Leading Disney on Parade: Part II

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

In our last two articles we've been honoring Disney on Parade's 40th anniversary (the January 22 "Leading Disney On Parade" summarizes the four arena shows launched around the world).

In particular we've been highlighting the story of executive producer, Michel "Mike" Grilikhes. In our first segment, we discussed how Grilikhes, or "Mr. G" as he was known to his cast, came into the show after it was sent on tour to see if it could be redirected into a manageable touring size. This he did, as well as fixing the quality and the length of the show so that it appealed to both adults as well as children.

Mr. G was capable of running the business of event show management. At one point, there were two shows running in the United States, one in Europe and one in Australia, while a new one was being produced, ready to go out the following Christmas. In time there were more than 500 employees all over the world creating these shows. He had a clear vision of creating quality shows—even broadway quality shows—at prices that even a family could afford.

But being a leader is more than attaining bottom-line results. It's also about relationships. It's about creating a high-performing culture of which that employees can be a part.

Today's article looks at some of the things that Mr. G did that created a group of people who still look fondly on their time as cast members for Disney on Parade.

When Mr. G came on board, it was a time of chaos and change. Not only was the show undergoing considerable change, so, too, were the lives of the Cast Members. Remember, that most of the individuals cast for this show were young people who had not seen much outside of their home own, much less had gone "on the road" in a touring show.

Mr. G's first job in meeting the needs of the individual cast members was to create some sense of normalcy in their lives. Bobby Squire remembers that Mr. G's first counsel was to make your life as normal as possible. Even though they were on the road, they needed to do what they normally did when they weren't working. If they went to church back home, then they should go to church on the road. If they liked to go out for Mexican food, they should find a great Mexican food restaurant on the road. Mr. G was a calming influence to those he worked with.

Part of that calming influence, came as a result of Mr. G's patriarchal presence to the show. He became sort of a father figure, noted Beverly Allen, who served as an executive assistant. That wasn't difficult in her mind, because that seemed to be what he did at home. He was very much a family man. Whenever his wife Laraine called, he would take the call immediately. He would take some of his kids on the road, to distant ports of call around the world. That same sense of being a dad extended to his work. Even when working from the California office, he would allow cast members to contact him personally while they were on the road. Allen would try to play gatekeeper, but the cast still sought him out with very individual, very personal concerns. In fact, some parents wouldn't let their kid go on the road until they had first talked with Mr. G.

Mr. G, of course, could cut costs when needed as it so happened when he first came on board. But he seldom cut costs when it came to the well being of the cast members. For example, the stage flooring was often thrown on top of ice hockey floors, with arena management not wanting to lose the ice. But the ice led to condensation on the floor, not good for dancers. He worked with Coca Cola to figure out some sort of sticky substance that would give the dancers ability to move about without slipping. Such efforts allowed the cast to believe in Mike when unions tried to block the success of the show during a union strike in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Still Gene Columbus remembered conferring with Mr. G about hiring one of two woman to play a key role. Mr. G didn't want to disappoint them so he hired both of them. Columbus knew that would cost the crew twice the price, but he also knew that the cast loved Mike, and some times he himself ended up playing the bad guy. Mr. G acknowledged it, but said "Gene, if you don't want me to give in to them, then you're going to have to keep them away from me."

That said, Columbus had great deal of respect for Mr. G, who in turn gave Columbus tremendous career opportunities. In part, that came through a bonding experience they shared when they first reached New York City. There they were in the Madison Square Garden's arena offices meeting when they heard a ruckus outside the door. They went outside only to find New York United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers upset and cutting their cables. New to the touring scene, Disney had not yet learned the ins and outs of how to deal with unions, and these individuals were upset with Disney's stage hands. Mr. G and Columbus went to protect the equipment, and Columbus got hit across the face with wire cutters. Mr. G went to his defense, was kicked in the face and his jaw was broken. An ambulance took them both away. For months later the crew saw Mr. G with his jaw wired together, only able to drink out of a straw.

Events like this led many to follow Mr. G for many years through the shows, even beyond the years of Disney on Parade. And Mr. G was there for his crew, as well. Steve Ehlers came in the first show to help made modifications to the original set, and created set designs through the remaining shows both nationally and on internationally. His talents transformed ordinary arenas into showplaces filled with color and design, all in the truest sense of what guests would expect from Disney. But later, Ehlers would be completely blinded in an accidental shooting incident in 1973. Undeterred, Mr. G hired Ehlers anyway to help him design later shows. He simply saw the potential in everyone he met.

Mr. G would continue leading event shows even after Disney on Parade came to a conclusion. He recreated the Broadway show Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby for the arena stage. Then he staged The Wizard of Oz, as well. Loyal cast and crew members continued to work with Mr. G as these shows continued. Afterward, he and his wife Laraine Day continued creating new shows and programming for The Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, a work they had begun in the 1960s. Such work helped the center to become one of the top tourist destinations in Hawaii, while providing employment to young men and women coming from across Polynesia attain a college degree.

Mike's life was about the business and show of show biz. But it was also about the people in that show.

When Disney on Parade reached its 25th year anniversary, Mr. G noted: "It was one of the most wonderful creative times in my life, where the continuity was there from show to show to reward dedication, discipline and talent with increased opportunity. The very fact that 25 years after Disney on Parade opened, there are still so many to whom that part of their lives has given them a common connection, and common concerns; those whose children, are growing up to their parents' memories of a time in their lives that gave them achievement and principles that they still cherish today."

Mr. G continued to stay very close to members of the cast through the remaining years. His daughter Dana was amazed by the number of people who came to attend his funeral when he died in 2007. The cast still keeps in touch and plans to create a reunion at the end of the year.

All from someone who believed that great family entertainment could be made affordable. To many, Mike Mr. G was Disney on Parade.