Ghostly Gracey: The Merlin of WED

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

On September 5, 1983, 73-year-old Imagineer Yale Gracey and his wife were in a cabana at the Bel Air Bay Club on the beach at Pacific Palisades when a transient broke in and tragically shot to death the sleeping Imagineer and his wife. The motivation behind this senseless murder is still not known to this day. It was just another mystery surrounding a well-liked but mysterious man.

For those who believe in ghosts, one of the conditions for the creation of a ghost is a sudden, violent act that robs an unsuspecting soul of his life. While there are no stories of Gracey returning as a ghost to haunt the site, Yale certainly contributed to the lore of ghosts with his creations for the fabled Disney theme park Haunted Mansions.

Gracey grew up as a shy young boy, fascinated by Popular Mechanics magazine and he had a complete set of the “The Boy Mechanic” series of books published by Popular Mechanics in the early teens of the 20th century.

“The Boy Mechanic” series featured hundreds of projects for boys from magic tricks to building kites and tie racks to making boomerangs. Some of the other projects may see a little outdated today—including chemical photography and coal furnaces. In addition, some of these projects include the use of gunpowder, mercury, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen and other things that would be highly unacceptable for young boys to use in these more enlightened times to build devices.

“The Boy Mechanic” sparked in Yale an interest in gadgetry and magic that eventually lead to him creating many amazing effects at Disneyland: from the fake fire in Pirates of the Caribbean to the endless pouring of tea from the Mad Hatter’s pot into a cup to a pixie dust projector used in  Space Mountain to block out the surrounding structure.

One other, rarely told story, in Yale’s youth helped to shape his work on the Haunted Mansion. As he shared with fellow Imagineer Rolly Crump, as they worked on the illusions, Yale had actually seen a ghost.

When he was 8 years old, young Master Gracey went to visit his aunt back East. Near the end of the trip, his mother asked him what he enjoyed most about the visit. Without hesitation, he responded that he enjoyed “the little old woman who lives in the closet who comes out each night to read stories to us.” The other children tried to silence Gracey from sharing the secret but were unsuccessful. His mother did some research and discovered that there was a woman who looked just like the one Gracey described who once owned the house. As the children feared, once Gracey blurted out the story, the old woman never appeared again to read stories to the children.

Over the years, cast members (and more than a few guests) have mistakenly believed that “Master Gracey” was the master of the haunted house—thanks to a tombstone in the graveyard written by X. Atencio, Imagineer and show writer for the attraction, that declares: “Master Gracey, laid to rest, no mourning please, at his request.”

Here’s is another example of how even good intentioned, well-meaning people can make bad decisions based on not understanding the story.

The belief that Gracey is the master of the mansion is so beguiling that it has retroactively been taken as fact so that even the live-action film starring Eddie Murphy, and based on the Disney attraction, tried to make it officially part of the story.

As X. Atencio has continually pointed out, at the turn of the century, the term “master” meant a boy too young to be called “mister.” There are many examples in literature including “Master Lord Fauntleroy." His fellow Imagineer was trying to offer a tribute to the boyish Yale, not make him the owner and master of the house. Some cast members have even gone so far as to indicate that the aging “Dorian Grey” style portrait is a representation of “Master Gracey” or that the hanging man in the stretching gallery is the “master.” None of those assumptions were intended by the original Imagineers.

Yale Gracey joined the Disney Studio in 1939 as a layout artist working on Pinocchio. He continued to work on Disney animated films, including doing layouts and backgrounds on most of the Donald Duck shorts directed by Jack Hannah. With the Disney Studios curtailing its productions of animated short cartoons, Hannah and most of his team left the Studio around 1959 to work for Walter Lantz and produce animated cartoons with Woody Woodpecker, Gabby Gator and others.

One of the few who didn’t go with Hannah was Yale who by then had found a home at WED. Walt Disney had noticed Gracey’s fascination during his lunch hours with making little gadgets and illusions and Yale was given a pair of rooms to develop new effects.

