: with the bicentennial in 1976, Liberty Square was the most popular and potent area of the park. Today, it looks rather sentimental and perhaps too simple.

Liberty Square is filled with details, although ironically many of these are hidden from all but the most discerning eye. Buildings are filled with authentic propping and details which mark this area as the site of extensive planning and research. A quick glance at the interior of the Columbia Harbour House or Diamond Horseshoe reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Authentic hats and canes adorn umbrella holders tucked away into corners. Figureheads loom from rafters above the seating areas. In this fashion Liberty Square at least matches The Haunted Mansion in level of detail. It ought to. It was built by the same people.

These gables above the Heritage House intersect in a very sophisticated and realistic way.

But it has a unique problem of being one of the most poorly laid out areas of the entire park. Successful Disney themed areas present the visual equivalent of a “thesis statement” right off the bat, no matter where you enter the area from. Liberty’s Square’s buildings all face away from the central Hub; entering it from the most logical path means you’re going to be passing a lot of the sides and backs of buildings which have perfectly realized fronts which the guests won’t see unless they turn around and look back! Worse, many of the buildings are placed back, far away from the main throughfares of the park, tucked away behind trees and bushes. These facades are charming and interesting when you bother to walk far enough back to appreciate them, but who’s going to bother to actually do that?

Making the problem worse is that Liberty Square has a parade route right through the center of it. The widened pathway not only makes the area seem impersonal, but the forced perspective becomes more obvious. This is a casualty of Magic Kingdom’s mantra of designing for high capacity: it’s a design choice which creates awkward areas like the Fantasyland-Tomorrowland transition. New Orleans Square has it’s’ cake and eats it too: intimate streets and a huge pedestrian space. It’s achieved by placing the pedestrian walkway well outside of the Square itself, not trying to force traffic entering Pirates or Mansion down those tight and beautiful alleyways. Liberty Square could benefit from six to eight feet less sidewalk from building to building and building to river.

There is furthermore no revised “weenie” at the end of the street; the location of Disneyland’s Riverboat landing has not been revised. But Orlando’s river is located several feet below pedestrian level. Since the riverboat unloads a full level lower than it loads for capacity purposes, it has lost a full ten feet of height from street level. Thus, it can’t loom over anything or impress anybody: it doesn’t look any larger than its’ loading platform!

Liberty Square once looked like this. I know, it's scary.

Worse, subsequent development has actually hindered the area. In 1973 a new extended queue (Liberty Square was popular, I tell ya) for The Hall of Presidents was built, in the process covering up an area between the side of the Presidents show building and the south of the Harbour House which had been a beautiful village green with an unattractive white veranda-type-structure (See above). Not only did this deprive this village of it’s green – a key component of any Northern town as any Yankee will tell you – but it raised a huge white obstruction in front of some of Liberty Square’s most authentic looking facades: the townhouses lining the west side of the Presidents rotunda. Now you have to fight your way even further back off the main road, through an ugly food market, to appreciate these entryways. Trees grew up taller than the building themselves, covering or dwarfing the Georgian revival details, and now street level eatery umbrellas make nice hedges and brickwork even more difficult to admire. It’s not as supremely unattractive looking as EPCOT Center’s behemoth American Adventure building, but it’s not distinctly more appealing, either.

Once off towards the north to the Mansion or the south towards the Horseshoe things improve and unify, but too late to make much of an impression. Which is an awful shame as WED has worked some beautiful stuff into Liberty Square. There are beautifully sculpted hitching posts which you may not see because they’re usually full of guests leaning against them. Facing the Rivers of America, in an inconspicuous window, are two lanterns, lit by night. If you stand below the window, face straight out in the direction the lanterns are, then walk in a straight line out towards the river, you’ll end up in front of a small rise with cannons and munitions in the shadow of an elm. A country on the eve of independence indeed!

The heart of Liberty Square isn’t actually the Hall of Presidents or the Liberty Bell, strong contenders but ultimately too self-important. It’s the interior of the Liberty Tree Tavern, beautifully appointed in seven rooms with seven fireplaces and full of authentic feeling dressing. The place actually appears to be in use with its preponderance of occupied coat racks, hats, and china cabinets. The glass is wavy and when inside on quiet afternoons the effect is total: the world of the area is “stratified” upon the viewer’s consciousness, and Liberty Square could go on forever. It’s a potent moment of design in an area which sometimes otherwise feels like a rather monotonous march of historical reverence.

