Dreamfinders: The Disney Channel TV Series That Never Wasby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The Disney Channel was born in spring of 1983 and despite the backlog of Disney cartoons and television shows and films the Channel still needed more programming to fill its proposed schedule.
The plan was to balance the programming with one-third existing Disney material, one-third original programming and one-third material that had been acquired from outside sources but was in "keeping with the Disney identity and values".
For Epcot's Futureworld, Imagineer Tony Baxter created Figment and Dreamfinder who were to be the spokes-figures for the new park. The little winged purple dragon, Figment, was the physical representation of being "a figment of the Imagination."
Dreamfinder was his husky human companion and friend with a full red beard, long blue coat, black top hat and broad smile (supposedly modeled after the physical appearance of Imagineer Joe Rohde at the time).
Figment and Dreamfinder were actually born in a concept for a planned-but-never-built section of Disneyland to be called Discovery Bay in 1976. In that area, there was to be Professor Marvel's Gallery of Illusion, where an audio-animatronics Professor Marvel would display all manner of oddities that he had collected including his collection of dragons.
When that project was cancelled, the professor and one of his little dragons were modified into Dreamfinder and Figment. They would fly in a zeppelin-like flying contraption called the Dreamcatcher to catch ideas and bring them back to their home called the Dreamport.
A walk around costumed character Dreamfinder carrying a puppet Figment had proven to be extremely popular when Epcot Center opened in October 1982 and Disney sought ways to leverage that popularity beyond merely merchandise with the characters.
So the year that the Disney Channel debuted, it prepared five episodes of an original one-hour show (in three acts) called Dreamfinders, with actor Jack Kruschen performing as the character of Dreamfinder as well as the character of Eli.
Kruschen was a well-known character actor who had received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his 1960 role in Billy Wilder's comedy The Apartment and might be best remembered by some people as having played the Greek grandfather in the 1980s sitcoms Webster and Full House.
"We hope this show will help children become more aware of their own creative resources. The main characters are Dreamfinder and Figment, a little dragon, who travel in the dream machine at Epcot Center to explore the creative process," said Peggy Christianson, vice president of Program Development for the Disney Channel.
"The show will have elaborate sets and a variety of characters and story lines to convey to children some of the elements involved in creativity, imagination and problem-solving in the largest sense. We really want adults and children to sit down and watch the Disney Channel together. Walt Disney never aimed at children alone. He always aimed at entertaining a family audience with a quality product and positive values that would appeal to people of all ages."
Supposedly, at least three episodes were completely scripted, but Disney Archivist Dave Smith claimed none were ever filmed, although it is clear they were scheduled to be shown by all the promotional advertising.
It has been claimed that at least one episode, or part of it, was filmed which is where the images for some of the promotional advertising originated. A short appearance (non speaking) of the fully costumed Dreamfinder appeared during the Disney Channel's launch countdown on April 18, 1983, premiering all the upcoming shows.
The show was aimed at youngsters 6 to 12 and, as previously stated, focused on creativity, problem solving and, of course, imagination.
According to the publicity release:
"Imagination unleashed! Colorful characters, seven wildly imaginative sets and a dazzling array of special effects make Dreamfinders a one-of-a-kind television experience your entire family will love!
"Each episode finds a cast of children in a 'real world' setting confronted with a perplexing dilemma. Old Eli, the all-knowing Dreamfinder, whisks the children away on a magical journey to 'The Realm of Imagination'. There, free of worldly constraints, the children use their ideas and dreams to find a creative solution to their problem.
"The journey is not without peril. Travelers through Imagination are always fair prey for the ever present villain Fear and his minions. They persistently attempt to lead Old Eli and the children into the abyss of 'Bewilderness'.
"Created especially for young people by the Disney Imagineers, Dreamfinders is a weekly one hour adventure about the imagination and creativity in us all. Friday 2:30 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. and Sunday 9 a.m."
The premise of the series was that, after school, four children of different ages (one of whom was young actress Kristy Swanson in her first role) dropped by to visit with Old Eli who, in the Realm of Imagination, was Dreamfinder. At his Dream Port in the Realm of Imagination, he had an elaborate laboratory that would help to expand imaginations, including a "Door from Here to There" where they could enter and journey anywhere. The famous Dream Catcher blimp would also dock at the Dream Port.
Figment appeared as an elaborate puppet (as he did at Epcot when it opened in 1982) but supposedly would also appear in short animated clips where he fought the ugly green creature known as "Fear" and "other villains who lurk in the Bewilderness. The road is challenging, but the rewards are many. And our young viewers will see how today's Dreamfinders can become tomorrow's world builders."
