Remembering Marty Sklar and the Epcot Filmby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The death of Imagineer and Disney Legend Marty Sklar, on July 27 at age 83, took everyone by surprise, especially since he had appeared a little more than a week earlier at the D23 Expo as part of a roundtable discussion with no indication of any problems.
Disney historian Didier Ghez might have put it best when he wrote that one of the greatest losses from Sklar's unexpected passing was all the stories that would now be left untold.
Sklar's decades-long connection with the Disney Company spanned several generations and many achievements. He was one of the few remaining people left who knew and worked closely with Walt Disney.
He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2001 and was given a window on Main Street at Disneyland in 2009 upon his official retirement. That window is located on City Hall where he worked in the publicity department for the park. Etched on his window is the Latin phrase, "Id Somniate. ld Facite." which means "Dream It. Do It."
Sklar has also been honored with windows on Main Street in Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland and Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort.
He actually started work at Disneyland a month before the park was open when as a student at UCLA and editor of its Daily Bruin newspaper, he was hired to produce The Disneyland News newspaper for the new theme park. After he graduated in 1956, he joined the Disney Company primarily writing marketing material for Disneyland, as well as annual reports, speeches, book introductions, and more for Walt Disney.
He joined WED Enterprises (Imagineering) in 1961 and would eventually become its creative leader, mentoring countless new Imagineers and overseeing the design and construction of the Disney parks. In fact, his name became synonymous with Imagineering.
He even developed "Mickey's 10 Commandments" decades ago to define what he felt were the primary guidelines for effectively designing theme parks. He was always adamant that a Disney theme park was intrinsically different from other amusement venues.
"I fought for years not to use word 'ride' because I felt that what we do is stories and immersive experiences, and a ride vehicle is just a method of going through the story," Sklar said. "We do stories, we do experiences, and we do adventures. Early on, we developed this language so Disney parks attractions would stand out from what everyone else was doing."
Sklar retired officially on July 17, 2009, after working for Disney for 54 years and being the only person to attend the opening of every single Disney theme park around the world.
His impact and achievements were recognized with a number of prestigious awards and accolades, including the Lifetime Achievement award from TEA (Themed Entertainment Association), induction into the Hall of Fame of IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions), and the prestigious Professional Achievement Award from UCLA.
He also authored several books about his experiences and adventures at Disney: Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney's Magic Kingdoms (2013), and One Little Spark!: Mickey's Ten Commandments and The Road to Imagineering (2015).
I didn't rush to write a remembrance of Marty Sklar, figuring there would be plenty of them and some of them much better written and more complete than anything I could ever compose. Now that some time has passed, I thought I would add a few things I didn't see elsewhere.
I've known him for decades and even after I relocated from California to Orlando I would run into him at events at Walt Disney World.
He always had time to talk with me and sign something, usually with a nice inscription. I treasure the original hardcover Disneyland souvenir book that he inscribed for me, that he authored in 1964 after a presentation he had done for cast members at the Walt Disney Story Theater in 2000, encouraging me to keep writing.
For years, we shared space in the Disney Vacation Club magazine known as Disney Files, where my column followed his, and he told the editor Ryan March that he loved my column because it always brought back fond memories and was accurate.
We weren't best friends and never worked on any projects together, but we were friendly acquaintances. I often take notes from conversations I have with people like Marty Sklar. Sometimes they are in a tiny notebook I carry or are on slips of paper available in a hotel banquet room or sometimes on the backs of whatever paper I can find at the moment. It is not just my old newspaper training but it forces me to really pay attention and connects me with the words.
I realized that I had never shared these notes before because he was so active and so available that I just assumed he would tell these stories somewhere eventually. It was a surprise to find out that in some cases, I was the only one who asked him a particular question.
In 2007, he was a guest speaker at the National Fantasy Fan Club convention in Orlando and talked about Epcot. Besides taking notes on his presentation, I got to spend some time with him afterward asking him to clarify and expand on some of the things he said.