Interior detail: Liberty Tree Tavern, George Washington room

Sunday, December 10, 2006


OK, so in the process of starting to write up a nice new article / photo essay on Liberty Square, I won an eBay auction for a 1972 "pictorial souvenir of Walt Disney World" - the first that was actually produced for Orlando - which I missed out on at a recent convention. I figured the copy of "The Story of Walt Disney World" and Disney on Parade programs I won at the same time were just the sweeteners.

If anybody out there is a WDW history buff and doesn't have a copy of "The Story of Walt Disney World", they're missing out on a real treat. These classy, softcover books were produced throughout the seventies in the shape of a big black Walt Disney World D with a die-cut window in the cover revealing a nice picture of Cinderella Castle behind. What I lucked out on was that I actually won a 1971 printing of the thing and when I opened up to page 10, this is what I saw:click for larger

I had first seen these fantastic Phase One maps backstage at Magic Kingdom years ago - yes, that is Western River Expedition you see to the far West, and outside the park the Asian Resort, due East of it the Venetian. After spending some fruitless hours searching for a copy, of course one just drops into my lap - even if it is rather low-resolution and bound into a book.

I found a few other things, too. I nearly had a geek attack when I found this next picture from 1972. Following it is a similar picture reposted from an earlier Blog entry:

What a difference a few years a vegetable growth makes! And how barren and desolate a pre-Tom Sawyer's Island Rivers of America looks! The second photographer even zoomed in to minimize the effect of what was even a few years later a pretty barren landscape. See the Fantasyland Skyway peeking up over the hill in the 1972 shot?

This got me thinking, and I revisited the excellent pre-EPCOT souvenir video A Dream Called Walt Disney World, as well as the theatrical short subject The Magic of Walt Disney World, from 1980 and 1971, respectively. (Don't confuse A Dream Called... with The Magic of... just because the theme song for A Dream Called... is actually named The Magic of Walt Disney World!) Which leads me to an honest and passionate plea: does anybody have a clean, clear, complete copy of Buddy Baker's haunting Walt Disney World musical theme in any media?

It's really a beautiful piece, actually much nicer than his Monorail and Peoplemover themes, just as energetic and wistful but also more melodic and soothing. Today it really sounds like an echo from beyond the veil, when Walt Disney World was beautifully pristine and new and minus three other parks saddled aboard and all around nothing but oranges.

If anybody's not sure how it sounds, follow this link, load up the video, skip ahead to about 3:30, and start listening carefully after Walt finishes speaking. The Walt Disney Story actually made fantastic use of this theme during its' EPCOT (the city) segment, which was genuinely stirring.

Thanks for everybody who wrote in with kind words about my Marc Davis pieces - they're works in progress and feedback will be carefully considered to help with any changes I intend on incorporating in future versions. Interestingly enough I found out a few more things about the evolution of the Bears show even after posting, and now all that work is starting to look woefully incomplete to me...

'Till next time!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Two Shows by Marc Davis - Part Two

America Sings

“Yankee Doodle remembers when
To make these songs ring true
People came from every land
To mix these tunes for you.

So we should al
l remember
As history mov
es along
That everything is b
etter now
For someone
wrote a song!”

The next Marc Davis venture was to be a fateful one, not only for being the first Disneyland attraction to be done more or less without the supervision of Walt Disney in some form (even the new Mickey Mouse Revue and Hall of Presidents attractions over at Walt Disney World were outgrowths of Disney-originated ideas), but a fateful foray into a world of “theme parks” that was teetering precariously on the razor’s-edge of complete upheaval. Since the opening of Disneyland, a number of smaller and essentially un-designed “theme parks” had been popping up around the United States under the names of Six Flags, Busch Gardens, etc. These low-end attractions often had their staying power through their collection of ever-expanding roller coasters and a new kind of guest was being created: the thrill seeker.

In effect, it would be an old-fashioned Disney-style show on a grand scale when, all around the US and even within Disney, it was making less and less sense to just not build roller-coasters. Between 1975 and 1980, Disney built five coasters, if we count the Matterhorn refurbishment as part of the craze.

And in the midst of all this 70’s hedonism, the bicentennial of America was (appropriately) approaching, and interest in American history and iconography was peaking. Florida’s park already had Country Bear Jamboree and Liberty Square, two enormously successful explorations of American history. At the same time, Marc Davis was at the tail end of his busiest period of themed design work, having just finished being a major designer on Walt Disney World, which also involved significantly redesigning some of his original Disney adventures such as The Enchanted Tiki Room and The Jungle Cruise. He had tried to save Florida’s Pirates from being a lame hack job (he didn’t). He had installed a double copy of Bears in Disneyland, plus a whole separate land. He had been and would continue to try to save his lost masterpiece, The Western River Expedition (he wouldn’t). And now, in the midst of everything, he would gather up a team of experienced accomplices and pay tribute to 200 years of American song.

