Disney's Never Built Chinatown and Chicagolandby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Readers of my columns know that I have a great fondness for things that the Walt Disney Company announced and promoted with artwork and models but never got around to building.
In fact I even wrote a book about some of them, Disney Never Lands: Things Disney Never Made and have been hard at work the last couple of years on a sequel. Since it will be quite a while before that book is finished, I thought I might share two fairly obscure examples of what we might have gotten at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney was constantly looking to expand Disneyland to handle capacity. He had proposed an International Street to run parallel to Main Street that would showcase different cultures from around the world.
Even though Disneyland was meant to be a tribute to the United States, Walt always wanted to integrate world cultures into the Park and in early proposals suggested miniature world landmarks like the Eiffel Tower be prominently featured. This desire was reflected in things like the International flavor of the original Disneyland Christmas parade with local cultural groups participating to share their heritage.
In October 1959, Walt proposed converting the Center Street area near the Market House into a Chinatown.
"Originally we were going to have a Chinatown, so we had all this Chinatown planned and a restaurant… always a restaurant," stated Imagineer Harriet Burns.
According to author Bob Thomas, Walt told his staff, "I want to have a Chinese restaurant at the Park. Out in the lobby will be an old Chinese fellow like Confucius…not an actor but a figure made out of plastic. Now the customers will ask him questions and he'll reply with words of wisdom. We'll have an operator in the back of the figure answering the questions and making the lips move."
Walt was insistent that the figure talk instructing the Imagineers to watch television without the sound to study how people's mouths formed words. Imagineer Wathel Rogers remembered that when people working on the project talked to others, they never looked the other person in the eyes but always at their mouth.
On one of Walt's trips to New Orleans in 1946, he discovered an antique mechanical bird in a gilded cage and instantly became fascinated by this little fellow sitting on a perch and could turn its head, flap its wings and tail, and open its beak to whistle.
As Imagineer Burns recalled, Walt said, "It's amazing that you can get such interesting movement from a very simple mechanism. He said 'You know, they've done this in Europe for hundreds of years – if they've done this this well, we can do things now much better'."
He gave the intricate moving bird to his Imagineers including Lee Adams, an electrician at the Burbank studio, Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers and a few others to deconstruct the figure to see how it worked. It is still in working condition today in the Walt Disney Archives.
Charles Cristadoro, a sculptor, modeled some human heads and experiments were made with cams, hydraulics, and other methods of enabling the figures to move realistically just like the bird.
As author Todd James Pierce stated, "John Gladish in the Disney Studio Machine Shop started to fiddle around with a talking head. He worked on this in his spare time, using springs to control the mouth and acquiring prosthetic eyes that he fit under brass eyelids. Once he developed rudimentary eye and mouth movement, he asked members of the model shop to create a latex skin to cover the mechanics, but the skin never fit around the eyes, with the material pinched at the corners."
"After multiple latex masks were created, the team in the machine shop decided it was better to embrace the design flaw, explaining that the mechanical head was modeled on a man of Chinese descent, as that would explain why the skin narrowed sharply to points around the eye sockets," Pierce said.
This experimental head was shown to guests who visited the studio. Its neck would sit on a table and there were no signs of any wires and it would unexpectedly spring to life and talk. It was finished and detailed enough to surprise people including Imagineer Ken Anderson who recalled being shocked and puzzled when it came to life
The figure wore a black head cap and big glasses and its resting position was a smile. The eyes would move and blink and the lips would move. It was this head that inspired Walt to decide to include a Confucius figure in his Chinese restaurant who would bow to the guests and talk to them.
"That's when we started on the human AA figures," Burns recalls. "We had a Chinese head and I had a bucket of latex under my desk and I would dip him in latex for a new skin whenever he peeled. It took about a month where he'd deteriorate so badly and so I redid him."
The Disney Studios hired Bart Thompson who had worked as a chemist at MGM to invent a new synthetic compound to make a more movable and durable skin for a robotic figure that was later incorporated into the President Lincoln figure. In fact everything that was learned from creating the head was later incorporated into the Lincoln figure for the 1964 New York World's Fair.
The primary attraction on the Chinatown street would be the Chinese restaurant. Besides enjoying a fine meal, diners would be entertained by a show written by Wally Boag who had co-written the Golden Horseshoe Revue and was its lead performer.
The guests would nibble on their appetizers in the Mediation Room to get caught up in the spirit of the Orient and get a peek at the items that would be available in the Gift Shop after the show. Then they would enter the main dining area. Seating would begin once each hour, every hour it was open. The menu would include a pre-set option of almond duck, shrimp, chicken or beef entries. Some sort of Chinese pastry would be the dessert.
