Secrets of the Rocketeerby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As readers of this column know, I love the Disney movie The Rocketeer and I recently wrote about the film.
Acclaimed director Joe Johnston has now been announced as joining a panel as D23: The Official Disney Fan Club celebrates the 20th anniversary of The Rocketeer. Johnston joins the Rocketeer himself, actor Bill Campbell, make-up designer Rick Baker, screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, and renowned illustrator William Stout to honor this Disney film favorite.
Some of the trivia about the film is pretty common knowledge. For instance, the Disney Company owned and operated Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose as part of the Queen Mary exhibit in Long Beach, when Cliff Secord hitched a ride on a wooden model of that plane in order to escape the offices of Howard Hughes in the film.
The name of Neville Sinclair, a character that does not appear in the original comic book series, is taken from a Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle titled “The Man With the Twisted Lip” about a Neville St. Clair who had a double identity. At the time of the film, it was speculated that the dashing film star Errol Flynn (the inspiration for the character of Sinclair) was a Nazi spy, thanks to comments in Charles Higham’s 1980 biography of the actor. By 2000, that suspicion was dispelled by classified papers revealing that Flynn may have actually helped the Allies in that capacity instead.
Anyway, in an attempt to document a sadly under-documented but beloved Disney film on its 20th anniversary, here are a few “secret” tidbits that most fans will only be able to find here at MousePlanet and will probably not be discussed at this special event.
THE ROCKETEER: The Animated Series That Never Was
The Disney Afternoon was developed as a two hour block of television programming in 1990 by the Walt Disney Television Animation group and was instantly popular. It was a series of four half hour cartoon series generally aimed at a younger audience with offerings like Ducktales and Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
However, the Disney Company also wanted to develop an action series that might capture a slightly older audience. Eventually, the series Gargoyles was produced to try and fill that slot. However, there were other attempts before that series was produced.
While The Rocketeer was still being developed as a franchise of three live-action films, it was determined that to keep the brand alive and merchandise selling between the making of the trilogy that an animated series might be valuable.
Five full-color presentation pitch boards for the proposed cartoon series from 1991 still exist. Rendered on artist’s sketch paper in pencil, ink, colored marker and mounted on thick art board, they give an interesting glimpse into what might have been.
On the back of one of the drawings is the following synopsis: “CLIFF SECORD, JENNY and PEEVEY rocket into more adventure against the most outrageous villains this side of Batman and Dick Tracy.”
One illustration has The Rocketeer in full costume soaring through the clouds high over a modern cityscape of tall buildings. In his arms is a smiling and demure long-haired Jenny who is taller, more slender and less voluptuous than either her comic book or cinematic counterpart. Another illustration features a blonde female villainess sporting a crew cut and wearing a skin tight black pants outfit accented by a metal oval belt.
The costuming and backgrounds in the existing illustrations certainly seem to indicate that the series would be in a more modern setting or one of those timeless time periods where it seems vaguely modern but with some classic elements as if in an alternative universe. In fact, the style seems very similar to Batman: The Animated Series that would debut the following year.
It was only when the artwork for the proposed series was advertised for sale in fall 2008 that most people even knew that a Rocketeer animated series had been pitched and apparently rejected. Apparently, creator Dave Stevens was not involved with project despite his background in animation.
THE ROCKETEER AT DISNEY MGM-STUDIOS
There was a very close connection between the movie The Rocketeer and the Disney-MGM Studios that originally opened in 1989. In fact, a scene from the movie itself was shot at the theme park back in the days when the Disney Company was still trying to promote the location as an actual production studio for television and film.
Beginning on January 14, 1991, in the final days of production for the film, two weeks of filming was done at the theme park using the theme park’s authentic replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater as a backdrop. Rather than a necessity to save production costs on building such a set in Hollywood, the Disney Company may have purposely included the scene to emphasize that the film was partially shot at the new theme park.
After all, as part of the Summer 1991 promotion for the film, a live Rocketeer lifted off by jet pack and flew out and above the theater courtyard during each evening’s presentation of the “Sorcery in the Sky” fireworks show. Even today, on the left side of the forecourt with the cement handprints and autographs of other actual celebrities, visitors can find the boots and "blast marks" of The Rocketeer in cement, reminiscent of a scene from the actual film.
When Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, in the Echo Lake park area was Lakeside News, a newsstand selling comic books and publications like old issues of “Life” magazine and other souvenirs. By 1991, to theme in with The Rocketeer, it became Peevy’s Polar Pipeline, featuring “Frozen Coca-Cola Concoctions” as well as regular soft drinks, water, and snacks.
The interior of the location is filled with welding tanks, gauges and other mechanical items that might have been found in Ambrose “Peevy” Peabody’s workshop in 1938. Very prominently displayed on the left side wall is a Rocketeer helmet and below it is a rocket jet pack.
In addition, there is a framed newspaper with a large headline of the Rocketeer’s first public appearance, a pennant for Bigelow’s Air Circus (where the Rocketeer first appeared) and a replica of the jet pack’s schematics dated October 15, 1938 (the same Saturday date as the Air Circus in the movie and the paper is covered with equations and technical terminology). Moving closer to the posted menus on either side of the location will also reveal the blueprints for the rocket jet pack behind the items listed for sale.Many versions of the Rocketeer helmet were made for the film because, in those days, before CGI became common, the stunts were performed by live stunt men or through the use of miniature models. The helmet showcased at Peevy’s is obviously a stunt helmet because it is wider and has larger eye lenses.
This helmet was meant to form around a sky-diving helmet and designed to be easy to “break away” in case an emergency arose during the stunt. The helmet is wider than the “hero helmet” (the prop used by the main actor and in close-ups) for that reason and there is a slight splitting along the side seams common among the stunt helmets for the film. The eye lens area is larger to give the stunt person greater visibility.
Other jet packs and helmets could be found on a metal shelf in the queue line on the Backlot Studio Tour in the early 1990s. Ironically, they were on a shelf near the full-sized Lucky Lindy statue with its busted face. On the tram tour itself, guests got to see the Bulldog Café façade and next to it, one of the racing Gee Bee airplane racers.
The actual model of the Gee Bee racer used in the movie was the 1931 model “Z.” It was called a Gee Bee because it was built by the Granville Brothers Aircraft Company. The Gee Bee used in the movie that could actually fly was sold or donated to the Museum of Flight in Seattle where it is still in perfect condition today, unlike the other props that were subjected to the harsh hot and humid Florida weather outdoors with little attention or care.At one point on the Backlot Studio Tour as guests drove through a covered area at Creative Costuming, there was a mannequin adorned in a full Rocketeer costume.
When the Muppet courtyard opened in Spring 1991 along with the Muppet*Vision 3D attraction, the brick building that now houses The Toy Story Pizza Planet Arcade used to showcase Disney movie memorabilia. Since it was 1991, of course, it included some rare treasures from the movie The Rocketeer, as well as other films.
In a glass exhibit were a variety of models of the X-3 Jetpack that was built by Hughes Aircraft in the film. Howard Hughes was played by actor Terry O’Quinn, who is better known today for his role of John Locke on the former ABC television series Lost.
There was the one rocket engine model that looked exactly like the one from the comic book series (sort of a giant curved bullet with fins), as well as several concept/prototype versions, the rocket case that the vacuum was switched into in the hangar and a Rocketeer helmet.
There were several of the models from the film, including two of the miniature Rocketeer puppets as well as one for Malcolm and another for Lucky Lindy. There were two of the Autogyros as well as the giant Spruce Goose.
There was a separate display of five different helmets (including the detachable fins) from the film including a prototype, a stunt helmet and a hero helmet. Of course, when Disney considered the film a failure, all of these wonderful things were gone within a year I wonder if Disney ever filmed a documentation tape of the location with those items.
About a decade ago, Disney Auctions sold off a lot of the Rocketeer props but some still remain in storage in Florida. Of course, a Rocketeer jetpack is now in the last display area of “One Man’s Dream” attraction and it is rumored that sharp eyes might find another jetpack high on the wall in the Sci-Fi Diner.
THE ROCKETEER POSTER
Based on a Dave Stevens’ sketch, the art for the iconic retro movie poster was painted by the talented John Mattos known for his skill in capturing a sense of Art Deco/Art Moderne style. There were two additional versions done by Mattos, but never released because the Disney Studio feared that the audience might become confused that the film was an animated adventure.
“I did three pieces of art for this project, the art director said ‘Relax and keep it simple; they’ll never use any of this anyway,’” Mattos said.