Davis' Western River Expedition: Cast Out of Eden

The show would be wedged (literally) into the Carousel of Progress theatre, making it an uneasy fit in Tomorrowland and requiring something of the clever manipulation that Claude Coates utilized when he designed If You Had Wings, another slightly awkward fit in another Tomorrowland: finally emphasizing a vaguely suggested but positive “future” of (aviation, air travel, song, etc). But the show was a technical marvel, far outpacing the simple revolving platforms of the Bear show by flying in and out literally dozens of figures on hydraulic lifts. Stages rotate in and out of view, figures fly up and down, back and forth, and whole walls peel away to reveal new levels and layers.

Of course all of this is augmented by the fact that the stage itself stays still and the audience moves from set to set, which ultimately becomes the structuring motif of the show itself: because the scene is constantly changing, to build a sense of continuity Davis and Bertino built in a succession of repetitions which continue both within and outside of each “act”, with each act as an entire self-contained unit with its’ own patterns and variations.

The biggest and most brilliant pattern is the cleverly re-written verses of Yankee Doodle Dandy, America’s first popular song, which open and close each act and the show at large. All of this is actually performed by emcee Sam the Eagle, voiced by Burl Ives, and his comical sidekick Ollie the Owl, who structure the show itself rather neatly. There are further repetitions: four musical geese open each act dressed in the manner appropriate for the time, singing a fast medley of popular or representative folk songs before the main body of the act, representing more unusual and varied sources, begins. Infamously, a weasel appears in each act to loudly and unexpectedly announce “Pop! Goes the weasel! Hehe!” after unwisely being invoked by Ollie in the introductory opening. Each act builds to a large “keystone” number. And so on.

What these repetitions actually do, combined with the relentless onward turning of the carousel in exactly even units of time (for each act must run exactly the same length), is create patterns of setup and payoff – namely, expectation – which the show builds on for entertainment and comedy. This concept is actually an expansion of the “honk honk” created by baby bear Oscar squeezing his teddy bear in Country Bear Jamboree at the conclusion of each number by the Five Bear Rugs. Oscar squeezes his teddy three times in Country Bears, and each time it’s a laugh. In America Sings, the audience is tormented by that weasel seven times, the payoff being his final signing off of “Goodbye, goes the weasel!”

But the weasel structures the acts in a fairly complex way, often signaling a shift in rhythm and tone; between “The Birmingham Jail” and “Down By the Riverside”, between “Who Shot the Hole in My Sombrero?” and “The Tale of Billy the Kid”, and more. In the Gay Ninties segment he actually appears twice, once to downshift the exuberance of the showgirl pig’s rendition of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” to the more restrained accapella version of “Sweet Adeline” by the four geese and Blossom-Nose Murphy. Furthermore, the weasel’s interruptions are often followed by commentary by Sam and Ollie in a more leisurely fashion than the pace of the show can usually accommodate in the heat of the battle switching between songs.

He appears once more at the very end of the Gay Ninties segment, drunk, which is not only a structural payoff (he never again appears twice), but a linking “effect” and nestled right before another linking “effect” which itself structures the act and makes it unique: two descending cords played on a piano, which play immediately after the conclusion of “Home on the Range” and “Tah-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay”. And since “Tah-Ra-Ra” is so repetitive, and because it is followed by three more repetitions / variations on existing patterns (“Pop, goes the weasel! Hic!” / two descending chords / Yankee Doodle Dandy), the audience is suddenly confronted with four repetitions in less than ten seconds. The whole pace of the show suddenly “shifts up” to the manic pace required by the Modern Times act, featuring eleven songs at breakneck pace, the most of any act in the show (it averages around eight). The show structurally has increased the pace the necessary amount simply by repeating four elements in an intelligent and designed fashion.

The primary fulfillment of America Sings and Country Bear Jamboree is, in effect, structural.

