The Wizard of WED: Yale Gracey

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Researching Disney history is filled with missed opportunities, as well as new discoveries. I was going to have the opportunity to interview the two sons of Imagineer Yale Gracey the last week of September at the Disneyana Fan Club Show and Sale in Anaheim. I don't believe most Disney fans, including myself, even realized they were still around or willing to talk about their father.

Wayne Gracey seemed very surprised that people would want to hear about his dad, but I have found that is often the case with children of Disney Legends. They knew him as "dad" who went to work each morning and came home each night, not as a Disney Legend. Unfortunately, some severe family health issues cropped up with their mother and they had to cancel, but I hope I may be able to reschedule with them in the future and we all offer our best wishes that the health challenges can be resolved.

I have always been fascinated by Yale Gracey and that interest was re-sparked when I moved out to Florida and went to the Adventurers Club at Walt Disney World's former Pleasure Island. Gracey had devised an illusion that was meant for a proposed sunken bar to be called Madison's Dive (after Madison the mermaid from the 1984 Splash movie) but when that project was cancelled, it was moved to the Adventurers Club.

In the library room during the competition for the Balderdash Cup, Otis T. Wren tells a tall tale that culminates in a huge ship in a bottle behind the bar experiencing a storm and literally sinking out of sight. In the moment, the audience laughs because everything is pretty fantastical in the place anyway and people never stop to think "How did they do that?"

Gracey was the master of creating things that had never been created before and making them seem natural and realistic whether it was the city in flames in Pirates of the Caribbean (that was so realistic that the Anaheim fire department insisted on an emergency switch to shut it off so they could tell what was the real fire and to diminish some of the other related effects, like a smoky smell) or the Hatbox Ghost in the Haunted Mansion.

Imagineer Yale Gracey made the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion "come to life," like this skeleton in the coffin.

If Disney fans know Gracey's name these days, it is unfortunately because of a huge misunderstanding.

Over the years, cast members (and more than a few guests) have mistakenly believed that "Master Gracey" was the master of the haunted house—thanks to a tombstone in the outside graveyard written by Imagineeer X. Atencio, show writer for the attraction, that declares: "Master Gracey, laid to rest, no mourning please, at his request."

Here's is another example of how even well-meaning Disney fans can make bad decisions based on not understanding the story and the history of an attraction.

The belief that Gracey is the master of the mansion is so beguiling that it has retroactively been taken as fact so that even the horrible 2003 live-action film starring Eddie Murphy, and based on the Disney attraction, tried to make it officially part of the story.

As X. Atencio has continually pointed out, at the turn of the century, the term "master" meant a boy too young to be called "mister." There are many examples in literature including "Master Lord Fauntleroy."

Atencio was trying to offer a tribute to his friend, the boyish Gracey, not make him the owner and master of the house. He was also trying to honor Gracey's many contributions to the project, especially the fact that his boyhood fondness for magic resulted in some of the illusions in the attraction.

Some cast members have even gone so far as to indicate that the aging "Dorian Grey" style portrait is a representation of "Master Gracey" or that the hanging man in the stretching gallery is the "master." None of those assumptions were intended by the original Imagineers.

Gracey was born in Shanghai, China in September 3, 1910. He was the son of the American consul and attended an English boarding school. Among other training, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, and the Chouinard Art Institute.

He joined the Disney Studios in 1939 as a layout artist working on Pinocchio and then later animated features including Fantasia. He continued to work on Disney animated films, including doing layouts and backgrounds on most of the Donald Duck shorts directed by Jack Hannah.

With the Disney Studios curtailing its productions of animated short cartoons, Hannah and most of his unit was shut down and left the Studios around 1959 to work for Walter Lantz and produce animated cartoons with Woody Woodpecker, Gabby Gator, and others.

One of the few who didn't go with Hannah was Gracey, who by then had found a home at WED. Walt Disney had noticed Gracey spending time during his lunch hours with making little gadgets and illusions.

One Saturday afternoon, on one of Walt's fabled tours of his artists' offices to poke around to see what they were doing, he found a mock-up Gracey had made of falling snow.

