Farewell to the Disney Gallery

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Farewell to the Disney Gallery

"Walt Disney always wanted to see an art gallery at Disneyland. I think that The Disney Gallery again will prove that this seemingly most contradictory juxtaposition-an art exhibition in a theme park-can not only work, but actually will enhance both the art experience and the theme park experience. Walt, you were right again."

– Imagineer John Hench in 1987

As I have mentioned before, there have been many Disney-related anniversaries this year but one of those birthdays is overshadowed by sadness. The Disney Gallery opened 20 years ago this year on July 11, 1987 but closed permanently on August 7, 2007 so that the area could be converted into the "Disneyland Dream Suite."

I was lucky enough to visit the Disney Gallery when it opened in 1987 and spent way too much of my limited income on some of the treasures offered for sale from posters, photographic reproductions, lithographs, serigarphs, cels, bronze statues, porcelain statues, original artwork, postcards of concept art, books and more.

I actually spent most of my time squinting closely from different angles at the historic artwork that was displayed. It never occurred to me to take photos of these once-in-a-lifetime pieces of art but I did take extensive notes. Just as the Art Corner in Tomorrowland helped inspire my interest in animation when I was a very young lad, the Disney Gallery inspired my interest in theme parks.

Located at 21 Rue Royal at Disneyland's New Orleans Square, the Royal Suite (so named because the entrance was on Royal Street) was intended to be a private suite for Walt Disney and his family just above the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. In this suite of apartments, Walt could entertain guests as well as the 10 grandchildren he had by 1966 in a manner he was unable to do in his tiny apartment over the firehouse on Main Street.

The original door was located in the courtyard of New Orleans Square. It was planned that Walt's guests would climb the stairs and then pause at the landing to announce themselves via a buzzer and intercom before entering the entry hall.

For those who have visited the Disney Gallery, that doorway is located at the rear of the back hallway. That door connects to the ground floor by a nondescript flight of stairs in the Royal Courtyard. The marker that denotes "21 Rue Royal" was still there the last time I looked.

Walt worked with Dorothea Redmond on the interior designs. Redmond recalled that Walt wanted the rooms to look formal and elegant, but not cold. She painted concepts for the suite in watercolor. I remember when the Disney Gallery opened there was a Redmond concept sketch of The Royal Suite Salon done in watercolor in 1966 and measuring 18 inches by 28 inches. It featured, among other things, a waist-high fireplace with an elegant mirror above the mantel and with a wall of books on either side. It really was elegant, but still inviting.

Redmond who had done design work for the film Gone With the Wind was also involved with the design on the never-completed apartment for the Disney family inside Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom. Fortunately, her work can still be enjoyed by guests in the five glittering mosaics that tell the story of Cinderella that are in the hallway in that castle.

With Walt's death in 1966, his older brother Roy felt that the remaining Disney family could not really enjoy The Royal Suite because of their memories of Walt, so the completion was temporarily abandoned—although the infrastructure and plumbing were in place. Within the wrought iron of the balcony are the initials "WD" and "RD," for "Walt Disney" and "Roy Disney"—and they remain there today.

In the first years after Walt's death, the suite was occupied by Insurance Company of North America (INA). Already a Disneyland participant hosting the Carefree Corner on Main Street, INA hosted a VIP reception area in the location. The decorating of the suite was completed by Emile Kuri, who had contributed to the decoration of Main Street from the gas lamp posts to the horsehead hitching posts to the flagpole in addition to his work on Disney live action films from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Mary Poppins.

Redmond and Kuri had worked together with Walt on the designs for the exclusive Club 33 as well.

The suite was used for festive receptions until INA left in 1974.

Disneyland International then occupied the suite during the planning of Tokyo Disneyland with the Oriental Land Company. These executive offices included a large-scale model of Tokyo Disneyland.

When the bridge was built in front of Pirates of the Caribbean, construction was taken one step further when a pair of ornamental staircases designed by imagineer Tony Baxter, who had designed the new footbridge, was added to either side of the balcony of the Royal Suite. The balcony window was transformed into a door, creating a new entrance to the Royal Suite, which opened as the Disney Gallery in 1987.

Apparently, Club 33 had wanted the space to expand its area and increase its membership slots, but Baxter lobbied with chief operating officer Frank Wells for the idea of a showcase. In the original plans, the Royal Suite would not have had a kitchen, so Club 33's chefs would have supplied meals for Walt's guests.