America Sings also extends the concept of the narrator or master of ceremonies as presented in Disney attractions of the era. It’s important to differentiate between the pre-1963 Disneyland attractions and the post 1963 attractions in this sense. Ever since the Enchanted Tiki Room the idea of an “emcee” had gained popularity in Disneyland, as opposed to the early Disneyland “guides”. A Master of Ceremonies, as embodied by the Ghost Host, Jose the parrot, or Sam the Eagle, are diagetic to the environment; a part of the show which steps forward to greet us and act as a guide through a foreign locale. This differs from the Jungle Cruise skippers, Storybookland hostesses or even the captain recording on The Submarine Voyage Thru Liquid Space in that these personalities are “one of us”, a character who exists to explain and illuminate the scenery in the way which is essentially distanced (menacing hippos notwithstanding). A “diagetic” Jungle Cruise skipper could be a native of the region, or on the subs, well… a fish.

The show also represented two other significant benchmarks in the history of Disneyland. Its figures, machined and manufactured by WED, were among the best and most sophisticated ever produced. The balance between fluid motion and necessity – the figures are never over-produced, with too many functions, nor too few, but just right for their purpose – had finally reached a happy medium. So sustaining and excellent are these characters in their design and construction that they can still be seen in Disneyland, populating Splash Mountain, where they might as well have been produced yesterday. Second, America Sings marked the first time Marc Davis’ ability to draw beautifully realized and immediately ascertainable figures actually began to outpace WED’s ability to reproduce them. Although Blaine Gibson’s realization of many of the animals is charming and admirable, certain tableaus – like the prairie dog who sings “Home on the Range” or Mrs. Bunny with her children – simply cannot match Davis’ subtle and often hilarious staging and design.

You're gonna wanna click for larger versions of these, folks.

America Sings is a complex give and take, constantly setting up expectations and then defeating them only to set up further expectations; engaging the audience on a deep level, effectively getting us “where we live” - our desire to be entertained doesn’t mean we have to shut our brains off, either. Consider the opening moments where, an audience prepared to see an Audio-Animatronics review, hears a fanfare and sees a curtain open to reveal – two figures standing shock still. And they remain still, despite Ollie’s occasional blinking, through a fairly leisurely passage of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, whereupon Sam the Eagle starts moving like greased lightning. This is a reformation of the audience’s “contract” with the show, providing audio animatronics figures but not requiring them to actually move. This is a reversal of the opening of the Country Bear Jamboree, where the animation is sudden and unexpected. Here, the gratification of animation is presented, but delayed.

The way the show will raise and lower characters into view, have them slide in and out of sight, and then shuffle the audience ever onward is part of this give and take: which of course comes to a head at the end of the Gay Ninties segment, where first a tiny portion of the set opens to allow the “Bird in the Gilded Cage” to slide forward, then the entire back wall peels away to reveal an entire chorus line of chicken showgirls, two storks riding unicycles, and a drunk pig waiter. The climax of the Going West segment has the scrim “sky” suddenly become transparent to reveal more hidden figures. Perhaps best and most interestingly of all, two featured performers aren’t hidden or flown in at all: the “Boot Hill Boys” are present on set of Act Two for its’ entire duration, only performing their number in the last third of the presentation.

The Boot Hill Boys are, of course, perhaps the best indication of Davis’ ability to ‘animate a character’ versus simply ‘move a figure’. Their movements, appealingly simple, were more or less restricted to head raise, head turn, and beak open, but Davis made them entertaining and even funny by having them raise and lower their heads in effective synchronization, and even do a little dance with those two simple motions. Look at how much mileage Davis got from these two birds, then go watch a video of “Spaceship Earth” (vintage or current) to see the difference between ‘animating a character’ and ‘moving the figure’.

Yet after all is said and done, the Country Bears and America Sings could not be more similar, nor much more different. Both are, unmistakably, Marc Davis presentations and, for much of the history of Disneyland, Marc Davis Was Disneyland. Consider, for example, that as of 1972 there was not a single major attraction west of the castle (save Tom Sawyer Island) that he did not work on!

Yet America Sings, brilliantly and fully realized, teetering on the edge of a culture about to go Coaster Crazy, ironically, was the first and last Disney attraction to go for the full spectrum of emotions. After years of refinement, work, and discovery, America Sings seems to be WED’s moment to stand up and say “look what we can do”. As the first Disney attraction to go for and earn poignancy honestly, simply, and smartly, it’s hard for me to improve on the final lyrics of the show, one of the most famous popular American songs, so let these be a fitting close.

