More Secrets of Rocketeerby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I love the comic book and the movie, The Rocketeer. In fact, I have written two previous columns about that topic at these links:
Since writing those columns, I’ve run across some more material that might be of interest to readers who are also fans of the film. I recently discovered that one of the ideas for the second Rocketeer movie might have had Cliff Secord becoming a fighter pilot in World War II and, at one point, having to don his outfit to duel with an evil Nazi Rocketeer in the skies over Europe.
The Missing Disney MGM Studios Scene
There was a scene planned for The Rocketeer movie that never made it into the final version of the film.
In the Orlando Sentinel (December 30, 1990) was the following news blurb: “Walt Disney Studios' latest comic book-based feature film, The Rocketeer, will be shooting at Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park next month in its final days of production. Producers of the movie, which stars Bill Campbell (formerly of Dynasty) as an aviator, needed the movie theme park's replica of Grauman's Chinese Theater as a backdrop. The movie is set in Los Angeles in 1938. Filming is scheduled for two days the week of Jan. 14.”
That scene was designed to tie-in with Disney-MGM Studios and to reinforce the fact that actual movies were being shot in that location. That final exterior sequence was never filmed and production on the film was completed on January 10. (Director Joe Johnston then went up to San Francisco to work with ILM on completing the flying sequences.)
It was to be an elaborate scene set in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Originally, it was going to be based on actress Ginger Rogers placing her handprints in the cement. The actual ceremony when this happened was September 5, 1939, and the time period for the film was 1938.
It was changed to a ceremony for actress Bettie Davis. Even though Davis did not make her hand imprint until November 6, 1950, in connection with the movie All About Eve, Davis won an Academy Award for her performance in the film Jezebel in 1938. (Celebrity impersonators of actors Clark Gable and W.C. Fields appear in the later South Seas Club scene so obviously a celebrity impersonator would be utilized in this scene, as well.)
To rescue his girlfriend Jenny from the clutches of sinister Neville Sinclair, Cliff Secord dons his rocketpack and jets off to the classy South Seas Club. On his way, he flies past Grauman’s Chinese Theater (and that scene does appear in the film to this day). What was to happen next is that a man working a searchlight on top of the theater for the evening ceremony, spots the flying Rocketeer and loses his balance and falls from the top of the theater.
Noticing the peril, the Rocketeer swoops down and grabs the man in his arms, with both of them landing in the newly prepared block of wet cement in the forecourt. Dropping off the man, the Rocketeer blasts upwards to continue to the South Seas Club, leaving behind an imprint of his feet and rocket blast. Owner Sid Grauman takes a stick away from Bettie Davis and signs the Rocketeer’s name in the wet cement.
Today, at Disney Hollywood Studios, in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater, to the far left by the ticket booth and the fountain, is a cement block with a similar imprint and the date “6-21-91” which was the general release date of the film. The official premiere had been at the El Capitan Theater on June 19, 1991, the first premiere to take place in the theater in more than two years.
The Hidden History of the Rocketeer Gallery
The space that is now home to the Toy Story Pizza Planet Arcade and counter serve food location was once going to be something completely different.
Readers of this column know that the Mama Melrose restaurant was originally going to be The Great Gonzo’s Pandemonium Pizza Parlor before negotiations fell apart with the Henson family. It was to be a sit-down restaurant and part of larger plans for the entire area to be Muppet Studios. The Pizza Planet location was to be a quick-serve location tentatively called Swedish Chef’s Video Cooking School.
As guests waited in line to order their burger or chicken sandwich, there were video monitors showing the Chef teaching new students at his school with disastrous but amusing results. There was the implication that the Chef and his students were also the ones preparing the meals for Gonzo’s more elaborate eatery.
When negotiations fell apart for the Muppet Studios concept, the building was reformatted into the Rocketeer Gallery when that area opened in 1991, along with Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3-D. It showcased costumes and props from The Rocketeer film. The following year, the building was rechristened the Studio Showcase. While it still had material from The Rocketeer, other upcoming films were now included, like items from Honey I Blew Up the Kid and even The Nightmare Before Christmas.
By the way, two set facades from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas were in the classroom where stop-motion animation was taught at the Disney Institute in the late 1990s. I wonder where they are now? With the opening of the American Film Institute Showcase on the Backlot Tour, the area was re-themed with a variety of games and re-named briefly to Studio Arcade before being themed to the Toy Story films
Sci-Fi Dine In
A location for original props from The Rocketeer that might be missed by guests visiting Disney Hollywood Studios is the Sci-Fi Dine-In Restaurant. If you ask politely, the servers might let you wander briefly down the aisles that lead into the main dining area.
On the left side, down to the right and near the bottom is the black and gold front cover of the South Seas Club menu—secured under plexiglass. Wandering a little farther down, just before the entrance to the main dining area, high on the left wall is a rocket pack. Directly to the right and about waist level and protected by plexiglass is a prop copy of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper with the headline “Who is the Rocketeer?”
It is amazing to examine that artifact up close—to see the care and effort that was put into something that might have been glimpsed just briefly in the actual film.
