Special Effect Secrets of the Adventurerís Club

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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It has been said that the best special effect is the one that takes place in an audience’s mind where they imagine what the monster in the darkness really looks like. Imagination can create a much more effective image than a small budget.

According to the plaque and the empty stand in the Zebra Mezzanine of the Adventurer’s Club, one of those unseen monsters is the “Bronze Durubashna Weasel Bat Spirit of Kharshati Nomads. Once the pride of the club this statuette turned out to be cursed and came to life on October 12, 1937 a night described by Merriweather A. Pleasure as ‘that monumental unpleasantness.’  The Weasel-Bat is still loose in the club, and occasionally roosts in the upper inseam of mens’ cotton trousers, hence the ‘unpleasantness.’”

Fortunately, other special effects in the Adventurer’s Club can be seen and enjoyed by the guests and in today’s column, I am going to reveal the true never-before-told story behind many of them. So if you are one of those people who don’t like to see what is behind the curtain, skip today’s column and come back next Wednesday.

Rock Hall and Monty Lunde started their amusement industry careers as special effects designers for WED (later known as Walt Disney Imagineering). Hall was hired as a consultant in 1979 and then became a full-time employee in 1981. Lunde was hired that same year.

Hall worked on the New Fantasyland project (specifically the dark rides including Snow White's Scary Adventures, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and Peter Pan's Flight) and Lunde was assigned to work on Epcot. During this time, they worked with other next generation Imagineers who would become legends including Tony Baxter and Joe Rohde.

Eventually, Hall and Lunde became "sort of drinking buddies" working on some of the same projects. When both were laid off by WED, they formed their own company, Technifex, in 1984. Six Flags gave the company its first major project by hiring them to work on the Power Plant in Baltimore, Md.

For more than two decades, the company has created special effects (visual illusions, 4-D theater effects, lighting, water, fire effects) for theme parks, water parks, casinos, trade shows, retail centers and many other industries.

Over the years, they have won numerous awards for their contributions to Star Trek: The Experience, Revenge of the Mummy, Titanic: the Experience, Tomb Raider: the Ride, Disney Quest, Terminator 2: 3D, General Motors Epcot Test Track, Journey to Atlantis and enough other credits to easily fill the rest of this column that it would overflow.

One of their early projects was the effects for the Adventurer's Club on Pleasure Island. Many people, myself included, mistakenly believed that the legendary Jim Steinmeyer was involved with the illusions for the club especially since he was working with Imagineering at the time.

Steinmeyer was kind enough to write to me and included this statement:

"I had very little to do with the Adventurer's Club. In fact, the illusions weren't mine, but were developed at Imagineering. I think that, over the course of the project, I was called in for a meeting or two on the illusions, but I wasn't responsible for them. I was working in the Entertainment Centers group at the time, and my office was across from the office of all the fellows who were developing Adventurer's Club. (My project was something called Disney Island, which didn't happen.) So, I heard a lot about it, and saw various presentations. But I think I can safely say that I never worked directly on Adventurer's Club.... As for the illusions, I believe that they were developed from Roger's [show writer Roger Cox] basic script concepts and developed at Disney special effects. Technifex was involved in building them. I seem to recall going out there to see the ship in the bottle."

The sinking ship in the bottle is one of my favorite effects. In the library of the Adventurer's Club during the competition for the Balderdash Cup, Otis T. Wren tells a tall tale that culminates in a huge ship in a bottle behind the bar experiencing a storm and literally sinking out of site. Hall and one of his employees first saw that effect being developed by legendary Disney special effects expert Imagineer Yale Gracey (who created the special effects for the Haunted Mansion). Hall shared space at WED with Gracey for a period of time and Gracey was also developing the illusion of a bottle pouring itself.

Since Power Plant in Baltimore was a harbor-themed entertainment environment, Technifex built the sinking ship in a bottle illusion for that venue, but soon the company was involved with Pleasure Island. The Neon Armadillo was originally going to be a magic club (with Madame Zenobia as the fortune-telling hostess) and then evolved into a jazz club and then finally a country western club. Technifex worked on some stuff for this location and was also going to help out with Madison's Dive.

The first time I ever heard about Madison’s Dive was in a Jim Hill column and he has since written a couple of columns about that proposed club.

Madison's Dive, according to the original Imagineering pitch, was a "Crab house/saloon themed as a waterfront dive complete with concrete floors and brown paper covered tables where guests crack fresh cooked crabs. Features an 'old salt' owner who entertains guests with sea chanteys and tales of his lost love ... Madison the mermaid."

That "old salt" was later named "Captain Spike" and he appeared in person at Michael Eisner's announcement of the Pleasure Island project in 1986.

Imagineering also pitched "Nemo's—Enter the Victorian elegance of Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine lounge. Undersea effects and live fishtanks seen through view ports. Stage features torch singers performing tunes from the '20s and '30s."