“Yankee Doodle always says
The past is just the start
Tomorrow will bring songs to you
That come straight from the heart.
Another thing he had to say,

Is life, is just a song
So everybody get in tune
And let’s all sing along!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne...”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Two Shows by Marc Davis - Part One

Between 1963 and 1975, WED Enterprises were on top of their game with attractions like it’s a small world, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Pirates of the Caribbean, and more. If so many of these Walt and post-Walt attractions turned out to be classics, they are also discernable as having evident and signature styles behind so many: Claude Coates, Rolly Crump, Mary Blair, and others. And the key creative man who got WED through two huge projects – Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion – was ex-animator Marc Davis. Davis was indestructible for many years, and if he had had his way, The Magic Kingdom in Florida would have been a very different place. He was also a certifiable genius.

Davis' early art for Disney as character animator on Bambi.

Davis was responsible for two keystone attractions at Disney parks, one made for and under Walt Disney and another a great leap into the unknown. Both are / were unique experiences full of his trademark wit and sense of character, and both were unique in the sense that they were stage attractions where the audience remained (more or less) stationary and the performers paraded in front of them. These are, of course, the twin Americana musical revues The Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings. One still exists, both have been badly mishandled, and both are among the most fondly remembered creations in American themed entertainment.

“There was a bit of jealousy there… Walt bought what he [Marc] did and he never bought what they did.” – Alice Davis

Note: I am assuming the readers are familiar with “Country Bear Jamboree” and “America Sings”, as this is an analysis, not a history. Those of us who don’t listen to these shows constantly may want to take a “refresher course” in the form of music or video (of varying degrees of legality) that may (or may not) be available online.

The Country Bear Jamboree

“He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump
Runnin’ 90 miles an hour, takin’ 40 feet a jump
Ain’t never been cornered, ain’t never been treed.

Some folks say looks a lot like me.”

One of the original Magic Kingdom entertainments, Walt’s original Bear Band Serenade can only be seen in the United States in Florida these days, where it originated, and is in that way perhaps fitting for these 20 musical bruins, one of The Magic Kingdom’s defining unique attractions in 1971. Originally designed for a ski resort in Mineral King national park, it is said that Walt Disney had seen the bear show, more or less. The extent that this is true is questionable as it is also reported that on his last visit to WDI he met with Marc Davis on the bear show and Davis had shown him development sketches. So although it is often reported that Country Bears was overseen by Walt, it’s more likely that Disney himself was about as responsible for the actual wiring, track, installation and music actually laid down in 1971 as he was with the interior show of the Haunted Mansion.

This was a Marc Davis show from beginning to end.

Davis' art, matched very closely by WED Enterprises.

Davishumor, which worked so well on attractions like Pirates, Mansion and Jungle, - where guests could “read” his joke or situation immediately upon entering the tableau – was transformed into something infinitely more subtle and varied when taken to the stage. His trademark style “gags” were subjugated into mere punctuation marks for scenes and passages and often transposed into repetitions of situations or events as necessitated by the action for comic effect. Country Bears, in particular, is all “character work”. Although the bears in Country Bear Jamboree are often stylized in such a way so that you can immediately understand their personality from first glance, they also are involved in developing action: the bears are not, in short, gags in and of themselves.

Davis always had a gift for designing characters who seemed to suggest whole back stories on first glance and placing them in scenarios where the identifiable dynamics of the character are often in opposition to the general scene: for example, a fat woman is being auctioned to rowdy pirates. Although the rotund lady giggles and obligingly shows her rear end to the drunken brigands, they shout down the auctioneer for the next lot on the block. Nobody’s getting what they want: the brigands their woman, the auctioneer his money nor the fat girl her groom. It’s basic character dynamics but it’s also one of the most famous and memorable assemblies of artificial humans ever put on display. It’s the character dynamics that impress us today, not the phony Pirates.

This is taken one step further in the Bear show. Davis suggests a whole backstage world we’re not seeing of bears rushing about, applying makeup, pulling up curtains. None of this is specifically pointed out in the literal minded way that later bear shows would add stereophonic bear stage hands: it’s done by having these characters designed so well and carefully, so correctly matched to a voice and having that voice correctly matched to a song, that it is simply unacceptable that those bears simply turn off once their number has been completed. We naturally fill in the blanks: where they’re from, how they got here, what they ate for lunch, etc. This is a triumph of artifice in the extreme sense: we’re not even reacting to humans up on stage, but exaggerated versions of them in the forms of bears! Singing bluegrass!

