Thursday, 5 June 2014

Disney Runs Away With the Circus

On the dustjacket of their impressive tome Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Theme Park, Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon reiterate one of the "primal myths" of Disneyland’s origins: “Fifty years ago, Walt Disney utterly transformed the concept of outdoor entertainment venues from tawdry carnivals and seedy amusement piers called ‘amusement parks,’ to an entirely new destination that would come into common vernacular as the ‘theme park.’” When the Imagineers of today added a new area to Walt Disney World's Fantasyland based on the circus – ostensibly the most “tawdry” of American amusements that are legal in most States – it certainly raised some eyebrows and some ire. How could they so betray the spirit of Walt Disney himself by including an area themed to the very thing he tried to get away from?

For as brilliant and creative as they are, I think one always has to take what Imagineers say with a grain of salt. For example, when they are criticized for poor artistic choices, they frequently dust off the thought-terminating cliche that “Disneyland is not a museum.” Nevertheless, when Walt explained what Disneyland was, he had this to say (emphasis mine):
The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand. Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. Disneyland will be sometimes a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.
Oh, sometimes Disneyland is a museum. Walt did a brisk business in nostalgia, and the very first incarnation of Disneyland was very much the sort of thing we would recognize today as a “living history museum” or “historical village.” In 1951, Walt intended to build a quaint historical village in a parcel of land adjacent to his studios in Burbank, where today one finds the headquarters of ABC and Walt Disney Animation. The following rough blueprint was sketched by Harper Goff, showing the intended attractions in this “Mickey Mouse Park.”
You may have noticed the paddlewheeler plying a man-made river, a hub-like town square, a boating canal, a steam train, and other features that would work their way into the park that would come to be built in Anaheim. But what is that in the left-hand corner? Could it be? Yes... A circus!

Later, when plans for this park outgrew Burbank, John Hench drafted a preliminary layout for Disneyland. Sandwiched between Main Street USA and Frontierland is another big top.

Finally, when Peter Ellenshaw painted his famed mural that debuted on the first episode of the Disneyland television series, what should appear behind today's Plaza Inn but yet another circus-themed area.
The roots of the relationship between the circus and Disney parks run deep. After his park opened, Walt desperately tried to include a working circus in it. On November 24, 1955, a few short months after Disneyland opened, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus debuted. These live performances featuring television's Mouseketeers and included elephants and wild cats, as evidenced by this remarkable footage put together by Disney...

As I demonstrated in my last article, Disneyland always was an exercise in corporate sponsorship and multimedia branding. Disneyland the park was preceded by Disneyland the television show, which in turn featured advertainment on upcoming feature films, which then translated into park attractions. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus carried over onto television every Thursday for “Circus Day” on the Mickey Mouse Club program. On January 6, 1956, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was closed down. In the days of the ticket book, each attraction responded to market forces and simply put, no one wanted to come to Disneyland to see what they could see back home once a year. The big-top tent was relocated from where the Matterhorn currently resides to an area on the fringe of the park, then know as “Holidayland.” There, it sheltered performances by Prof. George J. Keller and his Ferocious Felines until September of 1956. The 14 gorgeously restored antique circus wagons were reused in the 1960 film Toby Tyler, staring Kevin Corcoran as a precocious boy who ran away to the circus. These currently reside in the collection of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

The most famous of Disney's films to feature the circus is, of course, Dumbo. That film bequeathed two of the opening day attractions to Disneyland: Dumbo Flying Elephant and the Casey Jr. Circus Train. Dumbo, in turn, serves as the nucleus of Walt Disney World's Storybook Circus, which includes the addition of a Casey Jr. water feature, a rethemed roller coaster, and a “sideshow” meet-and-greet featuring Mickey and friends. They also starred in their own 1937 cartoon entitled Mickey's Circus, and Mickey's first fully speaking role was as a hot dog vendor in The Karnival Kid (1929). Floyd Gottfredson's daily Mickey Mouse comic strip employed Mickey and his friend Butch as carnies in the "Circus Roustabouts" storyline that ran through June and July 1931. Bongo the Bear's circus figured in 1947's Fun and Fancy Free. Suffice it to say that Storybook Circus did not come from nothing.

