The Carousel of Progress Castby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I promised readers that if they were interested in stories about The Carousel of Progress that I would share a few more of them.
Obviously, there are a great many fans of this attraction, as I discovered last December, when I did an hour-long presentation for more than 250 appreciative fans at Disney's Contemporary Resort and then we walked over to the Magic Kingdom and rode the attraction. I always see or hear something new.
For this column, let’s look a little more closely at the characters in the show. Like the rest of you, I am puzzled by the extra younger daughter in Act One and I have no good answer why she doesn’t appear in any of the other scenes—even though the other characters do.
Of course, scenes have changed throughout the years including one of the teenage daughter, called “Jane” in the original versions, on the verge of canoodling with her date on the front porch until mother wisely flicks on the new electric lights. That scene does not exist in the Walt Disney World version and today the daughter is called “Patricia.”
“The actors, well, they are not real people but they are a talented and interesting cast. We call them Audio-Animatronics and they talk and act like human beings,” Walt Disney says with a smile in a 1964 General Electric promotional film for the attraction.
General Electric sponsored the attraction for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, because it wanted to clean up its public image. In 1961, the United States Justice Department convicted the company of price fixing and rigging bids, resulting in GE having to pay back millions of dollars, three GE top executives being sent to prison, and several others forced to leave the company. Basically, all GE wanted was a family happily buying lots and lots of GE products as a model for its captive audience.
The Disney Company has always been purposely vague as to whether the story of the attraction represents one family living through several decades or whether it is similar families. There is no indication in any of the scripts or in any of the supplemental material to confirm either assumption.
However, using the same voice for the father throughout the show seems to suggest the audience is watching the same family through the decades. The original concept for The Carousel of Progress was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s stage play, Our Town, that also follows the same characters through the years including courtship, marriage and death.
By now, most people know that the live-action model for the father was actor Preston Hanson. Besides having a “life mask” cast, Hanson sat several times for sculptor Blaine Gibson. The father’s voice was done by Cowboy singer Rex Allen. When his son first saw the attraction at Disneyland, it took until Act Three for the boy to recognize his father.
“That sounds like you but why doesn’t he look like you?” the puzzled teenager asked his father sitting nearby who just shrugged his shoulders.
The arms for the mother and the daughter were originally made from molds of the arms and hands of Imagineer Harriet Burns. She shaved all the hair off her arms and later complained that you never realize how much you miss that hair until it is removed. For many years, she kept extra sets of arms in her basement and used them at Halloween.
The original model for mother, who was a professional artist model, insisted on posing completely nude for Gibson because she knew the difficulty of sketching the human body with even the slightest amount of clothing with creases. Gibson has said that when he sketched her, he became instantly popular with people at the studio constantly coming into his room to check on his phone, the lighting, etc. to make sure everything was working correctly.
The original voice for the mother was supplied by actress Rhoda Williams, who had been the voice of the ugly stepsister Drizella (the brunette) in Disney’s Cinderella.
The son and teenage daughter were based on Disney designer Chuck Myall’s 8-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, both of whom were interviewed personally by Walt Disney. In addition, Disney Imagineer Richard Irvine’s daughter also posed for the daughter.
In Act I, two robins can be seen outside the window. These are the same robins created by Imagineer Harriet Burns for the Disney musical Mary Poppins. The robin is a nationally protected bird, so the Disney Studios team was unable to get actual robin skin and feathers like Walt wanted, despite requests to Washington, D.C., for permission. However, the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles had drawers of dead birds and traded some of them in exchange for Disneyland tickets. The skins were packed in arsenic to help preserve them and the box they were in was labeled from 1897, the same time period as Act I.
In the attraction, the chirps of the robins were done by Clarence Nash, the official voice of Donald Duck who, before he joined the Disney Studios, had quite a career in performing authentic bird calls.
It was Walt Disney himself who suggested incorporating the dog into the show. Since the scenes would jump about 20 years, the dog would be a different breed and color in each scene, suggesting the faithful pet had passed on and been replaced by another canine. Unlike the robins, Walt allowed a special artificial nylon fur to be used.
“You couldn’t use a stuffed dog or cat. People’d be down on you in a minute,” Walt told writer John Fitzgerald in the Catholic Banner in 1964.
There is an urban legend that the dog is based on one of Walt’s dogs, which is incorrect. In the mock-up of the first scene that was shown on the television episode “Disney Goes To The World’s Fair," there is a white dog that vaguely resembles Walt’s poodle at the time, but that was not intentional and that dog was not in the show at Disneyland.
In the versions for the World’s Fair and Disneyland, the dog was known as “Rover” in the first act, “Buster” in the second act, “Sport” in the third act (as well as in the voice over narration for Progress City at Disneyland). He was not called by any name in the fourth act. Again, this helped establish that it was a different dog in each act. When the attraction moved to WDW in 1975, the dog was called “Queenie” in the second act and “Sport” in the third act. Today, he is just called “Rover” in all acts.