But the world’s illusion is total, from the macro (the Grizzly Hall “backwoods Victorian” setting) to the micro (the entrance hall’s floorboards are scuffed with bear claw marks). Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas wrote of the “illusion of life” in their famous animation volume. Davis was and is the foremost practitioner of this principle in three-dimensional animation – his canny eye has never been matched.

Davis – along with Al Bertino and George Bruns – created a show of enormously complex timing and rhythm. In this case it’s perhaps telling to show what they did right by comparing the original show to what the subsequent shows got so wrong in concept and execution. The essential plot arc of the attraction is that the bears put on a show, are interrupted by Melvin Buff and Max, continue to put on a show, are interrupted by Big Al, then have to defeat Big Al by drowning him out with song.

The drive of the show to resolve the rhythmical, building force of the songs: for about seven minutes there are five uninterrupted acts which build in rapidity and intensity, wavering between male and female acts, solo and ensemble acts, which build a cumulative total effect of having been seeing a real live performance. This is where the Vacation Hoedown version, in particular, fails: it does not trust the audience enough to sit still for about ten minutes of uninterrupted music with no real overt jokes: it is constantly interrupting the flow of the music and performance with asides, gags, mishaps, and other nonsense.

This sense of variety and, foremost, pace is why Bears still entertains but something like The Mickey Mouse Revue in Fantasyland, also a Magic Kingdom opening day show and also a unique Florida attraction, is today a barely remembered and rather tedious curiosity. Mickey Mouse Revue was particularly bad in letting down the rhythm and pace of each number with the next: following “The Three Caballeros” with the crashing bore that is “So This Is Love”. The Bears just don’t let up. On the other side of the equation, The pacing is so careful and succinct that although each number lasts only a few minutes at most, they’re adequately allowed to breathe so that Bears doesn’t have the effect of, whatever their merits or failings, Stitch’s Great Escape or Mickey’s Philharmagic, where the makers seemed to chafe at the idea of allowing any action to play for more than 15 seconds without having the hit the audience with a new “gag”

Davis and Bertino perfectly pace out the short numbers with instrument solos and variations; the effect is of the bears actually having to keep time and rhythm. In effect, this central segment of the show is what the bears have been trying to achieve in the first five acts and have been thwarted by the sarcastic animal heads. Each act significantly ups the ante of the previous. Once Teddi Barra’s swing number is over, the show has, in effect, no place to go once Big Al appears and sings his dreadful version of Blood on the Saddle. Henry and Sammy attempt to almost immediately recover the rhythm of the pre-Big Al material, but once Al (irrationally) returns for another solo, he threatens to disrupt the driving force of the music for, if the rhythm is offset, the show must, by definition, be over. This is why all the other bears team up to drown him out and prevent the building rhythm and structure of the music towards reaching its logical conclusion: once the pace is gone, the revue is essentially “dead in the water”. The show is structured so that the bears must fight to continue to have the attention of the audience. Just like in the vaudeville routines of the day, losing audience sympathy will result in being pulled offstage with a hook, ending the act and, by extension, the show.

Yet ironically the resolution of this conflict is also the resolution of the show itself for, once all the members of the Bear Band perform together, there is no further spectacle that can be provided by the troupe and the audience must be shuffled out the door, always with the requisite Southern hospitality: “ya’ll come back now, y’hear?”

Aside from the rhythm and pace, the second aspect the later shows seriously fudge is the characters themselves. Only Henry, Max, Buff, Melvyn and the Sun Bonnets seem to be the same characters: for no reason Liver Lips McGrowl becomes an Elvis rock and roll style character, which so badly misjudges the point of Liver Lips in the original show its offensive. The “thesis statement” of the show is stated by Henry almost immediately at curtain up: “A bit of Americana, our musical heritage of the past.” Modern rock and roll sensibilities are outside of the realm of these characters and show and placing Liver Lips as an Elvis character essentially misses the point that he’s the most unkempt, unattractive character in the whole theater. “She ain’t pretty, but I ain’t too… my woman ain’t pretty but she don’t sware none.” What’s the point?

A similar turnaround happened with Trixie, who gained a “big voice” with lots of gospel-style range. But the whole point of Trixie is that she’s enormous but has a tiny little voice and a petite attitude. However, most irritatingly of all, Teddi Barra was unsexed in all later versions of the show: giving her a rain slicker or cast makes the joke of a sexy bear on a floral swing rather beside the point. Worse, she was stripped of her accent, replacing those charming flat vowels with a rather bland and sweet non-regional accent. Where are these bears from, again?

