Who Was Madame Zenobia?

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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When the Adventurers Club officially closed at Pleasure Island the last week of September 2008, I mourned its passing even though I knew it would still host special convention events—including an outstanding farewell from the National Fantasy Fan Club (link) the beginning of October—through January 2009.

Disney archivist Dave Smith had walked the location to select items for the Disney Archives. It was rumored that Imagineer Joe Rohde would be taking a few props that had sentimental value since it was one of his first major projects as art director. There were even announcements that other items had been earmarked to be sent to Hong Kong Disneyland for a new attraction to be built there.

So, imagine my pleasant surprise when I ran into one of the former performers and learned that the club was still hosting special events months after it was officially to be destroyed.

To add to my enjoyment, I have also learned that a dedicated group of Disney fans who love the Adventurers Club will be hosting their inaugural convention at the club this coming September. For more information on this ConGaloosh event that will take place September 25-27 in Orlando, visit their Web site (link).

To fully prepare yourself for the experience, you may want to browse through some of my previous columns devoted to the Adventurers Club:

After all those columns, you may have thought that I had exhausted all the information I had about the Adventurers Club, especially after spending months uncovering stories and facts that had never before appeared in print.

Well, believe it or not, I have several more untold stories to reveal. To celebrate the fact that the Adventurers Club is still surviving despite the cliffhanging announcement of its demise, I want to share yet another tale that I didn’t get a chance to tell: Who was Madame Zenobia?

When early publicity about the Adventurers Club was published, the only character that was mentioned was Madame Zenobia. In fact, later articles also connect that name with the club. “A giant stone face, known as Miss Zenobia, tells fortunes and spins tales from the past” claimed the Disney-approved Hyperion-published book Since the World Began in 1996. Of course, Disney fans know that giant stone face is Babylonia not Zenobia but there is a legitimate reason for the confusion with the names.

Originally, there was going to be a club on Pleasure Island that would be themed to magic, very much like the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, that was frequented by Imagineers working on the Pleasure Island project. An outside special effects firm, Technifex, run by two former Imagineers began to develop effects for that Pleasure Island club.

Madame Zenobia would have been a mysterious gypsy woman who wandered the club and told fortunes, accompanied by other performers like close up magicians.

However, Michael Eisner stopped by Church Street Station in downtown Orlando and saw the extreme popularity of a Country Western club called the Cheyenne Saloon (that ironically just announced it was closing except for special events because of attendance among other reasons). Eisner insisted there be a similar experience on Pleasure Island and so the magic club quickly became the Neon Armadillo.

So the concept of close-up magicians and Madame Zenobia and some special effects that had been developed moved next door into the Adventurers Club.

Before Imagineer Roger Cox helped develop the characters that most Disney fans remember as being connected to the Adventurers Club, Imagineer Craig McNair Wilson wrote some brief character sketches to be used to help inspire some performing possibilities.

The performers at the Adventurers Club were going to use the SAK theater method of improvisation of taking a character sketch and using it to develop scenes and dialog. Wilson had been one of the founders and directors of SAK theater that did “trunk shows” at Epcot and for conventions.

Among those characters that Wilson described was Professor Otis Wren who was an explorer and a “rampager.”

Wilson wrote: “Whenever Otis Wren enters the Adventurers Club, he is heard from the outside. If there is a line to the club, he will probably select an attractive woman to pull out of line to enter the club with him. He comes in with great bravado and a sack full of goodies. If Madame Zenobia is a room-filling presence, Otis Wren is a building shaking presence. He is so much bigger than life and so much louder than any one would like him to be.”

Certainly, this was a much different interpretation that the scholarly Wren who eventually inhabited the club and was club treasurer and Ichthyologist. Although a piranha permanently attached to his boot hints at the ichthyologist background in the eye-patched, unshaven, python-holding professor described by Wilson.

In addition, Wren “has a great love and respect for Madame Zenobia and apparently had a deeper relationship with her in the past than is completely evident in the present, though there are hints to a previous dalliance.”

Then there was Armitage Campbell, an aviator and auctioneer.

Wilson wrote: “He is tan and youthful and needing a shave. His one goal in life is to circumnavigate the planet in his plane. In order to do this, he will auction off small bobbles he has found along the way or simply pull something from the wall of the Adventurers Club and sell it to the highest bidder. He’ll sell anything to anyone to accomplish his selfish ends. Smuggler, gambler, soldier of fortune.”

Of course, with input from other writers, this aviator evolved into the more familiar (and less greedy but still very much a ladies man) Hathaway Browne. 

Interestingly, Wilson’s notes hint that “Campbell is obviously younger than Otis Wren and Campbell’s relationship is somewhat different with Madame Zenobia. If one pays close enough attention to their dialog, an understanding is reached that apparently she raised him or perhaps even found him somewhere on one of her many travels and then raised him. His sense of adventure and spirit of wanderlust grow as much out of his having been raised (‘mothered’) by Madame Zenobia.”