How is it that Imagineers can so contradict the very primal myth they so often repeat? Why would Walt himself want something as supposedly dirty and sleazy as a circus in his perfect land of fantasy and imagination?

I think the emphasis is put on the wrong place if we interpret Walt's objections to the seediness and tawdriness of the contemporary carnival as an objection to carnivals in themselves. He built one. He built the best one. In the above cited quote, Walt not only said that Disneyland was to sometimes be a museum, but that it was also sometimes going to be a fair. It was the seediness of contemporary carnivals that he didn't like, and which he cured by obsessive cleanliness and the highest standards of guest relations. The carnival itself was not the problem, and I would argue that from the perspective of Walt's time, the inclusion of the circus was necessary to achieve Disneyland's desired effect.

Taking our queue from Walt's own description of Disneyland, we see that the park functions by gently coaxing its guests into a reversion to childhood. “Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future.” Childhood nostalgia and childhood dreams, with a healthy, childlike dose of wonder and fantasy and other warm terms for which Disney Cruise ships are named. Main Street USA serves a particular function in this pied piper's melody. When it opened in 1955, this gateway to the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy would have prompted this reversion in three generations of guests. For grandparents, it would recall genuine memories of childhood the turn of the 20th century. For parents born in the 1910’s, it would recall the nostalgic fad of the “Gay Nineties” from films of the 1920's and 1930's. For children, it would recall the stories heard at grandma's and grandpa's knee about when they were the same age. By the time they reached the foot of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, each member of the family was mentally prepared to live out the imaginative flights of their first or second childhood.

Few memories would have been as fond as those of the circus. In the days before television, the circuit of travelling entertainments provided much-needed diversions for those landlocked in the American mid-west. Vaudeville, Shakespeare companies, snake oil salesmen, Wild West shows, religious tent revivals, and circuses blew into town to great delight and fanfare. Janet M. Davis provides the following description from her book The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top:
On "Circus Day" (as it was called in newspapers, memoirs, and show programs across the nation), shops closed their doors, schools canceled classes, and factories shut down. In 1907 the Board of Education in Bridgeport, Connecticut, voted to close the schools on Circus Day, and children in Paterson, New Jersey, successfully lobbied school authorities to dismiss classes. When the Adam Forepaugh circus arrived in South Bend, Indiana, that same year, the Studebaker Wagon Works locked its doors so that its seven thousand employees could see the program. Special trains offering discounted "excursion" fares transported rural circus-goers living within a fifty-mile radius of the show grounds. Roads became thick with people, horses, and wagons. A resident of Clifton, Arizona, remembered that when Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to town in 1913, some local farmers sold part of their hay and grain supply in order to take their entire families to the show. Farmers traveled by horse and wagon twenty to forty miles and spent scant cash on novelty items like popcorn, cotton candy, and pink lemonade. Known as "rubber necks" to circus workers, rural residents craned constantly to take it all in. Sherwood Anderson was mesmerized by Circus Day as a boy in Clyde, Ohio: "When a circus came to the town where Tar [Anderson] lived he got up early and went down to the grounds and saw everything, right from the start, saw the tent go up, the animals fed, everything." In 1904 a newspaper in the mill town of Ashland, Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Superior, noted the circus's impact: "All the roads brought in large train loads of people who came here to attend the circus and many people arrived last evening. All the mills on this side of the bay stopped work today noon and almost all business is at a standstill and everyone is taking the circus."
The spectacle of exotic animals, athletic acrobats, sideshow oddities, multitudinous colours and cacophonous noise was more than a few hours diversion. It was a world of fantasy and adventure in its own right, a window into a much larger world than a small rural town in Missouri. Elephants, tigers, lions, and camels; acts from Japan and China, Italy and Arabia; games and rides for the kids, “hoochie-coochie” dancers for dad... Circuses were a sawdust and canvas wonderland. Novelist and poet Hamlin Garland recalled that for his generation, the circus “was our brief season of imaginative life. In one day—in a part of one day—we gained a thousand new conceptions of the world and of human nature. It was an embodiment of all that was skillful and beautiful in manly action. It was a compendium of biologic research but more important still, it brought to our ears the latest band pieces and taught us the most popular songs. It furnished us with jokes. It relieved our dullness. It gave us something to talk about. . . . We always went home wearied with excitement, and dusty and fretful—but content. We had seen it. We had grasped as much of it as anybody and could remember it as well as the best. Next day as we resumed work in the field the memory of its splendors went with us like a golden cloud.” (Quoted in Davis)