When is this supposed to be happening, again? The date on Grizzly Hall in The Magic Kingdom reads late-19th century and the structure looks rather like Great Northwest territory colonial dance halls. The show inside is split between appearing in this kind of setting and having regional Floridian references thrown into the mix (the Tampa Temptation; The Vibrating Wreck From Nashville Tech, etc). Disneyland went the other direction, retaining the Floridian references but expanding the Northwest Territory theme into a whole surrounding land.

What is certain is that modern songs and references are outside of the realm of the attraction, although arguably Disney has been consistently breaking the Fourth Wall ever since cacti dressed up to look like the Seven Dwarfs appeared on the Rainbow Ridge Mine Trains in 1956. Still, the incongruity of these characters singing “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” or “Singing in the Rain” is transparent, in addition to removing half the ostensible purpose of Country Bears and America Sings – to expose the audience to kinds of music outside of their day-to-day experience. The Vacation Hoedown really just confirms the audience’s probably modern and narrow definition of “country music” in grand fashion. In the 90’s this kind of pandering even gained new speed in Imagineering as a proposed attraction transforming the bears into caricatures of modern country stars made the rounds. This tasteless idea was thankfully shot down with assured finality by that decade’s close and the failure of “hip” attractions like The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

The things Disney will sink money into…

Thankfully the bears still play on in The Magic Kingdom. Disneyland’s closure of their version and the drama surrounding it is well recorded elsewhere and will serve no purpose to repeat it here, suffice to say that in some ways Disney shot themselves in the foot while simultaneously trying to jump the gun by placing the bears way back behind the Haunted Mansion, out of any sane traffic flow, in the beautiful but usually vacant Bear Country. Placed right in the path of most guests, Florida’s bears still play to responsive and mostly filled theatres.

Old Zeke, from 1965 to 1971

In the mid-90’s some of the bears were reprogrammed to negative effect in Florida, this in addition to the mid-70’s re-recording of Zeke’s “Pretty Little Devilish Mary” and Ernest’s “If Ya Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl”. Dallas McKennon's original beautifully varied and complex vocal gymnastics as Zeke can only be heard on CD. Now Liver Lips can’t seem to stop jerking about randomly, the Sun Bonnets have lost their precise and wickedly sarcastic choreography in favor of generically sad flopping about, and Teddi Barra seems to swing a bit less. But short of a full scale restoration for Walt Disney’s World 35th (or 40th…), let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. After three and a half decades of performances those “silly singing country bears” are still one of the best things in the park. Thank god.

Return next week for the conclusion of this article.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Jungle Cruise Florida: Behind the Scenes

Taking a bit of a breather here in preparation of posting some big articles, so in the interim, here's some images related to the building of the Florida Jungle Cruise. There are several images of the building of the California version and one of the Florida version which are pretty commonly circulated, so here are some more obscure items for your persual. (Click for larger in most cases)
Taken during a mid-70's refurbishment to the Jungle, this shows how deep the hippo pool actually is, as well as the concrete trough that guides the Orlando boats. Below, a 1971 Pana-Vue slide showing the original end of the dock and a skipper riding a boat into the jungle, for reasons unknown. The Orlando queue was expanded in 1973 to include that whole stretch of riverbank on the right with the expansion of Pirates, losing some of the charm of appearing to cruise on into the jungle. Notice the original 1971 set dressing. I have an even older photo, from construction, showing that the Orlando queue originally had some steps up to the upper (forced perspective) boathouse level where I guess the foreman's office was. Also notice the artifical vine canopy, visible as the darkened area to the right.

I can't seem to locate a copy of the America Sings LP with the book of Marc Davis art at the front. Can anybody with it on hand scan me a copy of the pages in decent resolution, say 600 dpi? I'd be most grateful if there's any poor soul out there willing to help me out!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Promotional Prose

Let us take a moment here, between articles, to admire the succinct but brilliantly constructed lost art form which was the Walt Disney World "pictorial souvenir" produced between 1971 and 1992 or so. These large, in later years often hardcover, books were simply thick with the kind of taut, evocative and smart ad copy Disney only wishes she could write today. Take this passage from a 1977 book:

"A world of discoveries awaits visitors at the Walt Disney World Shopping Village. In a setting of weathered bricks and woods, and shops with cedar-shingled roofs, old-world craftsmen carry out their vintage arts before admiring eyes..."