Walt was so impressed that Gracey was given a pair of rooms to develop new effects. His first assignment was to refresh some of the Fantasyland attractions, like coming up with the endless steam of tea pouring from the Mad Hatter's pot.

At first, Gracey was not assigned to specific projects, but just given unprecedented freedom to do research and development on things that Walt might make use of in some future project. It is important to remember that Gracey had no formal training at all in any of this, but just his own hands-on experimentation and reading.

Gracey was called an "Illusioner" in the days before the term "Imagineer" was officially coined. But for those who worked with him, his love of magic and the creation of unusual effects made him a modern Merlin the magician.

Gracey was teamed up with Rolly Crump around 1959 and the two worked on several projects together, from updating the Fantasyland attractions (including volcano effects in Peter Pan's Flight) to early concept work for the Haunted Mansion.

Yale later admitted he had never seen a firefly in his life after he recreated the firefly effect for the Blue Bayou area of Pirates of the Caribbean.

"Delicate effects such as Blue Bayou fireflies were a specialty of his," Imagineer Rock Hall told me in an interview in 2010. "He constantly complained that the replacements were never done according to the original design and every time someone tried to improve on them they fouled their performance in one way or another. Yale could show you the right way to build a firefly like no one else could."

Gracey grew up as a shy young boy, fascinated by Popular Mechanics magazine and he had a complete set of the The Boy Mechanic series of books published by Popular Mechanics in the early teens of the 20th century.

The Boy Mechanic series featured hundreds of projects for boys from magic tricks to building kites and tie racks to making boomerangs. Some of the other projects may see a little outdated today—including chemical photography and coal furnaces.

In addition, some of these projects include the use of gunpowder, mercury, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen, and other things that would be highly unacceptable for young boys to handle in these more enlightened times to build devices.

The Boy Mechanic series sparked in Gracey an interest in gadgetry and magic that eventually led to him creating many amazing effects at Disney theme parks, like a pixie dust projector used in Space Mountain to block out the surrounding structure.

The famous ghosts in the ballroom scene of the Haunted Mansion owe their magic not to holographic projections or, as Imagineer Tony Baxter loves to quip "real ghosts," but to the "Pepper's Ghost" illusion that was refined by magician Henry Pepper in 1862 for his stage act.

Gracey first encountered this amazing yet simple illusion in The Boy Mechanic, Volume 1 page 52 from 1913. There were multiple volumes of The Boy Mechanic published over the years. his original collection contained the original first four volumes. Crump, who also does magic as a hobby, has a 1916 reprint of Volume 1 in his personal collection.

There have been many reprints over the years, including an excellent facsimile edition in 1988. Supposedly, girls would not be interested in these adventurous projects, but there is one picture of a girl in the book making a lampshade.

One other rarely told story in Gracey's youth helped to shape his work on the Haunted Mansion. As he shared with fellow Imagineer Rolly Crump, when they worked on the illusions, Gracey had actually seen a ghost.

When he was 10 years old, young Master Gracey went to visit his aunt back East and stayed with his cousins in one big bedroom. Near the end of the trip that summer, his mother asked him what he enjoyed most about the visit. Without hesitation, he responded that he enjoyed "the little old woman who lives in the closet who comes out each night to read stories to us."

The other children tried to silence Gracey from sharing the secret, but were unsuccessful. His mother did some research and discovered that there was a woman who looked just like the one Gracey described who once owned the house. As the children feared, once Gracey blurted out the story, the old woman never appeared again to read stories to the children.

"Yale would never make anything up. He was about as straight as they came," Crump said at a presentation. "As far as I'm concerned it's true. It can't be any truer than that."

In a 1970 issue of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, shortly after the Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland, Gracey shared his thoughts about the mansion in these previously forgotten quotes:

"Often I simply don't know that something couldn't be done. I would develop a concept and gather various gadgets and materials and keep trying until it worked. When we built the illusions we were surprised to find how effective they actually were.