So it was natural that Technifex pitched the idea of a sinking ship in a bottle similar to the one they created for the Power Plant. Originally, it would have been in one of these club venues (most likely Madison's Dive) but when those clubs were cancelled, the bottle floated over to the library of the Adventurer's Club.

Technifex also built the Zebra Bar (from Joe Rohde's sketch that specifically indicated that the zebra tail had to be on the top portion of the spilt and not the bottom) and there was some paint on that bar that never did set correctly. In those days, vendors working for Disney had a lot more flexibility and didn't have to do a lot of drawings for pre-approval but followed the sketches they were given.

The bar in the Main Salon was originally to be an “Illusion Bar where bar stools that lower with each round of drinks (this was installed and used in the early years frequently), beautiful patrons who appear in the mirror next to you when the stool is empty (this would have been the Pepper’s Ghost effect used in the Haunted Mansion), bottles behind the bar that pour by themselves (based on a concept by Yale Gracey), overhead effects, etc. Close up magic at tables provided by strolling magicians.”

The masks in the Mask Room were all obtained by Joe Rohde. Many people I interviewed all told me that Rohde would laugh that he traveled the world looking for artifacts for the club but couldn’t find any that he felt would work so that all the artifacts were obtained at swap meets in the Pasadena, Calif., area.

Craig McNair Wilson who worked on both Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club told me:

"Joe [Rohde] went around the world once a year, with his wife Melody "Mel" Malmberg, WDI show writer [author of 'The Making of Animal Kingdom'[ on vacation to Borneo, Nepal, etc. Joe Rhode had a Sunday afternoon soirée in his backyard in Pasadena themed as 'The Last Days of the Raj.' And every second Sunday for years we went to the Rose Bowl swap meet and bought stuff: rugs, masks, statues.... He'd bring back a new earring and a couple other odd curios from his trips that would inspire our next trip to the Rose Bowl swap meet, Hollywood and Pasadena estate sales, etc. He also designed, drew and oversaw the manufacture of items like the first floor zebra bar, javelin thrower statue, etc."

The “javelin thrower statue” is based on a famous Greek statue called the Artemision Bronze that was recovered from the sea off Cape Artemsion. The statue’s throwing hand was empty so there continues to this day some controversy whether it is Zeus (throwing a missing thunderbolt as in similar statues) or Posedion (throwing a missing trident). The statue was discovered in 1926 and excavated in 1928 so it logically fits within the mythical time frame of the Adventurer’s Club.

The task was given to Technifex to make those masks in the Mask Room actually work. They had to carve out the wooden, ethnic masks to put in mechanisms for the mouth action, eyebrows, etc. In retrospect, they realized it would have been easier to work with custom-made masks. It was time consuming and delicate to modify the masks to house the mechanics.

Arnie (Mask of Comedy) and Claude (Mask of Tragedy) were custom made and originally going to be called "Ned and Fred." It has been said that the names were to be a cute reference to the names "Bonnie and Clyde" but I was unable to find any documentation or reliable source to confirm that assumption.

"Fingers" Zambezi, paranormal piano protégé, and the organ in the library were inspired by a similar effect at the popular Magic Castle in Hollywood. At the Magic Castle, the spirit of "Irma" magically plays the piano and takes musical requests from guests who little suspect that another piano and speaker are directly below and connected to the piano up above that is mirroring the playing.

In the Adventurer’s Club, the keyboardist is hidden behind the crooked picture (actually a one way mirror) on the side of the stage. You’ll notice a caricature of Imagineer Joe Rohde as an adventurer in the right hand side of the picture.

"The Magic Castle in Hollywood was a regular hang out for the team as it was old, mysterious, goofy, and full of odd people," Wilson remembered. "You never know who is staff, who the magicians are, and who the weird old guy in the dark corner doing one-handed shuffles is. In fact, we always wanted AC to have a restaurant attached. The space that might have been the AC dining room became a magic club, then jazz club, then a country western club [Neon Armadillo] after Michael [Eisner] visited the Cheyenne Saloon at Church Street Station, downtown Orlando, and was stunned by the vastness of it and it was packed."

Susie Cowan who was a WDI Production Designer recalled:

“I remember showing up at the Adventurer’s Club on Pleasure Island, assuming I was about to be shown a mock-up of one of the club’s gag elements—the organ that crashed through the ceiling from the floor up above. Instead of a mock-up, I saw this fanciful thing that had nothing to do with the realistic look we were attempting to create. So we had it taken out, and we started work all over again. For two weeks we tried all different kinds of materials and techniques to make this thing look right. Finally, we came up with what we thought was the right look. In the meantime, the rest of the club had been finished, and the cleaning crews had been coming in everyday to keep the place tidy. We knew we had exactly the right look when one of the cleaning crew leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Honey, when is someone gonna clean that mess up in there, so we can get on with our cleaning?’”

