A Visit to Edison Square 1959by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Inspired by Walt Disney’s memories of Marceline, Mo. (as well some memories of Imagineer Harper Goff’s boyhood in Fort Collins, Colo.), Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland Park is a small but prosperous, rural Midwestern city at the turn-of-the-century.
At one point in the early planning, Walt had wanted a side street extension at the end of Main Street that would have included such familiar landmarks as a schoolhouse, a church and a haunted house. Time and limited finances did not allow for that inclusion but, as Disneyland became a huge success in its first few years, Walt once again considered using that area for a future expansion.
At the end of Main Street, on the right side of The Hub, would have been another more urban, residential street called Edison Square. It would have been built on what was then known as “Plaza Street” near the Plaza Inn (at that time called the Red Wagon Inn). It was announced that Edison Square would open Easter 1959.
As shown in a full-color concept painting by Imagineer Sam McKim, the entrance to this suburban addition would resemble a gated community with two red brick pillars supporting a curved all electric sign saying “Edison Square.” There would be a brick paved street, the most modern of electric and gas-powered “horseless carriages” and, of course, “brand new” electric street lights instead of Main Street’s gas lamps.
The facades of the buildings would recall the red brick houses of Philadelphia, New York’s brownstones, the wooden edifices of St. Louis and San Francisco, the graystones of Chicago, and the colonial brick of Boston—truly making it part of a larger Main Street U.S.A., rather than just a small Midwestern town.
Prominently displayed at the center of this cul-de-sac area in a little fenced-in circular, green park would have been a life-sized statue of inventor Thomas Edison, with his right arm raised high in the air and his finger pointing upward. From the 1958 Disney proposal to General Electric:
“Edison Square in Disneyland will dramatically present the story of the way in which one invention by Thomas A. Edison has influenced the growth and development of America…Edison Square is the story of that era: the birth, growth, development and future of electricity and General Electric products.”
“Located just a few steps from Main Street, Edison Square will be the passing of the ‘old’ of the 19th century to the ‘new’ of the 1900s. As they (the guests) enter Progress Place in Edison Square, where they will find that ‘Progress Is Our Most Important Product’, visitors will see two separate plaques on which General Electric’s symbol and appropriate words setting forth the theme of Edison Square will appear.
“Inside the buildings, General Electric’s theatrical productions will be staged for Disneyland visitors. Edison Square will be alive and vital. Disneyland’s ‘horseless carriages’ and surreys which travel up and down Main Street will move in and out of the area. Such annual Disneyland special events as the ‘Horseless Carriage Day Parade’ and the ‘Easter Parade’ will be a part of Edison Square.
“The square itself will be architecturally landscaped befitting the turn-of-the-century. It will contain the ‘new’ electric lamps, iron grill work, hitching posts and other ‘signs of the times.’ All the windows in the buildings will be authentically dressed and specially lighted to carry out the atmosphere of the area.”
Walt Disney had quickly learned that the participation of major corporations in partnering on a Disneyland attraction could be beneficial to everyone. Walt got funding for research and development of his concepts that could not only be used in the attraction itself but also expanded in other areas. The companies got an important “billboard” showcase where their name and products were tied to happiness and magic and had a captive, receptive audience. Walt was clever to promote projects that not only met the needs of the client but also the guests and the Disney organization.
One of the early successes was the Circarama attraction in Tomorrowland sponsored by American Motors. American Motors Corporation (AMC) was an American automobile company formed on January 14, 1954, by the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company.
On the floor inside the attraction were prominently displayed five AMC automobiles, as well as Kelvinator appliances. These appliances included the futuristic “Foodarama” refrigerator. As a result, Imagineering Legend Dick Irvine called these types of projects “refrigerator shows” where the product had to be incorporated in the most positive way into the show.
After the opening of Disneyland Park, General Electric’s Lamp Division had visited Walt at WED to discuss the possibilities of sponsoring an attraction at Disneyland. While they were clear about what they wanted to advertise, they left it to Walt’s storytelling to come up with an appropriate showcase.
