Remembering the Tomorrowland Space Show Trilogyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we come to the end of the Summer of Space, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon Landing and the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy Edge at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the three Tomorrowland Space Shows produced for the weekly Disney television series in the mid-1950s.
I've always had a great interest in these shows ever since I read two articles written by the late Dave Smith in 1978 about their creation. On Saturday, July 23, 2011, I was a speaker at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco at the request of Diane Disney Miller for a presentation titled "Walt's Fascination with Outer Space" that was based on a series of articles I had written.
Three years later, I was invited back on November 8, 2014 to the museum for the presentation "How Walt Put a Man on the Moon," sharing the stage with space historian Eric Toldi when the museum ran the Man in Space television episode.
"Man in Space" was not just the title of the first episode, but is generally used as the description for all three episodes in the series.
"It was like a grammar school primer," stated director Ward Kimball. "We tried to simplify everything we presented. The narration was kept very simple, without any strange or technical terminology. When they would describe something overly technical, we would substitute a simpler phrase to make it more understandable. Although we treated space flight seriously, we included humor.
"They weren't science fiction," he said. "We made that clear by calling them 'science factual' because we were dealing with knowledge. I look back on those programs as a highlight of my career with Disney. I was rubbing elbows with the people who were going to take us to the moon and to Mars and beyond to other planets."
Of course, the original intent was just to provide some content for the television show that would also help publicize Disneyland's Tomorrowland, but these shows using the contributions of renowned space experts like Willy Ley, Heinz Haber and Wernher Von Braun helped inspire the American space program.
When Apollo 8 circled the moon, Von Braun called Kimball and laughed, "Ward, they are following our script!"
Man in Space (1955)
Under the guidance of producer, director, and co-writer Ward Kimball, who handled the same responsibilities for all three shows, Man in Space aired on March 9, 1955.
The episode, because of Walt's insistence on shooting it in color and not skimping on quality, had cost approximately $250,000 to produce, an enormous amount of money for an hour-long television show with apparently no chance to recoup its costs. ABC had only agreed to pay $50,000 for a first showing and $25,000 per repeat showing.
It ended up that close to 42 million people watched the show in its initial airing resulting in multiple reruns and a theatrical release.
Man in Space was forty-eight minutes long without commercials. Walt introduced the show and then director Kimball. The show began with a history of rocketry using both live-action stock footage and new animation to show the progress. Space expert Willy Ley appeared to explain that the next logical step would be a multi-stage rocket that would go into orbit and send back necessary information.
Then, space medicine specialist Heinz Haber discussed the possible effects of outer space on man's body. An animated bulb nosed man labeled "homo sapiens extra-terrestrialis" or more commonly "space man" humorously demonstrated some of the challenges and dangers. Walt himself had suggested the creation of such a character in a story meeting.
Finally Dr. Wernher von Braun described his proposal of a four-stage orbital rocket using an impressive model and charts. The show finished with a dramatic limited animation demonstration of what the launch of that rocket would be like and laid the foundation for the building of a space station and a trip to the moon.
It is difficult to imagine today the impact the show had during an era where there were maybe a half dozen television stations broadcasting in most American cities. In addition, television shows about outer space had limited budgets and were aimed at a more juvenile audience like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett Space Cadet, Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers and Rocky Jones Space Ranger among others.
According to Kimball, one of the biggest fans of Man in Space was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who asked to borrow the film for two weeks to show some of his top advisors and the military brass in the Pentagon the advantages of an aggressive space program.
Man in Space was rerun on June 15. On July 30, President Eisenhower announced that the United states would launch earth-circling satellites as part of the U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It has always been a matter of speculation whether Disney's show influenced that decision.
Strangely, there is no documentation either at the Disney Archives or the Eisenhower Library that has yet been found to confirm that Eisenhower personally requested a copy of the film although it is apparent that he did see it.
In March 1955, the American Rocket Society (ARS) held its largest-ever regional meeting in Los Angeles. The ARS, founded in 1930, is an organization devoted to the challenges of rockets and space flight and holds yearly meetings.
As part of the entertainment for the meeting, more than 600 people were invited to tour Disneyland and participate in a special screening of Man in Space. While the members overall enjoyed the film, some were disturbed by the prominence of German rocket scientists especially with World War II still fresh in their minds of von Braun's infamous V-2 rocket attacks of England.