The windows surrounding the room would feature film projections of busy Chinese streets making it seem as if the patrons had been transported to China. Mounted on the front wall would be a huge golden Chinese dragon. In some proposals there would be two dragons, each on an opposite wall and they would banter with each other. After the meal was finished, the dragon in the voice of Wally Boag using a theatrical, stereotypical Chinese accent would come to life saying: "Honorable patrons look very happy. Must have been something you ate."
The dragon would belch fire and say, "Hope no one in audience minds if dragon smokes." The dragon would burp and say, "Ooooh, I think someone I ate disagreed with me. Of course, that's probably why I ate him in the first place. For disagreeing with me."
The show would have been hosted by the first human Audio-Animatronics figure, an aged Chinese philosopher. Since the character was supposed to be very, very old, it would explain if the movements appeared slow and jerky. Also the robe and long sleeves would help cover any difficulties with movement.
As previously mentioned, the famous philosopher was originally going to be the famous Confucius. Later, it was considered naming the character "Chew Well" (since it was a restaurant) or Grandfather Chung (in the hopes that Chun King might sponsor the location). He would be surrounded by singing mechanical nightingales in cages to reference the story The Emperor's Nightingale and utilizing the technology learned from Walt's mechanical bird.
Grandfather Chung would have sagely said, "Now that you have dined on food, it is time to dine on knowledge."
It would seem the figure was taking questions from the audience but the questions would be all pre-recorded and seemed to come somewhere from the back of the room. Someone would ask, "What is a budget?" and Chung would reply, "Budget is great invention that allows you to live within by going without."
In that different time when a young girl complained that her father said she talked too much, Chung would answer, "Every young girl should be the picture of her mother…but not the soundtrack." Another Chung response was "Psychology books very handy if applied right…suggest three brisk strokes over head of child."
The show would end by getting more serious about "the thoughts that would last forever." Over soft background music, Chung would say, "True words are not flowery and flowery words are not true. And as for peace, just having everyone in the world practice universal love toward each other would bring the world peace and good order. If a man does not do what is good, it is not the fault of the basic good of which man is constituted."
Once again Boag would do a stereotypical Chinese accent for the character and he recalls recording some sample tracks for Chung and the dragon. In fact, Walt liked his work so much that it was one of the reasons he got Boag involved in writing and performing in the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As Boag remembered, "We worked on this concept for months but there were some technical difficulties we couldn't overcome with the dragon. However, everyone liked the birds we had in the show, so the dinner show with a comic dragon became a dinner show with enchanted birds. The concept evolved into the Enchanted Tiki Room."
Creating Audio-Animatronics birds was less expensive and easier to create than a human figure at the time. A WED photo does exist of the Chinese head looking at an early prototype figure of Lincoln from around 1963. It was shared on the Disney History Institute website by Todd James Pierce.
Imagineer Harriet Burns recalled, "It was wonderful. I worked on models for the street for weeks. So I had all this wonderful little filigree on the Chinatown to show Walt when he came in on a Monday morning. He came in and didn't even look at it. He said, 'We're not going to do Chinatown. San Francisco and Los Angeles already have Chinatowns. There's no need for one at Disneyland'."
By June 21, 1960, all plans for this "Chinese Arcade" as it was sometimes referred at WED were put away as Walt had moved on to creating an audio-animatronics President Lincoln.
As Imagineer John Hench said, "Both of them (Confucius and the dragon) were going to be our first real Audio-Animatronics, and Confucius was there to answer wisely to questions. But who knows? Maybe it will be built one of these days. We never throw away any idea."
Dick Tracy's Chicagoland
Dick Tracy (1990) was an expensive movie produced by the Walt Disney Company through its Touchstone brand that was hoped to be a summer blockbuster like Tim Burton's Batman the previous year. Disney planned a major marketing and merchandising campaign.
Dick Tracy (the word "Dick" being a slang term at the time for "detective") first came to life in comic strip form from cartoonist Chester Gould in the pages of Chicago newspapers in October 1931 and is still appearing every day in newspapers. It featured a no-nonsense, sharp-chinned police detective who grappled with grotesque criminals. He wore a distinctive yellow fedora and overcoat and was hugely popular prompting a plethora of merchandise as well as a radio show, comic books, novels, television show, series of films and even some animated episodes.
Even as film production got underway in February 1989, CEO Michael Eisner had Walt Disney Imagineering start to develop a major "E Ticket" attraction for the Disney MGM Studios park that would capture the excitement of the film.
It was to be called Dick Tracy's Crime-Stoppers and be one of the elements of Eisner's announced Disney Decade of the 1990s.
In 1947, cartoonist Chester Gould introduced Crime Stoppers (originally spelled as two separate words) in his Dick Tracy comic strip to raise awareness among youngsters how to recognize suspicious situations.
Dick Tracy's adopted son Junior and three of his friends talk to Tracy about them forming such a group and the great detective shows them how they solve crimes in the police department.