The result was a new area for the park spotlighting a unique four-act play with a prologue and epilogue entitled “Harnessing the Lightning.”
“[This project] was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But we changed it all, because the original play had no sets, just bare stage, a brick wall at the back of the theater in New York…. It was really quite a touching play. I saw it three times, I think. I came back and told Walt I thought that’s what we should do for General Electric,” recalled Imagineer John Hench.
Walt saw Our Town at least three times when it was performed in Los Angeles and also enjoyed the play.
Our Town is a three-act theatrical play written by American playwright Thornton Wilder. On a simple stage with minimal props and using a stage manager as a narrator, it tells the story of George Gibbs and Emily Webb and their daily lives in the small town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., in a selection of scenes from 1901 to 1913.
“Harnessing the Lightning” would be performed in a hidden horseshoe theater with multiple stages inside the buildings at the far end of the cul-de-sac of Edison Square. In four acts, it would follow a typical American family through the decades with each step showing how GE had made the future brighter and better.
Mr. Wilbur K. Watt, the “K” standing for “Kilo,” would be the on stage narrator for the show. According to the brochure prepared for GE: “Our narrator, Wilbur K. Watt, is an incredible electro-mechanical man. As he rocks back and forth in his armchair, he describes the scene we see on stage. It is almost as though Mr. Watt were alive, for his movements are synchronized and life-like as he describes the play.”
Once again, Sam McKim did a detailed sketch of the exterior of the show buildings with Imagineer Herb Ryman doing a more detailed rendering of the interior stages over McKim’s concept drawing of what the entire area would look like.
The show would cover more than 40,000 square feet of lobby, theaters and GE product display area. Walt was always very keenly aware of audience control.
The plan was to have a lobby with five animated dioramas (like those proposed for the Liberty Street shows) to corral no more than 125 people. The overly generous estimate was that 2,125 guests per hour would be able to enjoy the show. This area would be the prologue to the show.
At the appropriate time, doors would open in front of them and this group of no more than 125 people would be funneled into the first theater. The audience would stand on a four-tiered platform with each tier separated by continuous railing very similar to the opening of Stitch’s Great Escape attraction today. When the scene was finished on the first stage, the lights would dim and automatic doors would open to allow guests to move into the next area to see the next scene while another group was funneled in behind them to see the first act.
There were a total of four acts lasting a total of 15 minutes. After the final act, the guests would enter an epilogue room showcasing GE products.
The playbill for the show, done in appropriate lettering and silhouetted pointing hands and other flourishes, stated: “General Electric presents Edison Square, Disneyland U.S.A. An astounding dramatization. ‘Harnessing the Lightning.’ A story of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. A feast for eye and ear in four great acts with prologue and epilogue. Mr. Wilbur K. Watt. The Incredible Electric Man supported by a most amazing cast of 50 marvelous electro-mechanical personalities that sing, dance, and talk.”
Dance? That might have been hyperbole or wishful thinking on Walt’s part, or maybe even a fond memory of his previous little dancing man project. Audio-Animatronics had yet to be developed. “Electro-mechanicals” were the type of simple figures with limited repetetive movements like the friendly Indian chief lifting his arm on the shores of the Rivers of America or the unfriendly natives at the end of the Jungle Cruise. Basically, electricity controlled a mechanical movement like a hippo wiggling its ears or surfacing.
However, Walt hoped with strong storytelling, dramatic lighting, further technological developments and limited time for each act (roughly three minutes) that it might be effective. In addition, Hench had suggested that the figures be “highly stylized” so that they didn’t resemble a realistic human being too closely. They would have more caricatured bodies and oval shaped heads so that if they didn’t move smoothly or made a jumpy action, it would still be accepted by the audience. They were not cartoons, nor were they human but some intermediate hybrid.What would the show have been like?
