Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Ghost Stories from the Plantation

The placement of the Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square is a bit of a mystery in itself. The fundamental reason was simply space: there was room to build it in that far, relatively unused corner of Frontierland. Original plans for a haunted attraction were for the end of one of Main Street's side boulevards, but that never came to fruition. In New Orleans Square, the Haunted Mansion feels both entirely appropriate but oddly groundless. Everyone well knows the historic connections of New Orleans with haunted, supernatural stories. The Crescent City is heralded as America's most haunted municipality, and there is a long tradition of voodoo, spooky bayous, and the dead unquiet amidst Lafayette's atmospheric tombs. Yet at the same time, one is vexed to come up with a single example of any specific tale of terror taking place there (at least predating Anne Rice). 

As a public service, I dug deep to pull a few chilling stories from the American South. Uncle Remus, Mark Twain, and others have their brushes with the supernatural that are perfect to dwell on as Halloween draws near.

Image: Disney.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Walt's Era - Part 18: Life After Walt (1967)

The Disney company did not close down shop with the death of Walt Disney. On the contrary, the period after his death was a general period of expansion for the company, particularly concerning its Florida resort.

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with the Magic Kingdom, Contemporary and Polynesian Village Resorts, and Fort Wilderness campground, and steadily added to it throughout the following decade, culminating in EPCOT Center in 1982. A year later, Disney's first international resort, Tokyo Disneyland opened. Ironically, Walt's brother Roy, who took charge and saw the WDW project through in honour of Walt, himself died only a few months after the opening of the "Vacation Kingdom." Under the leadership of Card Walker and Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law, Disney expanded into new fields of film (including the adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures label) and new types (including such innovative films as Tron and Pete's Dragon). Wonderful World of Color was rechristened to the now more-familiar Wonderful World of Disney in 1968 and The Disney Channel began broadcasting in 1983. For those not willing to wait for television's schedule, Disney released its first videocassettes in 1980. In 1967 alone, less than a year after Walt's passing, both Pirates of the Caribbean and the new Tomorrowland debuted, the latter including Adventure Thru Inner Space, Carousel of Progress, and the PeopleMover.  

Nice jumpsuits. Walt Disney World opens October 1, 1971. Photo: Disney.
Unfortunately, this experimentation did not regularly pay out box office dividends. Disney's films typically underperformed and during this time, up to 70% of the company's revenue came from the two theme park resorts, Disneyland and Walt Disney World. By 1984, the majority of Disney's theatrical releases were reissues of their classics. 1969 alone saw the re-releases of  Darby O'Gill and the Little People, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Incredible Journey, Fantasia, and Swiss Family Robinson. The Robinsons would find themselves back in theatres in 1972, 1975, and 1981, hardly letting grass grow under their feet. In 1979, Don Bluth lead a mass exodus of animators, practically destroying the department. Unbelievably, the only film to be released under the Disney brand in 1984 was Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, the short that got him fired from the company. This underperformance led to fractured board of directors, a takeover bid by Saul Steinberg, followed by the ousting of Miller and introduction of Michael Eisner.

What could account for it? For one, there had been diminishing returns in the years preceding Walt's death. The public became less entranced with Disney from the financial loss of 1959-1960 onward, and it's difficult to say that the company wasn't mainly peddling in mediocrity from 1964. The quality of Disney's films into the Seventies was largely consistent with the Sixties, though without the same highlights.

The blame isn't directly on Roy Disney, Walker, Miller, or the Disney company per se. That consistency might have put them at an even keel had society not changed around them. After the Golden Age of global peace promised by Walt in the Fifties, America's youth now found themselves bitterly divided on the question of Vietnam. The Space Race was won by America on July 20, 1969, and promptly forgotten. The new frontier was not outer space or inner space or liquid space, but a broadening idea of justice at home. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements, American Indian Movement and emergence of Native Americans as a political voice, Second Wave Feminism, the Sexual Revolution and Summer of Love, Woodstock, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, Vatican II, post-colonialism, the decline of the British Empire, and the British economic depression that fermented the Punk movement, all transformed Western society irrevocably, let alone the United States. On August 6, 1970, the Yippies took over Disneyland in vain defiance of squaredom. President Jimmy Carter even took to the airwaves in 1979 to chastise Americans for their sense of pessimism and malaise. This spirit entered into film, perhaps no better exemplified than in the indulgent motion pictures of Stanley Kubrick. Dour spectacles of barbarism and hopelessness like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange left Disney's productions looking beyond quaint. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Nutcracker Suite

Changing the setting to a forest drifting through the seasons, affected by the movements of nature sprites, was a spark of originality in Disney's Fantasia, but for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, it was perhaps the least tumultuous of its convolutions on the road to becoming a Christmas classic.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888

