Roger Cox (1945-2007): The Forgotten Adventurer

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of people worked for the Disney Company. Some only worked there for a year or two, while others lasted 35 years or more. All of them contributed to the magic that we associate with Disney but except for a treasured handful, most names and their specific contributions have been “lost.”

With the closing of the Adventurers Club, I wanted to make sure to honor a “forgotten” adventurer who shaped that unique entertainment venue that we all loved so much.

Roger Cox became a Disney Imagineer and deeply involved in the Adventurers Club project around 1988. He was brought in by Larry Hitchcock, an old college friend, who worked at Disney at the time. Cox became concept designer, character creator, head show writer, and show producer for the Adventurers Club. His original script with writer Mel Green for the Balderdash Competition remained almost exactly the same nearly 20 years later.

“I came to Disney in September of 1987 and began working on leading a concept team for a 40-acre location in Burbank that was mixed use, entertainment, retail, dining and commercial. Disney took a pass on the land option and I moved on to working with the Pleasure Island team. I brought Roger in as a writer. He was perfect for the Adventurers' Club and many other zany twists that our program for the island called for,” Hitchcock recalled for me.

One of the inspirations for the Adventurers Club was the Explorers Club in New York founded in 1905 to “promote exploration by all possible means.” It was home for “gentleman adventurers” like Charles Lindbergh, Edmund Hillary, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen.

“The Explorers Club in New York was an obvious model,” Hitchcock told me. “Roger had first hand experience with the club and the kind of collegial fraternity that existed among members and other similar clubs around the world.”

When I asked Cox's widow, Sybil, about him being a member of the Adventurers Club, she stated, “No, Roger was not a member of the Explorers Club. His club was Squadron A. Perhaps they had reciprocal arrangements. I know they did with many clubs around the world. In my eyes, it [Squadron A] was a stuffy, old-fashioned men's club. Roger was into the traditional part of these places. He also liked to shake them up.

“There is a famous incident of Roger and a buddy inciting the staff to revolt against the powers that be at the New York Club. That particular buddy, from high school in Cleveland, was another close friend who died young. I was looking for his name around the club but didn't see it. Maybe you have. It must be there somewhere. His name was Doug Kenney. He was one of the founders of National Lampoon and writer of Animal House and Caddyshack. He and Roger must have been a hoot at that old club causing trouble.”

However, to fully understand the importance of Cox to the Adventurers Club, I turned to world-renowned illusionist and former Disney cast member Jim Steinmeyer now of JHS Productions, Inc. Theatrical Illusion Design. Here is some of what he shared with me:

"I really think that the Adventurers Club is a perfect blend of two personalities, Joe Rohde and Roger Cox. You see Joe's sense of visual fun and old-fashioned adventure, and you experience Roger's offbeat humor and loving evocation of these old-fashioned, bigger-than-life personalities.

"Unfortunately, we lost Roger last year to cancer. Roger was a very good friend over the years, and I think that the Adventurers Club was one of his proudest achievements. It certainly 'felt' like Roger, from start to finish. One certainly feels a kind of eccentric personality pulling you through the experience, and Roger was the embodiment of that.

"Sometimes you eat the bear..." All of that is vintage Roger, and always sounded exactly like him. He was, truly, the kind of person who could have walked into that club and instantly fit right in. In many ways, I think, the characters in the club were ‘doing’ Roger or Joe, without even knowing it.

"I had a number of opportunities to work with Roger. He was really a wonderful free spirit, who had been an experienced actor, director and writer. The Adventurer's Club should have been doomed to fail, like many of the difficult projects on Pleasure Island. It was a project that ‘fell outside’ of the usual Disney formula, and worried everyone before it opened. Roger was very ‘un-Disney’ in his thinking, and Joe was always deliberately pushing the envelope.

"I'm not really sure that the Disney brass ‘got it,’ but they saw that it worked. And maybe they were just a little scared of it, or mystified by it. It worked because it had such enormous personality, permeating through the whole place. That was, to me, the charm of The Adventurer's Club. It was eccentric and unexpected. The humor was unpredictable and offbeat. But it all seemed to make perfect sense, unto itself. You believed that those fellows had been there for years, that they'd figured out their own systems and stories. And I really think that the ‘personality’ that permeated it all was Roger's. That's the comfort of the Adventurer's Club, really. You've gone to someone else's party. They've been throwing that party for a long time. They're experts at it. But over the years, it's taken on all of their personalities and quirks. When audiences felt they'd fallen into a rabbit hole and experienced another world, it was really Roger's insight into the entire concept."