Technifex also built the huge Babylonia head (that at one time was going to named "KIA" for "Know-It-All") and the Colonel puppet (that originally was going to be an Audio-Animatronics bust named Colonel Crumb). All of these things were built at Technifex in Valencia, Calif., and then shipped out to Florida.

Connie Orfanos, administrative assistant, remembered:

“Once while we were in Florida we needed a puppeteer to work on a puppet for the Adventurer’s Club. Normally, this would be no big deal, but [executive show producer] Rick Rothschild came to me at 7 p.m. Florida time, and said that we had to fly this guy in from California by the next day. I called the puppeteer to see if he was available. He was, so I called Ask Mr. Foster to make the arrangements. It was already around 5 p.m. California time when we worked out the guy’s travel plans. I called the puppeteer back to let him know when his plane left and he said, ‘By the way, did I tell you that I weigh 350 pounds and I need two seats on the plane?’ Thank goodness the people at Ask Mr. Foster were still there and we got everything taken care of.”

Pleasure Perfect Upholstery (Changing Attitudes) supposedly opened in 1923 on the island with six full-time seamstresses who worked to refurbish the interiors of the custom yachts in the Pleasure Island dry dock. In 1934 (two years after the opening of the Adventurer’s Club), the shop was responsible for stuffing the head of a rare Mongolian Yakoose for the Adventurer’s Club.

A yakoose is part yak and part moose and WDI wanted a stuffed animal head on the wall (since many explorer clubs had stuffed animal heads on the walls) but didn’t like the possible negative reaction to seeing a “big, old grungy head of a dead animal.” So to get a few laughs, the head was “upholstered” instead of stuffed and was just hanging around.

The yakoose is a distant cousin of Melvin the Moose (“I’m only part moose as it is.”) who is hanging around on the wall of the Country Bear Jamboree.

The voice of the Audio-Animatronics Yakoose was supplied by Tom Sherohman, who had a background in improvisation and was a writer and theatre guy from way back. He had worked a good bit with Pat Proft who created Police Academy among other projects. Sherohman became the first director of the Comedy Warehouse.

The difficulty of the Yakoose was that it would go off at any time, in order to add to the chaos and spontaneity of the club. When Chris Oyen came in as show director in January 1990, he begged WDI to either put the head on a timer or install an “on/off switch” because the Yakoose would go off unexpectedly in the middle of scenes that the actors were performing in the Main Salon. Eventually, a switch was installed.

The Yakoose was popular enough that it inspired a specialty mug that was sold at the club. Over the years, other specialty glasses from a monkey head to a tiki head to one featuring Arnie and Claude were sold.

SPOILER WARNING!

In the next few paragraphs I am going to reveal the secret behind one of the most amazing illusions at the Adventurer’s Club, the floating head in the cabinet. This is an illusion that was built into the wall itself so it can’t be saved and relocated but would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

As a former professional magician myself, I can tell you that one of the reasons magicians don’t reveal their secrets is not because it is so secret but because the actual trick is usually fairly simple. It is the presentation that makes the difference and the audience’s imagination at trying to come up with an explanation of how it works.

However, since Beezle will be long gone by the time this column appears and there are no plans for him to be rebuilt anywhere else, in the interests of history, I will reveal how the illusion works.

Beezle is the name of the head of a genie imprisoned in a lamp in the Treasure Room. He wants nothing more than a body and a date with the lovely maid who dusts his cabinet. In the performance matrix, usually the actor who portrays Hathaway Browne also performs as the genie head.

This impressive effect was designed and built by Rock Hall of Technifex. He took a mirror weighing more than 200 pounds and cut a square in it for an actor to put in his head. On either side of the square are grips so the actor with the help of rollers and counter balances can move the mirror up and down and back and forth. Since it is a mirror, the audience just sees the illusion of the lantern with the head floating up and down. It is heavy to start but glides easily once it starts to move.

On the side of the cut square there are handles on each side to not only control the movement but push buttons on the side of the handles that control the effects like lighting. The toughest part about creating the illusion is that WDI supplied the already built cabinet so once again, the mechanics had to be adjusted to adapt to an existing piece.

So, it is a fairly simple illusion but over the years it has amazed countless guests, including myself, and what is even more amazing to me is that this effect has never been duplicated anywhere else. Guests who sat close to the cabinet sometimes felt the movement in the wall.

Rock Hall remembered that working on the Adventurer's Club was "Great fun-much better than I thought" and that "Joe [Rohde] knew exactly what he wanted."

Technifex is currently working on a new amazing project for Disneyland and that story will have to wait until the project is officially open.

More stories about the Adventurer’s Club to come!