Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
"Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois, I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln," said Walt Disney during the broadcast of the episode Disneyland Around the Seasons (Dec. 18, 1966) when announcing The Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction was now part of Disneyland.
"He's the great American," Walt Disney said at the opening of the attraction at the park on July 18, 1965, as part of the Tencennial celebration. "Whether he'd been a Democrat or Republican in those days, he'd still be the great American to me.… He was a fellow that before making a decision gathered everything he could, every fact he could.… He never jumped to any decisions."
Obviously, that was just one of Lincoln's methods that impressed Walt and influenced how he managed his own business.
In 1909, there was a huge celebration for President Abraham Lincoln's 100th birthday, from parades to hundreds of bronze plaques with The Gettysburg Address installed in schools to much oratory in local auditoriums. There was even a special edition of the The Chicago Tribune newspaper devoted the 16th president that weighed more than 3 pounds.
That year, the Lincoln penny was issued for the first time and work started on the Lincoln Memorial, which was not completed until more than a decade later.
Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln's body was entombed, had hosted the most lavish and spectacular event in the city's history "surpassing all expectations in enthusiasm and decorative beauty."
All that hoopla stirred up a 7-year-old Missouri boy—who had been born in Illinois—named Walt Disney, who freely admitted in an interview as an adult that Lincoln's words would bring tears to his eyes. Two years later, he was able to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in a special way.
"When Lincoln's birthday came around, I always went to the classrooms dressed as Lincoln with my crepe hair beard and the mole," Walt told interviewer Pete Martin in June 1956. "There was a stove pipe hat I made. By using a derby and putting a cardboard thing on top around it and painting it black (with shoe polish). And my dad's frock coat he used when he was a deacon in the church. It was the wrong type but it was one of those kind of long things and the shawl. I'd always do the Gettysburg Address."
From 1911 to 1917, Walt attended Benton Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, just two blocks from his home.
In fifth grade, Walt took his teacher somewhat by surprise with his costume and his dramatic recitation of The Gettysburg Address, which he had memorized perfectly to an appreciative class audience on Lincoln's birthday.
She called in Principal James Cottingham, who was a great lover of American history, to see a repeat performance. Cottingham was so taken with it that he took young Walt to every classroom to repeat it, as well as doing so every subsequent Lincoln's birthday for the next five years, until Walt's graduation. Walt loved performing and became more dramatic in his impersonation each year as he gained more confidence that it was so well received.
Walt had a great fascination for American history and often had impromptu discussions around the dinner table with his family about the Constitution and America. Walt was frustrated by his wife's lack of interest in history and public affairs.
One time at the breakfast table Walt read part of the Constitution and Lilly responded, "Isn't it wonderful that Lincoln wrote that all by himself?" Walt looked at her sadly but didn't say anything.
Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln was an attraction sponsored by the state of Illinois for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Walt had originally wanted to do a Hall of Presidents show with all the U.S. presidents, a project he had earlier proposed for the never-built Liberty Street at Disneyland. announced in 1958.
"Walt approached me with the idea of doing a whole bunch of heads for the Hall of Presidents," remembered Disney Legend Blaine Gibson in an interview with Disney historian Paul Anderson. "Originally, he wanted to start off with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, so I was going to quit animation and sculpt these presidents. Then Walt decided that we better see what we could do with Lincoln, so while I was still animating, I started working on the Lincoln head."
Walt felt that Lincoln's appearance was more striking and that he was a more familiar figure to a general audience, so that if he needed to raise enthusiasm and funding for the project that he should start with something that would be the most effective. Gibson recalls:
"We found out that Katherine Stuber, who owned a wax museum, had a copy of a life mask of Lincoln. I went over to talk with her and I started quizzing her. She said, 'If I tell you all this stuff, you're going to compete with me'. We convinced her otherwise and she sold us this life cast of Lincoln's head.
"It had originally been done in 1860 by Chicago-sculptor Leonard Volk, who was actually a brother-in-law of Stephen Douglas [a political opponent of Lincoln]. The mask was not something I could use directly. Instead, it was a thing that would give me ideas. It was the only accurate life mask of Lincoln made.
