A Tribute (and Farewell?) to Gertie the Dinosaur Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Last time, we talked about legendary comic artist genius Winsor McCay and went into detail on the creation and exhibition of his ground-breaking animated short Gertie the Dinosaur. The vaudeville act where McCay interacted with his cartoon dinosaur Gertie on a movie screen was not only an innovative film, but was a huge critical and commercial success.

One poster proclaimed it as the "Greatest Animal Act in the World," and went on to say "Gertie: she's a scream. She eats, drinks and breathes! She laughs and cries. Dances the tango, answers questions and obeys every command! Yet, she lived millions of years before man inhabited this earth and has never been seen since!!"

Gertie had a depth of personality. She was shy, stubborn, petulant, sensitive, playful, curious and more all within five minutes or so. Later animated characters of this time period were interchangeable ciphers. It took Walt Disney, who had been amazed by Gertie, to reinvent the concept of personality (or character) animation to this same extent many years later.

Everyone loved the act, except for one prominent person, William Randolph Hearst, McCay’s employer who felt that all of this theatrical nonsense was distracting McCay from his responsibilities for the Hearst papers, in particular the daily editorial cartoons. McCay never missed a deadline nor slacked in producing highly detailed and beautifully composed comics, but Hearst was known for wanting total control.

While Hearst could not legally prevent McCay from performing, he announced that any theater that booked the act would receive no advertising or mention in any Hearst newspaper, the most widely read newspapers of the time.

Prevented from touring with the act by theaters now afraid to book him, McCay worked with a film distributor to add a live-action prologue and epilogue for the film (more than doubling its total length by these additions). This film version of Gertie was copyrighted September 15, 1914.

Gertie took up residence in Echo Lake, as seen in this 1989 postcard from Disney-MGM Studios.

The prologue features a wager between McCay and his fellow cartoonists, including George McManus, who later became world famous for doing the popular “Bringing Up Father” comic strip, after the car they are in breaks down from a punctured tire in front of the American Museum of Natural History. While the tire is being changed, they go inside and see the famous dinosaur skeleton.

The film company had to receive special permission to film inside the museum and the dinosaur skeleton. They were only allowed to use natural lighting and promise that the museum would not be held up to ridicule.

McCay firmly bets a dinner for the entire group that he can bring a dinosaur to life with his drawings. Then the prologue goes on to show briefly, in an exaggerated fashion, how McCay achieved this feat, much as the prologues for his previous films had done. McCay’s young son, Robert, plays his dimwitted assistant who scatters dozens of drawings on the floor.

During the showing of the cartoon at the dinner banquet, it is interrupted by title cards containing a truncated version of McCay’s vaudeville stage dialog. Having accomplished bringing a dinosaur to life, McCay has won the bet. McManus pays the bill for the dinner.

However, a bogus cartoon, also called Gertie the Dinosaur, was released roughly a year later. It has always been assumed that it was produced by John Randolph Bray’s company because of the use of animation cels to which Bray held the patent at the time.

Bray had misrepresented himself to McCay during the production of “Gertie” as a writer, but stole all McCay’s animation techniques and patented them himself. Then he sued McCay for using them.

In court, McCay easily proved he had been using those techniques for several years before Bray, and there was a settlement where McCay received royalties from Bray for those techniques for nearly two decades.

It is believed that Bray produced this film (without credits) to take advantage of the popularity of “Gertie” to an unsuspecting public and perhaps as a little bit of revenge on McCay.

The differences between the original and the fake are obvious and significant. The background is tropical rather than prehistoric with a palm tree on the right hand side. Gertie comes out of the water as if she had been swimming underneath like a fish and onto the beach. She is two-toned and colored gray and white rather than just white. The background is static and does not contain the unintentional movement of the original that seems to resemble sun shimmering on the water and a breeze going through the leaves of the tree.

Gertie moves toward the audience and rocks back and forth in imitation of the original and is interrupted by a flying lizard behind her. She shakes her head back and forth continually in disbelief and then snaps at some foliage in the foreground while wagging the tip of her tail. She balances a coconut on the tip of her snout and bounces it up and down until finally eating it. She grabs a large rock and twists her neck into a knot and then swallows the rock, untwisting her neck.

A small black monkey climbs up the palm tree and Gertie snaps off the top of the tree to eat. The frightened monkey leaps on Gertie’s neck and slides down her back to the ground while Gertie finishes eating. The hapless monkey gets its tail caught under one of Gertie’s feet. Gertie grabs the monkey with her mouth and tosses him into the water. The irritated monkey gets back to the beach and yells at Gertie, who picks up the remaining portion of the tree and throws it at the monkey who scampers away.

In the background a woolly mammoth wanders onto the beach to get a drink of water, but a sea serpent grabs him by the trunk and a tug-of-war ensues while Gertie watches. The mammoth is able to snap his trunk away. As he walks away, Gertie picks up a rock and throws it at him to speed him along. Gertie stands up on her hind legs and laughs with two of her legs holding the sides of her stomach. A little human man in a black coat enters from the right hand side and bows to the audience. Gertie grabs him by the back of the coat and deposits him off screen while she bows to the audience. You can view the fake Gertie.

