Dick Tracy Live!

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

“Calling Dick Tracy!
It’s time for us to make the call,
To the only man who can help us,
The greatest cop of them all!

“Calling Dick Tracy!
When all is said and done,
The fight for justice will be won
By Detective Dick Tracy
With a clue and a tommy gun!”
--the theme song from Diamond Double Cross

I love the movie The Rocketeer, but I also liked Dick Tracy, the Touchstone film released in the summer of 1990 that chronicled the adventures of Chester Gould’s famous detective as portrayed by actor Warren Beatty. Some people dislike the film but with a few reservations, I still like it.

The Disney Company, in particular Jeffrey Katzenberg, had hoped that this film would springboard a successful film franchise—like Tim Burton’s recent Batman (1989) film that not only brought in more than $400 million at the box office in its initial run, but sparked a merchandising bonanza.

Dick Tracy was no stranger to crossing over from the comic page to other media. He made his live-action debut in Dick Tracy (1937), a Republic Pictures movie serial starring Ralph Byrd. It was followed by three more movie serials, four feature films from RKO Radio Pictures, a short lived ABC television series in 1950, and a radio show that lasted over a decade. In addition, the famous detective has appeared in several animated television shows including a UPA syndicated series produced in 1960 and Filmation’s 1971 Archie’s TV Funnies.

In 1971, after the completion of the X-rated animated feature Fritz The Cat, Ralph Bakshi and Steve Krantz announced that they were in the process of developing Dick Tracy: Frozen, Fried and Buried Alive. The animated feature was to be set in Chicago during the Depression with Tracy in almost non-stop jeopardy from his colorful rogue’s gallery.

At the time, newspapers reported that creator Gould would be paid more than a $100,000 dollars for the animation rights. Unfortunately, the Bakshi-Krantz partnership broke up soon after the announcement and it became just another of many announced but never produced projects by animation director Bakshi.

Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, wrote in his June review of the Disney film: "Dick Tracy has just about everything required of an extravaganza: a smashing cast, some great Stephen Sondheim songs, all of the technical wizardry that money can buy, and a screenplay that observes the fine line separating true comedy from lesser camp."

The world premiere of Dick Tracy was held at the Pleasure Island AMC 10 on the night of June 14, 1990. For the premiere there was a limited edition T-shirt (limited to the number of seats in the theater) that was the ticket for admission. It featured a drawing of Dick Tracy firing a tommy gun.

Warren Beatty, who was the producer and director of the film, as well as the star, led a procession down a red carpet into theater No. 5. The crowd was decked out not only in their T-shirts but yellow fedoras given out by Disney. Besides Beatty, the stars at the premiere included Dustin Hoffman (Mumbles), Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart), Estelle Parsons (Tess’ mother), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis), Ed O’Ross (Itchy) and Charlie Korsmo (The Kid).

Some fans were disappointed that Madonna (Breathless Mahoney) and Al Pacino (Big Boy) were not there. Beatty stated that Madonna had a virus and a sore throat and Pacino had prior commitments in Los Angeles. It was rumored that Pacino was upset by his billing in the film. The theater was filled to its 3,000-seat capacity with not only the celebrities, but press, local dignitaries and other invited guests for the simultaneous showing.

After the premiere, the stars were escorted by the police to the big bash at the Disney-MGM Studios. The Island Depot at Pleasure Island was transformed into a Dick Tracy store filled with merchandise supporting the film.

The building near the entrance to Sunset Boulevard (now known as L.A. Cinema Storage) had been the home of a short-lived experience where guests would be videotaped doing a funny screen test assisted by a flamboyant director and his staff. The guests were then encouraged to purchase a copy. That experience was reconfigured so that now the screen test was a scene inspired by Dick Tracy. The store also sold a huge variety of Dick Tracy merchandise.

On the Backlot Tour were New York City sets, inspired by Dick Tracy, as well. A sidestreet of brownstones had been painted in vivid primary colors (just like the film) and as the trams rounded a corner, there were mini-dramas with police and villians. Elements from the actual movie were also included on the tour, including examples of the matte and painting effects, giant bears from the drawbridge finale, displays of costumes and make-up, and Madonna’s skin tight, black sequined dress.