The series was produced by Norton Wright, who later went on to be one of the producers on Sesame Street. In the series, Dreamfinder was also in evidence in the "real world" as book store owner "Old Eli" perhaps as a reference to Walt "Elias" Disney, but he never mentioned his "other" identity as Dreamfinder.
Doug Williams, the writer of the first episode titled Just In Time, said:
"I wrote a script for the show in 1982. No shows were ever aired. Just as the show was building a head of steam Michael Eisner took over as head of Disney Studios and shut down production, for no apparent reason, other than that was/is common practice for when there's a change of power.
"That was an unfortunate decision. Dreamfinders had great potential to be a fun, educational show with terrific commercial potential. It's possible two or three shows were produced before Eisner shut down production for good.
"As I said, Dreamfinders could have been a good entertaining and informative show for the kids. I doubt that any of the shows that were shot, if they actually were, were ever shown on TV. I suspect that none were ever shown because suppose the audience actually really liked the show. Eisner would have looked like an idiot. Also the story editors claimed they couldn't get good scripts and struggled with the ones they had.
"The actual production company in charge of making the show was Jess and Company Productions Inc. The producer was Steve Gertz. I remember walking around the completed set. It was pretty cool. Really a shame it didn't get a chance."
Here are the recurring characters that were to be in each episode:
- Dreamfinder: An amiable man who lives in the Realm of Imagination with his pal, Figment, an animated, dizzy, lovable dragon.
- Eli: A kindly man, age around 40, who owns a book store; a great friend to all. He's played by the same actor who plays Dreamfinder.
- The Kids: (age 10 -12) Tracy (a spoiled girl who really loves money), Nick, Ernest, Jennifer and Danny. Their clubhouse where they meet is a spare room at Eli's book store.
- Polly: A smart, studious woman who works at the Sci Tech Building in the Realm of Imagination and often helps Dreamfinder at the Dream Port.
- Curio: An eccentric artist who works in the "Artrium" in the Realm of the Imagination.
- Fear: A sinister character who raises havoc in the Realm and lives in the Bewilderness.
- Monkey Wrench: A mechanical, goofy monkey who is a member of Fear's mischievous gang.
- Doubting Thomas: A hopelessly confused member of Fear's gang.
- Dream Port: Where the amazing dream vehicle is kept.
- Bewilderness: A dark, foreboding forest in the Realm that is to be avoided; where Fear and his troublesome minions live.
Here is the synopsis for Just In Time:
The kids are preparing a surprise birthday party for Eli and are making him presents instead of just buying him something from the mall. Tracy feels it would be easier to just buy something. This leads into a segment about craftspeople who still make things by hand.
Dreamfinder is looking through his telescope at a shower of sparks, ideas that were once in people's brains before they slipped their minds like birth dates, names of people, things that went missing, things they wanted to say but forgot. There are also dark, black thoughts that should be forgotten.
Dreamfinder and Figment intend to go out and capture all the bright, good thoughts, but Fear and his minions, Monkey Wrench and Doubting Thomas, come up with a diabolical plan to stop them.
"No good can come from good thoughts," Fear claims.
Polly helps Dreamfinder determine, through mathematical calculations, the time he needs to leave to capture the thoughts, because they are already picking up speed and may disappear forever.
Tracy has lost her wallet with all her money which sparks a segment where Eli talks to her about money: its history, how it is made, the theory behind it and more.
He finishes by saying "Sometimes problems can have more than one solution. Give your problem at little more thought and a different solution might come to mind. Be creative."
The Sci Tech Hall of Time is filled with nothing but all sorts of different clocks. Polly is shining one of the grandest clocks when Doubting Thomas comes in with a beautiful clock to donate to the Hall of Time. It is placed next to the official Realm clock that keeps perfect universal time and all the other clocks are set to it.
At the Dream Port, Tracy arrives because she has been trying to dream of a solution to her problem. Dreamfinder explains that he has no money because in the Realm no one buys or sells things. Money is meaningless because they just give people want they need.
Figment suggests that Tracy's answer to where her missing wallet might be is in the shower of fleeting thoughts. She follows Dreamfinder and Figment to the Sci Tech building with all its clocks. This spurs Polly to do a segment about clocks: their history, how they are made, and future clocks.