In the early 1950s, the group disappeared from the storylines but on the Sunday comic page beginning September 11, 1949, Gould included a small panel at the beginning of every strip that was supposedly a page from the "Crimestoppers' Textbook" with helpful illustrated hints for amateur detectives to prevent crime.
The attraction was to be located at the end of Sunset Boulevard in the area that now includes Rock'n'Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror in a section called Chicagoland that would have been themed to Chicago during the wild Roaring Twenties.
The exterior of the attraction building would have looked like a warehouse on a seedy waterfront street. In addition, there would have been a food and beverage location and merchandise shop devoted to selling Dick Tracy merchandise and promoting possible movie sequels. The ride attraction would put guests inside an old-fashioned roadster as it roared through the streets of Chicago of the 1920s when vicious gangsters ruled the city.
As they careened at seemingly dizzying speeds with the vehicle lurching back and forth wildly through buildings, over bridges and past the Chicago docks, they would have confronted these villainous crooks except the guests were armed with their own tommy guns so they could participate in the bullet-blazing action from the movie.
Audio-Animatronics figures of some of Tracy's infamous villains, like Flattop, who were also featured in the movie would appear through the attraction.
The cars would have been based on a new ride system that Imagineers were developing now called "enhanced motion vehicle" that consists of a chassis that has a range of movements on top of a platform that moves along a track. It is this same type of vehicle that was later used in Disneyland's Indiana Jones attraction and Disney's Animal Kingdom's Dinosaur attraction. It would have been able to safely recreate rocking and tipping movements of a high speed chase.
Imagineer Eddie Sotto rode a mockup of the Crime-Stoppers attraction at Imagineering in California and told me that it was outstanding and fun and that guests would have loved it. Apparently, that was the reaction from others who tested it as well and saw the detailed miniature model.
The gun system was based on one that was later incorporated into WDW's Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin and Disneyland's Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. It would later be utilized in Toy Story Midway Mania.
Basically, in the Crime-Stoppers' attraction, the guns would shoot a stream of light (with machine gun sound effects) at objects that would react when hit like a rattling trash can or the sound of shattering window. Supposedly, part of the proposal was that sometimes different things could happen each time you shot something which would increase the rideability of the attraction like shooting the top off of the trash can or the scream of a cat from inside of it.
Of course, this violent action brought up the concern about whether this fit into the Disney brand to have guest participate in such activities like shooting at people even if they were only Audio-Animatronics.
It was proposed that the buildings be painted with just the seven same colors used in the movie to resemble the comic strip but all the concept art features the same theatrically authentic coloration that could be found on the gangster street in the Great Movie Ride. In fact, the renderings are very reminiscent of the streets under the elevated tramway at the American Waterfront of Tokyo Disney Sea.
The press release proclaimed: "Dick Tracy will recruit guests to shoot it out with gangster bad guys. Guests will literally get 'into the act' in this new high-tech action-adventure featuring the very latest in Audio-Animatronics, simulation, sound and special effects. Guests will join America's favorite comic-strip detective in a high-speed chase with his gangster adversaries."
Eisner expected that the film would do so well that Disneyland would've gotten a whole new addition called Hollywoodland that would've been an idealized version of the film capital's "golden age" from the '20s and '30s. Dick Tracy's Crime-Stoppers would've been the major new attraction there as well.
Dick Tracy's presence in the parks wouldn't have been limited to this ride attraction. A live stage show, Dick Tracy Starring in Diamond Double Cross, adapted songs and plot points from the movie in a musical revue that premiered in Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios. It opened in Orlando in May 1990, before the film, and the California version came a few weeks later, in June.
At Disney MGM Studios, on the Backlot Tour were New York City sets, inspired by Dick Tracy, as well. A side street of brownstones had been painted in vivid primary colors (just like in the film) and as the trams rounded a corner, there were mini dramas with police and gangsters. Items from the actual movie were also included on the tour, including examples of the matte and painting effects, giant bears from the drawbridge finale, displays of costumes and make-up, and Madonna's skintight, black sequined dress.
Disney sadly over-estimated the public's interest or connection with the character, especially with younger audiences, and star Warren Beatty's box office appeal. The movie was far from the success that Disney had hoped and even though it made over one hundred million dollars at the box office and was the ninth highest grossing film of that year, Disney still wrote off half of that amount as a loss. When other revenue streams like the international markets and videotapes were later factored in, it was not the huge flop most people considered it to be. Unfortunately at the same time, the Walt Disney Company was also experiencing financial losses from EuroDisney that resulted in the cancellation of many Disney Decade projects.
With no excitement surrounding the initial release and no sequels on the way, and no new Tracy merchandise to push, there was little reason to build an expensive new attraction. There were also legal issues over the film rights to the Tracy characters that dragged on for over 20 years.