A big press conference was held on Friday, June 15, with Michael Eisner announcing that the Disney Decade had begun in Florida with the opening that weekend of Mickey’s Starland (the revised Mickey’s Birthdayland), the dedication of the Dolphin Hotel (the stars from Dick Tracy stayed on the 12th floor during the three-day event), Sorcery in the Sky fireworks (with the inflatable Mickey), the filming of a new version of the television game show Let’s Make a Deal on Soundstage One (with Bob Hilton as the host), “Here Come the Muppets” stage show, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appearing on the Backstage Street at Disney-MGM Studios.

In addition, guests were invited to experience Diamond Double Cross, a stage show at the Theater of the Stars (when it was located where the entrance to Sunset Boulevard is today) based on Dick Tracy. The show had originally premiered May 21 to build anticipation for the premiere. The show premiered June 15 at Disneyland in the Videopolis Theater as part of Disneyland’s 35th anniversary celebration. The show only lasted until the end of December 1990 at Disneyland and until nearly the end of February 1991 at Disney MGM Studios.

Like the film itself, the stage show was controversial with some Disney fans loving it and others absolutely hating it. Only having an early draft of the film script, a few rough cut sequences on videotape, a few photos and concept drawings from the movie, an early music track and some knowledge of the comic strip itself, director Robert Jess Roth, writer Tom Child, art director Stan Meyer, and choreographer Matt West were charged with creating an elaborate 25-minute stage show that would capture the spirit of the film. It would be the first time in history that nearly identical shows were staged at the same time at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

The primary difference between the two was that since Videopolis was a larger theater, some of the scenic elements were changed from signage (like for Mike’s Diner and the Ritz Club), Breathless made her entrance sitting on a crescent moon lowered from the fly gallery, white spotlights flashed around the set during the chase, etc. The script and the general staging was the same in both shows (Bob McTyre was executive producer and Mike Davis was producer, and at the time Disneyland director of entertainment, and Bruce Healey was musical director).

At Videopolis, the show that was running on the stage was One Man’s Dream.

“More than once [Eisner] said it was the best show we’d ever done. He said it set a whole new standard we’d have to strive toward for all shows in the Parks,” Davis remembered for Disney News (Fall 1990). So it came as a complete surprise when Eisner decided there needed to be a stage show at the parks in Anaheim and Orlando to capitalize on the forthcoming film and replace the successful One Man’s Dream.

“They (Eisner and Katzenberg) were more personally involved in the development and the massaging of this particular stage show than any show we’ve ever done,” Davis continued.

“We’ve never had anybody come out and get that involved in a production before. We found opportunities and made revisions based on input directly from Jeffrey and Michael,” recalled Healey in the same issue.

The production that would eventually feature a cast of 19 was roughly six months in the making. The show had to be devised to work on two different sizes of stage. Cast members had to be rehearsed on both coasts at the same time by the same production team. The production team was told to try to duplicate the style of Broadway stage productions (with a story plot) and the dazzle and energy of a rock concert.

“And you know what?” asked director Roth when questioned about the limits that the crew faced putting together a show before the film premiered. “It ended up being a good thing that we couldn’t see the movie. We did our own show—something that had to be much more theatrical—and now when we look at the movie, we can say, ‘They’re different things. They tell different stories. And they’re both great.’”

“It’s big enough to fill a space that bigger than a Broadway stage. We did really bold, broad things, everything from the set design to the costume design, the choreography and the acting too,” said Roth at the opening.

“We don’t think of any of them (the performers) as a ‘chorus’. We wanted everyone to be a character, so they all have their own bits, their own little stories throughout the show,” stated choreographer West. For instance, during the Club Ritz scene when Breathless is singing, Flattop and Mumbles interact with a female reporter and her photographer at a nearby table.

The story unfolds in a cityscape of two-dimensional set pieces and towering skyscrapers that move about the stage as the scenes change to mimic the cinematic dissolves of a movie film. The same bright, primary colors so prominent in the film were duplicated in the set and costumes.

The main theme song “Calling Dick Tracy” that was often repeated during the show was co-written by Tom Child and Don Harper. However, music from the actual film was incorporated, as well. The Club Ritz girls sing “Sooner or Later"; Breathless sings “More”; “Back in Business” is sung for the final curtain call. Also, throughout the show, there are instrumental snippets of other songs including “Hey Big Spender” when Breathless first appears and “I Won’t Dance (Don’t Ask Me)” for Dick Tracy.