Prologue: “The Wizard’s Progress.” The room would have four full dimensional dioramas spotlighting achievements in the life of Edison. There would be a smaller side room gallery for the final fifth diorama titled “40 Hour Watch” showing Edison and his associates achieving their goal in 1879 of an incandescent lamp that burned for 40 consecutive hours. This was the finale and led into the first theater.
Act I. 1898. “1% Inspiration—99% Perspiration.” The days before electricity in a typical American home. Sitting in a rocking chair is Wilbur K. Watt . The characters demonstrate the newest home applicances like the washing machine, a new stove, an ice box and even a phonograph. Basically, most household marvels are human powered.
Act II. 1918. Post War. “The Initials of a Friend.” (The initials, by the way, are G.E.) Although he is not named, Cousin Orville in the bathtub with his own version of “air cooling” made an appearance. There is still the jungle of wires to run the new devices like household lighting, refrigeration, toasters, water heaters and other applicances. Watt points out how thankful we all are for that new company founded by Tom Edison, General Electric.
Act III. 1958. “Live Better Electrically." John Hench came up with the idea of having the children wearing Mickey Mouse ears sitting on the floor watching the Mickey Mouse Club on a small black and white television. Remember at the time, this was the present. So it was the interior of an upscale contemporary home where mom and dad enjoy modern comforts like climate controlled radiant heat, television, “hot food from a cold oven” and “a poached egg in 20 seconds!”
Act IV. 19?8. “More Power to America.” The question mark in the date is intentional since this was some indetermine time in the future. “More Power to America." A penthouse overlooking New York City. It is an Electronic Island in the Sky with stars both above and below. Predicted products included space scanners, luminous walls, self propelled serving carts, protein measurements, programmer controlled kitchen (a prototype of a personal computer), microwave oven, and other new, automatic time saving devices. Guests would have been invited to actually step on stage to experience the home of the future…but only within the three-minute time limit. At the close of the act, the interplanetary large screen television showed Wilbur K. Watt landing on the planet Venus in a rocket ship with a GE logo. “We step confidentally into the future,” he assured us.
Epilogue: “Progress is Our Most Important Product.” This room was called the General Electric Institutional Product Room where G.E. could promote both its existing products and those coming soon.It was the equivalent of a Disneyland attraction exiting into a gift shop.
Walt was hugely enthusiatic about the project. It incorporated his personal beliefs in the importance of the American family and how the future and the technological progress it would bring was something to be embraced.
Edison Square appeared on the 1958 Disneyland park map and remained there up to 1964! McKim’s sketch of the entrance to Edison Square appeared in the 1959 Disneyland Guidebook, as well. It was obvious that this new area would be opening soon. Walt would never mislead us about something as important!
A brochure was prepared for General Electric with artwork by McKim, Ryman and Paul Hartley (who was in charge of the graphics department) in two colors on good stock paper.
United States Justice Department indicted General Electric for price fixing on electrical equipment. GE's fine was almost $500,000, with an additional $50 million in damages paid to utilities who had purchased price-fixed equipment. Three GE managers received jail sentences and several others were forced to leave the company.
GE hoped to improve their image with an impressive pavilion at the forthcoming 1964 World’s Fair.What better way to clean up a public image than by partnering with the much-beloved Walt Disney whose name stood for quality and integrity.
Walt suggested utilizing the Edison Square proposal, but with an innovative new theater that would drastically increase capacity and the development of Audio-Animatronics that would provide greater entertainment value. With some script revisions, the show became: The Carousel Theater Show, and then was changed to The Carousel Theater of Progress and finally just The Carousel of Progress.
At the World’s Fair, an average of 41,000 visitors saw the show every day. By the end of the fair, more than 16 million people had seen the attraction. Surveys conducted by General Electric revealed that 87 percent of the audience rated the show as “excellent” and 12 percent as “good.” People gladly waited in line (under blue and white canopied covered queue lines) for 90 minutes to view the show.
From Edison Square to The Carousel of Progress….Now, that’s progress!