Here is some of what Marty Sklar said, as I feel that is perhaps the best tribute I can produce about the man, using his own words to tell a previously untold story. He also said some things to me that day "off the record" and, for now, I am going to honor that restriction, as I have for the last decade.
I wanted to know more about the famous Epcot film that he wrote for Walt Disney:
"There is no park like Disneyland. The charm of Disneyland can never be duplicated. It is my favorite Disney theme park. It is over 50 years old and it still resonates with people. My favorite Disney attraction is "it's a small world," because whatever age you are, whatever nationality, it communicates.
"Epcot is my second-favorite, because it was my project and it departed from the traditional Disney park. We took so many chances in Epcot. I wrote the dedication plaque for the park along with Erwin Okun, who was vice president of Public Affairs.
"John [Hench] and I pushed together the models of Future World and World Showcase to make one park, because there was just not enough money to build two parks. When we did that, we had to take some things out because of costs. Originally the monorail was to separate the two parks and there would be a station there.
"It kept Walt's original intent for people to experience upcoming technology and interact with an international community so I don't think we forgot about Walt's dream when we built it. I know a lot of people complain that we did. We did the best we could without Walt there. People expected Epcot to be built.
"My start with Epcot began with that film that everyone calls the Epcot Film. There's actually an official title that nobody ever seems to use. It is called Walt Disney's EPCOT '66. That's the official name but nobody uses it. The film wasn't finished until after Walt died and that made it really hard to do.
"Walt had seen bits and pieces of it and, of course, had to approve the script. He'd certainly seen all the dailies of what we had shot of him. It's a 24-minute film and we shot it all in one day on October 27, 1966. We started about 8 a.m and ran until about 7 that night. It was the very last time Walt appeared on camera. We had no idea that about six weeks later he would be dead.
"We had no idea that he was sick and he certainly didn't act as if anything was wrong. Of course, he had that hacking cough he would get if he got tired or worked up.
"The coughing sometimes ruined a take, but that had happened on other things like what we did for the World's Fair. We had to shoot two different endings and, by the end of the day, you could tell his voice was getting hoarse.
"I remember him saying 'Damn it, Marty, don't you have enough that you can use?' but that was just Walt's impatience. He was having fun. He ad-libbed that line 'I am 6-miles tall'. That wasn't in the script. He often ad-libbed on the introductions to his television show and this was no different. He was trying to communicate directly to people so he was trying to be comfortable, not so formal.
"The version that most people have seen is the one where Walt was making a plea to American industry to get on board. It was for the corporate sponsors. That was actually considered the second version.
"The first version was meant directly for the people in the state of Florida to get them to get the state legislature to establish the Reedy Creek Improvement District because we had some proposals we needed so that we had the freedom to get the thing done. At the end Walt pointed out that the project would bring new industries to Florida from around the country.
"He wanted to push that this was not a land development promotion in any way. Disney had to retain control in order to have the flexibility to keep pace with tomorrow's world. We were so naïve that we thought all Florida residents were retired people.
"We shot the entire thing on a stage at the Disney Studios where we had done a mock-up of the actual WED room where all the planning was going on. We brought all that stuff over.
"I had met with Walt on October 10 and took seven pages of notes that I consider special treasures today. It was just ideas that he wanted communicated. He kept emphasizing that Epcot must meet the needs of the people. That was a phrase he kept using 'needs of the people.'
"Nobody believed in the Disneyland concept, he said, but it was successful because it answered the needs to the people. The philosophy for Epcot would be the same as Disneyland that people will be the king. It was to be a showcase to the world of American free enterprise.
"Walt could be what I call 'specifically vague' where he would get you excited about the big picture and then you had to worry about filling in all the details. Anyway, at that meeting, he was so focused that he made it easy for me to write the script. His ideas, phrases that he used, that's all in the script.
"The film was supposed to be the blueprint of what Walt had in his mind. There is no question in my mind that Walt could have sold that version of Epcot and that he would have constantly made changes as it was being developed. It was a great idea but only Walt could have made it work. Only Walt could have convinced industry to support it in the way he wanted.