The International Astronautical Federation (IAF), founded in 1951 and composed of members from 58 countries of the world, showed Disney's Man in Space during the August 1955 Sixth Congress of the IAF in Copenhagen. The receptive audience was enthused by the theories of experts. like Willy Ley and Werhner von Braun that were brought to life by the skills of the Disney artists.
Among the viewers of Man in Space were Leonid Ivanovich Sedov and Kyril Feodorovich Ogorodnikov, the first Soviets to attend an IAF Congress. They asked about borrowing the film for use in the Soviet Union both to show American interest in manned space flight as well as promote their own space research.
"Walt flatly turned them down," recalled Kimball. "I asked him why and he said, 'Well, they (the Russian government) borrowed a print of Snow White back in the late 1930s and were going to keep it for just two weeks. Ten years later we got it back, all scratched up, with Russian titles on it'."
Man in Space was edited down to 33 minutes and released to theaters as a documentary short subject along with the feature film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (a compilation of the final two Davy Crockett television episodes) in 1956. Man in Space was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary short subject category but lost to The True Story of the Civil War.
In this time period before consumer videotapes, audiences eagerly embraced the chance to see the outer space show again in vivid Technicolor on a large movie screen rather than on their small black-and-white television sets at home.
In the Los Angeles Herald & Express, writer Scholer Bangs wrote about Man in Space after it first aired: "Walt Disney may be America's 'Secret Weapon' for the conquest of space! Apparently, and quite by accident, he has discovered the 'trigger' that may blast loose his country's financial resources and place the Stars and Stripes of the United States aboard the first inhabited earth satellite.
"Disney's immediate achievement, with the aid of this triumvirate of space authorities, is the suggestion that space travel no longer is a wild dream; that it is so near that we can practically feel the earth tremble under the rocket blast of Dr. Von Braun's spaceship.
"Man in Space is believable and Disney has close to 100,000,000 Americans believing. Half of the voting population of the USA has probably reached two impressive conclusions: 'It CAN be done!' and 'Let's get on with it!'"
A scientist from Cal Tech told reporters, "After what I've seen, I suggest the government turn its guided missile program over to Disney."
However, not everyone was a fan of the innovative show. Kimball smiled, "Walt said after Man in Space aired that his wife was a little bored by it."
Man and the Moon/Tomorrow the Moon (1955)
Man and the Moon was originally shown December 28, 1955. For its airing in 1959, the show was renamed Tomorrow the Moon and that has become its official title. It had cost $350,000 to produce, even with using a significant portion of live-action rather than animation.
The episode begins with a humorous look using animation at man's fascination with the moon including speculations and superstitions as well as scientific research. Kimball introduces Wernher Von Braun who discusses the possibility of a trip around the moon.
Von Braun stated, "Even though we now have the theoretical knowledge necessary to make a trip to the moon, it will be many years before our plans materialize."
Finally, there was a live-action simulation of what this Journey to the Moon might look like. It was essentially a scouting trip to gather information with no landing attempted. It echoes some of the same elements in the Rocket to the Moon attraction at Disneyland with a look at the dark side of the moon thanks to flares as well as an encounter with a small meteor.
Frank Gerstle portrayed the captain and had played bartenders, police lieutenants and cowboys in a variety of television shows. The other crew members of navigator, engineer and radioman were portrayed by Richard Emory, Frank Connor, and Leo Needham.
The pair of pilots' chairs for the cockpit were from a Boeing 737 and the two aft crew chairs were from a Douglas 618M. The helmets were real prototypes borrowed from a research lab but the space suits were designed by studio artist Ken O'Connor with input from von Braun and writer Bill Bosche.
Kimball recalled that he used live-action to "make it more believable, and to cut on costs. Doing it live-action was a fraction of what it would have cost in animation. And if we would have had to do full animation it would have cost $900,000."
For the accurate model of the moon, Kimball stated, "We went over to the Griffith Park Observatory and met with the astronomer who had built their big moon model. He had carefully sculpted the familiar side of the moon seen from the earth. We got permission to go in there and make accurate rubber impressions from that model and then built our own moon model at the studio.
"We designed ours so that it went clear around to the other side," he said. "We were advised that the other side of the moon was probably much like the side we could see. I wanted something that could suggest ruins, like a lost civilization. Von Braun and the others were against it but we showed it briefly. It was ambiguous as to what it really might be."
The show was well received except for some criticism of the "whooshing" noise made by the flares on the dark side of the Moon since there is no sound in space. Kimball defended it as dramatic license although he admitted that Willy Ley told him there should not have been sound in airless space.