Later versions, including foreign posters, featured photos of the actors prominently displayed since some at the studio felt that the artistic poster did not attract the desired audience for the film.
Ironically, the Disney Company did supply animation for the finished film. Within the film is a 47-second animated sequence shown in Howard Hughes office supposedly captured in Nazi Germany that shows the rocket jet pack as a weapon of conquest. That film sequence was the work of Mark Dindal of Disney Feature Animation who may be best known for his directorial work on one of my favorite non-Disney animated features, Cats Don’t Dance.
Dindal had just finished his animation work on the Disney featurette Prince and the Pauper, and was anxious to try something a little different. He mentioned that fact to Tim Engel and a few days later, Engel informed him of an opportunity that had cropped up in the Disney live-action division.
It took Dindal approximately three months to finish the segment. He drew his inspiration from the Disney’s feature Victory Through Air Power as well as Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series from World War II. However, Dindal has said that one of his strongest influences for the segment was the Max Flesicher Superman animated shorts made in the 1940s. He had all of those shorts on tape and used them as reference to get the style of the period.
BEST DISNEY’S CHILDREN’S MEAL EVER
Fast food restaurants have found kids’ meals to be goldmine. Movie studios have found them to be a terrific promotional tie-in to generate enthusiasm and attention for a film release. Most fans are aware of the many fine Disney collectibles produced for McDonald’s Happy Meals over the years.
In the summer of 1991, Pizza Hut partnered with Disney to produce one of the best children’s meal deals ever. For $2.99, a child could get a small personal pizza in a box decorated with a colorful picture logo of The Rocketeer on the lid. In addition, they could get a yellow plastic drink cup in the shape of The Rocketeer’s helmet. On the back of the cup was this text: “Daring pilot Cliff Secord faces the greatest adventure of his life when he finds a jet-propelled rocket pack that allows him to fly through the air as the Rocketeer. Take off to see The Rocketeer playing at a movie theatre near you.” (Dave Stevens was photographed holding one of these cups in his hands at the El Capitan premiere.)
There was also a four-page “The Rocketeer Times” booklet that included some terrific full-color art as well blueprints for the helmet and the rocket jet pack, a word search, a picture of The Rocketeer to color, a word scramble (“The Bulldog Cafe, where the Rocketeer hangs out has a special saying. Unscramble the words below to find out what it is.”) and some artwork of various period aircraft. All that was missing was the traditional maze probably because of lack of room.
In addition, there was also a Rocketeer glider included that kids could put together to fly. Again, all of this was in the Pizza Hut Kids Pizza Pack for less than $3. Best Disney’s children meal ever.
OTHER QUICK THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW
It was Dave Stevens who drew a sketch of Goofy as the “Goofeteer” just as a gag that wound up being adapted by Disney for a variety of things including a limited-edition wristwatch. (There were nine different Rocketeer watches produced by different companies over the years.) By the way, Peg-Leg Pete was one of Dave’s favorite Disney characters to sketch on things like personal letters.
For the 10th anniversary of The Rocketeer, Stevens was involved in helping put together a “spectacular package” of extras including restoring many of the scenes that had been cut from the film as well as behind the scenes footage.
After Stevens helped prepare the package for the DVD release, the Disney Company decided not to include any of it. By the way, thanks to creative Hollywood accounting, Stevens did not receive one dime from the release of the film to television, VHS or DVD. It was money that I am sure he could have used in his last days fighting leukemia.
There was an official fan club for Rocketeer fans called the “Rocketpack.” Membership included a membership card, button, poster and two issues of “The Rocketpack Newsletter,” a digest sized fanzine printed on quality stock with art, articles and interviews and running 32 pages apiece. The first issue appeared in spring 1989 and the second issue in spring 1992. If publisher and editor Chuck Haspel of Kentucky is reading this article, I am still waiting for issue three and the conclusion to the exclusive Stevens interview since I paid my subscription 20 years ago. (Just as I patiently await all those other magazines and books I foolishly prepaid for over the years like Dave O’Neal’s Disneyland Souvenirs book.)