"You know in the second version he made that pitch that 'none of this is possible without your participation and no one company could do this by itself.' He intended these companies to use Epcot as their research laboratory.
"That first version of the film was shown at the Park East Theater in Winter Park on February 2, 1967, as part of a press conference, and later on local television, because Disney needed the support of the legislators and the big decisionmakers in the state to give us some leeway. Roy [Disney] slipped and called them 'demands' and then corrected himself, but he was clear we needed these things or we wouldn't do it.
"Walt had the vision. Once he was gone, no one knew where to start. Roy had only been over to WED maybe once or twice and neither Card [Walker] nor Donn [Tatum] had ever been there.
"It was Walt's place, his private stomping grounds. They hadn't been welcome there because Walt didn't consider them creative. They were the financial guys. They had no idea what we were capable of doing. With Walt gone, Imagineers felt they were an endangered species.
"Ham Luske and Mac Stewart were producing the film. They had worked on some of the television projects and had done stuff on Disneyland and the World's Fair. Mac did all the storyboards for the film and put the narration under the scene sketches. That was really our shooting script for the film.
"Art Vitarelli was the director. He had come on board when we were doing Zorro and he worked as an assistant director on the live action films. He wasn't there to do any creative decisions, just to facilitate getting the thing done.
"When we were on the set, there was time between various set-ups where Walt and I just got to talk. He talked about how frustrated he was about the monorail. He had done this thing at Disneyland and showed how efficient it was and that it worked but nobody had picked up on it.
"He blamed the politics in Los Angeles and that too many people had their hands in somebody's pockets. He had envisioned monorails going through the center of the freeways.
"He wanted that for Epcot, things for people to see work that they could use in their cities. That last line he says in the film, 'We're ready to go,' for him literally meant 'get off your butts and let's do this thing now.'
"Actually, my first start with Epcot was when I got a call one day from Card Walker and he literally started babbling about something and I had no clue at all what it was but I scribbled some notes.
"This was on like a Tuesday and Card said, 'And Walt wants to see something on this by Thursday'. So I sat down and wrote up an outline and a few pages trying to describe what I thought Card was talking about. I sent it over to Card and he said, 'This is great! Let's go see Walt.'
"So we go up to Walt's office and he reads through it very quietly and says, 'This is very well written. What the hell is it about?' Card started fumbling and I made sure not to say anything, certainly not that I was just repeating what Card had told me.
"Walt started talking and describing what he had in mind. It wasn't called Epcot at that time. It may just have been called COT (Community of Tomorrow) as I remember. I think we did a booklet with that name on it if I'm not mistaken.
"There was that Progress City model that was built and Walt always loved models and he especially loved that one because he could pick something up and move it around. He liked seeing things three-dimensionally.
"He used that model in Carousel of Progress in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. There was Progress City visible out of the window of the final scene and then you went upstairs and there was the full model which was pretty impressive. All of that was to get people thinking and talking about it so he could see the reactions.
"Walt could be full of mischief. He could get cute and sometimes when reporters dropped by to talk about the latest movie or whatever that he was doing, he'd start dropping hints about Epcot just to see reactions.
"One of them, Norma Lee Browning, a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a story about what Walt was talking about that appeared in October 1966 and he showed me a copy. At that point, it was all still pretty vague and nothing official had been announced. Nobody picked up on it surprisingly.
"Walt said, 'Gee, I guess I talk too much' but he liked doing things like that. One of Walt's major references for Epcot was Victor Gruen's The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure published in 1964. But he wanted ideas from us as well.
"The whole idea of Epcot expresses Walt's passion for creating something that would make life better for all people. That was something he really believed in and made all of us want it to become a reality.
"He was optimistic about the future. He was anxious to let people know that the future could be better, that we could learn from the past and improve all these things. Transportation. How we lived. He believed it so strongly he made us believe it, as well. That's the real core of his idea for Epcot."
Marty Sklar had so many other stories left to tell. I am grateful that he shared the ones that he did. In the future, I will try to share a few more from the scraps that I have from other conversations.