Circus parade, c. 1920's-1930's.
Photo: Library of Congress
Visiting the circus animals, 1926.
Photo: Library of Congress
An empty big top awaits, 1907.
Photo: Library of Congress
Circus in Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1942.
Photo: Library of Congress
Circus in Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1942.
Photo: Library of Congress
Circus in Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1942.
Photo: Library of Congress
Circus in Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1942.
Photo: Library of Congress
Sneaking under the big top. Roswell, New Mexico, 1936.
Photo: Library of Congress
The height of the travelling circus was in 1903, when 98 different circuses toured the nation. Though in decline, they were still a potent cultural event well into the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Dumbo was only one of several films from Hollywood's Golden Age that featured the big top. Charlie Chaplin stared in The Circus in 1928, and the Marx Brothers were At the Circus in 1939. Dracula director Tod Browning took a more disturbing turn in his 1932 film Freaks and Cecil B. DeMille brought his epic touch to The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, just four years before his magnum opus, The Ten Commandments.

Most people are familiar with the biggest names in the circus business like Barnum and Bailey, and Ringling Brothers. Another of the great historical circuses is the Cole Bros. Circus. Begun in 1884 by William Washington Cole, it has weathered many storms to preserve the big top tradition (including the Great Depression and the advent of television). Castle Films recorded a performance of the Cole Bros. Circus in 1941, the same year as Dumbo's release, providing us with an incredible glimpse into the real life big top of the time.

If I was going to make any conceptual complaint about Storybook Circus, it would be that it more accurately belongs in Main Street USA as a nostalgic recollection of the entertainments of bygone times. Clearly its placement in New Fantasyland is partly (even mostly) due to space and infrastructure considerations, with a roller coaster already present in the location. One could also argue that unlike the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, this isn’t intended to replicate a real, functioning circus either. This is the circus of fantasy, a dimensional embodiment of an American icon, as seen through the lens of Disney’s oeuvre of cartoon characters. Not long ago, George Taylor did a great job of pointing out all the references to traditional animation’s animal stars.

Today, the traditional American circus is a rarity. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Duncan Wall observed that "From Norway to Nepal, new circus companies and schools are springing to life at a rate unprecedented in the modern circus’s nearly 250-year history":
In France, there are more than 450 troupes and 600 schools. Some 20 countries, including Belgium, Australia and Mexico, have established professional circus training grounds. At the National Circus School of Montreal, where I now teach, more than 150 full-time students come from 20 countries to train in facilities that rival Juilliard’s. The school’s job placement rate is 95 percent.
The shift towards the circus as a global art form began in the 1960's. This new style, relying as much on theatre and interpretive dance as acrobats and animals, is exemplified in companies like Cirque du Soleil (who also perform one of their 18 worldwide shows at Walt Disney World). That Montreal-based company is also a rare North American exception. Wall suggests that "The American circus has long been shackled by its reputation. Unlike in 19th-century Europe, where aristocrats attended the circus in tuxedos and ball gowns, in America it prospered as low entertainment. In the Wild West, touring circuses were as rough as the clientele they served, with owners encouraging pickpockets and other forms of grift. Connecticut banned circuses outright... Over time, influenced by the success of P. T. Barnum, the circus became crassly commercial, an experience of size and spectacle rather than refined beauty or skill... Today this reputation lingers, with stifling effect."

A few companies still travel the highways and byways of the United States and Canada, playing to arenas or slightly-less-big tops in mall parking lots. In the competition for attention in a media saturated environment and enlightened concerns for animal welfare, most traditional circuses are slowly dying out or becoming increasingly self-conscious, adult-oriented entertainment. But like every way of life that passes, it leaves behind a nostalgic myth that eventually works its way into a Disney theme park.

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