Written for the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 is a distinctly American comic ballad about that most distinctly American sport. Though having a very definite author and a publication date, like many of America’s faux-tales invented for newspapers and dime novels, Mudville’s ill-starred player has the quality of myth about him. Disney would go on to make him the subject of an animated short in 1946, and homage is paid to him at the Casey’s Corner counter service restaurant in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris Park. 
Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888
by Ernest Thayer 
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game. 
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
They'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat. 
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a fake
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat. 
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third. 
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat. 
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat. 
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip. 
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said. 
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand. 
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two." 
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again. 
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow. 
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Walt's Era - Part 17: Walt's Last Years (1965-1966)

The end of an era is upon us, in more ways than one. With bizarre prescience, Walt Disney sold WED Enterprises to Walt Disney Productions, finally bringing the future "Imagineering" department into the Disney fold proper. To handle the royalties from his name and the Disneyland Railroad, Walt created the company RETLAW. Yet just as Walt Disney Productions acquired WED, there was talk of General Electric or Westinghouse purchasing the company. And oddly enough, as an ironic footnote, the original Hyperion Rd. studio used by Disney way back in the early days, the studio in which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was created, was bulldozed to clear space for a supermarket. 

Yet it was also a time of beginnings. The New York World's Fair closed in 1965, and over the course of that year and the next, attractions would slowly begin their migration to Disneyland. It's a Small World opened in Fantasyland with a brand new, more dramatic exterior. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln took up the Main Street opera house. The dinosaur scenes in Ford's Magic Skyway were excised and placed alongside the DLRR as the Primeval World diorama. In 1967, the Carousel of Progress would become one of the keynote attractions of the 1967 "New Tomorrowland." New Orleans Square would also open in 1966, though absent either of its headline attractions. 

Outside of the original Magic Kingdom, newspapers rooted out that Disney was buying up property in Orlando and Uncle Walt was forced to publicly announce the Florida Project on October 25, 1965. Disney also made its ill-fated bid for the Mineral King Resort and began conceptual work. One of the concepts was an animatronic stage show of musical bears designed by Marc Davis. The last time Davis saw Walt, he had come by to look at these sketches. One particular image - a rotund bear wrapped in a tuba - sent Walt into fits of laughter, and as he finally stepped out of the door, he uncharacteristically bid "goodbye" to Davis. It was more customary for him to say that he'd see you next week or come by tomorrow or something along those lines. Parting with Walt was never final.

On November 7, 1966, Walt was diagnosed with cancerous tumours in his left lung. Even though surgery could remove the consequences of a lifetime of smoking, he was given only six months to a year to live. He didn't even make it that long. On November 30 he collapsed at home and was taken to the hospital adjacent to the studio. On December 15, at 9:30am, at the age of 65, Walt Disney passed away. 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Walt Disney, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Nowadays not only is one hard-pressed to discern the difference between Country and Western music, the latter having been subsumed into the former, but one would likely be challenged to find any Country music that sounded like Country and not just weak pop music with a Southern accent. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of said accent and the obligatory slide-guitar. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them. 

Among the most popular Western acts of all time were the Sons of the Pioneers. They still are, as a matter of fact. Though none of the original members remain, the Sons of the Pioneers are a designated national treasure and the longest reigning commercial musical troupe. Their origins go back to 1933 when a handsome gent named Leonard Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan to form "The Pioneer Trio." The announcer felt that these fresh-faced youngsters weren't old enough to pass off as pioneers, so he bestowed upon them a new nom-de-guerre. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. During the war, Ken Carson replaced Lloyd Perryman, who had been drafted and continued with the group thereafter. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in motion pictures. You might be more familiar with Slye's stage name: Roy Rogers.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Saturday, 2 September 2017

What Makes a "Classic" Attraction?

Recently, Rob Plays posted a video in which he questioned the criteria for what makes a Disney attraction a "classic." Usually, when listing classics, there is a short list that most fans would agree upon - the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, etc. - but when that short list is dissected, a universal criteria of what makes a "classic" is not forthcoming. It almost seems to be a case where the concept of a "classic" can be analyzed out of existence. Cynically, in the comments to his video, I suggested that this was a follow-up to a previous video by Rob Plays in which he explained his view that no Disney attraction should be immune from vandalism or destruction. If there is no such thing as a "classic," after all, then that can't be used as an argument against whatever ill-conceived busywork Imagineering has gotten up to.

But what is a classic, REALLY?

I would agree that a "classic" is a nebulous concept... Not because there is no such thing, but because what makes a particular attraction a classic is different from what makes another attraction a classic. The way in which the Enchanted Tiki Room is a classic is different from the way in which Space Mountain is a classic. There is no universal rule that applies to all classics. Instead, I would argue, there is an interplay of different criteria in varying strengths and combinations that result in an attraction achieving classic status. Some of these criteria may sound familiar to readers of my previous articles on Imagineering... What makes an attraction a classic is not too far removed from what makes an attraction "Disney" and, more so, what makes an attraction great