"People enjoy being frightened but we couldn't make the attraction too scary because of the droves of children that would be coming. We decided to add the element of comedy. It's like adding a wink of an eye to the end of a ghost story. Someday I would like to design a real scare house. Some of the illusions that weren't used in the Haunted Mansion would send chills through anyone I know."

One paragraph in the story included the following statement: "Using refracted images, half-silvered mirrors, Audio-Animatronics and projectimation, Gracey and his ghostly helpers designed and built enough illusions to fill the new attraction twice over."

I have never seen the term "projectimation" used before or since and it referred to the effect of Madame Leota's head in the crystal ball and the four singing busts.

It was a new effect discovered by Gracey when he experimented with using film of Hans Conried's talking head from the Magic Mirror on the 1956 Disney television show episode Our Unsung Villains and projecting it on a bust of Beethoven. While it didn't sync exactly, it appeared as if the bust came to life and began talking and encouraged Gracey to develop it even further.

Unfortunately, many of the most fantastic (and never re-created) effects that Gracey and Crump developed were never used in the attraction when it was changed from a walk-through event (with more time for guests to see an effect evolve) to a moving vehicle, which meant the animation had to be short cycled because it could not be determined whether a guest would see the beginning, middle or end of the cycle of action.

For example, as a guest on the Haunted Mansion, do you first see the coffin lid before it is being lifted, in the process of being lifted, as it shakes in the air or after it has dropped back into place? When do you hear X. Atencio's voice plaintively cry out "Let me out!"?

As Crump once lamented about one of those never-used effects:

"There was one gag that Yale and I came up with. We developed the whole story for that room. It was a Sea Captain's room. That's where he lived. He had killed his wife, and bricked her up in the fireplace. He drowned out at sea. As the story goes, he would periodically come back to his room. We actually had a full scale mock-up of this on the soundstage to show Walt.

"You'd see the curtains blowing. You could see the ocean off in the distance, the waves breaking. You could hear the cry of a coyote or wolf. We had a lot of special effects that we'd put into that.

"Then all of a sudden, this skeleton with a rain slicker and hat holding a lantern appears slowly but surely in the middle of the room. We actually had a shower that was coming off of him onto the floor. It looked like water was running all over the floor.

"It was one hell of an illusion! As he kind of turns and looks around the room, you see her ghost skeleton appear behind the bricks—and all of a sudden she comes flying out! She has a white silk outfit on, she raises her arms, and with her mouth wide open, screaming, coming right at him and you—they both just disappear.

"I think that would have done the job. That was the best piece of Pepper's Ghost that'd been done. Of course, that went down the tubes, because everything in there was now quick-cycle animation."

In 2010, Imagineer Rock Hall who began working at Disney in 1982 on the New Fantasyland told me:

"For most of my time there (at WED) I was located at the Tujunga building. My office was there and for much of the time I shared that office with Yale Gracey.

"Yale was a sweet mild mannered guy, polite and respectful at all times. He worked at a very meticulous pace, setting up his illusions with everything done to a precise level. He got a real kick out of illusions that were done with the unique use of optics. Parabolic mirrors, Pepper's Ghost type effects, sculpture and lighting tricks, you name it.

"He always said that the best effects were simple effects. Like finding out that a sculpted face when vacuum formed and viewed from the back seems to follow you. This was an accidental development that Yale discovered and ended up using in the hallway at the Haunted Mansion.

"He talked a lot about Walt and the way it used to be. Walt gave the people he trusted carte blanche to create and design using their own unique ideas to help his visions come true. It was great back in those days he said. Every day became fun and rewarding. He also talked a lot about a book that Walt gave him in which many of his co-workers had signed and decorated.

"As you might imagine every animator left his mark in Yale's book. He showed everyone this book and was so proud of it. I believe this was one of his favorite things. Unfortunately I seem to remember that this was stolen from him and never recovered. This would be a very valuable book and its loss absolutely crushed him.

"Now mind you Yale told me all after lunch. Yale had two martinis at lunch. Yale always had his martini lunches; it was his tradition. The last thing I remember him working on was a parabolic reflection of a hummingbird sipping from a flower.

