Danny Kaye and the Opening of EPCOT Center

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"What's an EPCOT? Well, that's a good question. Is it just another amusement park? No! No. 1: EPCOT is the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and No. 2: EPCOT isn't just an 'anything'! Oh, no...[Danny Kaye sings for awhile of all the things that Epcot is, accompanied by supporting visual clips)]...Just so there is no confusion. EPCOT Center is located in the center of EPCOT. And EPCOT Center is made up of two parts, which is Future World and The World Showcase. It's 2.5 miles from The Magic Kingdom, which is also part of EPCOT, which is what the entire 2,700 acre area known as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT or Walt Disney World is called. [laughs] Just so there's no confusion!"

A smiling but comically befuddled Danny Kaye tried to explain to a nationwide television audience what EPCOT Center was in approximately 50 minutes while the dedication ceremonies for Disney's newest theme park were ongoing in Orlando, Florida. While EPCOT Center was not officially dedicated until Sunday, October 24, 1982, the special was shown the night before that event.

"EPCOT Center: The Opening Celebration" aired Saturday October 23, 1982 as a special episode of the Disney weekly television anthology show, then known simply as "Walt Disney" on CBS. The executive producers were Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion (who also directed) and was written by Buz Kohan.

Beginning in the 1960s, Smith-Hemion were award-winning producers of musical specials for television, featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand (My Name is Barbra, 1965), Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, Elvis Presley and more. They had worked with Kaye in a new musical television production for Hallmark Hall of Fame of Peter Pan (1976) featuring Mia Farrow as Peter and Kaye as Captain Hook.

Kaye was one of the most popular entertainers of his time. He received many accolades for his work as an actor, singer, dancer and comic. He was also a celebrated chef and airplane pilot. In 1954 Kaye began his long association with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and that same year won a special Academy Award for his humanitarian work.

Despite his well-loved films from the 1940s and 1950s and Emmy award-winning television series in the 1960s, his general popularity as a performer began to fade during the mid-1970 as he devoted more and more time to other pursuits. He died in 1987.

Kaye appeared in the made-for-TV Smith-Hemion-produced special, "Kraft Salutes Disneyland's 25th Anniversary" which aired on March 6, 1980.

Filmed throughout Disneyland to celebrate the park's 25th anniversary, a young boy (Adam Rich) takes his first ever trip to Disneyland and encounters many odd characters (all played by Danny Kaye) who tell him about the park's history.

So it was not unusual that Smith-Hemion thought of using the mulit-talented performer again two years later to host the opening of EPCOT Center.

There would be a similar segment of a young child (7-year-old Drew Barrymore) being introduced to the wonders of a Disney theme park by affable Kaye. Performances by singers Marie Osmond and Roy Clark, along with moments with author Alex Haley (describing the upcoming Africa pavilion for World Showcase) and reporter Eric Severeid (describing the vision and legacy of Walt Disney), rounded out the program in footage that was shot in the days before the actual EPCOT Center dedication ceremonies that were plagued by bad weather.

A last minute insert shot of Kaye standing on top of the American Gardens Theater during the dedication weekend was hastily incorporated into the final special.

"I am speaking to you live…and wet…from EPCOT Center," said Kaye at the beginning of the special, making reference to the gloomy weather.

Kaye and a very young Barrymore (one of the stars of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, just released in June 1982) met Dreamfinder and his puppet Figment outside the original ride, transitioning into about eight seconds from an emergency film that had been made but was never shown at the attraction.

The Journey Into Imagination pavilion was to feature a 3-D film titled Magic Journeys directed by Murray Lerner. However, there was some concern that the film might not be ready in time for the opening of the pavilion, so Imagineering decided to prepare a back-up plan.

They contacted filmmaker Mike Jittlov, who was well-known for his 1979 short pixilation film, The Wizard of Speed and Time. Jittlov was asked to produce a seven-minute live-action film featuring Dreamfinder that could be used to introduce some clips from Magic Journeys in case the entire 3-D film wasn't finished in time.

There was one day of filming in Florida and two days in Tujunga, Calif., at WED. The film, titled Dreamfinder Run, had Dreamfinder (portrayed by actor Ron Schneider) running around in a sped-up manner looking for various elements at Walt Disney Imagineering.

The final scene has Dreamfinder collapsed on a floor surrounded by film cans. He picks one up and looks at the camera and says "Roll the film!" At that point, some completed clips from Magic Journeys would be shown.

Lerner, who was directing Magic Journeys, found out about this back-up plan and rushed to finish the film. It premiered on time so Dreamfinder Run was never shown in its entirety.

On camera, Kaye seems enthusiastic, playful and generally delightful. However, even the very best of performers known for their very public charitable work, can have a bad couple of days. Working on the special celebrating the opening of EPCOT Center, Kaye was not as affable off screen as he appeared on camera.