Unfortunately, for many decades this misidentified film was used in documentaries to represent McCay’s much superior work. In the 1970s, Blackhawk released this as McCay’s original “made in 1909” (sic), an error in the date that pops up frequently on the Internet.

While the film has lots of action, it has none of the charm of the original or any of the artistic skill that McCay brought to showing concepts like weight and emotion.

Roughly around 1921, McCay began work on a second animated film that was to feature Gertie. Titled Gertie on Tour, it was never completed, except for less than two minutes of footage showing Gertie playing with a small toad and then with a trolley car, like a cat with a mouse, until she derails it.

Exhausted, she lies down and dreams of dancing for other dinosaurs who look exactly like her. In addition, according to notes and concept sketches, she would have bounced on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and tried to eat the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., among other misadventures including perhaps getting stuck in a tunnel. You can see the clip of it online.

McCay died on July 26, 1934 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

In the July 1934 issue of Scribner’s magazine, writer Claude Bragdon stated, “It seems a pity that McCay, with his delightful fancy (in animation), should not have continued in this field which he had made his own. Walt Disney has so far eclipsed him that McCay’s animated cartoons are remembered only by old-timers like myself.”

Walt Disney respected and appreciated the work Winsor McCay did on Gertie the Dinosaur.

By that time, two decades after the release of “Gertie the Dinosaur” in 1914, McCay had been long forgotten by movie audiences as an animator, since he was no longer producing new animated shorts and there was no way to view his previous accomplishments.

Other animators that had been inspired by his work, including Walt Disney (whose character of Mickey Mouse was at the peak of his popularity), were the ones in the spotlight and they did remember and respect McCay.

Twenty years later, with the help of McCay’s son Robert and Disney Legend Dick Huemer, who had seen McCay perform the act several times on stage, McCay’s original stage routine was recreated for a segment of the Disneyland television series titled The Story of the Animated Drawing (November 30, 1955).

“I saw McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur at the Crotona Theater in the Bronx and I was therefore able to re-create it later on a Disney television show, wherein we reenacted McCay’s performance,” Huemer told animation historian Joe Adamson. “We didn’t have the expression back then, but if we had, I would have said, ‘I flipped’ when I first saw it.”

During the work on the reenactment segment, Walt Disney came up to Robert McCay, gestured to the Disney Studio and said, “Bob, all this should have been your father’s.”

Many of McCay’s animated films have been lost forever because they were filmed on highly flammable nitrate film that quickly deteriorated. “Gertie” was only rescued in 1947 because of a bit of luck and that there were multiple copies of it stored in a garage because it was so popular.

Of the 10,000 drawings used to make the film, approximately only 400 or so still exist in any form.

Thanks to the scholarship of animation historians, like John Canemaker and Donald Crafton, McCay’s work, especially “Gertie” has been brought to the attention of the general public.

With the opening of Disney MGM Studios in 1989, which featured an actual working animation studio, the Imagineers wanted to include a significant reference to classic animation history, in addition to the usual Disney images.

Not only was “Gertie” considered the true birth of character animation, the character and film were both in public domain. So, a full-sized version was constructed (like a building because just below the water level, the rest of Gertie was never built and her body rests on a concrete block foundation, just like the Empress Lilly).

At the time, the area was known not as Echo Lake or Echo Park, but as Lakeside Circle, a term that went out of fashion. The image of the Gertie building was used constantly in publicity including TIME magazine in the early days of the park where it became as much an icon as the mouse-eared water tower.

As the nearby plaque to the building states: “The themed style of the building is known as ‘California Crazy’ architecture. It became popular in the 1930s and was designed to attract the attention of potential customers in a big way.”

Formally, this is known as “programmatic architecture”. Another example at Disney Hollywood Studio is the Darkroom building on Hollywood Boulevard that looks like a giant camera, but sold photo supplies inside. It is based on an actual photo shop from 1940s Hollywood.

Basically, the California Crazy style of architecture meant the building would be a visual representation of what was inside, like the famous Tail of the Pup hot dog stand built in 1946 in Los Angeles that was in the shape of a giant hot dog in a bun, or the Randy’s Donuts shop with its massive doughnut on top of the building also in Los Angeles.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the time frame represented by Studios originally, people believed it was the Ice Age that killed off the dinosaurs. That’s why it is the ice cream of “extinction” rather than “distinction” that is being sold at this location.

The storyline behind the ice cream stand was that people believed the Ice Age killed the dinosaurs, hence the snow on the sign.

If you watch closely, Gertie is so cold that steam occasionally comes out of her nostrils. The top part of her is covered with snow.

In her original concept sketch and when she first appeared in the park, the green words “Ice Cream” covered with snow curved over the top of her back but, over the years, that lettering was removed. It was definitely still there in 1992.

Gertie is in a lake because in her animated cartoon, she is by a large lake throughout her whole film.

In her film, she is white but she is colored green at the park because the first movie posters of her were sometimes colored green because at the time people thought that dinosaurs were green or brown in color like reptiles.