Walt did have plans for a wet bar where he could mix drinks and have appetizers for his guests. This counter area became where the Disney Gallery cash register was placed. Cast members working behind the register liked to point out the Sub-Zero miniature refrigerator, as it was the same one installed in 1966, and it still worked decades later.

I know that cast members of the Disney Gallery in the 1990s received approximately 40 hours of intense training before their first day in the Gallery. The training included 24 hours of reading, additional hours of videos and a Disneyland walk-through. In addition, they took a trip to Walt Disney Imagineering to meet the artists and visit the various departments in order to become acquainted with the process through which an idea develops from concept to finished product.

Many of those early cast members spent extensive hours of their own time to learn even more so they could share the most accurate information with guests, many of whom became regular visitors. The cast members felt their mission was to make what would have been Walt's home away from home a comfortable home for guests.

One of the jobs of the cast members was to monitor the artwork that was exhibited because heat and light could cause severe damage to these items. Lella Smith was responsible for the artwork brought over from Walt Disney Imagineering and ensured that the windows were UV treated, the Gallery was climate controlled and that the environment was generally "artwork friendly."

Here is the foreword to The Disney Gallery Inaugural Exhibition catalog for "The Art of Disneyland 1953-1986" written by John Hench, who was then senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering:

"I count myself as a rather fortunate person. For the past 48 years of my professional life, I have had the joy of working with the men and women whose art comprises this 'Art of the Disneyland' exhibition.

"As artists, they are a colorful and high spirited group, full of fun and camaraderie. But, most remarkably, they share a deep belief in the importance of their work.

"As part of the small team, which created the original designs for Disneyland in the early 1950s, I can vividly recall how strongly we believed in the park—before it even existed. We were not creating an amusement park—we felt we were creating history, something our children's children would inherit and cherish.

"Of course, the man responsible for that faith, who could elicit faith in a dream, was Walt Disney. Walt encouraged devotion to one's work. After all, that was what drove him.

"Walt Disney really believed in giving an audience your very best. 'I think they'll like this' or 'That's not good enough for them' were phrases often heard from Walt. He never let us forget that our efforts could not be selfish or self-indulgent; we had a responsibility to every man, woman and child who came to Disneyland.

"Walt believed in people, in their ability to make good and wise decisions, given all the choices. At a time when amusement parks were bumper cars and carnival games, Walt believed the public would embrace a place designed for beauty and happiness. The critics predicted Disneyland would fall on its face; 'Disney's Folly' they called it. They were wrong. Walt was so right.

"Besides fun and happiness, Walt must have known that people are also searching for reassurance. We all need an occasional pat on the back; yes, we're going to be all right, we're going to make it.

"That was always Mickey's message. The good-intentioned little guy always managed to come through and end up a hero. t Disneyland, that spirit of optimism is everywhere, even in the design of the buildings. On Main Street, we took the optimistic architecture of the Victorian era, eliminated the unnecessary or contradictory elements that often had crept into real turn-of-the-century Main Streets, and wound up with an unmistakably cheerful message.

"I suppose we became very adept at distilling the essence of archetypal design forms, of capturing their original vitality, and using them as our 'artist's pallette' for Disneyland.

"Walt Disney always wanted to see an art gallery at Disneyland. I think that The Disney Gallery again will prove that this seemingly most contradictory juxtaposition-an art exhibition in a theme park-can not only work, but actually will enhance both the art experience and the theme park experience.

"Walt, you were right again."

My two favorite pieces when the Disney Gallery opened were first the 4-foot by 8-foot oil and florescent paint aerial view of Disneyland by Peter Ellenshaw done on a storyboard and used by Walt Disney to introduce the world to Disneyland on his television program.

Second, I loved the Sleeping Beauty Castle Model made of cardboard, plaster, polyurethane foam and paint by Fred Joerger and Harriet Burns from 1954 (restored by John Stone, Chris Tietz and Charles Kurts during 1982-1987) Its base was 4 feet by 6 feet. Thanks to the Gallery, I could even compare that model to Herb Ryman's original ink and colored pencil 18-inch by 36-inch sketch of the castle that was also on display.

I could also study such unknown-to-me pieces as Ryman's 1957 sketch for a Mermaid Lagoon that was going to be a dining area behind the Captain Hook pirate ship. Ryman even included a recreation of the famous Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid statue on a rock by a wooden walkway that went through the lagoon.