Bob Woodham was the first Monorail pilot hired in August 1971 for the Magic Kingdom. By 1982, he was in the role of Operations Coordinator and assigned to assist with the Epcot television special:

"Kaye was a problem right from the beginning," Woodham remembered. "I got a call from his agent declaring that Kaye had to have a limousine. Remember, this was Central Florida in the early 1980s, so there were not a lot of options around. I did manage to get a brand new Cadillac limousine and informed the agent. A little while later I get back a phone call with the guy saying, 'A Cadillac is completely unacceptable for Mr. Kaye. He has to have a Mercedes.' I had to tell him that they had two choices: take the Cadillac or nothing."

"Do you remember that scene in Future World where Kaye is with Drew Barrymore and in the background there are some guests? We had roped off a huge area so the guests were nowhere near them but could still be seen in the background. Anyway, Kaye starts his lines and the people just got so excited, they started snapping pictures. Kaye abruptly turns to them and yells, 'I don't go to your work and interrupt you!' Bob Matheison was a vice-president and was a great guy. He told me, 'We are going to keep roping off areas, not to keep the guests away from Kaye but to keep him away from the guests.'

"The final shot done which was the first used on the special was Kaye on top of the American Gardens Theater. We got one of those trucks with a bucket to take him up so he didn't have to climb or walk. We had this trailer for him out in the back of the American Adventure and a golf cart to ferry him from the trailer to onstage where the bucket was. It was just a quick, short shot.

"It was a light sprinkle, what I would call just misting, but Kaye didn't stop complaining. If you look, you see a huge uncomplaining crowd beneath and behind him. His cart was parked by the truck and by a wall with some bushes. While he was up top doing his intro which lasted a minute or two, Ron Miller came by in another golf cart with Lillian Disney. They parked nearby and Lillian stayed in the cart while Ron got out to take care of some business. Kaye comes down, gets in his cart and yells "Who the f*** is this blocking me in? I am getting wet!" Ron runs over and tells him, 'Get your ass back to your trailer and be off property by tomorrow morning.'

"Then there is the great story where Kaye is directing the West Point Glee Club and Dick Nunis shows up touring some executives from a foreign country and Kaye moons him while the singers are laughing. I didn't notice it at first but my assistant nudged me and it was pretty obvious. Nunis never saw or never acknowledged that he saw it.

"Nunis hated the Smith-Hemion people. Absolutely hated them and I could understand why. Nunis was never shown the script and had no OK over it even though he was in charge of the Disney parks. Sometimes, they would do things that might put Disney in a bad light or have the person playing the cast member do something wrong, like a server tipping over a tray of food and drink.

"Nunis was especially upset with the Smith-Hemion production Kraft Salutes Walt Disney World's 10th Anniversary that ran in January 1982. It had Michael Keaton as this long-haired, incompetent, snarky cast member doing things a cast member would never have been allowed to do, including having long hair and trying to pick up on barely legal Dana Plato. Nunis was still steaming from that special when the Epcot thing got underway.

"Here's an example of how upset he was. Marie Osmond was in the Epcot special and she was a doll. Everyone loved her and she had just discovered she was pregnant so between breaks with the dancers, she sat in a chair with an umbrella and was knitting.

"During one of the breaks, the cast members were given their opening day medallions and she saw them. She said, "I'd love to have one of those. I would be willing to buy it.' I found out that Nunis was in charge of the medallions so I went to his office and told him that Marie would like one and had offered to pay for it and he hit the roof. 'This is a trick! Smith-Hemion want it and they are not going to get it!' So I had a long discussion with Dick and finally convinced him to begrudgingly give me an extra one for Marie. As I was leaving the office, he said, 'If I find out it ended up with Smith-Hemion, I will track you down and kick your ass!' Marie was very nice and appreciative.

"I did have to clean up my language a little to tell these stories."

Ron Miziker has a long list of accomplishments in his still thriving entertainment career. He joined the Disney Company as director of Entertainment and Show Development shortly before the opening of Walt Disney World. He was responsible for the elaborate October 25 dedication ceremony of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. He was also the producer of the EPCOT Center television special.

"At one point during the shooting, I was standing right next to Kaye who was waiting to make his entrance," Miziker told me. "This sweet little old lady came up and said, 'Mr. Kaye I have loved your work for so long. I'm a big fan. Is it all right if I get a picture with you?' Kaye took her camera, threw it down to the ground and then stepped on it and walked away without saying anything.

"Yes, Nunis really hated [director and producer] Dwight Hemion. Nunis was also angry at the reports he was getting about Kaye's behavior. He was so angry that he insisted that Kaye not set foot on Disney property ever again. However, I needed Kaye back on property to finish filming a scene where he is conducting the West Point Glee Club and the All-American College Marching Band. So I had to call Ron Miller to get permission to get Kaye back on property.

"So I am in this area near the fountain with Spaceship Earth in the background and Kaye is on a raised platform. Nunis storms in and is really steamed that Kaye is there. He comes up to me and starts poking his finger in my chest and his back is to Kaye.

"Nunis yells at me, 'You are ruining this park letting that b*st*rd in here!'

"Kaye drops his pants. He is in his skivvies and he is pretending to conduct the band and the singers. He is bending over, mooning Nunis who is so intent in chewing me out that he does not even glance behind him. The performers start giggling and then laughing.

"I am looking at Nunis and not saying anything but I can see all of this going on behind him. When Nunis finishes, he is so upset that he storms away without ever looking behind him to see Kaye or what he was doing."