And all this for the fairly sedate Disney Marketplace! Furthermore, the imagery was striking and often wonderful, capturing beautiful settings in flattering light at all times of the day with real people in real clothes enjoying themselves in real time. In honor of this lost art, we proudly present to you a collection of staggering vintage promotional imagery with accompanying text. Always click on the image for a larger view if possible; many are scanned at very high resolution.

"Crossing the bridge and climbing the Swiss Family Treehouse, adventurers g
ain a spectacular panorama of the sprawling jungle region. Below, bargain hunters browse through informal tropical shops."

"A journey to exotic tropical regions of the world unfolds in Adventureland, whe
re the last outpost of civilization borders on a "wonderland of nature's own design."

"A veritable United Nations of plants was assembled to represent the tropic regions of the world. From the South Pacific to the West Indies, from darkest Africa to densest Amazon, flowering trees radiate the spectrum in brilliant, ever changing patterns of blossoms. Vigorously twining vines and vast strands of bamboo, palms, ferns and grasses add contrasting textures and cooling shades of green."

"Here is America on the eve of Independence - 1776. Around the bustling square are shops that recall the busainess life of Colonial America - silver, glass, Mlle Lafayette's Parfumerie. And places to sample the hospitality of the times: Liberty Tree Tavern, Columbia Harbour House. In Liberty Square, Walt Disney sought to dramatize 'in a different and exciting way' the importance of our American heritage."

"Man is on the move in Tomorrowland - across America, around our world, and beyond the earth into Outer Space... For youngsters of all ages, Tomorrowland is a stepping stone to the future... an opportunity today to preview many adventures which only yesterday seemed generations away." [Editor's emphasis]

"In addition to being astronomically enlightening, [Mission to Mars] is rich in light-hearted embellishments. Among them is a cosmic phen
omenon that hurls passengers into a 'hyper-space warp' and through an 'anti-universe' mirroring their own."

"Enclosed within the hotel's imposing steel and concrete A-frame is an enourmous open area called the Grand Canyon Concourse. It soars nine stories and stretches one and a half times the length of a football field, with rows of guest rooms opening into it on both sides. Sleek, silent monorail trains continually arrive and depart in this unique 'lobby', transporting guests to and from The Magic Kingdom and other resort destinations. Beneath the monorail station is a small community of shops and restraunts, set in a shimmering decor inspired by scenes of the Grand Canyon."

What really sets these apart today is their technical honestly, statistical accuracy, prose format, and, above all, honest commitment to showing the park, as it is, in the best possible light. In today's publications the pages overflow with promotional and conceptual images, watered down press-release style "information", and other nonsense about as useful as the average Walt Disney World entertainment production. Take a look at these stills, scanned from a mid-90's Disney book:

Just look at those clean cut, white, lying 'tourists' clad entirley in Disney garb clutching their mouse ears and faking a turn on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad! The illusion of them actually expirencing the attraction in a nonstaged format is so artifical that the slightly canted camera angle to help the trick is noticable, and Ms. Blonde on the right is even looking square into the camera! The difference between this offensivley bland American grouping and a cool guy with an afro riding his Grand Prix Raceway car past a blurry Contemporary is about as stark as you can get. And is that a fish eye lens you're using on the Castle Mosiacs there, Mickey? Why? So you can get all of them in one shot? Where's the art?

As for the prose, I only need to cite two passages from two different years to illustrate what happened:

"Among the most popular attractions in The Magic Kingdom, Country Bear Jamboree is a complete theatrical production, relying on precise timing of humorous patter and songs. And most of all, it relies on the ability of the Disney Imagineers to create incredibly life-like personalities for an Audio-Animatronics cast that includes 17 full sized bears, a raccoon, and the talktative hunting-trophy heads of a buffalo, stag and moose." Walt Disney World: The First Decade, 1981
"At Grizzly Hall, Audio-Animatronics bears, a racoon [sic], and talking buffalo, stag, and moose heads present The Country Bear Jamboree. One of the most popular stage shows in The Magic Kingdom, it relies on precision timing and stars like Teddi Barra, Big Al, and Liver Lips." Walt Disney World Resort, 1994
These wonderful old volumes are invaluable resources now, and some, like Walt Disney World: The First Decade, and Walt Disney's Epcot Center, are literally cornerstone works on any Disney shelf. By the mid-90's the books were fully "Eisnerized", with full color characters composited onto awkwardly taken images of actors pretending to be guests, and much of the charm was gone. Please, Disney, bring back these big old hardcover books with unique text and custom photographs - there are plenty of us willing to shell out top dollar for this kind of thing again and you know it.