Or I could marvel at Bruce Bushman's 1954 design for the Fantasyland canal boats except that his design was actually the "Little Toot" tugboat from the Disney animated cartoon.

Of course, there were the pieces that have become more familiar to Disney fans over the years with their reprinting in various books, but it is hard to describe the thrill of seeing up close the actual Marc Davis' watercolor and ink sketch of the pirates trying to tempt the dog with the key (quite a different-looking dog than the final version) or Blaine Gibson's polyurethane resin maquette of the pirate supporting another pirate who was shooting or Mary Blair's 20-inch by 30-inch 1963 colorful decoupage design for a background section of "it's a small world" or Eyvind Earle's 20-inch by 12-inch watercolor of Maleficent's Castle done in 1957 for one of the tableaus in the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through attraction.

All of the rooms were connected to a view of an outdoor patio that was there so that Walt and his wife, Lillian, could enjoy the outdoors but away from the theme park guests. Lillian, who loved antiques, selected the fountain that was in the patio, as well as many of the other antiques that were to be in apartment and Club 33.

The Disney Gallery exhibits included "The Art of Disneyland" that ran for almost 10 years and eventually included a special exhibit devoted to "The Disneyland That Never Was" with concepts for things like "Dumbo's Circus" and "Discovery Bay." For three years, the Gallery hosted "Tomorrowland: Imagining the Future 1955-1998" tied not only to the redo of Tomorrowland but abandoned concepts like "Tomorrowland 2055".

For two years, the exhibit was "A Brush with Disney: The Art of Herbert Ryman" devoted to the work of the famous late imagineer and the Ryman-Carroll Foundation for Young Artists. In 2002, the exhibit was "100 Mickeys" focusing on the 100 portraits of Mickey Mouse produced by Eric Robison. This exhibit was followed by a "Haunted Mansion Holiday" with artwork devoted to the holiday overlay as well as Tim Burton's film.

"A Pirate's Life for Me" showcasing the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, as well as artwork and props from the first film, was there in 2003 and it was followed by "Frights, Camera, Action! The Haunted Mansion Goes Hollywood" showcasing the Haunted Mansion attraction and the film based on the attraction.

In 2005, the 50th anniversary of Disneyland was celebrated with "Disneyland, A Magical Canvas: 50 Artists Celebrate 50 Years" with artwork from 50 Imagineering artists and a display very similar to the first exhibition. The final exhibit in 2007 was "Inspired by Disneyland" featuring the art of non-Imagineers like Shag, Kevin Kidney and Maggie Parr that represented their perspectives of Disneyland. In addition, there was a display of vintage Disney storybook illustrations.

This year the Disney Company announced in a press release that "For the first time in history, lucky guests will have the chance to spend an unforgettable night inside Disneyland Park during the Year of a Million Dreams most nights starting Jan. 31, 2008 during the 2008 Disney Dreams Giveaway. A guest will be escorted, on the same day awarded, into the most extraordinary accommodations at Disneyland Resort: the Disneyland Dream Suite, an in-park apartment originally planned for Walt Disney himself."

The release continued to say that the rooms of the Disney Gallery "will be restored to Disney's original vision of deluxe living quarters. Vintage design illustrations, created under Disney's personal direction, have been recovered and are being used as inspiration for the look, furnishings and other decor elements in the suite. Special design touches are being incorporated to evoke memories of Disney's diverse interests and the rich heritage of Disneyland."

"Our plan has been to use the renderings that Walt worked on with Dorothea Redmond and to replicate those as exactly as we can," said Walt Disney Imagineering Art Director Kim Irvine. "Her illustrations were very specific, with a color and style for each room.

"But to make it special for the guests, we want it to be more than just a beautiful suite. We want it to be filled with things that might have inspired Walt as he dreamed of Disneyland."

Unusual decorative items like a full-size carousel horse, a mechanical songbird, an electric train and original wall paintings of European castles will be included in addition to other design touches including electronic fireflies on the patio that never existed in either the original plans of Redmond or Kuri or Walt himself.

Hopefully, the Disney Gallery will find another home at Disneyland but it will never have the same "feel" as Walt's "home away from home." I'm glad I had the opportunity to enjoy it and the dedicated cast members who helped make it such a memorable experience for so many of us.