The story is a simple crime caper. King Leopold III of Balonia and his overbearing, impatient wife are owners of the world’s largest gem, the fabulous Balonian Diamond. When they bring the diamond to America for display in the a city museum, Breathless Mahoney, Big Boy’s current girlfriend, wants to have that bauble before she will agree to marry him.

The crooked Big Boy arranges to have two of his minions, Flattop and Mumbles arrange a heist. At the museum, with the king and queen in attendance, along with a host of others for the official unveiling, the display case holding the diamond fills with smoke and when it empties, the diamond is gone, so Dick Tracy is called to solve the crime.

Dick Tracy is at Mike’s Diner and is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend, Tess (who has a solo about her support for the detective). When contacted on his wrist radio about the crime, Tracy has a hunch to check out Club Ritz where Big Boy, Mumbles and Flattop are.

The Club Ritz girls, along with Breathless Mahoney, perform. Breathless fails in her attempt to flirt with Tracy but ends up getting the diamond from Big Boy. Tracy calls for a raid and a chase through the streets begins. The chase is actually an elaborate and extended dance number with the diamond constantly changing hands and apparently being lost forever due to the carelessness of Flattop.

Back at their Hideout, Big Boy and his gang are at first surprised by Breathless and her gun-toting Ritz Club girls and then by the king and queen and other citizens. Finally, Dick Tracy appears and solves the crime. Flattop had not clumsily dropped the magnificent diamond off the top of a building but passed it to his accomplice, the ditzy cigarette girl who is in reality Crewie Lou, a bald headed master of disguise.

In the scene, Tracy asks Breathless “How did a beautiful woman like you get caught up in a racket like this?”

She replies, “Well, Tracy, I guess I’m just a material girl.”

It was a reference to Madonna’s popular song and often provided a good laugh from the audience

The crooks are taken off to jail and there is a rousing curtain call number with the implication that Tracy will soon be off on another case.

Luckily, I got to see the production at both Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios since that summer I visited Orlando for a week to see my brother, who was working as a Streetmosphere performer, Nick Tracy, Dick’s forgotten police detective brother. It was a Streetmosphere chracter that only lasted as long as the show was running.

Seeing the show in person, I can say that it was a non-stop, lively, high energy performance and like most live stage performances, the true experience can’t be completely captured on videotape. While I enjoyed the show, I have enjoyed other Disney theme park shows much more.

In addition, at Disneyland, there were walk-around Dick Tracy characters (Dick, Breathless, Big Boy, Flattop, Mumbles) and photo opportunities.

Diamond Double Cross was replaced at both stages by a stage presentation of Beauty and the Beast—Live on Stage. The show premiered on Nov. 22, 1991 which was the same day that the animated feature film Beauty and the Beast opened in theaters across the United States.

This was the first time that a stage show opened the same day as the animated movie that inspired it.

When the first run of Disney's Dick Tracy only brought in a little more than $160 million (meaning the Disney Company did not lose any money on the film), and despite some positive reviews, Disney abandoned plans for a possible sequel, as well as an impressive theme park attraction titled Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers, that would have utilized technology later used in Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin attractions (guests would have boarded a 1930s automobile and found themselves in the middle of an exciting police car chase through the streets of Chicago, while they blasted away at crooks).



  1. By oregontraveler

    I have fond memories of my day at Disneyland, that summer of 1990. Most notably, the Party Gras parade and the Dick Tracy show. The show was pretty good, I enjoyed the moving sets and the songs (a few by Sondheim, from the film)
    I even remember the open air theater and the metal benches with the control room at the back. I was able to find some YouTube video of the DL show recently. The audio soundtrack can be found here http://www.d-cot.com

  2. By jedited

    I loved this show. I was working at DL at the time and my buddy and I was this show about 30-40 times.

    In talking about the T-shirts that were tickets to the opening night, I was going through some old T-shirts and found not only the shirt that I wore for the midnight showing, but an unmarked Tshirt still in the bag.

  3. By ralfrick

    Eisner's backing of this dog while dismissing the very idea of any success from Pretty Woman was the beginning of the end of his golden age. I'll never argue one individual's opinion, I certainly like things that many, but this film was a loser.

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