Also, there was a huge bearded, fez wearing Turk known as Abdul who would have been the doorman as well as club security, but had a servant relationship with Madame Zenobia. At one point in the evening, he might bring her a mysterious bag and she would respond testily, “I will deal with that later.”

So who was this colorful Madame Zenobia who was to be the centerpiece and driving force for the original concept of the Adventurers Club?

From June 1987, here is Craig McNair Wilson’s description of Madame Zenobia:

“Although the complete and specific details of her past remain shrouded in mystery, rumor and innuendo, it is known that she is the current proprietess of the Adventurers Club: a position she has held as long as any member of the current staff can remember. Whereas her direct links with the Pleasure family and the allegations that she is in fact the long-lost daughter of Merriweather Adam Pleasure cannot be substantiated by any hard evidence, she seems to have more than a passing familiarity with the Pleasure legend.

“She is a woman of great presence and style. She fills any room she is in and her presence spills over into adjoining rooms. If she is not in the back room smoking a Turkish Clove cigarette or English Oval, her bigger than life personality does not permit her to sit quietly in a corner enjoying a cordial unobserved.

“Physically, Madame Zenobia may be a tall woman. She certainly has a powerful voice. If she were cast in a movie, she would undoubtedly be portrayed by Bea Arthur. And, though she is no knock-out, she certainly is alluring as well as being, not so much a flirt, as she is a woman capable of making any person proud of who they are. With a look, a smile, a laugh, a gesture, a touch, she can make you glad to be in the Adventurers Club. She brings out the adventurer in all of us. She is at once eternally youthful and timeless.

“She would probably be better portrayed by an actress in her 30s or even early 40s than an actress in her 20s trying to come off as something that she really isn’t. I would like to think that in casting Madame Zenobia, we could find an actress who would be available to us five nights a week and on the other two nights that she is not there, we would cast another actress of similar qualities we would give a different name who is probably an old friend.

“She is a little bit gypsy, a little bit fortune teller and she resembles, but is not limited to, the qualities of Maude (Bea Arthur), Dulcinea from Man of La Mancha (Sophia Loren), and Madame Roza (Mercedes McCambridge). She will make you laugh one minute, be listening to a sad story you may tell her and offer a shoulder or a handkerchief to cry on the next minute, and just as quickly get you on your feet and dancing. The next time you come to the Adventurers Club and approach the maitre d’s podium, you will ask, ‘Is Madame Zenobia here?’ and then think to yourself, ‘Oh, I hope she remembers me.'“

The rough costume sketches for the character show a gypsy like character with a large flat hat (“a sun hat transformed into a Huichol Indian shaman hat”) and dress and shawl both “pulled from South America. The old hiking boots hint at a past as an adventurer.” She wore bracelets and charms and other exotic trinkets. She carried a beat up old saddlebag or a shoulder bag inlaid with beads, teeth, animal fur and more. Her appearance was to be very much a patchwork affair with international influences.

She would greet guests to the Adventurers Club with “Hello, everyone. Are we drinking? Are we in love?”

As the hostess and emcee of the club, she would interact in the mask room and there would a mystical Chinese lantern (later to evolve into Beezle the genie head in the floating lamp) that would talk to Zenobia. She would gather items from the guests and put them in a black bag and then the lamp would tell what the objects were and from their “vibrations” tell about the dark corners of the guest’s life. The lamp would also tell stories of the life and times of Merriweather Pleasure. If the guests doubted the lantern’s tales, it would respond, “Believe it or… Leave!” to parody the famous Ripley phrase “Believe it or Not!”.

Madame Zenobia only made one physical appearance. At a press conference aboard the Empress Lilly on July 21, 1986, Michael Eisner introduced to the press the concept of Pleasure Island that was to open in 1988.

Supplementing the scale model of Pleasure Island were two live characters: Captain Spike (portrayed by Imagineering Show Writer Craig McNair Wilson) an old sea captain who would be the host at Madison’s Dive, a planned club themed to the mermaid Madison from the Disney movie Splash) and Madame Zenobia.

Eisner told the reporters that Zenobia who would be the hostess at the Adventurers Club “will read your palm and tell your future and consult with our studio execs about what pictures we will make.”

Zenobia (portrayed by SAK theater comedy improvisational actress Anita Goodwin) replied, “I have some ideas.”

Pleasure Island did not open as planned in 1988 but by then, Madame Zenobia had disappeared. Some of her companions evolved and survived but the gypsy fortune teller who was associated with the Adventurers Club only haunts the rooms of the club and over the last two decades the memory of her has faded.

When I study Disney animation, it is always fascinating to me to discover characters that were going to be important to the story but never made it to the final film. Here is an example of how that same concept worked when it came to developing such a unique entertainment venue that was heavily influenced by the importance of the story. Madame Zenobia no longer helped tell the changing story of the Adventurers Club that the Imagineers wanted to tell and so her tale only remains in this column and now in your mind of oddball Disney things that never were.