"This created a virtual image out in space. He was great with these types of effects. The sinking ship in a bottle effect was very similar with video projections replacing drum projectors and more mechanical animation."

After 36 years with the company, Gracey retired October 4, 1975. He continued to consult on special effects and lighting for attractions at Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center in Florida.

He was quiet and not much has been written about him since he was not a self-promoter. Perhaps the most mysterious thing about him was his death.

On September 5, 1983, 73-year-old Yale and his wife Beverly were in a cabana at the Bel Air Bay Club on the beach at Pacific Palisades when a transient broke in at 2:30 a.m. and tragically shot to death the sleeping Imagineer and wounded his wife.

The motivation behind this senseless murder is still not known to this day. The assailant fled on to the beach and was never caught. There were no suspects.

Writer Rick West interviewed Yale's friend Imagineer Marc Davis about this incident for Theme Park Adventure magazine:

"Yale Gracey was a very fascinating, interesting guy, whose life was very, very unique.

"He had a cabana down at the beach, Santa Monica, with his wife. This was a club kind of thing. They went down there one night and spent the night in their little cabana. Somehow or another, somebody came along. We don't know what happened for sure. There are thoughts but nobody really knows for sure.

"Somebody shot Yale to death and wounded his wife in this cabana. Here was this guy who created all of these magic things. If you wanted fireflies, this was the guy who would figure out how to do them. He was the guy who created the fire effects for Pirates, and the magic effects for the Haunted Mansion. All of that was Yale Gracey.

"He was a great guy. I never drink a Manhattan without saying…[my wife] Alice and I agree on this…'Here's to Yale!' Because that's all he drank. He made an enormous contribution to the Disney attractions. It was a great loss."

So I was eagerly looking forward to talking to Yale's sons about their father and maybe shining some more credit and insight on this amazing man. I hope that is still a possibility for the future and if I do get a chance, then MousePlanet readers will be among the first to hear those untold stories.



  1. By wdwchuck

    Very interesting article, very interesting life.
    After reading it I started thinking about developing young people's minds. One way is how Yale did it thinking about how things work and how to create other things that work and then there is the way that so many kids are taught nowadays. That they are victims, that they are being held back and there is no use in trying. No use in working from the bottom up. That they are "owed" because of things that happened in the distant past.
    Quite the contrast between seeing life as an opportunity to create wonderful things, or seeing life as a victim and wanting to destroy what others have created.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by wdwchuck View Post
    Very interesting article, very interesting life.
    After reading it I started thinking about developing young people's minds. One way is how Yale did it thinking about how things work and how to create other things that work and then there is the way that so many kids are taught nowadays. That they are victims, that they are being held back and there is no use in trying. No use in working from the bottom up. That they are "owed" because of things that happened in the distant past.
    Quite the contrast between seeing life as an opportunity to create wonderful things, or seeing life as a victim and wanting to destroy what others have created.

    The Gracey brothers unexpectedly did show up because they found out I was speaking and they wanted to know more about their father "at work". We spent some time together and have arranged to spend some more and I will share those stories here at MousePlanet in the future.

    However, the reason I am replying is that they told me that their dad was always a "tinkerer". He figured that if he just kept working at something and brought in perspectives from the other things he was interested in (eg. he was a photographer and his work graced the cover of several magazines....something no one including me ever knew about) that he could find a way to do it....and the best way to do it was always the simple way, especially since the thing had to run for 16 hours every day of the week for years.

    I am a former junior high school teacher and I saw exactly what you are talking about. Instead of enjoying a sense of discovery, learning from failures to eventually get to a success and worrying about the grades and parroting back rote answers rather than what they were supposed to be learning, they were not being properly prepared at all. Yes, we are in the era of "entitlement" and as a former Guest Relations host, I saw it starting to happen with frequent guests to Walt Disney World where they felt they were owed being treated better than a V.I.P.

  3. By ralfrick

    A good book like the Boy Mechanic series is The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden.

  4. By DIX project

    Great article - I admire Yale Gracey for his seemingly playful approach on solving problems.

    A small note: I suppose the Famous Monsters of Filmland article is from the February 1971 issue (available via the Internet archive)

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