At first, Yale was not assigned to specific projects but just given unprecedented freedom to do research and development on things that Walt might make use of in some future project. It is important to remember that Yale had no formal training at all in any of this but his own hands-on experimentation and reading.

Gracey was called an “Illusioner” in the days before the term “Imagineer” was coined. But for those who worked with him, Yale’s love of magic and the creation of unusual effects made him a modern Merlin the magician.

Gracey was teamed up with Rolly Crump around 1959 and the two worked on several projects together from updating the Fantasyland attractions (Crump did the art and Gracey did the effects like glowing eyes in the darkness) to early concept work for the” Haunted Mansion”. Yale later admitted he had never seen a firefly in his life after he recreated the firefly effect for the Blue Bayou area of “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

In a 1970 issue of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, shortly after the Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland, Gracey shared his thoughts about the mansion in these previously forgotten quotes:

“Often I simply don’t know that something couldn’t be done. I would develop a concept and gather various gadgets and materials and keep trying until it worked. When we built the illusions we were surprised to find how effective they actually were. People enjoy being frightened but we couldn’t make the attraction too scary because of the droves of children that would be coming. We decided to add the element of comedy. It’s like adding a wink of an eye to the end of a ghost story. Someday I would like to design a real scare house. Some of the illusions that weren’t used in the Haunted Mansion would send chills through anyone I know.”

One paragraph in the story included the following statement: “Using refracted images, half-silvered mirrors, Audio-Animatronics and projectimation, Gracey and his ghostly helpers designed and built enough illusions to fill the new attraction twice over.”

I have never seen the term “projectimation” used before or since and it referred to the effect of Madame Leota’s head in the crystal ball and the four singing busts. It was a new effect discovered by Gracey when he experimented with using film of Hans Conried’s talking head from the Magic Mirror on the Disney television show's special, Our Unsung Villians, and projecting it on a bust of Beethoven. It appeared as if the bust came to life and began talking and it certainly justified allowing Gracey the freedom to just work at his own pace on things that interested him.

Unfortunately, many of the most fantastic (and never re-created) effects that Gracey and Crump developed were never used in the attraction when it was changed from a walk-through event (with more time for guests to see an effect evolve) to a moving vehicle, which meant the animation had to be short cycled because it could not be determined whether a guest would see the beginning, middle or end of the cycle of action. (As a guest, do you first see the coffin lid before it is being lifted, in the process of being lifted, as it shakes in the air or after it has dropped back into place? When do you hear X. Atencio’s voice plaintively cry out “Let me out!”?)

As Rolly Crump once lamented about one of those never-used effects: “There was one gag that Yale and I came up with. We developed the whole story for that room. It was a Sea Captain's room. That's where he lived. He had killed his wife, and bricked her up in the fireplace. He drowned out at sea. As the story goes, he would periodically come back to his room. We actually had a full scale mock-up of this on the soundstage to show Walt. You'd see the curtains blowing. You could see the ocean off in the distance, the waves breaking. You could hear the cry of a coyote or wolf. We had a lot of special effects that we'd put into that.

“Then all of a sudden, this skeleton with a rain slicker and hat holding a lantern appears slowly but surely in the middle of the room. We actually had a shower that was coming off of him onto the floor. It looked like water was running all over the floor. It was one hell of an illusion! As he kind of turns and looks around the room, you see her ghost skeleton appear behind the bricks—and all of a sudden she comes flying out! She has a white silk outfit on, she raises her arms, and with her mouth wide open, screaming, coming right at him—they both just disappear. I think that would have done the job. That was the best piece of Pepper's Ghost that'd been done. Of course, that went down the tubes, because everything in there was a cycle animation.”

You can check out more stories about Gracey’s magicial effects here.

The famous ghosts in the ballroom scene of the Haunted Mansion owe their magic not to holographic projections or as Imagineer Tony Baxter loves to quip “real ghosts” but to the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion that was refined by magician Henry Pepper in 1862 for his stage act.