There could be any number of reasons that some people didn't think that Kaye was as gracious as his screen persona or misinterpreted his behavior. Unfortunately, like much of Disney history, many of the principal players involved including Kaye and Hemion are not longer around to share their side of the story.

If Kaye was out of sorts doing the special, it certainly wasn't evident in the final show.

The television special "EPCOT Center: The Opening Celebration aired on CBS on October 23, 1982, and was hosted by Danny Kaye.

An out-of-breath Kaye, who had just finished conducting the singers and band, smiles at the end of the special, "Oh, boy. I must tell you, I've had a wonderful time here at EPCOT and I hope some of you shared that feeling as well. On behalf of EPCOT and all the people who took part in this show tonight, on behalf of all of them, I would like to thank them I would like to thank you and I'd like to send you the very best of wishes. Good luck and good night and hope to see you soon."

When in the special Kaye told journalist Severeid that he knew Walt Disney, it was because Kaye had several brief encounters with Disney beginning in the mid-1940s.

Samuel Goldwyn wanted to showcase comedian Danny Kaye in a full-length Technicolor musical feature film, Up in Arms (1944) based on a popular stage play titled Nervous Wreck about a hypochondriac who is drafted.

Goldwyn, at great additional expense, commissioned the Walt Disney Studio to create some animation for the finale of the film. However, for whatever reason, Goldwyn later decided to cut the combination live-action and animation that was completed.

In the finale, Kaye is doing hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers on the side of a mountain while he is trapped in a cave. Suddenly, little cartoony creatures animated by Disney Legend Ub Iwerks appear. They look very much like caterpillars or perhaps Japanese silk worms and were known as "weavie-weavies." They poke into the picture and literally eat up the screen, including a rope hanging down the side of a mountain causing a person clinging to the rope to fall.

They end up eating the entire live-action image on the film, leaving just one cute little critter finishing off a final bite and then talking extensively to the audience. Unfortunately, the soundtrack has been lost and no one has located the original script for that sequence either. This black and white animated section only lasts for about a minute and half and is layered over the live action. I saw it during the time I was working at the Disney Institute when Scott MacQueen was touring with his "Disney's Unseen Treasures" program.

Interestingly, this arrangement originally came out of a proposal where Disney was going to do a co-production with Goldwyn on a film about Hans Christian Andersen with a live performer playing the writer but animated sequences showcasing the Andersen stories. (They couldn't agree on a story. Goldwyn later released a live action film on the life of Andersen with Danny Kaye about 12 years after the discussions with Disney on a co-production.)

Late in 1950, the New York Times announced that Walt was in discussions with Kaye to appear in the Walt Disney Studio adaptation of the book The Woodcutter's House by Robert Nathan.

It is an odd book with talking animals and a little green man, self-identified as "the god of good humor," who is the apparently the guardian of the forest. The story revolves around a plain young girl named Metabel who becomes the cook and housekeeper for a simple woodcutter named Joseph and his Uncle Henry, a lettuce farmer. Joseph's girlfriend is constantly pushing for him to exploit the abundance of the mountain while Joseph pursues a more forest-friendly plan.

Kaye is quoted in the article "How Does TV Affect Our Children" in the March 26, 1960, issue of TV Guide where he discusses his feelings about Walt's animated feature films:

"In the time of my grandparents, children were thrilled and chilled by Grimm's fairy tales—and grim they were, and fairy tales also. The elders of the time certainly threw up their hands in horror at the violence of Grimm. Today, Walt Disney is heralded as one of the great storytellers of our time—which indeed, he is. But what do we see with a Walt Disney film? We see horror and violence, after which good triumphs over evil. My daughter Dena had nightmares for a whole year after she saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I hold that neither Grimm nor Disney are the culminating factors in the definition of a child's personality. I think we should throw neither rocks nor puffs at them, but accept the fact that Grimm existed in his time and Disney does very well in our time."

This column is dedicated to my good friend and Disney historian David Koenig who in addition to contributing so much to Disney scholarship is a fan and expert of Danny Kaye. I hope I uncovered a few things about Kaye's Disney connections that even David didn't know.



  1. By David Koenig

    Thanks for sharing these terrific stories. And I'm honored by the dedication.
    Kaye was certainly at his worst during the taping of the Epcot special, partially due to failing health (although the story about the little old lady's camera sounds a little far-fetched).
    Reminds me of this new book coming out in a few weeks...

  2. By danyoung

    Very interesting behind the scenes stories, Jim. This special is one of my prized possessions - taped on vhs off the air and later transferred to dvd. I thought Kaye was warm and wonderful on camera - especially during the segment with a well coached but still adorable Drew Barrymore. But I hated his description of what EPCOT was. I was never sure if it was scripted that way or if he just made a mistake (we all know that the MK is NOT a part of EPCOT). Still, it's a great special - thanks for posting about it!

  3. By 86vols

    Gee, I sort of hate to hear that about Danny Kaye. Maybe that morning he had his coffe from the vessel with the pestle instead of picking up the chalice from the palace with the brew that was true! At least I like to think that was it....

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