Thursday, 22 May 2014

Walt Disney and the Triumph of Corporate Synergy

A visit to any given Disney fan forum will often suss out complaints about how talentless and corporate Disneyland has become. Every new "kiddie ride" and attraction based on a hip current franchise rather than an original concept brings it out, as does every new Starbucks that opens in a Disney Park. I'm not immune to it myself, since I could certainly do without Tomorrowland being reduced to a Universal Studios-style patchwork of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. However, the oddest tack taken by these complaints is that "it weren't always that way"... The false impression that this sort of activity is something new. While the pain of its obviousness may have gotten worse over time, there is no greater example of corporate synergy than Disneyland itself. I'm sure we all know the story of Disneyland's growth from a tiny historical village adjacent to the Burbank studios to the Magic Kingdom in an Anaheim orange grove. In order to gain the necessary funding to pursue this vision, Walt and Roy were forced to cut a deal with ABC to provide them with a television program. That program was... Disneyland. Let's grab our copies of Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland USA (or do a quick search on YouTube) and take an hour to go back in time to watch that first episode from October 27, 1954.

"The Disneyland Story" a fascinating program to watch for many reasons. For one, it demonstrates that Disneyland is not just a theme park, but a conceptual space. Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Main Street USA are not just places but states of mind. The theme park itself reinforces and is reinforced by presentations on the Disneyland program that embody each of these conceptual spaces. Though I am speaking of it in terms closer to cultural studies and art critical theory, make no mistake about what this is from the other side of the ledger: a multiplatform, multimedia brand.

Whereas other filmmakers were afraid of how television would cut into the profits of cinema, Walt Disney saw it as a powerful means to promote his work, not the least of which was Disneyland. That first episode of the longest-running weekly television show in American prime-time begins with a peek into the Disney Studios and the projects under development, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sleeping Beauty. Promotion for 20,000 Leagues would feature in two further episodes in the first season, "Operation Undersea" and "Monsters of the Deep." The former program would go on to win two Emmys, for best television editing and for best individual television program of the year, despite being an hour-long advertisement about the filming of 20,000 Leagues in the Bahamas. When Disneyland opened, one of Tomorrowland's key attractions was a walk-through of sets from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

On the original drawings for Disneyland, Adventureland was known as "True-Life Adventureland." This synergy with the True-Life Adventure documentaries was bridged during the Adventureland episodes of the Disneyland series, which typically featured one of the True-Life theatrical shorts and a promotional piece on an upcoming True-Life feature. For example, the third episode of the series had "Prairie," about the making of The Vanishing Prairie, paired with Seal Island. Later in the season, the short Beaver Valley was wed to a promotional piece on The African Lion entitled "Cameras in Africa." In "The Disneyland Story," producer Ben Sharpsteen talks extensively about these upcoming films and shows off some early footage.

When the park opened, Adventureland featured only one attraction: the Jungle Cruise. This was inspired by a contemporary film, though curiously not a Disney movie. A scant few years before, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn starred in the tale of a rugged African riverboat adventure called The African Queen, which Imagineer Harper Goff referenced frequently in his designs for the ride.

Next door in Frontierland we see some of the most obvious catering to corporate synergy. Fess Parker was on hand during "The Disneyland Story" to sing the title song to the trilogy of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier episodes to air later in the season. These in turn inspired a national craze that notoriously took Disney by surprise. To have a whole section devoted to the myth of the Wild West and not have their newest Western star would be unthinkable, but plans for the park were already so far along by the time Davy Crockett: At the Alamo aired on Feb. 23, 1955, that no attraction featuring him could be whipped up. That did not stop Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen from doing a performance, in character, at Disneyland's opening ceremonies. They did manage to fit a small Davy Crockett Frontier Museum in the space currently occupied by Pioneer Mercantile.

Another guest at those opening ceremonies was Irene Dunne, on hand to christen the Mark Twain Riverboat. Dunne was one of the stars of the 1936 film version of the Kern and Hammerstein musical Show Boat. Though remade in 1951 - the same year as The African Queen - it was the 1936 version with its iconic performance by Paul Robeson that would have been most fondly remembered by the adults intending to visit Walt's new park.

Incidentally, a cinematic version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was released not long after Show Boat, in 1938. Given the classic status of America's Bard and his greatest novel, it might be a stretch to ascribe Tom Sawyer's Island to any one film. Nevertheless, here we have another case of Disney adapting a work to his own park. As in the cases cited above, and those to follow, there is no direct corporate synergy in the sense of directly drumming up tickets at a movie theatre or merchandise sales. There is, instead, a definite attempt to align the Disney product with the American cultural zeitgeist and ultimately subsume that zeitgeist into itself. There is no African Queen or Show Boat or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ride, but Disneyland will provide one very much like it.

