Learning New Disney Things

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I remember Disney Archivist Dave Smith gently explaining to me, "Nobody can know everything….especially about Disney." One of his reasons for writing books was to get some of that knowledge down in an easily locatable place that he could reference when he needed to find something.

One of the most exciting things about Disney history and ironically also one of the most frustrating is that there is always something new to learn. The assumption is that the past does not change but in actuality, new information brings new perspectives and changes what we thought we knew.

Sometimes, things we believed were true and, in fact, were often reinforced officially by Disney as being true, are not necessarily true at all. Disney is based on stories so a good story survives even if it isn't true.

Here is a recent example I just learned.

Disneyland's City Hall

For years, I have been under the impression that City Hall on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland was based on a courthouse in Fort Collins, Colorado, which was the hometown of Imagineer Harper Goff, who supplied so much design work for the original Disneyland.

In my defense, I did hear Goff himself in the early 1990s say, "When I started working on Main Street, I had photographs of Fort Collins taken. I showed them to Walt and he liked them very much. Disneyland's City Hall was copied from Fort Collins, so was the Bank building and some of the others."

It was something he had repeated to others over the years whenever people tried to claim that Disneyland's Main Street was a re-creation of Walt's hometown of Marceline, Missouri. Today, the Disney Company basically says that Disneyland's Main Street was inspired by both Marceline and Fort Collins.

Well, I was wrong about Disneyland's City Hall.

The last weekend in October, I learned from an Imagineer that Disneyland's City Hall is based on the Bay County Courthouse in Bay City, Michigan. The image was in one of the books in the WED library and it had been checked out by several people who worked on Disneyland, including Bill Martin and Harper Goff. (Imagineer Ken Anderson based his design of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion on an image of the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, Maryland, which apparently was in that exact same book of Victorian architecture compiled by Frances Lichten in 1950.)

Looking at the image, you can tell that the upper windows in particular are very, very similar.

So, to be kind, Goff may have been referring to the fact that the building was in the spirit of the type of architecture that he grew up with in his home town and might even have incorporated some elements into the final design but basically the building comes from Michigan.

How did I pick up this gem?

Journey Into Imagination

On October 28, I attended an event at the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista near Disney Springs titled "A Day of Imagination" organized by writer Keith Gluck, who has also worked for the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

One of the speakers was Tom K. Morris, who recently retired from Imagineering after 37 years, and he not only shared with me the information on Disneyland's City Hall but generously took the time to locate the Michigan image on his laptop to show me.

He informed me that this new information was discovered by Imagineer Eddie Sotto, who was working on the Main Street for Disneyland Paris and went back to do some extensive research on the original. He is the one who stumbled across the image in the book and it was so blatant that there was no doubt.

Morris started at Disneyland in 1973 as a teen selling balloons for Nat Lewis, a lessee, because he was underage at the time to be hired by Disneyland. One of the customers on his paper route, Jack C. Sayers, who was in charge of the Disneyland lessees relations at the time, was extremely helpful in him getting the job.

Morris was fascinated by Disney animation and wanted to be an animator, but the work he did in school on structural diagrams got him an entry into another division at Disney. By 1979, he had moved into Imagineering, where his first real assignment was the original Journey into Imagination attraction in EPCOT Center.

He also did the design for a Greek temple and a Japanese Pagoda for Spaceship Earth scenes, among other things.

Later, Morris was put in charge of all of Fantasyland for Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris), and was leader of the team responsible for Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant after several others had tried to come up with a design.

From working on Cars Land in Disney California Adventure Park to serving as executive creative show producer for Hong Kong Disneyland, Morris was involved in dozens of both big and small projects throughout his career.

Outside of Star Traders in Tomorrowland at Disneyland there is a neon animated sequence of Mickey Mouse in a space helmet tumbling in a series of rolls. That was drawn by Morris, who was always interested in Disney animation.

"That was the only animation I ever did," he recalled. "And even then they had to bring in animator Mark Henn to clean it up."

Morris also coined the term "Disney Quest" for the interactive playspace.

He is currently working on two books, The Alchemy of Imagineering, a basic text inspired by his love of the original book The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas from 1958 that detailed the making of the Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Archeology of Disneyland, which details the story behind the buildings in Walt's theme park.

These are both in the earliest stages of development but it is apparent he has been thinking about them for quite some time and compiling research. I am very eager for him to produce both of these books. I found him both an engaging and well informed speaker.

The other speaker was Steve Taylor, who started in entertainment in Walt Disney World's America on Parade from 1975-1976. In addition to portraying more than 60 different characters in that parade, including the Soda Jerk, he also assisted the show's choreographers and became part of WDW's original "Zoo Crew," the costumed character performers.