Oddly, (and I have no explanation despite doing some research), the character is called “Uncle” Orville in the version from 1994 currently running at Walt Disney World. Orville was in the original “Edison Square” show attraction proposal sitting in his tub, reading a newspaper and enjoying his invention of “air cooling.” When he noticed the intrusion of the audience, he would pull up his newspaper to cover himself.
The humorous sketch was the work of Disney Legend Marc Davis. While other characters in the show were based on live-action models, sculptor Blaine Gibson has stated that this character was based on a caricature. Imagineer John Hench would have liked all the characters to be more “cartoony” so if their movements failed to work smoothly or were a bit jumpy that the audience would be more forgiving.
"When we were designing the thing, Walt couldn't resist getting up and doing the work himself. He jumped in the bathtub for the cousin that was visiting—the guy who invented air conditioning with the fan and block of ice. And he'd say, `What would Cousin Orville do if he were in here?' Walt turned the tub around to face the audience, and he took off his shoes and wiggled his toes to show us. He went through the whole bit. He did several of the acts and even invented dialogue as he went. He was the best storyman, particularly on the small bits of business, and it's the small individual things that you never forget,” Imagineer John Hench told Disney historian Paul Anderson.
“Walt put a lot of little things in, such as Cousin Orville reading The Police Gazette. He remembered all those things from his youth, and he would reenact them on the stage for us. He wanted to do them just as he remembered,” recalled Bill Cottrell, first president of Disney Imagineering.
The Police Gazette would be comparable to a tabloid newspaper like The National Enquirer today and reveals something about the character than just reading a newspaper from the time period.
Even with all the changes the attractions has undergone over the decades, voice artist Mel Blanc, perhaps best known for his cartoon vocalizations of characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, has always been the voice of Orville. Despite popular belief, this was not the only job Blanc did for the Disney Company. Blanc was hired and paid to perform the voice of Gideon the Cat in Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940).
However, when it was decided to make the character mute, like Dopey, all that remained of Blanc’s work in the final film was a solitary hiccup heard three times. In interviews, Blanc liked to brag that it was the most expensive hiccup in the world, since he was paid his full fee.
Blanc also provided the voice for the parrot in Act One.
Neither Grandpa nor Grandma nor the son and daugher appeared in the original versions of the final scene: “You're probably wondering what happened to Grandma and Grandpa. Well, they're no longer with us. They have their own home now in a community for senior citizens. Grandpa's in his 80s…his golf score that is. The children are meeting Grandma and Grandpa right now at our new jet airport.”
The entire family did not appear together in the final scene until the first Walt Disney World version in 1975.
Sculptor Blaine Gibson claims that his wife’s grandmother was the physical inspiration for the character. Grandmother’s voice was originally supplied by Barbara Luddy, who also did the voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp, the fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty and Kanga in three Winnie the Pooh shorts.
To help publicize the World’s Fair attraction in 1964, a duplicate of the Grandma Audio-Animatronics figure from the first act was dubbed “Mrs. G.E. Faire” G.E. stood for General Electric, the company sponsoring the attraction, and Faire referred to the World’s Fair.
The figure was dressed up and sent on a 100-city cross-country promotional tour. Accompanied by two blonde female chaperones who moved her 35-pound figure (all the Audio Animatronic gestures, except the ability to blink her eyes, were removed) around in a wheelchair, Mrs. Faire flew first class on TWA. She also sat quietly in hotel lobbies or in restaurants or on crowded street corners, and had surprising interactions with unsuspecting people who thought she was a quiet old woman who might need some attention. There were countless newspaper reports enchanted by this lady and by the story told by the chaperones of the miracle of Audio-Animatronics, the World’s Fair, and the General Electric pavilion. Today, Grandma also appears in the ballroom scene of the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square at Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney was intimately involved with all aspects of the attraction, especially its core messages of the importance of family, in particular the American home, and the fact that the future would be a global community where people of all ages from all countries would live and work together using and enjoying the newest marvels of technology.
It was a vision filled with optimism that progress was not to be feared but embraced. This attraction was a physical representation of Walt’s personal philosophy that people with all their foibles were basically good and that life was good in any era and would only keep getting better. Enjoy what you have today but be prepared because it is going to be a "great, big, beautiful tomorrow."
Over the decades, the Carousel of Progress has changed more than any other Disney attraction. Some of those changes have been relatively minor, such as changing Orville from a cousin to an uncle, while others have been more significant, including the complete revamping of the final scene and the replacement of the theme song.
Today, the attraction still remains as an homage to Walt Disney and his dream of a better future for all of us as it continues to spin at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.
There are many more stories to tell about this show. The Carousel of Progress was always one of my favorite attractions and I always exited it feeling better about the world and its future.