The Disneylandia Story Part Twoby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Last time (link), I wrote about Walt Disney decided to create an exhibit of miniatures celebrating the history of America. These animated dioramas would travel from town to town on a special 21-car train where Walt hoped that schoolchildren would drop a quarter in a coin box to see a tiny tableau come to dramatic life.
Imagineer Roger Broggie stated, “We started to build what was to be an exhibit of Americana in the same scale (as the caboose for the Carolwood Pacific), 1-1/2-inches to the foot, or 1/8th the full size. That means the figures would be 9 inches tall.”
This project, known as Disneylandia, was the forerunner for Disneyland.
Walt wrote in a letter to his younger sister, Ruth, on Dec. 4, 1952, “…my newest project. Hoping it will become a reality, but at this point it’s very much in the thinking and planning stage…I’ve been collecting all sorts of miniature pieces for the past three or four years, with this project in mind. It’s been a wonderful hobby for me and I find it is something very relaxing to turn to when studio problems become too hectic.”
One of the first challenges facing the project was that the railroads didn’t have extra space for this special excursion train, but offered to put in a “Disney spur line” with a rental of $13,000 dollars a month or so according to Imagineer Harper Goff. Walt was taken aback and expected that cities would have been so excited to have the Disney exhibit that they would help cover all or most of this additional cost. It became apparent very quickly that was not going to be the situation.
Another challenge was that moving the train from city to city would be difficult because there were times when it couldn’t take a direct route. As Goff described it, “In order to get to Denver, for instance, the train would first have to go to Cheyenne, Wyo. Then it would have to turn around [on a different railroad, the Colorado and Southern] and go back south to Denver. And they might not have the tracks to accommodate his train all the time.”
Walt and Goff visited some railroad cars from the Southern Pacific that were sitting on a siding in a freight yard.
“Walt decided it looked kind of pinched,” Goff said. “Just not a very good place for the public.” Walt also debated the safety of having children come to freight yards and explored the possibilities of presenting the show in department stores in the various cities after the dioramas had been transported there by train.
As word got out about Walt’s plans, prices began to shoot up. Everybody Walt was contacting seemed to think they could make a lot of money off of Disney and his project.
“Walt bought three old Pullman cars, just to kind of fool around with,” Goff recalled. “Then, suddenly, when he wanted to get some more, the price had gone up substantially.”
Before proceeding any further, Walt wanted to see if the public might be interested in Disneylandia at all.
Granny’s Cabin was exhibited at the “Festival of California Living” at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles from Nov. 28 to Dec. 7, 1952. A press release announced that it represented “the beginning of Walt’s new miniature Americana exhibit, entitled Disneylandia.”
The Los Angeles Times from December 1952 described it as “an 8-foot long replica of a Midwest pioneer farm home, handicrafted (sic) by Disney in every minute detail of structure and the furniture supplemented by objects from historical collections.”
It was recessed into a wall at eye level and surrounded by an elaborate frame so it was as if gazing into a painting that came to life. Numerous publicity photos were taken of Walt showing it to actresses Kathryn Beaumont and Beulah Bondi with them holding and admiring one of the miniature set pieces.
“This little cabin is part of a project I am working on, and it was exhibited as a test to obtain the public’s reaction to my plans for a complete village,” Walt explained in a 1953 interview.
Goff’s job was to watch the public’s reaction to the scene each day. Goff remembered: “People would watch and watch. They wouldn’t go away. They saw the whole show and they stayed for the next one. So the show had to be stopped for 25 minutes to clear out the audience. Walt knew it was a success.”
The February 1953 issue of Popular Science ran photos of Granny’s Cabin under the headline: “Walt Disney Builds Half-Pint History.” The accompanying story stated: “Its purpose is to entertain people of all ages and also to teach them by means of tiny but exact models how life in the United States developed to its present level.”
Walt had collected “miniature copies of antique furnishings from all over the country and built others in his studio workshops.”