After America on Parade ended, Taylor relocated to California. Upon his return to Florida, he met up again with Ron Logan, who was executive vice president of WDW entertainment, to look for some work.

Logan told him about the Dreamfinder character in Epcot being performed by Ron Schneider six days a week, as well as special events, and Logan needed someone else to do the character to give Schneider a break.

Taylor loved the character and performed the role from January 1983 until September 1998, when the original Journey into Imagination attraction closed. Schneider performed as Dreamfinder for roughly five years, but Taylor did it for 15.

Taylor is the one who developed the "bit" of Figment grabbing a hat and flinging it away and appeared in photos for several WDW calendars (like Dreamfinder and Figment flying over Epcot in a balloon, which was actually done on a sound stage, and Dreamfinder and Figment sitting on a bench near a young amused boy who was not much amused until Taylor had Figment nibble on his fingers, which is why in the photo the boy is holding out a finger to the puppet).

Since Taylor was shorter than Schneider, it was often amusing when one Dreamfinder went out to perform who was tall, and then an hour later a shorter Dreamfinder appeared. Just like Figment apparently, Dreamfinder could be any size he wanted to be.

Taylor built up a relationship with a terminally ill boy named Eric who lived for five years longer than expected because he always wanted to come back to Epcot to visit Dreamfinder and Figment. Taylor allowed him to visit in his dressing room.

Here are some more things from the presentations and my private discussions with Morris and Taylor:

Imagineer Steve Kirk was the artist who came up with the original designs for Dreamfinder and Figment but it was Imagineer X. Atencio who did the final designs.

Morris had originally requested that actor Paul Frees, noted for his many vocal contributions to Disney park attractions (e.g. the auctioneer in Pirates, the Ghost Host in Haunted Mansion), be the voice of Dreamfinder, but was told that Frees was just too expensive for the budget for the project.

WED hired actor Chuck McCann, a showbiz veteran by the age of 17, who performed his nightclub act on popular television shows. He has had a career as a serious actor (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1968), a comic actor (Silent Movie in 1976), an Oliver Hardy impersonator along with Jim McGeorge in the Stan Laurel role, and as a voice artist in dozens of animated cartoons including the original syndicated animated series Duck Tales (Duckworth and the Beagle Boys) and many more.

A man of many voices, McCann based the voice of Dreamfinder on actor Frank Morgan's performance as the Wizard in MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939). However, during the recording of the original sessions, there was some dispute (which has never been clearly explained) and McCann left the project.

I asked Morris if he knew the reason and he claimed that he did not but that "there are still people alive today who do know."

The Imagineers found a "sound alike" in Ron Schneider, who had been an understudy for actor Wally Boag at the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Disneyland. Schneider recorded the remaining lines for the character after intensively studying McCann's already recorded tracks and was hired to be the first walk-around Dreamfinder character.

Morris also originally requested actor Robin Williams to do the voice of Figment. However, Williams had just finished doing the successful television show, Mork and Mindy, and was infinitely more expensive than Frees. When Morris told me the fees asked by Frees and Williams, they did not seem outrageous for that work, but Disney has always been "cost efficient."

Actor John Byner was brought in to audition for Figment. At the time he was doing the voice of the anthropomorphic creature known as Gurgi in Disney's animated feature The Black Cauldron (1985) and did an amusing, high-pitched nonsense, garbled voice. Imagineer Tony Baxter felt it didn't quite sound childlike enough.

The first official ride through the original attraction of Journey Into Imagination was on December 4, 1982, for Kodak executives who loved it. Morris has a photo of all of them, along with countless other photos (some Polaroids) and slides which I hope will find their way into one of his books or in a book of their own. He has time lapse photos of Space Mountain being built at Disneyland that he took when he was working there, among other treasures.

Kodak had the Imagineering team working on the pavilion go to a park in Irvine, California, where there was a clear bubble-like structure for kids to have interactive experiences. Kodak had intended the area where the leapfrog fountains are today to be much larger and to be called Imagination Gardens and feature multiple experiences.

So the Imagineers built a similar bubble for the outside of the building, but no children were allowed in it to play and, within a year, the Florida heat and humidity had caused it to become yellow and calcify so it was removed. Morris has pictures of that, as well.

The turntable for Dreamfinder's vehicle in the attraction was made by the same company that made the turntable for the Good Turns restaurant in The Land pavilion.

The Artscape room in the original attraction was primarily the work of the legendary Disney background painter, Walt Peregoy, who was the designer of the entrance mural to The Land pavilion.

Again, there are some more insights to share but I am going to be using them to supplement a larger article.