"Walt didn't want to use the death mask. When sculpting Lincoln, I made some exaggerated changes, based on my understanding of characters. For example, I probably increased the bone structure around the cheeks. However, I did conform to what was generally known about Lincoln.
"The first Lincoln head we did, we couldn't get all of the machinery in it. So I sculpted part of his hair on his head, so I raised it up a half an inch and then a wig went over that.
"I had one book that had all the heights of the presidents, including Lincoln. He was 6-foot-4 inches but I actually made him 6-foot-7 inches. We had to do that. He just didn't look tall. [Photographer] Matthew Brady always had other people in the photographs, so you could see that Lincoln was a head taller than normal. We didn't have anything to scale him to so we just made him taller."
By making him taller, his hands looked too small. Imagineer Jack Ferges was 6-foot-8-inches tall so Gibson cast those hands and they worked perfectly.
Lincoln's skin over the mechanics was fiberglass and (where it could be seen by an audience) Duraflex which was a hot melt that had originally been developed for making the "hoochie-koochie hula-skirt dolls from the war" according to Imagineer Harriet Burns, who cooked up the mixture in a crock pot she brought from home. They purchased false teeth and glass eyes (which didn't look right so they had to make their own).
Imagineer Marc Davis was one of the Disney artists who came up with sketches on how the figure might move.
"I worked out on paper—word for word—head turns, head nods, arm moves, everything just like I would time out a scene in animation," Davis said.
During the animation of the figure, Walt would come down and act out Lincoln's speech, specifically pointing out how the cheeks should respond when the mouth moved in a certain way. Everyone agreed that the final figure and its animation had great dignity and that was the result of Walt's respect for the 16th president.
It had been suggested that Walt do the narration for the show, as he was doing for the Ford Motor Skyway. The Imagineers were more than a little taken aback when Walt snapped at them angrily, "What would people think of me, Walt Disney, putting myself on a par with Abraham Lincoln?"
The topic was never brought up again.
Imagineer Sam McKim told Paul Anderson, "It was his sense of humility. He would not place himself on the pedestal that he had placed Lincoln on."
In April 1962 on a visit to the Disney Studios to see an update for the Ford and General Electric pavilions Disney was doing for the fair, New York World Fair's president Robert Moses was shown a rough demonstration of the Lincoln figure. Supposedly, the astonished and thrilled Moses said, "I won't open the Fair without this exhibit!"
Because of time deadlines, limits of technology, financial restrictions, and other speedbumps, the Hall of Presidents was trimmed to just Lincoln with the state of Illinois, "The Land of Lincoln," becoming the sponsor at its pavilion.
Despite some well-reported challenges, the figure and the show was one of the biggest successes of the New York World's Fair, so Walt arranged for a version to be installed in the Opera House on Main Street in Disneyland, where it also received acclaim.
The 500-seat theater was outfitted with hidden directional speakers to allow the voices of a choir to seem to move forward during the finale; automatically operated doors, which are a common place Disney theme park element today; walls that were lined with acoustical veneer for sound control; and 118 spotlights that created the lighting effects.
Even though Illinois was not sponsoring the attraction, Walt allowed the state to put an Illinois Tourist Information Booth in the exit area. In a 1964 interview with the Illinois Information Service, Walt stated that the attraction "will help to make better citizens and contribute to a better understanding of our heritage of freedom and independence."
Walt was so committed that children would benefit greatly from the words of Lincoln, that he insisted that children (then considered ages 3 through 11) should not need to use a ticket to see it, and sacrifice going on one of the other attractions because it would then seem like a punishment.
So every ticket book had a special child's complimentary ticket and on it was written:
"So young people may have a better knowledge of the man who played such an important part in American History…Walt Disney Productions invites you to be their guest to spend a few…..GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR.LINCOLN Presented by Lincoln Savings and Loan Association Opera House Town Square Main Street U.S.A. Admit One Child."