Films of the Thirties had a profound influence in another section of the park: Main Street USA. It's often touted that Main Street was inspired by Walt's recollections of his boyhood home of Marceline, Missouri. Some more astute Disney fans have noted that Walt spent only four years in Marceline between the ages of 5 and 9, and that Marceline's historic main street looks nothing whatever like Disneyland's version. Therefore, Harper Goff's hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, has been looked to as another influence. Like every other part of Disneyland, though, Main Street is not inspired by any one place, but by the idea of a certain setting and time period. That setting - the "Gay Nineties" - was cemented by a series of nostalgic, idealized films in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, entering into the American cultural zeitgeist to be subsumed by Disney. A movie called The Gay Nineties was made in 1933 and remade in 1942. Cinema seductress Mae West practically made a living off of these films, with such pictures as She Done Him Wrong (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934) and Klondike Annie (1935). Show Boat was a part of the same movement, as was the 1935 Will Rogers comedy Steamboat Round the Bend. Disney himself romanticized the era in films like So Dear to My Heart (1948), the Mickey Mouse short The Nifty Nineties (1941) and its conceptual sequel Crazy Over Daisy (1950), Casey and Bat (1946) and Casey Bats Again (1954), and others. Abbott and Costello released their comedy The Naughty Nineties in 1945, which included their famous "Who's on First" routine.

So rooted was Disneyland to the Mid-Century impression of the Gay Nineties that even the in-park advertising reflected Fifties pop-art rather than anything authentically Victorian. A perusal of the marvelous Poster Art of the Disney Parks tome reveals many gorgeous - but very modernist - posters developed for the Disneyland Railroad, Red Wagon Inn and Candy Palace. It wasn't until Disney's European park that "The Disneyland Paris team researched popular American illustrations and artwork from the period for inspiration," according to Danny Handke and Vanessa Hunt, the book's authors. Main Street is also where we see some of the most obvious corporate sponsorship in Disneyland, such as the Carnation Cafe, for instance. There was also the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad, Coca-Cola Refreshment Corner, Maxwell Coffee Shop, and the Market House and Red Wagon Inn (now Plaza Inn), both run by Swift.

But I digress. Back to Frontierland, one of its signature attractions was Nature's Wonderland, a multi-faceted area with a mine train, stagecoaches and mule ride. In 1960, new animatronics were added that tied directly to the True-Life Adventures films. Now riders on the mine train could see Beaver Valley, The Olympic Elk, Bear Country and The Living Desert in three dimensions.

Tomorrowland was a unique situation in that its own reference points were tied in equal parts to the fervor over the American Space Race and the Disneyland program. One of the last episodes of Disneyland's first season was Man in Space, which evolved into a trilogy over subsequent seasons with the episodes Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond. All three episodes were directed by animator Ward Kimball, who introduced them in "The Disneyland Story."  The attraction Rocket to the Moon was realized concurrently with Man and the Moon, which aired on Dec. 28, 1955. Dr. Heinz Haber was one of the guests at the opening of Disneyland the park, and during that program performed (with limited success) an experiment that he would replicate in the episode Our Friend the Atom from 1957. That episode also revisited footage and themes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For want of attractions and money, most of Tomorrowland was turned over to corporate showrooms, including the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry and later Monsanto House of the Future, Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame, and the Crane Bathroom of Tomorrow (I could only imagine the complaints if Disney did that today).  In 1959, Tomorrowland was updated with a new set of attractions including the Alweg Monorail, the Submarine Voyage inspired by the actual quest for the North Pole via nuclear submarine, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which evolved out of the filming for Third Man on the Mountain. The 1967 renovation of Tomorrowland brought Monsanto's Adventure Thru Inner Space and the General Electric Carousel of Progress.
Cover of the "Our Friend the Atom" textbook, published
simultaneously with the television program and pitched by Walt on it.
There is virtually no need to bring up Fantasyland, with every one of its opening attractions being based on one of the films from Disney's oeuvre. Sleeping Beauty had not even been released yet when the castle was ascribed to her in "The Disneyland Story." Corporate sponsorship could not be escaped there either: it was not the Jolly Roger that occupied the former lagoon, but the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship.
All of this is, I think, sufficient to demonstrate that the specter of sponsorships and corporate synergy is nothing new. There never was a golden age during which Disneyland was run as a non-profit charity. The misty eons of nostalgia seems to have done much to excise the fact that Disney has always been perfecting the concept of multimedia branding, and indeed, constructed one of the most fascinating examples of the type. This is not to say that every single example of franchise-building and corporate sponsorship is a great idea, but a critique loses its weight when it is a rote complaint about what Disney has always done. Whether one loves it, hates it, or merely endures it, it cannot be denied that among the many things Walt Disney pioneered, the concept of corporate synergy was one of his greatest triumphs.

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