If you follow the pathway near her to a set of steps behind her, you will see on the walkway where Gertie’s feet have cracked the cement as she walked into the lake and left an imprint. In addition, when the park first opened, those footprints continued in a floral format in the landscaped bed behind Gertie.

However, according to proposed plans for Disney Hollywood Studios, it is time to say good-bye to dear Gertie.

For business reasons, and to meet the needs and wants of the current guests, Disney parks always change. Beloved attractions and large acres of land are replaced with newer entertainments.

Currently on Disney’s Imagineering drawing boards are plans for expanding the presence of the “Star Wars” series of films at Disney Hollywood Studios.

To that end, one of the additions that is being seriously discussed is the creation of the spaceport, Mos Eisley.

Wise Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi described the spaceport of Mos Eisley as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” which I hope won’t apply to the Disney guests who will be wandering the area that is being discussed to replace the underutilized Echo Lake area.

Noted for its illegal smuggling of spice and weapons, Mos Eisley is populated by a variety of dangerous and disreputable characters from across the universe including the infamous Jabba the Hutt who maintains a residence there.

Of course, Mos Eisley is on the planet Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker was raised. Luke first met Han Solo and Chewbacca in Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina, that is a part of a thriving marketplace.

Yes, the area is to be themed to stores and food and beverage locations with the possibility of an attraction replacing the Indiana Jones Stunt Show. Imagineers claim it is being done as the first stepping stone in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, rather than just a ploy to include more shops and restaurants.

While on the surface Mos Eisley looks like a collection of primitive and battered stone structures pockmarked by over 300 launch bays for spacecraft, much of the town is underground and stories about this significant location abound in the books, comics and videogames that enlarge upon the “Star Wars” franchise.

However, there needs to be room to put this newest addition into Disney Hollywood Studios, especially with rumored plans to also expand Pixar Land, as well. So it is good-bye to Gertie, since guests never understood her legacy anyway. That’s one of the reasons I felt the obligation to make one last effort to give her a tribute.

Gertie's story will be coming to an end soon to make room for new attractions at Disney's Hollyowod Studios.

I am a sentimentalist and I will truly miss Gertie, and Peevy’s (with all the authentic Rocketeer props) and the homage to Walt’s first studio at the Holly-Vermont Realty office, but the area is simply not generating the income that the Disney Company now requires for every inch of its acreage.

But before this gentle giant goes, I wanted everyone to remember the importance of who she was and why she was there. I hope everyone reading this takes a moment to personally wish her one final good-bye.

 

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    Thanks for a great article, Jim which actually brought a small lump in my throat. So sad. I loved seeing Gertie whenever I visited DHS although I don't think I ever bought anything there in 26 years! (I'm not a big ice cream eater in the parks.) However, I'm not a Star Wars fan so it saddens me to think it will inevitably be overtaking so much of the nostalgic beauty of this park. I adore old Hollywood so I will miss every precious touch of it as it slowly is removed to make room for more Star Wars and Pixar related attractions. Oh well, I'll always have my memories!

  2. By Tony T

    My fear is that with the close proximity of Echo Lake to 50's Prime Time and Hollywood and Vine that these locations will fall victim to the re-imagining of this area. 50's Prime Time to me this is Imagineering at it's best with the servers acting as babysitters, the nostalgic menu of American comfort food and the formica 50's deco style kitchens with classic sitcoms on the tv's .Jim, do you think these eateries will survive the re-tooling of this area? I am a kid of the 70's and 80's and I love Star Wars, but I would hate to see these locations consumed by the new Star Wars land. What are your thoughts?

  3. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by Tony T View Post
    My fear is that with the close proximity of Echo Lake to 50's Prime Time and Hollywood and Vine that these locations will fall victim to the re-imagining of this area. 50's Prime Time to me this is Imagineering at it's best with the servers acting as babysitters, the nostalgic menu of American comfort food and the formica 50's deco style kitchens with classic sitcoms on the tv's .Jim, do you think these eateries will survive the re-tooling of this area? I am a kid of the 70's and 80's and I love Star Wars, but I would hate to see these locations consumed by the new Star Wars land. What are your thoughts?

    Keep in mind that Disney's middle name is "Jello" and even when things are confirmed officially to the media and with finished concept art like Hyperion Wharf or the original design for the New Fantasyland with meet and greet areas for the Disney princesses, it can all change within minutes.

    Yes, 50s Prime Time and even Indiana Jones are on the PROPOSED chopping block. Right now, the plans are to first take down the Min and Bill food and beverage location and then work their way around the lake. At the same time, the Jedi Training Academy will be moved into the SOUNDS DANGEROUS building so it will have a large indoor location where the program can serve more guests and be in a covered environment so it can be used in any kind of weather. So it will be all Star Wars themed from Echo Lake to Star Tours...and maybe beyond.

    Again, these are just the plans for now. A lot of this also depends on how the on-going negotiations work out with Universal to use Marvel characters in the Disney theme parks in Orlando that could change plans and time lines.

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