The gift clock stars smoking and shaking violently and Fear's face appears on the clock face. The clock explodes filling the room with smoke. Polly turns on a fan. Figment gets a fire extinguisher. When the smoke clears, all the clocks have been destroyed and even the computer that Polly uses.
Dreamfinder has hidden another official clock but can't remember where. Dreamfinder and Figment return to the Dream Port to search. Tracy is sent to talk to Curio at the Artrium to find out if he knows the location. Polly starts re-doing calculations by hand.
Ernest, Nick, Jennifer and Danny are already visiting Curio who is dressed like Michelangelo, because he is about to paint the Artrium ceiling. The kids have come to the Realm to get some ideas about what presents to make for Eli.
Tracy rushes in to explain that Fear has destroyed all the clocks and if Curio knows where the back-up clock is. He doesn't but says he can repair the clocks. Tracy explains the urgency of Dreamfinder having to leave at the exact right time to catch the shower of fleeting thoughts before they are lost forever.
They all rush out to search the Realm for the hidden clock. In the Bewilderness, Fear and his two minions watch all of this on Fear's magic medallion and Fear decides to whisper in the kids' ears to lead them astray.
At the Dream Port, Polly is finishing her calculations and Dreamfinder with a wrench is underneath the Dream Vehicle. "I wish I could remember where I put that clock," says Dreamfinder. "I guess when a guy reaches 55,000 years, he gets a little forgetful."
Nick, Danny and Ernest are looking behind trees and in bushes for the hidden clock. Jennifer, Tracy and Curio enter and share that they haven't found anything either. Curio decides to search the basement of the Sci Tech Building thinking it might be hidden in all the junk. He tells the kids to continue searching the forest.
In the forest, they hear a voice that sounds like Dreamfinder's voice telling them that he found the clock and to come to him in the Bewilderness to help carry the clock.
Tracy suddenly realizes that Dreamfinder is supposed to be in the Dream Port and he would never hide the clock in the Bewilderness. The other kids run into the Bewilderness but Tracy runs back to the Dream Port. Of course, it is Fear imitating Dreamfinder's voice.
At the Dream Port, Tracy finds Dreamfinder and tells him what has happened. Dreamfinder realizes immediately it must be the work of Fear and he needs to go and rescue the kids even if it means missing his launch time.
Tracy and Figment stay and walk by a stream. Seeing the sun in the water, Tracy gets an idea and runs off to the Sci Tech Building to rummage through some junk. In the Bewilderness, Fear keeps moving deeper and deeper away from the kids while still calling out to them to come to him.
Dreamfinder and Polly appear before the kids and hug them. In the background, they hear Fear's hideous cackle. "He's just trying to scare you because that's what he does," says Dreamfinder.
When they all return to the Dream Port, including Curio, they find that Tracy is making a sundial that will help them tell the time. She remembered about sundials from Polly's lecture.
Watching on his medallion, Fear is angry about the sundial and decides to scare all the clouds in the sky to block the sun so the sundial won't work. As the clouds gather, Curio tells the kids to imagine the clouds parting and the sun shining through to create the necessary shadow on the sundial. They do and it works.
The Dream Vehicle is able to take off at the exact right moment. Figment is eating a bag of potato chips because all this stress has made him hungry but he is still able to get the dream vacuum operating just in time. They accomplish their mission and return to the Dream Port. Everyone cheers except for Fear and his minions who hate happy endings.
The tag for the episode is at the Clubhouse. The kids except for Ernest and Tracy are in the darkened room with the table covered with presents. They jump out to surprise the person entering but it turns out to be Tracy. They all hide again.
Outside they hear Ernest thanking Eli for helping him carry a box of books to the Clubhouse. When the lights go on, Eli pretends to be surprised. He unwraps Tracy's gift first. It is the sundial she made in the Realm. Tracy also found her wallet and they all found the back-up clock.
Before ice cream and cake, Ernest inspects Tracy's wallet and laughs when he tells everyone that it says inside of it "handmade in New Mexico."
Many things that were proposed by Disney and never made only seem to exist in the memories of the people who were involved and whatever souvenirs they saved. The Disney Channel produced so many television series, why would the company ever need information on something that was never aired?
Dave Smith doesn't even list the show in his book Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. My philosophy as a Disney historian has been to try to document everything, even the things that never got made like the animated feature Hiawatha in 1948 or the ski resort that Disney tried to develop at Independence Lake in Lake Tahoe when Mineral King was cancelled. More than just curiosities, I feel they help us all better understand the Walt Disney Company and better appreciate what was actually created.