Yale Gracey first encountered this amazing yet simple illusion in “The Boy Mechanic,” Volume 1, page 52 from 1913. (There were multiple volumes of “The Boy Mechanic” published over the years. Yale’s original collection contained the original first four volumes. Imagineer Crump, who also does magic as a hobby has a 1916 reprint of Volume 1 in his personal collection.)

How could any boy resist the following title page?





You can download a copy of the entire book at the following link and there have been many reprints over the years, including an excellent facsimile edition in 1988. (Supposedly, girls would not be interested in these adventurous projects but there is one picture of a girl in the book making a lampshade.) However, for those who are curious but lazy or computer challenged, here is a reprint of the section that Yale Gracey read that may inspire you as it did Yale to create the ballroom scene.

A Miniature "Pepper's Ghost" Illusion

Probably many readers have seen a "Pepper's Ghost" illusion at some amusement place. As there shown, the audience is generally seated in a dark room at the end of which there is a stage with black hangings. One of the audience is invited onto the stage, where he is placed in an upright open coffin. A white shroud is thrown over his body, and his clothes and flesh gradually fade away till nothing but his skeleton remains, which immediately begins to dance a horrible rattling jig. The skeleton then fades away and the man is restored again.

A simple explanation is given in the model engineer. Between the audience and the coffin is a sheet of transparent glass, inclined at an angle so as to reflect objects located behind the scenes, but so clear as to be invisible to the audience and the man in the coffin. At the beginning the stage is lighted only from behind the glass. Hence the coffin and its occupant are seen through the glass very plainly. The lights in front of the glass (behind the scenes) are now raised very gradually as those behind the glass are turned down, until it is dark there. The perfectly black surface behind the glass now acts like the silver backing for a mirror, and the object upon which the light is now turned—in this case the skeleton—s reflected in the glass, appearing to the audience as if really occupying the stage.

The model, which requires no special skill except that of carpentry, is constructed as shown in the drawings.

The box containing the stage should be 14 inches by 7 inches by 7-1/2 inches, inside dimensions. The box need not be made of particularly good wood, as the entire interior, with the exception of the glass, figures and lights, should be colored a dull black. This can well be done by painting with a solution of lampblack in turpentine. If everything is not black, especially the joints and background near A, the illusion will be spoiled.

The glass should be the clearest possible, and must be thoroughly cleansed. Its edges should nowhere be visible, and it should be free from scratches and imperfections. The figure A should be a doll about 4 inches high, dressed in brilliant, light-colored garments. The skeleton is made of papier maché, and can be bought at Japanese stores. It should preferably be one with arms suspended by small spiral springs, giving a limp, loose-jointed effect. The method of causing the skeleton to dance is shown in the front view. The figure is hung from the neck by a blackened stiff wire attached to the hammer wire of an electric bell, from which the gong has been removed. When the bell works he will kick against the rear wall, and wave his arms up and down, thus giving as realistic a dance as anyone, could expect from a skeleton.

The lights, L and M, should be miniature electric lamps, which can be run by three dry cells. They need to give a fairly strong light, especially L, which should have a conical tin reflector to increase its brilliancy and prevent its being reflected in the glass.

Since the stage should be some distance from the audience, to aid the illusion, the angle of the glass and the inclination of the doll, A, has been so designed that if the stage is placed on a mantle or other high shelf, the image of A will appear upright to an observer sitting in a chair some distance away, within the limits of an ordinary room. If it is desired to place the box lower down, other angles for the image and glass may be found necessary, but the proper tilt can be found readily by experiment.

The electric connections are so simple that they are not shown in the drawings. All that is necessary is a two-point switch, by which either L or M can be placed in circuit with the battery, and a press button in circuit with the bell and its cell.

If a gradual transformation is desired, a double-pointed rheostat could be used, so that as one light dims the other increases in brilliancy, by the insertion and removal of resistance coils.

With a clear glass and a dark room this model has proved to be fully as bewildering as its prototype.