Mars and Beyond (1957)
Mars and Beyond, which first aired on December 4, 1957, was the third and much anticipated final installment of the trilogy but had been delayed when Kimball and his crew had been temporarily re-assigned to work on a never produced episode about the launching of the Vanguard satellite.
It cost $450,000 to produce because of the need for so much new animation and the inability to utilize any live action stock footage. Fortunately, all the sequences with Von Braun had been previously shot since he no longer had time for frivolities like an entertainment television show since he was now busy rushing to launch the first U.S. space satellite into orbit after the embarrassment of the Russians launching Sputnik.
There is an iconic animated segment that parodies the pulp science fiction magazines of the time with their alien bug-eyed monsters and attractive young Earth woman in distress. The secretary of a rocket scientist is captured by a flying saucer and taken to Mars to meet the ugly monstrous overlord but she is able to defeat the nasty aliens with a ray blaster rifle and returns safely to home on Earth to resume her secretarial duties.
The program then shifts into more serious speculation about man exploring other planets coming to the conclusion that surviving life on Mars would be the most probable option for humans.
For the general discussion about the planet Mars, Kimball contacted the Lowell Observatory in Arizona for assistance and the use of one of their astronomers as a narrator for live footage of the facilities.
On March 15, Wilson responded favorably, suggesting astronomer E.C. Slipher. Slipher was widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on Mars. Within two weeks, Kimball sent a script and storyboard for the show, pointing out that the text was kept simple "so that the average viewer won't switch stations to Liberace and his piano."
Filming for the Mars program was done at Lowell Observatory in April, for which the studio paid $1,350 in rental fees and costs to cover Observatory staff salaries. In May 1956, Slipher flew out to the Disney studio for filming and was paid an honorarium of $500 for his eight minutes on screen.
"We had a showing for the (Disney) Studio one afternoon in the theater. We put up notices. And (Walt) was there. He sat in the back row. I sat next to him, and when that stuff started to come on about life on other planets the whole theatre was laughing.
"Walt sat there with his mouth wide open. During the sandstorm part, where a silicon creature is feeding on sand and other plants are protecting their faces with their leaves, he turned to me and he says, 'How do you guys think up all that stuff?' And this was coming from Walt Disney! I couldn't believe it!
"It was a great compliment. I thought that reading between the lines, we would have never had it in there had he seen it on the storyboards. He couldn't quite conceive it, I'm sure. We didn't know how it was going to look until we saw it move ourselves."
Kimball was also influenced by a radio newscast on June 18, 1957 that reported that Air Force space medicine researchers had determined that "conditions seemingly fatal for most life forms on earth could be the habitation of creatures entirely unknown to man" on a planet like Mars.
The closing narration by Paul Frees stated "When an earthman finally walks upon the sands of Mars, what will confront him in this mysterious new world? Will he find remains of a long dead civilization?
"Or will the more conservative opinions of present-day science be borne out with the discovery of a cold and barren planet where only a low form of vegetable life struggles to survive? These questions will be answered by our space pioneers of the future. In solving the enigma of the red planet Mars, man may find a key that opens the first small door to the universe."
The talented Paul Frees also did the voice for Garco, the mechanical man who introduces Walt at the beginning of the episode. The episode was later edited down to eighteen minutes and released theatrically in 1979 as Cosmic Capers. Ludwig Von Drake (also voiced by Frees) replaced all the original narration.
This particular episode was given special press screenings before its network debut and garnered excellent reviews. Time magazine declared it was "consistently interesting and informative, with enough light touches to make it amusing and enough solid detail to hold the imagination".
Of the three episodes, this one is the most beloved perhaps because of its poetic and philosophical approach to outer space rather than technical predictions.
It was Kimball's intention to do a fourth episode that would have focused on UFOs, a special interest for the multi-talented artist, but the Disney Studio could not get permission from the U.S. Air Force to show filmed footage that they had.
Though scientific and technological breakthroughs (like the creation of the Saturn rockets) over the past few decades have dated some of the material presented in these shows, they provide a better perspective of the thinking at the beginning of the U.S. space program and remain strongly entertaining and optimistic.
Actually, it turned out that Disney and the space experts were sometimes much too conservative in their predictions, but in other cases the principles and calculations turned out to be correct. They were prophetic in showing the possibility of space exploration in the immediate future and certainly awakened an interest in the American public to look to the stars.