Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. Premieres

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Last week, I wrote a column on the Disney live action film Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. developed from a story idea by Walt Disney himself.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.  was primarily shot at the Disney Studios, although there was some limited exterior shooting done in Hawaii to add some authenticity to the film. However, there was another unique location where a brief portion of this film was shot and in so doing, it helped to create two historical moments that are forgotten today.

The second USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) was launched May 21, 1960, and commissioned on April 29, 1961 at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The aircraft carrier was named after Kitty Hawk, N.C., where Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew.

For a variety of reasons, it was chosen to be a cameo star in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

For five days in July 1965, Walt Disney and a Hollywood crew, which included two chimpanzees, were on board to film parts of the movie which starred Dick Van Dyke as well as many of the Kitty Hawk's crew. Along with Walt were guests of the secretary of the Navy, midshipmen, Naval Reservists, and many other observers and visitors.

According to the Department of the Navy Naval Historical Center in Washington, “Two chimpanzees were the highlight to the crew among the embarked guests.”
One of those chimps was named Dinky who went on to star shortly afterward in the Disney live-action comedy, Monkeys, Go Home! Dinky appeared in many amusing publicity shots with Walt.

Dinky had also recently taken on the role of Cheetah in the new Tarzan movies and television show. In fact, during the filming of Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, he got unwanted publicity when it turned out he bit actor Mike Henry who was playing Tarzan. Henry suffered a bout of “monkey fever” for two weeks, helping to convince him to leave the role of the king of the jungle to other actors.

Walt was only on aboard the ship three days and two nights. However, when Walt decided to leave, he did it in his own distinctive style reflecting his curiosity and sense of adventure. He chose to leave America’s only guided missile attack aircraft carrier aboard a catapulted four-place C1A trainer. The 80,000-ton flattop had more than 4 acres of flight deck, roughly 10 times the floor area of Walt’s biggest sound stage at the time.

“In front of Walt was only 40 yards of flight deck and endless miles of choppy sea,” remembered Disney executive Card Walker, a reserve Navy commander who served most of World War II as a flight deck control officer aboard the carrier USS Bunker Hill, in The Disney World magazine (Vol. 3 No. 4) in 1965. “The pilot revved up the engines to 100 percent, the catapult was triggered and we jumped right out of the place, leaving that big baby looking like a postage stamp down there behind us in a matter of seconds. Walt loved it. They gave him the admiral’s cabin for the trip and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t feel a bit like one up there in the sky, commanding the C1A.”

The memorable exit from the USS Kitty Hawk was arranged by the ship’s commander, Captain Martin Carmody. Camody had served with Walker during the war aboard the USS Bunker Hill.

Along with Walt and Walker aboard that smaller trainer was a very scared Peter Ellenshaw who was doing matte paintings for the film. After their departure, the second unit crew for the film remained on board for two more days shooting the sea-running scenes for the movie where Van Dyke’s character returns to the ship on a helicopter with Dinky.

During the voyage, Walt addressed the fleet over a closed-circuit television system, wishing everyone well and attended a reception given by Admiral Paul D. Stoop, commander of Naval Forces, Pacific Fleet, in the latter’s San Diego home just before sailing.

“We have photos of dad with Card and, now I know—thanks to your research—who the other Navy guys are," Diane Disney Miller told me. "That was a great experience for him.”

On June 25, 1966, Kitty Hawk's Hangar Bay One was turned into a gala 1,804 seat theater and the world premiere of Walt Disney's Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N as the ship lay moored to Pier Mike-November, NAS North Island.

At the same time, in the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam, the picture was also premiered onboard Kitty Hawk's sister ship, USS Constellation (CVA-64). This was the first time in naval history that a premiere was held aboard a ship of the line, and the first time in the history of motion pictures that a double premiere aboard ship was held, one underway at sea and the other moored in port.

The Disney Studios crew had transformed the cavernous steel-walled, iron decked Kitty Hawk Hangar Bay into a sloping level of golden theater seats for 2,500 social and civic leaders, key Navy personnel, and Hollywood celebrities who viewed the premiere screening following a half-hour television show originating from San Diego’s KOGO-TV. (And where is a copy of that show along with all the other Disney-oriented shows that were shown on local television stations in the Los Angeles area?)

The celebrities who attended included Dick Van Dyke, Fred MacMurray, Dean Jones, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tom Tryon, Vera Miles, Sue Lyon, Buddy Ebsen, Nancy Olson, Terry Moore, Cheryl Miller, Charmian Carr, Cami Sebring, Melody Patterson, Barbara Feldon, Pat Priest, Leslie Parrish and Jackie Cooper.

The premiere began at 8:00 Pacific Standard time and at the exact same time a 16mm version was also premiered aboard the Constellation, as it cruised the Pacific during the Vietnam War (the Kitty Hawk had just returned from that tour of duty a few days earlier). While this was the celebrity premiere on Saturday night, Walt also attended a set of screenings the following Sunday for the nearly 5,000 crew members of the Kitty Hawk.

The premiere benefited the Navy-Marine Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. ,and was sponsored by the Eleventh Region of the Navy League, whose President, George Gilman, presented Walt with a Scroll of Honor.

Missing from the premiere was actress Nancy Kwan who was away in Europe during the premiere working on another film. However, she attended another carrier event in England aboard the USN aircraft carrier, Randolph, berthed in the naval base in Portsmouth. As Disney’s public relations person in England recalled, “The hangar deck was transformed into a theater, with a Hawaiian band playing on a specially constructed stage and garlanded girls dancing, creating a Robin Crusoe atmosphere. The sash cords were pulled to unveil a large picture of Nancy, which will have a place of honor aboard ship.”

Kwan was adopted as the ship’s mascot as part of the publicity blitz. She also went briefly to the Savoy Hotel to present the winning prize to the girl who won the “Girl Wednesday” footprint competition held by Radio London to promote the film. Kwan was only there for that one night, arriving late on Sunday from Austria and leaving for her new film in Berlin early Monday.

Kwan was not actively involved with the promotion for the film and as one Disney publication of the time stated, “between camera runs, she could hardly be seen or heard and was often the despair of the press, whose fervent representatives, happily assigned to meeting and talking with the beauty, found themselves silently cudgeling their brains for the kind of question that would spark a sparkling answer. But before the camera, Nancy sparkled well enough, suddenly coming to life with a vivaciousness that matched Van Dyke’s ready comedy.”

“I just knew I’d end up as the Dorothy Lamour of our generation,” said Kwan, referring to the red flowered sarong she wore throughout the picture, “But they are letting me play the role kind of tongue-in-cheek and I love doing comedy.”

Trained in ballet, including spending time as part of the Royal Ballet company in London, Kwan performed a Polynesian Tamure at the end of the film. The Tamure is a seductive ceremonial dance performed to a continuous, staccato-tempo drum beat. The rapid hip motion is coordinated rhythmically with the endless traveling movements of the feet and graceful gestures of the arms and hands.

Also missing from the Kitty Hawk premiere was Ron Miller and his wife, Diane.

“No we did not go to the premiere. We actually didn't do much of that. I don't think that it was suggested that we go,” wrote Diane Disney Miller when I talked to her about the film.

The film went into general release on June 29,1966 and was released on DVD in 2005 without any extras, not even a commentary track from Van Dyke.