Summer Magic in Town Squareby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
One of my favorite areas of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is Main Street, U.S.A. Imagineer John Hench often stated that Main Street, U.S.A. was specifically designed to represent “optimism,” the joy of the time itself, as well as the belief that life will only get better in the future. It was Walt Disney’s personal philosophy and the area physically reflects the beginning of Walt’s life before he explored the adventures and frontiers of fantasy and the future.
The unhurried nature of this turn-of-the-century community with its attention to detail and where the pedestrian is still king always makes me smile. Yet, as guests rush hurriedly through this quiet oasis to other lands with attractions, they often miss some gentle touches, including the references to one of my favorite live-action Disney movies: Summer Magic, first released on July 1963 as a summer movie for the entire family. The film featured an outstanding mix of actors including Una Merkel, Dorothy McGuire, Deborah Walley, Burl Ives, Michael J. Pollard, and more.
Hayley Mills starred as Nancy Carey in this fourth of six films for Disney and the 17-year-old actress was never more appealing, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
Based on the 1911 novel Mother Carey’s Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin (Mrs. Carey refers to her children as her “chickens” in the novel, although not in the film adaptation), the screenplay was written by novelist Sally Benson whose semi-autobiographical short stories for the New Yorker magazine became the basis for the film Meet Me in St. Louis. Benson was also an accomplished screenwriter who wrote a variety of films including The Singing Nun and Viva Las Vegas.
Boston widow Margaret Carey (McGuire) moves her family of two young sons and an exuberant teenage daughter (Mills) to a house in Beulah, Maine, after the death of her husband and the discovery that, due to his poor investments, the family is in a dire financial situation. Her daughter Nancy has written to Osh Popham (Ives), the caretaker of an absent millionaire’s abandoned big yellow house that the Carey family once saw on a vacation trip.
The headstrong and imaginative daughter writes such an exaggerated tale of heartbreaking white lies that Osh lets the family rent the house for a pittance and contributes labor and material to refurbish it. Of course, Osh has not asked permission of the traveling owner—much to the increasing distress of his wife. While the family is happily adapting that summer to their new life in a rural community, their snobbish cousin Julia (Walley), who has been orphaned and living with a well-to-do family friend, shows up to stay and causes some anxiety for Nancy. Eventually Julia learns the error of her snooty ways.
Unfortunately, as summer ends with a Halloween house warming party, the long-absent millionaire unexpectedly shows up with no knowledge of what has been going on. However, as Osh tells his wife, who he has calmed down with a glass of hard apple cider, everything usually works out for the best.
The film, like So Dear To My Heart, is a sentimental snapshot of a time period and a rural lifestyle that Walt Disney remembered fondly. Once again, there is no major conflict or drastic change in a character’s story arc, other than an unconvincingly swift shift in Julia’s point of view. Nothing valuable is broken or lost and everything is always resolved effortlessly.
Even the concern about the piano and the young son’s dream to become a composer disappears quietly upon the family’s arrival in the small town. The lovably clumsy sheepdog doesn’t even show up to disrupt the lawn croquet game or the Halloween party. Unlike the book, where the mother finds work at a textile mill, Mrs. Carey seems able to survive reasonably comfortably for weeks with no source of income, just supervising the tidying of the house.
It is a pleasant summer without storms where young girls fall in love, a boy gets his big sheepdog, everyone is friendly, and the house gets repaired without incident and becomes a home for a family.
Amazingly, the film was shot almost entirely on the backlot of the Disney Studios at Burbank. In fact, the exterior of the house was located on one of the berms with Disney Legend Peter Ellenshaw’s always outstanding matte work providing the illusion of the turn-of-the-century Maine.
Originally, screenwriter Benson intended the film to be a straight drama, but once Walt Disney decided to cast Burl Ives as the folksy shopkeeper, Walt decided that there should be a song or two for Ives to sing. The Sherman Brothers were brought in to the project and ended up composing seven songs for the movie. Songwriter Robert Sherman claims that his favorite Sherman Brothers song of all time is one from this film: “On the Front Porch.”