The Haunted Mansion

On September 30, I was a speaker at the Disneyana Fan Club Happy Haunts evening event at the Disneyland Magic Kingdom ballroom where, among other things, I was on a panel moderated very well by Dennis Tanida, that featured Jeff Baham of Doombuggies fame, Alan Coats (the son of Imagineer Claude Coats), and Wayne and Lucky Gracey (sons of Imagineer Yale Gracey).

The topic was things people may not know about the Disneyland Haunted Mansion.

I doubt many Disney fans know that Yale's two sons, who both spent a little time working in Imagineering themselves, primarily in traffic delivering mail and doing errands, were still around and interested in sharing stories about their father.

Like most children, they were pretty unaware of what their father did at work.


(From Left) Moderator Dennis Tanida, Lucky Gracey, Garner Holt's Haunted Mansion Graveyard Caretaker, Wayne Gracey, Alan Coats, Jim Korkis, Jeff Baham. Photo courtesy Disneyana Fan Club.

Coats shared a great story of his first days working in Imagineering when Yale Gracey, familiar pipe in his mouth, came over to him and just said, "Make fire" and walked away.

Gracey wanted him to duplicate the fire effect in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Coats struggled with trying to get it right and was fortunately rescued before the end of the week to be assigned to another project where he was more successful.

The Gracey brothers clearly loved their father, who would often do homemade magic tricks around the kitchen table at dinner for them. One of the things he left them was a huge box of homemade magic tricks, but without any instructions on how to work them.

Wayne told me:

"We also inherited his collection of his smoking pipes. He loved his pipes and you will see him with one in just about every photo. Dad was always a 'tinkerer'. He figured that if he just kept working at something he would figure it out. He was a professional photographer and his work was on the cover of several magazines. Sometimes the cover featured artwork he did."

Lucky said:

"He always tried to do it the simple way because at Disneyland these things had to run 16 hours every day of the week for years. When we were younger, we went down to Walt's Smoke Tree Ranch and my brother and I were playing around in the garage and somehow ripped the door off Walt's car. We were trying to move it so we would have more room. It made this huge sound and everyone came running in."

Wayne added:

"Our punishment was that we had to stand with our backs to the wall of the garage for quite some time. It seemed like hours. I think that was the punishment to stop us from wildly running around. Walt didn't seem mad and I don't remember us ever hearing anything more about it.

"Mom didn't work at Disney. He met her somewhere else and it was not love at first sight for her. Dad really had to be persistent. He was 10 years older than she was but once they got married, nobody could have loved each other more."

"Dad took me into the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion and pointed at these mannequins hanging on the other side of this glass to try to explain to me what he was trying to do and I didn't get it at all. Then, when I rode the attraction, it all made sense to me."

Lucky said: "We still have Dad's copy of the Boy Mechanic books where he got the idea. In fact, we have a handwritten journal he did listing all the illusions he built and how they worked."

The brothers were not familiar with probably the last illusion their dad built, a sinking ship in a bottle that was prominently featured in the library of the Adventurer's Club on Pleasure Island. When that nightclub closed, the illusion was warehoused and then eventually relocated to Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel.

Patrons need to purchase a drink called the Shipwreck for the bartenders to activate the gag where a large ship in a bottle finds itself in a stormy sea and sinks beneath the waves.

Since the event was in the Magic Kingdom ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel, Trader Sam's was just a few minutes walk away. So, after the event, I took Wayne and Lucky to the bar and explained to the bartenders who they were.

Fortunately, a Shipwreck was ordered and while both Wayne and Lucky held up their phones to film the effect, the ship did indeed sink and then return to normal. They intended to show the video to their mother, who they recently had to put in an assisted living facility. In fact, she was not doing well so they originally were not going to come to the event. Fortunately, she did stabilize.

Not surprisingly, the bartenders had no idea who Yale Gracey was or that the illusion was anything special.

"We were told it came from Florida," one of the bartenders told me.

One of the big surprises was that in a box, Wayne brought out the skull of the original Hatbox Ghost. He had found it in the back of a closet shortly before his trip down. There were audible gasps from the audience when he held it up and it looks much scarier and starker than the head that is now being used.

You can see a picture of Haunted Mansion historian Jeff Baham holding the skull.

As many of you know, it is fascinating and enlightening to hear from people who were actually there and not just hear the same old sanitized sound bites. Over the decades, I have been fortunate to hear many of these people, but I also feel it is a responsibility to try to share some of that information with those who are unable to attend these events.

 

Comments

  1. By Avant Gardens

    When I read this article the intro made me laugh. Seems to me that your statements about history changing apply to so much of history, not just Disney history, and now more so than ever. For example: What policies led to the most prosperous times in America, which led to the most ruin, when did we have the highest moral aspirations, when did we behave in ways that were the most shameful, what happened at the "first thanksgiving", what was the civil war about, why was JFK assassinated... and the list goes on.

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