The positive reaction was a huge encouragement to Walt who had already begun work on two other tableaus: a frontier stage and a barbershop quartet. However, these new dioramas had become more mechanically elaborate than the simple Granny’s Cabin, so Walt called in more technicians and artists to help make them a reality. Imagineers Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers worked on a turn-of-the-century dancer.
While Walt was not as directly involved in the physical creation of the next two scenes, he would visit the work area constantly and lose track of time so that his secretary would call down to inform them that Walt was already an hour late for his afternoon appointments.
In February 1951, while live-action reference filming was being done for the animated feature Peter Pan, Walt used part of the soundstage to set up a massive grid and raised platform stage where he directed actor Buddy Ebsen. Margaret Kerry who was performing live-action reference for the character of Tinker Bell at the time remembers being embarrassed when she was introduced to Ebsen because she was wearing her bathing suit that was her costume.
“It was not pleasant, walking around the soundstage in my bathing suit all day," Kerry said. "You never knew who might drop by the set. One day, actor Buddy Ebsen came by the soundstage. Not very far away, they had a huge grid, made out of wood. There was a lot of activity surrounding it. He was working on it, and there were all these people around it, talking about it and Mr. Disney would come. I assumed that it was for registration, for live people and then how they were going to register to get their animated characters the right size and so on.”
Ebsen, like dancer Ray Bolger, was known as an “eccentric dancer” meaning that he did out of the ordinary dancing, including rubbery movements with his legs. Attired with a vaudevillian bowtie, hat and suit, Ebsen went through a series of entertaining impromptu tap dances. He was filmed in 35 millimeter, so that the individual frames could be studied and duplicated for a small sculpted 9-inch-tall replica wearing the same outfit through a system of cams and cables.
This frontier music hall stage scene that included a 1/8th scale, three-dimensional, tap-dancing vaudevillian, was called “Project Little Man.” This study proved frustrating because Ebsen never repeated his steps and, working at a smaller size, it was frustrating having to recreate something as simple as the pants flopping down correctly when a lifted leg returned to the floor.
“[Walt] took me to a room [at the Studio] where there were seven little guys with aprons and thick glasses working on a contrivance that pulled wires and a little mechanical man that moved his arms, legs, head and mouth,” Ebsen said.
Sculpted by Charles Cristadoro and connected to a series of cams and gears like a music box, the little figure did indeed move and is considered the beginning of Audio-Animatronics. Walt was disappointed with the lack of range of expressions on the carved face of the character and explored using plastics instead to make it seem more realistic but was never truly satisfied. Broggie told Walt that in order to accomplish what Walt wanted, the figure needed to be much larger to accommodate all the necessary interior equipment.
“We built the figure 9-inches tall. We put springs up through the feet of this figure and operated these cables and that made the figure dance. It was very cumbersome," Broggie said. The cam had to have a three-foot diameter for a two minute show, and the controls that went up and down it had to be patterned around that perimeter. And we had to synchronize the sound with the cam."
In June 1951, Walt and his team of designers and technicians began work on a third miniature display—a traditional barbershop quartet crooning "Sweet Adeline." (Goff remembers the song being "Down By The Old Mill Stream" while Imagineer David Mumford claims it was "Oh, Evelyn." Perhaps all three songs were recorded.) In any case, the singing was to last a minute and a half. The scene would include a barber, customer in a chair and two more patrons standing by the chair and waiting. One version had one of the waiting customers in a bathtub, much like the Cousin Orville character in Carousel of Progress. Again, live actors were filmed for reference against the same grid and raised platform used for Ebsen.
“I designed a little barbershop where you could look out the window and look across the street and see things going on,” Goff said. “You saw it from the inside. Then we had a newspaper office where they were printing a paper, and you looked out and saw the barbershop across the street.”
While Ken Anderson did a sketch for the scene, Goff was brought in to make additional sketches.
“I made a little model of the scene. It wasn’t a careful model but it was sized right," Goff said. "Their mouths didn’t move in that first model I made. My wife Flossie made the clothes out of a very fine silk. I applied a varnish to the moving areas so the material wouldn’t wear out too quickly. What I did was the setting…what the barer shop would look like, so you could visualize it. Walt then took it and had other people work on it.”