However, none of the musical numbers are very choreographed as musical numbers. The performers sit comfortably during most of them.
How does Summer Magic, the simple old fashioned story of a gentle, loving old-fashioned family during Ragtime (roughly 1897-1918), translate to Main Street,U.S.A?
While no Burl Ives Streetmosphere performer sits rocking away on a nearby porch, strumming his guitar, the music on the Main Street, U.S.A. loop includes three instrumental versions of songs from the film: “Flitterin’,” “Beautiful Beulah,” and the title tune “Summer Magic.” I suspect most guests never realize that these sprightly Sherman Brothers tunes are not authentic turn-of-the-century songs.
In the lower part of one of the front windows, at the southwest corner entrance to the Emporium facing toward the Roy Disney statue at the flagpole, is the name “Osh Popham” listed as the proprietor of the merchandise store.
Osh was the shopkeeper, constable, carpenter, postmaster and good-natured storyteller of the small town of Beulah, Maine. One of the songs Ives, as Osh, sings in the film, “Ugly Bug Ball,” became a success in the United Kingdom, despite Walt Disney’s initial dislike of using the word “ugly.”
The Chapeau, the hat shop in Town Square at Walt Disney World, is supposedly owned and operated by the two Carey girls. The sign outside lists its street address as “No. 63” which was the year the film was first released.
Disney musicologist and writer Greg Ehrbar, who recently toured the location looking for references to the film, wrote that “The store inside is modeled after a turn-of-the-century store. The ceiling is just like the old tin ceilings prevalent during that era, black and white pictures of ladies wearing, what else, but hats also from that time period. Parquet wood floors, flowered wall paper and oak shelves for the hats complete the feeling you’ve stepped back in time.”
When Walt Disney was alive, and even a decade or more after his passing, not everything in a Disney theme park had a story. Often a popcorn cart was just a popcorn cart. There was no elaborate back story of an immigrant family coming to America and learning about how to pop corn from friendly Native Americans or the story of some spunky Midwestern boy who loved experimenting with gadgets and created a device to entertain people while corn popped.
However, the popcorn cart did need to fit in with the distinctive theming of the particular location. A spaceman would not be popping corn deep in the heart of Adventureland. A popcorn cart would not be decorated with medieval ornamentation and feature the story of Snow White if it were located near Space Mountain.
When Michael Eisner joined the Disney Company in the mid-1980s, he was completely clueless about theme parks. Imagineers explained to him the concept of theming in the parks and Eisner fell in love with the idea. He referred to it as “everything speaks” and utilized it as the basis for his “entertainment architecture” approach clearly seen in the resorts and other buildings built during his tenure.
For awhile, every new building, addition, or radical change in an existing building had to have a story. A prime example was the lengthy and convoluted storyline for every building on Pleasure Island. These stories were often not intrinsic to the building or its function (or if its function changed), and were either never communicated to the cast members who worked there or were not supported by the cast members. As operations manuals were trimmed to the barest minimum and training was drastically cut back, the back stories were the first thing to be eliminated and new cast members often had no idea that there was a story where they worked.
When I was doing some research seven years ago, I discovered that not even the Disney Archives kept a complete record of all these stories since at the time, they felt it was unnecessary since the stories faded almost as quickly as the new shop opened.
In recent years, both the Emporium and the Confectionery on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World have been gutted of interior details that helped tell the story of who owned the shops.
In the case of the Confectionery, the owner and operator was dentist Thomas McCrum who had attended the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This multi-layered story was composed by Kevin Neary and Michael “Shawn” Slater. There was the joke that a dentist would run a candy shop. There was the reference to the name of the actual dentist who financed Walt Disney’s first educational live action film in 1922, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth. There was the reference to the 1893 World’s Fair where Walt’s father, Elias, worked as a carpenter. The mechanical marvels on display at Machinery Hall at the fair inspired the fantastic contraptions in the store for making and transporting the candies and chocolates.