Walt's thoughts about Lincoln were captured on the release on the LP vinyl record album of Vista Records: Walt Disney Presents Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (BV-3981) 1964. The record and supplemental written material in the album were produced by writer Jim Algar who patched together selections from a variety of Lincoln's writing to create the speech used in the presentation.
Algar sometimes supplied speech material for Walt Disney, as well, and the following quotations may have been shaped by Algar, who was deeply involved for years on the project. But these words still had to be approved by Walt as something he wanted to be credited as saying:
"Most Americans will agree with me that no man has had more of a positive impact on a nation than Abraham Lincoln has on our country. He is venerated not only in our land but in many other parts of the world. Yet, I have always felt that too few people realize that Lincoln's concepts and philosophies are as useful, as necessary, as applicable today as they were when he pronounced them a century ago.
"His analysis of freedom and its true meaning, his approach to justice and equality, his own courage and strength—all are as vital in the 1960s as they were during the mid-1800s.
"There are many fine statues of the great Civil War President, and an even larger number of Lincoln portraits and photographs. Many of us have spent memorable moments in theaters as some of our best actors have brought him to life on the stage or motion picture screen. Hundreds of volumes have been written about the man Lincoln, and some of his speeches and writings are still among history's most often quoted passages.
"Each of these has contributed to our knowledge of Lincoln and has given us some insights into his character. I felt, however, that there must be some way…some undeveloped means of communication…perhaps some new art form…that could combine the best of traditional media to capture the real countenance, the warm sincerity and the contagious dedication of Abraham Lincoln.
"Such a medium, I realized would have to offer the three-dimensional authenticity created by a talented sculptor, as well as the color and life left on canvas by the genius-painter's brush. The drama and personal rapport of the theater were indispensable. This technique must have the artistic versatility and consistency of the motion picture. From the best literary sources must come the proper atmosphere which this medium must create. And, finally, Lincoln's own pen must supply the most important element of all - the message.
"For more than a decade our staff of artists, sculptors, engineers, architects, researchers and other technicians have spent thousands of man-hours and more than $1 million to develop and perfect the system we call 'Audio-Animatronics.'
"Recent improvements in this system now make it possible for us to utilize and combine the qualities of all of these more familiar art forms. It permits us to come as close as possible to capturing the true spirit and personality of Lincoln, which we can convey to so many people.
"We did a great deal of research as to the actual sound and timbre of Abraham Lincoln's voice. The voice of the well known actor Royal Dano was the closet thing we could find to the voice of Mr. Lincoln. Royal Dano has played Lincoln many times on the stage and on television.
"This album contains the complete sound track of the presentation in the Lincoln Theater at the Illinois Pavilion of the New York World's Fair. In addition, Royal Dano has recorded for this LP much other Lincoln material including the Gettysburg Address. The album was produced and the narration was written by James Algar. The narration was recorded by Paul Frees and the original score was composed and conducted by Buddy Baker."
Much of this material was repeated in the original training guide for the attraction when it was relocated to Disneyland. That guide eliminated the last two paragraphs and substituted the following three paragraphs:
"The secret of its effectiveness, regardless of its amazing flexibility and efficiency, lies in its application. That is why we set the highest standards for our guidelines in preparing the show for the Lincoln Theater in the Illinois State Pavilion. Imagination would have to be tempered with authenticity. Drama must intertwine with serenity. Fantasy would be entirely abandoned since its presence would defeat our purpose. Reserve was demanded, but it would have to take the form of subdued excitement. And dignity would have to be the constantly sounded keynote.
"When we set out to select the speeches and writing for the monologue in the show, we decided to bypass the Gettysburg Address, even though its poetic qualities and poignant message are unexcelled. Because it is so familiar to nearly every American, we felt that it would not contribute significantly to our purpose—an in-depth fresh presentation of Lincoln's principles, ideals and philosophies.
"We hope the audiences in the Lincoln Theater agree that we have achieved our goals. We believe it is much more than a new entertainment medium or art form; it is a different and exciting way to stress history's importance to each of us and the applicability of its lessons to our everyday lives."