When I showed Hitchcock, Steinmeyer’s tribute, hesaid, “I agree. Roger delivered the ‘text’ and Joe the ‘visuals.’ But they ‘pushed’ and ‘fulfilled’ each other. Roger's prose painted a picture; Joe's art suggested a story.”

Cox's widow, Sybil (who first saw the show on its last night of performance, September 27, 2008), shared the following:

"The Adventurers Club's unlikely hero, Emil Bleehall, is based on a long-standing semi autobiographical character Roger created. He is the funny little guy from Ohio who wins over the higher authorities and gains their respect and admiration with his seemingly awkward modest but ultimately unique crowd-pleasing talents. A docu-dramatic version of Cox's journey at Disney by Sandra Tsing Loh called, 'It Happened in Glendale' from her book, 'Depth Takes a Holiday' was performed on the radio show, 'This American Life’. Roger felt Emil's struggle at the Adventurers Club paralleled his own story at Disney getting his Adventurers Club ideas off the ground and accepted there."

Emil is from Sandusky, Ohio. Cox was actually from Shaker Heights, Ohio but felt the name 'Sandusky' was funnier. There is a 15-minute video of him telling how he pitched the story of the Balderdash Cup to Michael Eisner, Dick Nunis and other Disney executives who Cox referred to as "cling-ons." Cox said he realized very quickly that despite all the laughter that he was really only pitching to "an audience of one." Michael Eisner. Everyone looked at Eisner for his reaction.

The Balderdash Cup Competition featured Hathaway Browne, Otis T. Wren and Emil Bleehall competing for "Adventurer of the Year" as signified by the awarding of the Balderdash Cup. The word “balderdash” means “nonsense” and first appeared as early as 1674. Cox referred to it as a “liar’s club.”

The rules for the competition:

  1. Each competing member shall tell or actually demonstrate one true to life adventure.
  2. Upon completion of the tales, the audience shall determine the winner through their applause.
  3. All members must be present inside the library to compete.
  4. Each permanent member of the Adventurers Club shall be eligible to compete for the Balderdash Cup provided that he, or she, arrives before midnight of the contest date.

Otis T. Wren tells a harrowing fish tale accompanied by a sinking ship in a bottle while Hathaway Browne enthralls the audience with his aviating adventure where he ends up in Atlantis. Actually, it is the Atlantis Bar and Grill where he has his napkin autographed with “Bon Voyage, Amelia Earhart” and “Good Luck! Will Rogers.” Wren has tricked other adventurers like Sutter Bestwick and Chilton Thompson from competing but failed in his attempt to distract Hathaway Browne.

Junior Adventurer Emil wins with his demonstration of trained tap dancing pigeons on the roof of the Club.

In the pitch, Cox revealed that Emil's job in Sandusky was as the "Artistic Director of the School of Modern Dance" and that helps explain why Emil trained 500 1-pound pigeons to tap dance, as well at the one 500 pound pigeon, "Rodan." At the end of the pitch, Eisner said, "That's too absurd."

Cox pleaded that it was funny and a great idea and that everyone laughed. “Roger never feared authority or even recognized it and always poked fun at people who did,” his wife wrote to me.

Finally, Eisner relented and told Cox that if he was so glued to the idea, Eisner would give it a chance. When the Balderdash Cup skit was performed at the Adventurers Club, guests howled with laughter and just stayed and refused to leave. Eisner came up to Cox and whispered in his ear, "You were right. I was wrong." He always laughed that he never heard Eisner say that to anyone else, including himself, ever again.

In the library, on the stage, there are two paintings and the crooked one to the left (hiding the keyboardist who performs as "Fingers Zambezi") has a caricature of Joe Rohde standing in the right of the picture. Roger Cox is in the picture as well. Sybil told me, "Yes, Roger is in that painting, the little guy in the middle."

It’s too late to see now, but on the wall of the Main Salon bar facing the Mask Room is the name “Joe” in hieroglyphics and backward as another Rohde tribute.

"I saw lots of other photos with captions with our friends' names on them. But essentially I heard Roger's voice come through all the characters voices and actions," Sybil said, "Roger's personality is well distributed among the characters in the Club in their sense of Fun, Absurdity, Charm and Warmth. He was always the life of the party when he walked into a room and at the same time included everyone 'in on the giggle' as he liked to say. Everyone around him was drawn in and became part of the Roger Party. He was a great storyteller. Each time he told his stories he added more and more 'Balderdash.' So what if it didn't resemble the truth anymore? What was more important: the truth or a good performance making the crowd laugh? Of course, Roger always opted for the latter. He loved to be racy in his remarks and see how far he could push the limits of the language, beyond the acceptable."