“When I was asked what it would cost to operate if we had about a dozen of these little sets….I said ‘you’ll never pay the maintenance costs, because everything is so small’. And on that basis, the whole project was killed,” Broggie said. “We got as far as building the guy in the chair and the barber behind him…then the whole job was stopped!”
Walt had finally become convinced that only a limited audience would be able to view these tableaus and they would be unable to generate the necessary income to pay for their continued maintenance and operation. As Broggie recalled, Walt said, “We’re going to do this thing for real!”
Disneylandia grew into Disneyland, with Main Street being a full-sized version of the smaller scenes Walt was trying to create so that explains where the idea of having a turn-of-the-century setting came from for the entrance of the park. However, Walt had not completely abandoned the concept of miniatures at Disneyland.
In September 1953, the sales pitch for Disneyland that Roy O. Disney took to New York to raise money for the building of the theme park included a description of this never-built land that would have been located between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland.
“Lilliputian Land. A land of Little Things…a miniature Americana village inhabited by mechanical people 9-inches high who sing and dance and talk to you as you peek through the windows of their tiny shops and homes. In Lilliputian Land, there is an Erie Canal barge that takes you through the famous canals of the world, where you visit the scenic wonders of the world in miniature.
“Here a little diamond-stack locomotive engine 17-inches high steams into the tiny railroad station. You sit on top of the Pullman coaches like Gulliver, and the little 9-inch engineer pulls back the throttle taking you on the biggest little ride in the land. And for the little people who have little appetites—you can get miniature ice cream cones, or the world’s smallest hot-dog on a tiny bun.”
While Lilliputian Land, like many of Walt’s other original ideas for Disneyland, was never developed, Disneyland did showcase a small sized Storybook Land in Fantasyland. Influenced by his visit to Madurodam, a tourist attraction in the Netherlands that showcased landmarks in miniature size, Walt’s initial idea was to create scale replicas of world-renowned landmarks as canal boats motored by them. Eventually Walt’s idea evolved into miniatures of equally beloved landmarks, famous locations from his classic animated features like Gepetto’s toy shop, Toad Hall and Cinderella’s castle. Each structure was built with the same meticulous attention to detail that Walt lavished on his own miniatures.
Walt also considered a plan to put Lilliputian-sized replicas of famous American landmarks like Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, on what would eventually become Tom Sawyer Island. Some early Disneyland souvenirs even show these tiny landmarks dotting the landscape. The decision was made to turn the Island into the domain of Mark Twain’s adventurous young rascals, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, instead and the miniature buildings were never built.
Both Granny’s Cabin and Project Little Man dioramas are currently on display in the One Man’s Dream attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla. When they were installed, the Imagineers asked Marty Sklar if the Project Little Man still worked. Sklar said that he thought that it should but he was certainly not going to be the one to plug it in and have it break so it was not tested.
(Actually, I hope that the Disney Company considers plugging it in one day to see it work but with three cameras to record the two minute performance at least once. One video camera focused on the entire display, another just a close up on the figure and a third recording the other cameras and the reactions of those watching. Even when it was up and running, there would be the occasional broken cable so best to record it before something snapped on the marionette with no strings. Just like the mechanical singing bird that inspired it, the “strings” run down below rather than up above to a series of 23-foot diameter metal disks with carefully placed notches much like a music box that triggered the appropriate action.)
Disneylandia has become an obscure footnote in the creation of Disneyland, but Walt’s love of miniatures continued up to his untimely passing. Eventually, shelves were built on two walls and enclosed by glass doors in Walt’s office suite at the Disney Studio to showcase his amazing miniature collection. For Walt, good things did indeed sometimes come in small packages and that included Disneylandia metamorphosing into the well known Disneyland.
Next week: Wade Sampson's Last Column. Be here as Wade reveals one of the best-kept Disney secrets. Hint: it's not the Disney Vacation Club.