On the right side, all the way down to the entrance to the main dining area, on the left and protected by plexiglass is a prop copy of The Los Angeles Times with the headline “Flying Man Saves Pilot.” Also nearby is the blank, black, back cover of the South Seas Club menu.
The Howard Hughes Connection
In 1988, the Disney Company acquired both the Queen Mary and the Hughes H-4 Hercules (nicknamed the “Spruce Goose”) exhibits in Long Beach, Calif., that were to be part of Disney’s plans to develop an elaborate Port Disney theme park in the area. By 1992, those plans were long abandoned as well as Disney’s ownership of the two attractions.
However, while The Rocketeer was in production, Disney management saw a wonderful opportunity for cross promotion. Attendance at the Spruce Goose exhibit had never been strong, even with Howard Hughes impersonators giving guided tours. The original Rocketeer comic book by Dave Stevens suggested that the inventor of Cliff Secord’s rocket pack was the fabled pulp hero of that time period, Doc Savage.
The Disney Company saw no advantage to paying additional money to license the rights to a character that was unfamiliar to the vast majority of movie audiences. It made more sense to make the inventor Howard Hughes and to feature a scene with a model of the Spruce Goose in the hopes that the success of the film would generate greater attendance at the exhibit. It didn’t.
The Animated Rocketeer
Thanks to the “Evil Rocketeer,” I now know that, like so many others, I was fooled into believing that concept art for a Disney Afternoon The Rocketeer animated series sold by a supposedly reputable dealer in 2008 was not real but made by a talented fan artist.
However, a lot of good things can be made by fans including this Rocketeer short done in the style of Pixar:
This animated film was done by French animator John Banana of the Paris based animation studio, Digital Banana Studio. He had been working on the idea for years, even sending artist Dave Stevens some of his early more exaggerated designs to review. Banana used his own money to complete the project as a tribute to Stevens after the death of that artist. It took a year because it was not a full-time project, but something done when time could be found in between paying assignments.
As Banana told my good friends and animation historians Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi at their “must-visit-if-you-are-interested-in-animation” site:
“So what I had in mind was, because it’s my job mainly, what if I had to do a Rocketeer for kids from 6-12, to show them what a great character this was…that would be on TV every week…how would this be?!
“I discovered Rocketeer with the Disney movie, then later the comics…I know Dave worked closely on the movie…so mixing both worlds seems cool for me…especially as I just prefer the Disney Rocket for example…I also carefully removed Betty Page, thinking that I wouldn’t want my kids to watch a cartoon with a star of bondage and that (Disney) Channel wouldn’t greenlight a huge boobs heroine. I also removed the Nazis thinking he would deal with a bunch of reoccurring criminals for the same reasons…and Thirties criminals are the best looking ones, one of them being Lothar as I love a lot the character…even if in the movie he’s a very different guy from the comic.
“This would be set maybe after the event of the movie…or maybe a total new reboot, but around the same era…. About the style…well, that’s the style we try to do…very Pixarian I agree…because we love this. I paid all this from my pocket, and the idea was to match and find techniques that would work on a TV series show…translation: good quality for small budget.”
The Rocket Pack
The Rocket Pack in the film is significantly different in design than the one Dave Stevens’ created for the comic book series. “I was especially happy when Jim’s crew [Production Designer James Bissell] redesigned my rocket pack. I was never happy with my conception of it, and now the thruster’s been changed from something resembling a toy bomb into a replica of a functioning engine. Now it actually fires like a jet!” (A prototype prop of Stevens’ original design was made and displayed in the Rocketeer Gallery in 1991.)
Stunt coordinator Jim Arnett—who handled the scenes with a stuntman flying with the rocket pack—told interviewer Daniel Schweiger, “A lot of the techniques were very similar to Superman’s [The Movie], especially since we brought in Bob Harmon, who did the rigging on those films. Essentially, we attached two wires to a harness that could be picked up in the hip area and balanced with the rocket pack.
“The Rocketeer then flies underneath a helicopter. There are very few times when you can hide those wires. Sometimes they can be painted out, but not with a high degree of success. The pack’s supposed to propel him at about 300 m.p.h. We managed some of that with the camera speed, and had the helicopter taking him at about 90 m.p.h. at 120 feet up. The wires had the Rocketeer going at about 15 m.p.h., but all the flying looks like it’s over 100. The helmet restricted visibility, and the pack weighed 50 pounds. That’s a lot when you’re on wires. We shielded the pack and gave him insulated clothes to protect him from the engine’s heat.”
At the Bigelow Air Circus, the Rocketeer attempts to save Malcolm and grabs on to the rickety 1916 bi-wing plane. That plane close-up was a mock-up suspended from a helicopter. When the Rocketeer loses his grip, the stuntman went into a 100-foot freefall plunge with a parachute built into a fake rocket pack. That scene had to be shot three times.
One Last Thing
For those readers like me, who was unable to attend D23’s 20th anniversary celebration of The Rocketeer at the El Capitan, thanks to the magic of YouTube, here is a brief clip of a media interview with some of the participants.