As with many Imagineers, Cox incorporated the names of some of his friends in the names of some of the characters referenced in the club.

On the Membership Plaque in the Main Salon under "Members Owing Dues" there is the name "Eben Cockley."

Sybil Cox was kind enough to share:

 "Roger's ‘sandbox’ buddy was David Cockley, Even may have been a family member of his. Pamelia Perkins is the exact name of a classmate of Roger's and mine from the Carnegie-Mellon University Drama Department circa 1980. Roger was a grad student, stage director. Pamelia was also in the department as a grad stage director.

“Roger was always a collector of names that he would pull out and mold into characters. Some other references in the club that I recognize are on the captions on the photos upstairs in the (Zebra) Bar (Mezzanine) area. The names such as, David Holzheimer, Alexis Conroy and Charley, Gregory Lehane and L. Klatcher, Hugh O'Neil III, Hugh O'Neil IV, Stanley Jaros were all dear friends of Roger's.

"Hugh Davey was a close friend of Roger's (of the Davey tree company family) who died young in college. As a tribute to him, a caption mentions him, it reads, ‘Hugh Speer Davey, 1890-1940 Essayist and Forester snatched form this mortal coil in a freak gardening accident.' I noticed that this Hugh Davey lived quite a bit longer than Roger's friend. Roger gave him extra life. I also noticed the 1940 date post dates the Adventurers Club 1937 itself."

In fact, in the Zebra Mezzanine are several pictures of members who passed the mortal coil after 1937. Perhaps these were merely predictions by Madame Zenobia who looked into the future and saw their terrible fates. More likely, it is just another example of the confusing and often contradictory material about the Adventurers Club.

On the walls to the right when you entered the club, you would have seen pictures with these captions:

"C.K. Dexter Haven Jr. 1859-1938 Squandered "Jinkies" cereal fortune". C.K. Dexter Haven is the name of the Cary Grant character in the movie Philadelphia Story and its musical remake High Society.

"Wadill Catchings 1890-1940 Climbing accident, Himalayas 'He Never Bounced Once'."

"Burlwood Carruthers Jr. 1891-1940 Led 1st, 3rd and 4th Baltistan-Hunza Trans-Himalayan treks. 1912-23 (not shown: pet leopard, 'Bucky')".

"SR. "Bob" Bobenmeyer 1878-1938 Introduced the ‘conga line’ to North America. Buried with Xavar Cugat record collection. 'I am a dancing fool.' (How true! How true!)"

"All the framed photos, throughout Adventurers Club are 90 percent from a huge historic photo library in New York City. I brought in my old, portable, Royal manual typewriter. I still have it. We sat around WDI for days coming up with captions for them. They were typed on newsprint that we had soaked in tea and left in the sun to dry. I think everyone got their name-or some version of it-in at least one of those captions. It is an old WDI trick dating back to the opening days of Disneyland," remembered Adventurers Club Show Writer Craig McNair Wilson who was the artistic director of SAK Theater and responsible for the “trunk” shows at Epcot’s World Showcase and Streetmosphere at the Disney MGM Studios.

After Cox left, Wilson and others including Chris Oyen wrote and through improvisation exercises with the actors created material that the characters used in the Club.

When asked about the Merriweather Pleasure legend, Hitchcock said, “I loved it. Totally plausible in a land of Flagler and Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu. Well, my vision was always that Pleasure Island was Disney's Bourbon Street. Social lubricants like alcohol made it better and much more realistic. Like the fictional Mr. Pleasure, the fabulous Roger Cox, and preposterous Joe Rohde are all larger than life characters who realized some of their dreams and shared those with everyone.”

Sadly, if you search for Roger Cox’s name on the Internet, there are only a handful of entries and most of them surrounding his too early passing away. Hopefully, this column will give him some belated recognition for his contribution to the unique entertainment of the Adventurers Club.

However, I don’t want anyone reading this article to think that Roger Cox was just the real life version of Emil Bleehall. As Sybil was quick to point out, “At the same time Roger was also a heroic romantic like Hathaway Browne going to extreme lengths against the odds carrying out brave acts.”

Believe it or not, Adventurers, there are still more tales to tell from a never before revealed Adventurers Club story of Frank Wells to Craig McNair Wilson’s insights into the early days of the club to secrets of the characters and secrets of the club itself. Stay tuned and make sure you don’t miss the next thrilling installment!