On a recent visit, I saw that many of the supporting props (like a small framed black and white photo of Dr. McCrum) that used to be high on a shelf have been replaced by more merchandise. One of the few items that remain, besides the elaborate machinery in the shop, is a poster on the wall for the 1893 World’s Fair (a portrait of Columbus advertising the Columbian Exposition) near the Rice Krispies treats.
Another of those stories that has been forgotten was about the hat shop in Town Square on Main Street, U.S.A., at Walt Disney World. I talked with a former Imagineer who was involved with the shop and, fortunately, he still had a copy of the official storyline. In the interest of having this material easily available for future researchers as well as for current cast members and guests so it might enrich their appreciation of this often overlooked shop, here is that story:
The Chapeau: Nancy Carey, Milliner
“Bowlers and bonnets are all the rage during Ragtime, and it’s getting to the point where it feels like every day is a veritable Easter parade on Main Street, U.S.A. It’s a good time to be a milliner, and no one knows that better than Nancy Carey, proprietress of The Chapeau, the finest hat shop—for both ladies and gentlemen—in town.
“Nancy moved to Main Street after spending many happy years with her family in the 'yellow house' in beautiful Beulah. She had set out to seek her fortune, but she wanted to do something artistic, something that would bring happiness to people. And at the height of ragtime and hometown Easter parades, nothing could compare to fine headwear! So Nancy enlisted her notoriously fashion-conscious cousin, Julia Carey, and opened a small millinery and hat shop, where together they would design, make and sell hats of all sorts for the ladies and gentlemen of Main Street. They dubbed their new venture The Chapeau, a suitably highbrow name reflecting the time Julia spent in the fashion capital of the world, Paris.
“Nancy and Julia found a quaint Victorian house located right on Town Square and set up their millinery and shop on the first floor. A tasteful brass plaque in front of the house announces the address: “N. Carey, Milliner, No. 63 Main Street.” A small sign hangs above the front door, “The Chapeau,” identifying the residence as a place of business. Inside, it’s clear that what was once a foyer and sitting room has been converted into a workshop and display space. Patrons browse through the headwear, and workers can often be found in the workshop, embroidering names onto hats. And lest anyone forget that this is also a residence—and a family-run business to boot—Carey family photographs cover the walls and mementos line the shelves.
“The Chapeau was such a success that the Careys had to expand into the building next door, converting the entire first floor into their main showroom. The cousins have tried to further ease the transition between the two spaces by connecting them with a slight ramp that takes patrons through an archway that has been cut into the shared wall. And it all seems to work. Patrons can easily pass from the showroom into the adjacent workshop and back again.
“And it’s all to keep up with the hustle and bustle of ragtime and a seemingly endless supply of small town parades and pageants, all of which call for the Carey cousins’ finest. With their expansion of The Chapeau, the Careys have proved themselves to be 'thoroughly modern merchants' with a commitment to providing their patrons with the very latest in fashionable headwear. But no matter how much it may have to expand or change to keep up with the rapidly changing times, The Chapeau will always lay at the heart of Main Street, U.S.A..”
On a recent visit, I saw that the outside signage has changed significantly so that there is no mention of “N. Carey, Milliner” anywhere. Also, on the interior wall there used to be two framed silhouette portraits facing each other that were clearly meant to be Nancy and Julia. I am grateful that the hidden treasure of an antique phone still hangs on the wall and if you pick up the receiver you can listen into amusing turn-of the-century party line conversations.
I am sure the changes in the Confectionery and the Chapeau were made by people who did not know the story of the area rather than callously just not caring. Just like the removal of articles inside the Emporium that used to tell the story of the family that owned and operated that shop and how they expanded over the years, I assume the changes were done to showcase more merchandise and to cut back on maintenance.
I also assume that the majority of Walt Disney World guests never even noticed.
Sometimes a hat shop on Main Street is just a hat shop. However, there are times when there is much more to the story.