Stevens was offered a job at Disney Feature Animation, but, as he stated in 1991: “I was about to go there, but they wouldn’t pay the wage I was currently getting [in animation]. You see, at the time, Disney considered it a ‘privilege’ to work for Disney. I think that’s clear enough. They just had an attitude. Still do.” (Stevens left animation around that time to do storyboarding for live-action films including Raiders of the Lost Ark for a scene never filmed, but the Disney offer may have influenced him a decade later about hesitating in taking The Rocketeer to Disney.)
The Rocketeer was inspired by Dave’s interest in old 1940s serials like King of the Rocket Men and Commando Cody in Radar Men from the Moon.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be Commando Cody. I would always make these little cardboard masks and fly around the back yard,” Stevens said in 1983. In the 1970s, he toyed with the idea of doing a Commando Cody comic book and did several pages of the Rocketman in a sepia tone to resemble old photographs. In the 1980s, he looked for those pages but supposedly never found them and, to the best of my knowledge, they have never been published anywhere.
When asked in 1983 who Peevy was based on, Stevens didn’t hesitate to reply, “Doug Wildey. That is Doug right down to the dialogue. He talks exactly like that. He is William Demarest in the flesh. I mean, if you ever meet the guy, you’ll think immediately: Uncle Charley! He’s the greatest character you’ll ever meet.” (That’s one of the reasons I have some difficulty with Alan Arkin’s kinder, more absent-minded character. For story balance, Stevens wanted a crotchety sidekick who was “peeved” at everything just like in the movies of the 1940s.)
Artist Michael Kaluta drew a pin-up of Cliff Secord leaning against a wall reading a newspaper about The Rocketeer exploits and around the corner was a poster of kids in front of a poster of the hero. The kids were all dressed up in homemade versions of the costume where they used cardboard and kitchen utensils.
“[Dave] told me later it was one of the pieces that he, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo brought with them when they were pitching The Rocketeer movie script," Kaluta wrote. "They used it to show the tone they wanted to take: Cliff Secord was ‘Just A Regular Guy,’ not a super hero; a fellow who found a rocket pack and circumstance brought not only adventure his way, but fired the imaginations of the kids, making him something special in their minds. The scene depicted was shot for the film [adapted to the story], but cut for time and plot. What’s left of the children’s Rocketeer playtime is seen in the film when the little girl, cupcake pan on her back, runs in front of the Gee Bee parked by the Bulldog Cafe shouting ‘Rocketeer to the Rescue!’”
Oddly, with all the knick-knacks produced for The Rocketeer, no one made a Rocketeer hood ornament even though the character looked like one.
Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, I have even more to share about the film The Rocketeer (I edited out more than 1,500 words from this article and easily had another 2,000 or more words that I never wrote) so if readers are equally interested in my passion for the film during its 20th anniversary, then let me know and I’ll do one more installment. Please also let the Disney Company know you would support a deluxe Blu-Ray release of The Rocketeer with a host of extras, especially those ones that Stevens put together for the 10th anniversary edition.
No, since I live in Orlando I will not be attending The Rocketeer event, especially since I will be coming to Los Angeles in about a month to be a guest at the Disneyana convention in Anaheim at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The Saturday “Show and Sale” event is open to the public. so if you are in the Los Angeles area, think about dropping by my table where I will be autographing copies of my book, The Vault of Walt.
Tickets are on sale now to both the general public and D23 Members at $50 per person. Writer/producer/director Kevin Smith will host the D23 panel, which also includes rare film footage and photos, immediately before a special screening of the film on June 21, 2011, at the legendary El Capitan Theatre, where the film premiered two decades ago. Special merchandise available for purchase at the event includes Bulldog Cafe coffee mugs and T-shirts, Rocketeer black light and 20th anniversary posters, assorted commemorative T-shirts and pins, Hughes Industries giclee prints, and the limited edition Cirrus X-3 double pin set (packaged inside a miniature replica of the Hughes Industries 1939 New York World’s Fair prop folder used by Howard Hughes—actor Terry O’Quinn—in the film). A highlight of the merchandise offerings is the highly detailed Bull Dog Cafe Art Directors Model, limited to an edition size of only 23. Event check-in begins at 6:45 p.m. at the El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd; panel and screening begins at 7:30 p.m. The Walt Disney Archives exhibit will follow the screening from 9:45-11:30 p.m. at the Hollywood Museum at 1660 N. Highland Ave. Tickets available at www.elcapitantickets.com or by calling (818) 845-3110.